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“recalculating…”

Since other options for GPS have come into broad usage I don’t often hear this message when lost on the road. It came to mind during this past week of my recovery when I was aware that two friends of my own age with whom I had the blessing of collaborating in ministries here at the U.S.-Mexico border years ago were inaugurating and concluding treatment for cancer. A missionary priest was waiting on tests and treatment plans that would set his course for the next weeks and months. A religious sister posted a video  when she rang the bell indicating completion of twenty-five radiation treatments. Starting treatment…receiving treatment…marking milestones…being restored to health…celebrating…and recalculating…

I used to think that the stages of the cancer experience were fairly distinct. I have written about the transition from diagnosis to treatment to recovery to remission to surveillance as though it was quite a linear process. The category called “survivorship” has never rested well within my lexicon. It seemed too presumptuous. Really, this little picture that showed up on my Facebook feed expresses the journey best for me:

writing straight with crooked lines

Can I flow with this kind of a plan? “Yes” has been a good answer. Where the little loops intersect are the celebration points: home from the hospital, ringing bells at end of cycles of chemo or radiation, clean scans and good tumor marker results.  Where the path dips down or heads off in a direction I didn’t anticipate are times to breathe, to allow, to draw on the resources that I’ve discovered during the past ten years.

This is what I want to share today, wherever you find yourself or those you are accompanying on the cancer journey. God works within the openness of your body-mind-spirit from the starting gun to the finishing bell. Another well-known image expresses this truth. footsteps1

Trust God to do the recalculating.

 

 

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recovering wonder

my hummingbirds

Wonder.  I’ve been wondering about it a lot during the past two weeks. Mostly it’s been the sense of awe at what God has done and continues to do in me. How can it be that on July 25 I was gifted with a team of people who literally opened up my head and “picked my brain”, removing what was causing some obstruction to what God desires for me? As today’s psalm proclaims, “I will bless the Lord at all times, God’s praise shall be ever in my mouth. Let my soul glory in the Lord; the lowly will hear me and be glad.” (Ps34:2-3)

Since surgery I’ve spent hours recovering in the wonder of the created universe that is the garden at our desert home. Fascinated by dozens of hummingbirds that I imagine buzz around my brain-in-recovery, chupando (sipping) the mushy little mess in my brain that I expect is still in need of some clean-up operations, my wonder turns towards great gratitude. They have kept me from even the tiniest temptations to worry or despair. Unlike Elijah (today’s first reading) a day’s journey into the desert, ready to pack it up under the broom tree, I have been steadily watered and refreshed.

Not quite ready for the forty days and forty nights journey to the mountain but able to keep my feeders replenished and the gardens watered and weeded. I’ve been blessed with good balance of rest, activity, and an affinity for food that steroids have only enhanced. My house companions on the journey aren’t complaining at the appearance of coffee cakes, peach cobblers, gingersnaps and fresh bread that are a cut above Elijah’s “hearth cakes and jugs of water”. (1 Kings 19:4-8)

forty days and forty nights

The next installment of wonder is moving me towards the “what’s next” of life. It is the time of opening, deep listening, attentiveness to the Spirit which I hope never to grieve. Today’s second reading (Eph 4:30-5:2) offers steady guidance for this wonderment. There is purpose in God’s ways with me. No energy given over to bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, reviling, malice…no “why me?” Instead only kindness, compassion, forgiveness and living in love.

This is where wonderful wisdom is needed. It is the wisdom of no-rush, no-running-ahead-of-Providence. I can wonder all I want. Curiously those wonderings are most active in the early morning hours. (Friends on FaceBook will know this from my 3 am Likes and Shares!)  There is a temptation to murmuring (see today’s Gospel, John 6: 41-51!) at the disruption of sleep but I’m learning to accept it as a time of great possibility for creativity (hence this blog post) and further movement into God’s great wonder for me. My friend Brother Jim, Benedictine monk, used to say, “When the Lord wakes me at that hour it’s for a good purpose and I better listen!”  Then he would follow with his personal mantra: “Do not doubt. Never doubt. Do not fear. Never fear.” Wonder-full.

3AM-is-the-hour-of-writers-painters-poets-over-thinkers-silent-seekers

My prayer for each of us today is to find space (even at 3 a.m.) to recover the wonder of your life!

communion of saints la

Tapestries of the saints in the Los Angeles cathedral. Elizabeth Seton figures prominently!

The past seven days since surgery for metastatic brain cancer I have felt myself carried in the “cloud”. Yes, the internet has offered a means of connection and support from post-op to ICU to home. But that’s not the “cloud” to which I refer. My “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is the family of saints and friends of God that has interceded on my behalf and held me healing. This communion of saints has always been expanding as my Sisters, family and friends let me know just to whom they were lifting my intention.

Some saints are my personal favorites- from our Sister of Charity charism and tradition: Elizabeth Seton, Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, Blandina Segale. Others have become dear over the years: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother Theodore Guerin, Our Lady of Providence, Kateri Tekakwitha, Oscar Romero…

The classics were represented by particular patrons like : St. Peregrine (cancer patients),peregrine

St. Jude (impossible causes) and those whose feasts were proximate to my surgery: St. James, Sts. Anne and Joachim- grandparents of Jesus. But there were also some surprise appearances and references. The contemplative nuns at the monastery in downtown El Paso sent a photo from the cloister of their foundress, St. Maria Magdalena de la Encarnación.adoratrices monastery

The Adorers of the Blood of Christ sent a prayer that I be protected with the mantle of Jesus’ Precious Blood.  And in connection with that congregation came the feast of Blessed Stanley Rother, a diocesan priest and martyr in Guatemala, originally from Oklahoma, his own sister is a member of the ASC community.stanley rother

Why share all this? In my experience companions make all the difference in the healing journey. Essentially this is a solitary path. Rolling into the O.R. I was aware of the loving support and prayer of so many. I trusted the dedication and skill of my healthcare team. But I scooted onto the operating table under my own power and mine was the skull that was about to be opened. I needed to know- and I felt most tangibly- that a great cloud of witnesses was with me, keeping me in communion with the healing power of God, removing any obstacles in me that would block God’s desire for my best.

This time, too, I had some special “blesseds” holding my hands and whispering in my ears. Sisters of Charity who have been mentors and friends, recently passed to eternity along with my own mom and grandparents, were there in force. I felt them close in that thin space as I drifted off.

SC saints

Coming to consciousness in the Neuro-ICU my own team of care-givers and the hospital staff were there “with skin” to remind me of my place in the world. The recovery has been quite remarkable again- just 48 hours in hospital with discharge direct from ICU. I can sit in my garden where the hummingbirds remind me of my “cloud of witnesses”, nudging me along the path of God’s creative, healing love.

hummers

My hummingbird haven of healing! I only wish I could upload the video so you could hear as well as see these dynamos!

Today’s second reading for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time impels me to write this update.

“I will boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.”

Since my last entry I have had additional recurrences of metastatic ovarian cancer in my brain. I had a gamma knife treatment in early April and follow-up MRIs showed both new and persisting lesions. I am scheduled for another gamma knife procedure on July 17 and a traditional open surgery on July 23.  My symptoms are still relatively mild- just some vision changes and occasional “lights”- so it has been challenging to grasp the fact that the treatment options are fewer and less effective and the need for them is more frequent.

beach retreat

I had graced days of retreat in April at Maris Stella on Long Beach Island, NJ.  In prayer, at the ocean or on the bay, in silence or with my companion and director Sister Pattie Dotzauer, I was able to reflect on this new space in my life. For the past ten years I have found my “new normal” after episodes of treatment that were like time-outs of varying lengths. There were significant shifts in ministry over the course of the years but generally I could count on returning to a full schedule of activity within a reasonable amount of time. In the past year I adjusted to planning my life three months at a time. Now it seems a more realistic but no less hopeful approach is required.

thin space retreat

I have come to think of this as one of those “thin places” that is difficult to describe because it is in between what was and what will be. It is an experience of weakness, of acknowledging limits, of examining priorities and making different choices. I need to let go of some things so that I can allow other things to come. With God’s grace and following the lead of so many beautiful mentors in my life, I trust that the power of Christ will dwell with me”.

I believe that God gives what we need to accomplish the mission God has for us. I hope to be able to continue to find words for this experience. Writing helps me to understand this journey and I hope might light up the path for others.  More than ever, each day counts.

I feel myself surrounded by the love, support and prayers of so many people near and far. Thank you for sharing the journey.

life rain quote

only gratitude

February is the month of my anniversaries: diagnosis of ovarian cancer, stage IV on Feb. 17, 2018 and surgery Feb. 28. Ten years, each day a gift. Not a day that I don’t wonder “For what has God healed me today?”

I have been thinking about this blog ever since I received the results of the MRI of my brain six weeks post gamma knife procedure Dec. 5.  The radiation oncologist called to tell me, “Good news! All the lesions have disappeared!” She had treated three of them, the largest behind my right eye was at the upper size limit for gamma knife. She went on to say that although she herself is not a believer, “this shows the power of prayer!” Yes.

So a clear scan just six weeks after the procedure (which continues to be effective for three months) has boosted my confidence that this treatment is a very good option for any future recurrence in the brain. The rest of me relies on PET scans for surveillance. But except for those appointments on my calendar I will not be reserving time for cancer in my life. I keep time for only gratitude.

meister eckhardt

 

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.

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

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