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Grateful for Gamma Rays

Since last summer I have become acquainted with an amazing advance in medical technology known as stereotactic radio-surgery or “gamma knife”. In August the procedure was used to clean up an area of ovarian cancer recurrence in the back part of my brain that had been removed with a traditional open-the-skull surgery in July. The focusing of 200 some individual beams of gamma radiation on an area determined by an MRI allows treatment of brain lesions otherwise inaccessible and with less risk of damage to surrounding healthy tissue. Amazing. And with no anesthesia and minimal side-effects.

gamma

When my routine three-month follow-up MRI in November revealed new metastatic lesions it was literally a “no-brainer” to choose between the gamma knife treatment or craniotomy! I had the treatment on Dec. 5. For about two and a half hours I laid with my head in a kind of vice, listening to my current novel on Audible piped into the machine, while my radiation oncologist implemented the plan she had devised with my neurosurgeon and the hospital’s medical physicist. I felt nothing except some discomfort from the screws holding the frame to my head and staying as still as possible for the duration of the treatment. I was discharged home with oral pain relievers and ice packs just an hour after the end of the treatment.

gamma worksIn the two days since the procedure I have reflected not just on the amazing technology but on my access to it and to all the other medical and surgical advances that have literally given my life back to me since 2008. My days have been full of gratitude to God for my health care providers.  As a physician (retired)  I think I have a greater appreciation for the physicians who have given me the benefit of long hours of training and ongoing study, to bring an incredibly sophisticated level of care to our little border community of El Paso.

I remember saying on the early morning drive to the hospital for my first surgery, “I sure am glad there is someone like Dr. Santillan, my gyneologic oncologist, who is willing to spend ten hours today operating on me.” And since then on other early morning trips for biopsies around my heart, lung, central chest cavity and eventually my brain, I have been grateful. And amazed at the convergence of caregivers who are not only technically excellent but able to connect with compassion. Dr. Sanchez (oncologist), Dr. Flores (cardiothoracic surgeon), Dr. Han (radiation oncologist), and Dr. Martin (neurosurgeon) are like human gamma rays, converging in my life for healing.

And there truly is “no place like home” where my other human beams of healing converge: my Sisters Carol and Peggy and Associate SC Siba and now Sister Rita…and all the others who have been part of our local community during this part of life’s journey. How can I fail to mention Fr. Bill who has brought the blessing of the sacrament of the sick as well as the accompaniment of friendship to all of us, now from his parish across the border. The Casa in southern New Mexico has its special radiant energy and healing vibe. Atmosphere is everything for bringing body, mind and spirit back to balance and wholeness. Being here has also kept the desire to know “for what have I been healed” close in my consciousness. What is next? What does God still have for me?

Then there are the many beams of prayer and concern that zero in on me from, literally, around the world. You know who you are! The Facebook friends and friends-of-friends, the prayer chains, the global Sisterhood (and Brotherhood), and especially my own dear family and the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati.

This last recurrence of ovarian cancer in my brain has been different in a very particular way.  The visual symptoms that prompted investigation for metastasis aroused concern that I might have deficits from the disease or its treatment that would impact my ability to write, to think, to process, to envision…in ways that previous recurrences did not. I had an urgency to get things done “just in case” while trying not to yield to the dark thoughts that could impact my healing process.

Enter the human gamma rays of hope and reassurance. I give thanks for the love and support that has converged in me and will continue to focus healing energy when and where I most have need.

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Birthday blessings

The days leading up to my 61st birthday found me preoccupied with the natural disasters of hurricanes, earthquakes and fires all over our poor planet. Actually they are “natural” only in that they are the natural consequences of our choices, our failure to change patterns of consumption and care for our common home.

These might seem like unusual “birthday blessings” but for me, aware as I am of certain personal “hurricanes, earthquakes and fires” that roared through my life in the past year, they clearly connect with my experience. After almost ten years of surveillance, recurrences, treatments and more surveillance, I still can be rather cavalier about warnings that pop up on the radar screen.  The little flashing lights in my visual fields were not something I wanted to pay attention to, kind of like those early pictures of Irma in the Atlantic. I needed others to tell me that they could become a major storm in my body!

I thank God for the blessings of experts who planned and carried out my treatment. While the surgery, hospitalization, recuperation and follow-up radiation experience have been comparatively easy, now I feel like I am returning to a “home” that is a bit storm-damaged. The hair is growing back but I can feel the dent in my skull every time I shampoo. I can see but my visual acuity is not quite what I wish it would be. And the power-lines are still down in some parts of my life.  I am aware of the many blessings of healing that have been poured out in me and the prayers that have sustained me from all parts of the globe.

elijah cave

In this octave of my birthday I am drawn to pray with the prophet Elijah who faced his own hurricanes, earthquakes and fires until he found God in the tiny whispering sound. (1Kings:19)  I love the story! Poor Elijah, running for his life and thinking he could hide from God and escape his calling. But God finds him on Mount Horeb and says, “Why are you here?” What a great question for a birthday celebration! God tells Elijah to stand at the mouth of the cave and to wait for him to pass by.  Violent winds came…but God was not in the winds. Next the earth began to quake…but God was not in the earthquake. Then came the roaring fire…but God was not in the fire. Through the hurricane, the earthquake and the fire, Elijah waited. Only afterwards, when he felt the tiny whispering sound, did he cover his face as he stood at the entrance of the cave. And Elijah heard God ask him again, “Why are you here?”

That is the best birthday blessing: to recognize no matter how storm-battered I feel with the passing of another year, there will be a tiny whispering sound if I wait for it. And the voice of God will ask me, “Why are you here?” That is the gift I will unwrap with God each day in the next year!

birthday gift

man in the moon marigolds

Yesterday I had the experience of a procedure called “gamma knife”.  It is a focused application of 200 some gamma rays on the site in my brain where the ovarian cancer had been removed last month. The intention of the treatment is to clean up any cells that might have been left behind and so to prevent a recurrence.

Every time I heard the term “gamma knife” I thought of the title of a Pulitzer prize winning play by Paul Zindel, later an award-winning film directed by Paul Newman. While I’ve never read or seen the play or movie, the title has always intrigued me. I never imagined that I would have such a close encounter with gamma rays. The experience was quite amazing.

I watched several You-tube videos that detailed the procedure. In order to be sure that the gamma rays programmed by the computer are directed exactly to the site identified on the MRI, a frame was placed on my head and literally screwed into my skull. (A little “ouch”!) Who knew that hospitals employ medical physicists to perform the sophisticated calculations needed for these kinds of procedures? Mine worked with the radiation oncologist and neurosurgeon to formulate the plan for my treatment while I sat looking like Darth Vader and drinking coffee through a straw.

After all the specialists agreed on the plan, I was helped onto the table, my head frame was clamped in place and I was moved into position in the gamma ray device. Laying flat on my back for an hour after an early morning rising and a dose of Ativan, I fell sound asleep. The treatment took about an hour and was almost silent and entirely painless. Several times I woke myself up snoring! A series of chimes indicated that the treatment was over.  I went to a recovery area where the frame was removed (A bigger “ouch” afterwards, like when the anesthesia wears off from a dental procedure!) and I was on the way home just after noon.

All this happened yesterday.  Today I feel pretty much normal except for a couple of little screw-marks on my head and a bit more visual deficit that is to be expected with the procedure.  It should improve with time.

So what is the effect of all these gamma rays on me and my experience of cancer? They tell me that the radiation effects can continue for several months. What I know is that I have been given an opportunity to keep growing, to continue discovering the purpose for my life.  I never get tired of saying that I believe gratitude is the most powerful force for healing in the universe. This most recent recurrence of cancer has deepened this conviction.  I am grateful for access to healthcare, grateful for my skillful healthcare professionals, grateful for compassionate providers and caregivers, grateful for the broad network of pray-ers who carried me through each day, grateful for my Catholic faith and the communion of saints who intercede for me and for all of us still on this side of eternity.  I hope that the gamma rays multiply my gratitude to God for all this healing and increase my capacity for love.

man in the moon marigolds 2

 

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.