Monday, June 10, 2013

Walking the Dogs: Coping With Cancer Fears

My mother told me that when she and my father were getting divorced, she walked the dog a lot. I think what she might have said was, "I walked that dog for miles and miles." She said she did this because she was so anxious about the divorce and the uncertainty of her future. I can't blame her. At that point, she had been married for 16 years, and had not held a job for as many years. She was about to venture out on her own for the first time in her life, loading the car up with four children and a dog. And she was going to do this with relatively little money, and the need to find a way to support that crew of kids. No wonder she walked the dog so much.

I can certainly identify with my mom in many ways, since I've had many of my own moments of fear and uncertainty. But I've never dealt with anything as challenging as Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. This is a whole new level of uncertainty and fear.  Sometimes I'm okay in that fear, the anxiety ebbing low.  But other times the fear sweeps over me, puts me on alert, slows my breathing, buzzes through my brain.  It's at that point that I think of my mom walking the dog. And like my mom, I leash up the dogs, and I walk. Walking really does help, each step taking a bite out of the anxiety like a moving tranquilizing machine.

But my mom taught me another lesson.  When she was younger, she was a frightened woman, raised by two critical and angry parents, her gentle soul apparently retreating into a place of doubt and trepidation.  She grew up to be a woman frightened to drive, frightened to change, frightened for the people she loved. My grandfather's favorite phrase was, "I don't mean to be critical, but . . . ", the words after that anything but gentle and kind. The sad part was that when my grandfather died, several years after my grandmother, my mother commented that her father, my grandfather, was the "nice" parent. It was at that point that I realized more fully what she had been through.

My mother had her demons and the way she quieted the demons was food addiction (in her case, it was compulsive overeating). Food addiction ruled her life and almost took it, pushing her into diabetes, kidney failure, arthritis so bad both knees had to be replaced. Finally she experienced breathing difficulties severe enough to put her on oxygen, her life lived at the end of a 100 foot tube.  It was this final malady that almost took her life, and finally fully awakened her to the dangers of her addiction. She sought help from Overeaters Anonymous (OA).  With the aid of a food sponsor, whom she called every day to commit her food plan, meetings, and working the 12 Steps, she achieved abstinence, a healthy weight, and her health issues resolved.  But most importantly, she was happy.  Really happy.  The happiest I had ever seen her in her life.

When asked what happened, why she went to OA, she would reply, "I would look at the Twinkie in my hand and tell myself, I can eat the Twinkie, or I can breathe."

The response was humorous, but didn't really capture what my mother's actions meant.  My mother had chosen life, and the message she sent was one of hope, and that is was okay to ask for help.  Accepting help keeps us alive.

Like my mother, I am fiercely independent and I can dwell in fear. I do not want to be a burden or dependent. I am afraid to ask for help. But here I am, in a situation where I have no choice. In order to stay alive, I must ask for and accept help. At these moments, when I’m too scared to ask for help or take the hand offered to me, I look at my mother’s example. This frightened and independent woman chose life by asking for and taking help every day. The life she led was finally one of serenity and peace. My mother deserved that peace and so do I.

My mom is no longer here; she died of a stroke in 2008. I hold her love in my heart. Her strength to reach out and keep reaching out is something I will never forget. I can only hope that in my own struggle against a terrifying illness that will eventually kill me, I have the strength to reach out as well. Admitting limits never hurt anyone and it actually can save your life. My mom taught me that. I miss you, Mom. I’ll do my best to follow in your footsteps. In the meantime, if anyone needs me, I’ll be out walking the dogs.

Also published on CureToday