There is a certain looking-for-trouble aspect of the oncology world that rattles me. I am going in for my yearly mammogram next week. A ridiculous activity geared to make money versus because it makes sense. Everyone in the equation knows that I have an extremely dense breast, and that my mammogram will be inconclusive – a breast MRI is already planned for the fall. So it goes.
In my job as a referral coordinator for a small medical clinic, I am familiar with the process of getting expensive imaging pre-authorized by the insurance industry. It involves a series of rote questions, “Has the patient had other images?”, and “Where those inconclusive?” Whomever it is that gains prior authorization for my MRI will only be able to get said authorization if the the answer is YES to both of those questions. So even though Mammograms are actually not a very good tool for my specific body at this specific time we will go through the farce so I can get the expensive test later this year.
Last night I dreamt I was talking to my oncologist, Dr. Andersen, and was asking him, “Is it was my imagination, or are there really much higher rates of cancer in Clatsop County?” I woke up still curious, as my dream doctor didn’t answer. I do know why I had that dream. Since my diagnosis in December 2013 I have personally known five people who have died of their cancering at the mouth of the Columbia. The most recent being Monday, the 22nd, when an acquaintance of mine diagnosed a few months prior to me, died of her disease. Also that same day another acquaintance had a double mastectomy. Both events are reminders of the dread consequence of this whole cancering adventure. They put faces on the statistics and raise questions about cancer rates.
So even though theoretically I am free of cancer these days, the spector of cancer is omnipresent. With any diagnosis the whole melody of life can be reduced to a fragment, like a skipping record stuck on one sound. So whenever it is time to go in for tests it is like putting the scratched record on again.
This reduction down to our diagnosis both unites us, and erases our individuality. So even though we are each glorious beings, with rich interconnected webs of relationships – mothers, sisters, wives, neighbors, friends – all of our brilliance becomes obscured by the fog of statistics while our lives are focused on that one chord on our skipping record.
Whenever I am due for tests I start a process of reading all the new developments I can find on Breast Cancering. I do this with a somewhat compulsive energy and with a sharp awareness of how simultaneously all the statistics represent real people, women just like me, and all the other women I have known who have joined the ranks of amazons; And that our individual notes are lost amongst the cacophony of soul songs effected by the malignant mutation of cells.
Just going into the oncology facilities evokes a certain wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. In no small part because Compass Oncology is the place I pumped poisons into my body. It is the place they gave me the hard news at the beginning of this Pooka ride. I am going in to be monitored, with the slight expectation that at any moment I could be running into recurrence. From the western medicine perspective it is their job to be vigilant for the ghosts of cancering past. So worry becomes my side kick, a pink elephant as it were, something that I can’t stop thinking about.
All the compulsive research whenever I get near to tests ushers me into the fog bank of statistics again. The fog obscures my resolutions to not worry. What are the chances for say disease free survival, or local recurrence, or of metastasis? When all the number crunching is done what will my outcome be?
Part of what compels me into looking at any new research in times likes these is because with the advent of targeted therapies for HER2+ breast cancering, I and others like me, have stepped off the map- the therapies I received have not been used long enough to give good outcome statistics. So even though it is likely that my PCR puts me on the good end of the bell curve, I wobble into worry. “Don’t think about Pink Elephants” is a hard order to follow.
Pink Elephants worry can take many forms, from “Oh god do you think that headache is because I have a brain tumor?” to “Oh God is that leg cramp indicating a blood clot?” It is not a joyful vigilance. And it is fruitless.
During the long stints between Oncology-world monitoring (I see them at 4 month intervals) I tend to migrate towards happy optimism. When I see people and they ask how I am doing, I usually say “Great.” Because I do feel great, and really the leg cramps are a known side effect of Tamoxifen, and getting headaches is not new, nor likely a sign of impeding doom. I’ve had periodic migraines since adolescence and I am walking around wearing a 15 year old glasses prescription, so duh. During the optimistic intervals it is easier to reframe any worry thoughts, to choose to cultivate beautiful thoughts.
Not so easy near test time. How to avoid returning to the discordant scratch in the record that is my diagnosis ? What is the antidote to all this looking-for-trouble? How do I stop looking at pink elephants when I do go in for tests?
I think there is a clue in the treatments I receive from the Eastern perspective. When I go every eight weeks into the TCM Naturopaths at the Hai Shan Clinic I enter another world. The Clinic building is designed using sacred geometry- it is surrounded by beautiful gardens and adjacent to a wild area. Going there feels like going to Rivendale for a tune-up of my melody. Even though what they are doing is just another version of monitoring, it plays out very differently. One thing that is different when I go to Hai Shan, is that there is always a meditation component while on the acupuncture table. While lying there I can take the needle out of the scratch in the record. Harmonizing with the greater forces of health and goodness and able to feel more trust in my body. The space and the beliefs prevalent there support this.
At home I have been noticing that there is a big benefit to even my rudimentary level of meditating. When I spend time meditating I tend away from worry for several hours afterwards, even though out of a 15 minute meditation I might only spend a few seconds in the zone. In those seconds I am reminded of my essential self, connected to all that is. I step away from the statistics. I feel like the universe has my back. Definitely positive reinforcement for prioritizing my practice.
So next week when I go in for my mammogram I am going to try including mindfulness in the process. To use my little worry thoughts as a cue to visualize wellness. “Ah I see the pink elephant- now I am going to look at the beautiful mountain instead”. We will see how it goes.