Finally, after a long career in the corporate world, as the only female in my industry and cracking some glass ceilings; my dream of semi-retiring came to fruition. My finances were in good shape, my Colorado home paid off early and my kids were graduated and on their way in life. As a single Mom, it was my goal and dream to ultimately devote my time to my passion of art and photography. I purchased an ocean side rentable condo in Gulf Port Mississippi for extra income and back up to my finances. I recall at the closing standing in the living room and looking out at the beautiful ocean scene and suddenly remembering something I had not asked. ‘I have put in place all back up plans for different rental scenarios; but I forgot to ask about hurricanes.’ Her reply was, ‘Oh, in history a hurricane has never hit Gulf Port.’ So, March 2005 I took the plunge and semi-retired with the feeling that after all of the career stress, my vision had finally materialized.
Don’t you just love it when reality hands you a life different from what you were expecting? Well, not really. Tuesday, August 23, 2005 completely changed my life, my future and my dreams. Hurricane Katrina hit Gulf Port Mississippi dead on as the worst hurricane in history at that time. Stands to reason, if a hurricane had never hit Gulf Port in history, why not be the worst in history.
Accusing Katrina stress as the culprit of my weight loss, nausea and lingering sickness, I waited until Fall to seek medical help. After many tests it was finally revealed in 2006 my illness was stage 3, metastatic breast cancer. The feeling of helplessness overtook me as the surreal diagnosis played out in numerous sterile exam rooms and the horrific Katrina dramas played out in the media. Pictures of the once beautiful beach gone and consuming my building up to the 3rd floor was devasting. I was too sick to travel to Gulf Port and not sure what I could do once there. I had just closed on my condo about a month before, and the finances were still not completed. This put my free and clear Colorado home in jeopardy. I had to short sell the condo and take a new mortgage on my home in Colorado. They say things come in threes. So, adding insult to injury, the last of my savings and retirement was lost in what was termed as the Great Recession of 2007-2009. The worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930’s. I call it The Perfect Storm.
Like a lot of cancer patients, I struggled to stay alive as the barrage of aggressive chemo drugs ravaged my body along with the surgeries that soon became nonchalant occurrences. My body became weaker and more fragile each day. At the end of my chemo treatments, the doctors did not think I could tolerate the radiation that was slated next. After my last chemo, they wanted to make sure they had gotten everything and ordered a PET scan. My oncologist came through the door and I remember thinking as I looked into her drawn face that she must have lost a patient. I was feeling so badly for her and wondering how it must feel. Little did I realize at the time; her sad eyes were the result of the findings of my PET scan. She slowly and cautiously went through the data and finally explained the cancer had metastasized in both of my lungs. Referring me to a lung oncologist, I felt she thought it may be the last time she would see me. The lung oncologist was very nice and suggested we do a biopsy to determine if there might be another chemo regiment that may be helpful. I guess every doctor has a different way of breaking bad news to you. This doctor clearly either did not want to tell me to go home and put my affairs in order, or perhaps he did not think I would have the time to do it. Instead he asked me if they could have my body for research. He had all the forms on his desk ready for me to sign. Which I did.
The night before my biopsy, a couple of colleagues approached me and asked if I would mind if they prayed for me. Thinking they meant they would pray at church or at home, I said ‘certainly, that would be nice.’ We were in a very crowded room when they both laid their hands on me and started praying aloud as curious and peering eyes stepped back. In that moment I was mortified and embarrassed praying my own prayer, “Please God, make them stop”. Then suddenly a rush of warmth went from my feet through my body and up through the crown of my head. To this day, I have never felt anything like it.
My biopsy was unexpectedly delayed by 18 hours. When they finally wheeled me in, I was joking with them about their long hours and inquired how much coffee they had consumed and checking their hands for trembles. The team voted me their best patient ever. They ran into complications with the tube in my lung and it was a week before my appointment with the doctor to discuss our next possible action. My two kids accompanied me prepared to face the inevitable. There are certain things in life that are so memorable, that the details are permanently branded in your brain. This was the case as I sat on the exam table and my kids standing on each side of me. The door finally opened with the doctor leading the way in front of his assistant. His arms were outstretched with his hands holding a report and shoving it in my hands. “You have to read this for yourself!”, he exclaimed. I started searching for my reading glasses and my daughter whisked the report from my hands and started reading aloud, stopping every once in a while to have the doctor explain a word. The bottom line he said, ‘it is not cancer’. ‘We don’t know what happened and we don’t know for sure what it is, but it is not cancer’.
Soon afterwards, I coincidentally, (don’t you just love that word) found myself working in a cancer clinic as I tried to stay financially afloat. It was curious to see the other side of what I had experienced and soon realized the similarities of other patients and family members. Over the course of time, I became more and more inquisitive about why I survived when I saw so many others succumb to the disease. I realized I relied heavily on my art through all of the treatments along with complementary therapies and a positive outlook. My curiosity became an obsession to learn more. How does the brain work with the body, the mind and the spirit? I researched, I went back to school, I experimented trying different ways to shut the left brain down and to easily access emotions. I developed classes to help other cancer patients/survivors and caregivers to cope with the traumatizing emotions that accompany a cancer diagnosis. I utilize color, art, five senses integrations, mindful techniques, and complementary therapies to become self-aware, self-discover and release the negative emotions that create disease. It worked. And yes, research and studies all show that negative emotions can deplete or destroy your immune system allowing disease to return or generate.
I am convinced it is imperative to combine our physicians’ efforts to help ‘Cure’ (eliminating all evidence of disease) with ‘Healing’ (becoming whole). The two should be inseparable when working with a patient or survivor. Maria Giulia Marini states in her book, Languages of Care in Narrative Medicine, “In the case of chronic illness or emotional disease, “cure” is only lasting when healing happens on a deeper level.”
My cancer experience taught me more than I could have ever imagined. Today, 15 years later I am still discovering new lessons and finding guidance from my experiences. My Perfect Storm did turn my life upside down, but it also put me on the path, that I now understand, was where I was supposed to be travelling. Thanks to this Perfect Storm, I was able to experience my passion to extraordinary heights beyond my dreams. It gave me the guidance to develop a unique and transformational nonprofit, Sites and Insights, for the cancer community.
If it had not been for the Perfect Storm, Sites and Insights would not have been born to help hundreds with their emotional trauma that comes with the experience of cancer. SAI has grown into a community of Family. Discovering they are not alone and in a safe place to express their feelings that have been too hard to verbalize in the past. For more information about our free Mindful Therapeutic Healing Art Programs go to www.sitesandinsights.org