Taming the Animals

February 17, 2011

Last night I dreamt I was at a swanky party in Prague – no doubt the setting of my dream was heavily influenced by the Gary Shteyngart novel on my bedside table.  And though it seemed like I had walked onto a movie set for the film adaptation of his book, I didn’t meet the pretentious 20-something expats that surely would be cast as extras for his film. Instead, I met two gorgeous, funky African-Americans sporting crazy electric hair and the sweetest faces.

I turned to one of them and asked: “Am I going to be okay?”

“Oh yeah,” he smiled generously, “I know you’re going to be all right.”

I fixed my attention on his friend. “What do you think?”

“Sweetheart, you’re already fine.” He took a deep breath, sucked in his cheeks, and looked me over closely. He nodded his head. “I feel that everything is going to work out. That’s what I feel.” Having said his truth, there was nothing more to talk about. And then my two angels in worn t-shirts and silver bracelets vanished into the party leaving the slight trace of amber and coconut oil behind.

My reactions tumbled one after the next: First, relief. How reassured I was to hear these words! To be pronounced healthy! Second: doubt. The familiar wings of anxiety started to snap open and closed, and the doubting voice inside me said: It’s not true; you will not be okay. Right on the heels of doubt came another response, a new internal voice, which asked myself: Why can’t I believe in myself the way others believe in me?

I woke up to this rhetorical question, wishing for a longer visit with my sweet-smelling angels and the ability to have their trust and faith in myself.

When mom had leukemia she quizzed every doctor with the same question: “Am I going to die?” she asked with her terrified and beautiful brown eyes. The doctors all gave non-committal answers that evaded the depth of her question. As the doctors didn’t satisfy her, she brought her question to my father, my sisters, and me: “Am I going to die?”

I regret that my answer was no better than the doctors’. I told her that we’re all going to die. I told her that nobody knows when we’ll die, so we have to live each day as though it were our last. I told her that I could walk out the door and get hit by a bus. I told her that according to Buddhism, the length of our lives is measured in breaths, and when you use your last one, that’s it. (The tricky thing is we don’t know how many breaths we’ve got.)  “The point is,” I said, “we just don’t know.” My mother wasn’t fooled by this carpe-diem, bumper-sticker kind of talk. She’d raise her eyebrows and purse her lips. It was the face she put on to say, “you’re full of shit,” only she was too polite to use those words.

What I remember most about those agonizing conversations was the look in my mother’s eyes, how her pupils dilated in fear and her eyes could never seem to relax and settle on any one thing. The woman was terrified and furious that life had handed her this terribly unfair card, and though she went through treatments with every last ounce of strength and will in her body it seems to me that she never believed she would make it.

I think Alice must have seen the same look in my eyes at our last appointment when we met on a frigid day in January in upstate New York. My herb/iridology healer held my face in her hands and asked me with all the tenderness of a mother the most simple of questions: “How are you?” I had planned to tell her about my latest Cat scan results later in the session, but I couldn’t hold back the tears.

“I’m really afraid,” I whispered. Alice wiped the tears off my cheeks with the warm pads of her fingertips.

“Tell me what the problem is,” she said, still cradling my face in her warm hands. Her face was inches from my own, which normally makes me feel claustrophobic, but when Alice comes in close it’s like sunshine on a winter’s day and I find myself drawing even closer to her warmth. I don’t know how she does it. But her gaze alone is enough to break up the ice that had frozen my heart for the last two weeks.

My first post-treatment CT scan showed a few tiny nodules in my left lung. The radiologist and my oncologist both agreed that they are most likely benign little normal scars, the weird things that show up only when you look closely. “Or,” my oncologist said casually, “it could be the beginning of something.” I hate that word, that little two-letter word. Or burrowed into my brain and took up camp there, not immediately, but after a day or two the fear began to eat away at my thoughts.

I reverted to bad habits. I jumped online and read everything I could find about lung nodules. I asked friends to ask their doctor-husbands and doctor-fathers about these findings. I stayed up late at night reading pulmonary articles and realized again that the web can never be the crystal ball I hope for. Rather, it’s a murky pond at best; the information I found was incapable of telling me if my lung nodules are just benign “thingies” (please God) or if they are metastases. According to most of my readings, it’s a 50-50 chance, and only a follow-up CT scan in three months will give definite results.

Alice told me she’d take a look in my eye to see what’s what. I sat back on the chair and held the wood paddle over my right eye while she shone a flashlight into my left and peered in with the loop. After a moment, she said: “Ahhhh, I see the lesions.” I tried to breathe. Seconds later she jovially slapped my thigh and announced: “It’s not cancer.” I must have given her a very pathetic look because she slapped my thigh again and said: “Breathe! “Do you hear me?  I don’t see anything that’s growing or that looks dangerous.”

I knew that the end of chemo marked the beginning of a new phase of healing: the scan zone. And I knew that every six months had the very distinct potential to bring with it extreme anxiety over the next scan.  With colorectal cancer, most recurrences happen during the first two years post treatment—some docs start the clock after the last chemo treatment and others start it on the day of curative surgery. I just didn’t expect to have my anxiety peak so soon.

One afternoon about a week after the CT results, I lost it in the shower, water, shampoo, tears all flowing down my face. I beat my hands against the plastic enclosure and sobbed until my tears became growls and I touched on the rage that was underlying the sadness, despair, anxiety, panic. I felt the fire of my fury and it was pure animal, just like pushing Leo out 11 months ago was feral and electrifying. Such energy coursed through me! I felt I could kick the shit out of someone or something much bigger than me. Bring it on! But my deep emotional work would have to resume at another time. In mama reality, I had ten minutes to wash the conditioner out of my hair, get dressed, and fly out the door to Toby’s preschool. Such is the life of my spiritual warriorship these days.

The loop and flashlight on the table for the moment, Alice fixed me with her blue eyes and gave me a stern talking to only the way an 80-year-old great-grandmother can do, with authority, fierce love, and a world of life experience to back her up. “You can’t have any fear,” she said. “You have to make up your mind to be here on this planet, and I know you want to be here to raise those babies, so you have to give away that fear.”

“But how?” I thought to myself. In answer to my silent question, she said: “Just give it to God. Any time the fear comes up, just give it to God.” I nodded, still uncertain how I can just “give away my fear.”

“Shira,” she said, “the mind creates the conditions for the body. And you have to be very careful young lady, do you understand?” I nodded. “Now, let’s take another look…”

Fear. It always comes back to that. During these last 10 months of cancer boot camp, whenever I think I’ve learned a lesson, an even deeper question presents itself to me. How do I tame my mind and eliminate anxiety and fear?

I know it seems too simple, too corny, too New Age or spirituality “lite,” but I tell you that my mind lay down its burden after seeing Alice. With her assurance I could sleep again. I stopped obsessively torturing myself with “it’s metastasis, it’s metastasis not” as though I were 10 years old and plucking flower petals trying to guess if David Fireman liked me – he did; he gave me a Smurfette figurine to seal the deal.

These days I’ve stopped talking about leaving instructions on how to raise the kids after I’m gone. I just keep giving it over to God. I can’t tell you what that means exactly – I’m still trying to figure it out myself.  I can tell you that I’m watching my mind, and when that worm of anxiety starts to burrow into my thoughts, I imagine every little cell in my body glowing with health. And then I remind myself of something my friend Amy told me while we ran along the Charles one day, the maxim that ultimately motivated me to run a marathon: “What the mind believes, the body achieves.” I know that Alice is right, that the mind-body connection is infinitely more complex and powerful than we understand, especially when it comes to healing such individualized diseases like cancer.

Maybe my mother sent me those two spectacular angels in my dreams. After all, the song that got her through cancer was Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” You know, “Don’t worry about a thing, ‘Cause every little thing’s gonna be all right.” Maybe mom’s in good with the Rastafarian spirits.

And while it’s true that I could get hit by a bus and that I don’t know how many breaths I have left in this body and that cancer once grew inside of me, I know that I am here. Right now. Planet Earth.  Healthy. Strong. Taking one deep inhalation after the next.



  1. Beautiful, Shira, just beautiful. I know so well the fear and mind games of which so you eloquently write. And there really is nothing else to do on this side of cancer treatment other than to give those fears and feelings over to Spirit. Although I can’t peer into your eyes the way Alice can, I feel I have had a glimpse of your soul in this post – and, yes, you’re already fine!

  2. hey there my amazing friend,
    i have this strong memory of visiting you early last summer. we were each introducing the new little people that we had brought into to the world and you were sharing with me the team that you were putting together to help you face the challenges ahead and to fight the cancer. surgeon, accupunturist, shaman, herbalist,and then you got to iridologist and to inwardly i think i winced a little deep in my pragmatic, scientific, skeptical, and lets face it slightly conservative soul i thought that was one healer too many. i hope that my internal hesitation never made itself known to you, because putting that aside, i gave you and your choices all my support and my belief that you would be (are) coming to the other side a healthy woman. your writing always has the power to pull me close and give me glimpses of my dear friend. sending much love your way-j

  3. Shira, such beautiful writing. And I cannot believe, again, how much resonated with me. The getting hit by a bus (the thing I always think about, my equivalent of “I’m still here”). The worry. The instructions, here and there, on how to raise the kids. The replacing bad thoughts with visions of glowing, healthy cells. The getting to the bottom of what makes me want to stay here on earth, because I need to tap into that to stay here. And the handing it over to God. That is exactly what helps me to sleep. I can feel your strength and your glowing healthy cells, and I send my love to you in this next phase of your healing journey.

  4. I am re-reading some of your posts. AND, that is the same song I sing so often when I need it. I even tried to get one of my boys to sing it on my iPhone so I could replay it. (He only did a line or two, but hey, works for me.)

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