Saturday, May 8, 2010

Dragonfly Eyes: Take 4

I cried a few times during the week-end. It happened, usually, when discussing my cancer status.

Since then,I have been thinking about the reasons why I cried. Some of my colleagues thought that perhaps I was crying because I'm grieving. They decided that I was the one to express the grief they all felt about our environmental problems - I was the designated mourner for the week-end.

Certainly, the tears bubbled up because it is frightening for me to look into the future (because of my metastatic cancer status) and yet, that was one reason why I was there: to help envision a future. And, as I explained in an earlier Dragonfly Eyes post, I try to live in the present and not worry about the future. By living in the present, I am more able to sense a future of possibilities.

However, I also think that the tears bubbled up because of nerves: I am innately shy. I also struggle with my own feelings of not-belonging. So, here I was with a group of folks, most of whom I don't know and most of whom are more well-known for their scientific or artistic work, trying to explain tothem how my discipline envisions the future. I think, too, that I was brought in because I am a member of an indigenous community. (I also know, though, that the organizers like my interdisciplinary perspective: my undergraduate degree is in Science Communications - with upper division courses in science and writing - and then I went into anthropology and have several years experience working on committees at the NSF.)

Frankly, I was intimidated by this group and when I'm intimidated, I get nervous and cry. There's a part of me that doesn't believe I belong in such a group as was gathered last week-end.

At any rate, grieving was one of the themes that came out of this week-end. We discussed Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief, which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I've read, too, that a person who is grieving doesn't necessarily experience these stages in the same order. They may come about at different times. I think that several of my colleagues are within the anger/depression stages of grief for our environment and our world.

I'm going to bring another strand into my discussion: that of indigenous histories. Recently, I likened colonial/imperial invasions into indigenous territories as an invasion of cancer. So, cancer in individuals is like colonization of indigenous peoples is like climate change and environmental degradation in our world (which I suggested in an earlier post).

How does one heal from cancer? How do indigenous peoples heal from colonization? How do we heal our world of environmental degradation?

Perhaps the lessons I have learned as a "cancer treatee" can be applied here.

For over two years, I have seen an acupuncturist trained in traditional Chinese medicine. What I like the most from seeing the acupuncturist is that traditional Chinese medicine is holistic: she asks me about my physical symptoms, my emotional state, my level of stress, and my diet. It's also taught me to see my body in terms of energetic pathways and systems and reinforced the idea that we are all interconnected.

I also see my conventional western oncologist, a therapist, and a physical therapist regularly. I am participating in an immunotherapy trial at the University of Washington. I practice qigong. I've been reading book after book related to mind/body medicine. I color mandalas and create mosaics. I am changing my diet. I try to get some kind of exercise in each day. I am learning to meditate. I try to live in the moment. I draw upon my support network, which, I am grateful to say, is a large one.

In other words, I am in the process of healing myself using a variety of approaches from western medicine, Chinese medicine, some readings on spirituality and healing traditions from the Arctic, Buddhism, and Chinese medicine. I've read a small amount in ayurvedic medicine, too. (That's the joy of being an anthropologist: I can "study" all of these different medical systems for my own health and I can somehow make it count at work, too!) I tap not just into science, but art and spirit.

I promise my discussion is going somewhere, so bear with me.

To get back to grieving, when I googled "kubler ross grief", one of the top two websites included the link I gave above. The other top website was by This grief cycle expanded upon what Kubler Ross's five stages to include shock and testing. But what I found most interesting is that this site notes that people often get stuck in one phase or another. They are resisting or avoiding change by not moving on to the testing (seeking reasonable solutions) and acceptance phases.

So, how have I, as a cancer "treatee", moved past the anger and depression stages of my metastatic breast cancer status?

One thing suggested by my acupuncturist and my therapist about two years ago (and interestingly, I think I had just read some article in Time Magazine related to "happiness" research) was to create gratitude lists. Gratitude lists help you focus on the positive and they help you feel connected to other people. As I mentioned in an earlier Dragonfly Eyes post, I don't believe that cancer can survive in a happy and hopeful body. So, I regularly give thanks to whoever or whatever circumstance warrants it. I have separate "Labels" on my blog, for instance, that are "thanks", "thank yous" and "thank you". I have a total of 75 posts in these categories. (That's kinda cool - but it makes me think I should have more!)

So, I wake up every morning - and even if I'm in a bad mood sometimes - I try to remember to think about what I'm thankful for. Walking from my son's school to my office helps, especially this time of year, because I get to see things start to bloom: first the crocuses, then the daffodils, then the tulips, now the rhododendrons (amazing on campus right now), my lilacs are in full bloom, my irises are budding as are my roses. I am thankful for the very long springs we have here in the Willamette Valley.

Try it with me: what are you thankful for?

I am thankful for lazy Saturday mornings - so I don't have to rush around!
I am thankful for my healthy, inquiring, son.
I am thankful for my family's support and love.
I am thankful to the King Islander community for their continued support, both for my cancer treatments and for our shared work.
I am thankful for my friends who continue to support me through my cancer treatments.
I am thankful for my friends and others who have given me travel funds so that I can participate in this immunotherapy trial at the UW.
I am thankful for my job, which gives me the flexibility to do my treatments, study what interests me, take care of my son, and keep learning.
I am thankful for my colleagues who also continue to support me in a myriad of ways.
I am thankful for my students who often teach me as much (if not more) than I teach them.
I am thankful for sun and blue skies, especially today.
I am thankful for the foresight of Oregonian leaders in the past, who passed legislation to keep much of Oregon's coastline free from development.
I am thankful for the Andrews Experimental Forest - and other tracts of old growth.
I am thankful, too, for tracts of new growth forest.
I am thankful to NSF, which is willing to support interdisciplinary work.
I am thankful for my healers, both from non-western and western medicine.
I am thankful for the opportunity to talk about "big ideas" with my colleagues.

I don't know about you, but I know that being grateful makes me feel better and happier. I woke up in a good mood already, but this list has just made me happier to be alive.

Gratitude lists have helped me move past the anger and depression and into the testing and acceptance phases. I think it is in these phases that I can move forward to healing myself.

I read several other blogs, including those with metastatic breast cancer. A couple of them are not doing so well and several others are doing okay. From what I am observing is that those who are doing well are those who have not stayed stuck in the anger/depression phase. Those who are stuck seem to be doing worse health-wise - or who have worse side effects from treatment. Those that are doing well have thankful lists.

I think these stages of grief can be applied to colonialism and indigenous peoples: I fear that many Native Americans here in the Lower 48 are stuck in the anger and depression stages. I think in order for our communities to heal, we need to make gratitude lists and figure out ways to move forward. The explanation given in the website above - that being stuck in one stage represents a fight against or a denial of change - helps me to understand what's going on in many of our communities. The trick is to accept that change has occurred and enter into the testing stage, where we can seek realistic solutions. I think our communities should draw upon a wide variety of approaches, including those of western colonial society, to heal ourselves. We should not limit ourselves, but explore the possibilities of what might work in different situations. We need to draw on our own histories and cultures - learn what other groups are doing - and expand our understandings using a variety of perspectives and experiences. For instance, my cousins and I and other relatives are now "friends" on Facebook. We're using modern technology to stay in touch even though we are thousands of miles apart.

I think that these same lessons can be applied to what we are trying to do in the Dragonfly Eyes effort. Recognize where we may be stuck in certain phases and then employ gratitude lists. We need to draw upon a variety of approaches and use a variety of lenses to envision our future, including those of indigenous peoples.

Thank you, again, for allowing me to bring the lessons I've learned from cancer into our discussion.

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