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Finding a Different Way – Part 2
Pamela Zane Keys is learning via a mystic path leading through an early and valuable Christian experience to special interests in the Sufi Way, Gnosticism and Buddhism. Theosophy, she says, ‘made sense’ of her life. Pamela’s formal studies included Education, Psychology and Theology. She has also travelled widely.
Pamela’s teaching has spanned more than 50 years and she enjoys editing TheoSophia, the magazine of the Theosophical Society in New Zealand.
When I was told I had breast cancer in October 2010, I was shocked because somehow I thought I had ‘done that’ twenty years earlier when I had a partial mastectomy and radiation treatment. I seldom thought about it except to have a yearly mammogram. Now I wondered if I’d somehow missed the Life Lesson the first time round and decided to approach this scary experience in a different way – though I had no idea what that would be – as though it was a second chance.
The new cancer was apparently different from the first as it was estrogen dependent, aggressive and grade three. This time the whole breast had to go and there could be no more radiation on my damaged skin. I would need a drug to counter estrogen.
That same week I learned of the breast cancer, my dear friend Jan Weston died of ovarian cancer after months of suffering which I had witnessed firsthand, as I saw her most days. Her ability and willingness to reach out to others and her courage – which was devoid of stoicism – was later to inspire me in my own struggles. But right then, the load of grief of her going on top of my own bad news seemed impossible to bear. I wondered if this could be where a different way could help. That night I woke and knew what I needed to do and prayerfully began reviewing my life and forgiving past hurts and wrongs – my own included. When I woke next morning, I was relieved to discover the sad burden had lightened and I felt able to cope.
Recovery time after the mastectomy went well at first and I was happy to be able to continue normal life including favourite extras such as helping with my granddaughters’ homework and editing a quarterly magazine. On Boxing Day, when my husband, Warwick, left for a long-planned visit to Egypt and Turkey with his family, I could assure him I was well, able to visit friends and family around New Zealand and looked forward to some quiet times at home before his return in February.
The love and goodwill of friends near and far expressed through our being together, or phone calls, emails and cards were then and are still, gifts I treasure. As well as attending church with friends I was blessed with special prayers and received two words for the New Year: Rest and Trust. All this strengthened me and reminded me that I was part of a community of love and faith. Back home I prayed in church a trusting: “Only say the word and I shall be healed.” Gradually grief and sadness over the loss of a good friend as well as a breast became less painful. I had a new chance at life and saw the world around me with fresh eyes and renewed appreciation.
In spite of this, soon after Warwick’s return in February, I became more and more conscious of battling depression, brain fug, sleeplessness, restlessness, tiredness, nausea, head and body aches, constant thirst, extreme hot flushes, palpitations and more. We wondered if I was having a delayed reaction to a time of huge challenges and grief. Perhaps I felt safe enough to react this way now that he was home. I tried to pull myself out of the mire I felt I was in – unsuccessfully. Because I tend to be a ‘human doing’ rather than a human being, I swung into action – between long rests on my bed. Not exactly resting and trusting. I still had those lessons to learn.
First on the plan was visiting the optician whom I knew to be very thorough and who I thought may be able to see if I had a brain tumour. He was (I got new glasses for working on my lap top) and I didn’t (he showed me photos of the back of my very healthy eyeballs). Through the internet I researched retreat centres here and in Australia where cancer patients are taught meditation, healthy eating, exercise and attitudinal changes. However, I eventually agreed with Warwick, that I had most of that information and excellent support already. It was more a matter of applying it.
Books by celebrated Australian ‘terminal’ cancer overcomer and cancer retreat centre leader, Ian Gawler: You Can Conquer Cancer and Peace of Mind, Richard Beliveau and Denis Gingras’ Foods that Fight Cancer, David Servan-Schreiber’s Anti-Cancer: A new way of life and Wayne W. Dyer’s The Power of Intention became my focus. I tried to will myself back to feeling well. I gave ‘thanks for all things’, as St Paul advised, which often lifted my spirits but the sense that every day I was wading through treacle was getting stronger and meant I often felt like just staying in bed and giving up. Although all this effort didn’t seem to be working, the information gained was valuable in the long term. Meanwhile, I continued to feel worse each day and I had constant thoughts of death and dying. Worst of all for me, I had to stop being with my granddaughters after school three days a week and request it be just one day, though I still hoped they would visit on weekends but with no sleepovers – for the duration. I was concerned it could be forever but hoped it wasn’t as this felt like a huge loss to me.
Finally, someone suggested I should research the side effects of the well known anti-cancer drug I’d been taking since November. That was a turning point for me. There in front of me was a list of what I was experiencing. I read scholarly reports, alternatively based views and chat room comments. It was a relief to see I was not alone. I stopped the drug that day and by the end of the week the brain fug and depression had markedly reduced.
Total wellness took longer but I felt strong enough to travel to Auckland to stay with friends, catch up with family and attend a women’s health seminar given by the internationally renowned teacher and healer Mother Maya Tiwari. I had heard her story and it seemed a small miracle to me that she was here in New Zealand.
When she was young and working in the New York fashion industry, Maya had several surgeries for cancer and finally reached a point where the cancer was declared terminal. She took herself off to a cabin in the woods and spent time meditating and preparing for death. However, she didn’t die; she was healed and went back to her native India to become a devout student of Ayurveda and Vedanta. Since then she has written many books and taught all over the world.
Her seminar was exactly what I needed at that time. Maya reminded me: I am not the mind, I am awareness – pointing out that we are generally too attached to our thoughts, feelings and bodies and that what we bring into awareness, can be made wonderfully whole. She also invited us to take her Ahimsa Vow. Ahimsa is a way of non-violence toward ourselves as well as others. I vowed: I make inner harmony my first priority. As I said those words I saw with great clarity and without regret how very differently my whole life could have gone had I been able to have that understanding earlier but was also aware that I had just received a marvellous gift for the rest of my life. I felt whole and healed right then.
Reading Maya’s books caused me to modify my diet further though I suspect that the peaceful mind created by the Ahimsa Vow and three times daily meditation sessions are even more important. Keeping the vow means being more mindful of everything – what I see, hear, think, say, do, eat and drink – in a calm and positive way. I have slowed down and allowed myself space and time. In this space I have found joy.
Joy needs the time and space that I had seldom allowed through my busy crammed-full life as a ‘human doing’. Joy, it seems, lives in the life gaps – along with peace.
Although I am still not a great meditator, with the mind constantly wandering and having to be brought back, the exercises of meditating and being mindful of inner harmony are having a calming, strengthening effect while the daily practice of prayer and weekly religious observance bring their own rewards. Rest and trust figure in all this learning that leads to wholeness.
When I visited the surgeon four weeks after stopping the medication, he put me on another drug which worked in a different way, asking that I trial it for a month. I barely lasted two weeks. The old symptoms returned with the added shock of sharp shooting chest pains. After a couple of days and nights of these, I stopped the second medication and revisited the surgeon who has agreed to no more drugs.
During the drug experimentation, before rediscovering the feeling of being well, I thought far more than I would normally about life and death – my own and others’. A dream where I was getting dressed into my wedding outfit, recurred. As I prepared, with peaceful feelings of happiness and expectation, I became aware I was actually dressing for my own funeral. While these were not nightmares, they seemed important dreams of extreme clarity that made me think. I wondered if they meant I would die soon. Eventually I dreamt the same dream twice in one night but with a twist, I was invited to choose: a) the funeral or b) Life. I chose Life.
Around that time I was sleeping during the day and just before I woke, my mother, who had died nine years before, visited me. She was looking her happiest and best. She smiled down at me as she stood by my bed and I felt her love. I knew then that all misunderstandings and difficulties she and I may have had in the past were as nothing. Only happy memories remained. Only love connected us now. A special Life Lesson seemed complete. I woke full of joy. My mother’s name was Joy.
I couldn’t resist checking with Warwick in his study, over a cup of tea, if he thought these dreams meant I was about to die. We decided they didn’t. They were part of a profound experience that has brought me to face more closely than I would have expected, some of the meaning of life and death and choices. It was all part of choosing a different way.
A big learning for me this time with breast cancer has been acknowledging my need for the caring support of others and allowing myself to feel that support. Last time, two decades ago, I acted independently and remained solitary and secretive about it, getting through the entire experience in denial. This time, by reaching out as my friend Jan did, I experience a oneness with those I care for, as they reach back to me. This is part of that different way I looked for. It is teaching me about life choices, about rest and trust and just how blessed I am.
Remembering St Paul again:
And we’re all called to that plan, so let us give thanks.
Pamela Zane Keys
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