Part 1 – Living
Part 2- Cancer
Part 3 – Life Lessons
Part 1- Living
When I was a teen, my mother wanted me to train to be a secretary, get a job, and find a nice businessman to marry. I did try being a secretary for a while, but I was awful at it. I would get fired, or I would walk out at lunchtime and just not go back. I couldn’t spend my life doing something I hated. Then someone suggested a paraprofessional position at the NYC public school system. I became a teacher’s assistant in a special education class. I think of that job as one that led me to social work. I quickly realized I wasn’t as interested in the learning disabilities of the children I worked with as much as their emotional struggles, their behavior, and their general well being. I received the most satisfaction from calming kids down when they were angry and helping them regain control over their impulses. A turning point for me was with Marcus, a streetwise boy of about 10 or 11 going on 20, a “tough guy” who was sent to “time out” because of his fighting. I sat with him for a while, to find out why he was so angry.
“He was in my face. I warned him to keep away from me but he didn’t listen.”
I understood the feeling of not wanting to be bothered, of wanting peaceful space, but in a special education class with 11 other kids with the same short fuse, it’s hard to get that space. Without even thinking about what to say, I asked, “Do you ever see people lifting weights?” Marcus nodded his head with a yes, so I continued, “Well, you know how they bend their knees and rub their hands just before lifting weights that are heavier than they are? They are bracing themselves for the challenge. That’s what you have to do, Marcus. In order to avoid losing your temper, you have to brace yourself for your challenge.”
Our eyes locked for a few moments and he had a look of understanding. He readied himself for the task ahead. Marcus, along with the others in our class, had impulses they didn’t understand so they had great difficulty controlling them. Helping them cope with their angry outbursts was my most precious gift to them.
Eventually I got my masters degree in social work and worked with senior citizens, families, victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, back to children then onto part time work in a hospice agency. I always seemed to know how to reach the people I worked with, bypassing their ego defenses of, “It’s his/her fault. It’s in the past. Why should I be bothered about that now?” I went straight to the struggle that was hurting their hearts and souls. I helped people take baby steps onto a new path of coping with their challenges by learning to look within and by gaining self acceptance. When it worked, it was fantastic, I saw some people prosper and that filled me with gratitude. My career as a helping professional filled a big space in my heart.
I loved being a social worker, and thought that agency work was a valuable contribution to society, but I also thought a private practice would provide more opportunities for growth and I’d have extra money. I would write letters, make flyers and think about who to send them to in order to start a private practice, but that’s as far as I went. Eventually I realized that I was stuck in a muddy swamp of procrastination that started with low self esteem. It was all old baggage stemming from chaotic childhood experiences, that never quite left. They lay dormant with successes in life growing over them just waiting for an opportunity to pop out from where they were hiding, like unwanted weeds in a garden.
After retiring from my full time position at the Department of Education, I worked part time but I still had a lot of free time, which I wasn’t used to. There were always so many clients to see and documentation that had deadlines. So free time? I didn’t know how to fill it. I had ideas of acting classes — being someone else for a short while sounded so inviting. I thought about writing, I always kept a journal but maybe there was a book idea somewhere, “The Zagha Saga.” I thought about teaching in an adult education program, or leading groups. They were all ideas that interested me and were worth pursuing but something always stopped me. Procrastination became a cover-up word for feeling ill equipped or non-deserving. I let the ugly weeds take over.
As I was working through the issues of my life, in February 2020, cancer and COVID happened at the same time. My inner turmoil was pushed aside and I focused on the physical challenge. It took over 6 months of different doctors, several kinds of tests, and biopsies to finally diagnose me with stage 3 angioimmunoblastic T cell lymphoma. I was told it is a rare and aggressive type of lymphoma. Once diagnosed, my treatment began right away. I received 6 rounds of chemotherapy, plus a clinical trial of chemotherapy in pill form in between treatments and followed it with stem-cell transplant. Without minimizing the exhausting ordeal of undergoing cancer treatment, it was a relief not to think about what I will do with the rest of my life. I was, instead, working on existing, on having a life to eventually wonder about.
I finished with treatment in September 2020 and have been on the mend since. There is a long recuperation period with stem-cell transplant as my immune system slowly grows to full capacity. It takes about a year and leaves me with a plethora of-after effects. I wake up and am pleased to have more physical energy, so I exercise and try to eat right, but suddenly exhaustion takes over and all I can do is lay down. My stomach goes upside down so easily with gastritis and colitis, and my menu gets more and more limited after each stomach attack. Eating is no longer a pleasurable activity. I’m also unfocused. When I read and turn the page, I realize I daydreamed throughout the page. Sometimes I can’t recall the name of things so I have to describe it like a game, “What’s the name of that thing you use to remove hair from your eyebrows? Oh yes! Thank you, a tweezer.” I am filled with this heavy hearted feeling in my body and soul, and though I try to go back to my meditation practice, which stopped when I started chemotherapy, as it became an activity for my mind to do jumping jacks instead of calming down and allowing me to connect with universal energy. I continue because I have faith that eventually, it will all be easier. I also write journals and essays, though I often spend hours on a paragraph correcting and changing it numerous times instead of moving forward. I remember writing advice given: just write and edit later, but correcting and changing a sentence is how I stay stuck. It feels like a part of me is deliberately preventing me from moving on.
I am still figuring out how to move forward. I learned from my comment to Marcus that we are all faced with periodic challenges. During the days of my treatment, I wrote constantly exploring my feelings as each new symptom would present itself, and I believe I learned a lot about perseverance and staying present, experiencing each ordeal fully. I wasn’t afraid of cancer, I was sad at the loss of my health and aware of what chemotherapy did to my body. As it was getting rid of the cancer, it was also exhausting me, making my bones hurt, my fingernails white and toe nails black. I lost all my hair and my voice became raspy, and I was consumed with the never ending question, “Did I go to the bathroom today?” It was also ironic how the nurses hooking me up to IV tubes with various poisonous chemicals would double up with masks, gloves, and gowns explaining how the chemicals that I was being injected with would harm them. There was something to write about in every experience, and now though I feel pleased that this is all in the past, I don’t know what to do next. I have more energy but I am still recuperating and a compromised immune system along with COVID makes it difficult to venture out into the world anyway.
Part 3 – Life Lessons
There are, however, things I have learned along the way. I enjoyed my own company in a way I have never before experienced. When I was preparing for stem cell transplant, and understood that I would be in a hospital room by myself for a month, I wondered how I would get through it, but as it turned out, it was like being on a retreat. I was alone with my thoughts and feelings, and it was a peaceful experience just being with myself.
My oncologist stated that my cancer was discovered in its early stages and that his prescribed treatment would be successful, so I was confident that I would recover. That made me less afraid of cancer, or dying which freed me up to experience my own resourcefulness. I knew I would get through it, and patiently tolerated all of what cancer treatment had to offer. Sometimes, however, I realize I was not so patient and optimistic. This became clear when I saw my oncologist half way through my treatment. He spoke about how well I was doing and I responded with, “I can’t wait till it’s over.” I believe he heard something in my answer that I was not yet in touch with because his response was, “Well I hope you get through it successfully and live a long time.” I found this misunderstanding both funny and revealing,
I realized that sometimes there is an either/or attitude about coping with life; I’m going to live, I’m going to die. I am happy or I am sad. In this case, I am patient, I am inpatient, scared, brave. Why do we have to pick just one? It’s like the see-saw in the playground — up or down. If I chose one then I miss out on experiencing the other. Is it a purposeful rejection, as if the other half of life’s energy is not needed? Is there real peace in choosing just one side? If I am accepting that I have cancer and am ready to deal with it, does it mean that I can never have periods where I am impatient and fed up with being sick? When we live with an either/or attitude we reject half of the equation of life and consequently part of ourselves. Can we appreciate true happiness if we haven’t had sadness to compare it to?
In truth, when I realized the impact of that exchange with my oncologist, I realized that though I totally expected to live and get past this ordeal, there was also a part of me that was stunned that I could also die and if I am really honest, there was a part of me that I didn’t want to exist anymore. I didn’t want to be going through cancer treatment or to have to figure out what I am going to do with the rest of my life once this is over. I just didn’t want to face the tremendous task at hand because I didn’t think I was up to the challenge. Eventually, I realized that I didn’t have a choice but to go through it and face the unknown, so I thought I’d see what each day had in store for me. Soon, I began to see that if I didn’t judge myself in any way, not thinking of myself as a failure or that I didn’t take enough chances in life, or that I didn’t understand what the doctor was saying because I wasn’t smart enough: in other words if I didn’t judge myself and saw life simply, as challenges to work through, instead of character flaws, life was easier. I didn’t have to win the race, I just had to do the best I could. In being able to embrace the good and the bad, instead of picking just one, we see the nature of life more fully. Life stinks sometimes, and is wonderful at other times. There is a sunrise and a sunset. If we can embrace both, then we can see that both sides have something special to offer, and best of all, the absence of self criticism is liberating.
Once I began experiencing life without self criticism, I felt more content with who I am, accepted what I achieved, and what I didn’t. I see that I got caught up in a lot of “shoulds”. Just because I had a master’s degree in social work, it didn’t mean I had to open a private practice. Some people are eager for that from day one but I just wanted to help people and was pleased to have the structure of a philanthropic agency to do it with. When I didn’t follow through with my outreach to begin private practice, I had all sorts of criticisms about myself because I saw it as something I failed at, but without judgment, I came to realize that it was not something I really wanted.
I’m noticing that the more I refrain from self criticism, the more open I am to new ideas, and that fulfillment comes from heartfelt actions instead of reacting with a plan based on the interesting things that others are doing. I’m learning to have faith in myself and that if I can stay positive, the right answer will come. Maybe this is something that comes with age, or lessons learned from challenges with illness because I can hear the voice of younger people starting their careers, or those who struggle to pay their rent and feed their families say that they don’t have the luxury of waiting for divine intervention. I would still say that better choices come from the heart. I was a terrible secretary but I am a fantastic social worker because helping people is what I am meant to do and now that I have to recreate my life once I am able to venture out in the world and continue my life purpose in some way, I also have faith that the right idea or best opportunity will show itself. Having faith seems to make me more open, receptive and happier, plus challenges eventually evolve into opportunities.