Self-Compassion and Cancer

Painting by Emma Connolly

I am currently enrolled in the eight-week Cultivating Compassion course offered through the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans.  The course leader is Dr. William Thiele, the School’s Founding Director and author of the book Monks in the World.  William went through a year-long Compassion Cultivation Training program at Stanford University in preparation to lead the local sessions.  Dr. Thupten Jinpa at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford developed the course.  More about the course development can be found in Dr. Jinpa’s book A Fearless Heart.  Dr. Jinpa is otherwise known for being the official translator for The Dalai Lama since 1985.

The course approach to compassion convinced me to spend my Sunday afternoons for the next couple of months in the seminar setting.  Dr. Thupten defines compassion in A Fearless Heart (2015:xxii) as “. . . a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.”  Also, I was intrigued that one session would be devoted to self-compassion.

The self-compassion session took place this past Sunday. In the session, William encouraged the participants to consider a personal circumstance or event that caused us to be filled with doubt and self-blame.  I was somewhat surprised that what immediately came to my mind was my stage 4 cancer diagnosis of one year ago.  In fact, the session brought me to view an aspect of the cancer diagnosis I had not discussed with anyone, but only internalized.

Last year, during the initial speculation on the primary source of the cancer, I immediately focused on my complicity in the disease:

  • As I was a cigarette smoker from the age of 10 until my mid-40s, I felt assured that I had lung cancer.  That proved not to be the case – my lungs are in great shape.
  • My general practitioners first guess was colon cancer and I immediately felt guilt for procrastinating and never having a colonoscopy despite the recommendation of my general practitioner 15 years ago.  However, my colonoscopy last August revealed a cancer-free GI system.
  • Next my oncologist ruminated that perhaps the cancer originated in my liver based on some blood test results.  I immediately then experienced the shame and self-blame of my years of alcohol and drug abuse.  However, subsequent PET and CAT scans showed my liver is free of any cancer as well.

Another exercise in today’s session was to respond to “If anything were possible,

  • What would I love to find in my life?
  • How would I want to grow as a person?
  • What would I want to offer the world?”

An immediate and legitimate response to the first question seemingly would be to deal with my health issues.  But with a bit of reflection, I thought otherwise, responding to the questions, respectively as follows:

  • for my thoughts and actions to align with a direction toward my true self
  • to prioritize how I expend my time and resources toward that alignment
  • my true self

These response make sense to me when I consider the popular Biblical adage, (Mark 8:36) “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?”

True self has been the trajectory of my recovery for the past three decades – coming to terms with what I am truly called to be and do in all of my relationships with self, family, friends, and the world.  I cannot imagine having traveled that path without my road out of addiction.  I expect that my current health issues will provide me the same opportunities for growth and direction toward that true self.  Being self-compassionate clearly includes fully embracing those possibilities on that journey.

A New Look at Gratitude

I have posted many times before about the importance of gratitude in my recovery.  Having an “attitude of gratitude” is a platitude that I recollect hearing quite often during my 30-day detox program and in my first AA meetings over three decades ago.  I am grateful for my recovery from alcoholism, a better than expected cancer prognosis, and a strong reason to get out of bed every morning.  I touched on this concept of gratitude in my last post.  Today, a part of my morning ritual is writing down three things for which I am grateful.

In our School for Contemplative Living group we are reading Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks by Diana Butler Bass that articulates an understanding of gratitude I find quite important.  She writes (p. xxiv):

There is, however, an alternative structure of gratefulness, one that holds out the possibility of spiritual and ethical transformation – that of gift and response.  In this mode, gifts exist before benefactors.  The universe is a gift.  Life is a gift.  Air, light, soil, and water are gifts.  Friendship, love, sex, and family are gifts.  We live on a gifted planet.  Everything we need is here, with us.  We freely respond to these gifts by choosing a life of mutual care.

I see this understanding of gratitude not from the personal circumstances of my life, but from life itself.  Viewing life, the universe, natural resources as gifts freely given is true grace.  Butler Bass continues (p. 20-21):

Gifts are not commodities.  Gifts are the nature of the universe itself, given by God or the natural order.  Grace reminds us that every good thing is a gift – that somehow the rising of the sun and being alive are indiscriminate daily offerings to us – and then we understand all benefactors are also beneficiaries and all beneficiaries can be benefactors . . . We do not really give gifts.  We recognize gifts, we receive them and we pass them on . . . We all share them.

In the Jewish tradition the Prophets held the people accountable for this gift.  For example, the Prophet Amos speaks less from the perspective of social justice, but our responsibility for the stewardship mandated by God for the earth in the Genesis creation story.

What will we do with these freely given gifts we all share without regard for ethnicity, gender, national origin?  How can we express our gratitude?  As stewards for the natural resources of our earth, how can we express our gratitude to this freely given gift that allows us to live and thrive?

Butler Bass notes (p. 22) that:

. . . if gratitude is mutual reliance upon (instead of payback for) shared gifts, we awaken to a profound awareness of our interdependence.  Dependence may enslave the soul, but interdependence frees us.

This interdependence is the very essence of what I have learned over the years in 12 Step Recovery.  To extend this interdependence to the world stage, gratitude will require us to build bridges instead of walls, welcome the stranger with the radical hospitality of Abraham and Sarah instead of detention centers, share in the bounty of resources, knowledge, and technology instead of selling to the highest bidder.  These are challenges to extend my gratitude beyond platitudes and lists.

Our interdependence is appropriate to think about as in the U.S. we celebrate Independence Day.

Having a Reason to be Alive in Recovery

Painting by Emma Connolly of Grace and me in our backyard

Over the years, on many occasions I asked “Why Me?” The question was not meant from a woe is me perspective, but from one of gratitude.  Examples include:

  • I have over 30 years of recovery from a debilitating physical and mental obsession with alcohol.  Long-term sobriety is greatly enhanced in those who remain abstinent for five years.  For many years, I struggled to even put together 30 days.  Why did I make it when so many others do not?
  • My oncologist continues to be amazed that I am doing as well as I am with a stage 4 cancer.  Last August, the prognosis was possibly death by Christmas or in six months.  Why I have surpassed these odds?

I wrote previously about the research of Kelly Turner and have since read her book Radical Remission.  A strong reason to live is one of the nine points Dr. Turner found for those who defy the normative expectation for stage 4 cancer diagnoses.  She distinguishes this reason as different from fighting to live or being afraid to die.

Her results resonate with me in my current cancer diagnosis.  In much of what I have written about cancer over the past months I note how the one-day-at-a-time approach of Alcoholics Anonymous has proven crucial in my life today.  Further, I know that were it not for my sobriety over the past three decades, I would have been dead long ago.

An exercise in Radical Remission suggests generating two lists.  The first is a list of activities one would do if they had an unlimited amount of money and perfect health.  The second list of activities is if one had their current financial situation, good health, but knew they would be dead in 1.5 years.  The “correct” answer is to have the second list overlap with the first.  I was pleased mine did.  My second list includes:

  • Take three months to ride my bicycle from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to New Orleans.
  • Emma and I take multiple cross-country road trips and spend more time exploring together.
  • I continue to blog my story as my unique contribution to share.
  • Complete two writing projects I am working on.
  • Continue gardening and working around the house.
  • Continue activity with the School for Contemplative Living and my faith community.

With the exception of the Mississippi River bike ride, I am currently working on all the other list items.  The long-distance bike ride is something that will take some creative planning.  But come September, Emma and I will embark on a two-week back roads meander reminiscent of our first trip together 20 years ago.  All of the other items on the list are what get me out of bed every morning.

To a very large extent, what I dream of doing is what I actually do. This might prove to be the answer to the “Why Me” question.  Since walking into the detox center in 1984, I have maintained a belief and hope that I have a reason to live and I have tried, quite imperfectly, to live into that hope.

Today I came across a blog post I wrote 5 years ago, long before I had any thought of cancer.  The title of the post was Living Sober Till I Am 94, One Day at a Time. The age came from a life expectancy test of some sort that I took.  But the essence of the post is having the reason to want to live that long:

 I didn’t think about how long I was going to live.  I got to be too busy living.  As we get closer to “retirement” my wife and I talk about that next part of our lives.  We will do anything but retire.  I have a bunch of projects lined up and my wife is already working on her art/consignment business  and plans with our children and grandchildren down in New Orleans. . . today I learned that my life expectancy is 94.  What I learned today seems less the accuracy of the measure but more, that living and living fully is what sobriety is about.  Had I not gotten sober at 32, I seriously doubt that I would have seen 40.  Staying sober one day at a time, the possibilities are without limit!

I am grateful and blessed to be able to live into my reasons to be alive today!

The Spirit and Mind in Recovery

A few days ago I came across the documentary Heal.  The film is about the nontraditional treatments of chronic illnesses such as cancer.  I have written before about my disinterest in the latest “miracle” cure opting instead for my oncologist’s recommendations coupled with my lessons in recovery from alcoholism and life in general over the past three decades.  But the documentary description caused me to give it a shot.

Here is what got my attention in the film.  Kelly Turner talked about her dissertation research of 1500 case studies of cancer patients who had gone into remission both with and without traditional medical treatment.  She recorded 75 different practices the 1500 individuals carried out.  She noted nine practices that all 1500 individuals held in common, as follows:

  • Radical change in diet
  • Take control of own health
  • Follow intuition
  • Use herbs and supplements
  • Release suppressed emotions
  • Increase positive emotions
  • Embrace social support
  • Deepen spiritual connection
  • Have a strong reason for living

This list got my attention.  All nine items I have either practiced for many years or began in the past year.  Examples of the latter are radical diet change and taking control of health.  The other seven items flow directly from my past three decades of 12 Step Recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Another reason the list got my attention is because my oncologist and other medical folks remain amazed that I am still so active despite a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.  But when I follow my intuition in what foods are good for me to eat, when I am in community with my family and friends, when I take part in services and activities at my church and the School for Contemplative Living, when I am active in various projects, when I listen to positive affirmations and guided imagery related to cancer, to name but a few practices, I simply feel better, have more energy, less pain, and experience the peace that passes all understanding.

I know that without these practices, I will go deep into my addictions and be filled with misery and self-loathing – and I suspect that my original cancer prognosis (dead by last Christmas) would have come to pass.

Where do I go from here?  I will certainly continue the current treatments prescribed by my oncologist.  My monthly x-geva injections are working wonders.

But I also have a responsibility to act.  I often comment that a mystical truth for me comes from the Gospel of Matthew (7:7-8):

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Those steps all require action.  Over my past three decades of recovery from alcohol and drugs, without exception, when I have carried my part of the load, I have received, found, and the doors opened.    Will I be in remission one year from now? dead? or in the same condition as today?  I don’t know.  I have continued hope based in faith as discussed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

. . . hope is different in that it is based not on the ephemerality of feelings but on the firm ground of conviction.  I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless.  Hope is deeper and very, very close to unshakable . . .  p. 122, The Book of Joy

This mystical truth is as valid to me and as well-tested as the latest chemotherapy or immunotherapy drugs.  The spirit and the mind are integrally linked to my being alive today and tomorrow.

 

An Anniversary Celebration, of Sorts

This week I celebrate an anniversary of sorts.  One year ago I was riding in the bike lane at Audubon Park when someone I disparagingly refer to as a “Tulane frat boy” lost control of his skate board while doing jumps.  The board hit my bike and I went down, hard.  I knew things were not okay.  As I lay on the ground, my immediate thought was that I was supposed to leave for Peru in three weeks – that was going to be a problem.  After they saw I was not dead, the frat boy and his buddies took off, not wanting to hang around to take any responsibility.  Someone else passing by helped me get back on my bike. I shakily peddled home, got to the front steps of our house and collapsed.  I hobbled around on a walker and then a cane for several weeks.

And what a year it has been!

My first medical visits were not promising.  The bone scans and blood tests did not look good – something else might be going on besides the impact of the wreck.  My primary care physician recommended additional tests to rule out cancer – but that could wait until I got back from Peru.  I ended up leaving for Peru four weeks later than planned, making my way through the airport with a cane. I was physically miserable for the six weeks I spent In Peru.  When I returned to New Orleans in early August I could not lift my duffel bag off the baggage return conveyor at the airport.

Then tests and more tests, and by late August my oncologist’s diagnosis was a stage 4 cancer metastasized throughout my bones with an unknown primary source. Three to six months of life reamining was the first prognosis.  I won’t rehash the next few months of medical process that I blogged about, beginning here.

By February of this year, six months after the initial diagnosis, with the exception of fatigue, I remained without the manifestations that cancer was supposed to bring.  My oncologist referred to the lack of my cancer spreading as a real “head scratcher.”

Then in mid-March of this year I had a heart attack.  And now in mid-May, I am in cardiac rehab and living with my somewhat ambiguous my cancer.

So how do I celebrate this one year anniversary?

  • Though I hate to admit it, the “Tulane frat boy” did me a favor by getting me to a doctor to begin the testing that revealed the cancer.  My monthly x-geva injections have stabilized the bone loss and brought all blood indicators to normal.  I have less back and neck pain than I routinely experienced two years ago.
  • My cancer prognosis remains uncertain at this point.  Taking all things into consideration, I feel good today, but realize that can all come crashing down pretty quickly, as I wrote last week.  The same is true for the heart attack, cardiac rehab, and whatever that future holds.
  • Emma and I reprioritized our lives, not putting off till tomorrow what we are able to do today.
  • Of importance, I continue to explore life’s existential questions and meet fellow pilgrims on that journey.  I particularly enjoy my small group meetings, whether the Enneagram discussion that Emma hosts at her shop each week, the Sunday Wilderness class at Rayne Memorial UMC, or the weekly gathering of friends in the School for Contemplative Living.
  • I have a strong and complete “attitude of gratitude” for my 30 plus years of sobriety that brought me to today.  I consider the folks I have met through my treatments at Touro Infirmary, the outstanding professionals (particularly the RNs) and patients facing the same issues as me, as a recent gift on that road.
  • Asking myself “What matters most?” as I live  each day takes on added meaning.  Today the answer mostly had to do with work in our gardens, sharing out our abundance of herbs, and feeling that wonderful New Orleans sun on my back as I planted a bed of wildflowers.

When Emma and I retired to New Orleans we each had plans about how our lives would go.  Substantive portions of those expectations are now revised.  But, as we celebrate this anniversary, we are certain to take the best of those plans with us as we continue on our happy and meaningful road to our true selves.

 

 

Not Regretting the Past in Recovery

In my early 30s during my first year of recovery, I ran into my “best friend” from high school who I had not seen in over 10 years.  The encounter occurred as I mopped the floor of a factory where he was a senior administrator.  When he approached me, I pretended not to know him and said he mistook me for someone else. The names on our security badges made short work of that attempted ruse.  We had an awkward conversation, me faulting my memory, with a promise that we would get together at some point.  As the factory had over 15,000 employees I successfully avoided him after that first meeting.

Why the denial?  It had nothing to do with my blue collar vs. his administrative position.  Rather, as someone new to sobriety I was profoundly embarrassed by my drunken past – the inappropriate behavior, taking advantage of people, irresponsibility, and the list goes on.

About 25 years after that factory meeting, we both planned to attend a small reunion of the “gang” from high school.  Before the reunion I wrote him a letter on why I was so embarrassed at the factory floor meeting years before.  I cited and apologized for incidents of my drunken rage, spoiling planned events with my behavior, and so forth.  He graciously accepted my amends, and noted that we all did stupid things when we are young.

Today, although we live at opposite ends of the U.S., we occasionally get together for an evening of reflection and to solve the world’s problems.  Our divergent and convergent pasts are important parts of our conversation.

The AA Promise “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it” is increasingly true in my recovery.  As I reflected in last week’s post, accepting my past is an important part of who I am today.  Without the despair and self-loathing I experienced in my active alcoholism, I could not appreciate today’s blessings and opportunities.  Without taking responsibility for all the manifestations of my addiction, I could not appreciate today’s freedom and knowing that my “problems” are of my own making.  My horrific personal relationships of the past, have taught me how precious friends are today.  I understand too that I have lived on borrowed time for my three decades of recovery.  Were it not for my sobriety, I certainly would have been dead long ago.  I would not have lived long enough to be diagnosed with cancer or have my recent heart attack.  I write that not for dramatic effect, but as a statement of fact.

Today, I am not proud of my behaviors during my drunken past, but I am no longer embarrassed by them either.  They were the logical consequences of my substance abuse.  I am grateful for the 12-Step Program that allowed me to learn and grow in my recovery over the years.  I well recollect laying in that detox bed in 1984 thinking all I want is to be able function in today’s world.  My past has provided me with the experience, strength, and hope to do that and much more!

Is It Sadness or Acceptance in Recovery?

This past year, although I roll out of bed in the morning a bit less rested and slower, I continue to start my day with positive and affirming practices.  First, I write my morning pages – a sort of stream of consciousness where I record my dreams if I remember them, or reflect on life, most often on a very positive note.  Next I write a notecard to someone – to catch up with a friend or thank someone for their service or other action.  I then go to an Alcoholics Anonymous Facebook page and post three things that I am grateful for and scan and comment on other posts to the group.  All of the above takes 30-45 minutes and starts my day on a very positive note.

And then something hit me.

This past Wednesday my School for Contemplative Living meeting opened with an “analytic mediation” instead of our usual centering prayer.  The former process is thought focused as opposed to the thought-less centering prayer.

At one point, the analytic meditation suggested to focus on a point of sadness in our lives and our response to the issue.  In discussing the meditation afterward, I commented that the instruction caught me by surprise.  I had been quite intentional over the past year to focus on solutions, opportunities, lessons, and wisdom that could come from my stage 4 cancer diagnosis and my recent heart attack.  I intentionally corrected folks who said I was “dying” and said that I was “living” today.  Recently, I focused on the lesson I could learn from the heart attack, and how grateful I was that it occurred while I was at the hospital for an unrelated issue.  My positive outlook makes complete sense and flows from my over 30 years of recovery from alcohol addiction.

So, I am not certain about this sadness thing.

But in the past two years, my overall physical stamina has notably decreased, though today I was able to buy lumber and bags of soil and build another eight-foot raised herb bed for our front yard.  I then weeded the backyard gardens.  However, less than one year ago, I could not even lift my duffel bag off of the airport luggage carousel when arriving home from Peru.

Until one year ago I owned three bicycles.  I gave away my mountain bike a few months ago because I knew that my bones cannot really withstand the predictable wipeouts I experience on single track dirt paths.  I now think it might be time for me to get rid of my road bike as the days of century rides are likely past.  Instead, my remaining Trek hybrid is ideal for the 10-20 mile jaunts about town these days.  I accept that I will not likely bike the Great River Road from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to our New Orleans home. But I am not certain that these realities make me sad.   I am grateful today as I ride through the streets of New Orleans and smell the jasmine and honeysuckle in bloom – a scent that fills me with revelry of the beauty of creation.

With or without cancer, at the age of 65, my physical, mental, and spiritual life will continue to evolve.  With or without cancer, I discussed with Emma that when I am unable to get out of bed to sit on the back porch, then it is time to stop whatever treatments I am receiving.  I don’t know that I will be sad at that point.  I have a hope, based in faith, that I will be grateful for the wonderful experience I have had on this earth, living life on life’s terms.