Mindfulness in Alcohol and Cancer Recovery

Emma, Grace, and I up at The Fly along the Mississippi River in New Orleans

I got some good news from my oncologist this week – the decision on beginning chemotherapy treatments will be put off till after the first of the year.  The reasons for the decision is that I remain largely asymptomatic, still not able to determine the primary source of the cancer, the relative density of the cancer in my bones, all balanced against my goals for life and treatment.  In terms of life goals, I want to continue engaging with my family and friends, ride my bike, work in the garden, and write.  I discussed with the oncologist when I got to the point I could no longer get out of bed in the morning and sit on the back porch, it was time to stop treatment.

I will have another round of scans after the first of the year to determine any changes in the cancer.  In the interim, my oncologist noted my need to vigilant for any sudden physical changes or new pains that might indicate further bone deterioration/fractures and emphatically reminded me that I have a Stage 4 cancer.  I will continue my routine of monthly bone hardening injections.

I came out of the office renewed and elated.  I realized when one has a total prognosis of 2-3 years of life, a three-month reprieve is a substantive chunk of that time.  When writing in my morning pages the next day I reflected on my general increased “attitude of gratitude” since receiving my first cancer diagnosis, but also something new.

The one-day-at-a-time perspective that I have lived in my sobriety over the years continues to take on new and profound meaning today.  I was certainly not looking forward to beginning chemotherapy, which I thought would be the outcome of my Wednesday oncology appointment.  Instead, after discussing the evidence from medical tests and my life goals, another  plan was set.  I have at least a 10-week reprieve from the chemo and those impacts on my day-to-day existence.  I wrote in my morning pages about how I don’t want to be sitting here after the first of the year under the influence of chemo, wishing I had done x, y, and z in the previous couple of months.

I thought how this is not a matter of a hyper activity, running a race to get things done.  Rather, I reflected more on the lessons from a current book study I am in (Right Here, Right Now: The Practice of Christian Mindfulness by Amy Oden).  I need only commit to being mindful of how I spend the rest of 2017.  If that means nothing more than a regular walking schedule with Emma (wife) and Grace (dog), that is good.  If it means sitting on the back porch and focusing on how green the vegetation is, that is good.  If it means, completing another journal article on our Peru work, that is good too.  And so forth.

I am interested only in being able to look back on any given day and thinking “I really enjoyed sitting on the back porch, hacking through more of our backyard jungle, watching the sun go down up at the fly, or working on the article” and not “Where did those 24 hours go?”

In this way, the one-day-at-a-time perspective I learned in Alcoholics Anonymous is the basis for my cancer therapy today!

Waking up Sober, Waking up with Cancer

Our rescue dog Grace when we first got her and today

Years ago when I first got sober, after a couple of weeks in detox, on waking up in the morning, I was filled with energy.  The same is not true today with cancer diagnosis.  I certainly don’t bounce out of bed and am now more apt to roll over for another fifteen or thirty minutes to doze.

When I first got sober, upon waking I would immediately read the daily devotionals at my bedside and perhaps an article out of the Grapevine magazine, just to get my head in a good space for the day ahead.  Today, I have a different routine but with the similar results:

  • The very first thing I do after, brushing my teeth, taking my morning meds, starting a pot of coffee and feeding the Grace is to write morning pages – a sort of stream of consciousness narrative meant to clear my head and get me rolling into the day.  I notice particularly of late the pages are more uplifting and affirming and focus on the goodness of life and the day ahead – less complaining and more gratitude.
  • I next respond to a question in my Overeaters Anonymous 12-Step Workbook.  I am now on Step 11.  This morning’s question was “In what ways does God speak to me?”  This is another activity that leads me in a solution-driven recovery direction.  As I only have about 3 weeks left of questions in what has been a six-month exercise, I am not certain what I will replace this activity with when I finish Step 12.
  • I then write a note to someone as described in an earlier post.
  • Next, I get a cup of coffee, take my laptop, and along with Grace, move my operation to the back porch where I post three things for which I am grateful to an OA Facebook group.
  • I am then mindful and prayerful and ask for the guidance on a path toward true self in the day ahead.

Then the rest of life begins.  There is a continuity in my waking up activities from the early days of sobriety to today – though the tools have changed over the time and I am certain will continue to change in the future.  I enjoy that every day, I start off by reminding myself that I am an addict walking a recovery road.  I am not certain where each of my current morning “rituals” developed, but I am incredibly grateful that they have been with me over the years, morphing to meet new circumstances and needs, but always there.  To me, this is just another example of how my past years in addiction recovery has prepared me to face my new life with cancer.

Today, although I do not jump out of bed with the same enthusiasm or as early as I did even just five years ago, I am grateful that ultimately, I am able to start my day with the same drive toward living into a solution on our never-ending path toward true self.

Dealing with Surrender and Denial, Again

I find the words I have the most difficulty speaking – that cause me to choke – are when I talk to the oncology folks about what I have been doing medical-wise – supplements I have been taking, things I have read, trying to get answers for my back pain and other medical issues, related to my cancer diagnosis.  I think this difficulty comes in part from my academic training where I was taught to read another book or run another test to come up with a better answer.  And though there is some truth in that approach, there are limits.  I learned in Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous that I was “powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable.”  The same holds true for my cancer.  In the same way there is no magic bullet to allow me to consume alcohol as a “normal” person, I have some cancer cells with a mind and power of their own.  So modern science has done wonders with cancer treatment, but limits remain.  I am learning to accept those limits.

I have wanted to believe that my back and neck pain all result from my bike wreck this past May.  I wanted to believe when my fractured clavicle was treated the pain would go away.  So I am now having physical therapy and after a couple of sessions my therapist casually noted that a good bit of the pain is likely attributable to the cancer in my bones.  Again, that lump in the throat as all of my rationalizations and denials are shot down.  After all, even before the cancer diagnosis, I was diagnosed with osteopenia a step away from osteoporosis.  My back and neck issues are not all the fault of the frat-boy who lost control of his skateboard causing me the worst bike wreck in my 65 years of living.

I know that in the same way an “attitude of gratitude” is instrumental to my continual recovery process from addiction, the same attitude will help me prevail with cancer.  In these early stages, I find it is less about the amount of time I will live but what I will do with that time, beginning today.  Cancer notwithstanding, none of us are getting out of this game alive.  I was bike riding and thought about how much I really enjoy that activity.  I cut back more of the jungle in our back yard for fall crops and planted beets in one of our raised beds.  In terms of physical activity, gardening is second only to biking as my favorite.

My oncologist has not “operationalized the variable” of what it means that I have “at least 2-3 years of a quality life” remaining.  And with the inability to find out where the cancer is even coming from, and my denial, I prefer not to ask.  But I have to assume that even with continued physical therapy, the cancer in my bones will cause more pain.  I know too, even without a cancer diagnosis, someday before I die I likely will not be able to ride my bike or plant beets in the garden.    The one-day-at-a-time approach to life that I have learned in sobriety over the years certainly suits me very well today.

Starting a New Recovery in Sobriety

Thanks to Jackie Stern for the beautiful bouquet!

After a couple of months of tests, innumerable blood samples, today I began treatment for my recently diagnosed cancer.  I find many parallels to when I committed myself to a detox center for alcoholism in 1984.  Perhaps the greatest similarity is the hope of moving into a recovery process.  I remember being in detox with a copy of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, the only entertainment in those first couple of days.  I skipped the early sections and went straight to the chapter A Vision for You. I distinctly remember a line in that chapter about how AA’s goal was to make addicts functioning members of society.  Although my brain was fogged by the anticonvulsant dilantin all new patients received, I remember reading that line over and over and realizing that was the recovery I sought.

This morning I sat in the Infusion Center at Touro Infirmary here in New Orleans. I received my first injection of Xgeva to help prevent spinal compression fractures and to harden and slow the deterioration of my bones.   This will become a monthly process, complete with a blood sample two days before to decide if my calcium level is suitable to receive the injection.

The visit included much intake information about everything from my physical condition to mental state and did I have thoughts of suicide.  The latter discussion caused a well of emotion in me as I reflected how my suicidal tendencies and half-hearted attempts early in life had not surfaced in over 30 years of sobriety.  I explained to the oncology RN the liberation I found in sobriety.  She asked about my support network and contrary to my relative isolation in my 1984 detox, I smiled and simply noted that I could not ask for a better support network than I have today.  I am truly embraced and lifted up by so many.

After setting more follow-up appointments with a nutritionist and my oncologist to decide the treatments that will likely include rounds of chemotherapy, I rode to my physical therapy appointment at the Touro Rehabilitation Center on St. Charles Ave. (As an aside, I was pleased they actually have bike racks where I can lock my ride.)

At the rehab center, I tell my story again to my new physical therapist and fill out more forms.  And once again, I draw on my AA recovery experience to express the goals that I  want to set.  I note that in my alcohol recovery, I always tried to stay somewhere in a safe middle ground.  I was not someone who tempted fate by hanging out in bars, nor was I someone whose life never got beyond the walls of an AA meeting room.  In the same way now I wanted to maximize physical recovery stemming from my bike wreck this past spring, recognizing that I am 65 years old with a cancer diagnosis but I do not intend to sit at home afraid to move.  The therapist got that and went to work.

As in the detox center of 1984 where an attitude of gratitude was infectious among all the staff, so to the cancer recovery team at Touro are truly incredible.  They are knowledgable, kind, efficient, and just a bunch of really pleasant folks who already laugh at my very bad jokes and sense of humor.  And we will all be seeing a lot of each other in the coming months – it seems I will have some sort of medical appointment at least three times per week for the coming period.

And like there was the initial euphoria that came with being sober, followed by living life on life’s terms one-day-at-a-time upon release, so too, I have to assume that chemotherapy, and living with cancer will bring challenges I can not yet appreciate.  But as I have written before, my past 30 years of recovery from alcoholism has been the perfect training ground for what is to come.  I am truly blessed and at peace.

Still Having an Attitude of Gratitude

I typically end my share in 12-Step meetings with something like “I have no problems or complaints today that are not of my own making.”  I have tried to live my recovery with a glass is half-full approach and have generally been successful.  I am grateful that this attitude has continued with my cancer diagnosis.  I discussed that my initial thinking with the diagnosis was that my last 30 years would not have been possible were it not for recovery.  That thought prevails today.  Had I not checked into a detox unit on August 4, 1984, I doubt that I would be alive today, 33 years later, to receive the cancer diagnosis – nor would I have experienced my wonderful life for the past three decades.

This past Sunday I walked to church for the first time since my bike wreck last May.  I was grateful and look forward to returning to my Sunday morning strolls in the weeks ahead.  Here is a short video I made about all that.

I got good news from my oncologist this week.  My “quality life” is upped to 2-3 years and possibly longer from the original 3-6 months.  Also, this coming Thursday I will begin physical rehab on my fractured clavicle that has been a source of pain since my May bike wreck.

I am grateful to continue mentoring students and young professionals in my field – in fact, logistically, these are activities that will be ideal in the coming months when my mobility and ability to travel will likely be restricted.  The same is true for my work with Peruvian cultural heritage projects.

In a book study I am doing one of the prompts was to provide five responses to “If I had more time I would . . . ” I have thought long and hard about this challenge.  The only thing I can come up with is that I always wanted to ride my bicycle from Lake Itasca in Minnesota down the Great River Road to New Orleans.  Even before the cancer diagnosis, I began to question if I was physically up for it and willing to commit the six-weeks or so the ride might take.  But I realize even now, if I want to do the ride bad enough, I can.

As I noted in the first post about cancer, were it not for my three decades of 12-step recovery, principally through Alcoholics Anonymous, I would be considerably less prepared for the future.  I emphatically maintain that CANCER SUCKS, but I remain grateful for my many communities of support that provide me with the experience, strength, and hope for an attitude of gratitude today.

Community and Recovery

In recovery from alcoholism, I learned early on I could not do it alone.  I bowled on a recovery league at a local alley every Saturday night for my first six months of sobriety.  I attended the recommended “90 AA meetings in 90 days” when released from the 30-day detox unit where I got sober.  Over the last three decades, although the circumstances and settings have changed, every day I am mindful that I am a part of a 12-Step recovery community, along with supporters, friends, and family.

Today, I find the early days of my cancer diagnosis to be very much the same.  Nearly one year ago I formally joined Rayne Memorial Methodist Church.  At about the same time I began attending weekly meetings of the School for Contemplative Living.  Two weeks ago with a handful of friends we began a 12-week study of the book It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again by Julia Cameron.  One of these friends commented on the significance of my joining in with these three groups/organizations over the past year, then receiving my cancer diagnosis, and now supported by and being in community with these new friends/pilgrims on these roads together.  I could not agree more.

In the same way the meetings and activities in my early days of sobriety were less about drinking and more about living life, while today my friends ask for my health updates, our community is more about living in our own God’s World.  I am blessed by a spouse and inherited family over the past twenty years, combined with my birth family, and that new community of friends to share life today.

Alcoholism is often called a disease of isolation.  I am incredibly blessed to have years of sobriety to unlearn that isolation and to build relationships and be in community.  Community in my living with cancer has already shown its value.  I am grateful to in this web of interconnectivity, putting one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, not just in disease recovery, whether cancer or addiction, but in a celebration of living into our true selves as our Gods intended for us.

This week I get some final testing done (PET scan and MRI) with a treatment plan soon to follow.

As I noted in my last post, were it not for the 12-Steps of Recovery, if I were even alive, today I would be drunk and cursing my misfortune.  Instead, today I have choices – next on the list being a review of the book I just bought The Louisiana Urban Gardener, in preparation for the fall sale at the New Orleans Herb Society’s in two short weeks!

Cancer and Recovery

I have a reasonably advanced stage of cancer.  I had mixed feelings about whether I would raise the issue on this blog.  I don’t want folks to feel sorry for me, psychoanalyze my attitudes, consider my writings as some self-promotion, or speak of my courage.  Fifteen years ago I gave an AA lead at a church on Recovery Sunday.  I was amazed at the number of folks who came up to me afterward and said they admired me for having the courage to tell so much about myself.  I thought about the deep dark secrets these folks must carry that could be relieved through a 4th and 5th step process.  There really is not much courage involved in my being an open book – it is what has kept me sober for over 30 years.  I don’t really have anything to hide.

But more importantly, I thought about the AA mandate to share our experience, strength, and hope.  There is not much about my life I have not shared in an AA meeting or on this blog.  And again, that has been a part of my staying sober all these years.  So too,  as the Promises state, our experiences can benefit others.  I have to assume that there are lots of others folks out there in my situation.  So, I want to learn from them and share with them too.

Immediately after my diagnosis all of those AA clichés, lessons, and experiences proved absolutely instrumental to my putting one foot in front of the other.  My immediate response was that I have been on borrowed time for many years.  Had I not gotten sober 30 some years ago, I would be long dead, for sure.  That I have been given these 30 years of sobriety is an incredible gift.

When I was riding my bike a couple of weeks ago, I stopped at a park to sit and read for a bit.  I thought about how much I really enjoy bike riding and sitting in the park and and just relaxing.  I decided I could lament that might come to an end sooner than I would like, or I could enjoy and be more mindful and intentional of the time I can spend in such activities now.

So, after one month of prodding, poking, scans and so much more, I know that I have a good bit of cancer in my bones, that my organs and blood seem clear, and the prognosis is considerably less than certain – from 6 months to many years.  And I certainly don’t want to pretend or in any way imply that I am not reasonably devastated by all of this.  HAVING CANCER SUCKS – and that is before even beginning any of the treatments which as I understand are their own kind of misery.

When my wife and I were talking about this earlier today, I noted that if I were not sober and in recovery, I would not consider our nearly 20 wonderful years together thus far, but only focus on how unfair it all is and how I never got my chance at life, and I would have just gone out and got drunk – my alcoholic m.o. to everything good or bad.

We talked too about how I really don’t have any place else that I want to go or anything else to do that I have not already done in life.  We did discuss cutting a lot of the extraneous things from our lives and focus on a quality of time together in our retirement home here in New Orleans.  As my post-bike wreck walking stamina improves, we will less drive somewhere and sit with the dog, and more take walks.  With the assurance of at least one more southern growing season, today I cleared out the okra and cucumber beds to prepare for the fall crops.  And so forth.

Life truly is a process and not an event – now being in both recovery and having cancer is a part of that process.  Didn’t see that one coming!!