Back to Work – Finding a Stance

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August 24.

I have been on a tour of sorts back east for the past 2+weeks, mostly – I am happy to report – with Moe. Our trip is a mix of work, a visit with my family to celebrate my dad’s 89th birthday, a trip to the empty beaches of Chincoteague Island for a quick few days off and more work. It was also supposed to include a visit to see my favorite coach from high school, but a last minute schedule snafu messed that up.

It’s been a good trip. Mostly, I wanted my dad to lay eyes on me so he could see I was all right. He did, and I am.

During our visit, I got to hear how concerned he was. I guess he thought I might have been withholding the truth, as if my diagnosis or the treatment might resulted in death. I wished he had believed me so he could have worried less, but I’ve hedged the truth enough in the past about a variety of things, so it’s understandable why he didn’t. When we greeted each other, he held the back of my neck in his hand and looked deep into my eyes – as if trying to see into my feelings – and said “it’s good to see you my boy”. I teared-up. As a parent, he had endured the unthinkable, again. I felt apologetic for what he had been through but resisted the urge to apologize. I couldn’t find words for what I was feeling, or what I guessed he might have been feeling, so I just said “It’s good to see you, too, dad.” We hugged, and order was restored to my universe.

I officially ended chemotherapy when I was discharged from the hospital for stay #3 on July 23. “Whew” is all I need to say about that except to say thanks to Julie, Tom, Cookie (not her real name), the other Julie, Vandy, Todd, and all the other nurses whose faces I will remember but names I have forgotten.

The next week I jumped back in to work and flew to Baltimore for a short gig. This first return to normalcy was depressing for some reason. I hadn’t taken the time to emotionally close-out the past 5 months of treatment I guess. The work was fine, good even, and I worked through some of the complex feelings I had.

My hair is returning. It is at the stage where people who know me sometimes feel compelled to rub my head as if they were rubbing the Buddha’s belly. I don’t mind, I hope it brings one of us good luck. When people see how white my hair is, some try to poke fun at me, saying things like “wow Jim, your hair’s really coming in white, OLD MAN.” As if I care. I’m just grateful to have it at all, and grateful for just being there to accept their jabs. I wouldn’t care if by hair was coming back in blue. I had forgotten about people rubbing my head, otherwise, this part of the recovery and detox process is familiar ground to me. My recovery is bracketed by frustratingly short and slow run/walks, lots of supplements (pills, drops, powders, etc,) to clean me out and help my organs and their tired mitochondria get healthy again, and people asking me “how ARE you?” which really means “is the cancer gone?”

The answer is “we think so” and time will tell. My work now is to find and adopt a healthy stance to my life with some uncomfortable unknowns. The two extreme stances that I can envision are stoic denial on one hand, and constant vigilance and focus on my physical health on the other. I could easily adopt the “it’s all good, I’m great and there’s nothing to worry about” stance. It has the advantage of being what people want to hear. I know lots of folks who adopt this stance for everything from losing a job to kidney disease. It works for them but for me, it leaves the door open for receiving devastating news in the future if my cancer comes back. Of all the memories I have of the past 5 months, by far the worst were the first few weeks after my diagnosis. I had convinced myself cancer and I were done. We weren’t.

The stance of becoming constantly vigilant and focusing on my physical health doesn’t really suit me either. There are hundreds of variations on this stance, some of which are pretty unrealistic and certainly no fun. For example, I could find work that doesn’t require me to travel (not if I want to meet my financial obligations or realize any of our financial goals). I could give up beer and wine altogether and anything with sugar (cancer loves sugar). I could become super-careful about what I eat, shifting to a mostly organic, mostly vegan diet (unrealistic if I continue to travel for work). And so on…

The truth is we don’t know what caused this cancer and probably never will, but I can take reasonable steps to reduce the likelihood of it coming back. I’m going to cut way down or eliminate the stuff I know isn’t good for me; sugar, red meat, foods from the inside of the store, and so on. I’m also going to become one of those label reading supplement junkies who cruises the isles of Whole Foods-type stores, trying to find whatever my naturopathic oncologist has recommended – from tree bark to mushroom juice. I’ve cut down on beer and wine, but I’m not going to eliminate it, or the occasional margarita. I’m going to get as close to 7 hours of sleep a night as my travel and work schedule will allow and I am going to get as fit as balancing all of these things will allow. But by far the hardest stance for me to shift will be the stance of getting a better handle on my anxiety.

If I tell myself the truth, my anxiety is in the driver’s seat a lot more often than is healthy. I attempt to convert the anxiety into motivation by turning a lot of life events into what William James called “the moral equivalent of war”.

War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us.

James’ point was that, to eliminate war, humanity had to convert its collective energies to serving the common good, and to literally go to war against war. By doing so, he believed we would bring out all the great human characteristics that allow us to accomplish exceptional things, motivated by the same strong passions that come out in times of great duress, like war.

I turn a lot of things into war-like problems, but doing so keeps me working very hard, usually on the wrong things. My anxiety isn’t good for anything or anyone, including my body, my relationships or the world. I know that learning to manage or even eliminate it is what’s best for me. At 58 can I make that sort of shift in stance? We shall see. The goal isn’t to eliminate ALL of my anxiety, but to be more mindful of it and how it impacts my happiness and health.

For me, the antidote to anxiety is to remember that I am loved, and that love is what matters, and that I am enough even when I misstep and even when I can’t change the world, and that I am best able receive the love that’s available to me when I am still and listening and open. This is hard work for me, but it’s good work.

Back to work.