This week marks the 4th anniversary of the day I parted ways with my left kidney. Let me say, one doesn’t realize how attached one is to their kidney until one has to bid it farewell! It’s bittersweet. I still admittedly get viscerally sad when I see my sick kidney on the MRI image, as if the space my kidney once inhabited now remains cavernously empty with grief.
After months of un-wellness, an incidental finding via a belly ultrasound revealed a large mass on my left kidney. Bewildered, my family doctor called with the news. She informed me that the report described the size and dimensions of this mass from 2009 comparing it now with the ultrasound from 2012…
My doctor never received the 2009 report. Cancer had been growing in me for three years without our knowledge. But while we didn’t know, I can assure you that my body knew. This explained a lot!
I can say cancer in hindsight, but at the time, all we knew was that I had a mass, it had grown significantly in three years and it looked solid. I learned that solid masses have a higher risk of malignancy whereas liquid masses tend to be benign and cystic in nature. This was worrisome, to say the least. What happened next still boggles my mind. My family doctor tried to get me to see an oncological urologist ASAP in the Ottawa region. As a Gatineau resident with a Quebec health card, seven Ottawa specialists rejected my doctor’s referrals.
What happened to human ethics and the medical oath, I wondered.
The Gatineau river now seemed the size of an ocean standing between direly needed medical care and me. I felt angry, disgusted, enraged when I had the energy, but mostly I felt sick, and frankly, scared to death.
Healing is a Verb
For six months, I had no one helping me medically speaking, no treatments, interventions, or medicine. After three years of growing dis-ease, I had to endure an additional six months knowing I was sick, and that no one was doing anything about it. It is difficult to put into words the psychological tsunami this unleashed in my life. I learned I had to own my experience, be my own health advocate, and CEO of my health. Critically, I also learned I had to participate in my own healing, something rarely if ever talked about when it comes to cancer. Having studied sport psychology, I knew one thing: I had to control the controllables. With this, I turned to my own mental skills toolbox. This included;
- Goal setting for healing
- Visualizing for healing
- Positive self-talk
- Mindfulness meditation
- Breathe work
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- And many other daily healing routines
Walking my dog (when I was able to) became an embodied meditation. I read about fears and the connections between organs and emotions. I read seeking solutions, but also to gain an understanding of my embodied, mental, and spiritual experience under extreme duress. Cancer has a way of forcing one deep into existential crisis.
3am. When the dreaded fears you’ve managed to keep at bay all day come to haunt your night, you better learn ways to soothe your mind, body, and spirit back to the peaceful harbour of the present moment. When uninvited Fear shows up like a giant elephant sitting on your chest, suffocating the breathe right out of you, it takes a lot of practice to regulate yourself back into Being. And so practice, I did, daily. Eventually, my doctor and I were forced to change tactics and reached out to specialists in Montreal. There, we found my medical angel, an oncological urologist finally agreed to take me on.
Gratitude is Good Medicine
June 6th 2013. A full radical nephrectomy was performed. I remember the surgical team wheeling me into the prep area, going through all their checks. With every cell in my body, I tried to remain present. I had spoken with my body, preparing it for the trauma and pain of surgery and the healing journey we were embarking on. I thanked my left kidney, often while crying, for all the hard work it had done for me for so many years, and for containing so well these toxic cells in my body. What amazing work it had done to protect me, filtering what would otherwise have harmed me further. The last thing the medical team did before bringing me into the operative theatre was to stand together in a caring circle around my bed. While I lay in the gurney, my surgeon asked me if I had any questions. I surprised them all, including myself by saying:
“No questions. I just want to say thank you for what you are all doing for me today.”
In what was arguably a terrifying moment, fear didn’t speak, spontaneous Gratitude did! With that, I knew in my heart I had done everything in my power to participate in my healing. I had done the mental, emotional, and spiritual work to prepare myself for surgery, the way an athlete prepares for the biggest game of their life. I knew I had done the work: Preparation, Gratitude, and Trust. Now, it was time to Let Go, and let my (medical) teammates take this next shift.
Four years later, here I am. Nothing in my life has remained the same since. I now have only so many “spoons” in a day, and must use them wisely. And while there are days where I still struggle in one way or another, there are also days brimming with incredible beauty, insight, creativity, joy, laughter, connection, and love. So while the struggle is real, I couldn’t be more grateful for my healing journey and my loving Tribe; family, friends, colleagues, and clients.
“Through Love all pain will turn to Medicine” (Rumi)
There are so many more beautiful, meaningful, heartbreaking, and transformative stories and lessons worth sharing from my kidney adventure… But for now, as I celebrate my 4th anniversary being NED (no evidence of disease), I rejoice in second chances and take none of it for granted. Walking out my front door this week, I was greeted by a chalk drawing on my driveway. Instantly, I knew the neighbourhood artists responsible for this priceless gift: A reminder that I do not walk alone.
In truth, none of us ever do.
Author: Chantale Lussier, PhD