This is another of Peg Staley’s letters to her friends about cancer.
A 56-year-old psychotherapist from Rhode Island, Peg learned last year that she had a tumor in her breast. Through these letters she keeps her friends in touch with her progress, as she strives to become “a full and primary participant in my own healing.” We’re grateful for the chance to share them with a larger audience.
Peg is married and has five sons, two of whom still live with her in their country home, near the ocean.
Several of you have written concerned that my silence is not a good sign. You are right. The past few weeks have been dark. I have been very wiped out, feeling low in energy, discouraged and in pain, which has been steady though not always intense. I am coming to understand how debilitating it is to live with constant pain, since even when it’s below the level of my conscious awareness, it’s there dragging me down. At the same time I continue to learn and understand my life and its events.
Last month I was leading a Gestalt training group in an exploration of our individual life supports. I borrowed from what I’ve learned from Dito of Tai Chi and was teaching by demonstrating a way to connect to our physical bodily support in the world as we shifted our weight totally from one foot to the other. Then I invited the group to be still and asked each member to allow an image to rise which would signify what support means to her. Each of us then drew our image and shared them with others in the course. My image was of a sawhorse, sturdy, massive and purple, that is almost cut in two by a large red saw with a bright green handle. I wanted to push the image away, to rationalize that I was not going to cut my support in half, that I had recognized the danger and stopped. But I could not maintain my denial.
And then suddenly I saw that if you do cut a sawhorse in two you end up with two pieces which are more flexible and adaptable and capable of many different constructions. And I do not know what the new structure will look like. In the chiropractor’s office is a sign, “Let go and let God.” Dito had suggested when he was with me one evening when I felt especially low that I use Baba Muktananda’s mantra for support. His suggestion is right on. But the mantra that fits for me is not Baba’s but “thy will be done.” I have managed my life all my life. I don’t even know what it would be like to give up control. I am learning to accept gifts of love and support — but how quickly I snatch back my need to make plans, to organize, to make sure.
Another huge piece fell into place two weeks ago when I woke understanding that my need to govern my life has much deeper roots than the belief that the way to be loved is to be sick. For me the way to be loved is to be dead!
I reached this conclusion as an infant. My family, grieving for the death of a daughter and yet not willing to face and work through the pain of loss, the guilt and fear, was caught in a trap. Pretending not to, they were unable to let go of their focus on a dead daughter. As a child trying to understand family rules, I saw that the person who received attention, who was the focus of love and concern, was dead. So the conclusion seemed obvious to my child mind. To be loved in this family you have to be dead. And so my hunger for love led me to fit carefully into the mold. Be dead, obedient, quiet, don’t do what you want, in fact don’t even let yourself know what you want. Anger is certainly much too lively, so kill off your spirit, conform to family rules. Then my sister Jane was born a year and a half later. She is energetic, fun-loving, mischievous, naughty, and that seemed to work for her so even if I’d been able to switch and try a new model, the lively, outgoing role is already filled.
Soon, of course, that whole decision, and all its machinery, was buried beyond my reach but the effects are powerful. Since I last wrote I’ve also read Lawrence LeShan’s You Can Fight for Your Life, on his psychiatric work with terminal cancer patients, many of whom had total remissions of disease. Dr. LeShan identifies a common trait among cancer patients that they have somewhere along the line buried a desire or stifled an urge to express themselves in the world. Despair in believing that there is no way out results in cancer. Their statement would be: “I cannot be who I want to be unless I am willing to relinquish love and support from others, so I might as well be dead.” I read his book. I agreed with his premise and I admired the patients he describes who knew what it was they had wished to do so long ago. I did not even know what life meant to me. I squelched so much so young that I had no images of what “Peg alive” looks like. It’s almost a contradiction in terms and what an incredible relief to have a sense now of where the task lies.
. . . . there are those . . . who have been healed through faith, through using wheatgrass, various herb teas, as well as chemotherapy and radiation. I know that all these healings have taken place. I still have not found the route to my own health.
I did discover one thing which puts me about two years old. I need to say “no.” This year I am saying “no” to my responsibility for Christmas, and to the frantic over-production that has always accompanied the holiday. I have told my family and I will share with you that I am not going to do anything about the holiday. I will not buy, wrap, write, make, cook, decorate, shop or plan for Christmas. The depth of family expectation about my Christmas role came vividly clear when I told Andrew my intentions. “O.K.” he said, “We’d better sit down this evening so that you can tell me what you want me to get the boys.”
“Andrew! You didn’t hear me. I am not going to plan, to spend any money or time. Whatever anyone else truly wishes to do, feel free, but I am not going to do anything. I may want to cook a turkey and will know that a week before. But if you want to give presents do it exactly as you wish.”
I feel excited, slightly rebellious, and eagerly await the least stressful holiday I’ve spent in years. And I know that this is a major decision for life, not death. I have also gotten welcome support from one doctor for my decision. In the last two weeks I’ve been attending Dr. Bernie Siegal’s cancer support group in New Haven. What a blessing and a relief to find a medical doctor, and a surgeon at that, who believes that the outcome of disease rests more with the patient’s will to live than with the specific details of prognosis or treatment. He works within a setting and still he works to help patients make the life changes which will, as he says, “turn your life around and heal cancer.”
I still have trouble believing that I will be healed of cancer. I am, as I reported to you last time, working with Dr. W. D. Kelley’s dietary program. It involves both diet and supplements of enzymes, minerals and vitamins tailored to my body type and based on information from an extensive questionnaire I filled out as well as laboratory teats. There are many people who have healed themselves through following this program just as there are those whom I know who have been healed through faith, through using wheatgrass, various herb teas, as well as chemotherapy and radiation. I know that all these healings have taken place. I still have not found the route to my own health.
In talking to a friend recently I realized that one thing I lack is a mid-wife for my process. A mid-wife is a specially trained assistant. She has professional training, knows alternatives, and is willing to facilitate, support and encourage me in the dark places. Most of all she has faith in a process of healing and would encourage me to find my own path to health. I have been working closely with Jean Groenjes, the mid-wife at New Beginnings, Inc., our Birth Center in Warwick, and realize that the tact, skill and talents she offers to new parents seeking the best possible way to bring their baby into the world is exactly what I need as I continue to search for healthy Peg.
And if my path is to be through the transition of death, then I also want a midwife in that process. We do not even have a title for the position I’m describing, although occasionally nurses and, even more rarely, doctors, are able to fill the role.
How wonderful it would be to have my mid-wife who could let me know that the process was indeed going ahead well. Or that we had reached the point where different intervention was needed. As I write I realize that my analogy breaks down since we do not even have the information to begin to answer the questions I’m raising. Someday we will — but even on today’s level I know that it was the nurses in the clinic at the hospital who showed me how to take care of my wound. And that it was my friend Genie Schweers who suggested that pain medication would give me more energy as it reduced the stress of resisting the constant drain of hurt. Either of these suggestions, both almost by chance, by-products of events in my life, would have been cared for by my hypothetical mid-wife to cancer. And both have been invaluable in increasing my comfort.
I am involved in a process that is most similar to my experience of giving birth. Whether I live or die, I am in a transition. I want competent professional helpers, who do not lose sight of me as a person. I want to be respected as an intelligent participant in my own process. Time will eventually pass and the results of transition will be evident. Until then, patience and trust are required.
It is totally evident to me now why I started the birth center and why I needed to do all that I could to assure other young human beings that their new beginning on this earth would be attended to with as much love and caring as possible. And if I survive this experience with cancer it is equally clear to me that I will work to implement the concepts about support and help which I know to be crucial at birth, so that they be extended and implemented for those facing possible death. And that this is especially important for those people, with a life-threatening illness, who choose to explore avenues outside of the narrow, restricted band of treatments presently sanctioned by the medical profession.
And if I don’t survive to do this work, I want those of you who read this and who respond to my words to do what you can to make my dreams a reality.
With my love,
© Copyright Peg Staley