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in between times

andreas mountains

In between treatment and healing and testing and treatment is…time.  I notice things.  There are the strange little lights that are now in the colors of a prism and they appear in my visual field now and then- or maybe they are there all the time but I am able to suppress the images sometimes. The steroids gave me some jitters and I blame them for nighttime raids on the kitchen for graham crackers, Veggie Straws, peanuts or whatever else I could crunch.  Glad to be done with them until the gamma knife procedure. Now that they are gone I notice all the little aches and pains that they glossed over.

I mostly notice things in those early morning hours when everything is quiet. I’ve taken to sitting outside before sunrise with some citronella candles just in case of mosquitoes but mostly for the campfire effect.  I notice the change in the skies to the east and that magical moment when the flowers and shrubs start to sparkle as the first light appears. And I know such gratitude that I can see it- little prisms in my visual fields or not! I notice the appearance of the hummingbirds as soon as there is light for the feeders. The rufus variety has arrived and they are so much more territorial- and even more entertaining if that is possible.  Last Saturday Carol and I watched the sage bushes burst into bloom before our eyes. Again, thankful for the gift of sight!

But with all this noticing there is a feeling of being suspended in between times. My mind and spirit are catching up with the reality of this latest diagnosis and I don’t yet know what it means. It is a new part of the journey.  The other day I used a mirror to look at the incision on the back of my head to see if I could go without a scarf in public. (I thought it looked pretty good but decided that if anyone a little squeamish was walking or sitting behind me it might cause some distress- so I put on the scarf!) Nothing brings home the reality of a diagnosis like staring down an incision. “Oh yes. They cut into my brain and they took out something that was cancer again.” The body, mind and spirit came closer to being on the same page again.

I started my early morning walks again this week. This morning when I made the turn on the irrigation ditch, noticing how the cotton plants have blossoms that weren’t there when I last walked on July 13, I felt urged to listen to “I Will Lift My Eyes” by Tony Alonso.  It is a beautiful piece inspired by Psalm 121 and a favorite prayer by Thomas Merton. I found it on my phone, placed the earbuds and walked towards the east and the mountains. Oh my! Take a listen: I Will Lift My Eyes by Tony Alonso

For times in between this is exactly the faith that is required. And it comes as a gift, like the sunrise each morning and as constant as the mountains.

 

thomas merton prayer

Definitely a weed

weeds and wheat

I spent some time today reflecting on the Sunday’s Gospel of the weeds and the wheat.  Sometimes it’s really hard to tell the difference between the two- especially early on. Sometimes the “weeds” can fill in the bare parts of the garden with fairly nice effect.  And I have damaged plenty of good plants by overzealous weeding.

But what particularly struck a chord with me about the parable was the “enemy” that bothered to go out in the night to deliberately sow weed seeds.  Who would do a mean thing like that?  The sneakiness of it!  And that the dastardly deed only came to light a long time later.  Maybe that was the “hook” that pulled me into the parable, having discovered that something in my brain last week was proven to be definitely a weed. It was sown somehow over the past nine years, evading chemo and radiation and the blood-brain barrier, growing slowly, undetectable by PET scan and cancer markers.

Remarkably accessible, the tumor was removed and except for some mild side effects in my visual field the recuperation has been gentle.  I am spending mornings outside in the garden watching the hummingbirds and surrounded by the creative healing power of God.  The summer monsoons of the desert are upon us and the colors are ready to burst.

I am most grateful that I did not have to wait for a fall harvest of that little weed in my head.  I look forward to increasing clarity of vision – and maybe even some creative filler for the gap- as the healing continues.  Stay tuned.

 

Let the novena begin!  My surgery (craniotomy) is scheduled for Friday, July 14 at 10 a.m. MDT.  This is a very rapid turnaround time from MRI to surgery and I attribute it to the many prayers that have been “storming heaven” during the past week.  Thank you for your notes of support, comments, promises to put me on every prayer list in monasteries and motherhouses around the world as well as daily rosaries, Masses and holy hours.

I offer this novena to St. Kateri (start today and you’ll make it in time for the feast although I don’t think she would mind going over a few days!) as a way of being in solidarity in prayer and preparation. Please pray not only for my healing but for the health care professionals and local caregivers who will attend me.  An additional prayer request: for reform of our health care system that is in such crisis – that we have the national will to provide access to care for all with compassion and competence, recognizing health care as a basic human right, not a commodity.

Blessings, gratitude and much love to all of you.        Janet

kateri mcgrath

St. Kateri Tekakwitha by Brother Mickey McGrath,OSFS

 

Another episode

Time to open the blog again.  Although my PET scans have been clear since finishing chemo in January 2016, I have had a few bumps in the road. Sometime during March Madness I began to notice some brief visual disturbances that I eventually mentioned to my oncologist. They were little glittery flashes like a zipper across my field of vision. No pain, dizziness or nausea but definitely caught my attention. An ophthalmologist discovered defects in my peripheral vision and recommended an MRI which I had last Wednesday.

I had a sense of concern as the tech helped me from the table and my worry was confirmed when the oncologist called me just after five pm. “I don’t like to give this kind of news over the phone but I want you to know what’s going on,” she said.  I have a 3 cm tumor in the right occipital lobe of my brain. An hour later I was looking at it on What’s App because Yessenia sent it from the radiation oncologist’s office when she called to tell me they would see me early Thursday.  And they were already working on the appointment with the neurosurgeon.

How life changes in a few minutes. Brain metastasis of ovarian cancer is rare, but as the radiation oncologist told me, she is seeing it more often because initial treatment has improved and recurrences are also managed more successfully.  So I’m clearing my summer calendar and hopefully will have the tumor removed within a week or so. Then there will be four weeks of recuperation before a focused laser treatment to the area where the tumor was located just for added protection from recurrence.  A decision about whether chemotherapy will be required will depend on the pathology.

Meanwhile, I’ve canceled my three travel commitments which means no Ecuador this year 😦 and am coming to peace with this next episode on the cancer journey.  It is always a jolt to move from “surveillance” to “treatment” mode. Gratitude for a quick diagnosis, diligent and compassionate physicians, and the immediate loving and prayerful support of Sisters, friends and family has smoothed the transition.

Two other awarenesses…

First, the realization that many times brain metastasis is diagnosed by the onset of seizures or a stroke. All I had was a shimmery little lightning across my field of vision- and the gift of noticing and reporting it to physicians who didn’t minimize it or allow me to do so.  This was a grace.  And secondly, I am wondering about the significance that this cancer has occurred in the vision area of my brain. What might that mean?

These are the kinds of things that run through my mind. My initial cancer was ovarian- a cancer of the generative organs.  Then the first recurrence was in the pericardium- the lining of the heart. The second came in the central cavity of my chest – where the windpipe runs. And now the tumor has turned up in my vision part of my brain.  For those who follow chakras (not generally something that occurs to me) this gives me something to consider as I wait, wonder and make meaning of my experience.

chakras

I will be blogging here and it will show, I think, on Facebook. Feel free to share with anyone you think might find my journey helpful. And know that I count on your prayers to help me through this new episode.

Happy birthday!

On September 11 I celebrated sixty years. Amid the funny cards, loving messages and delicious treats that put me way over my Weight Watchers weekly points, I felt a profound gratitude for the gift of being here on this earth. I truly rejoice at reaching this milestone on life’s journey.

janet-sept-2015September is ovarian cancer awareness month and the past two Septembers brought me a diagnosis of recurrence. Last year at this time I was waiting to start chemo, knowing that the healing journey would occupy my energies for the next many months. I took a photo pre-chemo to share with family members as a Christmas gift- but also as a hopeful reminder of the health and vitality that I prayed would return after treatment.

The hair fell and many of you followed my stories here and in the Global Sisters Report, “Inter-Mission” series. What I haven’t shared in the intervening months is my recovery and all the travels that ensued!  I’ve had three clear PET/CT scans (Feb.-May-Aug). I continue to receive a maintenance medicine (Avastin) every three weeks at the infusion center but it doesn’t have all the side-effects of the full chemotherapy regimen. In between those treatments and scans I was flying the friendly skies. I traveled to the L.A. Religious Ed Congress in February, Cincinnati and St. Louis in March and went to Florida to visit with my dad and sister Jane in Florida in April.

The major excursion was an Asian Adventure with Fr. Bill Morton and SC Affiliate Romina Sapinoso: Hong Kong, Peoples Republic of China, South Korea and the Philippines. It was a trip that I had dreamed about for many years. Brenda and Stephen Shek made the air travel possible. Columban missionary priests and Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill (Korea) were wonderful guides and hosts.

korea-sc

Fourth of July welcome at Seton Spirituality Center, Nonsan, South Korea

Oh, and Hinkki Chen was our angel in Shanghai! And I discovered my Filipino Family with Romina in Angeles City, Pampanga, Philippines. All of this would take many, many blogs to describe but the gratitude wells up in me each time I look through a photo-book of the adventure created by Romina and my sisters for my birthday.

The travels were not finished! Five days after returning from Asia on July 17, I headed for Ecuador and the annual shared charism experience of the Seton Hill SCs. It is my little sojourn into the practice of medicine each year, offering health checks to the special children and young adults of the INESEM school and even a little “health fair” in a more rural community. ecuador-clinic2016-1Mostly the trip is an opportunity to reunite with the Korean SCs on mission in Ecuador and the wonderful faculty of the school for special needs. And to do all this with my Sister-sidekick and Ecuador specialist Tracy Kemme. We were also blessed to offer an in-service retreat for the teachers and staff of the school and a day of reflection on the Year of Mercy for sisters, staff and parishioners.

Returning at last to the States I prepared for a road trip with Romina to the Motherhouse. The rest of our Casa de Caridad community arrived by plane so we could accompany her for the opening of the canonical novitiate on August 20. Now we are all transitioning to this new normal- and it seems quite natural that a birthday celebration should mark the turning.

Re-missioning is in progress as I wonder what I am called to do, invited to be, in this new decade of life and health. Yesterday I looked through the many cards and notes and remembrances of the past year. I am grateful for all I received in the past 365 days and I am hopeful beyond words, aware with each breath of God’s great compassion. A jubilee year of mercy. A very happy birthday!

janet-baguio

In the Maryknoll Sisters Ecological Center, Baguio, Philippines

 

 

the transition

metamorphosis

I can hardly believe that my last post was so long ago. I have written about the intervening months for the Global Sisters Report:Inter-Mission: Waiting for the Next ActInter-Mission: Springtime of Body and SoulInter-Mission: Being Restored but I forget sometimes that my blog followers might not have access to those reflections. My chemo finished in late January and a post-treatment PET scan showed no evidence of cancer. The plan is to continue a maintenance dose of one of the medications (Avastin) every three weeks for a year and to have PET scans every three months.

As soon as I got the “all clear” I was ready to travel: Los Angeles, Cincinnati, St. Louis, St. Petersburg…to reconnect with all the people, places and commitments that were on-hold while I was in treatment. I followed the doctor’s advice and scheduled extra days to rest before and after travel and to remember that it would take at least three months to regain my strength and stamina. But it seems that the transition from treatment to surveillance mode is as much a spiritual and psychological one as it is a physical recovery. And it it taking me longer this time around.

I am experiencing a degree of inertia. A definition surfaces from physics class: “Inertia is the tendency of an object at rest to remain at rest.”inertia

In this transition time I feel there is a wisdom in staying still. I trust that healing is in progress and I am under construction. How long will this last? How will I know when it is time to “push on”?

I recall from my doctoring days that the most intense phase of labor, the last few centimeters of cervical dilatation before active pushing begins, is called “transition”. Just as the transition time of labor is anything but passive, my own transition time includes some wonder, some discomfort and some worry. I trust that God is working God’s creative way with me. I do my part to not obstruct the process. And I b~r~e~a~t~h~e. While I am not experiencing birth pains in this time of transition, I do believe that my inner ears are attentive to the Voice that will tell me when it’s time to “push”. My Inner Midwife assures me that I will know.

God midwife

 

 

 

wounded healers

wounded healer3I walked into the exam room on Tuesday to meet with my oncologist and her first words to me were, “Wow! This is really kicking your butt, isn’t it?” Sometimes I forget that even in my most fashionably wrapped turban my appearance is a bit startling and she hadn’t seen me since my second chemo in October. But as I gave her a hug I had to maneuver past her left leg which was in a walking cast propped up on a chair, I said, “It looks like you’re the one who has been doing some kicking!” So began our visit.

I told the doctor that this course of chemo has been a lot rougher than seven years ago. Maybe it’s just that I’m older or maybe one particular drug is just harder to tolerate. She looked at the nurse’s notes on the computer screen and then began investigating the various side effects with gentle questions and observations…”Yes, even your eyebrows are almost gone…how is your appetite? Metallic taste, huh? Yes, you have no taste buds-your tongue is completely smooth. Do you have pain? Are the fluids helping?” I appreciated her unhurried, conversational style. Though she occasionally typed on her keyboard, she always looked at me, not the screen. She took her time and gave me her full attention, despite the fact that her schedule was backed up because of her injury and limited mobility.

One more chemo is scheduled for January 26. “Then what’s the game plan?” I asked. A PET/CT scan was ordered for February 9. “I will call you as soon as I get the results and talk with Dr. S in San Antonio. I’m fairly certain he plans for you to continue with a maintenance dose of Avastin (intravenous) every three weeks- but the schedule won’t be as rigid and the side effects are much more tolerable. We just need to watch your blood pressure.” I looked at her directly and said, “I am expecting that this PET scan will be absolutely clear.” She met my gaze with a smile and said, “Me, too.” Then I picked up my calendar and asked, “So with that understood, when can I start traveling? I have several commitments late in February and into early April that require traveling…” She cautioned that my energy will not fully return for several months after finishing chemo but as long as I pace myself, I should be off the “no fly list” after February.

As she called the nurse to make my various appointments I asked about her injury. A broken cuboid bone in her left foot. She shared her concerns that four weeks post-injury she was still having significant pain with weight-bearing. I asked how in the world she was managing hospital consultations and rounds? She said that though she had tried to cut out those activities, “They just don’t get it. They keep calling me.” Almost impossible to say no.  I sympathized and she said, “So please get the sisters to pray for my foot to heal!” I promised her that I would (and all my blog-readers, too!) and she gave me another big hug as I started to leave. Her last words to me were, “I’m praying for you, too!”

I cannot say enough how truly important and therapeutic it is to have physicians who care for their patients. Really care. I’ve said to medical students and residents that loving your patients and allowing them to love you back is powerful medicine. Heartfelt compassion does not cloud clinical judgement. Born from our common human experience, compassion lights up ways of knowing that only augment our technological expertise.

Another physician I saw earlier this week, one whom I sought as a primary care provider last fall, confided near the end of my visit that two years ago he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. “One morning I was here at the office seeing patients and I got this terrible abdominal pain that I thought was appendicitis. I had the staff reschedule all my patients and went to the radiology department where they discovered I had a kidney stone lodged near my appendix. And completely incidentally they discovered a small mass on the top of the other kidney! I would never have known about the cancer- until it was far advanced- if it hadn’t been for that stone passing from the other kidney. You just never think it will happen to you…” His voice trailed off… What gratitude I felt for the window of compassion this physician more than ten years my junior had opened! This is someone who has the capacity to understand.

wounded healerSpiritual writer Fr. Henri Nouwen wrote a book entitled The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Doubleday Image Books, 1979) that captured my imagination early in my medical training. For health care to be a ministry and not just my career, I needed not only to be aware of my own brokenness and vulnerability but to allow that awareness to become a compassionate bridge to those I would serve. This actually became a source of strength through the twenty-five years I was in medicine. It challenged me “to find in the fellowship of suffering the way to freedom.”

My experience of cancer, from diagnosis to treatment, from remission to recurrence and treatment again, has only deepened these beliefs. Meeting my physicians as wounded healers brings a solidarity that soothes my soul. To have my doctor acknowledge so candidly that this treatment is taking its toll on me, especially from her own position of pain and limitation, was a tremendous validation. And aren’t we all having the stuffing knocked out of us by one experience or another?

A song that is running through my mind conveys this awareness that we can all be wounded healers, journeying together in genuine compassion. The Servant Song by Richard Gillard is worth a reflective listen!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-Pk2NHKg_o

Thanks to all who are sharing the journey with me!