Survivor

Over a period of six years I lost my voice three times. The first time it happened when I got a really bad cold. I couldn’t speak above a whisper. After weeks and weeks of constant laryngitis I went to an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor. He told me I had nodules on my vocal cords. Speech therapy was recommended. Several hundred dollars later with no noticeable improvement I asked what else could be done? He told me they could be removed but they may come back. I said “I’ll take that chance. I just want to be able to talk again.”

When the hoarseness returned a few years later I had them removed again. Both times the lab work came back negative. They couldn’t seem to identify exactly what they were but they knew what they weren’t, I guess.

Two years later when I started losing my voice for the third time I waited a few months thinking “oh, those weird nodules are back again”. I now had insurance so I went to see a new doctor at Kaiser. He happened to be the head of Oncology . He examined my throat and said “I don’t know what that is down there but I don’t like it. I want you in the hospital for surgery as soon as possible.”

Two days later I went to the hospital for another Laryngoscopy. A week after that on my way to work I stopped by the doctor’s office for what I thought would be a routine post operative exam. The doctor walked into the room, greeted me and said “well do you want the good news or the bad news first?” Nervously I answered “the good news, I guess.” He said “the good news is it looks like you got here in time. The bad news is it’s cancer. I removed the “tumors” from your vocal cords but the cancer cells have started penetrating the surrounding tissue. We’ll have to use radiation to kill the remaining cells. There’s an 85% chance of a total recovery if you agree to nine weeks of radiation.” I was so shocked I couldn’t even ask an intelligent question. Like “are you sure you have the right patient?” He said “We’ll start the radiation treatments the beginning of next week.”

Stunned and reeling I left the office and drove the few blocks back home. I felt as if I were in a dream. This couldn’t really be happening.

My husband was there when I walked in, surprised by my return. I just stood in the doorway, unable to speak, with what must have been an alarming look on my face. He stared at me for a minute and then we both started crying. He came over to me and put his arms around me. When I could finally speak I described the doctor visit. We cried some more. Then I told him that the doctor had said there’s an 85% chance of total recovery, but inside, my thoughts leaped to “there’s a 15% chance of dying!”

When I had recovered enough I decided to go in to work at my family furniture finishing business. I needed to see my Mother. Driving on the freeway I thought about my life. I had been depressed for some time. Trapped in an unhappy marriage. Worried about money because my husband was out of work. Frightened at the possibility of losing our home. Facing an empty nest as my daughter would be leaving for college soon. How would I pay for that? Worse still how would I survive her absence? However, now, what had seemed to be an almost unbearable existence suddenly looked…well, alright. In fact just fine, thank you very much. “I’ll take it.” When faced with the possible reality of dying the question would I rather be dead or alive no matter how bad my life looked, the answer was loud and clear; “alive!! I thought “wow! that’s good information”. The fact that it came as such a surprise showed me just how far down a dark hole I had fallen. Now suddenly the world looked very different to me. I was nearly ecstatic to be driving on this fabulous freeway heading to my wonderful job.

When I gave my Mother and brothers the news they were at first shocked and then, typical of my family, quiet.. Hearing the 85% prognosis seemed reassuring to them and we went on with our work day each processing our own feelings silently as we worked. It felt good to work. I could almost forget my nightmare. It was Friday tho’ and heading home the fear gripped me again.

Throughout the following weekend I cycled in and out of episodes where sickening panic gripped me. I finally had no choice but to come face to face with my fear. I decided that now was the time to examine closely exactly what my pictures looked like. I felt I really couldn’t confront this on my own so I asked my husband if he would be willing to simply hold me while I went inside and stared into the eyes of death.

We sat on the couch together as he held me in his arms. I closed my eyes and began to picture what I thought it might feel like to die. I began visualizing total darkness enveloping me. My consciousness began dissolving into a black endless void. It was terrifying and my sobs shook my whole body. I stayed with it until the tears finally stopped. I felt completely exhausted. Empty. Then an odd sense of calm, almost peace came over me. I realized that the images I had experienced were pure fantasy. My imagination. Just something I made up. The image I feared most, “nothingness”. When I faced it and experienced it, like the monster in my childhood nightmares, the paralyzing fear was gone.

Later, after I’d calmed down, I called my friend Alice and told her about my doctor’s visit. She was shocked and upset. She told me about a woman she had heard of from a friend. A psychic healer who lived in Florida. Under normal circumstances I might not have taken this suggestion seriously but suddenly it felt like a life line. I called immediately and a man answered. When I asked for Virginia he said “hold on I’ll get her”. When Virginia came on the phone she sounded a little brusque even irritated by the intrusion. I apologized and told her the name of a mutual friend who had given me her number. She softened. Still she was very matter of fact, no sugar coating or unnecessary conversation. The first thing she said when I told her what was happening was, “you’re going to be OK”. Then she told me that this was a “Karmic” lesson I had chosen to experience prior to my birth. Then she said “go through the radiation treatments and surrender to them completely.” She said to “get out of the way of the healing. Don’t let any negativity into your consciousness. Surround yourself with only positive things and people.” The last thing she said was “meditate and pray everyday”. I asked if the cancer would spread to any other parts of my body. She said “No”. And that was that. It took maybe ten minutes, if that.

What happened after that was truly amazing to me. When I heard that the cancer was a lesson I had chosen I suddenly just flipped out of victimhood. I didn’t once question it or doubt what she had said. It felt miraculous. Then it was all about having faith and never letting it waiver. My life depended on my keeping positive and doing whatever it took to get well. Nine weeks of radiation!

Downtown Los Angeles, “Kaiser Permanente Nuclear Medicine”. Entering the dark underground parking lot I fought back the apprehension. I found my way to the waiting room easily enough and was shocked at how many people were there waiting too. They each had different issues, obvious or not, that brought them here this day. Some looked intimidated, like me, but the majority looked fairly relaxed, if not comfortable. Most faces welcomed me silently. I felt an instant kinship with these faces. I had just joined a club. People waiting for “Nuclear Medicine” to save their lives. Very sobering, and yet the warmth and calm felt comforting to me.

When a nurse entered and called my name I stood and looked at her. She greeted me with a warm smile that showed kindness and empathy. She’d seen this moment before, many times. I followed as she led me to an examining room, where shortly a group of doctors entered and greeted me. One of the doctors introduced himself and the other four explaining that they would be my team. They would follow the progress of my treatments and make decisions based on how it was going. A “team”! I needed a team? And then I thought “good, a team”! They were warm and kind and treated me with deference. They asked if they could look at my throat. I said of course and opened my mouth. After they’d each looked down there with flash lights they thanked me and left saying they would be monitoring my ongoing treatments.

When they left the nurse came back and handed me a gown, asking me to remove everything from the waist up. She returned when I had changed and led me into the room that housed the radiation machine. I felt my fear rise as I gazed at the most enormous completely terrifying piece of equipment I had ever seen. It resembled some sort of prehistoric monster. “Breathe” I instructed myself.

The X-ray technician smiled and told me his name and explained what he would be doing. He instructed me to lie down on the metal table. It was ice cold and he apologized. Then a female assistant covered my body from the neck down with a heavy lead blanket. Then he began to make marks on my throat. He said he was taking precise measurements so he would know exactly where to aim the radiation. He was very friendly and relaxed which helped me to relax. Then he pulled the arm of the machine towards me. It looked like a dental X-ray machine only much larger. The tip of the machine was huge and conical. He positioned it very near the right side of my neck. He instructed me to hold very still.

To keep myself from panicking I began repeating the mantra I use for my meditation. I continued with this as he left the room telling me he’d be right outside the door and could see as well as hear me. I remained completely motionless wondering when the machine would start. He had told me I would feel nothing. Soon I heard a loud metallic clunk and then the humming began. I couldn’t feel anything. It went on for…five minutes? Maybe more, maybe less. I relaxed completely. I thought about what Virginia had told me. “Get out of the way of the healing”. I surrendered to the humming, visualized healing white light. The humming stopped with another clunk and the door opened. The technician entered with a smile saying “you did great!”. That was it. I got dressed, left the building and went on to work.

And so it went for the next nine weeks. Half way through my radiation sessions the doctors met with me and told me my prognosis was upgraded to 95% chance of total recovery. I felt elated and cautiously optimistic. During the last few weeks of the treatments I could actually feel the radiation entering my throat even though they assured me I shouldn’t be able to. As the tissue broke down it became more and more sensitive. A rectangular patch that looked like a sunburn began forming on my neck getting darker as the treatments went on. It was tender, like a burn. I thought of it as my badge of healing and courage.

With the growing sensitivity in my throat I became aware of an increasing sensitivity to my environment. I couldn’t even walk by, let alone enter, the room where they were spraying lacquer without feeling nauseous. My body was telling me what not to do and I was listening. I became less and less able to tolerate toxic people or situations. I avoided watching films or listening to conversations that were stress producing. I had Zero tolerance for “negativity” in any form. Mine or anyone else’s.

The transformation in my body was accompanied by the transformation of my psyche. I changed everything from my thoughts to my diet. I became a vegetarian and I stopped drinking coffee, alcohol or even eating sugar. My meditation practice strengthened and I started doing yoga and walking everyday. My attitude changed and slowly, so did my life.

In 1992 my whole world came to a screeching halt! I came face to face with my own mortality. When that happened it changed my whole point of view. The mundanity of everyday reality was ripped away like a curtain on a stage and I saw how precarious and precious life really is. I knew, like everyone knows, that one day I would die but death always seemed so remote. Something that would happen in the far distant future. Now, suddenly the expiration date appeared closer than I had ever dreamed. Looking back now, some twenty years later, I know it sounds funny but I feel my cancer battle was one of the most important experiences of my life. I’m grateful for what I learned about myself and my body. My understanding of how my thought patterns can influence my well being is still deepening. I see how my negativity is insidious and subtle sneaking into my thoughts and causing all levels of discontent and unhappiness. I have also come to realize that my thoughts are not who I am, but simply old thought patterns resulting from years of conditioning. I can choose, instead, to focus on the present moment. Finally one of the most important lessons I have learned from my fight for survival, is the dynamic power of gratitude. Magic happens when I remember to give thanks for all of the miracles in my life.