Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Time I Almost Met Mother Teresa

More than 30 years ago, I was a young reporter working for a large metropolitan daily newspaper. I covered a small town that had a major medical center located in it, so I occasionally got some medical stories out of it.

A press release turned up on my desk to announce that Mother Teresa, the famed Roman Catholic nun known for her work with some of the world's poorest people in Calcutta, India, was to be the featured speaker at a fundraiser for the center.

I was extremely excited. The event was set to attract many local luminaries, including the governor of the state of Connecticut. And I would perhaps meet this extraordinary woman.

But, alas, this was not meant to be. I was pretty low on the pecking order at the paper, and the metro desk scooped up this plum assignment. I was disappointed, but that's the way the news business works.

Then, something else happened.

Just hours before her scheduled appearance in Connecticut, Mother Teresa cancelled. Already in New York City, she fell ill and felt unable to travel to the hospital's fundraiser. Because it was such short notice, people around her tried to convince her that she had an "obligation" to make the appearance. She declined. She needed to rest and recuperate, so that she could be strong enough for the work God had given her to do  on this earth - minister to the poor. The Connecticut cocktail party was off.

Her single-minded vision was a lesson to me. How many times had a said yes to something that I was unable or unwilling to do? How many times had I put my needs aside because I felt an "obligation" to do something?

Mother Teresa served as a reminder that we cannot fully live our potential if we don't take care of  ourselves. It's like on an airplane, when they tell you that you should put your own oxygen mask on before you try to assist others in an emergency. You can't  serve from an empty vessel.

If I have learned nothing in the past two years of breast cancer treatment, it is the importance of taking care of myself through rest, proper diet, and exercise.

But Mother Teresa was not yet done with me that day three decades ago. The story had changed.

St. Teresa of Calcutta
Because of the last minute cancellation, the food for the party had already been prepared. The medical center decided to donate the bounty to local homeless shelters. I got the assignment to cover this part of the story.

This was the early 1980s and homelessness was on the rise. Many mental health institutions had been emptied out and their clients put on the  streets. The homeless had the reputation as being lazy or crazy. After interviewing hospital officials about the donation, I returned to the bureau to write my story. My bureau chief told me I wasn't finished reporting - he told me to follow the  food.

In the arrogance of youth, I didn't want to hang out with the homeless (it was also Friday evening, and Happy Hour beckoned). My editor insisted, and I called one of the faith-based shelters for men in the city that received a portion of the food to ask if I could come for dinner.

The people I found there were not what I expected. To be sure, there were men there suffering from mental illness, as well as those whose addictions had torn apart the foundation of their lives. But the men who gravitated to me during dinner wanted to tell me their stories. They were not lazy grifters looking for a handout, they were hardworking people who had stumbled and needed a hand up.

Several men I spoke with had families. They had lived paycheck to paycheck, and when that check suddenly disappeared, they were turned out of their apartments. One was working three low-paying jobs in an effort to save money for the security deposit on a new home for him and his family.

They spoke eloquently about the sting of feeling they weren't good providers and the pain of being separated from their loved ones because so-called family shelters didn't allow men.

The donated crudites were added to a hearty soup and the fresh fruit was added to dessert. Over our bowls of soup, we had a laugh about how we were eating food originally intended for some of the most famous and wealthy people in the state. One man remarked about how long it had been since he had eaten a fresh strawberry. I made sure to let them know that it was all Mother Teresa's doing.

I came away from the encounter much smarter and more compassionate. I had a new resolve to tell the stories of those who had no voice or platform. I was less willing to give in to my knee-jerk judgments about people who are different from me. "Each one of them is Jesus in disguise," Mother Teresa said.

The story I wrote that night led the newspaper the next day.

"If you judge people, you have no time to love them." - Mother Teresa

I tell this now because I believe we need renewed vigor in caring for each other - particularly the poor and the immigrant. We must follow Mother Teresa's example.

I never got to meet Mother Teresa. She passed away in 1997 and has since been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church She is now known as St. Teresa of Calcutta. Among the requirements of sainthood is to live a life of virtue and have a certified miracle.

Perhaps I witnessed a miracle over a bowl of soup on that warm summer evening. Perhaps I am one.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Lessons Cancer Taught Me

I recently visited my plastic surgeon as part of a regular check-up on my breast reconstruction. I told him I was having a bit of an identity crisis.

I don't know who I am, I told him, if I wasn't having surgery, recovering from surgery, or preparing for more surgery. I have been having operations almost every six months for the past year and a half as part of my treatment for breast cancer. The final piece - nipple reconstruction - came last December. This part of my treatment is now over (By the way, I'm extremely happy with the results!).

I thought I would take this time to reflect on the last two years.

In August 2014 I was diagnosed with Stage 1a grade 2-3 mixed invasive ductal and lobular carcinoma. I had two tumors in my right breast - one was 1.5 cm, the other 1 cm. After consulting with a breast specialist I opted for a bilateral mastectomy the following October. At the time of my initial surgery, I received tissue expanders to create a pocket for silicone breast implants. Since then, I have been receiving hormone therapy to keep the cancer from returning. You can read my initial thoughts about cancer by clicking here.

I could not go around cancer. I had to go through it. Although there have been difficult times for me and my family, I'm not sorry to have gone on that rough ride. I learned a few things.

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Right before my diagnosis, I had set a goal to do some form of exercise five days a week. I had fallen out of the exercise habit and gained quite a lot of weight. It seems strange that I accomplished this goal while going through cancer treatment.

I learned that exercise can play a key role in preventing a recurrence of cancer. If that doesn't get me off the couch, I don't know what will. Exercise also plays a role in mental health. Hormone treatments can wreak havoc on the emotions, too. Regular vigorous exercise makes me feel good. 

After each surgery, I was limited with what I could do with my upper body. No weight bearing exercises were allowed as I recovered, and some arm movements were difficult. But there was nothing hampering my lower body! So I concentrated on cardio. I pulled out my old step bench and also discovered Zumba. Zumba turned into my ultimate feel-good activity because it got my heart pumping and I could do as much or as little as my body allowed while recovered. I have since found a great class at the YMCA that I attend twice a week. 

Understanding the  importance of exercise also led me to the LiveStrong at the Y program at my local YMCA. This wonderful program, which you can learn more about by clicking here, put me in touch with four wonderful trainers who helped me and my group in our recovery process. Their influence helped me solidify my goal to be a regular exerciser.

Cancer taught me to keep active.

Staying Positive

I am not by nature a cock-eyed optimist. But I knew I could not wallow in fear and negativity because of cancer. It doesn't feel good and could have affected my recovery. There were times when I was scared. There were times after the mastectomy when I thought the pain wouldn't end. There were times when I questioned some of my surgical decisions. But in the end, I knew to put one foot in front of the other and reassure myself that everything was okay - no matter what happened.

Writing this blog also helped me stay positive. After my diagnosis I scoured the web for information and came across many different blogs written by women who were going through the same thing. They gave me hope. They gave me the clarity to understand that I, too, had a story to share that may help quell the fears of someone else.   

Having a great team of doctors, nurses, and physical therapists also helped me maintain a positive outlook. The support of my family and friends has also sustained me during difficult times. And then, there is my husband - read about him here.

Cancer taught me to stay positive.

Listening to Body and Soul

When I went in for that mammogram in July 2014, I knew something was up. But I had no indication or any symptoms of cancer - just a nagging little feeling in the back of my brain. My body must have known before I did that I was sick.

Since then, I have had lesson after lesson in trusting my gut instincts and what my body was telling me. 

Pain taught me to be patient. While I wished for an immediate return to my normal physical self, that wasn't possible. If something  hurt, I had to stop doing it. I do remember crying one morning after my mastectomy because I had to ask my son to help me slice a bagel. I just didn't have the arm strength to accomplish this seemingly simple task. "Mom, it's just a bagel," he  said. Indeed. It seems silly now. I know now to listen to my body, do what I can and push when appropriate, and ask for help when I need it.

I had to listen to my soul, too. My first team of doctors wasn't right for me - in fact, they were just a disaster. My soul knew this almost immediately. I could have saved some time and frustration if I hadn't let fear drown out those feelings. I know better now.

Cancer taught me to listen to myself and trust myself.

Going Forward

I am not naive enough to think cancer is done with me - it might return, it might not. But one thing I do know now is not to be afraid. I can handle anything. 

Everyone will encounter some kind of pain in life. It is our response to it that makes the difference between fulfillment and suffering. Many times I have asked "Why me?" But I have not asked it while shaking my fist in anger at the universe. I have asked because I want to know why I went through this. How does this experience help me find clarity in my life? 

This is what cancer taught me.

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