Cindy Gregorson on faith and life

Posts tagged ‘cancer’

Giving Up Forever

I turned 60 this month. My father died at age 56 from kidney cancer. I always said I wanted to make it through my 50’s. I have. Barely. 59 was a very rugged year. That same kidney cancer came and visited me. But here I am at 60. My mother is still going strong at 82. I have a grandfather that lived to 95 and a grandmother that lived to 99. The genes for old age are also in my family. But whatever way you cut it, the reality is I am in the last third of my life.

Up until the last year, I had been one of the lucky ones. Sure, I had a few medical scares when the test results came back, and you thought, oh no, what is that? But more testing, and then discovering it was nothing. I was fine. No broken bones. No chronic diseases other than having to take a daily pill for my thyroid. I rarely took an ibuprofen or an antacid. The worst I dealt with was a once or twice a year bad cold that sometimes turned into a sinus infection and some mild seasonal allergies. I exercise, eat lots of fruits and vegetables and don’t smoke. All a recipe for a long life to be sure. I read all those articles about aging well, and I have been doing those things for the past 10 years! My expectation was to live to 95, active, strong and healthy.

Yesterday I went to the doctor. It was my 5th doctor visit since the beginning of January. Sigh. My ENT doctor basically said I have to learn to live with the tinnitus that I hear in my head 24/7. My thyroid medicine is still off and so one more adjustment and probably that is what is causing the heart palpitations (for which I underwent a stressecho test and am wearing a heart monitor…but luckily the heart seems to be just fine) and then yesterday, my kidney function was down, the lowest it has been post-surgery, after it had improved 6 weeks ago. And my blood pressure, well, still erratic. Everybody keeps telling me you only need one kidney to live, but that one kidney has to work well for that to be true!

So here is the thing: everything about this is changing my image of myself as strong and healthy, and gets me wondering what kind of old age am I going to have. I always knew I did not have forever. But turning 60 and dealing with these health challenges heightens that sense of knowing my future is limited. And what I am most struggling with is that I do not want to sign up for a life of medical management. But all that is out of my control. I cannot will my kidney to perk up. There are things I can do to avoid damaging my kidney. But there is not much I can do to improve its functioning. That will or will not happen on its own. My doctor says if it stays stable as this level of moderately diminished functioning, I can live fine. So I wait for 6 weeks and the next round of blood tests to see which way it will go.

That is my life these days. Living in 6 week intervals to the next blood draw. And from 6 month scans to the next 6 months scans to see if the cancer has returned. That makes mortality a whole lot more present when every 6 weeks and 6 months you are looking for signs of it! So my daily practice is seeking to stay in the land of the living. I know this sounds dramatic, but it works for me: I will say to myself, well, you are not dying today, so how do you want to live? I can spend all my time worrying about the what if’s, or I can focus on the what is true right now. Right now, I am here. Right now, I have the strength and capacity to do everything I want to do. So do it now. I cannot live fully when I am always waiting for that other shoe to drop or for everything to somehow be resolved before I get on with life, which is where I have been.

So I am flipping my mindset. I am letting go thinking about forever. Instead of seeing that 6 week and 6 month interval as a time of anxiety waiting for what life might hold, I am embracing the gift of living in these shorter time frames. I am teaching myself not to think about the tests ahead, but rather the life I want to live in these 6 weeks, and how can I best live it fully, so that whatever comes in the next 6 weeks or 6 months or 6 years, I have no regrets. For a planner who wants to have everything in her life figured out, this is a new adventure. But that is one of my invitations for this year: to explore new paths! So here we go.

Cindy, what are you doing with the next 6 weeks of your one wild and precious life?  I am going to  Hawaii!  It is one of the bucket list places I want to visit and thanks to the generosity of my brother and sister-in-law, I get to go next week.   And  once there I have every intention of leaving behind doctors and tests until the next 6 week blood draw, and celebrating that I made it to 60 and here’s hoping for thirty more!  But whatever life brings, I will remind myself as a I bask in the warm weather and sunshine,  I am still alive today, so stay in the land of the living.

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It’s a Mental Game

I wish it were a straight line to healing. I think it should be. In the days after surgery I was focused on just dealing with the physical pain, and healing the incisions. It kept me occupied. Six weeks out, the body is mostly healed from the surgery. People tell me I look good and am moving well. I started back to work part time. And yet, I find myself in a funk more often than not.

I tend to be a worrier. I have been praying the serenity prayer for many years now: to have the courage to accept the things I cannot change is really the one I get stuck on! I still have things going on in my body that I don’t know why. Things are not normal…or at least my normal before last fall. And I want to know why, and after seeing multiple doctors, I still don’t have answers. So some days, I say to myself, well, you are alive today, so just live your life and ignore all the background noise of your body. Other days I keep wondering what it will take to feel my “normal” self again, and surely all this is something and I just need to figure out what it is so it can be fixed. And then, there is the spot from the surgery where I still get sore 6 weeks out, and I think did I do some real damage to it when I overdid it at the 3 week mark and is that going to mean another surgery down the road? So every twinge has the inner critic in me kicking myself for something that happened in the past and can’t change even if I wanted to.

I get why I am in a funk. Before the surgery, I was hanging on to hope that somehow all the weird stuff going on in my body, the pulsatile tinnitus, the bloating, the constipation, the blood pressure was stress and anxiety and somehow connected to the kidney and once they removed the kidney it would all resolve. But it has not. I feel like I am in the same place I was in mid-September when I started this journey to figure out what was going on in my body and I am back to square one and now with one less kidney plus a future of being on the cancer-return watch. I am frustrated and I am grieving. I want back the person I was last spring when all my health markers and vital signs were good, and I had no worries about what was going on in my body.

I also know that I am anxious about being strong enough to return to my normal routines. Can I really lift more than 10 lbs now and not do damage? Will that one weak spot hold? Will I have the stamina to work full time? Can I really keep to a more reasonable work schedule given the demands of my job and my own overachiever tendencies? Will my heart be in it given everything that has been happening in my life?

I have been reading Deanna Thompson’s book Glimpsing Resurrection: Cancer, Trauma and Ministry. She talks about being “undone by cancer.” That is how I feel. I have been “undone” and even though I am stitched back together, I am emotionally living in a different land where I don’t know how to navigate the territory yet. I know my journey has not been as difficult as others. I have been blessed to not have to face months of treatment. I have a good prognosis. But then I start feeling guilty for even being in a funk when I think about how lucky I am. But, deep down, what I know is my journey is my journey, and it is not a straight line to healing.

They say time heals. I do believe that. I have a feeling the longer I live within my new reality and see that I will be OK, I will move out of this funk and back to my more joyful self. We are resilient creatures and I will adapt. Like much of life, this really is a mental game. Practicing self-compassion which has never been my strong suit (I am an Enneagram 1 for those who know what that means) and not over-thinking things are new for me. I am learning. Step One: notice your suffering. Step Two: speak kindly to yourself. Step Three: See things as they really are.

So here we go: I am in a funk. It is OK. You have been through a lot and your body is still talking back to you and you don’t know what it means. But just because your body is not perfect, does not mean is cannot be trusted. It may be different than what it was, and that will take time to learn and adjust to. Be patient. Do what you can do. Do one thing that makes you happy today. That is enough. The days will add up and before you know it this funk will have faded. Healing may not happen in a straight line, but it is happening.

I.Have.Cancer

I.Have.Cancer. Those three words keep bouncing around in my head. Yes. They removed the kidney with the tumor. Yes. The tumor was completely contained within the kidney. No evidence of spreading elsewhere in my body. But still, I have cancer. The surgical pathological report confirms it. Renal cell carcinoma, clear cell type, WHO/ISUP grade 2, pT1bNO. All those words and numbers means cancer. Everyone tells me how lucky I am. That we found it at all. That we got it early. That it was contained. That you can live just fine with one kidney. All that is true, and I am so grateful for how quickly we were able to move once the cancer was identified. Two weeks from ultrasound to surgery. But still. I have cancer and my life will never be the same.

So what I am wondering these days is how does one live in a way that cancer does not loom larger than any other part of my life. I may have cancer, but I also have health. I breathe. I walk. I sleep. I read. I laugh. I have life. I have family. I have my mind and spirit. There is much that I have. So what do I let define my life? At the same time, I cannot and do not want to deny that I have cancer. Are there things I can do to help my body be as healthy as possible and for the cancer not to return? I have been reading a lot on that one. Diet is major it seems. Nutrients and herbal supplements. Meditation and exercise. Supportive people in your life. Tending to cancer could be a full time job! My favorite idea I have come across is trusting your intuition. We know what is right for our body and soul. What that means for me right now: sleep. I go to bed when I am tired and wake up when I am ready. I take naps. Walks. There is something about moving your body, and breathing deeply while you do it. It is harder to do it outside in the winter, but in nature is better. I guess I need to buy some snow pants. Eating simply and what tastes good. I am not being rigid yet about the whole no sugar thing, but I am listening to my body and seeking to eat what is says it is hungry for. Fruits and vegetables mostly, and a little of the other stuff. Less and less chemicals. Although club crackers are pretty soothing to the stomach right now! And being patient with myself. I have a lot to process. Three weeks ago, my life did not have the words cancer attached. I was thinking about what retirement might look like and how I wanted to live the last third of my life, but not really pondering mortality.

I had spent the last ten years getting healthy. I lost 60 pounds. I became an active exerciser. I reversed my pre-diabetes. I was doing everything I thought I was supposed to be doing so I could live a long and healthy life. And still I got cancer. I have been a pastor too long and seen too much, not to know bad things happen and there is no rhyme or reason. None of us are exempt. But I am just a bit miffed. I do all the right things, and others eat like there is no tomorrow and never get off the couch, and I am the one with cancer. But I can’t go there. Getting angry, being sorry for myself, feeling like a victim, that is letting cancer take over my life.

What I want more than anything is to learn to trust my body again. That this body that has carried me for the past 59 years, is the same body that will support me into the future. That I don’t obsess over every little, pain or incident wondering if that cancer returning or my body betraying me. And believe me that is easy to do when you have weird things going in your body like tinnitus 24/7 for weeks on end now. But I also need to remember that the person who the week before her diagnosis was on a treadmill and running is the same person I am today. And she is still strong and capable and yes, healthy.

The morning of my surgery, I named the tumor. I called her Bessie. My dad always called our car, Bessie. C’mon Bessie he would say when the car was struggling to climb a hill. I thanked my kidney that worked long and hard for 59 years to keep me healthy. I said I was sorry it was going to have to be sacrificed but Bessie was keeping it from doing what it needed to do. And then I named my remaining kidney. I called it Angel. My mom said I have angels watching over me. It seemed an appropriate name and reminder to me. My Angel kidney needs to do the work for two, and I need to do my best to take care of her so she can do her job. Lots of water. Must drink more water. We are in this together.

I have cancer. And I have life. Both are true. We are in this together.