Surviving

Musings by Chris and Photos by Jim

Survival. We all have our own ways of making it through each day. I looked over my balcony and watched an elderly woman walking on the sidewalk below, laboriously pushing her walker. Her gait faltered in a pre-meditated sort of way. Her left hip rose up awkwardly wrenching a painful stilted thrust to each step forward. But there was a determination and commitment to this evening ritual. Make it around the block. That was her survival mechanism for seeing it through another day. We each have our own way.

shade plants

The day my radiation finished it was overcast – I think the first overcast day in six weeks of radiation. It actually rained in the afternoon. It was the first day throughout my entire treatment protocol I didn’t go for a walk. The ending of radiation was somewhat anti-climatic. It’s not like they leave you feeling great. In fact, it was the beginning of what was to be many more very painful uncomfortable days.

It was the next day that it hit – I have my whole life ahead of me! As long as I was in the cycle of treatment, I felt prognoses and diagnoses and stats weighing on me. My oncologist basically told me to throw it all out the window. I will be checked on rigorously for the next four years and everyone will have eyes on me. Other than that – go live. Then the post-radiation side effects really hit.

As I proceeded through two weeks post-radiation, the side effects became worse. I really didn’t believe the technicians when they told me that would happen. I was sure they were mistaken and because I’m just so darn healthy (funny, coming from someone diagnosed with cancer 6 months ago) that I would breeze through the next two weeks. Think again. Luckily I had a champion on my side – a former wheatgrass client who was diagnosed with throat cancer, possibly seven years ago. He knew what I was up against and he commiserated with me regularly and cheered me on.

“There is nothing like this, but it changes you, and lets you know where the filament of the light bulb that is you, is.”

Then there was my cousin, who every week, made sure to message me and let me know how much I was loved.

“You amaze me and inspire me always! – Much Love!”

flower candy

Fellow cancer crusaders and survivors shared stories and tips and support (Aloe Vera was one of the more useful tips). They are a sorority of sisters, primarily, who have been vigilant survival stewards, rallying around my scars, and treatment options, and side effects, and offering testimonials from the ‘other side’ of recovery. Faith became my mantra.

My dear, dear life partner was there through it all. The other evening during dinner, he noticed not sensing any pain emanating from me, for the first time in weeks. When he awoke the next day, he announced he was taking it easy – the first time in six months he was giving himself permission to focus on himself. My heart broke, to think it has all been about me. It is time, dear heart, for you alone.

And family. They were by my side when they were able. My birthday seemed to bring out the hankies. I made it through to see another year but at what cost? How can something so joyful be clouded with such heartbreak and sorrow? I sensed a release of sorts. Perhaps now we can get on with what this new life shall be.

birds of a feather

I have had a core of angels throughout this journey who always took the time to message me, email me, phone me, visit me, respond to my Facebook and blog posts, and let me know I was doing great. On the hardest days post-radiation (and they were the worst days of this entire process, worse than the surgery and six weeks of radiation) I looked to those comments for encouragement. It is very easy to lose sight of why you decided to do this, what you had hoped to gain from this, and what the long-term outcomes may be.

And then, while swamped in my radiation brain fog, I started to look up stats on the Internet:

It is estimated that in 2015:

  • 4,400 Canadians will be diagnosed with oral cavity cancer.
  • 1,200 Canadians will die from oral cavity cancer.
  • 2,900 men will be diagnosed with oral cavity cancer and 810 will die from it.
  • 1,450 women will be diagnosed with oral cavity cancer and 390 will die from it.

Quick Facts:

  • In Canada, oral cancer is the 13th most common cancer (of the 23 reported cancers).
  • In 2009, the number of new cases and death due to oral cancer is predicted to be almost three times higher than that of cervical cancer and almost double the rates of liver cancer. Oral cancers are also predicted to have higher numbers of new cases and deaths in 2009 than stomach, brain and ovary cancers.
  • And then, while swamped in my radiation brain fog, I started to look up stats on the Internet:

    It is estimated that in 2015:

    • 4,400 Canadians will be diagnosed with oral cavity cancer.
    • 1,200 Canadians will die from oral cavity cancer.
    • 2,900 men will be diagnosed with oral cavity cancer and 810 will die from it.
    • 1,450 women will be diagnosed with oral cavity cancer and 390 will die from it.

    Quick Facts:

    • In Canada, oral cancer is the 13th most common cancer (of the 23 reported cancers).

    The five-year survival rate for oral cancer is 63 percent compared to the survival rates of cervical cancer (75 percent), melanoma cancers (89 percent), and prostate cancer (95 percent).

  • In 2009, it is estimated that there will be 3,400 new cases of oral cancer and that 1,150 people will die from oral cancer. Men will account for over half of these new cases.
  • The incidence of oral cancer is much lower than other cancers.
    It is true that oral cancer new cases and deaths are relatively low in number compared to prostate, breast, and colorectal cancer, but are almost three times higher than for cervical cancer and almost double than liver cancer.
  • People over the age of 40 have a higher risk of developing oral cancer. Oral cancer can occur at any age, but the incidence increases sharply over 40. Individuals that are over the age of 60 have the highest incidence of oral cancer.

blue herons

Okay. So that is why I did what I did. Now, how does one move forward from a life-altering treatment plan? How does one survive?

Katya Mycyk, breast cancer alternative treatment pioneer, recently posted a survivor’s guide to spontaneous remission.

I was most interested in some of the characteristics associated with remission and survival that cancer survivors are reporting.

  1. A change from dependency to autonomy combined with activities, attitudes, and behaviors that promote increased autonomy, awareness of themselves, others, and their environment, love, joy, playfulness, satisfaction, laughter, and humor.
  2. Facing the crisis, the despair, the sadness, and the pain and discovering they have the power to find a new way of life that is fulfilling and meaningful.
  3. Taking control of their lives, (personal, professional, emotional, spiritual, and medical) and living each day fully combined with a willingness to evaluate their beliefs and attitudes and change old beliefs and attitudes that are no longer appropriate or adequate.
  4. Becoming comfortable with and expressing and accepting both their positive and negative emotions/feelings, their needs, wants, and desires (physical, emotional, spiritual); the ability to say “No” when it is necessary for their well being.
  5. Having at least one strong loving relationship—a strong connection to another person, an activity, an organization(s), changing the quality of their interpersonal relationships with spouses, friends, family, neighbors, doctors, nurses, etc. in a positive way, and motivation to help others.
  6. Working in partnership with their physicians and participating in decisions related to their health and wellbeing.
  7. Finding meaning in the experience of cancer, finding reasons to live, accepting the diagnosis but not the prognosis, seeing the disease as a challenge, belief in a positive outcome, and having a renewed desire, will and commitment to life.
  8. Choosing activities and practices that promote increased awareness and reduce stress (imagery, stress reduction, yoga, etc.); showing renewed spiritual awareness (Soul) that often results in a spiritual practice (prayer, meditation, religious affiliation, connection to nature, etc.).

The list sounds like a formula for life, regardless if you are a survivor of a life altering dis-ease or not.

fountain

The summer lazily summons me to sit out on the balcony, watch the cruise ships, bask in the stunning vistas and ocean breezes, marvel and fret over no rain on Canada’s traditionally ‘wet coast’, and slowly and methodically let go of my patient mentality. This week I will finally leave my Victoria cocoon and venture back onto Salt Spring Island for our youngest grandson’s 6th birthday. It’s time. All sorts of ‘what if’ scripts keep playing in my head, but as I embrace the remission list of affirmations, I know that before I can truly establish myself as a survivor, I need to tackle my stumbling block – #1. The other seven I have a sense of and I’m exploring, but I have protected myself from others during radiation. Time to break away from my daily rituals and live on ‘Salt Spring time’ for a few hours. Okay – baby steps.

bridge

When you strive to live in the moment, the moment sometimes becomes one moment too many. I’m realizing that I’m becoming acquainted with a whole new me. I’m dressing slightly differently – I really have a 1950s aging movie star thing going on, and young people who are into vintage clothes seem to appreciate my style. I speak differently yet again (with the swelling and inflammation caused by radiation) and my swollen neck and scars will always be there to some degree. Who am I without all the treatments and appointments and drama and trauma? That’s what I’m about to discover.

I’m a survivor. And I’m a new version of my former self. They often speak of people with brain injuries never quite being who they were before. When I look in the mirror, I’m not quite who I was before. Perhaps what’s most elemental in surviving such a radical transformation is realizing, in each moment, we are merely who we are and that is the discovery most precious in our ability to survive.

Thank you everyone for holding my hand, guiding my illusory walker around the metaphorical block, and helping me make it through each and every day. This has been a road trip to remember. And as survival tip #5 suggests, we survive best when we have a strong connection to others. There are so many of you that have been here for me in ways I would never have been able to predict. The abundance in my life overwhelms me with joy and appreciation and love. To all of you who have hitched a ride with me during this adventure, I am deeply moved, appreciative, and forever grateful for your support and love.

sunset2

I’m not sure where Rawsome on the Road will take us next. That’s part of what I’m here to discover. And as in all things that we have posted on this blog, you will be the first to read all about it. Until, forever filled with gratitude, Chris and Jim.

Comments: 2

  1. Denise July 8, 2015 at 4:41 pm Reply

    Wow – what a journey you have been on! I’m a retired nurse, and adopted a plant based diet after reading “The China Study” over 10 years ago – partly for the animals (we were vegetarian before that) and partly to decrease my (and my husband’s) disease risk, after dealing with so many sick patients. So I’ve been interested in your story – I guess there is just no true immunity from cancer for any of us, no matter how healthy we try to be. All the best to you and your husband – sounds like it is finally your time again to pursue new adventures and fun!

    • Chris Gay July 8, 2015 at 5:44 pm Reply

      Yes it has been a journey and I appreciate you reading and commenting. Our live plant-based diet did not protect me from cancer but I do believe that eating and living the way we do has assisted in my healing. I truly believe cancer is more than just related to diet. I do believe that it is systemic and for whatever reason, my system was crying out to me and I just didn’t heed the messages. For me the message was to live life with more joy and patience and acceptance and forgiveness and love. I feel that now I am on a path to explore what that all means for me and how to do so with more heart and gentleness. It is a lifelong practice that will continue to guide me for however long I am meant to be in this form, on this earth. My healing journey will take probably a good 2 years in total. So for now, we are living life much more simply and staying put, for a while. Thank you for your interest and support. It means a lot to me. Chris.

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