Mary Ishmael
Free To Live Now
Valhalla, NY
mary@freetolivenow.com

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My Personal Experience


My Experience With Diagnosis and Treatment
A 21-year, early onset breast cancer survivor, I bring to my service unique personal experience and a clear understanding of the needs and concerns of those I serve. In the summer of 1988, at age 38, I discovered a large, hard mass in my left breast as I reached across my chest to turn off the bedside lamp. The biopsy revealed a malignant, small-apple-sized tumor, a Stage III cancer, particularly shocking since I had none of the risk factors for breast cancer. I was told to ‘get my affairs in order’. At the time, I was living in rural Virginia, a single parent of 12- and 15-year-old daughters.

Because the tumor’s size suggested it may have already invaded the chest wall, chemotherapy was commenced with the hope of reducing it to a more operable size. In ten weeks, it shrank to a ‘jelly bean’, which was removed by lumpectomy just prior to the start of six weeks’ daily radiation therapy. Chemo continued for a full year. The post-treatment mammogram was ‘clean’, and I was relieved to be finished with treatment at last.

Two months later a routine check-up revealed a dense hardness suspected to be only scar tissue from radiation. A new mammogram revealed instead that the cancer had recurred, and almost immediately thereafter I had a modified radical mastectomy. Due to complications from radiation damage, the surgery took six hours rather than the typical three, during which the long thoracic nerve was severed, leaving me with permanent joint/muscle dysfunction and chronic pain. By the end of two years’ treatment, I’d had six surgeries, including reconstruction, in addition to chemotherapy and radiation.

Finding My Way
It was a very simple gift that unlocked my inner strength and opened my heart to possibilities right at the outset of my experience with cancer...  a dozen words from a dear friend and Episcopal priest who paid me a visit at home in the hours immediately following the biopsy. He held my hand and, very quietly and seriously but with genuine warmth and affection, said, “Mary, I believe you will come to see this as a gift.” Twelve little words that set my course as sure as they made perfect sense to me the instant I processed them. Somehow it wasn’t an outlandish idea to imagine this thing called ‘breast cancer’ as a gift. A profound knowing within led me in the direction of peace and acceptance with whatever course my life was about to take.

With those words and that knowing as my guide and anchor, I explained to my daughters openly and honestly exactly where we were and how we would proceed. For us that meant, within the context of treatment, living each day as normally and as fully as ever without focusing on any end result. We became a determined team, supporting each other with immense love and devotion, as well as our usual silliness and laughter, as we rode the roller coaster of my treatment and its effects. There were difficult days for sure, but many, many endearing moments and evidence of the predicted ‘gifts’. I could write a book about just the gifts, but suffice it to say I know with solid conviction that adopting the ‘gift’ attitude right away enabled me to move into treatment living each day as fully and joyfully as possible despite the ‘unknown’ we all face, healthy or not.

From one of my favorite teachers, American Buddhist nun and author, Pema Chodron, I learned to “make friends” with the reality of impermanence about which the fabled bird on one's shoulder sings. That left little room for grasping and struggle for control. There were many moments of confusion, pain, anxiety, loneliness and fear, but I could return to my center of strength when I consciously interrupted those moments, breathed deeply, and let them pass as I redirected my thoughts to gratitude for the ‘gifts’ appearing every day. Appearing, that is, when I removed the walls blocking their presence.

The Buddha was sometimes referred to as The Great Physician. It’s said that he looked out at sentient beings everywhere and saw that the main sickness was that we try to protect ourselves from what it is to be human. We put up walls around our hearts – walls around ourselves in order to protect ourselves from pain. But that ‘protection’ only weakens us. We become more afraid, more inflexible and less open to life. As we grow older, terrors increase and fears make us less able to really be alive in this moment -- alive to find joy instead of everything we imagine threatens us.

That teaching returned to me many times throughout my challenge with cancer and still does, since, like all of us, I am a perpetual work in progress with ongoing ups and downs. The teaching always helps me stop and consider my ‘walls’ - what I’m doing/saying/being to ‘protect’ myself and my comfort zone. As The Buddha taught, I do find that as I break down the walls and allow my heart to open, everything becomes easier. I’m no longer in a losing battle with ‘what is’; I remember that ‘what is’ is really all there is! I’m able (many times only after great effort), to move my thoughts out of the past and away from the future, freeing them for this present moment. My life energy always feels stronger in that freedom.

Continuing the Journey
I believe passionately that one way to maintain our courage and keep walls from growing up around our hearts is to share our stories of life with each other. The stories of how we’ve dealt with struggles and suffering and unexpected joy. I tell my stories in the spirit of sharing that which gave me strength to keep my heart open in difficult times, open to be able to see the gifts always present though sometimes disguised in pain and suffering. Especially when I was dealing with treatment and feeling so alone with the complex issues and feelings surrounding breast cancer, I would have appreciated someone not only understanding and able to empathize with what I was going through, but also talking to me with the type of candor that I feel is important to bring to my work with others. I strive to be real, authentic and frank – to meet each individual exactly where they are and honor who they are with no desire to change them or expectation that they will be any way other than exactly as they are in any given moment. My intention is to offer information, sometimes even a lifeline, and allow it to be taken at precisely the moment and in precisely the perfect way for each individual’s own unique journey. If I am able to help inform their thinking, guide their way, lighten their load, or inspire them to access their own inner wisdom, then I will have succeeded in being of service.

Listen to Mary Ishmael on FM 95.5 - WBAI during a Science, Health and Healing program with Majid Ali, M.D.
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