Chapter 4 – Reflections on the Cancer Journey

We rush, rush and wait. And then if gifted “wait and watch”, we could choose scarcity and bankruptcy of the soul, as the years thunder by. Devoid of hope. But if we “see” a road to abundance of spirit, which would you take?

Rush, Rush, and Wait

Meadow Hut, Snow Farm cross ski area, New Zealand

As I looked back on my journey, I realized that it had been as much about mental health and well-being as it had been about the physical aspects of cancer.

In August 2021, I celebrated four years on this journey, and it gave me time to reflect on the pivotal stages of my journey.

Time Line of This Chapter:

This is where the chronological style of this tale now deviates briefly into about four years of reflection. And what manifested!

  • The role of my local Snow Farm
    • Celebrating four winters of cross country skiing, (while dealing with the Unknown for the first three).
    • Skiing in balance
    • Reviewing the above mentioned winters 2017 through to 2021 – each an anniversary of sorts.
  • Finding assurance while being photographed in Arrowtown.
  • And then back to the present time of this posting…
  • Meeting my oncologist, and nurse for the journey
    • Introduction to the art of diagnosis and my first “clinic”
  • Art in hospitals.
  • Urgency… what urgency! A change of pace, and it’s challenges
    • Rushing then Waiting and Watching.
  • Back to the drawing board and the gift of time.

The journey into the metaphysical begins…

  • The role of creativity – recommended read. And a dive into art…
  • Attitudes to explore
    • Countering The Denial of Death tendencies.
  • On going decisions relating to 2017.
  • Some church humor.
  • Take-home points.
Snow Farm cross ski area, New Zealand

My favourite winter place and activity is the Snow Farm cross country skiing area, which is located in the nearby Cardrona Valley. It has been at the center of each pivotal stage of my cancer journey, and I have had a 20-year love affair with the place. The mountains, the great snow, learning new skills, and especially the nurturing component of the mountains are all things that I love. Hanging out with the same people every winter is also very special.

Here are my reflections on the theme of each winter since 2017:

Snow Farm cross ski area, New Zealand

2017: It was in the car park four years ago that I phoned my local doctor for my first appointment, with a lump in my groin being the motivation. That same winter, it was the place where I came to terms with mortality as I worked at regaining my mountain mojo post-surgery.

Flags, Snow Farm cross ski area, New Zealand

2018: I toured about less with less energy than normal. Enjoying my usual catch up with friends of various nationalities was on track though. That winter became the time to see what I could handle during waiting and watching. The disease seemed to be taking hold though!

2019: It was “game on.” Orchestrated to perfection! What better time than early winter to begin treatment. The whole of the ski area became my place of refuge and escapism. I experimented with what was possible during treatment, skiing about four days out of every seven. Weather permitting, of course, and between monthly visits to Dunedin.

As I reflect on my journey, I realized that the cancer journey has been a mix of rush, rush, and wait.

Please don’t get the idea I was pushing myself a lot during treatment. I’d decided on the exact opposite. I’ve seen other people’s attempts to do what they’ve always done, and noted they end up looking like death warmed up. Being blown over by the merest breeze came to mind. No, I listened to my body. I recommend never going far without a break. Eating well, honoring hydration, and keeping warm must be priorities. Be grateful, honoring the body, and especially morale!

Ski tracks, grooming, Snow Farm cross ski area, New Zealand

Improving Balance on Skis – A Lesson from a Friend

Mary, one of my good friends, noted that I spent a lot of time looking at my ski tips while skiing (or rather shuffling under the influence of treatments). This has never been good for balance. Try walking and balancing on a single railway line while looking at your feet! I was very grateful for her observations. From then on, I endeavored to look into the middle distance, at where I wanted to go.

Full moon, Snow Farm cross ski area, New Zealand
Moonlight on the Snow Farm, New Zealand

2020: Was all about seeing what I could do. Treatments continued but in a milder form. The timing of trips to Dunedin Hospital and snow/weather conditions were in conflict, and I missed the best of the skiing, except for a full-moon solo ski.

The Lodge, Snow Farm cross ski area, New Zealand
Close friends!

2021: This past winter was a time of celebration. I went for it early! “Good thinking,” I thought, as New Zealand’s second COVID lockdown occurred exactly when the snow conditions were perfect. Groan! Wanaka skiers (and businesses) went into mourning!

Sunset on snow. Snow Farm cross ski area, New Zealand

A few weeks later, I had the chance to catch up with Mary again and we discussed my skiing technique. I admitted that during my treatments, I tended to focus on my ski tips and didn’t look too far ahead. I explained that during that time, I didn’t want to think too much about the future and preferred to live in the present moment.

Now it’s time to continue the story chronologically…

I often go on photography trips with a close doctor friend in Invercargill. For a while, he had been interested in taking my portrait.

A few days before my first clinic appointment with the specialist oncologist in Dunedin in 2017, he called me and suggested we meet in Arrowtown’s historic Chinese gold mining area, an hour’s drive away.

The restored Arrowtown Police Hut, built in 1863.

I laughed at his suggestion and accused him of hurrying up the photoshoot before my hair fell out due to potential pending chemo treatment.

◀ The restored Arrowtown Police Hut, built in 1863. It is a couple of minutes walk from the Chinese settlement buildings

We met on the appointed day and had a good session. Afterward, over coffee nearby, he looked me in the eye and, after a well-timed delay, said, “You’re going to be okay.” This coming from a very experienced physician meant the world to me. It was then that I realized I was on the road to learning about the multifaceted art and science of diagnosing.

Dunedin from Flagstaff

Two days after my initial diagnosis, I was on my way to Dunedin to find out more about my upcoming treatment options. I was feeling a mix of emotions – nervous, scared, and uncertain about what lay ahead.

I was scheduled to have my first clinic with my oncologist, whom I now affectionately refer to as “Lovely L….” since she has been so supportive throughout my journey. At the time, I thought of these clinics as meetings until I learned more about what was involved.

I knew that this first appointment would be the start of a long process of consultations, tests, and discussions about my treatment options. It was clear that things were about to get real, and I was both anxious and hopeful about what the future held.

How I Felt During My First Real Clinic

As I made my way to my first real clinic on my medical journey, I realized that everything I had gone through up to that point was simply a prelude to what was to come – the crossing of the first threshold.

Upon entering the waiting room, I couldn’t help but notice the dozen or so distressed-looking couples coming and going in the space of twenty minutes. Perhaps it was just my timing, but it seemed that I was the only one present who was feeling well and fit – relative to the occasion, that is. As I sat there, I found myself having a “poor me/why me, when I’ve lived well” moment, but I quickly banished those thoughts from my mind. It was hard to ignore the evidence of obesity in the room, however.

Despite my initial anxiety, the admin team for the healthcare specialists were incredibly welcoming, making me feel like royalty as they rolled out the red carpet for me. They were fully present, and their warmth helped to alleviate my concerns.

As my oncologist appeared, walking down the corridor with a welcoming smile on her face, I knew that I was in the best of hands. We began with a refinement of my diagnosis, starting with a discussion of my gait and overall demeanor and fitness. While my medical history was only hearsay up to this point, I was confident that my oncologist would be thorough and professional.

The questioning was rigorous and detailed, but I felt fully acknowledged and listened to. My cell phone accessible nurse was also present, which gave me a sense of reassurance. It was easy to miss important details in the heat of the moment, but having multiple professionals present helped me to feel more confident and secure.

All things considered, my first real clinic was a positive experience, and I felt well-cared for by the healthcare professionals who were supporting me. I was confident that they would present me with the very best treatment options available, and that gave me a sense of hope and reassurance. Overall, it was a step forward on my medical journey, and I was grateful for the support I received.

The Dunedin Hospital is fortunate to have a stunning collection of art, including these beautiful stained glass pieces located in the eye department. While I don’t know the name of the artist, the impact of their work is undeniable. And very relevant to the patient experience.

For those who are waiting, undergoing treatment, recovering, or facing the end of life, art can be a powerful tool for healing.

The subtle, subliminal effects of visual art in the healthcare environment can have a profound impact on our emotions and state of mind, helping us to find moments of calm and reflection in the midst of difficult times.

Healing is not always a linear process, but the presence of art in hospital waiting rooms and treatment areas can offer a sense of solace and support to patients and their loved ones. I am grateful for the thoughtful and intentional way that art is incorporated into the healthcare environment, and the positive impact that it has on patients and their families.

I love their philosophy of treating the patient’s personas; spiritual, emotional and physical! And of course, lets not forget the other visitors, such as family and loved ones. People waiting for news and giving love and support. A positive environment full of emotional support is of benefit to all!

via a Google hunt for researcher Roger Ulrich >>>

The British Medical Journal says, “Art is able to provide solace, exhilaration, and satisfaction in a huge variety of
different forms. Above all it is able to humanize a building, infusing an often soulless and impersonal environment
with affirmation…many critical moments in our lives occur there—from birth through to death—and they ought to
take place in surroundings which honor their true significance.”

The effect of the art resonated with my beginnings of a plan. A several points path to wellness (see below)!

The Nitty Gritty of My First Clinic:

🔬 As I mentioned earlier, I felt like I was under a new microscope during my first clinic. I was prepared with my story, having texted my nurse about my engagement in seasonal activities like cross-country skiing. I enjoyed sharing my fun time follies with her.

But then it was time to listen to my specialist. She shared that an immediate start to treatment would involve putting poisonous chemicals in my body, and recommended we wait and watch for now. I was relieved and grateful for her advice, given the pressure that drug companies can exert in situations like these. Research into lifestyle and alternative treatments can be slow, as there is little financial incentive for drug companies.

This was a turning point for me. I began to see my disease as something I might live with, rather than die from. It was at this clinic that my specialist first spoke to me about “the power of the mind” in a tone that captured my attention. It was an open statement, delivered with a sense of certainty that piqued my curiosity and made me eager to learn more.

Overall, the clinic was a positive experience. I felt heard and understood, and left with a sense of hope and possibility for the future. I knew that there would be challenges ahead, but I was ready to face them with a new perspective and a renewed sense of purpose. 💗

The idea of going from a sense of urgency, whether for treatment or to tidy up one’s affairs, is common in various fields. It’s a familiar pattern of rush, rush, rush, and then wait. This concept also applies to situations like using aircraft in mountains for dropping off, picking up, or re-supplying. In these scenarios, the urgency to complete the mission is high, but the wait times can be long and unpredictable. It can be a test of patience, mental fortitude, and the ability to adapt to unexpected circumstances.

Squirrel helicopter picking up trampers, Otago, New Zealand
A one to two hour wait is on-the-cards in NZ
C130 Hercules, Antarctica
Simply because the weather has to cooperate at the take off point, the destination, and back at the take off point. Over perhaps ten to fourteen hours.
In Antarctica schedule three to ten days!

So, back to the drawing board!

I was surprised that I had the luxury of “waiting and watching.” This brought a new level of perception, and my initial plans were derailed.

Within days, I felt overwhelmed with loving advice from friends, such as “Donald, you must see so-and-so,” or “do such-and-such.” However, following every lead would be beyond my energy and time capabilities.

The gift of time on a cancer journey is precious, and this was my second dose of it, the first being the tumor removal surgery. After taking a deep breath, I decided to take broadly speaking, three courses of action:

  1. Embrace the health system and the science.
  2. Tend towards decision-making from the heart, alongside taking the advice of professionals. Never entertain fear.
  3. Construct a plan consisting of about 10 points, with a goal of ten percent quality for each.

Creativity was the obvious first candidate to ramp up the power of the mind. I began thinking, “it’s currently at about six percent of capacity, so let’s get it up to ten!

We all of course have more than one creative avenue. But having a head-start I went with photography. (Noting here that this blog also fits!)

Which of course ties in with doing more in the great outdoors! Another point to aim for a full ten percent in.

◀ My above mentioned doctor friend using my camper Turtle, for his tripod base. Near Poolburn Dam/Reservoir in Central Otago

Discovering the Power of Art through Joseph Campbell’s Wisdom

“Art is the set of wings to carry you out of your own entanglement”
Joseph Campbell (acclaimed mythologist and author).

Meaning that an illness can mean we become entangled with it. Identify with it. Where it becomes our all dominating story.

Recommended Reading…

Very useful and fascinating information for the beginning of my wellness journey! And written only for eBook (as far as I know), in his 80th or so year. Shortly after he passed.

I first came across him as a teenager when he was the subject of a TV doco series. Then more recently, his teachings, on a writing course.

His chapter on art is fascinating. And concepts of mythology can help us predict our future even.

◀Available at Apple’s iBook and perhaps for Kindle (no I’m not on a commission!)

The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and The Hero’s Journey, are two of his most well known works.

“Living in the Sacred” is one of my favourite and most intriguing chapters in the book mentioned above. Joseph Campbell makes some fascinating points about the relationship between art and illusion. One aspect that particularly resonates with me is the first feeling I have when I’m exposed to great art. Campbell describes it well, and you may have experienced it yourself when seeing one of my photos in this blog or spending time in some of the world’s great art galleries. It’s a split-second experience of “arrest” before your mind begins to interpret what you’ve seen, heard, or felt. It’s a moment where language fails us, and the awareness moment can be learned by unlearning ingrained beliefs.

However, there is a flip side to the “arrest”. Although I’m not prone to anxiety, I do experience the negative side of an arrest for the same split second. It could be triggered by a phone call or email subject, a grumpy client, an unexpected expense, or a loved one directing fear towards us. Or in the even worst case of a trauma stored subconsciously. In these moments, I experience scarcity for anything from one second to a minute, and sometimes even longer. These brief experiences release chemicals that compromise our immune system, which can be harmful.

Nullifying these quick gut reactions is ongoing work for me. The value of doing so is significant. The awareness moment of great art is something that I always want to experience, not the subsequent tagging. Although I have tried to learn the technique of creating tension in composition through photography, it’s the split-second moment that I find most valuable.

RIP! With a sad Sayonara

If we dwell on the above!

I want to be clear here though.

Positivity is no guarantee of survival!

But it is known to make us happier.

◀ It’s easy to feel stagnant, despair, and become overwhelmed when we focus on the photo to the left as an outcome of a diagnosis. It can feel like an almost immediate demise.

We might even contemplate giving up and not bothering to try, despite all the advancements and improvements in our world. We may have been born into a tough situation, put ourselves there, or had it thrust upon us, in a world where a scarcity-based mindset can prevail, if we allow it.

But the good news is that we can transform our lives when we decide to focus on gratitude and make small changes to develop a sincere trust in life and the future.

We are part of an unfolding story, and we can be the author who determines the point – the end game. It can be one of contentment fused with happiness, or a hero’s journey of adventure, even leading to death.

It’s not about being positive but rather a change in thinking, where we take wisdom from the past and bless our future so that it never becomes an angst in our past.

An uptick of self awareness – an engagement of the executive brain that brings balance to the lower reptilian primal urges will serve us well!

This is very important to keep in mind – it is too easy to have an apocalyptic vision of the future. This type of unhealthy fear (unhappy even), be it even of a split second’s worth of residency has consequences! Adrenaline is ever-ready to rev us up. Which in turn mobilises an immune response – when there is no need!

An adrenaline deployment is better suited to the surprise company of a grumpy dog with rabies.

The Unknown will probably start out in the guise of fear. Then progress to an uneasy acceptance. It will be your friend once it is welcomed. Then it becomes a place to store processed thoughts, and dreams – letting them go. Once there in the company of infinite probabilities, sooner or later one of them will ultimately slow down in frequency as energy…and come back into three dimensions as matter.

Anyway back to decisions I thought I had to make back in 2017:

How much time daily to devote to examining options, and which to discard. In a daily time-table that now had to feature distinct periods of relaxation.

What should my ten point plan feature?

How to mentally handle waiting and watching!

Lastly perspective born of history can not only teach us valuable lessons. Humor is inherent in everything…

The Serpentine Church, Central Otago, New Zealand

Cost £100. Contributed by the diggers.

The first service is described as follows: “The minister being late the congregation of miners, after waiting for some time, went down to the hotel for refreshments and drank deeply to keep out the keen July air, keener than ever at this altitude.

The service opened with a well-known psalm and an encore was demanded by the congregation. The preacher after expressing very strong disapproval, went on with the service which was however abbreviated”

Not many services were held because of the small number of inhabitants, and the difficulty of access.

It stands at an altitude of 3100 feet – when built the highest church in New Zealand.

Summation – My “Take Home” Points:

  • Seek the company of positive and reassuring friends over those who are not so inclined. Focusing solely on our own positivity may be less productive.
  • Trust professionals – this frees up energy.
  • Consider the hospital environment and how to engage its potential for wellness.
  • Learn to leverage the power of the mind.
  • Dare to dream – rushing will slow down, and we can develop a set of wings to enter the path to wellness.
  • Monitor self-thoughts – be an eagle on the shoulder, watching and whispering wisdom in our ear, or a butterfly or a ruru/morepork. Work our imaginations!
  • Look for humor and gratitude everywhere.

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