F I R S T P E R S O N
From: Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Beating Time At Its Own Game
Life Begins With Cancer
The day after my biopsy, my husband and I drove to Las Vegas on a business trip, never thinking about possibilities. We stopped at the state line for a ride on the giant Ferris wheel. We shelled giant prawns for lunch at the Stardust buffet. We slid quarters into a slot machine—the old fashioned kind I like with spinning cherries that will surely triple my money and spill the winnings into a silver trough.
That was not a bad approach at the time. There is no reason to assume the worst, to project abject possibilities that may never come to pass onto the present. Denial is sometimes very useful. On the other hand, it often keeps one from examining one’s own behavior, one’s own motivations. I share this anecdote because it illustrates how thoroughly denial had become entrenched in my life.
I was raised in times that were not easy for women. Most of the barriers I faced were ones that couldn’t be seen nor acknowledged because I didn’t know they were there. They crept up silently on padded feet and, if I sensed them at all, I choose not to turn and face them.
This faculty for denial was intact and very healthy when I was diagnosed with cancer. By 3 p.m. that day, the picture was not so jolly. We had to return home so I could begin autogenous blood donations. The risk of AIDS in the blood supply was still high; my doctor believed that we should have my own blood on hand in case it was needed.
My first reaction was true to pattern. I reassured myself that everything was going to be just fine, that I wasn’t nervous, that cancer was not a terrifying word. Unfortunately, my doctor had not sounded especially positive when he demanded that we set a surgery date in that moment, over the phone.
My husband was also up to the task. “We won’t work today. We’ll just take off, have some fun and drive back tonight.” We were two peas in a pod. We’d both try anything other than just saying, “Gee, I’m scared.”
I almost went along with that plan. Instead, I used the time on the open road to meditate. In that time, I realized—sort of knew at a cellular level —that I had to do more than donate blood to myself and that cancer doesn’t just happen.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe those of us who have it are being punished but I do believe that it follows those of us who haven’t taken care of our own needs. The way we relate to ourselves, more than the way we relate to the world, is a factor in our illness, or for that matter in our health. When I tried to excuse myself out of those thoughts, that was only another indication that I needed to look through the glass in my kaleidoscope one more time—at its fragmentation as well as its beauty—and to make sense of the patterns I saw there.
I began to read. At first I chose books that helped me deal with my fears. My favorite is Love, Medicine and Miracles, by Bernie Siegel, M.D. I also liked some of the practical skills offered by Louise Hayes in her books. I read books on how to deal with grief. Even though most of them explored grief that follows death, the understanding of it and the coming to terms with it are the same whether we are grieving for a lost parent or pet or career or health.
As I began my recovery, I utilized some hatha yoga I had done in my youth and continued with a vitamin regimen (with the permission of my doctor) that I started when I first found little chicken scratches in the skin around my eyes. I used vitamin E oil on my incisions.
“You’re healing so quickly,” my doctor said. “What are you doing?”
“Yoga and snake oil.”
He just shook his head.
The next step was healing my life. At first my family wasn’t crazy about the changes in me. Families are a bit like mobiles—little works of art that are delicately balanced. I read When I Say No I Feel Guilty by Manuel J. Smith, Ph.D., Mother Daughter Revolution by Elizabeth DeBold, Marie Wilson and Idelisse Malavé, and The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, M.D.
Therapy was also a good support system for me during the changes I was making in my life.
With another book, Deepak Chopra’s Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, I was ready for my epiphany. Actually I wasn’t all that taken with the entire book for it seemed he wasn’t saying much I hadn’t already learned, but I did keep reading to the part where he said that those who live until they are fifty in these times may very likely see their hundredth year. Honestly, it was like a sunrise, all pink and aqua, in my brain. To think that I might have another entire lifetime before me—plenty of time to do whatever I wanted, in spite of the fact that I had thrown a very important part of that away by ignoring my call to write, in spite of the fact that I had experienced cancer. I suddenly knew right down to my toes that women in their 50s—and that was me—might have even more time for their second life because they won’t have to spend the first twenty years preparing for adulthood.
That is where the real story of my recovery begins. I sat down and began to write the “Great Utah Novel" I had always wanted to write. Much of what I wrote about is my own story. If my novel were a tapestry, the warp would be real but the woof would be the stuff of imagination—real fiction. For me it was more therapy, but this time in my own ink, not someone else’s. I also know that novel and what I have written since is just the beginning. I know that. In my heart, in my head, in my bones.
I believe that cancer was a lesson. It taught me to live in the moment. It also taught me to be aware of those moments, not to resist them but to nurture what was in each one so I could learn from them, to do that without participating in the patterns of denial I had learned as a child. This process allows me to ignore what I choose to ignore and embrace what I choose to have in my life.
Cancer was the first step of a staircase. It led me to new levels of understanding about nutrition, career, spirituality. I have even written a poem about a beautiful black crow—the image of death—who sits on my shoulder and reminds me that each day is beautiful, each day is to be lived. For me, cancer was a gift. I intend to keep learning from its presence.
Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s novel, This Is The Place, was published by AmErica House
exactly ten years after she was diagnosed with cancer. The book explores intolerance and is still available used at http://www.amazon.com/This-
Personal message from Dawn: Happy Birthday, Jennifer! You came into my life eight years ago today and I am grateful for every single day you are there! I love you more than words will every say, sweetheart.