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Healing Waters: Reflecting on the Lessons of Survivorship

When I contemplate this latest benchmark in my life, my 15th year surviving stage 3b breast cancer, I confess there are times when I feel like it was just yesterday the Trickster Coyote – the Native American mythical creature of evil and bad omen – blindsided me, bent on taking me down in the one sacred place I felt I could take refuge from the world: my home.
PUBLISHED April 30, 2018
Carolyn Choate recently retired from the TV production industry to write full-time. Diagnosed at 45 with stage 3 estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer in 2003, she underwent two radical mastectomies - in 2003 and 2012 - without reconstruction. Carolyn credits Angela Brodie, Ph.D., and her discovery of the aromatase inhibitor, for saving her life and those of millions of women globally. In the summer of 2017, Carolyn and her older daughter kayaked from New Hampshire to Baltimore in tribute to Dr. Brodie. When not informing others about Dr. Brodie and the "living flat" movement, Carolyn enjoys gardening, cooking and RVing with her family and dog.
I marked my 15th year of cancer survivorship far from my New Hampshire home, soaking, once again, in the healing, hot mineral springs of New Mexico’s Ojo Caliente – the sacred and storied land of the Pueblo peoples. Miles from civilization, the Georgia O’Keeffe-esque red canyons reached for the clouds, while I was dwarfed in their shadow, up to my neck in the hand-wrought stone pools brimming with the medicinal iron, arsenic, lithia and soda-laced waters. I was keenly aware of life and again reminded of the unexpected detour mine took on April 17, 2003.

Fifteen years. What to say?

In Native American story-telling, concepts of time and space are so different from how we see them in Western culture. Something that occurred long ago in tribal history may be referenced as happening yesterday to have immediate impact on listeners as they seek to make sense of a traumatic and/or confusing event or situation.

Time can be circular, not linear, as we traditionally construe it. While we think of the past as a natural, rational route in molding and understanding the future, Native Americans strongly believe the future is a valuable route in molding and understanding the past. It’s a two-way street.

This idea isn’t lost on me as I recall the first time I came to Ojo Caliente. It will be 15 years in August, just two weeks after completing eight rounds of grueling, dose-dense chemotherapy.

My close friend, Sally, gifted me with a needed getaway to the “Land of Enchantment,” as they call New Mexico. Would the mythical healing mineral springs heal me? I doubted it. Given my prognosis, I already had one foot in the grave. It was just a matter of time.

It’s incredibly edifying, then, from my vantage point now, to look back at the person I was in the trauma of cancer and realize the person I’ve become today through the cancer experience. Glimpsing the epic journey of survivorship through the Native American lens, planting the past in the present as a route to the future, the shell of a woman who came to New Mexico in 2003 – bald, pallid and weak – was, in reality, a maelstrom of determination, endurance and will. And were it not for this thought-provoking contribution of Native American philosophy and culture, I don’t know that I’d see myself for the strong woman I was then.

As to the notion of space, to the Native American, it is far more than a geographical location. Many earthly places – especially land where their ancestors were born or are buried – are sacred and imbued with eternal, spiritual powers.

When I contemplate this latest benchmark in my life, my 15th year surviving stage 3b breast cancer, I confess there are times when I feel like it was just yesterday the Trickster Coyote – the Native American mythical creature of evil and bad omen – blindsided me, bent on taking me down in the one sacred place I felt I could take refuge from the world: my home. At such times, I am struck by the thought that I will never fully recover from cancer’s onslaught. Its emotional tidal river runs deep and far. It rises and falls, and is often log-jammed with old nightmares and new worries.

Most other days, especially after the first three years and after my second mastectomy, and nine years after my original diagnosis, the cancer experience has encouraged me to go places I know would not have gone otherwise, or at my age. These were places within myself I hadn’t taken the time to discern or explore or appreciate.

Given the severity of my condition, I ultimately understood that life has the power to offer the continuum of life, a gift I took for granted before cancer. All else is superfluous. Wow, am I embarrassed by the pile of useless distractions I accumulated. Especially in my mind. I’ve since downsized the meaningless and invested more in the meaningful. It’s been a complete lifestyle change as important as diet and exercise.

So, here’s to the next 15 years of life. And, to you, Trickster Coyote, I’m all the wiser since you ambushed me.
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