Many of the people who are close to me, including my friends and many of my patients, know that my wife, Mariah, is being treated for a fairly aggressive form of breast cancer. In addition, my older sister Sharon passed away last fall (2015) from a long-term battle with leukemia. As you can imagine, cancer hitting this close to home has been a lot for me to take in. Like many others, I find myself challenged to understand the indiscriminate nature of this terrible illness. My healing and dealing (or coping) process is to kind of “put it all out there;” to share the gist of what I am feeling, share my life and explore what works and what doesn’t. I want us all to learn together; to let go of the “right and wrong,” black-and-white illusion of the decisions and judgments we have to make.
I want to make this the first article in a series about my experience with cancer. I want to open up about creating a support system for my wife and I want to share how my process of coping and self-discovery has evolved over time in this very stressful place. Most importantly, I want to create a space to explore, support and create a community where we can stumble together towards a deeper understanding of life and ourselves.
The story begins 4 years ago, when Mariah was first diagnosed with Her 2 Positive breast cancer. She chose to treat what was then a fairly large tumor in her right beast with some aggressive holistic therapy. She decided on a month long program in a holistic cancer treatment center in Arizona called Sun Ridge Medical Center—a program that was not covered by insurance.
Forced to grapple with the cost of treatment, there was a second when my mind went through this futile process of trying to calculate just how much my wife’s life was worth. Of course I would have paid anything; I would have given anything in the world. But coming up with over $60,000 is not easy, especially when we had to borrow a good deal of it.
At Sun Ridge Medical Center, Mariah received daily IV treatments of large doses of glutathione, vitamin C, and Ozone to name only a few types of infusions. From what we read about Sun Ridge and their success, we were to say, at the very least, quite optimistic. In those days, I was overwhelmed with anticipation for the future. I was certain these treatments would cure Mariah. In no time, she would be out of the “woods” and all this uncertain spending would come to an end.
Mariah returned after her 30-day stay with little to no improvement. One thing was certain: the tumor continued to grow.
From the moment Mariah was diagnosed, I felt a dire need to understand why this was happening to my family. Things like this usual happen to other people--not my wife; not us. I just wanted a path to follow; a neatly paved path that would lead us to a clear and concise understanding of what went wrong.
Mariah and I are fundamentally good people. We do not lie, cheat, steal or hurt anyone. I would say we are generally nice people who treat others with respect and kindness. We live a healthy life. We mediate. We exercise. We eat organically. We do all the things you’re supposed to in order to support your health and your body as a whole. But when Cancer struck home, I found the core of my beliefs challenged. At the time, it looked like the beliefs that saw me through most of my life were not really working so well.
My journey of continual understanding led me to Amazon.com one night. I came across a book by Pema Chodron called “When Life Falls Apart”. I found her to be real and grounded in the reality of what a person can go through when life turns to complete shit. That book held a deep resonance for me. It was almost as if Chodron was talking to me about me.
Two things really stuck out to me from Chodron’s writings. First, she said to give up hope. Now, that doesn’t mean to be hopeless, mind you. She explains that hoping for something better in the future takes you out of the present moment. For her, and I think myself, the answers I am looking for need to be found here, now. Who knows what the future may bring? Maybe something good…but also maybe something not so good. Life, and especially my wife, is here now. That is where I want to be: with my wife in the present moment.
The second piece of advice Chodron gave me is not to look to God for “The Answer”. She called it being a “non-theist.” She was not asking me to give up belief in God. I do believe in God, and I often pray. I think what she means, rather, is not to ask God for a certain outcome, or a certain event that might or might not happen. Looking to someone or something else all the time is another factor that can separate from you the present moment, or from the reality of you and your loved ones.
Both giving up hope and not looking to God for an answer helped me find my way in the present moment and helped me to stop projecting all my energy into the future. These 2 simple practices tend to work for me in my darkest times. I welcome your thoughts, comments and suggestions on these coping mechanisms and your own experiences. This is only one man’s journey of trying to understand what often seems incomprehensible.