How did national elections descend into a reality TV show?

If cancer reinforced any lesson, it’s that fear is paralyzing. This troubled world needs leaders, not fear-mongers. I expect shenanigans from the Kardashians. None of their clan expects to emerge as elected leader of a democratic nation. Maybe democracy is now courtesy of “reality TV” producers Jeff Probst, Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell. Why else would election candidates resemble contestants on Survivor and Big Brother?

I envision a panel of Jeff, Ryan and Simon, seated behind desks, as a candidate enters the audition room and pivots to face the judges.

Jeff opens. “Tell us what’s unique about you that we should pick you to compete in an election.”

The candidate: “Well, Jeff, I’m average, middle class, very wealthy and know every important person on the planet. So I completely understand the challenges ordinary people face in their little lives. I’m committed to helping them overcome those challenges.”

Ryan says to the camera: “Beautiful answer, love it.” He turns to the candidate. “Tell us what kind of experience qualifies you as a contestant – er, I mean, candidate, in our game, uh, I mean our election?”

The candidate: “Great question, Ryan. I’m a true player; competitive, argumentative, no pushover, can’t be persuaded to change my mind, don’t see other’s perspectives, and I win at all costs. I don’t let others finish a sentence. People will root for me because I’m ruthless and good-looking. You should select people like me. No one would watch or vote for unattractive people.”

Simon leans far back: “So, if you see people arguing, I take it you’d look for strategic ways to make their situations worse and your situation better.”

The candidate: “Of course I would.”

Hmm, this candidate must have been selected to appear in the election debates.

Here’s my message to candidates: Jeff, Ryan, and Simon aren’t your judges, voters or pollsters. Ditch the divisive fear, and expensive promises no one expects you to keep. Show leadership to solve the planet’s many problems instead.

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Trust the tail, the truth is there

“This little guy will save your life.” Between diagnosis and my first mastectomy, my partner Decker put his trust in a ten-week-old puppy named Trail to keep me alive. How’d that go? Well, Trail’s living large, having figured out my operating system*. Wow, imagine replicating Trail’s job style:

Self-written job description.

Trail lifted a rear leg on our pet expectations.

White Westhighland (Westies) need plenty of exercise and playtime … excel at agility, obedience, flyball, and other canine sports. These activities stimulate his bright mind and channel his boundless energy.

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Grey face

Yup, playful, agile, energetic, obedient White Westies. So says the website. Trail clarified our delusions starting with his breed’s name. White? Trail rejects White.

Trail hurtles himself hedonist-style, buries his nose and rolls, talking non-stop to the dirt, grass, or snow. He emerges joyfully, his coat drenched in goop, chlorophyll, or icy pompoms.

In a competition between a brilliant-white dog and a joyful dog, I relinquish roll control to Trail.

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photo: Cat Harbord

Be useful.

Trail matured with an unusual attitude and a secret identity, Rescue Dog. Trail’s rescues include:

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• Waking us to help a disabled house guest who’d fallen during the night.
• Diving into the water to help when someone toppled out of the canoe.
• Waiting at forks to guide laggard hikers on the right path.
• Running a black bear thirty feet up a tree in our back yard, where it clung while Trail barked and tried to climb after it.

When it seems he’s all about him, he accommodates himself completely to others.

unsure tail

Read my tail

Speak heart to hearts.

His responsive tail, bendable to his mood, telegraphs Trail’s emotions with an honesty that wrenches my heart. If I misread hisarticulated tail tail’s meaning, he’s kind and forgiving.

I want that collaborative heart in all my relationships.

 

scared tailalert tailneutral tail

Find fun everywhere.

Trail ignores me prance about with dog toys to entice him. “Poor pathetic human,” his eyes say. “So sad she can’t entertain herself sniffing.”

He retrieved ball and stick – one of each. The first ball I threw, Trail brought back in his little mouth and dropped at my feet. Trail stroked the lake until the stick I tossed was drawn to where he could reach it without getting wet. Both times I unplayful tailpraised, rewarded him, and threw it again. Both times he tilted his head as if saying, “I already brought it back, you get it.” I tug a toy and he walks foward holding his end.

So, he misses out on play or sport; he’s endless fun of his own kind. Avoiding one kind opens space for others.

Take my time.

Other humans spell w-a-l-k or their dog explodes. We excitedly say, “Walk”, and Trail lies down, chin on paws. “Okay,” he seems to sigh, “if you insist.” We ‘walk at a Trail’s pace’, more pulse than walk – shuffle, stop, shuffle, stop. Repeat.

An eighteen pound anchor on a rope, he’ll sit to watch any activity like his personal television, leaving me on standby until his program ends. happy tail

We should’ve named him Speedy since ‘Trail’ became destiny.

His nicknames include: Trailer; Trailing; and

Trail Mix (from his friend Cat, if Trail were trail mix, he’d be the premium kind with all sorts of great surprises hidden in each handful); and,

Trail Thunderpaws because he runs to catch up; and,

Trail Houdini when we backtrack to find him; and,

Princess Trail in kayak Princess Trail prefers human powered rides like stroller, kayak or bicycle basket;

Princess Trail

photo Beth Lawrence: Marcus ‘walks’ Trail

and finally,

Yoda Trail      Yoda Trail, for oh so many reasons.   Yoda

It’s our particular compromise, Trail’s and mine. He’ll eventually arrive, and I get to practice patience.

Live an authentic life.  

curious tail

Trail learns concepts incredibly fast, and, when inclined or not distracted sniffing every petal of every flower, he obeys the dozens of words he understands – eventually.

Maybe Trail is too smart to waste his boundless energy. He waits until we’re committed to a direction, in case we reverse and can pick him up on our return. He walks 4.5 kilometers to my five.

We’re sure he solves problems, counts at least three, and understands basic geometry and connectivity. He studied a cattle grid and then trotted across, each paw set confidently.

For errands and time sensitive walks, Trail tolerates a leash. He’s clear what he won’t tolerate. Trail intervenes like a mediator between dogs playing rough. If Decker and I split to do separate errands, Trail refuses to follow either of us.

Trail couldn’t fake it if he tried. His tail tells his truth.

concerned tail

Would it be helpful if people still had tails?

 

TKI preferences (Collaborating, Compromising, Accommodating, Avoiding, Competing).

 

I got news that trumped Fear with Optimism

I met the man who owns my left breast. I chatted with a stranger who said he’s a Medical Researcher studying what breast cancers spread to bones. I said I’d donated the tissue formerly known as my breast to his research project. He said my breast’s in a petrie dish in his lab freezer, and I asked if that’s next to the vegetables.

He said he owes me because without tissue donations he has no research. Now that I’ve had time to process the encounter, I owe him more.

Fear of meaninglessness

I’d searched for the disease’s bigger meaning, overlooking I’d donated my breasts to science. Quadruple mastectomies, chemo and radiation hid the memory. So long as I got my breasts off my chest before they killed me, I didn’t care if they froze or incinerated. They weren’t coming home in a jar.

Now he’s given me hope my tissue can help, especially since the cancer was rare Triple Negative. Unintended, but he reduced my Fear the cancer meant nothing.

Meaninglessness of Fear

Like so many with cancer diagnoses, I experienced numb shock, waves of terror, and masses of esoteric information. Daytime, distracted and busy, I almost forgot Fear. But at night, or when tired, oh, Fear roared.

Where’d Fear’s dizzying power come from? How’d I let Fear dominate me into I’m-gonna-die, world-gone-nuts, paralysis?

Turns out, Fear, you don’t act alone, you get help. Lots of help.

Fear rides with powerful friends

Fear, you shape-shift as Triple Negative Breast Cancer or a herd of stampeding horses, or whatever terrifies. But you boost into big time with government, media, and corporate injections of Fear into anxious mortals. Election cycle, news cycle, and economic cycle – there you and they are, with thin explanations, replaying your message du jour.

Fear, you’re sometimes effective when people feel they lack power in uncertain times. Negative campaigns rely on you – Boo – we’re scared into voting your way, buying a product or service, believing a stereotype.

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What’s the opposite of Fear?

The Medical Researcher invested me with Optimism in the best sense of the word: curious, and informed. Take that, Fear, and negative attack ads. I had Triple Negative Breast Cancer; I gotta have game. Fear, you’re a cycle in need of breaking. And I’m breaking up with you.

Now, I want a name for the state of non-fear. Dictionaries offer antonyms: courage, fearlessness, bravery. But those can co-exist within a stew-pot of fear, stress and anxiety. So they don’t fit as names for non-fear.

How about curiosity or optimism? Research suggests Optimism is both genetic and can be learned to shrink Fear, so I owe my grandparents too.

I’d welcome suggestions: what’s the name of this tentative state of being that’s the opposite of Fear?

 

Escaped from Death again, now exploring Life’s purpose

Death brushed me again, but couldn’t keep a skeletal hand on me. Stunned at the close escape, I clung to the mountain side as eight horses stampeded within an inch of me on the narrow dirt path. Their galloping hooves pounded choking clouds of dust into my eyes and lungs. Their sides were soaked from their hurtling run down the mountain ahead of the two gauchos pursuing them.

photo credit Evelyn Hoter

photo credit Evelyn Hoter

A few hours before, my hiking companions and I had seen the two mounted gauchos with their six pack-horses heave their way up the mountain fully loaded with supplies for the hut at the top. The eight horses laboured so hard they stumbled and the gauchos urged them with the Spanish equivalent of what our cowboys would in English. We’d already started down the mountain so stepped aside for less than a minute to let them pass.

We felt an urgent need to get to the bottom before we were stranded on the mountain. The hike over the pass and into to the valley had taken more time than anticipated, we’d started from Estancia Peuma Hue later than planned, chosen a more distant route than discussed, and we’d stopped at the mountain climbers’ hut longer than expected. We were late, dusk was punctual. Dark would soon make the descent treacherous.

the pass up; Brian M photo

Frey climbers’ hut; Brian M photo

climbing the pass; Brian M photo

me in the pass up; Brian M.

 

The path was wide enough for one person to walk at about a 35 degree pitch in some places, steeper than that in others. To the right was a fierce drop into a crevasse. To the left, the undergrowth was thick on the mountain wall. The forest was silent, and
smelled too dry.

our party’s scramble over the pass; Brian M. photo

 

I’d fallen behind the others, quads screamed in agony, knees too sore to bend, fiery pain stabbed my rigid hips, and toes hammered into the front of my hiking boots from hours and hours of rock scrambling downs steeper than mountain climbing ups. My left hand was scraped from clinging to sharp edges, my right was cramped in a vise grip on a climbing pole. Both arms ached from hauling my body over boulders. Everything except my earlobes stung, hurt, groaned, creaked or blistered.

And then, I heard the horses.

I looked back, my tired body twisted to see what was happening less than ten feet away.

The lead horse was unable to stop his mad descent, crowded from behind by the other seven. He was propelled along, two horses trying to pass him on a trail wide enough for one person. He tried to slow when he saw me and was broadsided from behind. His herd mates were running unloaded and empty towards their night’s rest and feed. They were in as much of a hurry for the same reasons as us, and much faster. The lead horse half-reared to turn, but had no choice except to continue galloping straight at me.

I ran. Not sure how, but it felt like a run.

“Brian, the horses.”

Iroamtheworld.com

Iroamtheworld.com

Brian McCutcheon heard my yell and turned. The danger was so obvious and the solution so wasn’t. Cliff down, rock face covered in underbrush up, or trampled in between. Brian must have assessed it all in less than a second.

The lead horse’s head was at my shoulder when Brian grabbed my left arm and the strap of my backpack. He threw me backwards and leapt onto the cliff after me. As my feet flew up, they touched the horse’s flank and the next horse thundered past and the next and the next … We had no place to move. As one horse hurtled past with empty propane tanks strapped around its girth, Brian shoved the tank away from hitting us. The two gauchos were last, still urging their lathered and exhausted horses forward. The gauchos were as motivated as the horses to get home.

Then they were gone in a dust cloud and we were left, shaken and unhurt. Had Brian taken a second longer to react, eight horses would have trampled over me.

Brian grinned. “If they’d been prettier horses I’d have grabbed one for you to ride down. They weren’t pretty enough.”

We found my partner, Decker, waiting ahead. They overtook him at a wider section and he simply stepped off the path as they barreled past. We all made it down, in the darkness, feeling our way after 14 hard hours on the trail, Brian’s iPhone our only light. Our wonderful hosts met us with flashlights and guided us to a waiting dinner.

A few years ago, Death in the name of late stage Triple Negative Breast Cancer had me in its sights. Decker felt something even though there was no palpable lump. The oncologist said that, untreated, Death was at most nine months away. Three days ago, Death was at most nine seconds away. First Decker saved me, and then Brian did.

So what am I to make of two such close escapes through the grace of two extraordinary rescuers?

What, I ask, is the purpose of the extra time I’ve been given? I’ve struggled with this as so many cancer or disaster survivors have. Where is the lesson, how am I different, who does it all matter to? The only answer that means anything to me so far is that I haven’t finished writing yet, or done enough for the environment yet, or seen our grandchildren grow up. Even these aren’t enough, so I search for more ways to be of use, to make a difference in this extended lifetime I’ve been gifted. I will write, do what I can for the environment and play with the grandchildren until whatever truth I’m supposed to know appears. I read of those who find their life’s calling from some horrifying misadventure.  If something’s calling me, I don’t hear it yet but at least I’ve woken up enough to listen until I do.

Today, instead of hiking, I went for a horse-back ride, a safe, controlled canter through the Patagonian countryside, to savor the joy of living.

photo credit Evelyn Hoter

photo credit Evelyn Hoter

 

Mentors light my path like lanterns

As a kid, I didn’t appreciate the people who  tried to help me. I was sure they were just interfering adults. Looking back from this happier place 2013,  I reflect on the opportunities I was too paralyzed with uncertainty and insecurity to accept.

Belatedly, i acknowledge and thank those whose offers would’ve made me a better person. For example, the Vice-Principal at Melville Scott Elementary, who encouraged me to enter a writing contest in grade 3. I didn’t have the self-esteem and spent the rest of the year avoiding him because I’d disappointed him. I could have been wrting my whole life if I’d accepted his offer. Instead, I’m galloping now to catch up. Both the track coach in grade 6 and the captain of the swim team in grade 10 tried to persuade me i was athletic enough to compete. I refused because I didn’t believe either of them. When I finally ran marathon distances in my 30s it felt fantastic. More missed time. A friend’s mom  tried to convince me I’d be happier in grade 12 if I smiled more. I took it as a criticism and scowled for a week. I’m always smiling now and missed years of potential happiness.

The list of people who offered is long. I wish I recalled their names, so I could thank them. The list of offers I accepted is considerably shorter. I was so misguided to refuse.

mentoring image 1However, I can accept the offers I get now. After almost 2 years on disability my role’s changed from recovering cancer patient to full time paid worker. My dream job and I grew apart somewhat while we were separated. So much changed. My teammates are now my mentors, retraining me for my job.

As a conflict manager, I’m okay with that ambiguity. After all, the answer to most questions about conflict is ‘It depends’. Wow. Sounds like understanding cancer.

As my wonderful and brilliant oncologist Danny truthfully said: “The answer to most questions about Triple Negative Breast Cancer is ‘I dunno’.” Wow. Sounds like me back at work. Even experts don’t have all the answers. I had so many mentors on my path to healing and I’m so grateful to them all. Because I sure didn’t have any answers.

mentoring image 2

Returning to work was a similar feeling to the vulnerable and confused uncertainty of starting treatment. I crave a guide. I’m confounded about the ‘correct’ foods to eat or not eat, activities to do or not do. Eventually, the turbulence in my job and health will settle down, routines normalize, and uncertainties give way to competence. I’ll adapt.

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In his book Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Dynasty, Robert Kanigel describes a mentorship chain that can account for the success of generations of people who encourage, generate and pass around knowledge.

When I look for ways to keep at bay the fear lurking in the unanswerable, I come up with gratitude about the twin blessings of wonderful mentors and of their prodding me to be more curious, more open, and more willing to accept help.

1226202418540499494davosmith_Lantern.svg.medNow that I’m back managing conflict again, I remember that a mentor is as valuable to me as a great answer. My mentors are my guides, lighting my way.

Worlds in our words

My resolution for 2013 is to not wage a courageous fight against breast cancer. I decline to be a soldier in the war on my disease. Nor will I win or lose or survive any struggles as a crusader on a cancer campaign. Count me out as warrior woman battling cancer.

Words are insights into worldviews. The metaphors I prefer involve collaboration and caring, not fear and fighting. The many who saved my life are my team, not my army. Confrontation doesn’t capture my cancer experience and combat doesn’t describe my mindset. Winning or losing to cancer is a random crap shoot, not something I do to or for myself. My strategy for staying alive involves love, meditation, nature, and good deeds.

A fighting mindset feels taxing and fixed to me. A peaceful mindset imports space for growth and adventure. Travel I once managed easily now exhausts me, but I find energy in how people create quality of life on this small planet. In particular, the wonderful people of Taipei, Taiwan inspired me with their tenacious individual improvements of a challenged environment. Here’s what made me happy as I wondered around Taipei.

taipei-2010

http://www.globalphotos.org/taipei.htm Taipei is a megalopolis. Hovering towers rest on unending concrete and asphalt. People live in stacked high-rises. No matter how dense the district and how little earth poked through the pavement, people put a plant or tree somewhere.

alleyBack alleys with buildings abutting the road sported a narrow line of vegetation. Streets with no pedestrian sidewalk had tiny potted gardens. Huge apartments so close together they got little light had greenery cascading from the balconies. The roof of our rented condo boasted an allotted garden for each suite.

Even in this busiest of metropolises there’s nature in cracks in the sidewalk or out of walls as I photographed in Hong Kong. This picture is oriented correctly and that is a wall not ground. I couldn’t stop looking at this tree as traffic whipped inches away.

tree on wallNo surprise that being in nature is a life affirming metaphor that crosses cultures. When it comes to resolutions for the year, my personal health issues are on my mind as is the health of the planet. Small gains towards peace and health are possible, word by word, positive action by positive action. Peaceful mindsets – not fighting ones – will heal the world’s trouble spots. As our world’s health goes, so we go.

I’m blessed to witness how conflict management improves lives, including my own. It’s been years since I’ve used ‘neutral’ to explain mediators’ work because ‘impartial’, as in balanced, is more accurate. Winning and losing doesn’t figure in my work or in my plan for my life, however long I live.

My wish and resolution for 2013: even though there are many types of carnage, may the words and worlds of nature and peace flourish for all, like trees growing from cracks in the wall.

Breastless Love, The Man Who Stayed with the ‘Sick’ Woman

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In my posts, the fact I stumbled upon the love of my life at age 58 was an aside, like Decker guided me through the cancer swamp as expected of an old stalwart. Reality check: we’re a new couple. He didn’t have much invested in ‘us’ when my breasts tried to kill me.

My choice was between breasts or death in four to nine months. Easy peasy. Decker got to decide whether to stick around for the medical crap. Whew; he chose to. Cancer support groups are filled with women whose partners left. Heartbreak on heartbreak. Like piling on in football without penalty for being last ‘man’ on the guy down. As if getting cancer was being unfaithful: “What – you went to bed with Cancer? How could you betray me with Cancer? Well, now that you’ve chosen Cancer over me I’m leaving.”

Women (or men, or children – cancer is so democratic) have to deal with threatened lives, medical uncertainties, activities disrupted, hideous side effects, and bodily insults. Then the person we count on gets a free pass on the blood, vomit, infected sutures, bulbs of sloshing lymph fluid, low blood counts, shakes, tears, pain, physical scars, and emotional turmoil. Jeez, how could anyone willingly give that a miss? So no one had to tell me Decker’s a gem for staying.

Diane and Dave, 1989

Our father stayed. My lovely sister Andria and I had a disabled mother who underwent countless medical procedures for multiple medical conditions and a constellation of physical complaints. Mom and dad’s mutual verbal abuse was so miserable some relatives refused to visit us. Yet, our folks stayed together until they passed away and, in Andria’s version of the story, they loved each other.

So I asked Decker, ‘what’s the reason you stayed?’ and his expected response: ‘I love you.’ Too simple? He said, ‘sometimes simple is true.’ Yet, an Internet search ‘men leave sick women’ reveals women are six times more likely than men to be left after a cancer diagnosis.

There are also same-sex partners, families, neighbours and best friends who are too busy or can’t accept the neediness of the woman who once did everything and now needs help. In support groups, I listened to abandonment SLS (Shitty Life Stories) and wondered how I was so blessed, in addition to Decker, with friends, family and neighbours who brought food, offered to shop, helped walk puppy Trail, and called to say hello.

There were delightful welcome surprises – my dear cousin BonnyBonny Gold-Babins and I became much better friends. She’d done her stint twice over nursing her lovely parents through chronic illnesses, and still had a soup pot of caring for me.

But other women similar to me weren’t so lucky. It’s easy to blame; we all have villains, victims and heroes in our SLS. BUT, I practice Appreciative Inquiry and I blog at the intersection of what Conflict Competence teaches about Living Breastlessly. Conflict Competence speaks to the quality of relationships we want whether we’re well or sick, or are the friend, neighbour, or significant other to that sick person. How do we make and maintain the loving, trusting, there-through-thick-and-thin bonds that sustain and nurture us even at our worst?

An Internet search for why people stay to help sick partners and friends turned up – wait for it – NOTHING. The focus of the research is on the negative, the losers, the leavers, and the lovers who abandon. They don’t have a name. The people who stay get a name that’s more a label: caregivers. A search about caregivers led to how to become a caregiver, government benefits for caregivers, products for caregivers, and managing caregivers’ strains and stresses. Staying with a sick person is both an act of love and a profession.

We could ask Appreciative Inquiry questions, and research men’s reasons for staying to learn how staying can be an easier and higher quality choice. What made my father stay with my mother, particularly since they fought just about all the time about almost everything? What did Decker see that made the love worth hanging on to? And let’s get to the real heart of it: What can I do, every day with every person I treasure, to let them know I love and value them, appreciate their qualities and forgive their shortcomings if they’ll please forgive mine?

here’s more Decker celebrating the 60s at his 60th:

Decker at his 60th in a wig copy

Standing up to bullies or cancer with a power stance

During cancer treatment and ensuing brain fog I couldn’t read, write, or converse so TED’s short talks were perfect. I watched Amy Cuddy’s TED talk again and again, thinking Amy’s – after so many viewings I feel I know her – research has so many uses, from addressing bullying, to healing, to upping my conflict competence. In nonlinear fashion, power poses cycled through my thoughts into brief ideas.

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j0186176_2f5ce440Amy’s work continues the study of the mind-body connection, which has lots of science, wisdom and other evidence to back it up. That part isn’t new. During the cancer treatment, I had at least two dramatic experiences of this connection. I used my mind to ease a procedure that wasn’t going well. I was to have a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter) in a vein. The chemo was so toxic it would’ve blown out the vein had they injected it without the PICC. The nurse specialists tried to insert the PICC and the line hit a wrinkle in my vein, bending up instead of sliding through. A fifteen-minute procedure was into its first hour. The nurses looked more than a tad concerned. I meditated on the vein and the line slid into place. The nurse told Decker she reported this and suggested  patient meditation be included in the procedure manual. The second time came well into the chemo treatment. My blood was so low the oncologist scheduled a transfusion that would have delayed treatment a week. They said blood counts don’t come up with that chemo cocktail. I asked for time to use my Inner Healer, named Terry Gold, and then had another blood test. My count was up. The treatment went as scheduled.

The variation Amy and her co-researchers further of this knowledge of the interrelationship of minds and bodies is that body postures affect feelings of power. The (unfortunate in my opinion) name Amy has given this is Power Poses. I have other thoughts on overuses, misuses, and abuses of power, including that aggressive people affecting poses in the belief it will infuse them with power is indeed scary. However, the idea that even a few minutes of standing or sitting in a certain pose can change an interaction and how my mind functions also has positive applications. It would be great to have this information in the right hands.

Bullies are news again damn it, because of Amanda Todd. What, I wonder, would be the effect of teaching the victims how to stand and sit in order to stand up against their bullies? Bullies seem to know this instinctively and don’t need more power. They’re getting power over their victims already. (I wonder in what poses they stand and sit? Now there’s a research project begging to be undertaken.) Others could sure use some help in feeling more inner power. Could bystanders be empowered to stand up to the bullies?

The body healing the mind has opened up new ideas for how I can stay in remission, the ways I can help my clients, and where I can improve my relationships with others. My conflict coaching clients stand (pun intended) to benefit when I suggest they observe how they and the other person stand and sit alone or in relation to each other, both in calm times, and when locked in conflict with each other. And, look for me to take a stand of power against my personal bully – triple negative breast cancer recurrence – on those now rare occasions when I’m tired and have bleak thoughts about my long-term survivorship. I’ve added body over mind poses to my toolkit of Inner Healer and mind over body strategies to overcome those thoughts.

Cancer’s a game changer but I’ve still got game

The new year is almost on us. 2013 was supposed to be the summer I graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (to add to my 4 degrees, a girl can’t have too many). My secret dream was to enroll part-time while working. Instead of university studies, my 2010, 2011, and 2012 summer vacations paralleled which body part was being assaulted, and I had only medical, laboratory and radiological studies.

2010 was the summer of breasts and lymph nodes.

2011 was the summer of exhaustion and paralyzing fear.

2012 was the summer of brain fog and confusion.

Now I’m aiming for 2013 to be the summer of love and publishing.

2010 was a game changer, the kind of shit kicking where it would’ve been preferable to have a bully beating on me so I could put a face on my abuser. Cancer has no face. It beat me up from the inside out. There was no one to fight back against. I couldn’t dash out the back door, or turn off the computer to escape. It wasn’t lurking around the corner waiting for me; it skulked and stalked inside me, waiting, bidding time, looking for vulnerable places to root, grow and kill. It’s a bully that doesn’t mature in a good way.

Summer 2011 crawled over me like a bulldozer and I crawled through it. For months I dragged myself to work five days a week, cried throughout my walk home, and was catatonic with anxiety about cancer’s return during the hours in between going and coming. My words were insensible, my thoughts a muddle, and my work substandard. If I wasn’t in bed before 8 PM cancer grinned and looked around for a comfy place to plant. I panicked if I got stressed or overtired because those were cancer’s nectar and ambrosia.

Somehow, I got through to spring 2012 before I screamed for help. After three health care professionals recommended I lay off (the fourth suggested I quit and find my bliss elsewhere) I caved in and took a leave of absence starting 1st April 2012.

The summer of 2012 was a game changer. The leave of absence meant I finally had enough rest, alone time to meditate, exercise time to get physically back to my normal self, and enough mind recovery from brain fog to again enjoy conversation with people. I went weeks without crying or paralysis. I could read simple novels and write stories again, listen to the radio without overstimulation from endless words I couldn’t follow.

The only time I still feel the old bleakness is when Decker wants me to linger with him in nature when I’m hungry for a meal, or to stay up past my limit because he’s having a good time, or tells me to have some great food because it has only a little bit of a forbidden ingredient in it. Then, I hear the dire voice whisper, ‘does he care if I live or die?’ Where last year it was more than I could bear and I had meltdowns of hysterical proportions, now I just tell him what I’m doing. ‘No, I’m hungry and I have to eat before my insulin spikes and the cancer comes back.’ and, ‘No, I’m glad you’re having a good time but I’m going home to bed before I get overtired and the cancer comes back.’ ‘No, just a little of that food is enough to feed mutations so the cancer comes back.’ Yes, I’ll be rigid for the next six years I’m most at risk so that I can live to enjoy other pleasant evenings with you in years to come.’

Now, when the voice of anxiety about recurrence whispers I can hush it. The dire thoughts may come and I have most of my resiliency back to cope with the message. I have a message back for it. ‘I’m doing all I can to stay in remission. whatever happens, I can deal with it. In the meantime, I have a future to live and a grandson whose wedding I plan to dance at.’ And, somehow, I’ll get something creative written for the summer of 2013 because it’s my summer of love. That’s how I intend to change this bully – with love.

Enjoy the images. What are your plans for 2013?

Remission’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose

children-singing-md

clip art credit clker.com/

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photo kriskristofferson.com

Kris Kristofferson wrote in Me And Bobby Mcgee: ‘nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free,’ In the midst of so much bitter debate over free universal health care, free is worth a lot. When it came to treatment for a nasty, rare breast cancer, I had ‘nothin’ left to lose’. I selected an expensive course of treatment and, at the end of my years of living medically, no one handed me a bill. They cheered and waved goodbye.

Is this possible – timely, excellent, appropriate health care for ‘free’ or was I hallucinating? The drugs weren’t that type. The policy answer for how ‘free’ timely, excellent, appropriate health care works is that money from everyone’s taxes is allocated towards universal free health care. Blah blah. The human answer is that free universal health care works because people make it work every day in doing their jobs despite the administrative turmoil around them.

On the cancer conveyor belt you meet everyone on the belt around you. It’s like an exclusive club – if you belong, you’ve got the status of everyone else holding the red cancer membership card. It’s a twist on the joke: ‘I wouldn’t join any club that would have me.’ We have a club that doesn’t want members, and no one wants to join. But, if you need it, it’s welcoming and you’re grateful.

Members of the Cancer Club talk all the time. It’s impossible not to. We’re all anxious, naked under thin gowns, lined up for our turn i the schedule, and in need of bucking up. I sit down, the bald lady next to me smiles and the game is on. What flavour is your cancer? What number treatment or test or exam is this for you? How’d your last one go? Who’s your doctor or technician or counsellor? And so on. So, I have a lot of anecdotal evidence that I wasn’t the only bald, underdressed, anxious person who was happy with the care at Alberta Health Services.

Here are two stories, one from the professional aspect of our free health care and one from the personal side of the experience.

The timeline from suspicion, investigation, diagnosis and treatment went without a delay. At first, my partner, Decker, and I thought the hour of specialists’ time at each appointment was extraordinary. But no – everyone had the same experience of doctors who answered every question. We all had the same story – competent, compassionate, high quality care with no delays. And it’s the same level of care no matter the level of income.

The second story was from the Peter Loughheed Health Centre when I woke up from surgery ravenous after almost 20 hours fasting, only to find there was nothing for me to eat. The patient kitchen was closed, Decker had gone home to care for Trail, the 11-week-old puppy, and I was too groggy to walk to the public cafeteria. The ward clerk, who earns a modest salary, heard about my plight. On her break, she went to the public cafeteria, bought me something, and had the attending nurse give it to me. The nurse was the one who told me the ward clerk had done it anonymously.

The debate about Universal Health Care focuses on what’s wrong. Well, there’s also a lot right. For all the extravagance in the administration of the health care system, there’s an employee in the system who pays out of his or her pocket for a hungry patient. The system works because the people on the front line know what to do and how to do it, and know when to ignore the upper layers who are purportedly in charge.

With all respect to the extremely talented Mr. Kristofferson, who wrote a wonderful song, there’s no damn way I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday. And thanks to the fabulous care I received from the front line workers who don’t let the chaos at the top get stop them from delivering superb care, I have many tomorrows, none of which I’d trade for anything.

There’s a lot of great care happening as well as a lot of conflict in health care. The norm in conflicts is to focus on what’s wrong with everyone else’s system while defending one’s own. It’s easy to sit in judgment of who has the best or correct or right way of doing things, or feel compelled to tell the other persons what you believe is their best or correct or right way they ‘should’ do things. In conflict, people drive the system and the system amplifies or dampens the good things people do.

As a conflict manager, when I’m looking at systemic issues, I start with the people who are doing a good job and ask ‘how do we get more of that?’ That’s the Appreciative Inquiry approach. Instead, the powers that be order expensive public inquiries into what goes wrong and how to get less of whatever that turns out to be.

If, heaven forbid, I slip out of remission, even though there may not –at this time – be anything medically that anyone can do, the personnel in the medical system will persist in treating me, knocking themselves out trying to save me or give me more time or improve the quality of my remaining life. That’s worth something and – where I live – it’s free.

Here’s Kris singing Me and Bobby McGee:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BG2kq-4dM98