MEMOIR: CHAPTER 22 Changing Direction

Changing Direction

“Suddenly life is broken and it goes another way, and you never get to come back to that again.” ~ Richard Ford in Canada

There was much to do. Life could not go on as “normal” as it had with the first cancer, which had required no follow-up treatment. I had to find a new oncologist, decide on treatment options, and free myself from the constant stress and travel of my job at the Lab.

We sought a second opinion, and a third. They all agreed with the blunt assessment of my first oncologist: I had a 5% chance of living for three more years, with treatment. Jack went with me to appointments, and took notes. I discovered that I missed a lot of what I was being told, because I was still processing the previous sentence or formulating my next question, so Jack became my information archive. I asked for the research base for the 5% prediction, and the youngest oncologist of the three—the one not in the HMO, the one we paid for ourselves—said there had actually only been three studies published for behind-the-chest-wall recurrences similar to mine. He offered to make copies of the studies for me.

I read the studies and found flaws. All three were based on historical data, that is, information gathered after the fact about women who could be located and for whom medical records were available. Women who had breast cancer recurrences behind the chest wall and got well were not likely to report back in for the sake of research. I was not willing to base my own chances of getting well on such dubious information. Together Jack and I developed our own “story” about my “chances” of getting well—100%, or 0%, because I was an individual, not a collection of mass statistics.

I chose to remain in denial about the bones that had been removed from my chest. (In fact, that denial has remained in place for nearly 30 years.) No one had used the term “bone cancer” (or if they had, I chose not to hear it), and the three studies I had read only referred to “metastases behind the chest wall,” an inclusive term that included bones, organs, blood, and lymph recurrences. Had I understood that I’d had breast cancer cells in my bones, I might have thought I was done for, based on what I had heard about bone cancer. Instead, I decided that even if the medical predictions were correct, someone still had to be in that 5% and it might as well be me.

Somehow I managed to combine analysis, rationalization, denial and faith to settle on a path to healing.

Early in the healing process, there was an unexpected moment—alone in my home, I suddenly experienced a surge of—nothing else to call it—pure elation. Excitement, delight in what is to come, like boarding a ship to a new and exotic land. I had cancer! And a 5% prognosis! Hah! I’m in the 5%! That feeling was to return, at least as regularly as the moments of despair. It was beyond simple hope, more like anticipation of what was to come, knowing it would all “turn out right.”

The entire journey to healing is documented in my 1992 book, The Five Stages of  Death and Dying  Getting Well, so I won’t recount the details here. Suffice it to say that I got serious about mapping out a path to healing, rather than dying.

I took charge of my treatment. I interviewed oncologists as I would a financial advisor.

The third interview was with Dr. Douglas, a diffident young man with fatigue lines around his eyes. He had been recommended by a friend who liked his bedside manner. Dr. Douglas  talked with us in his office, but sat with us in one of the three chairs arranged in front of his desk.

“I’m looking for a new oncologist,” I said, “but before I decide, I have a few questions. Is that okay with you?”

“Fire away.”

“Would you be willing to never quote dire statistics or predictions about my eventual outcome?”

“Sounds reasonable to me, as long as you don’t ask.”

“I won’t ask. And would you promise never to use the word ‘remission’ with me, if I get better?”

“I guess I don’t understand…”

“‘Remission’ is a word that for most people means a temporary relief from symptoms. I figure if I’m well, I’m well. If I’m not, I’m not. No ‘purgatory’ of waiting for symptoms to return.”

“I’ll try to remember not to use that word with you.”

“Would you write it in my chart?”

“Yes, if you like.”

“This is my last question: would you be offended if I disagree with your opinion, or choose not to take your medical advice?”

Dr. Douglas paused at this one, but recovered quickly, and went on without a qualifying lecture. “That’s your right, and your choice.”

“Good.” I checked with my quiet inner voice.

“Yes. He’s the one.”

I glanced at Jack. He gave me a tiny lift of his chin. I turned back to Dr. Douglas. “Then will you be my oncologist?”

“With pleasure,” Dr. Douglas said, and shook my hand.

I had my own opinion, and was now listening to my own internal advice. The notation “AMA” appeared on my chart with some frequency—“Against Medical Advice.” We chose to regard the doctors, medicines, and treatments as agents we paid to give tangible form to our choices—our story, and my choice for healing.

Two weeks post-surgery, while Jack still commuted daily to work, I began driving myself to Portland for daily radiation treatments so I wouldn’t have to stay in town all day. By the end of the six weeks, the treatments had taken a toll—driving home for an hour and a half often required a stop for a nap. Deep fatigue had set in.

Chemotherapy would begin two weeks after radiation ended. But during those two weeks of respite, I got an uplifting surprise.

I was walking through high grass in a meadow near the creek, enjoying the mid-May warmth, when Jack came out and called me. “Judy, Tim’s on the phone!”

I ran for the phone. My brother Tim was my closest sibling, a soul mate—we were in tune on most things. The day of my first diagnosis in 1979, he and his wife, Irene, showed up at my house within hours, just to be there for support. The day of my first surgery, he showed up again, to keep Jack company at the hospital and buy him lunch and a beer at a bar down the street. Same thing for the second surgery. And now, he and Irene were expecting their first child.

“Hello?” I said breathlessly. “Is it the baby?”

“It’s a girl,” he said. “Seven pounds.”

“And Irene?”

“She did fine. She’s sleeping it off now.”

“Sounds like you could use a little sleep, too, Tim.”

“Yeah, it’s been a long night.”

“What did you name her?” I asked.

“Chelsea…Judith.”

Tears burned my eyes. “Ohhh.” I had no words. Irene is British, so I knew she had chosen the first name. The middle name, however, came from Tim—no doubt with Irene’s wholehearted support.

“I’ll call you later,” he said, and rang off.

I had taken extended sick leave for the whole summer, to get through radiation and begin chemotherapy. Dr. Douglas recommended the chemo drug Adriamycin, but after searching the research library at Oregon Health Sciences University, I refused that option. At that time, Adriamycin was known to cause heart damage. I planned to survive, with a healthy heart. As he had agreed, Dr. D. did not argue or push me, but instead offered a combination of three drugs, 5-FU, Methotrexate, and Cytoxan. My own research indicated that, while the drugs were toxic, there were few known long-term side effects.

A friend and colleague of mine, a Professor of Education at Portland State University, called me in June. “I heard about your diagnosis. Come on over, have coffee with me,” he said. “I’ve got something you might be interested in talking about.”

We met at the PSU Student Union, and had coffee at a table overlooking the Park Blocks, where students strolled or sat on stone benches in the shade of large elm trees.

Hal leaned forward. “Ready to quit that Lab job yet?” he asked me.

My sigh was audible. I adjusted my new wig, a hateful thing that was always itchy or on crooked, or both. “I’ve been ready for months. Maybe years,” I said.

Hal grinned, revealing the dimples that hid in his heavy, square face. “Your timing is perfect, then,” he said. Because I’ve just gotten approval for a new position, for an Assistant Professor to train teachers to use technology. I’m Chair of the interview committee. Guess who my first choice would be!”

“Uhh, don’t you have to advertise?”

“We will advertise, and of course we’ll interview the top three candidates. But do you know of anyone in the country—besides yourself—better equipped to train teachers to use new technologies in the classroom?”

It was no time for modesty. This was a life raft in a stormy sea. I beamed at Hal. “No way. I’m the very best!”

“You know you’d take a considerable cut in pay,” he went on. “Maybe about half what you’re making now. But you’d get raises, and merit pay.”

“Right now, I care less about that than about quality of life,” I responded. “And I need to quit traveling.”

“Here at PSU, you can control that,” Hal said. “Just say No when people want you as a consultant or a speaker. Or say Yes if you feel like it. It all adds to your professional credentials, but being a good teacher is your number one credential. I’ve been in your workshops, and I can vouch for that.”

And so it was, after two interviews, I was hired. Hal told me later that one reluctant member of the committee had argued against hiring me. “Doesn’t she have cancer?” the professor had asked. “Why hire someone and make that commitment, when she might even not be around that long?”

Hal’s advocacy had kicked into high gear. “It’s against civil rights law and University policy to make hiring decisions based on a person’s health history. You should not have even brought that into the discussion!” The Professor in question quickly subsided, and the committee voted to hire me. By the end of June, I had resigned at NWREL and signed a contract for the position at PSU.

My son Mike graduated from the University of Oregon, and at the end of July, his son, our first grandchild, was born in Eugene. We were present for Jordan’s four a.m. birth, and I managed to stay on my feet for the whole wondrous event, in spite of being in the middle of a chemo cycle, the “dip” of energy and motivation that occurs halfway between treatments.

In August, my mother my mother sent me two paragraphs she had copied from a book she was studying called A Course in Miracles. One was from the Workbook section, and the other was from the Textbook section of this new book:

Workbook, Lesson 135.12: A healed mind does not plan. It carries out the plans which it receives through listening to Wisdom that is not its own. It waits until it has been taught what should be done and then proceeds to do it. It does not depend upon itself for anything except its adequacy to fulfill the plans assigned to it. It is secure in certainty that obstacles cannot impede its progress to accomplishment of any goal which serves the greater plan established for the good of everyone.

Text, Chapter 20.V.36: He will go before you making straight your path and leaving in your way no stones to trip on and no obstacles to bar your way. Nothing you need will be denied you. Not one seeming difficulty but will melt away before you reach it. You need take thought for nothing, careless of everything except the only purpose that you would fulfill. As that was given you, so will its fulfillment be. God’s guarantee will hold against all obstacles, for it rests on certainty and not contingency. It rests on you. And what can be more certain than a Child of God?

In Mom’s neat, small handwriting, she had added,

“Remember how the ancients viewed the Holy Spirit? They saw it as the feminine face of God, and called her Sophia. This Course says the Holy Spirit is ‘your own right mind’ or your Higher Self, the Christ Mind which senses the knowledge that lies beyond perception.”

I read the words of the Course with a distinct ping of recognition. I recalled how serendipitous Hal’s phone call had seemed. Finding a new job with less stress and pressure had been free of obstacles, and the objection of one member of the committee with an issue about my cancer had “melted away” before I reached it.

And “listening to Wisdom that is not its own” is something I was doing with increasing trust. That Wisdom was my own inner “voice” or guidance. But it was my own. My Higher Self, the feminine face of God.

It was becoming clear that embarking on a spiritual path would have to be high on my “To Do” list. And perhaps this book would be a good place to start.  Now I was ready to tackle the spiritual growth I knew I needed to pursue. I recognized in the words Mom had sent me that this would be my path to healing.

I bought the Course, which came in three blue hardcover volumes, a total of 1200 pages including a Text, a Workbook, and a Manual for Teachers, and began its study when my new job started at PSU in mid-August. I had called Apple to explain my new teacher-training responsibilities, and within weeks my computer lab was equipped with 20 shiny new Apple IIe’s, an enhanced model which had just come out in January, 1983. I settled into a tiny windowless office, and vowed to stay invisible, teaching my classes and saying No to most everything else—requests to speak, to serve on national committees or editorial boards, or consulting that would require travel. Jack remained at the Lab, and we continued to commute to Portland.

 *   *   *

“Lesson 1: Nothing I see in this room [on this street, from this window, in this place] means anything.” This was the first lesson from the Workbook section of my new 1200-page book, A Course in Miracles.

I had just begun teaching my Fall term, 1983 classes, and it seemed like an auspicious time to begin my own study, as Jack drove us to work.

From the windows of the Chevy Blazer I saw distant mountains and the early morning mist-filled valleys of the Coast Range. How could this familiar and lovely sight have no meaning? I read it again, this time aloud, and turned to Jack. “I’m not getting this yet.” I had 364 lessons to go, so perhaps it was understandable. “What do you think?”

“I think I won’t be doing this study program with you.”

I had thought driving our daily commute could be a perfect opportunity to do this study together. I had neglected to consider a couple of things:

1)      I had learned in the first week of our marriage that Jack doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to do—a certainty and a boundary which has given me a lot of comfort over the years.

2)      Jack seemed to already deeply know most of the concepts, and had no trouble understanding them.

The word “bodhisattva” came to mind to describe Jack. Someone who has achieved an advanced state of enlightenment and therefore is qualified to enter nirvana and be a Buddha. However, they make the choice to remain a bodhisattva in order to help other humans attain the same goal. Jack would have vigorously disputed this definition for himself, but what did he know?

Perhaps if I had read Lesson 2, I’d have better understood Lesson 1: “ I have given everything I see in this room [on this street, from this window, in this place] all the meaning that it has for me.” I suppose there are those who look out on those lovely valleys and think, “This is utterly boring—a deserted wilderness. Can’t wait to get back to the city.” I had given them meaning. The lesson didn’t specify if the meaning would/should/could be negative or positive—just that I give meaning to everything in my life, which doesn’t necessarily make it The Truth.

So I settled in to studying the Course on my own, though Jack was always open to listening, and sometimes commenting, if I asked.

Each morning, while Jack drove us to Portland, I studied the Lesson for the day in the Workbook. Some of the lessons were especially difficult for me.

I turned to Jack, who often was able to clarify a difficult passage. (That bodhisattva thing, maybe?) “ ‘I am never upset for the reason I think.’ Lesson 5.” I read. “So…what am I upset about? For example, I shouldn’t be upset with a friend who, just for an example, sends me a Get Well card with a note saying she dreamed that I had died and she had moved in with you at the farm? And signs it with a damned SMILEY FACE?”

Jack grinned. “That upset you? I can’t imagine why!”

“And I had plenty of reason…”

“Why don’t you read ahead?” he suggested. “Seems like the answer is often in the next one or two lessons.”

I flipped to the next page, and read the next two lesson titles aloud: I am upset because I see something that is not there. And, I see only the past.”

This time, Jack laughed aloud. “And you can’t see why you got upset at her so-called “Get Well card? I wonder what might be in your past that would give you reason to be upset if some woman seems to have designs on your husband…”

“Oh.”

Each night I read a one or two-page section in the Text before I went to sleep. Though I had to overlook the Christian (with most terms redefined) and male-gender terminology, I could absorb and practice its message of love, forgiveness, and ending the illusion of separation. I applied every single lesson on forgiveness to my former husband, and some to my former boss. And of course, Ms. Smiley Face. I began to see my grievances (as the Course calls them) as resembling icebergs. It seemed sometimes that I melted the iceberg of unforgiveness completely, so that all I saw in my consciousness was a smooth surface of unblemished water. But within a week or two, another part of that same iceberg would float up in the ocean of my thoughts, and I had to do more work on forgiveness.

Most of the grievance iceberg was hidden under water. What I could see in the conscious surface of my mind was a small part, but by melting a layer at a time, another layer would be revealed, and my iceberg got smaller. Someday, the iceberg and the grievance would disappear completely, if I didn’t give up.

I was increasingly confident that while I might die, I wouldn’t die sick.

By the time I got to Lesson 19, I understood how to define a miracle as a change in perception, or seeing differently. Lesson 19 became a turning point for what may have been a most important part of my healing process.

I read it aloud to Jack: “ ‘I am not alone in experiencing the effects of my thoughts.’ What do you suppose that means?”

“Duh. Just think about it. I know your thoughts, and you know mine, even without saying them out loud.”

I gave him a raised eyebrow.

“Yes, I know when you have those fear thoughts,” he said. “Every single time, even when you pretend you’re ‘just fine.’ But I counteract them with my own thoughts. My mind is as powerful as yours, you know!”

“You read my mind?”

“Not exactly. It’s more like we have one mind, at times. As if we’re not alone in experiencing the effects of our thoughts.”

I looked down at the lesson. “Today we are emphasizing the fact that minds are joined.”

“If our minds are joined…”

“All minds are joined. Isn’t that the message of the Course?” Jack said.

“If it is, we should all be wearing tinfoil hats,” I said.

“No, I mean, what you read to me the other night, from the Text, I think it was? About people joining in a common purpose? We do that. We have a shared purpose—for you to get well. Doesn’t the Course say that when minds are joined, the outcome is certain?”

“I think so, something like that…two minds with one intent are so strong they become the will of God Himself? And that minds can only join on behalf of Truth? I can’t recall where I read that—I jump around a lot.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jack said. “We have to do it. We’re already doing it. We just have to make it deliberate.”

Wow. This was so much better than just reading the lessons together. I held out my pinkie finger. “Deal!”

He kept his eyes on the road, and hooked my pinkie. “Deal.”

We have never wavered from this joining, and have not to this day, though the “shared purpose” has changed from time to time, and is just as often focused on Jack, or on someone else—one of our children,  perhaps, or a grandchild.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “MEMOIR: CHAPTER 22 Changing Direction

  1. paulahstarr

    Wow! I love this, Judy. The story of you coming to The Course is one I’ve heard, and Jack’s showing up to support you are part of the “Judy Catechism” that I rely on to give my journey shape and guidance, but somehow reading this solidifies it all in my mind AND body. I get it. I’m living it this time around with Eric, except we seem to rally around remodeling and work for some reason. That seems so much less than healing from cancer, in the scheme of life’s important things, but as I consider it the vehicle maters less than the connection. We’re still working out what it means to love and be present with what is.

    As we sit at our makeshift kitchen table, amidst the detritus of our kitchen remodel and hold hands with our eyes instead of actual hands because we’re sitting too far apart with the way the table is set, I still feel the connection, the intention to live through what’s happening, to be as awake and present as we can that day, to each other’s experiences and needs. Thanks for writing this all down. You are my best friend, teacher and guide. I’m so glad you’re in my existential cohort.

    • remodeling and work is where you have joined in common purpose! And it’s sacred because of that. Can’t wait to see the finished product! I have a hard time picturing your kitchen in the living room…

  2. Lianne Thompson

    Judy, I loved this! Jack as Bodhisattva? Ask anyone who knows him: “of course,” said the horse. I loved the image of forgiveness as an iceberg that keeps popping to the top, the more it melts, until it’s gone. You, dear heart, as so alive and well, a spring of joy to those privileged to know you, in whatever way that occurs. Thanks again and again for sharing. xoxo

  3. Julianne Johnson

    I love this whole chapter. I’ve never experienced a doctor interested in my questions…I love the way you interviewed that guy. I hope I never have to refer to this chapter for my own review and prep to interview a doc. But what a great map if I need one. Course in Miracles always seemed too patriarchally-written and so wholly Christian-based to draw me in…now with your account of the lessons, I am finally interested. Thank you, Judy.

    • That was my biggest block, too. Patriarchal and Christian terminology. I spent the first 6 months crossing out words and substituting my own. “God” became “Spirit” or “All that Is” or “Creator” or “Collective Consciousness” or some other word that had no particular energy in it. “Holy Spirit” was always my own female Higher Self, connected to the collective consciousness. Every “He” and “His” became “She” and “Hers”. “Brother” became “Sister” and so on. Until it all started to feel silly. I knew I could make the translations in my mind. It was written down by two academics in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and patriarchal language was all that was acceptable then. As for the Christian terminology? Most of it is completely reinterpreted as you get farther along. I’ve always thought Jesus and Buddha got together in Wherever and agreed to write a book of Eastern spirituality and use Christian terminology so those of us in the Western world would actually read it.

  4. Michael Edwsrds

    I like the lesson that all meaning is only what we give it.

    • judyallen

      It’s a tough one–but the more you think about it, the more you see it. Helps to keep a very open mind, especially when you think you know for sure what something means. To be able to say…”Help me to see this differently.” And then wait…and listen.

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