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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

 

 

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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

 

 

 

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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!

 

 

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take courage

Courage-Rock-825x510I received my fifth chemo yesterday, sleeping through most of the six hour infusion while listening to “All Things Bright and Beautiful” as wonderfully read by Christopher Timothy. I say “listening” but I was mostly drifting in and out of the story and I still have most of those six hours to revisit over the next few days. Once I returned home I thought I would take a little nap before supper. It turned out that I was done for the night, awaking at 3:30 a.m. to take out my contacts and put on my pjs.

I was finally awake for prayers with the community at 6:15 and found the gospel for today particularly appropriate. It is the familiar “Jesus walks on the water and calms the seas” (Mark 6:45-52)  I needed to hear Jesus say, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” But the entire passage brought a helpful reflection in light of the way I had slept through my treatment day.

Jesus had just fed the five thousand but he sent the disciples off in the boat and headed to the hills alone to pray. They were obviously still on his mind and in his heart during his time of communion with the Father, because he noticed they were having a rough time making progress against the winds. Why then, having left his time of prayer to go to them, does Jesus seem to be walking on by? It is only when their cries of terror  reach him (not a direct request for help!) that he speaks to them. And the seas apparently don’t settle down until he is in the boat.

These are the points that connect with my experience of the past twenty-four hours. First: Jesus knows the rough times ahead of us. He is close at hand, watching us try to make our way under our own power. Second: Sometimes we lack the ability to even help with the rowing. We depend on the strength and energy of those near us to carry us over the rough waters. That would be me, sleeping while everyone else was concerned with details of supper and whether I needed anything. But Jesus can even relate to this as he also was famously asleep in the boat while the storm raged. Third: Jesus doesn’t even need an invitation to get into the boat. Our fears are enough to draw him. John says in today’s first reading, “Perfect love casts out fear.” In the gospel, it seems to me, we see how fear draws in Perfect Love.

The gospel ends with the disciples being astounded but sadly unable to understand because their hearts were hardened. On this traditional day of Epiphany, may we know the breakthrough of Love in our lives and take the courage we are offered.Epiphany image

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peace

interfaith peace

Amid so much that is broken in our world as 2015 comes to a close, I wonder if I dare to pray “Let there be peace on earth…let it begin with me.” My own body is certainly showing the signs of wear and tear, chemo postponed a week so that my white blood cells and platelets can recuperate for another cycle of treatment. “Let peace begin with me” takes on a particular meaning if I think of cancer as the enemy within and the drugs as weapons of mass destruction. But that has not been a helpful metaphor for me, either the first time through cancer treatment or now.

Peace for my body, mind and spirit means allowing the Creator to bring into One whatever has separated into pieces. I believe that the Divine Energy maintains all of creation in a vision of wholeness, even when we can only see brokenness. Seen in this way, I trust that peace beginning with me means a transformation in which I can actively participate. God is the director, the author, the artist, the restorer. The desire for peace, within and without, is God’s way of moving us towards wholeness.

Each of us, then, is able to participate in bringing Peace on Earth by our willingness to allow God’s vision. In other very familiar words, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In our interior world and in all the circles within which we move, we can allow God’s vision of peace to be realized.

Tonight, may we each spend a few moments asking that “peace begin with me”. United in this prayer, believing that God is its origin and impulse, 2016 will bring us closer to realizing peace on earth!

(And for those who would like to work for “extra credit”, I suggest this link to Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of Peace, entitled “Overcome Indifference and Win Peace”:

http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/peace/documents/papa-francesco_20151208_messaggio-xlix-giornata-mondiale-pace-2016.html )

 

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the untangler

yarn

I have a beautiful tale to tell about my fourth chemotherapy today, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. I was glad that my blood counts were good enough to keep the scheduled appointment and I arrived a few minutes early. But to be honest, I was feeling a troubling resistance to this session. Already yesterday I was sensing the metallic taste in my mouth and a general dread of the effects that come after the chemo. I was struggling to find the gratitude and openness that allow the medicines to do what they are intended to do, i.e. to restore me to health.

The first “glitch” came when the nurse told me that a urinalysis should have been done with my labs yesterday because of one of the medications that can affect the kidneys. I had questioned the lab tech because she didn’t request a urine specimen but she said, “It wasn’t ordered.” Okay, I thought, maybe they are satisfied with the blood test for kidney function. So this morning the nurse apologized and said that they couldn’t start the chemo  until I went downstairs to the lab for the urinalysis. I explained that I had asked about that yesterday…”I know,” she said, “It just wasn’t ordered.” So I trundled myself and my belongings down the stairs, managed to provide a sparse specimen of urine, and returned to the infusion center waiting area to wait for the results.

Meanwhile, another patient arrived who I recognized from my last visit for iv rehydration fluids after my last treatment. She had been getting her first treatment and did not have a “port” so the nurses were trying to get a peripheral iv line- with much difficulty. We had a long discussion about the benefits of having a port which makes access so much more convenient and comfortable. She expressed many doubts and worries but eventually agreed to the appointment for port placement. I offered a lot of reassurance, showing her my little veteran port-o-cath (placed in March 2008), saying that it is my little golden door that allows me to receive the gifts of healing. Today this woman would be using her port for the first time – and she was worried. “Will it hurt?” was her greatest concern. Not as much as all those sticks to get an iv!  Just then my nurse called me to get started.

I settled into my chair and was ready when she came with the supplies to access my port and start the first pre-medication. Margie is new to the infusion center but has experience with inpatient pediatric oncology so I felt confident in her skill. The little poke of the needle into the port button on my chest felt right- but as she tried to withdraw blood and flush with saline she got a worried look on her face. “There’s too much resistance,” she said. She tried to reposition the needle, replaced it once with a new needle, called another nurse for an opinion, and finally said she would have to call my doctor.

I felt myself panicking. What will they do? What if I can’t get chemo today? What if they can’t get another iv? As I waited I watched my friend of the brand new port-o-cath get her first access without a glitch. Her chemo got started and she worked crosswords on her smartphone like a pro. Good for her! I thought. Then I returned to my own predicament.

I remembered the general feeling of resistance that I had to this round of chemo. I also recalled that today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and how many times I had told friends that I expected special graces with the chemo. So I asked Mary to please help me be receptive to this experience of healing, to not have any blockage emotionally, spiritually or physically. Specifically, I asked her to take care of my port-o-cath!

The doctor told Margie to start a peripheral iv to give today’s treatment and to schedule me for a procedure to see if there was some kind of a “kink” in my port-o-cath. More anxiety! Margie seemed nervous as she surveyed the veins of my right arm and I didn’t like where she was looking. So I pointed out my personal favorite in the right wrist area, known as “the intern’s friend”. Margie took my advice and got it on the first quick stick. She connected the tubing and started to infuse the first pre-medication. I asked if she was going to put some heparin (blood thinner) flush in the blocked port. She went to get the supplies for the heparin flush. Lo and behold! She got an immediate blood return and had no resistance when she pushed the heparin! “It’s working!” she said.

I knew what had happened and how. Recently I came to know about  a painting of Mary that is a particular favorite of Pope Francis. Known as “Mary, Undoer of Knots” by Johann Georg Schmidtner, the painting in Augsberg, Germany shows Mary untangling the knots in a long strand of rope or yarn. Angels hold the balls of tangled, knotted yarn. My spiritual director had acquainted me with this image of Mary back in August as I waited for surgery. This morning when I faced a serious resistance to the work of healing, my heart instinctively turned to Mary, the great untangler of knots. Whatever “kink” or blockage was keeping me from receiving the chemotherapy most effectively was now removed. And I believe it wasn’t just the physical knot that was undone.

Margie gave a couple of extra flushes for good measure and then she hooked me up to the infusion machine and hung the next bag of fluids, capping off my wrist iv in case it might be needed later. It wasn’t. The port worked fine and I fell into a deep sleep for the next few hours. But not before I went online to find this prayer to Mary, Undoer of Knots:

Virgin Mary, Mother of fair love, Mother who never refuses to come to the aid of a child in need, Mother whose hands never cease to serve your beloved children because they are moved by the divine love and immense mercy that exists in your heart, cast your compassionate eyes upon me and see the snarl of knots that exist in my life.
You know very well how desperate I am, my pain and how I am bound by these knots.
Mary, Mother to whom God entrusted the undoing of the knots in the lives of His children, I entrust into your hands the ribbon of my life.
No one, not even the evil one Himself, can take it away from your precious care. In your hands there is no knot that cannot be undone.
Powerful Mother, by your grace and intercessory power with Your Son and My Liberator, Jesus, take into your hands today this knot…I beg you to undo it for the glory of God, once for all, You are my hope.
O my Lady, you are the only consolation God gives me, the fortification of my feeble strength, the enrichment of my destitution and with Christ the freedom from my chains.
Hear my plea.
Keep me, guide me, protect me, o safe refuge!

Mary, Undoer of Knots, pray for me

http://www.theholyrosary.org/maryundoerknots

Mary_Untier_of_Knots_Rosary--element268

Mary, Undoer of Knots

So in this week of two great feasts of Mary, the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe, I share another view of our Blessed Mother. Being an avid knitter myself, I can totally appreciate Mary’s patient and nimble fingers working out the kinks and tangles of my life. Today I am especially grateful for her handiwork. I can highly recommend this skillful untangler for the knots in your own life.

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fullness

thank you

The turkey is in the oven and all the side dishes are prepared. In about an hour the final flurry of activity will begin- and then the feast. But now there is time for a pause and a scrap of scripture comes to mind:

For from God’s fullness we have all received, grace upon grace…” Jn 1:16

It is the fullness and grace that capture my imagination. The past week, post-chemo, has been an experience of emptiness. I have felt drained dry of energy, of the capacity to “do”much of anything. A cold that co-incided with the recent treatment sapped what little strength I had in reserve and kept me in bed until today.

This morning as we gathered for a communion service of gratitude, I realized the infusion of vital energy that has been drip, drip, dripping into me during the past week. God’s fullness in the care of those with whom I live, in the cards, emails, text messages and calls from those at a distance, has been grace upon grace in my life. I cannot imagine doing this alone. Thankfully, gratefully, I do not have to bear that burden.

At our Thanksgiving table today, may we take a few moments to own the emptiness with which we come. Perhaps in the grumbling of our bellies we can remember those who will hunger long after we have been satisfied. We can pray to stay conscious of our need for the Creator’s fullness, the grace upon grace, to keep drip, drip, dripping into our lives. And to give thanks, always.

 

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