Donna’s Cancer Diary: Post 2
It’s a very dry spell on the Canadian prairies and wildfires continue to burn out of control.
Off-and-on, the air is thick with yellow smoke and smells like acid. A sharply-worded caution from Don cuts through the haze: Don’t put yourself in the line of fire(s).
“You are tough, yup. But the immune system doesn’t discriminate what intellectually you can (and do) process,” he advises. The body reacts even if your intellect tries to do an override.
Don’s not suggesting a retreat into a meditative bunker. But he’s telling me to reduce any triggers—especially during the early days of diagnosis. So — if I’m to follow Don’s ‘big brother’ advice, I need to hurry up and go slower. It’s okay to cut back on my writing schedule. But I worry: Once people know I have cancer, will they will marginalize me, write me off?
And people keep telling me—the cancer “system” will take over your life. You lose all sense of control. Already, it’s been happening.
Calgary’s Breast Health Program at the Foothills Medical Centre has my biopsy results and referral. Their website told me I should be seen within fifteen days of the biopsy and ten days of a referral. When we’ve blown by the promised dates and I eventually get a call back from an administrator at the clinic, she tells me a triage nurse with a stack of 300 referrals on her desk will review my file—within the next three weeks to a month. Why not change the timelines on their program website then? I’m not blaming the administrator who has the miserable job of returning calls to anxious patients, including me, but isn’t the system set up to fail?
I pore over the website of the breast clinic I’ve been referred to and read it, end to end. It’s jam-packed with procedures and diagrams and facts. Friends send me articles on new cures for breast cancer, new procedures, fresh research. After a time, my eyes glaze over.
The state of my spirit feels more important than the state of my body. Sounds a little flakey, I admit. But I don’t care. It’s not religiosity I’m after; it’s a sense of aliveness. Reviving that spirit becomes my number one priority.
Machu Picchu Bound!
I’ve worked in 35 countries, and travelled as a tourist to even more places, but after all that travel, one destination still on my bucket list is Peru’s Machu Picchu. Many months ago, my husband, youngest son, and I put together a 10-day itinerary in Peru to celebrate our son’s 30th birthday. Should this breast cancer diagnosis disrupt our best-laid plans? My GP says, “Go to Peru for 10 days, nothing is going to happen in that window of time.”
Less than 24 hours before my flight to Houston is scheduled to depart (with a connection on to Lima, Peru), I receive the long-awaited call from the breast cancer clinic. A perky voice tells me their first opening for an appointment with a surgeon for a consult is 10:30 in the morning the day AFTER I’m scheduled to return home from Peru. How serendipitous! The surgeon’s name is Dr. May Lynn Quan. I know nothing about her but this is how the healthcare system works in Canada; you get what they give you.
So, off to Peru I go—a destination reportedly steeped in the sacred and more than its fair share of trauma. I’m not sure what I expect to find there but I go with a strong sense of purpose. What started out as an adventure has become a spiritual quest.
What I discover in Peru, a country of 33 million, is far more than Machu Picchu, one of the heralded wonders of the world. The people we meet—in urban Lima, in the Amazon rainforest, in the high-altitude Andes—speak with pride of their country’s vast resources (the reserves of gold, silver, copper and now lithium; the thousands of visitors to Machu Picchu, 365 days of the year; the agricultural potential) and speak openly of their personal struggles to inch forward, to not be thrown off course by political drama and corruption. Mere months ago, on the heels of the economically-paralyzing COVID pandemic, country-wide strikes—“the troubles”— had shut the country down.
Gus, our 33-year-old guide in the Amazon jungle, is a keen student of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, a roadmap to self-improvement. Mario, a heavy-set man who had nudged winded tourists like me along the fabled Inca Trail for more than two decades, saves his tips to take his own family to other wonders of the world—the Great Wall of China, the Coliseum in Rome, and Disneyland. Patricia, a 32-year-old teacher turned gastronomy guide in Lima, is pushing for her rights as a female in a macho society where 80% of the people claim affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church yet consult local shamans on the bigger questions.
“Are you, like other foreigners, interested in coca leaves or a dose of ayahuasca (a known hallucinogenic administered by local shamans)?,” Patricia enquires. Yes to the coca (chewing the leaves helps with altitude sickness, especially useful in the city of Cusco, elevation 3,400 metres). And while the idea of opening up the mind to see more clearly is tempting, especially in my present situation, I decline the ayahuasca. I’m not sure shamans understand the concept of micro-dosing.
A few days later, we’re labouring along the Inca Trail, and even with coca leaves, I’m too oxygen-deprived to speak. The joints in my legs are quite capable of reaching out to the next rocky step but my lungs can’t keep pace. It’s like moving in slow-motion. And in those silent moments, feeling very tiny and alone within the vastness of the Andean mountains, the oppressive weight of a cancer diagnosis bears down. I sense my parents’ presence. They both suffered with cancer; dad’s lungs deflated and mom’s stomach heaved. Regardless of all the medical intervention and loving support of family and friends—they suffered. The grief could be shared, but not the pain.
When we arrive at the Sun Gate—the ledge where the splendour of Machu Picchu has been revealed to generations of weary travellers—Mario, our guide, asks if I’m happy. Overwhelmed is a better word to describe how I feel. The sight of Machu Picchu is an energizing jolt to my weary soul. No one is quite sure who built Machu Picchu, or why, but most believe the hidden mountain sanctuary was constructed by the Inca in the 15th-century. Its temple structures align perfectly with the sun during winter solstice. Peru is in the southern hemisphere and as it happens, our trek coincidences with winter solstice. It’s a reviving sign and I breath easier.