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Jul 08 2016

Mammograms, Ropes, and Snakes

When your entire body hurts all the time, and the breast soreness becomes intense with each hormonal cycle, it’s natural to avoid things that increase pain. So I put off my mammogram for what I thought was 2 years, but turned out to be 3. The day after the test, I happened to have a follow up with my doctor, so she gave me a print out of the report and said the radiology department would be calling me back for more boob squishing. I didn’t think anything of it and focused on the more pressing issues of discussing options to treat the Endometriosis that has been getting progressively worse. We decided on another trial of Femara, this time taking the estrogen blocker for part of the month instead of every day and unleashing the dreaded hot flashes. (Ironically, Femara was originally sold as a breast cancer drug.)

As promised, the radiology department called in the morning to schedule the additional mammogram and breast ultrasound. I had looked up “new asymmetry on the right axillary tail” so I know there’s a good chance the abnormality is simply a shadow. I made the appointment for next week and told the woman on the phone, “it’s probably just a shadow.” She didn’t comment.

I finished getting dressed and thoughts about the upcoming test unleashed a wave of wistful sadness as I considered the potential changes to this body. Just then the wind howled and was answered by the baying of all the neighborhood dogs. They howled and yelped as if to say: “Don’t worry, you are not alone.” The sadness dissolved into gratitude for this body and the life it has lived.

Through my spiritual practice, I’ve become accustom to watching my mind. I notice the random thoughts that pass through, the moods and feelings, basically all the good, bad, ugly, and beautiful things that arise and fall away. Staying centered in the present moment, this practice of mindfulness has allowed me to both witness and fully experience the entire range of options available to humans.

rope-948677_640As I went on with my day, I watched my thoughts return to the abnormal mammogram. The classic example of Ignorance offered by Shankara played out in my head. In a dark corner, there is a coiled shape. We don’t know if it’s a rope or a snake. And if it is a snake, we don’t know if it’s a dangerous snake. If we pretend it’s a rope, then we could invite great danger through our mistake. If we pretend it’s a snake, then we could freak out in fear and waste energy over nothing. All we can do is remain calm and open while we seek more information.basilisk-rattlesnake-7303_640

I noticed over and over I kept telling myself, “it’s probably just a shadow.” Then it hit me: I was facing denial. I laughed and reminded myself I had no way of knowing until the next test. And at that time, I would deal with whatever needed to be done.

It seemed within minutes, my mind switched gears and hit anger. I realized there was still some deep resentment I held towards my body. It became sick and disabled when I was 28 years old, right at the age when I was prepared to make millions as a computer consultant. My illness cost me friends, money, and endless adventures and instead gave me tears, exhaustion, and pain – lots of pain. It also gave me the motivation to work my spiritual practice on deeper levels than I could have imagined. I spent time sitting with my body, apologizing for my anger and showering it with gentle gratitude for the immense strength it has despite all its challenges. I also scanned my attention for any external resentment. Within my mind, I asked all those people for forgiveness for any harm caused by my anger and let it all drop away.

As I chopped green onions for lunch, I caught myself bargaining. “I’ll eat better, with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables,” I promised. Immediately my blatant honesty kicked in and said, “No you won’t. You’ll do what you do, and eat what you want. And that’s OK.” The bargaining stopped right there.

Later in the day, as if out of nowhere, the depression hit like an avalanche. Although I’m familiar with the stages of grief, I wasn’t expecting it. As first I was confused. I thought perhaps the sadness arose from all the horrific stories on Facebook I had been reading. But my practice demands that I look, and look deeply.

I watched the mind cycle through its thoughts. It wasn’t death that brought me to sorrow; to me death is a natural part of life and although I miss those who have gone, I feel no fear or sadness at the thought of the death of my own body. The sorrow that arose came about at the thought of the decisions to be made and all that my husband and I would have to go through if it does turn out to be cancer.

I thought of the unknown form coiled in the corner and smiled from the calm of the present moment. The appointment has been made, so there is nothing more to be done right now. The report says “Incomplete” and that is all I know for sure. The sun will set tonight, and it will most likely rise tomorrow. There are piles of projects on my desk, and I’m excited to see what I can accomplish in this beautiful body. And when the tests are done next week, then I’ll know whether the form in the dark corner is a rope or a snake and I will deal with it accordingly.

I’m sharing this with you today because I know there are millions of us waiting for the results that will tell us if the coiled shape in our dark corner is a harmless rope or a deadly snake. Once we have done everything we can to discover the information, we can only wait for the Light. And in these moments of being with the Unknown, we can let the wind and the howling dogs remind us we are not alone.

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7/12/16 – UPDATE

First, the news: It was a rope! The radiologist told me the change they spotted was a simple lymph node that did not appear on my previous scans, probably because of its position close to my armpit. They want me to come back in 6 months to make sure it doesn’t grow or change in any way, so there will be more squishing sooner than I like, but it is worth it.

Next, I want to say a big THANK YOU! to my sweet husband, who took time off from work to go with me for my tests. Having him there was a huge comfort, especially when I watched the ultrasound technician taking many pictures of a round blob. And a big THANK YOU! to those of you who left comments, sent emails and texts and phone calls and who inwardly sent beautiful healing energy. I feel so completely supported, and I am humbled by your kindness and your love.

I know sitting with the Unknown is a challenge to which many of us relate. While I was sitting with my own unknown this week, I was reading Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid and came across this line: “…we poor humans are wired up to always think the worst is gonna happen because it so rarely does. Then what’s only lousy seems okay – almost good, in fact – and we can cope just fine.” The truth of this strikes me even deeper now; I had hoped what they saw was a shadow and that would be the end of it and I could go back to skipping mammograms. But it being a lymph node in need of watching actually is good in scheme of things.

Remembering Shankara’s example of the rope and the snake allowed me to let go of that tendency to think about the worst, and saved me from wasting hours of doing research on things I don’t need to know about right now. It let me avoid being sucked into fear and instead, I worked on the projects I wanted to focus on out of love.

My wish is for those of you who are reading this is that with whatever issue has taken on the form of a coiled shape in a dark corner, you also are able to remember that it is safe to let the Unknown be Unknown for however long it takes to get a light shining in that corner. You are not alone with the Unknown, and while you are waiting, you are allowed to go on with your life, having fun exploring this magical world.

Please continue to share this post with anyone who may benefit.

This beautiful butterfly enjoying the flowers greeted us as we came out of the hospital; a wonderful reminder of the endless transformations we all experience each day!

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THANK YOU!

Jenna

3 comments

  1. Brian

    Gate gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha

  2. Shiva

    As you know, we are all just beings of Light that have congealed into these temporary bodies for a few days, or decades. In Buddhism, we know that everything is transitory. Our bodies, experiences, this world, and even this Universe, are just a passing dream of Creation and experience.
    You will not always be in pain. The pain will go away, and then return for a spell. Just like all the other experiences our Soul has.
    The body, and the world itself, is constantly trying to keep us distracted and confused about our true nature…When we are experiencing pain, or facing the specter of Death, we lose sight of this basic Buddhist teaching on the transitory nature of Creation.
    As a friend, and someone who is also somewhat removed from your everyday life, I am connected to you through our lineage, and yet I am not all that involved in your daily experiences. This provides me with the opportunity to see you in a completely different way than you can see yourself.
    Ramakrishna said, “The darkest place in the room, is at the base of the lantern.”
    Since I am not where you are, not at the base of your lantern, what I see is quite different that what you experience.
    So here is what I see…
    As I behold your shinning radiance, it is clear to me that you are enlightened. I will not judge the level of your enlightenment, but you are enlightened. Your body is the perfect manifestation of your souls vehicle for this enlightenment process. It has forced you to go deeper and to reach higher than you would have otherwise.
    Knowing the transitory nature of Creation, I can easily see your body evolving into the healthy, pain free, experience of Love, Light, and Enlightenment. From what I see, the necessity of a pain-racked body is not a permanent situation at all.
    So in my world, you are perfect. And, I will continue to see you in this way.
    I have a vision of you standing on top of the mountain, that you have climbed in this life, in a healthy, powerful body. This is your destiny. Nothing can stop it from happening… Nothing… I have seen your Soul, and been blinded by it’s Light. You may see yourself full of pain and limitation, I do not. That pain was just a temporary experience, to bring you to this place of seeing.
    As always, Love will guide the way. Love is the way…
    It has been a real gift this time around, to have had you as part of this current dream… Thank you!
    Love,
    Shiva

  3. Chinjandra

    As it turns out I went through this but in my case I did have breast cancer. When I found out it had already spread quite far. I kept the news to myself for a few weeks until I could be sure that with treatment I would likely not die.

    Then I got pissed, then I fought for my life and beat it back.

    Rama used to say, in the samsara there is winning and losing. If you don’t think so then talk to someone who beat cancer and talk to someone who can’t. But it is just in this plane of attention that there is winning and losing.

    Anyway, what I learned was that I can survive the bad stuff and even if my body does not survive my spirit is truly deathless and timeless and can not be destroyed.

    And as you say, we can use fear and pain and joy and longing and happiness and anything else that comes our way to propel us more and more deeply into light.

    Thanks for sharing. Beautiful post.

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