By Charlene Smith (c)
A friend, a smoker for all his years, was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer just over a year ago. Some months before his diagnosis, I received the same diagnosis, I've never smoked although I've been asthmatic for just over a decade. The diagnosis came after three bouts of pneumonia in two years, also, the pulmonologist said, I also had a partially collapsed right lung, small cell disease (cancer), and a tumor in my lung's middle lobe, double cancer.
Around the same time, a friend in Houston received a lung diagnosis that gave her a life expectancy of two years; she began lugging around a large oxygen bottle to help her breathe. She, and we started researching the hell out of her disease and lung machines. She is a sculptor and dust, like smoke, is not your friend.
And then yet another friend, a Zimbabwean found her lungs were collapsing and she went onto high, permanent doses of Prednisone - probably the drug I hate most in the world next to Warfarin (Coumadin). Warfarin is awful because you can't eat the green leafy vegetables I love, but Prednisone makes me crazy; it causes mood changes, but not her, a fabulous person anyhow, she became nicer, although it caused her to develop a classic moon face (makes her more beautiful, lucky girl).
Another friend, in Maine, who struggles to walk more than the length of her apartment without oxygen joined us on a Facebook inbox chat we call The Breathers.
According to the doctors, we should all be dead or dying, but the human spirit and faith are remarkable.
My first friend has a fantastic wife, friends who adore him (me too), prays as much as the Texan and me, and was lucky enough to get onto a clinical trial. This week he celebrated because the tumor is less than 1 cm - that means, bye-bye cancer. We don't talk remission; we focus on farewell.
The Texan friend got onto her treadmill each day with her oxygen tank and walked, then started running. She also launched a significant sculpture in a park, found more commissions started coming in, started renting out part of her home for Airbnb, told very few her diagnosis. Instead of retreating from life, she went toward it.
I was similar; I was so traumatized after my initial diagnosis, I told one person who burst into tears and kept saying, "please don't die." I was so appalled by her theatrics that I thought, that's the last person I'm telling, I don't need drama, I need support, and if it means being on my own so be it, but thank God, I found The Breathers.
My Texan friend, like me, scorned the drugs the doctors wanted to put her on. With a two-year life expectancy, she started living, her treadmill work saw her lose weight, look the best she had in years, and my favorite pic is of her doing headstands on a beach. Her life and work have gone up a few levels with more awe-inspiring sculpture projects.
The Zimbabwean woman came to terms with her moonface, and is shining in all the best ways including reimagining her business. She has also become a profound source of inspiration to all who know her. Her health and spirit are strong.
The woman in Maine is studying Gaelic, is an artist, and deeply spiritual she helps people in war-torn or poverty-stricken areas across the world. All via the internet. Motivated by our little group - who speak in occasional bursts, she began writing a book that will be launched this fall.
Me? I refused chemo or radiation. I asked the doctor for three months to do things my way. I deepened my practice of Ayurveda - an ancient Indian medical system, older even than Chinese medicine. I switched to a mostly vegetarian diet with occasional fasting; I walk a few miles a day, I started training as a Kundalini yoga teacher - which is robust, active breathing, I disrupted the first few classes because the exercises would see me cough so much I'd have to leave the class. At three months, all the scans showed the tumor shrinking, my cells opening.
My doctor asked what I was doing. I told him, he, thank God, also practices yoga and believes in its healing potential.
He still said, maybe start chemo now?
I said another three months please, and with me too, by the time I went back after the additional three months, the tumor was negligible, the small cell disease gone. All along, I also thought that if the tumor grew, I would go to India for 21 days and go on an Ayurvedic fast.
And if I died? You know, this has been a pretty fascinating life, it's okay.
Maybe we are all just lucky, but I think having the support of loving friends in a similar situation, going for alternatives and not panicking and going straight onto heavy pharmaceuticals, maybe that helped.
I'm blessed to know The Breathers, I am so lucky we were all sick at a similar time and reached out to each other. I am grateful we are all healing or managing our conditions better.
When I first wrote this and posted it on Facebook, a New Zealand friend inboxed me; she has sarcoidosis - same as the Zimbabwean woman, a single parent, she is struggling to breathe. She is also rejecting Western pharmaceuticals, she has eliminated alcohol and red meat and says that even after a month, she can feel a positive difference.
If you have a diagnosis you're anxious about it - just BELIEVE, try different things, don't make doctors gods. Keep a positive attitude, keep the faith, and if it is your time to go, then give thanks for all the good life has given you.
If someone close to you has a negative diagnosis, cut the drama because then it becomes all about you. They need you to be calm, sensible, someone they can tell everything too, even the stuff that scares both of you. Don't obsess about the disease - they're doing enough of that - be knowledgeable, but also focus on pleasant distractions, going to listen to music, having friends round for a meal that you cook (take-out and processed foods are not suitable for us), use these lessons to live life better, to love more, and stress less.