Aug. 1, 2019
There are those times in life, I find, where we get caught up in a storm, like a tornado. First it begins with dark and threatening skies, thick clouds that begin to billow and accumulate. The air changes and becomes static, causing arm hairs to stand up. Then the wind picks up moving around chaotically, throwing around dirt, leaves and debris until eventually the atmospheric vortex forms, and and instead of being tossed around chaotically, all movement becomes intensely drawn into the rapid rotations of the cyclone. In the middle of that intense cyclone lies the stillness found within the eye of the storm, the utmost calm, so much so, one can't help but wonder how nature created such peace to exist when there are incredibly destructive forces all around. However, the stillness of the eye doesn't last, and once again the winds catch and up through the tornado one goes until eventually you're thrown out the other side. Through the wake of that tornado is upturned, raw earth, and devastating destruction all around. However, within that carnage lies hope and a new opportunity to rebuild, differently this time, stronger, so as to withstand another tornado. This has been my path for the last few weeks, something that would rival even Dorothy tornado trip to Oz.
As I had completed my second round of chemotherapy and was near approaching the third round, I felt myself being hit with the emotional impact of everything that I was going through. I was feeling a wide range of emotions, everything from anger, frustration, and sadness to anxiety and anticipation. I felt caught up in the tornado of emotions all cycling rapidly and feeling like they were all whipping around me without any ability to grasp or control them. All of it resulted in staying awake throughout the night, trying to search for answers online, panic attacks and crying without much provocation.
I fell to the aid of my entire care team to come to terms with the what I was feeling and why, until eventually I was guided to go deep into myself to where I discovered a slight, little girl of around 6 or 7 years old patiently waiting for me. She resembled me but also the other females in my family. She had a loose low ponytail and her hair was slightly disheveled. She wore a simple olive coloured, flower printed cotton dress. Her white socks fell around her ankles and her shoes looked worn. The overall look was that of a sad and tired child. Her large mournful eyes seem to gaze directly at me, as if she had faced years of grief in her short little life. I stood in front of her and asked her why she was so sad, to which she replied in her innocent child-voice 'Play with me'. She then reached out her hand for me to grasp, which I did, and was lead to a playground. The playground was actually my swing and slide set which was in the backyard of our first home. While living in this house, I recall the majority of my happiest childhood memories. Upon approaching the swing set I became the child and I sat on the swings and immediately remembered memories of playing here. I used to love jumping onto my swings and trying to get as high off the ground as possible. It felt like I was flying, like I was free. I was doing the same thing here, pumping my legs to obtain further momentum, experiencing that lurching sensation in my stomach as I would reach the highest point, then throwing my head back view the world upside down as the swing would head downwards again. I did this over and over again for a while, having a palpable sense of thrill and joy as I did.
After I had finished playing on my set, the previously sad looking child returned, only this time she looked happy and content. Her large eyes had a sense of innocent excitement and wonder to them. I got off the swing and we waved goodbye to each other and she skipped off on her way. I felt a sense of letting go, all my obligations, expectations, and stresses, especially those that I had placed from the desire of others. I also felt like I was letting go of the cancer and all the emotions it represented. This was a cancer that had been passed on from my paternal grandmother, she was a young woman in her 40s when she died from breast cancer, two of her daughters, my aunts, both died of ovarian cancer. I was letting go of their expectations, stresses and anger as well. I'm healing from this cancer not just for me but for them as well, this cancer spread across generations within my family and I was fortunate enough to have been born in Canada and a health care practitioner myself. If anyone can handle this, I could. With that knowing came a sense of stillness, quiet inside with an overall feeling of being content.
I moved through my chemotherapy session #3 and 4 with that ease and stillness. The third session went relatively well, my symptoms were not as intense and I was able to recover well. It was the deception that occurs in the eye of the storm. I thought I had overcome all my emotional stresses and can move through this whole cancer chapter with that same calmness. For my fourth session, I had been warned that I may feel the impact of these medications more than before. Did I ever! My symptoms were definitely more intense and uncomfortable. I had brain fog, extreme tiredness, and light headed, diarrhea and intense heartburn. It took longer to recover from the chemotherapy, but was at least relieved knowing that it was the last of the doxorubicin and cylcophosphamide (AC) treatment, next I move on to 4 cycles of paclitaxel.
With all the physical symptoms I was experiencing, it seemed to wear on my emotionally. I started to have anticipatory thoughts of knowing that this sense of calmness and ease was going to change again soon. As the days wore on and I continued to experience the relentless impact of the cumulative cancer treatments, I knew I was leaving the peace within the eye of the storm and was being thrown violently out of the cyclone to witness the destruction it had caused. When that hit, and without much provocation I felt raw on the inside and incredibly vulnerable. I had spent my entire life building emotional walls around myself, so that I can control situations around me. I housed all my feelings within these walls and then subdivided them into rooms. I was the older sibling and cousin within our family, as such I was tasked with the responsibility of being mature, caring, and always setting a good example. My family would often look to me for guidance and answers, so I couldn't be the one to falter in any way. The walls were created not just around my family but for all associations and relations around me, friends, patients, students, etc.. They helped me to regulate how I wanted the world to see me. However, now being in the cyclone of cancer, my houses were all being destroyed and the walls broken down. The very earth that my houses even stood upon were upturned. As such, I was left raw, vulnerable and scared. At first I didn't quite know what to do with these sensations, however the first person who was on the other side of my cyclone was James. Without much provocation, I began weeping, crying from a place deep inside and I couldn't stop. All I could do was look at him as I cried, he approached me, comforted me and wiped away my tears. I knew I could be vulnerable around James, he was the one I trusted the most. In that vulnerability I found his love and gained strength. This is a different type of strength than what I've had before, this one came from a place of love, support and community.
After my experience with James, I felt like I was ready to be vulnerable with my community. I'm fortunate in my life to have so many caring circles, so I began with my closest circle, my family. It was time for me to be vulnerable with them. When I had begun to lose large lumps of my hair from the chemotherapy, I had my Booji (my father's sister) buzz cut my hair, so that it wouldn't be so upsetting and an easier transition to being bald. As the weeks went on, the majority of my hair had fallen out, however what remained were sparse bits of hair. I kept saying I looked like Gollum from Lord of the Rings.
I was ready to have my hair completely shaved. So I went back to Booji's salon and she shaved my hair down. This experience was much different than the last time I sat in the chair. As the last of my hair was shaved away, I was again vulnerable and exposed. The walls of control and protection were broken down, and we were giddy, excited and full of laughs. With my shaved head, I thought I looked more like Lieutenant Ilia from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but my mom, who was sitting in another chair getting her hair coloured, looked over and said "Hey! Put glasses on and you'll look like Gandhi!" Then she bowled over laughing at her own joke. Thanks mom.
The energy that my mom, Booji, my cousin Kanchan and I all shared was definitely one trust and love. This continued on the next day when we met with the rest of the family for a bbq. I laughed with my cousins, the very same ones I had to be responsible, controlled and mature around, but this time I had let go and enjoyed belly aching laughter. Jokes of me looking like Gandhi came up, however my Phuphaji (Booji's husband) looked at my bald head and said "You look like Persis Khambatta", which is Lieutenant Ilia from Star Trek. Thank you Phuphaji, you get me. After a successful night, I was full of love and fortitude gained from my close family community. I was growing in confidence for conquering this cancer.
Then, the weekend came to an end. I was feeling such loving support from those around me, I knew it was time to speak to my larger community. I had not shared my diagnosis with my larger community and really wanted to be vulnerable with them. As such, Monday morning I woke up with a sense of wanting to further my strength by gaining love from my community. This is what lead me to sharing a picture of my freshly bald head and let those in my larger circle know what's happening with me. I dropped the control and let myself be raw with my friends, family, patients and students. This lead to an overwhelming response of heartfelt messages, wishes of love, strength and prayers from all over the globe. At my parents house, my mom had phone calls coming in all day of people wanting to connect, share their stories and express their support. I feel like I was rebuilding a new me from the earth up, now on the other side of this cancer cyclone. This new me is learning about the courage that comes from having my tribe backing me up. There are no walls here to be torn down by a tornado, instead, durability comes from the combined energy of all those around me expressing their positive vibrations and support.
Vulnerability creating strength, love, compassion and confidence was hardly something I was open to learning prior to all this. It seemed like I needed to go through this experience in order for me to understand that durability is not created with walls, but through the willingness to engage in the backbone of my community. I am fortunate to have a supportive community, who are each wonderful human beings with their own stories of strength to share. I learn from those around me and through my tribe am continuing to master how to navigate my way through this new post cancer-tornado world.
Thanks for reading!