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A few weeks ago now I was fortunate enough to be visited on two occasions by the girls from Peninsula Home Hospice now that I’m coming to the end of my life. They felt the story I shared with them was worth sharing with others. This is my story of overcoming a fear of living and turning it into a fearless way of dying.
For anybody reading this who has ever suffered from “Panic Disorder” and all that it entails will no doubt understand a little clearer the hurdles of overcoming them. Just prior to my 50th Birthday I suffered my first “Panic Attack”, a severe one mimicking all the classic symptoms of a heart attack. As is common in that situation an ambulance is called, ECG’s and bloods are performed only to be told you are in good health except for elevated blood pressure which could only be expected under the circumstances. Home you go, only life will never be the same from that day on. For me daily attacks only compounded an inability to function at the level I had previously, the most debilitating side effect of all being agoraphobia. I could no longer leave our home so therefore I had to walk away from my job and simple tasks like driving and shopping had become monumental. Looking back, my life prior to the attack had been extremely stressful in all areas, I was juggling too many balls in the air and panic was the result. For me the stress presented itself in the form of fear based anxiety. I was in a pretty bad way and became overwhelmed with fear, after being put on numerous antidepressants which turned me into an overweight semi functioning version of the old me I dug very deep and slowly came off them and chose meditation as an alternative after reading an article titled to “Medicate or Meditate” for the relief of “Panic Disorder”. I have been meditating daily now for eight years and I can honestly say it has been the greatest gift I could ever have given myself.
Being the person I am I never gave up believing I could and would turn “It” this thing I was living with around. So I began pushing myself beyond my limits by leaving the house, sitting in my car, driving down the drive which eventually led me to driving into town and finally back into supermarket shopping. It was the hardest thing I have ever done but after two years I was doing OK although I still had an attack at least once a month if I allowed things to overwhelm me.
It was in the May of 2012 after finally losing the all the weight that I’d previously put on and while having a shower I discovered a lump in my right breast. As many of you will know in that moment your mind goes into free fall, for me I instantly thought of my fears and how could I manage a possible cancer diagnosis and my anxiety as well. After some preliminary tests and scans I was operated on. The most invasive of the scans were done while I was under anaesthetic owing to my issues with claustrophobia so it was only upon waking up that I was told I had stage three breast cancer. I can clearly remember laying there and quietly crying and thinking this really is unfair. My next battle was now underway. As I sat in my lounge in considerable pain after the surgery particularly from the incision under my arm to remove my lymph nodes (which were all clear in the end) I knew nobody but me was going to get me through this. It was the course my life was taking and for the first time ever I truly faced my own mortality. Regardless treatment choices had to be considered, I had to protect the fear I always thought would return. Despite strong opposition I declined chemotherapy knowing I would have to be sedated. I also knew anything requiring that form of intervention would NEVER have a healing effect coupled with a statistical increase of only 5% on my life expectancy I dug my toes in.
After completing the seven weeks of Radiotherapy I attended the “Gawler Foundation” in Yarra Junction, I had been there two years earlier to learn meditation this time I was attending their ten day cancer program. It was life changing, I returned home knowing no matter what the future held I would be OK. I had finally discovered what had always been lacking in my life and it was passion, passion for what I still hadn’t decided but passion it was. On a daily basis I continued to meditate, this simple practice continued to bring enormous peace, clarity and purpose into my life.
For the next three years I attended a number of different programs and at the same time worked at staying well. I ate a vegetarian diet, exercised daily, meditated and read as many books as I could get hold of on a diverse range of subjects. Each one of them expanded my thinking and opened my mind to the possibility that there is life beyond the one we are currently living.
This amazing possibility gave me the strength I needed when we received the news I had a very large tumour on my spine. The vertebrae T5 had almost been destroyed by cancer and I was weeks away from becoming quadriplegic. The day we received the news I think I was in shock as was my wonderful husband. We drove home from the neurosurgeon in complete silence so frightened for what the future held. I was facing major surgery and even more very damaging radiotherapy. I barely made it through the surgery having some major issues with blood pressure and blood loss. I now have titanium rods and screws supporting my spine and replacing the vertebrae. Post surgery I went through hell, managing the pain was difficult. It was a challenging time and so frightening learning to have faith in the structures which now allowed me to walk, but somehow I got through it even the horrible radiotherapy which I never thought would end. The discomfort that caused was extreme with severe internal burning of the oesophagus along with chronic fatigue which many readers will relate to. My prognosis was 6 to 9 months, over two years on I am still alive although the cancer has now spread to my left lung, adrenal gland and the nodes in my neck.
Since attending the cancer program all those years ago I HAVE developed the passion for life I was always looking for, cancer did teach me passion, a passion and gratitude for life. Some time ago I stopped thinking of myself as a lone suffer, a victim, the cancer programs I attended made me face up to reality. I met many people of all ages dying of their disease some young enough to be my children. Why wouldn’t I be grateful to have reached 57.Cancer also took away my panic attacks, they ceased after the second diagnosis despite being told I would always have them in times of high stress. I knew at that point I truly had faced my own mortality. There is no greater fear than death overcome that one and life is bliss. By changing my thought’s I changed my life and by opening my mind I found my truth.
In many cultures death is accepted and taught not to be feared, how much easier that would make it for those of us coming to the end of our time here on earth. We as individuals still have the opportunity to seek that knowledge regardless of our upbringing.
In closing, both my parents died of cancer, my only sister was diagnosed with ovarian and lung cancer two weeks prior to my spinal tumour diagnoses, having had breast cancer 8 years earlier. It was recommended we were tested for the cancer gene. We both have the Bracka 2 gene.
Recommended reading- Being Mortal, Atul Gawande
Die Wise, Stephen Jenkinson (a more challenging read but worth the effort)