Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Surviving doctors

[image: Sheba in my study on her very own chair. Normally, she sleeps there while I write, sending me much-needed alpha waves.]

At this point in my life, I wish that many years ago I had decided to avoid Western medicine. I wasn't that eccentric, and the choices were not clear. For instance, when I was pregnant in 1961, I had never heard of midwives. The hospital was impatient with my desire to breastfeed, and no one helped me, so that I ended up with a painful infection called mastitis.

But I stayed on the track, going to doctors. This morning I found myself awake early, running over the mistakes they have made with me, remembering how last year a urologist prescribed a maintenance antibiotic that would have finished off my kidneys. Since my internist caught the error and warned me against the medication, that error didn't loom as large as other things. But it was.

Western medicine does some things well, handling infection, and fixing up traumas, wounds and broken bones. Antibiotics have saved my life at least twice. The first time was straightforward, a shot of penicillin that magically cured acute bronchitis. The second time, I had peritonitis. The antibiotics cured me, but it was Western medicine that had made me ill - the peritonitis followed on a simple D&C. That was long ago. I didn't learn from it.

I can't count the number of grave medical mistakes made on me since then. One was the unnecessary removal of my lymph nodes when I had surgery for an early breast cancer. The surgeon pointed out that by doing that, we could know whether the cancer had spread. He promised certainty, which is very appealing when you have cancer. I'm surprised, looking back, that I thought certainty was possible.

Total lymphectomy is no longer routinely done, but the change happened too late for me. This body is doomed to live with a lymphedemic arm. It could be worse. Ten years earlier, they would have routinely done a radical mastectomy on me, because that's what they did then - to be certain.

The lymph removal turned out to affect my life greatly. Like a great percentage of women - maybe 25%, maybe 50% - I developed lymphedema. The arm is so swollen my grandson calls it "your Popeye arm." It's almost impossible to find women's clothes that fit over it. I have to wear an elastic sleeve at all times, and sit with an electric pump massaging the arm every day. There is no hope of cure for this, no way to restore the chain of 17 healthy lymph nodes. They were part of the mechanism of the body.

Because they were removed, the arm gets infected easily, from the tiniest cut. I was not told until after the surgery that I must garden in long sleeves and gloves, never handle dirt, never get stung by a bee or mosquito, or pricked by a thorn. It made gardening miserable. That is the kind of quality of life issue very few doctors care about. And clearly, the many infections I've had in that arm are more life-threatening. The last one seemed to be caused by a tiny paper cut, which I did clean with an alcohol swab, but not quickly and thoroughly enough, apparently. The resulting cellulitis put me in the hospital yet again.

Here I am, going way back, maybe because today is the 12th anniversary of that surgery. In all this it is still true that I survived breast cancer. The surgery probably lengthened my life, though there's no way to be sure, is there?

I learned something about cancer then, that Wun's body is always being invaded by cancer cells. The key to health is Wun's own immune system, defending. This knowledge terrified me into beginning healing meditation, which became a daily meditation practice and led me to an immersion in Buddhist thought. There is nothing like a good jolt of fear to get you going. It keeps me going even now, much as I hate to sit still and do nothing.


  1. Ah yes the medical world.... Sickness, old age and death, the Buddha reminded us of these truths of the human realm. I too have had my go round with cancer. And it has been an interesting journey. I have always feared traditional western medicine and so my journey started by me putting myself in their hands when I opted for surgery. Not only was I afraid of cancer, afraid of dying but I didn't really trust the people running the little medical show I was about to enter. eeek!

    I did realize though that it was my wake up call to live my life in a different way than I had been. I was coasting, avoiding the difficult, not really living an authentic life, hiding from life, even. And it felt like cancer was the messenger telling me to live this life while I was alive. So fear and pain and suffering have been transformative for me. So while I come at the experience from the other end, in a way it is not that different from yours.

    It's strange what life brings to us and hard to remember that "something greater is working itself out" in all of this. When you've had cancer I think you wake up in a gut way to "impermanence". Really non of us know what will happen next or when & how we will die. It's just that this ghost is a little closer for some of us, I think. And that's a good thing in my mind. It motivates me on a daily basis.

  2. Hi DG,

    I'm leary of western medicine too. If I get cancer I don't know if I'll accept chemo, etc. I am going through old comments on my blog and found yours about mental illness. I had indeed written A LOT about it. Somewhat on the Buddhist Blog but a lot more on my personal blog, "Letters from the Sanitarium."