Thursday, December 6, 2012

Second Round of Chemotherapy

I returned to the National Institute of Health on November 26 for my second round of chemotherapy. Once again I was hammered with three chemo cocktail infusions. Blood draws and EKGs were taken around midnight and again before dawn. One evening my blood pressure spiked up to 200/100 and my pulse dropped to 50. Apparently these are fairly common side effects of the drugs.

This trip I was accompanied by my camarado Dr. James Kern, a retired psychoanalyst and fellow veteran of a trip we took to repair tornado damaged homes in northern Alabama. Jim is a thoughtful, kind man with a good sense of humor.

On a visit to the excellent Patient’s Library at the NIH, I checked out a copy of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, edited by Benedicta Ward SLC. It is an anthology of quotations from a group of men and women who left the cities in the 4th century CE for the solitude of the desert in Egypt, Syria, Arabia and Palestine to develop a lifestyle of radical simplicity. This practice was the beginning of Christian monasticism.

In his introduction, Anthony of Sourozh, a 20th century Bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, suggests that we make “our bodies the Temple of the Holy Ghost.” During my stay in the hospital I did not feel as if my body was the Temple of the Holy Ghost, but it could very well be that I was not seeing this correctly. Perhaps the Holy Ghost, with the assistance of the chemo drugs, was stomping the cancer out of me. No pain, no gain.

When we were in Bethesda, Dr. Gramza told us that the second round of chemotherapy might be quite difficult to tolerate given that all the poisons from the first round hadn’t completely exited my body yet. Of course, upon returning home I promptly forgot about this conversation. I expected to recover more quickly the second time around.

Instead, the opposite happened. I have spent most of this past week flat out on the couch, staring out the window feeling nauseous and exhausted. I began yesterday feeling quite vulnerable and broken. As the day passed I was filled with a terrible sense of grief. I asked Dianne to hold me. Then I fell asleep for a few hours. When I woke up, my grief had passed. I hadn’t attached to it.

Meditation has helped me (not always, but more times than not) face my illness. I believe it has made me more permeable. The heavy suit of armor that makes up who I think I am has more openings in it than it did before I started meditating. And my concept of self is on friendlier terms with the idea of impermanence than it used to be. These are both useful tools in facing a serious illness. Even more importantly, they are necessary skills for facing life.

So it’s all good. Back in the 4th century CE, Abba Copres said, Blessed is he who bears affliction with thankfulness.

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