Uterine (Endometrial) Cancer No More: Lessons from the Ghost of Christmas Past

Reposted from The Patient Path 12/19/13

The Patient Path takes a literary detour “in keeping with the situation” . . . Christmas. View the only manuscript version of Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, housed at the (J. Pierpont) Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. 

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A Christmas Carol was published 170 years ago today, on December 19, 1843. Click the book to view the only manuscript version of the novella, which is housed at the (J. Pierpont) Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. Do take a look–it’s a treasure.  

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Ghost of Christmas Past

Yesterday’s post, “Emotional Reflections in Blue Places,” was my attempt to connect my current medical story–which is so much more than a mere “organ recital”—and the deeper reality of my life. But more important than my personal experience is what anyone’s life–or life itself–is truly all about, as far as we mortals can understand it. As I mentioned yesterday, I defer to the three-ghost device Charles Dickens used in my favorite story—which, of course, is not just a Christmas tale—to try to figure out what is true and eternal and to put my limited understanding of temporal existence into the context of whatever that is. In my opinion, Dickens captured in his 1843 novella the essence of what it means to be human. And he did it by imagining what can be learned beyond the boundaries of time as we know it in our three-dimensional world—a fascinating prospect.

Reliving Dickens’ moral tale of “reclamation,” or redemption, is the very essence of Christmas for me. More than that, it exposes and explores the nature of what life is about here on Planet Earth—a very strange and wondrous place that often defies comprehension. The heart of the story is that it teaches us how to make the journey of life a bit easier for the others who are our “fellow-passengers to the grave,” those whose fragile hearts we carry in our hands as we walk along the roads of human experience–those traveled and those less so–together with them. Humans can be the most self-serving and cruel of creatures. But they can also be self-sacrificing and heroic, relieving the suffering of other people—and of animals—in moments of spiritual clarity when their better, higher natures guide their hands in healing what their lesser, lower natures may have harmed, intentionally or unconsciously. One moment of kindness can redeem a lifetime of pain. Why, then, do we indulge our small minds rather than expand our inflatable hearts?

How different things are this Christmas from last year. Then, I had no idea that the problems and worries that plagued me would be overshadowed months later by a life-threatening disease, which, thankfully, is now coming under control. How much precious life force do we expend in the worthless pursuit of self-centered concerns that are not only transitory, but trivial—as if time were at our command to spend and waste from a limitless supply of vital life force? In some ineffable way, I believe that whatever makes up the true basis of life is beyond the mere physical, which is confined within and dictated by the passage of time. Perhaps true experience—which, when you think of it, is quite an abstract thing—lies in a dimension where all things that have ever happened, are happening, and will happen co-exist, in a sort of matrix. I can’t pretend to know, but contemplating what may be possible leads me to believe that whereas biological life occurs in time, experiential life exists, somehow, beyond it.

The Ghost of Christmas Past has the job of leading us to a place beyond time where we can think about our lives. For me this year, that has taken on a new meaning, now that my life—which I have not always valued–has been threatened. Yet I know there can be worse diagnoses than cancer. In the span of my 61 years, I have experienced many things that have eroded my love of life and interfered with my ability to appreciate it: parental separation and eventual divorce; the loss of a baby sister to a “death” that turned out to be an adoption (see My Sister’s Story a difficult and lonely childhood that led to a terribly insecure and painful adolescence and young adulthood; a misguided first marriage that eventually ended in divorce; years of infertility that were, however, followed by the blessed birth of my only child (Matt); single motherhood accompanied by identity crisis and profound confusion leading to inept parenting of my beloved son and even worse management of my own life; remarriage requiring sometimes bewildering adjustments; the death of my father (I will be writing My Father’s Story soon); the death of my childhood friend not long after (see My Friend’s Story); the loss of, or distancing from, many other friends over the years; job and career challenges that were always far beyond what I thought I could handle and that consumed so much of my life’s misdirected energy; recurrent crippling depression, anxiety, and loneliness; chronic serious weight issues–a factor in uterine cancer, other health problems, and most of all in not developing a strong sense of self, which may have helped me make fewer errors; the loss of jobs–and eventually my career as I knew it–which profoundly altered my sense of who I am in the world and destroyed any hint of financial security; near bankruptcy with no clear plan to resume solvency; and, recently, potentially fatal illness that I am still grappling with. And I’ve left a lot out!

Notice, of course, that many gifts are woven throughout this litany of challenges. I’ve also left out so much good. It is the lesson of the Ghost of Christmas Past during pre-Christmas reflection to help us realize that every challenge is one side of the coin of life, the one imprinted with the mask of tragedy (unhappiness and pain); but, of course, the mask of comedy (happiness and good) lies on the other side. No matter what transpires in our lives, that coin is always going to flip to the other side in the continual motion of happenstance. Lucky is the one who can direct some of this motion in his or her favor; blessed is the one who can accept and work with whatever flips his or her way. Coins roll, and so should we. And I believe the Ghost of Christmas Present will help me acknowledge the beauties among the beasts.

For now, the Ghost of Christmas Past is beckoning me to the holiday of 1983. At that time, and for the first (and last?) time, I felt as if my notion of who I thought I was completely merged with the actuality of who I truly was, if only for the moments beyond time when I could sense that I was an inextricable part of the fabric of life. I was no longer just an observer: I had become a full participant. I remember spending glowing moments in front of the fire in our next-door neighbors’ living room. They had invited another thirty-something couple over for Christmas cheer, and we were happily chatting in a warm, convivial atmosphere that I believed would not end, they drinking wine, I drinking ginger ale. I was protecting the contents of my (now absent) womb, which for that shining moment was doing what it was destined to do. Two-and-a-half months pregnant with my first and only child, I felt like the most important woman on the face of the earth–and the most sanctified of mothers.

This madonna-like impression of myself, of course, faded pretty quickly. But it left a permanent change in me because I felt I was sharing in the profound experience of bringing forth life, accomplishing what I think of as my most important mission, then or ever. Sitting there talking about my hard-won pregnancy, and then drifting to a dreamy place where I felt connected to every other person—and, especially, to every to other woman—was transcendent. Yet, even as I write this—and believe it—in no way do I mean that women who have not borne children are themselves any less the children of the universe. Birth takes many forms. And nurturing—of babies, fellow creatures, or ideas—is the highest endeavor of every human soul.

Thank you, Ghost of Christmas Past, for reminding me that what I recently lost had already fulfilled its consecrated purpose. I have no reason to mourn, and a marvelous 29-year-old reason, among many others, to rejoice—as I’m sure the The Ghost of Christmas Present will remind me.


 

Ghost of Christmas Present
THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PRESENT–12/24/13

Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come

THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS YET TO COME–12/31/13

Illness Is Not Identity: Butterflies Are Free

Reposted from The Patient Path March 31, 2014

Butterflies

“I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to [me] what it concedes to the butterflies!” – from Bleak HouseCharles Dickens.

If you’re not familiar with Bleak House, one of the most complex—and one of the most rewarding—of Dickens’ novels, perhaps you’ve heard this quotation in Butterflies Are Freea 1972 film (based on a play by Leonard Gershe) about a young blind man, Don (Edward Albert), who rents his own apartment to become less dependent on his overprotective mother (Eileen Heckart). As she still struggles for control, he meets his neighbor, Jill (Goldie Hawn), a “free spirit” who inspires him to become his own person. After she tells him that the Dickens’ line is her favorite quotation, he writes a song about his spirit learning to fly.

For several years, long before I was diagnosed with and treated for uterine (endometrial) cancer, I have thought of the butterfly as a personal spiritual symbol. Many cultures and traditions turn to this beautiful winged creature to symbolize the soul and other essential aspects of life, such as metamorphosis. Few things top the list of shattering changes more than potentially life-threatening illness. Yet, even when it is serious, illness is only part of our life experience. True, it sometimes commands center stage. But in the next act—or even in the next scene—some other, deeper aspect of who we are takes its star turn.

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By no means do I intend to diminish the supreme challenges faced by those who are debilitated by illness or injury or to dismiss uncaringly the anguish of those who have lost loved ones to terminal disease or early death. But the message of the butterfly is available to all, even to those who suffer. Because even if we sprout wings that don’t have the strength to free us from the pain and limitation of earthly life, they can still help our spirits to soar. If we don’t have the strength even for that, our spiritual wings can at least help us float gently on the soft winds of the universe as it continues on its infinite course, reminding us that we are part of all that is, ever was, or ever will be.

Having passed through the metamorphosis of serious illness, I think back to decisions I’ve made that both hurt me and helped me arrive at the place I now find myself. And I’ve had to face that many of the external markers of identity are now lost to time—reproductive status (first in menopause and now in the absence of organs), the joys and responsibilities of young motherhood (my only child is now a man), marriage and name change (one divorce behind me and a total of three last names), the comradeship of friends and colleagues (many losses and gains over the years), the pride and sustenance of career and income (gone and none at present), and so on. These things have shifted so significantly that at times I feel adrift in the cosmos, unanchored to earth or to anything that feels comfortable or familiar.

But these moments pass. And I realize that what remains after pseudo-identity is irrevocably altered is the emergence of what lies beneath and within, which can be surprising. Having lost so much, and having spent so much time alone confronting my very existence, I nevertheless have experienced an integration of the essential aspects of myself with how I navigate external life. I discussed some of these things in the March 14, 2014 post, “Reading & Writing as Therapy.” The message was simply this: Find, or rediscover, what you love. This tells you who you are.

It is my hope for all who face grave or passing illness, permanent or temporary loss, and terrible loneliness or even somber solitude that they can find their butterfly selves by turning inward to where they can see that the outward path is visible but ephemeral—and also by connecting with similarly affected, like-minded others, who can not only share their experience, but enter into it with them.