ESSAY- Biopsy tale: Turning fear into joy
"I'm going to hang up now, so I can scream." Still clutching the receiver, I sank to the kitchen floor and let out a howl. A nurse had just relayed my biopsy results.
Although I hope that you, gentle reader, never require a biopsy and never have to wait by the phone like a desperate girlfriend for the verdict, I am here to report that this experience has been an exercise in joy and love, and I'm grateful for it.
I've long suspected that life is an elaborate hallucination. If only we could step back and observe ourselves, like lucid dreamers– aware they're in a dream state and directing the course of the drama– we could influence the events of our lives through methods beyond work and worry.
For decades, I've been devouring books on hypnosis, meditation, past-life experiences, near-death experiences – the kind of stuff that makes my kids roll their eyes and wonder when someone is going to throw a net over their mother. I've never gone public with these weird interests of mine. But, due to unforeseen circumstances, I decided to blow my cover.
During a routine colonoscopy in late July, the doctor beheld my innards on the TV monitor and said, "That's a tumor. About the size of a golf ball." The ultrasound test done at the same time showed that the tumor had grown nearly all the way through the intestinal wall. That's how she knew it was cancer – the benign ones don't invade like that. Appointments were made with a radiation doctor, an oncologist and a surgeon.
While riding home from the colonoscopy, I made a decision. I would be one of those plucky people who have awful things happen to them and declare they wouldn't change a thing because it has been a great blessing. I had no idea how they accomplished that perceptual feat, so I took a leap and just decided that this would be a wonderful gift.
As it happens, my recent focus in the world of the hippie-dippie has been "the power of attraction." Here's the gist of it: Our thoughts literally create our world. Joyful thoughts create things that we like and fearful thoughts create things we don't like. Therefore, if you can "raise your vibration" by feeling joyful (regardless of external circumstance) you can cause joy-inducing events to happen in your life.
Well, now. My very own cancer diagnosis– could there be a better opportunity to test drive this cart-before-the-horse approach to reality?
A big part of the power of attraction practice is not mentally rehearsing outcomes you don't want to materialize. That meant NOT thinking about my hair falling out from chemotherapy, NOT thinking about getting burned from radiation, and NOT thinking about an incision in my abdomen. Not easy.
So, I contacted family and friends, asking them to envision me "happy, healthy, whole, and healed." Soon, Quakers were holding me in the Light, Catholics in a prayer circle were visualizing me unscathed, and my atheist friends were embracing an image of me intact and thriving.
Meanwhile, I withdrew from my normal routine and spent every waking moment trying to induce joy.
I would wake up in the morning, remember the diagnosis, think, "Ah, jeez..." and shuffle off to the bathroom in a funk. By the time I'd finished brushing my teeth, and reading aloud the list of positive affirmations stuck to the wall with a Band-Aid, I'd be feeling optimistic.
I listened, all day long, to a collection of songs I'd compiled– ones that make my heart rise upon hearing the first few notes. I listened at home, in the car, at the gym. You might not think that hearing "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" (from Hello, Dolly!) over and over again would make your heart soar, but it worked for me.
Already, this tumor was feeling like a gift because it served as a catalyst: I was experiencing more total, visceral joy in the days following that diagnosis than I have in my entire life.
Then came the preliminary (the first of three) biopsy results four days after the diagnosis: Benign. My doctor found it hard to believe that was possible, saying, "In my heart I have to believe there are cancer cells in there." After all, it had grown into the wall. Totally benign tumors aren't supposed to do that. So, she did another biopsy.
I waited a few days for that report, still dancing around my living room, emailing people and reminding them to keep up the good work. Result: those cells were benign, too.
It was looking like I could skip the chemo and radiation and go right to surgery. Of course, surgery involves losing a big chunk of innards, and ending up with plumbing that might never work right again. Still, things were looking up.
At my appointment with the surgeon, I was seen first by a resident who looked at the ultrasound photos and said, "You understand, don't you, that these photos indicate that what you have is cancer."
I took a deep breath and concentrated on my favorite affirmation: I am surrounded by everything I need to solve this problem.
The surgeon came in, took a look at the colonoscopy photos and said, "Hm. Looks like a big polyp to me. Doesn't look like cancer."
Plans were made for the surgeon to attempt to remove this golf ball of a tumor by way of colonoscopy rather than surgery, just three days later.
Meanwhile, people prayed, held me in the Light, and I leapt around to show tunes and the DMB song, "One Sweet World."
This procedure might work. Might not. Might poke a hole in me requiring emergency surgery. Might be cancer cells lurking within, calling for surgery and chemo, after all. The final biopsy would determine my future.
I crowded out thoughts of incisions, baldness, nausea, and death with thoughts of gratitude – gratitude for what I have (loving friends and family, health insurance, great medical care) and gratitude in advance for the clean bill of health I was hoping for.
I hiked alone up on the Blue Ridge, sang and danced in my house– I even got a Tibetan singing bowl to help with meditation. (And if you ever want to induce eye rolling in any of my children, just ask them about the Tibetan singing bowl.)
Here's what happened: The surgeon removed the tumor the easy way, no complications. And when the phone rang last week, it was his nurse telling me that it was benign. Totally benign.
Miracle? Misdiagnosis? I don't know. And to tell you the truth, I don't think I should look too closely at it. After all, it was a gift.
Janis Jaquith writes about one essay per month for the Hook.