The Gift of Faith
by Fay Octavia Elliott
I have been gifted with breast cancer three times. The third time, I sent an email to my friends and posted it to a blog I set up to keep everyone up to date on my progress. I felt I was facing certain death. Day by day it was harder and harder to breathe. I felt like an astronaut living on an alien planet. I could not breathe without oxygen equipment, and my condition worsened week after week. I called two of my Shambhala minister friends and asked them to help me prepare my post-death Shambhala service. I put my Will and other papers in order, pre-paid my cremation, and started giving away my most precious objects. I sold my bicycle thinking I would never ride again. I was sure I would not live long enough to see my new grand-nephew.
They say, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” I felt as if I was hovering at the edge of a deep precipice. Looking down was death and looking back in the other direction was an uncertain life. I had no idea which way I was going. Day by day it was as if the breath was being sucked out of my lungs. Unknown to me over the course of a year, my lungs filled with tumors caused by metastatic breast cancer. I remember when it started in October, 2011, because I began coughing all the time. It felt like someone was standing on my chest. After a while the cough intensified, my spine ached, and I had sharp pains in my head. I went to my oncologist and said something is very wrong. Please check my lungs, my spine, and please check my head too.In October, 2012, I barely made it through Scorpion Seal Assembly because I could hardly breathe at Shambhala Mountain Center on the oxygen equipment I had then. By December, there were tumors throughout my bones including my skull. On the PET scan image of my body, there were so many dots, I looked like a leopard. The doctors offered me little hope. They assured me that I had an incurable and terminal (3-6 months) illness. The best they could do was buy me a little time with chemotherapy. The odds of it working were less than 40%. What did give me some immediate relief was a procedure called thoracentesis. The cancer caused the cavity behind my lungs to collect fluid. On the right side, there was so much fluid, it was crushing the lung. When they drained over a liter of fluid out, it was very painful as the lung gradually re-inflated. I endured this procedure three times in the ensuing months.
The first scan was after three chemotherapy treatments (nine weeks). There was little change and no real regression in the cancer. I was weak and sick in bed by then. My days were spent mostly in bed or doctor’s offices. Between the chemotherapy and the lack of oxygen, I was crawling up the flight of stairs to my living space whenever I came home from being out. The saving grace was the blog I started. The love and support I received there (over 14,000 hits in eight months) and on Facebook was amazing. There were so many people including me in their tonglen practice and prayers. Friends, sangha members, and family started coming to visit to say their goodbyes, some people I hadn’t seen in years – cousins, former co-workers and bosses. It was so beautiful to sit on the couch and visit with them. Often I would take them sightseeing if they had never been to Colorado. I would sit in the van and watch them walk around and explore. I love showing off Colorado.Everyone collectively kept saying, “You have so much life in you still. How can you be dying?” One sangha friend commented how amazing it was that I was still “me” despite everything. Then my body got in on the act. It started complaining. It seemed it was tired of lying around and wanted to stretch and move. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I surveyed my body and it still seemed to be pretty sturdy. The lungs weren’t working, and the chemo made me feel lousy, but the rest of the body still seemed to be quite healthy.
I got out of the bed and started researching options on the internet. Friends gave me books and sent me links to everything under the sun. There were so many alternatives to the classic model of poison, slash, and burn – chemo, surgery and radiation – that I knew I could do something different. What I realized quickly is that lots of different things work for some people and nothing seemed to work for everyone who tried it. I concluded it was faith in whatever you choose that was the key. I knew I had no faith in my chemotherapy, and that the doctors didn’t either.
A friend sent me a link to an interview with a doctor named Lissa Rankin. She had just published a book called Mind Over Medicine. In the interview, she said that 95% of patients whose doctors believe they are going to live, live and 95% of patients whose doctors believe they are going to die, die. I was ready to fire my oncologist immediately. More importantly I was ready to live. Rankin said it was faith in the therapist and the therapist’s faith in the therapy that seemed to make the difference. Faith, it kept coming back to faith. It also helped to reduce stress and relax the body/mind so the immune system could recover to do its job.I found treatments I could put my faith in including a ketogenic and anti-angiogenic diet and two non-chemotherapy drugs (Faslodex and Xometa) among other things, resurrected my meditation and prayer practice, started walking and doing yoga, and rejoined the world. My prognosis was 3-6 months. Nine months later, I have birthed a new me. The tumors in my lungs are gone; the bone pain is mostly gone; my blood levels are normal; I am 40 pounds lighter; and I feel better than I have felt in at least five years. My friends say I am glowing. Certainly I feel more vibrant and alive than I can remember feeling since I was young. My faith in the potential of the human body has been restored. On a recent visit to the chiropractor I saw a quote by B.J. Palmer the founder of chiropractic, “The power that made the body, heals the body. It happens no other way.” I believe the combination of faith in my therapies and in my body’s capacity to heal itself gave it a chance to do just that.
Fay Octavia Elliott is an ordained Shambhala Buddhist Upadhyaya (minister) and chaplain with a ministry focused on issues of aging, dying and bereavement. She teaches meditation programs to people with cancer and chronic illnesses, caregivers, and people grieving losses. She recently resumed her volunteer chaplain duties at the Boulder Shambhala Center.