Saturday, June 27, 2009

When the "if" becomes a "when"

Yesterday, my partner came with me to see Dr. Khoyratty, an oncologist at Minnesota Oncology. It's been about six weeks now since my surgical biopsy and four weeks since I first learned that the cells taken out have started going awry ... a diagnosis of "atypical ductal hyperplasia." I had been struggling through incredible fatigue and with the help and guidance of my acupuncturist have felt like a million bucks in the past four weeks! The fatigue is gone however the weight loss continues despite my efforts to increase calories and intake. Last week I saw my primary doctor who ran more lab tests on me --- testing for liver disease, hepatitis, allergies, etc, etc. In less than a year I have lost 30 lbs, which for someone who was never really overweight to begin with is a lot of weight. I weighed 109 lbs last Friday. When I got on the scale at the oncologist's office yesterday morning, the numbers 107.5 popped up. More weight loss??? Part of me would like to believe it's discrepancy in the scales and that I didn't lose any weight.

Dr. Khoyratty was absolutely wonderful. The staff at Minnesota Oncology was wonderful. Both my partner and I felt like they really cared, and Dr. K's nurse came in first and told us to take as much time as we needed with Dr. Khoyratty. She had a chance to review the pathology report from my surgery. Just as my surgeon had taken the time to explain the process and stages of how normal cells becomes cancer, so did Dr. K. What resonated for both my partner and I was when she said my cells have started changing shape and size and will become cancer, or DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma InSitu) - where the cancer cells are contained with the duct. If not caught at the DCIS stage the cancer cells cross over the lining of the duct and become invasive. My partner asked her to repeat what she said ... is it 100% that they will become cancer? "Yes", she said, "it's a question of when." She also assured us that if cancer is caught in the early stages it is curable.

My partner had also been pushing for an MRI to be done now, and to not wait 6 months after my surgery which is what was recommended by my surgeon. What if they missed abnormal cells? What if they didn't get everything? Six months is a long time to let cancer cells keep multiplying. Dr. Khoyratty concurred (my partner jokes that she didn't need to go to medical school to know that an MRI needed to be done NOW!;-). Dr. Khoyratty would not wait six months. She would have an MRI done now. She also felt abnormality in my left breast, beyond what I thought was simply scar tissue from the surgery. The excessive, unintentional weight loss and abdominal pain was also of concern to her. She recommended a PET/CT scan which is where my entire body will be scanned for cancer. I am leaving for the Philippines next week to bring my mom back to the States so she can see doctors here. Her health has been deteriorating. I am scheduled for a breast MRI next Wednesday before I leave, and after I return from the Philippines will go in for the PET/CT scan. My partner and I meet with Dr. Khoyratty again on July 17th to go over the results of the MRI and PET/CT scan.

It became clear to me yesterday, that it's no longer a question of if I am going to get cancer, it's a question of when. These upcoming tests will also tell me if the "when" is now. In the past week I have learned from my mom of a close family friend dying of cancer. I also found out my childhood bestfriend's younger sister also died of cancer at the age of 42 years. I will see my childhood bestfriend when I return home to the Philippines next week.

The hard part of all of this, is the cognitive dissonance I am experiencing.... I feel absolutely great. My energy level is back to normal, my life couldn't be better, i feel strong physically, and I have made a conscious effort to bring balance back into my life and not "sweating the small stuff." I have also come to realize (through stories of others) ... that feeling good/looking great does not mean that one does not have cancer. Cancer truly is the "silent killer." Today though I choose to focus on the positive. I am doing everything I can and there are some things simply out of my control. Whatever the outcome of these tests are .... I will be okay. Regardless of when I hear the words "you have cancer", I am blessed to have been given the gift of the wake up call.

The time to live, the time to really appreciate life and your loved ones, for ALL of us, is NOW, not tomorrow. All we have is today, and it's up to us how we choose to live our lives.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wisdom of Animals

Before I became so involved with Pet Haven and animal rescue I used to volunteer with Earthwatch and would volunteer and go on expeditions with research teams studying marine life. My expeditions included: capturing data on dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida; living on a restored Norwegian fishing vessel for two weeks studying dolphins off the coast of Spain; scuba diving in Barbados and capturing data on damsel fish of Barbados. While in Barbados I also had the opportunity to learn more about sea turtles. For a long time I have had a fascination with dolphins and turtles. As I look around my room I see dolphin decorations and souvenirs from around the world; i also see wood turtles, marble turtles, glass turtles .. even turtle stuffed animals; i see turtles in resting pose and ready to hatch and break from their egg. When I walked barefoot along the beach in Barbados one early morning, listening to the waves rushing along the shores, I would imagine the dolphins and I would ponder and pause in the awe at how baby sea turtles after they have hatched would instinctively follow the light of the moon, and swim into the ocean.

The dolphin is the symbol of breath of life, love, balance and community. I found the following from the Shamanic Journey website : "Dolphins are connected with the power of breath and with emotional release, which are also both deeply connected .. breathing is conversing with the outside world. When people feel that the outside world is a source of pain, they learn, very frequently at a young age, to constrict their breathing ... When we learn to breathe deeply we can learn to feel deeply, in turn letting go of stifled feelings."

In recent weeks, I have found myself thinking more about turtles again and my acupuncturist has mentioned turtles to me on several occasions -- a metaphor for how I am shedding protective layers that I have built as a result of painful experiences as a child. I am not unique. All of us find ways to cope and survive. For me, I put more and more layers on to protect myself from pain, hurt and emotions I never learned how to manage as a kid. It's time now to shed those layers. It's time now to let go of all that has held me back, and, like a baby sea turtle, simply follow the light and head towards the ocean. And once i'm in the water, to follow the wisdom inherent in the dolphins, which according to the Shamanic Journey site is "Knowledge of the sea, change, harmony, wisdom, balance, communication skills, freedom, trust, understanding the power of rhythm in your life, use of breath to release intense emotions, water element magic, unselfishness. Dolphin reminds us to get out, play and most importantly, to breathe."

It's amazing how the wake up call of precancer cells has been such a tremendous gift to me. There is wisdom all around us. Life's lessons are all around us ... from our four-legged furry friends, to the sea turtles and dolphins in the ocean. We just need to slow down enough to notice, and for me, to shed protective layers and not only walk up to the edge of the ocean, but dive in!

Here's to living ...
to loving ...
to playing ...


Saturday, June 20, 2009

Honoring Mama -- Remembering Papa

Not long ago I wrote about my father on my blog ... to me he was Papa. This morning, I honor my mother, Mama, and share with you a piece I wrote on 11/2/2005 after leaving a writing class at The Loft:

Friday afternoon, December 20th, 1968. I am in my usual corner of the hospital room. Mama is hovered over Papa. Tubes and IVs are attached to him. I don't think I understand what's happening. How can I? I am only 4. My parents are always supposed to be there. But why was this day, five days before Christmas, at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri different than any of the 90+ days I have just spent hanging out by Papa's hospital bed, playing with my toys in the corner as he slept. It think it must've been every 15 minutes that someone in white came in to wake him up or poke and prod at him. How is anyone ever supposed to get any sleep at a hospital?

I hear "Little Drummer's Boy" playing on the hospital intercom system. The halls are filled with reefs and Christmas decorations. The memory of my dad etched into the beat of the drum. This is supposed to be a joyful time, a time of celebration. Why did I not feel the joy in the room? Why does the air in the room feel so heavy? Has gravity found refuge in Papa's room? I feel the weight of my mother. Papa, a mere 39 years old, prime of his life. Conceding physically to an organism unseen to the human eye, a virus that has taken over his body. The virus are attacking Papa's body and Mama's spirit. The love of her life holding on as best as she can. Mama clinging desperately to a part of herself and true happiness.

"What is that light? Where is that beautiful light coming from?" Papa quietly says to Mama. Fear fills Mama's heart. "No God. No, you can't take him away from me!" She knows in her heart he is slipping away. He is slipping away as the rosary clasped in his hand falls to the floor. The cross remains in his palm. The rosary beads lay on the floor. Mama tells me now she knew that was God's way of telling her the "chain of life" was broken. Mama shuts all the blinds in the room and shivers as she says, "what light? there is no light." Desperate to hang onto his words of "i'm not ready to leave you and the kids." Desperate to believe that the love of her life is not going to leave her.

He slipped away that Friday afternoon - 3 pm, December 20th, 1968. So did my mother. Her spirit could not remain here. Her body did, but Papa took her heart with him unknowingly. He has been our bridge for 37 years. Some days we will both take that leap and open our hearts, and let grief pour out, and when it's all out, I wonder what we will make room for in our hearts?

In recent months, there has been healing taking place. My mother who is now in the Philippines and never calls, called me last night. She is getting weak. She misses me, she says and she wants to come back to the United States so she can die here close to her kids. Papa has been the bridge connecting the two of us for so long. I am learning the only way I can heal is to open up my heart and speak the truth. Mama and I have both learned to protect ourselves from getting hurt. We have fought desperately to not feel the pain -- for her, the pain of losing the love of her life; for me, the pain of losing my father, and at the same time, my mother. As I approach 45 years of age, I am finding my way back to myself, and Mama and I, are learning that we no longer need Papa to be the bridge that connects us.

I will be heading to the Philippines soon to bring my mother back to the U.S. I can tell she is preparing for the end. She tells me "I am ready to be with your Papa." I have witnessed a love that transcends anything I can describe ... today, 41 years later, my mother still speaks of my father and lights up. I love to see the twinkle in her eye. She talks about him today in the present tense. She carries his photo with her and her bedroom is like a shrine honoring my father. I have ached for my mother's love. Together, we are daring to shed our protective layers and as she prepares herself to cross the final bridge, I will be there, holding her hand and sending her off to once again be with the love of her life. And when the time comes, I will ask her to save a spot for me.

I love you Mama.
I love you Papa.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nourishing the spirit

My partner and I took a mini-vacation and went to a couple places in Wisconsin: The Creamery in Menomenie, Wisconsin and Canoe Bay, also in Wisconsin. It was a much needed vacation and time away. No laptops, no internet, no cell phones! I was happy to disconnect.
Canoe Bay is a luxury resort that my partner treated me to ... a 2.5 hour drive from the Twin Cities and we were in the middle of nowhere.

We were surrounded by deer. On our walks and on my runs we had numerous encounters with deer. On our last morning there, I came within 4 feet of a deer who was grazing outside of our cottage. I was writing in my journal as I saw the deer from our window. I dropped my pencil, grabbed my camera and spent half an hour observing and taking photos of a deer. There is something magical about being in the presence of a wild creature. As our eyes connected, I could sense the gentleness of the deer. There is a spiritual healing that takes place for me in nature and in the presence of wild beings.

I realized on this trip as my partner and I were talking how my soul is nourished not only by writing but my being out in nature and taking photographs. We both made commitments to take steps and actions to care for ourselves and our relationship and to not move through life on auto-pilot. We biked, hiked (I also ran), watched movies, wrote, lifted weights, took photos, had an incredibly scrumptuous dinner at The Creamery on Sunday night, talked/reconnected .... it's so easy to get sucked into the rat race of life. Since I made a conscious decision to step back from my ever increasing responsibilities and to take care of myself, I have found that my energy level has returned to "normal". I am no longer fatigued. Yes, I changed a lot of things (reduced stress, dietary changes, increasing working out, stepping away from computer work and email, not stressing about everything, acupuncture, yoga, continued meditation/writing .... probably everything has helped. Our life is a web .... the strength of our web is dependent on how much we nurture our mind, body, spirit and heart.

In immersing myself in photography, I find myself in a meditative trance as I stop to notice what is around me and I shift perspective to capture the ever changing essence of a wild creature, a plant, or what many call "weeds."

There is beauty every where if we can slow down enough to notice. There is a lot I don't know .. there is a lot I have yet to learn .... and I welcome and embrace the mystery of life. One thing I do know though ... is life is too precious, too short to let slip through our fingers. I am grateful and I am extremely fortunate to have the life I have ... this morning, I am especially grateful for my family --- my partner, Ahnung, Missy, Mister, Henry.

I encourage you to take time for yourself today. You may be surprised to discover what you learn about yourself if you slow down enough to notice :)

I have posted more photos from our trip on my flickr site.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Home ...

This morning I find myself thinking about home ... my roots. It's an interesting question. When someone asks me "where is home?" I have no consistent answer. Sometimes, it's Thailand, sometimes it's the Philippines, sometimes it's St. Paul, Minnesota (for some time after we migrated to St. Louis, Missouri when I was 16 years old, home became St. Louis, gateway to the west. In my heart though ... home is Bangkok. I was born in the heart of Bangkok city, in what was once a small hospital, Bangkok Nursing Hospital. Now, like Bangkok itself, the entire city has become a thriving metropolis.

Bangkok is called "krung thep" by Thais, and means City of the Angels. Bangkok is also known as the City of Smiles. What I also vividly remember, is how there was a philosophy that permeated amongst the Thai people and my relatives ... mai pen rai is a phrase heard daily. It's the philosophy of life back home, and translates to "it doesn't matter, let it go, bend with the wind, like a bamboo tree." There's a great blog post I found on Mai Pen Rai - A lesson on letting go.I remember the day my mom went in to tell my dad's family that our car has been stolen how my auntie and uncle said "mai pen rai". Nothing ever seemed to stress my father's family. It was such a contrast to my highly emotional, vocal, expressive way of my mother's family. Acceptance and calmness resonated in the Thai Buddhist way of living. Looking back, I think of Thailand and I think of introspection and looking inward for answers and for a sense of peace. Contrast that way with a very Catholic upbringing with my mom and a Filipino way of life where religion and God was our savior.

What's incredible about all of this is that I have discovered just in this past week and a half ... that returning to my roots, returning to the City of Angels and to a way of life instilled in my being and my cells in a land almost 15,000 miles from here ... is what has brought me back to life. I have gotten caught up in the rat race of western society ... my wake up call had to come in 2 major ways: pre-cancer cells and fatigue that completely knocked me off my feet.

So ... where is home? I don't know. It can be anywhere and everywhere ... for me, I'm being drawn to reclaim my roots.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Letting life's energy through

Last week I hit an all time low with my fatigue. I also made a very intentional decision to slow down. My body has been trying to tell me that for a long time, but my mind has resisted. It's amazing how our bodies are constantly trying to communicate with us ... and when we don't listen, at some point our bodies will scream loud enough. I saw my acupuncturist Jill last Wednesday after an absence of a few years. The eastern belief is that disease/illness is caused from a blockage of energy -- qi, the life energy/flow that sustains living beings. The energy in my body was being blocked. I believe the cells in my body were no longer getting the nutrients and energy they needed ... whether or not that's what caused the cells in my breast to go haywire and for me to now be diagnosed with "atypical hyperplasia" -- i don't know. And to be honest, it doesn't really matter to me at this moment. What matters to me is that I am heeding the wake up call of my body and I am slowing down to take care of myself.

Since last Wednesday I have seen my acupuncturist twice, made some dietary changes (granted, Jill tells me I don't have a lot to eliminate from my diet as I have a very healthy diet and lifestyle already -- i don't drink, i don't smoke, I gave up coffee 4 years ago, i'm vegetarian (and have been a vegetarian for over 20 years), no fast food/fried foods, minimal sweets, if any, i meditate and write every morning, i exercise ..). What I did give up is my daily vanilla soy steamer from Starbucks and the jelly on my spelt toast in the morning. No sugar, no soy (i've replaced tofu with beans), no more unsalted saltine crackers (as i'm giving up anything processed). Over the weekend I made a big batch of soup and boiled cabbage, carrots, leeks, lentil beans, broccoli, mushrooms, red peppers, cauliflower and added turmeric, ground black pepper, and garlic. Now ... my partner didn't think it was quite as scrumptuous as I did, but over some organic brown rice ... it has hit the spot for me this week!

In addition, i've continued to workout and have added yoga which has been so healing. Since Monday I've also started taking some chinese herbs. I noticed over the weekend my energy coming back during the day ... i still crashed at 7 pm. For the past few days though I have felt more energy than I have felt in a long time. I can't even begin to tell you how incredible it feels to feel alive again. I feel like the little boy on Marco Island this past December who was full of joy and life as he ran towards the ocean with his Santa hat on Christmas day! I feel very fortunate to have an incredible support network of friends and also healthcare practitioners, both the western practitioners and the eastern practitioners.

I close with a poem from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver " The Old Poets of China":

Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

This week I have journeyed into the mountains, and in the pale mist, I am finding my way home and letting life's energy through ...

Friday, June 5, 2009


I woke up this morning at 4 am to my stomach cramping. The birds were beginning their morning chirp. For some reason this morning, the sound of the birds was like music to my ears. I went to sleep at 7:30 last night .. lately that's when fatigue gets the better of me and I either fall asleep on the couch downstairs telling my partner i'm "just napping". Last night, I decided i'm going to bed -- no intermediate step!

At 4:15 this morning I lit the candles in my meditation/writing room and lit the lavendar incense. My rushing mind kept wandering, and with every breath I brought myself back to the present moment and to the quiet, peaceful room. I could feel the presence of Missy and Mister sleeping soundly on the sage LL Bean bed with Ahnung's name printed on it. Every morning they snuggle up next to each other as I engage in my morning routine of meditation and writing. Ahnung chooses to sleep in the living room, on the red couch.

In the quiet and darkness of the early morning, I felt my father's presence so strongly this morning. I know he's always with me. Today, for some reason, the feeling was overwhelming. I could feel the presence, the light, the love and the comfort of my father ... to me, he is "Papa." Every day I wear around my neck a gold necklace with a diamond heart -- a necklace he gave to my mother when they were dating in the late 1950s. My father, from Thailand ... and my mother, from the Philippines ... somehow their paths took them to the other end of the world to the small town of Bloomington, Indiana to attend Indiana University. My father came to work on his Master's of Optometry, and my mother her Master's in Education. It was there that they met, fell in love, got married and traveled back to the other end of the world to raise a family. Little did my mom know that seven years later she would make the long trek back to the United States, with a 7 yr old, 5 yr old and a 4 yr old, in a desperate attempt to save the love of her life as doctors in Thailand told her "he's dying. There is nothing we can do."

I lost my father when I was 4. At the young age of 39 he was abruptly ripped from our lives. One of my strongest memories of him is of how he used to always carry me and how I always felt safe in his arms. There have been times when I have felt like I missed out on not having a father growing up. Most of the times though I feel grateful -- he has always been with me, in my heart and in my spirit. There are days, like today, when he reminds me that he is right with me by filling every cell in my body with the light and love of his presence.

I was his "baby" ... in August I will be turning 45 and I am proud to say, that I am still his "baby" and he is and will always be "papa" to me.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Terrain of Curiosity and Intention

Over the past couple days I have come to realize I am embarking on a new journey. My health findings have been diagnosed and called "atypical hyperplasia" by conventional medicine and western society. The eastern way and the more alternative way simply says my life is out of balance. Both ways are valid. Both ways are important to listen to.

The bottom line is I have cells in my body that have started to go haywire -- cells that have broken from the norm and the uniform pattern of "normal" cells. Cells that could have a good likelihood of progressing to cancer. One approach focuses on how do I get rid of these cells? Another begs the question: what is causing my cells to go haywire? In the book "Anti cancer: A new way of Life" by Dr. Servan-Schreiber he writes "Cancer lies dormant in all of us. Like all living organisms, our bodies are making defective cells all the time. That's how tumors are born. But our bodies are also equipped with a number of mechanisms that detect and keep such cells in check."

As I was meditating this morning I realized I am blessed. I am blessed to have been given the gift of this "wake up call." I have been running so hard and so fast these past few years, trying to do so much, that I have let my life get out of balance.

It is time to listen to my body. Something is not "right". I have been fighting fatigue for quite some time now. My body and my mind have been fighting because "there's too much to do." I have lost 27 pounds in the past 9 months ... "unexplained weight loss." It's not truly "unexplained" -- simply something I have chosen not to pay attention to, till now. My fatigue has progressively gotten worse. The blessing of my "wake up call" has made me realize I have to slow down. I have to start listening to the wisdom of life's messages being tossed at me ... they begin as gentle messages and continue to escalate until we hear them.

I don't know why my cells have gone awry. I don't know why I've been so fatigued and why i've lost so much weight. Today ... I'm choosing to view this as a new and exciting journey. I'm choosing to embrace both the eastern and western ways. I have learned -- there is no one way. There are many ways and many paths.

With curiosity I will explore a new terrain and I will nurture and embrace health -- health of mind, body, spirit and heart. After years away I returned to see my acupuncturist yesterday. I recommit to complete and total health by paying attention to what I surround myself with and what I allow to enter into my body (nutritionally) and my mind and spirit. I commit to opening my heart and stepping into an exciting new terrain, with curiosity and purposeful intention and attention.

I am grateful for the gift of the wake up call.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Live in the layers ...

I have found comfort and healing in words .... words I read, and words I write. Today, I found a poem that speaks to me and where I am at with my life's journey and current struggles. I find comfort in surrendering, and in the following words from Stanley Kunitz's poem, "live in the layers." The compactness of poems, the many possible interpretations, and images and layers present are what speak to me.

The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
where I need to go
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

We cannot alter our past. We cannot alter our experiences. We cannot alter what life doles out to us. What we can alter, is how we choose to interpret our experiences. We can sweep the painful/challenging experiences under the rug, or we can embrace them choosing to believe there is some transformation in the works ... life is a journey and adventure of landings and take offs.