By Cyndi Myers
March 2014. I was 45 years old, doing boot camp-like training almost daily, eating healthy, working at a job I loved helping others understand the happiness of living a healthy life. My kids were active, happy and healthy, and we were all just rolling along...until we weren’t. Or, until I wasn’t. I started to notice my stamina suddenly waning, my legs burning after climbing the single set of stairs in our home and my heart palpitating wildly with the simplest of movements. Were these warning signs of an impending heart attack? Was I catapulting into menopause where anything goes??
As it turned out, it was none of these. It was Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). Cancer. The diagnosis I was waiting for my entire adult life, as cancer runs rampant in my mother’s family. All kinds of cancer. But this was different. Blood cancer. Leukemia, all the doctors told me, is more of a “fluke” cancer. They really haven’t pinpointed any direct links, genetic or otherwise.
So, there I was. 45 year old mom of 3 young(ish) kids. I was told I needed to get to the hospital ASAP. I’d be there for 4+ weeks. WHAT??
You see, with leukemia there are no stages. You either have it or you don’t. And once it’s “on” there’s no time to waste. My bone marrow was out of control, sending out immature white blood cells before they were ready and at a rapid rate, crowding out my oxygen-delivering red blood cells. It all made sense now. The complete exhaustion, the burning quads, the whole-body rash, headaches, nausea and extreme heart palpitations all had a root cause, a name.
Three short days later, into the hospital I went, head still spinning and in a complete fog. I set up camp in my small, single room on D4E and within hours had a PIC line in my arm, prepping for a month-long invasion of everything that I was. Actually, in hindsight, it was more like a stripping down of everything that I was. In an instant I went from a healthy, fit, busy working woman, to a sick, bed-ridden shell of my former self. It was necessary, and I knew that.
After a battery of tests to ensure my body was in a good enough place to be pummeled by all the chemotherapy I was to endure, my journey began. I truly never spent even one second wondering “why me?”. Somewhere deep down I knew I’d be okay. What I didn’t know was that I was about to embark upon a life-altering journey that would take me to the depths of my very being. Straight to my soul.
The Journey To My Soul
As part of the aforementioned battery of tests, I had a lumbar puncture to sample my spinal fluid to be sure no leukemia was present in the fluid that has a direct line to my brain. Chemotherapy does not break the blood-brain barrier, so once in the brain I suppose the disease becomes incurable. The procedure also requires delivery of chemo directly into the spine as a preventative measure. If you’ve ever had a lumbar puncture, you know that you need to lay flat for some time so that teeny little puncture hole has the chance to completely seal itself up so fluid doesn’t leak. If fluid does leak out, it causes a headache like you’ve never experienced before, one which takes days to go away. I learned this lesson the hard way with my very first (of many) lumbar puncture. And as I lay in my hospital bed unable to pick my head up off the pillow for several days, one of the many amazing nurses charged with my care suggested calling someone in from the Healing Touch Department. I had no idea what exactly this was or how someone from this department would actually be able to help, but I was in so much pain I would’ve done anything for some relief.
Enter Diane, Healer Extraordinaire. Diane is a beautiful soul who uses Reiki energy to calm and heal your body. Her energy is, quite literally, otherworldly. After this first session, tears flowed endlessly, releasing all the craziness that preceded that moment. My healing journey suddenly made sense to me, and from that moment (which was about a week into my initial month-long stay) I opened myself up to all of the beautiful energy surrounding me and began to truly heal.
The space I was able to create in that sterile hospital room was incredible, both visually and spiritually (a topic I dive into in another blog, Interior Therapy). The walls gradually filled with artwork my kids made and a beautiful paper flower garland a dear friend and her daughter handmade. A special blanket adorned my bed, lent to me by another dear friend whose son had used it during his long hospital stay when he, too, had leukemia. And a table lamp sat on my nightstand, thoughtfully brought to me by my sweet husband so I could turn off the terrible overhead fluorescent light that gave me headaches daily. Not only did all of these little touches make my space feel a little more like home, it all enabled me to find my soul - my home within myself - as well. And so began my love affair with leukemia.
Each day began with a prayer of gratitude, giving thanks for waking up to life, for my family and for the incredible support network I had. What Diane gave me wasn’t simply an hour of her time; she gave me a renewed sense of purpose, the ability to actually see and KNOW my own purpose and, so very importantly, to be grateful for all of it. I was finally able to go deeper into meditation, opening my humanness to my soul and connecting the two in the beautiful marriage that was always meant to be. Leukemia made this happen; it was my very own message from the Universe. How could I NOT fall deeply, madly in love??
Like any deep and profound love does, it caught me off guard. In the whirlwind of the outset of my diagnosis, I never would’ve thought I would come out of the hospital holding on to that space with such reverence. I still travel to that hospital room in my meditations because of the special place it holds in my soul. I found my true self, my true purpose in this life right there in room 421 on D4E. I know now that it wasn’t necessarily the room or even leukemia that brought me to this place. But I truly believe it was the nudge I needed to truly fulfill my life’s purpose.
3 Coping Strategies When You’re in the Thick of Things:
Create a warm, relaxing space centered on healing. Gather items that make you feel good, that remind you of loved ones and that make you smile even in the toughest of times. Surround yourself with your special items and check in with them every day to remind yourself that you are loved. And if you’re confined to a hospital room, don’t be afraid to create your healing space right there!
Take time to meditate. It’s no secret that connecting your mind and body is essential to healing. Begin each day with thoughts of gratitude - even for what may seem like the smallest of things - and take a few moments to breathe deeply and let your body marinate in all the goodness. If you’re finding it difficult to quiet your mind, try a guided meditation. You can find endless online sources for guided meditations, but I have always found the meditations on Insight Timer to be outstanding.
Move your body. I know this might sound impossible when you’re feeling like you’ve been hit by a mack truck, but any movement you can do will benefit you more than you can imagine. Once you are cleared by your doctor, a short walk (even if just around your living room), stretching, lifting your legs up and down while you’re sitting or laying down, squats, lunges, push-ups or any movement you can muster will help your muscles, joints and even your mental health. The Mayo Clinic suggests that many studies indicate that people who maintain some physical exercise during treatment not only cope better during treatment, but also may live longer.
According to the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org), exercise before, during and after cancer treatment can potentially benefit you in a myriad of ways. It can:
Help your body and brain work better
Help lessen depression and anxiety
Might help you sleep better
Keep or improve your physical ability to get things done
Improve your muscle strength, bone health and range of motion
Strengthen your immune system
Increase your appetite
Help you get to and maintain a healthy weight
May help with breast cancer-related lymphedema (does not increase risk)
Decrease the chance that some types of cancer will come back
Improve your quality of life
Reduce treatment side effects
Not everyone will fall in love with their cancer or illness. I recognize I am an anomaly. But there are many ways you can take control of how you respond to and maneuver through your own journey. Experiencing illness, whether it be cancer or any other life-altering illness, certainly takes its toll on both our bodies and our minds. Finding ways to cope that work for you will not only enable you to stay strong physically, but mentally as well. I am pretty sure I am on the other side of cancer because I found ways to take care of my WHOLE body. I didn’t necessarily fall in love with leukemia; I fell in love with who I became BECAUSE of leukemia. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.