If you or someone you love is in or needs to have radiotherapy, read this blog and forward it on to anyone who might benefit.
I have finished my first gig after radiotherapy. I have brought with me the creams and bandages and steroids to help me in case things go wrong with my skin or I am exhausted. My skin is red and sore, but it is not as bad as it could have been—the doctors were so amazed at how well I did. And while I am tired, I did a pretty intense week of work without chemical support. I think the biggest reason I have done so well is due to the breathing I did during the last few weeks, and because I’m so convinced it made a difference to me, I’d like to tell you about it.
Hello! Breathing does not sound like a particularly innovative way to go through your treatment, you might be saying to yourself! You might even think that it would be harder to not breathe than to breathe! But I’m talking about breathing under pressure (which isn’t what you do when you have to give a big presentation). Hyperbaric oxygen is when you breathe pure oxygen while being pressurized. The pressure forces more oxygen into your cells which turns out to have the dual advantage of being incredibly good for healing and incredibly bad for cancer. (Cancer hates being flooded with oxygen, but wounds and injuries love it.) The big hyperbaric oxygen machines that can take you down to dangerous amounts of pressure (to allow people to recover from the bends when they are diving) are mostly in hospitals and the treatments can be thousands of dollars an hour (which is why my diving insurance is so expensive). But it turns out there are little machines that offer a mild form of hyperbaric oxygen that still offers most of the advantages of the big ones—only way more convenient and way way less expensive.
Mom found that a place close to me in Wellington offered this, and my first full week of radiotherapy I began the treatments. I had walked past the Tory Urban Retreat (http://www.toryurbanretreat.co.nz/) many times in the past without every glancing in and up the stairs to this little oasis, filled with greenery, with fresh juices, massage therapists, a sauna, and a float pod. And hyperbaric oxygen. I was welcomed by the friendly staff and shown to pod which, as Michael says, looks like a space capsule.
I got in, put on an oxygen mask, put on the headphones they gave me, tuned into meditation music, and closed my eyes. I felt the pressure in my ears, the way I do in a dive, and the oxygen tasted a little sweet, as I had experienced it pre-surgery all those times. I breathed and meditated for an hour. But radiotherapy wasn’t yet taking much of a toll on me, and it was hard to notice any improvement after the hour of breathing. Still, I was told it would help, so I went back.
The first and second weeks I went only twice each week. Each time I was greeted more like family by the kind staff who inquired after my heath and knew my preferences. My only indication that it was doing any good was the fact that my skin seemed to be holding at a 1 rating out of 4, when they had told me that it was likely to get very bad because of the way they were directing the radiation into my skin.
By week three, though, as my skin got more uncomfortable and I started to get tired, it was clear that the oxygen was helping me. I moved to three treatments a week and I discovered that I was more alert afterwards than I ever was without it. By week four, I was at four treatments a week and could feel a reduction in both skin problems and pain after each treatment. Week five I went five times and I found that the hour in the capsule was the fastest hour of my day. I would go in feeling wiped out and sore, and I would leave feeling like myself again.
The research on using hyperbaric oxygen to help people suffering during radiotherapy is crystal clear. My radiotherapy oncologist knew that literature well, and when patients do very badly, they are flown to Auckland or Christchurch where the big machines are. But the research on the mild version I had at Tory Urban Retreat is also really substantial, and I can’t understand why they don’t tell all of us to give this a try. The doctors didn’t even seem that interested in the fact that I had found something that seemed to be making such a difference.
During my last week, I talked to the owner there and told her about the difference she was making in my life. Her eyes filled with tears as she told me that a key piece of her purpose in life was to support people to live fuller, happier lives. And so they did, in their little urban retreat.
I’ve been away from home just over a week now, and haven’t had my pressurized dose of oxygen once. I’m feeling it, too—more tired and sore than I was when I was regularly going. But soon I’ll be home, and you can bet that for the next few weeks, as I begin to heal, you’ll be able to find me a few times a week in a space-like pod, diving into better health.
Today, a poem that moves me greatly. I am working to make sense of myself as new born.
Blessing for a friend, on the arrival of illness
Now is the time of dark invitation
Beyond a frontier that you did not expect;
Abruptly, your old life seems distant.
You barely noticed how each day opened
A path through fields never questioned,
Yet expected deep down to hold treasure.
Now your time on earth becomes full of threat;
Before your eyes your future shrinks.
You lived absorbed in the day to day,
So continuous with everything around you,
That you could forget you were separate;
Now this dark companion has come between you,
Distances have opened in your eyes,
You feel that against your will
A stranger has married your heart.
Nothing before has made you
Feel so isolated and lost.
When the reverberations of shock subside in you,
May grace come to restore you to balance.
May it shape a new space in your heart
To embrace this illness as a teacher
Who has come to open your life to new worlds.
May you find in yourself
A courageous hospitality
Towards what is difficult,
Painful and unknown.
May you use this illness
As a lantern to illuminate
The new qualities that will emerge in you.
May the fragile harvesting of this slow light
Help you to release whatever has become false in you.
May you trust this light to clear a path
Through all the fog of old unease and anxiety
Until you feel arising within you a tranquility
Profound enough to call the storm to stillness.
May you find the wisdom to listen to your illness:
Ask it why it came? Why it chose your friendship?
Where it wants to take you? What it wants you to know?
What quality of space it wants to create in you?
What you need to learn to become more fully yourself
That your presence may shine in the world.
May you keep faith with your body,
Learning to see it as a holy sanctuary
Which can bring this night-wound gradually
Towards the healing and freedom of dawn.
May you be granted the courage and vision
To work through passivity and self-pity,
To see the beauty you can harvest
From the riches of this dark invitation.
May you learn to receive it graciously,
And promise to learn swiftly
That it may leave you newborn,
Willing to dedicate your time to birth.