Saturday, October 31, 2009

The arrival of fall - transformation

I've struggled this past week not knowing what to share, what not to share, publicly, on my blog. In some ways, it seems like health struggles should be my own personal struggle - one I only share with my partner and my healthcare practitioners. In a week will be Pet Haven's largest fundraiser, our third annual Fall Benefit. Part of me says, I don't have time to get sick -- not now. For a month my body essentially stopped digesting food ... symptoms that led me to see a gastroenterologist this past week. For almost two weeks it seemed like my digestive system was getting back on track, till yesterday afternoon - much to my dismay the symptoms returned. I'm scheduled for an endoscopy on the 9th. The recurrence of previous symptoms may change the course I head down. One thing my acupuncturist and my gastroenterologist agree on is that there's malabsorption going on. The question now is ... is it my pancreas? My doctor didn't feel the need to head down that path as the digestive symptoms had subsided by the time I saw him this past Wednesday. I had a two week reprieve. The symptoms are back ... this time how long will they last? Weight loss, inability to digest fat, fatigue ... the combination of these symptoms are concerning to me; they're concerning to my acupuncturist; to my primary doctor who feels "we are missing something"; and to the gastroenterologist. Add to all of this, the lump in my breast is continuing to grow. My surgeon has squeezed me into her calendar for Wednesday. She recommends I go ahead and make an appt to see an oncologist so she can work collaboratively with the oncologist. I called the oncologist my dear friend Elaine saw as she battled cancer so bravely until the very end. All my records and files are being sent to Dr. Murphy so she can review them and on Monday I call to set up a time to meet with her. After meeting with my surgeon on Wednesday I know that my partner and I will be faced with more decisions.  I suspect there will be more tests and eventually surgery again. I am scheduled to leave for the Philippines with my sister on November 18th so I can go home to visit my mom. Her health is not the best and I want to visit her. My hope is that my own health won't deter me from making the long journey home.

I stepped outside this week to take photos of the beautiful fall leaves. And to capture a squirrel scurrying to the top of a tree. As I took a deep breath I could feel the transformation, the changing of the seasons. Transformation happens every day, every moment -- around us and within us. At a cellular level, I can feel my cells changing. My body is trying desperately to tell me something.

At a cellular level I am connected to my father and my mother. My mother had breast and colon cancer. She's a survivor. My father ... at the young age of 39 started to lose weight. My mom tried to convince him to go to the doctor. He kept saying "honey, i'm fine." My mom says "your Papa was losing weight but he kept telling me he was fine. One day i noticed he was turning yellow and told him he was going to the doctor whether he wanted to or not." It was 1968. She took him to the doctor in Thailand. Liver disease. It was too late. We traveled to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri in hopes the doctors here could save him. After two months, we lost him.

I know that my father would've gone to the doctor sooner if he knew how sick he was. I believe he would've done things differently. I hear his voice when I find myself saying to my partner, "I feel fine." Unintentional weight loss (over 30 pounds) is not "normal" ... and with my body not knowing how to digest fat .... and a lump in my breast growing with a vengeance -- i know there's something going on. It's tough though, because for the most part, I really do feel fine.

I can't imagine how my mom felt when she heard the words come out of the doctor's  mouth, "your husband is dying." She told me this past June when I was in the Philippines, "if only I made your Papa go to the doctor sooner...."

Dear body: I am listening. Please know that I am listening.
Dear Mama and Papa: I feel you in my spirit and I will take steps to take care of myself.
Dear Mary: I promise to be proactive in taking care of my health so we can have a lifetime more of summers at the lake house and beach time frolicking on Marco Island in the winters.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ebbs and flows

Back in May as I met with my surgeon after the excisional surgery to remove the lump in my left breast I was confronted with the realization that cells in my body had started going awry. Normal cells are consistent - uniform. Cancer cells are random -- they are the rule breakers; they would be running red lights and driving on the wrong side of the streets. At the end of May, I was told my cells had started some random patterns ... "atypical" cells is what they call it. The official diagnosis in my files: "atypical ductal hyperplasia ... atypia and her family history put her at an elevated risk." Options given at that time were "surveillance", hormone therapy or double mastectomy. I chose surveillance.

In mid-May they removed a 3.5 cm lump. In January, 2009 it was barely noticeable ... my surgeon was the one who noticed it. I pretended i knew what the heck she was talking about but I couldn't feel it. Then months later after the death of our dear friend Elaine to breast cancer I was prompted to check ... wow! i could now feel it and it had grown! A week later I was in surgery ... despite all the tests (mammograms and MRIs) saying there was nothing, my surgeon insisted we remove the lump and have it biopsied. For that I am grateful.

Now, 5 months later, here I sit again with a new lump that has grown in the same spot. Over the past few weeks there is noticeable growth. Having to deal with digestive challenges i've had lately, I try to ignore that the lump is back. And it seems to be back with a vengeance. Yesterday, at the strong nudging by my partner, I call my surgeon and talk to her nurse. I know i'm not scheduled to go back till January for another MRI. There's a lump, i tell her nurse, and it feels like the one I had back in May. "yes, it's growing.... best guess, it's about 3.5 cm."

I find an article on the Breast Cancer Research site. A diagnosis of ADH (atypical ductal hyperplasia) indicates an increased risk of invasive breast carcinoma ... 4 to 5 times that of the general population ... the risk is great for premenopausal women (approaching sixfold). The risk is further increased if the patient has a first-degree relative with breast cancer (10-fold risk). My surgeon told me in May I am at high risk. I have all the factors that put me at high risk. Back in May my surgeon assures me she removed the entire lump. I had hope I would be one of the lucky few and the growth would not come back.

There's no denying it now though ... the growth is back. I had a few worry free months from my health. I am grateful for a few months of calm water. Next Wednesday I see the gastroenterologist to deal with digestive issues and the unexplained weight loss. I also wait for a call back from my doctor/surgeon to see what my next steps are regarding the growth/lump.

Life is full of ebbs and flows. Like an ocean, life comes with high tides, low tides, raging waters, calm waters .... what's on the surface can scare us. Yet below the ocean's surface, in what is known as the twilight zone (more than 600 feet below the ocean's surface), while storms may be raging above, there is a stillness, a darkness .... having once been an avid scuba diver, I imagine myself resting in this stillness. It's a zone too deep to receive sunlight. It's a zone where animals have learned to adapt - some even make their own light with special organs in their bodies called photophores. I imagine myself absorbing the wisdom of the animals, and like these animals who have learned to create their own light, I create my light with hope. For now, I choose to rest in the twilight zone. Hope is my regulator. Hope is my oxygen. Hope is my buoyancy compensator - my life jacket. Hope is what will enable me to surface up into the sunlight zone and to weather the storm.

We all find our calm, our peace in different places. For me, the ocean and animals, are what pull me through the raging storms of life. They will see me through this next phase .... they always have and they always will.

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops - at all -
- Emily Dickinson

Friday, October 16, 2009


This past summer was filled with a high level of anxiety as I searched to find answers to health challenges ... unexplained weight loss (30+ pounds in less than a year), a lump in my breast (which was then removed and I was diagnosed with atypical ductal hyperplasia, the precursor to breast cancer ... or at least, a strong likelihood of it progressing to cancer) .... fatigue (which after seeing my acupuncturist -- a combination of acupuncture and nutritional changes helped with my fatigue). By the end of July, my weight loss stopped for which I was grateful. Next step is to wait till January for a followup MRI as I have chosen the "surveillance" route to deal with my high risk of breast cancer. The western approach of medicine, "catch the cancer early enough." Meanwhile I have continued to care of my body through rest, exercise, healthy nutrition.

In mid-September while in New York for a business trip a new "issue" came up ... a digestive problem I had never experienced before. I said to myself, "it will pass". One month later the problems continued and i kept telling myself "it will pass". As I search the internet to see if others are experiencing similar symptoms I learn that i'm not the only one. I learn that my body has stopped digesting food in some sense ... moving through my system too fast and not knowing or having the proper enzymes to digest food or fat. A few days ago I decide that maybe the saying "this too shall pass" may not work in this case. I contact my primary care physician who tells me I need to see a gastroenterologist. I have an appointment to see Dr. Mackie of Minnesota Gastroenterology on the 28th. The symptoms I am having in combination with the significant unexplained weight that transpired over the past year is of concern to my doctor. It's also of concern to my acupuncturist. I also have realized there is a lump in my breast that is growing again. Maybe it's nothing to worry about. Maybe it is. I am hopeful that my acupuncturist will be able to help me move through this rough terrain as she did over the summer.

This is also a very busy time for me in my volunteer work with Pet Haven -- we are approaching our largest fundraiser of the year, our Fall Benefit. Part of me says, I can't get sick. I don't have time right now to get sick or to have any surgery. This morning I realized ... there is a certain amount under my control; there's a larger part of my life and where i'm going that is not within my control. The truth is I don't what tomorrow holds for me. I don't know where my path will lead me. As I balance the need to be planful and purposeful in the work i'm doing on behalf of homeless animals, I realize I need to allow my body and my spirit the space and time to heal. My body, again, is trying to tell me something.

I have been learning about reading calming signals of dogs. They are always trying to communicate with us. Often we don't listen or understand the signals or squelch our dog's efforts to communicate. Our bodies are constantly communicating with us. For me, my barometer is my digestive system. I feel things in my gut; i hold things in my gut. My barometer is screaming at me now to listen. Interesting isn't it, how we tend to squelch our own signals, our own body's cries for help. If I were a dog, i'd be curling my lip.

If I were a dog, it's as if a trainer has said to me "watch me".

'I hear you. I see you. You have my attention.'

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ahnung - helping kids find their way

This past weekend I attended a workshop offered by MN LINC (Minnesota Linking Individuals Nature and Critters) titled "Kids and Dogs: Canine Facilitated Mental Health Protocols for At-Risk Youth". I believe my path led me to this workshop. Coincidences. I guess i'm not a believer in coincidences. I believe everything in our lives happen for a reason -- we just may not know it at the time.

My partner runs a program of St. Paul Public Schools called The Lab which is an arts and wellness-based program serving at-risk youth grades 7 through 12. Last year I began volunteering at The Lab along with our dog Ahnung (Ah-NUNG)..... I believe Ahnung found me. I met her for the first time in October, 2008 on a trip up north to Red Lake Rosie's Rescue: an animal rescue on the Red Lake Reservation in northwestern Minnesota where the founder's vision is "to change the way we relate to and treat companion animals throughout the Red Lake Nation."On that trip I met Ahnung for the first time ... recently abandoned/dumped along with her litter of eight. Ahnung, who now has a blog of her own, shared the video below on her first blog entry. Her story is one that has been shared with the youth at The Lab; her story is what touches their hearts, and mine; her story is what "R" (a kid Ahnung developed a relationship with over the year as they both learned to open and trust more) said to me is what's most important when we visit classrooms.

Through Ahnung I found healing in a profound way -- for myself and the kids. I witnessed healing in kids whose lives carried parallels of the dogs we rescued. There is something incredibly powerful and healing in the bond and connection between animals and humans.... multiply that ten fold in working with at-risk youth.

This past weekend, at the nudging and encouragement of my partner, I signed up for the Kids and Dogs workshop through MN LINC: Friday night and all day Saturday and Sunday! The class was taught by Tanya Welsch and Molly DePrekel, co-founders of MN LINC who did a phenomenal job in facilitating the workshop and balancing content and theory with experiential learning. The Kids and Dogs program was designed to link youth who are experiencing behavioral or emotional difficulties with animal shelter dogs. I left the workshop with so many new tools (12 week lesson plans, the opportunity to learn about TTouch (Tellington Touch), calming signals, positive reinforcement training/clicker training, and group facilitation skills) ... I also left with new connections and my head spinning with ideas and possibilities on how to bring this important work out to the general public.

Ahnung and I are committed to continuing this work. We are volunteering again this year at The Lab. She recently passed her Canine Good Citizen test (I can't take much credit for it, as she's a natural ;-) We are continuing our work in obedience and will also be taking the therapy dog class and working towards getting registered as a therapy dog through Delta Society. One of the things I absolutely loved about the training this past weekend is how Tanya and Molly both emphasized the importance of tuning into your dog.

Many of us go through life as if it's a 100 meter dash .... we race to the finish line, and when we get there, take off again -- and before we know it, we don't know even know anymore why we are running. Dogs are trying to communicate with us. We need to learn how to communicate with them. In turn, we will learn more about ourselves and listening to our own bodies, our own cues......

Ahnung means "star" in ojibway. She is my north star. She is the bright light I hold onto in darkness.

With Ahnung as my partner ... we hope to help kids who have lost their way, find their star and find their way back, to a place they can call home and a place that feels safe.