I was terrified, anguished, and grieving.
In December 2009, I was promoted to Director, Patients and Families First & Government Relations for the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses.
In February 2010, I met an extraordinary woman, and plunged into a wonderful romance.
In August 2010, I received my diagnosis and prognosis: very aggressive prostate cancer and a 50/50 chance of surviving 3 to 5 years.
I had a career that I loved.
My sweetheart and I were planning a fantastic present and future.
Cancer shattered all that.
I chose aggressive treatments. I faced continuing bad news with as much courage and optimism as I could summon. All around me were stories of new treatment options coming soon, or other cancer patients who were in remission.
But after surgery, hormone therapy, radiation and months of chemotherapy, my health care team is describing my treatment as palliative–not curative. My cancer has now progressed to several places in my skeleton and my lymphatic system. It is terminal.
How do I balance the need to face my early expiry date, while not allowing despair to engulf what is left of my life?
How then shall I live?
Thankfully, I stumbled upon Dr. Balfour Mount’s work in palliative care. Dr. Mount is a retired cancer surgeon, cancer patient, and Professor Emeritus of Oncology and Palliative Medicine at McGill University.
Here’s what has provided me with so much comfort and peace. (The following merges text and concepts borrowed directly from Dr. Mount, and my translation of these into my own life).
“We are geared toward healing–living, not dying. Healing happens in the present moment, just like love, awe, ecstasy, celebration, and requires leaving behind fears for the future. Diving, not falling. Let go of egoism and defence mechanisms, reach for forgiveness of ourselves and others. That permits us to access the healing connections that provide meaning, hope, and a sense of inner peace.
The basic principle is ‘healing’, not physical healing, but a shift away from suffering and anguish toward an experience of integrity, wholeness and inner peace. The goal of this healing is to enable us to be of greater service to others, and to the global village.”
Dr. Mount noticed that palliative care patients who managed to find some peace while facing their death enjoyed what he described as healing connections. (He contrasts these with wounding connections and relationships.)
He says those healing connections happen at four levels:
- a sense of connection to self
- connection to others
- connection to the world perceived through our senses (as with music, or the grandeur of nature)
- connection to ultimate meaning of life or spirituality, however perceived
When I discovered Dr. Mount’s four levels of healing connection for palliative patients, my immediate thought was, we should all live this way, even if we are perfectly healthy!
It seems to me there is a perfect fit between the concept of the definition of health as not just the absence of illness, but the emotional, physical and mental fitness to live the life we wish to live, no matter how serious our illness or disability, or prognosis may be.
Despite our illness, how do we patients maximize our health, our reach toward life, not death; our reach toward hope, not despair; toward sunshine, not darkness; toward caring, integrity and love, not anger and selfishness?
Here’s how I’ve translated the concept of healing connections into my own care plan.
1. Connection to self.
For me, this means self-awareness and exploration. Reading, writing, learning, discussions. My best reflective time has been exercising, walking, listening to documentary radio broadcasts. Over and over, it has allowed me to climb down off the bridges of despair, fear, conflict.
I am trying to understand and manage fear, anger, blame, anguish and the other basic emotions that dominate our existence. I am reading and writing about basic emotions and trying to implement strategies to help ‘rational me’ lead ‘emotional me’ more of the time.
2. Connectedness to others.
Relationships are everything now. I am nurturing open and direct connections with loved ones, friends, family, and strangers. Casual conversations, minor courtesies or offers of assistance are now leading to new and very rewarding friendships. My circle of friends and ‘positive energy people’ has expanded.
3. Connection to the world perceived through our senses.
My strategy is to reach deeper into music, learning, reading, photography, food, nature, art, cooking, dance, history, writing, drawing, movies, comedy, news and politics, sensuality and sexuality. (Bruce Cockburn calls it that compact universe of skin, breath and hair.) Every sunrise reminds me I have another day to experience all the richness of basic life we humans take for granted.
4. Connection to meaning and purpose of life or spirituality.
Although I can’t summon up a religious connection, facing death really does force us to imagine our life had a purpose. I want to believe I have contributed to making the world a better place, by supporting the sunny side, not the dark side, with integrity, honesty, and a commitment to the greater good. In other words, staying on the healing side, the constructive, collaborative side, not the wounding, selfish, blaming side.
How then shall I live? How do I make these last couple of years the best years of my life?
Dr. Mount says, instead of being preoccupied with all that has been lost, he needs to focus on clearer recognition of the potential that remains. Brilliant.
I also need to stick to my personalized care plan, keep finding the courage to face whatever comes, and focus on the potential that remains, nurtured by these connections.
That way, I get to write the last chapter of my life.
A happy ending is improbable.
But I will be grateful for a peaceful and graceful ending.