The Days Before We Met
Until early last year, I assumed that I was invincible. It was common for me to suggest that I would live until age 87, then die in my sleep.
In fact, I had hardly had a sniffle for the previous four or five years. Then came the 20th of March. My stomach decided that I should not have an easy time eating, plus I experienced heart burns unlike anything I had ever had before. As is my usual way, I decided to just tough it out.
The next thing I noticed was a gradual loss of energy. Finally, after six weeks I went in to the hospital on May 2nd to see what was wrong. Once they looked at my blood counts, they insisted I be admitted immediately.
Enter My Mystery Visitor
The first couple of days in the hospital were very pleasant. I had no energy or appetite and was totally happy to stare at spots in the ceiling for long periods of time, all-the-while imbibing saline solution. I was grateful not to be in pain, yet if my body had decided to evict me, I would have left without a whimper.
On May 4th I received the diagnosis. A whole entourage of doctors, fellows and interns entered my room. The group was a solemn one. Of course, I suspected that I was not about to receive good news.
And indeed, the news was not that I was guaranteed to live until age 87 and die in my sleep. Instead, it was that out of a population of 260 million people, I was one of an elite group of 60,000 people who came down with leukemia in America each year.
Basically, I felt as though I had been given a death sentence. So, I looked at the crew and told them that dying isn't too bad, but I'm a baby when it comes to pain. Therefore, if I must go, just send me out as quickly and painlessly as possible.
I learned later that some of the doctors were a bit surprised by my reaction.
My Studies Before Leuk Arrived
From 1970 until 1995 I was driven by a desire to understand the world I lived in. Initially I was attracted to psychology, then philosophy, and finally to economics, politics and all the other disciplines that surround those subjects. No such course of study would be complete without contemplation of our temporary existences which climax in death.
Carlos Casteneda through the voice of Don Juan told us to use our death as our advisor. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said, ". . . the corpse lying in the bed seems to me like an old winter coat, cast aside in the spring when there is no more use for it." (1) And here are some others: "Ignorance of the self gives the fear of death." (2) "You can fear your own death, ineffectually, or you can use it to help you learn to live effectively." (3) "Our days on the earth are as a shadow." I Chronicles 29:15. "It is impossible that anything so natural, so necessary, and so universal as death, should ever have been designed as an evil to mankind." (4) "Death is a tax the soul has to pay for having had a name and a form." (5) And the list of detachment inspiring and comforting quotes goes on endlessly.
My years of studies gave me some resources for handling my diagnosis, but ultimately I did not prove to be as enlightened as I had hoped I might be. For me, cool hand Leuk had turned up the heat.
Leuk Begins His Course of Instruction
Once I realized that dying (in the immediate future) was not a guaranteed outcome, I was struck by the notion that I really was not ready to die. Besides, by this time I was so surrounded by friends and family that I was not about to leave the party if I could help it. (When my parents arrived in Denver from Oregon, one of the first things they informed me was that they did not come down to watch me die, but to watch me heal.)
While in the hospital, a nurse named Barbara gave me a book entitled Love, Medicine and Miracles by Dr. Bernie Siegel. This book was replete with inspiring success stories. The most remarkable bit of synchronicity happened when I read the section on the role of expectation in the severity of side effects the night before I was to be given my first chemotherapy treatment. I can't say that I was immediately transformed, but I experienced much less severe side effects than many people do from chemotherapy.
It is the job of medical practitioners, who are also members of the scientific community, to be sensitive to statistics. However, I decided that as a patient I, too, needed to be sensitive to statistics, but in a different way. For me as a statistical sampling of one, the odds are not 50/50 or 80/20. For me the odds are zero or 100.
Hence, it made sense that I would concentrate my mental and emotional energies on 100. Positive thinking might not help, but it certainly cannot be any worse than dumping toxins in my body by entertaining negative emotions. Apparently, I did OK in that department as I received frequent comments from nurses and doctors about how other patients could use an attitude transfusion from me.
Two visualizations I did might have helped as well. According to Dr. Seigel, some people approach chemotherapy with the attitude that it is poison. Actually, that's not far from the truth. Our job is to still be here after the cancer has lost interest. After considering various ways of perceiving chemotherapy, I hit on the idea of visualizing chemotherapy being like radiator fluid. As an old mechanic, this paradigm worked well. My side effects seemed to be gentle compared to the horror stories I have heard about over the years.
The second visualization I did was to picture a core of energy through the center of my body to take the place of my regular immune system. (At the lowest point, my white cell count was 0.1 and my nuetraphil count was zero.) Both nurses and doctors told me that I was 95% guaranteed to be admitted to the hospital to treat an infection. Ultimately, I went through three neutrapenic cycles without having to be admitted to the hospital.
Does this stuff work? I can't be sure. There is the story of the man who was spreading bread crumbs around his back yard. His neighbor asked what he was doing. He replied that he was keeping tigers away. The neighbor informed that "there are no tigers around here." To which the man replied: "Effective, isn't it?"
Why Did This Happen?
It will probably come as no surprise that I had thoughts about what I could have done differently in order to avoid this fate. The human mind has a propensity for trying to make sense of a world that seems to defy logic.
Was it my diet? Well, I'm not a vegetarian, but I'm not the biggest meat and potatoes guy around either. The world is full of meat and potatoes folks who are avoiding my fate.
Should I have exercised more? Admittedly I could have stood to lose 20 pounds, and my exercise was limited to walking two miles several times a week. After all, Arnold and Sylvester seem to be doing quite well in avoiding my fate. On the other hand, I am also surrounded by millions of couch potatoes who are also avoiding my fate.
Was it my attitude? Well, I must admit that I had made my life extremely easy -- even enviable to the average high-stressed success-striving American. With that ease of life came a certain passivity and sometimes I had pleasant days with an overcast of the blahs. In fact I had at times felt concern that I had made my life too easy. But overall, I was able to say honestly that my low feelings had become higher than my high feelings used to be.
According to Dr. Cheryl Townsley, Leukemia has its root in sorrow, with hopelessness as being the branch emotion. (6) Could that be it? Possibly, but there seems to be a large part of the world even more sorrowful than I who are avoiding my fate.
How about dental issues with electrolysis from dissimilar metals causing electrical currents? According to some sources symptoms of diseases such as multiple sclerosis have lessened or gone away when fillings were removed. (7) Lord knows I have so many crowns and bridges that if the movie moguls make "Moonraker II" I will be a shoein for replacing Jaws.
While there were no doubt many things I could have done differently, I found that I still needed to show myself compassion. Hence, I called upon another good old buddy, Epictetus: "It is the action of the uninstructed person to reproach others for his own misfortunes; of one entering upon instruction, to reproach himself; and one perfectly instructed, to reproach neither others nor himself." (8)
What Changes Have I Made?
Actually I didn't totally take that last bit of advice to heart. On one level I felt that everything I had done earlier had been somehow invalidated. Consequently I made a number of changes, and I might add that a number of changes have made me.
After spending a month with my parents and having long visits, I acquired a special appreciation for companionship. Ultimately, I ended up moving from Denver to Boulder to live with a woman I have known for almost four years named Kathleen and her daughter Amanda. Needless to say, sharing space with other people can carry a cost, but the value of companionship is not to be underrated either.
Now walking is not just something to do in the name of trying to be healthy. My body has become like a dog who demands to be taken out. Ironically, even though I am still in chemotherapy treatments, in some ways I feel better than I did ten years ago.
I take multi-vitamins more regularly, and digestion permitting, I eat more fresh fruits and veggies.
Ah, if I knew that, I would be a world famous psychic. On the other hand, my mortality is more real to me and I feel an extra zest and appreciation for each day.
I'm happy to report that I am optimistic in making Leuk a memory, but since May of last year I have seen plenty of evidence to indicate that leukemia is not the only way available to die.
September 11th was an extreme case in point I was driving from Boulder to Denver for a radiation therapy appointment. Soon after I turned on the news on National Public Radio the announcer said that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. At first it struck me as if I were hearing a new variation on the War of the Worlds radio program that made such an impact long decades ago. It took time before I could believe it was really happening.
Mortality and World Peace
As we are all terminal in any case, I think it is appropriate to suggest that the main lesson is compassion. Other survivors I have talked to have said the same thing.
It is easy to get caught up in our own personal concerns as if we are stuck with them forever. However, awareness of the inevitability of our own death as well as the death of everyone around us, can free us not have to practice skullduggery in a desperate pursuit of every temporary advantage.
He who dies with the most toys -- still dies.
Medical science has done an admirable job patching up our badly abused organs so we might live another day. Maybe the next step is to design a new organ we would be born with that would force to stay aware of the temporary nature of our existence so we don't cause so much mayhem when we are feeling well?
1. Dr. Irving Oyle, The New American Medicine Show (Santa
Cruz, CA: Unity Press, 1979). p. 151.
2. Sufi Order, The Complete Sayings of Hazrat Inayat Khan (New Lebanon: Sufi Order Publications, 1978), p. 196.
3. Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, Your Erroneous Zones (New York: Avon Books, 1976), p. 17.
4. Jonathan Swift quoted in: Wayne Dyer, Pulling Your Own Strings (New York : T.Y. Crowell Co., 1978.), p. 58.
5. Sufi Order, The Complete Sayings of Hazrat Inayat Khan (New Lebanon, NY: Sufi Order Publications, 1978), p. 17.
6. Dr. Cheryl Townsley, N.D., Discovering Wholeness (Littleton, CO: LFH Publishing, 2000), p. 120.
7. Stephen M. Koral, "Holistic Dentistry," Chapter 18 in Mary Anne Bright, RN, CS, EdD, Holistic Health and Healing (Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis Company, 2002), p. 251.
8. Epictetus, Translated by Thomas W. Higgonson, The Encridion (Indianapolis, IN: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1955), p. 19.