Coming Back

Radiation is a weird animal.  Easier, by far, then chemo.  Mysterious and invisible, the x-rays penetrate my right breast quadrant every day, while I lay very still and with my arm above my head to ensure correct line up as the precision machine is moving around me, carefully avoiding, so we hope, exposure and damage to any of my vital organs.

With the business of Monday through Friday treatment, and tagging on restorative Yoga, Qi Gong and Pilates classes, my life once again has a bit of a regular schedule.  Outwardly, things feel like they are beginning to resemble a somewhat “normal” rhythm.  Even if the majority of my daily appointments and chores are medical, there is once again a distinction between weekdays and weekends.

My hair takes its sweet time to cover my head once again, regardless of how ready I am for it.  Every day my hand goes over my bald head, longing for signs of stubble, or growth.  Will it really come back?  It reminds me of the end of winter,  when you know that spring is in the air,  but the land still looks barren and desolate all the same.  Until that special day, when the seeds finally push through the surface and into the light of day, for all to see.  Plain and clear:  life is coming back.  And so it is with my hair.  One fine morning a hue of gray on the sides of my head is reflected back to me from my bathroom mirror.  So slight, the difference, I wonder if the morning light is just playing tricks on me.  But slowly and surely, over the next few weeks, hair begins indeed to once again populate the various areas of my head, growing in all sorts of different tones and oddly shaped patches, soft like the first grass to cover the gray hillsides after the snow melt.  It takes quite a bit of time until the first half inch length covers most of my head.

And for how long I have waited and hoped for it, it takes me by surprise when I decide to shave it off once more.  I buzz it down to a bare sand paper stubble and love it! There is something magical about feeling the prickliness of my scalp – as supposed to the soft baldness under the chemo.   It feels powerful to choose my own bareness now, instead of being simply subject to it, as I was during the chemo.  It is my decision now, to go without, to carry my nakedness proudly, to stay honest and open at this time of great vulnerability for the many blessings that this surrender has called forth.  To walk from here on out,  into this new life that is just beginning.

Choosing to stay visible as a cancer initiate, many up close and personal encounters  with other human beings and their stories of love, healing and dying find their way to me.  Wherever I go now, in my nakedness I am invited to look under the skirt of our shared humanness, into the heart of the true nature of our interconnectedness.  And I find myself continuously amazed at the willingness of those touched by cancer to share their story, reach out and connect across race, age or class barriers, with an intimacy that is unthinkable in the ’normal’ world.

Everything is personal now.  Before my eyes, a world that has so often felt cold and un-relational has opened up to me now to share its deepest secrets, simply because I belong to this special “cancer club” that none of us wanted to belong to in the first place.  Like the woman rounding the corner in the Safeway aisle, who breaks out in this wide smile when she sees me,  and calls out:  “Good for you!  You wear your head high!  I never wore any of them damn wigs either, God they itch like crazy!”  Survivor of 17 years.  Wow!  Make my day.  May I get to pay it forward one fine day and make someone else laugh, some 17 years down the road…  Or the cashier at Trader Joe’s who tells me his mom just started treatment, and he’s afraid how she’s going to cope because she lives alone and he’s not close.  Or the fine old man who stops me at a department store, between the checkout stand and the special sales counter, putting his hand lightly on my shoulder and gently saying “I wish you well”.  His eyes full of tears, it turns out that his wife of 50 years has passed away only a few weeks earlier after a long battle with breast cancer and now his youngest daughter had just been diagnosed.  Damn!  And there we are, in a long, intimate and tearful hug, two complete strangers, in the middle of Target, in a territory that words just can’t reach, somehow managing to celebrate the blessing of love, even if it opens us up to the worst losses possible.

In my better moments, I feel such lightness, grace and gratitude for this new life.  By truly claiming my belonging in this threshold life, between birth and death, my life has become an offering for all beings.  For now, cropping my hair close to the scalp helps me keep remembering.  It keeps me honest.  I am sure that this too will shift one day.  The only constant is change.  There is nothing to hang on to.  All I know is that for now, it’s too early to go back to looking ‘normal’.  Instead, I am taking the liberty to turn into what is truly true for me, moment by moment, edgy and outrageous as that may be.  Normal is overrated anyway.


Originally written in March, 2012, edited in Nov 2014


The Yard Sale


One Saturday morning, about 10 days after the last chemo treatment, my lover found a yard sale that advertised lots of women’s clothes my size.  Floundering about yard sales and serendipitously finding things and (sometimes people) that relate to our lives in interesting ways is something we both love.  In addition, I was in the process of  starting  a whole new wardrobe from scratch.  Most of my favorite pre-surgery tops made me sad, looking lost on my much smaller post-op frame and though I was feeling dizzy and weak I was determined not to miss this chance.

By the time we made it there, the woman who had the sale had sold many of her items already and the first wave of yard sale customers had come and gone.  As we checked out what was left, we got to talking to her and it turned out that, like me, she was from Germany.  Her clothes and shoe size was very close to mine and I tried on several of her outfits in her garage.  She kept complementing me on how tiny I was and that she too once had the same figure.  Eventually, I shared with her the reason for my recent change in body fat.  🙂 She said:  “Oh, you probably don’t want to hear this, but my mother died of breast cancer when she was 41”.  Honestly, no, I didn’t!  But here it was again, the ever present reminder of how close cancer is to all of us.  So many are touched by it, if not within themselves then within their family or community.  Turns out Iris was 18 when her mother died, but her younger sister was only 5 years old at the time.  “My mother actually found the cancer early.  She was nursing my sister at the time and went to see the doctor about a lump in her breast.  But the doctor dismissed it as nothing and it was not until 3 years later that the cancer was found.  By then it was too late…..”

There are so many stories that I have heard since I have been diagnosed.  In some way it doesn’t surprise me anymore.  In some other ways it still does.  Being visible as a cancer patient in the outside world, marks me as vulnerable and mortal.  It also reminds people that life really is precious and impermanent.  Not everyone exactly likes to know that.  Even though life has a 100% mortality rate, most people prefer to ignore their basic human condition and take their lives for granted – literally, not receiving it as a gift, but as a given.  This sense of owning our lives actually creates a false sense of security.  Of course, life is never in our control.   A lot of human suffering is directed toward supporting the illusion of control over our lives to foster a sense of safety.  Ultimately, all attempts to assure our minds that we are in charge are futile.  Deep within our human DNA we know that life is ever fluid and changing, unbeknownst to our interpretations and subject to change at any minute of any day.

After I picked out some clothes that look like good additions to my wardrobe, I pay Iris and thank her for her very reasonable pricing.  She says: “I wish you good luck!  I do hope things work out for you.” , smiling awkwardly.  I am taken aback.  There is this funny feeling left in the air, some kind of a unspoken but distinct separation between us.  I am the one in need of luck.  She has seen cancer kill her mother.  She is (presumably) healthy and I am in unknown territory.  I want to say to her that my prognosis is very good.  That I will be fine.  That we are ALL mortal, not just me….!!!  For a moment I feel sorry for myself.  I want to be back in the “healthy people club”, the ones that have it “all together”, that can afford to wish sick people “good luck”.  I want to be back with the normal people, with the ignorant people, because it is so much easier than being so vulnerable, so on the edge of my living, so stripped down and with nothing but the commitment to live into the truth of my healing in every moment, without control in outcome and trusting into the unknown.

And yet, as we are pulling away from the curb, I realize that this is my gift now:  that I am willing to be that vulnerable  and naked, awakened by the journey through the fire.  Truth is, I could use all the luck I could get.  Life would never be the same for me after cancer, and actually I didn’t want it to.  I was grateful for the opportunity to wake up.  Along with a lot of pain and hardship, it had also brought incredible freedom into my life.  For better or for worse, I would never be able to go back to what once was.  Yes, in some bizarre way, the Damocles sword of recurrence would continue to set me free as much as it would keep me on my toes, asking me to open into moment after moment of this precious life, without being able to ‘count’ on any future but really being present NOW and NOW and NOW.  Because it is all we ever have to bring ourselves truly alive.

I realized how deeply I was committed to this path, and this practice now.  So what if I got tossed into the “sick corner” by some.  I would gladly stand in for our human condition as vulnerable stewards of this life we are taking care of.  Nothing wrong with that.  Smiling to myself I finally responded silently in my heart to Iris’s “good luck” with “I kindly thank you”, feeling peace and blessedness fill my heart while my lover turns toward me, from the driver seat, his eyes tender.  ‘”You okay?” he asks.  ” Yes”, I respond, “never better”.


LOVE – what else?

The following is a letter to my sweet soul sister Theresa, from a couple of weeks ago, around Valentine’s day.  We call each other cougars because we both continue to courageously turn into our own healing journey with cancer, and cougar has become somewhat of a code name for us to speak to the medicine power, the fierceness, the strength and the grace that is called out from us in the process.  So here is goes:


Dear Cougar Sister,

Yes, I know Valentines’ day is super cheesy and I can’t believe I’m writing you a Valentine’s letter.  Hearts and all!   But these days, and in this new life, things are more fluid, and sometimes things emerges that are as surprising to me as to anyone around me….

I’d already noticed last Christmas that I was less than average cynical about the whole holiday. Not a traditional Christian at heart I used to struggle to find my true place within the cultural anxiety grit of this holiday. For years I simply did it for my children, making their holidays bright, and trying to generate good memories for them, keeping things as sane and heart centered as possible.

But this last year, my growing children, my youngest 15 going on 25, were more leaned back about the whole thing than ever. With my lover feeling some of my usual pre-holiday angst, I was surprised to instead discover this genuine excitement about the upcoming feast inside me, even including all the parts that are always complicated, like dinner at my ex-husband’s house. I found myself humming and truly enjoying our Christmas tree, that for the first time was decorated with all white lights, as my young man finally seem to have outgrown the colored light preference of his childhood. There was a feeling of preciousness that made me feel soft, open, grateful and blessed. Who knows how many holidays I would still have with my kids, before my son was off to college abroad or elsewhere involved in his own life?

As our dying practice continues to teach us, it is in our letting go that we come ever more fully alive and I feel the truth of this running strongly through all major tangents of my life these days. There is simply no place left in this life that is not sacred, beautiful, and blessed – even the culturally loaded holidays or, and yes, maybe even the far fetched wanna-be occasions like Valentine’s day beckon our appreciation.

In this life, partnered by the firm hand of cancer, there is no space left for cynicism, too precious is each moment and each blade of grass under our feet. To us, the simple witnessing of clouds shape shifting is a blessing, even when they occasionally obscure the sun. In this presence, all is well – even that which isn’t so well. There is no longer room for ’no’ but only an ever evolving ‘yes’ to life, to love, to risk ourselves, to laugh, to make mistakes, to surrender any remaining resistance to the beauty and blessedness of all things, even death, to be honest, outrageous and irrational. To trust, to leap and to embrace, to forgive, to let go and to continue to open into the unknown, with every fiber of our heart.

And so it is with this long intro that I send you sweetest Valentine’s Day wishes.   Because there is no reason too small (or too cheesy!) for an invitation to celebrate. Ultimately, is it not what we are here for in the first place, to turn our bodies and minds over and have love have her way with us?

With gratitude for all the ways that we continue to turn into the blessedness of our living and dying.

Petra, your cougar sister

The Prayer Beads

By Julia Gunnels
A new and dear friend of mine gave me some prayer beads. There are ten large, dark amethyst beads with one light amethyst bead, making eleven in all. The string of beads just fits around my hand. I had never really used prayer beads, but I took them with me to my three day retreat right after I received the diagnosis.
I stayed in our community meditation room which is open, spacious with many windows and lots of light. Shortly into the first day I was sitting in a comfortable chair watching the tops of the bamboos trees moving in the warm breeze through the open windows. Tears streamed down my face in celebration of the sun light reflecting off the shimmering leaves.
Later in the day as the sun faded I walked back and forth across the room aware of feelings of unworthiness that were invading my precious space. My mind got engaged in trying to deal with these very old beliefs that, “I am not good enough. There is something fundamentally wrong with me. God couldn’t love me as I am.” As I was trying to out walk these lies the next invasion came in the form of, “It is my fault that I have cancer. There is something so wrong with me that I now have cancer.” It came very strong and fast.
I never really understood what the furies were that the ancient Greek playwrights referred to in our classical literature. Remember the movie Ghost with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore? When the bad guy is swept away at the end by dark screaming shapes? That is what these furies were like. In a sweat I remembered the prayer beads.
Clutching the beads, I crawled into my bed and pulled the covers over my head and started to pray. Counting the beads, feeling their shapes, my fingers moved over the smooth roundness of each. I was out of my mind and into my fingers. I counted the ten beads and when I reached the eleventh bead I begged for mercy. I have never really prayed for mercy but it was the only invocation that had any power right then. I prayed to the Beloved with each dark bead and asked for mercy on the eleventh.
For each person there is a particular name that opens the doorway to the Divine. Jesus, Mother Mary, Buddha, Amma, Babaji, Wakan Tankan. For me that night is was Gourasana. I have listened to and read his words of Truth many times.
I called his name with each dark bead, pressing very hard with my fingers. Over and over, around and around. The harder I pressed the more the furies receded into the background. Each bead and each pressing into the bead became very immediate. It was all I had. Each bead, each invocation, each prayer in the immediate present. Gourasana, Gourasana, Gourasana…. On the eleventh bead I prayed for mercy.
I experienced the truth that all I have is the present moment. It was either be terrorized by the howling self-doubt or press on the bead and pray. The past or future had no impact on the situation I was in. It was only a choice of right now. I chose the beads over and over asking for His help, calling for God’s mercy at intervals.
The Lord’s warmth began to fill my being as the night moved . With His comfort I began to pray for other people on the eleventh bead. I asked mercy for family, friends, some who were alive and some who were dead. As I thought of them my love for each person emerged, our history was played out and any unresolved issues or communications that I needed to make or let go were revealed. I spent the next two days of my retreat with the beads around my hand or very close to.
I used them every day in my quiet time upon my return home. In fact, I used them with such intensity that the threads binding them separated and I had beads rolling all over my bed one night. My friend just visited me and took the special beads home with her to mend. I look forward to them being back in my hands. In the meantime, I have a particular pearl necklace that I am carefully using for my prayer beads.
I learned the lesson of staying in the moment. That this moment is all I have. But I have to remind myself of this truth all over again each day, each night. Now. Now. Now. Lord God, Mother, Father it is You right now. Last night I sat in bed and heard the geese calling on the lake, their voices invoking longing as the sounds echoed across the water. I was in another moment of mind in motion. Then I tuned into the geese and was flooded with the reminder that it is very simple. It is as simple as listening to the geese fully, hearing them calling, and dropping into my heart with gratitude for God’s love and mercy.

Finding True North

Help me not to act out of my fear of my death

but to surrender to my living and my dying every day,

trusting the beauty in all things.

Help me give up

harsh, unloving and self-incriminating judgment,

to steward the body and mind I have have today

with loving kindness, compassion and grace.

Truly knowing

innate and fundamental goodness

is the essence of all life.

September 2, 2011

Walking the One Year Plank

Waiting for the results of my first mammogram post treatment.  Why are the taking so long?  The longest 20 minutes of my life.  Tears streaming quietly over my face, as I remember the last time I was in that room, when the discovered my cancer, the last time that they squeezed my breast into the imaging machine.  How the impossible had become possible, how life could turn without warning or notice, on it’s head, how the ceremony of being mortally wounded began.

Sitting here, in the space of not knowing how the story will evolve and also not knowing how I will hold the story that will evolve.  Hoping for something bigger than the desperate prayer that I will be “okay”, that the scan may be clean.  Hoping for an opening to say YES to whatever appears on the trail for me next, surrendering my judgment of what it may mean.  Can I entertain the possibility that everything I need to heal forward, to evolve, to live out my destiny, is right here, presented to  me – alive in the good or the bad news that the doctor may bring?  And to exercise what they call “the last of the human freedoms”, the freedom to interact with whatever is on my path, in my unique way, to weave it into the healing that I am more deeply committed to than anything else in my life now.

And yet, here I sit, in agony, facing the terror of possibly more medical intervention and the nightmare of cancer recurrence, feeling the sharp pain of my own ego survival instincts, suffering my humanness.

Then the door opens, and the technician returns, with a “release” paper.  All looked normal, she said, almost taken aback by my catatonic expression.  It takes me a few minutes to let it in, to allow it, to feel it enter my being, my body jumping up and hugging her first, unbeknownst to me, then my mind, reading again and again the two words on the paper in the doctor’s handwriting “Looks great!”.  That’s it?  I say.  That’s it, the technician says.

As I leave the hallway, I see another woman, gown on, moving with distraught body posture, between the bathroom and one of the examination rooms.  Is she okay?  Someone today, will sit in the same chair as I sat in last year and hear their worst fear come true, that there is an area that looks suspicious….  Who am I  to be healthy?

I walk outside into the waiting area where my man sits in the companion version of the land with no name, that I have just left behind, the in between, the waiting, being suspended mid-air.  WE ARE OKAY, I say to him, WE ARE ACTUALLY OKAY!  And we hold each other in our moment of glory, lost now, in the relief of this new territory, not quite knowing where to turn next.  I take a picture with my release paper in front of my chest, much like a prisoner with her number, only that my paper sets me free, to cross the threshold of the building that I entered a year ago, and that like bookends has spanned the journey of this past year through the seasons of my treatment.


Now what?  Only in the weeks to follow, do I realize that there is an aspect of incorporation here, that I was unprepared for.  In many ways I still am in treatment and yes, still on Tamaxofin.  But something is concluded with that first clean scan, and I find myself now in new territory yet again.  Getting a clean bill of health has me question what it means for me to be “normal”.

What is my new normal? Is it still okay to take time for myself, for my healing practices, for qi gong, yoga, medicine walks, writing, voice recordings, support groups and the like?  Even if I am healthy now?   What is health?  In many ways true healing has only just begun.  What is this new life asking of me now?

July 2012

Mountain Lion Medicine

Personally, I have no idea how I would have made it through cancer treatment if it wasn’t for my relationship with the vision fast ceremony.  Throughout 9 months of various cancer therapies, I went for walks in an open space preserve just 15 minutes from my home.  Here, under old growth oak trees, I would go for what I call ‘medicine walks’ whenever I was able.  Basically, these walks are like ‘mini walk-abouts’, time out on the land, to look into the mirror of nature, reflecting back one’s inner truth, finding oneself, one’s voice and unique way.  I used them to explore some difficult questions about treatment decisions, to let go and ‘bury’ old patterns that stood in the way of my healing or simply to listen to the fast flowing river of what was moving inside me at any given time.  It struck me how readily available the spirit world was to me during that time, as if my body and mind were just ripe to take the depth and the grief onto the land, knowing that it would hold whatever I could not.

My first walk of this kind on my cancer journey was on the day before my surgery.  Just after marking my threshold, I came upon a woman runner, waving her hands up high in the air, gesturing ‘no, no’, telling me to turn back.  It turns out she had seen a big mountain lion right on the trail.  Well, wouldn’t you know it, deeply ingrained in my psyche from some scary almost encounters with them, I had a deeply rooted fear of mountain lions.  There I was, at the crossroads, do I give into the fear and abolish my walk?  Not an option!  As the other park visitors, who were alerted by the same woman, all headed back down toward the safety of their cars, I headed up the trail, now armed with a stick in each of my hands.

It seemed admittedly ironic that just a few minutes before I was worried to die an untimely death because of breast cancer.  And here I was now, my knees shaking, my pounding heart intently listening for every leaf rustle, clutching fiercely to what felt like terribly insufficient defense weapons while inching up the trail,  afraid I wouldn’t survive this very day, this very walk – what a change in perspective!

At the top of the park, crossing a patch of dark forest, I came to realize that there was truly no way for me to get off the trail.  Death was on my path.  One day, near or far, it would find me.  Masked as a predator, a disease, or an accident it would claim me.  Right then, when I allowed the unthinkable, instead of trying to protect myself from it, or find a way out of it, warm relief washed over my body.  I didn’t have to do anything or become anyone else.  “All” I had to do was surrender, surrender my fear and giving up any illusion of control that I thought I may have had over my life.  It was as simple as it was profound.  If I could die to my fear, I didn’t have to die from it.  I was ready.  Tossing away my sticks I came back down the mountain singing – and ready for the surgery that was awaiting me the very next day.

Don’t get me wrong.  Cancer is a hard disease and given the choice I’d never sign up for it.  And yet it gave me the gift of transforming the parts of my life that had been out of alignment for a long, long time.  Sometimes, I jokingly say:  ‘cancer has saved my life’ and there is truth to that.  What I have lost is the illusion of control over my life, of taking my body or my mind or any other part of my being for granted.  What I have lost is the illusion of impermanence.  What I was given instead is the understanding that the only thing that will remain long after I’m gone is the healing that I have brought home during my life.  Grounded in the practice of my living and my dying, I am now blessed to live this precious life forward with no guarantees, and on the edge of my seat.

I still walk up and down the park trails and I have yet to see the lion.  Nonetheless, I know it’s there, maybe minding his or her own business, maybe staring at me from the dark thicket along the winding path.   Most days I’m glad that he or she is here, helping me remember, and helping me continue to surrender.


July, 2011