Man, I’m “White”.

So when I was first diagnosed and was deciding what to do in terms of treatment, I felt very strongly that I needed to take the “holistic” or what I like to call the “Shotgun Approach” (much manlier, right?), meaning that I would come at it from all angles (or use a “spray” of treatments that all packed a punch). So in addition to “conventional treatment” (surgery, chemo, and radiation), I would also try to do things to enrich my mind, body, and spirit that would work to boost my immune system so that I’m firing on all cylinders (i.e. healthy diet, supplements, exercise, stress reduction, visualization, and of course prayer and meditation). As I was recovering from surgery (and before radiation) a lot of the long term survivors I talked to recommended “visualization and acupuncture” in addition to the obvious things like sleep, diet, and exercise. When I was getting out of the hospital, (the first time), I was referred to the “Disney Cancer Center”, a clinic right across the street from the Disney Animation Studios that provided a great “Integrated Medicine” (the scientific term for “shotgun approach”) program and “an amazing array of support services, resources, and complementary therapies that few cancer centers across the country offer” (I lifted that last part directly off their website), so I ended up checking it out.

Growing up I was a pretty picky eater and although my palette has definitely gotten a lot better in my adult years, I would say I still didn’t have a very balanced diet before the diagnosis and was desperate to meet with a nutritionist (which they also have at the Disney Center). I also considered having Buzz Lightyear do my radiation treatment before finally settling on UCLA. During radiation I met with Disney’s “Integrated Medicine” expert, Dr. Snow White, and she encouraged me to try out acupuncture. The first couple times I tried it, “Flounder” from “The Little Mermaid” was my acupuncturist (and I’m not sure if it was placebo effect, but it felt like it was making a difference…especially regarding fatigue). Yesterday I had my first appointment since getting back from Seattle and I had “Mulan” instead (okay, I’m obviously joking about the whole Disney character thing. It’s actually the Roy Disney Cancer Center and has no affiliation with the huge family entertainment conglomerate). “May” was actually her name and she comes from a family of acupuncturists (she is 4th generation actually), so I had a much different experience this time. When I was waiting to meet with her I started up a conversation with a woman named “Susan” who was waiting for a “physical therapy” appointment. She is a five year survivor of a rare form of Leukemia and spoke very highly of May. She kept calling her “special” and “rare”, so as I continued to wait, I became anxious to discover what exactly Susan meant by that.

Mulan practicing her acupuncture.

As soon as May took me back to the room, I noticed an immediate difference between her and “Mark” (not “Flounder”) who was my original acupuncturist. Mark made me feel very comfortable right away and we had a lot in common (we would usually talk movies the whole time he was putting the needles in). We never really discussed what he was doing and (for some reason) I never thought to ask him, I really just saw the whole thing as an opportunity to nap. A little caveat: It was funny how ignorant I was before I started going to acupuncture…I asked my friend Michael what I should wear, and he sarcastically responded, “Are you planning on being naked?” and I said with sincerity, “I don’t know…Should I?” Anyway, I could tell how serious May took acupuncture and how much it affected her worldview (now I want to be careful how I tell he rest of the story. I don’t want to make May sound “mean” and “judgmental”. I felt like a million bucks afterwards and am actually going back to see her on Monday, but I’d be lying if I said the whole experience didn’t make me feel a little self conscious). She went right into asking me questions regarding my health etc. and she would giggle at all my responses. She may have just thought that the delivery in which I gave my responses was funny (I have discovered that people sometimes find my demeanor and idiosyncrasies to be “charming” and “funny” even though I’m not intending them to be). When I laid down she asked me to stick out my tongue and she giggled again and I asked, “What’s so funny?” She then asked me, “Did you drink an iced coffee recently?” and I said,” Nope, I had a Jamba Juice.” She said, “Okay…now it makes sense. I would try to avoid things that have ice in them and if you’re gonna drink a smoothie, try sticking to one that is room temperature.” I had heard the whole “room temperature” thing before so I knew what she was getting at (cold drinks are apparently not as good for hydration).

May continued to examine me, then asked if I slept on my side. My response, “No. I usually sleep on my back. Why do you ask?” Her response, “Well, you have a slight deviated septum on your left side.” At that point, I was definitely starting to get self conscious and I thought to myself, “Geesh, lady. Are you trying to give me a complex?” as she then proceeded to ask me to open my mouth so that she could examine my teeth. I opened wide and she again giggled (uncomfortably though), “Wow, your teeth are certainly…very…unconventional.” (except she had a hard time saying unconventional for some reason). By that point I was definitely feeling discouraged and before I could respond she lifted my shirt to look at my stomach (my abs are looking much more defined these days so there is no way she could possibly offend me…at least that’s what I thought). She pressed down on my abdominen and without thinking said, “Man…You’re really white….and extremely stressed, I can feel it in your tummy.” No duh, Lady. I am definitely stressed. You just pointed out and giggled at all my flaws in a matter of seconds.

Now another caveat: I am in fact extremely pale-skinned. I used to wear a t-shirt when I was younger that had a picture of a fake comic book called “Sunbreak in Seattle”. It had people running in terror (like they were being attacked by Godzilla or something) as the sun broke through the clouds above them. It perfectly summed up my experience growing up in the Northwest. In other words, seeing the sun was a pretty rare thing for me growing up and when I actually am exposed to it, I tend to freckle (you never want to see me under a black light. It’s freaky.) My “whiteness” is always something I got teased about growing up, but I’m the youngest of three boys, so I could handle it. The movie “Powder” came out when I first started high school and for those who haven’t seen the movie, it’s about an “albino” with incredible intellect and supernatural powers that ends up transforming the town he lives in while overcoming the prejudice of his “deformity/disability”. So, of course, due to my lack of melanin, my buddies nicknamed me “Powder”. I was in all the school plays and they would try to get me to break character by shouting “GO POWDER!” as they sat in the crowd watching. At the same time, I do think they were genuinely proud of me, and the nickname did eventually become endearing to me. But when May pointed out my “paleness”, it did sting a little (it also could have just been the needles she was sticking in me at the time).

The poster for "Powder"

As May put the rest of the needles in, she told me to breathe and focus all my energy towards my stomach (just below the navel) and as I tried it, she started giggling again. Apparently I wasn’t doing it right. She kept trying to coach me but I still couldn’t do it. It was then that I think the both of us finally realized we were dealing with a total culture clash and I also think that May could tell I was getting annoyed because she put her hand calmly on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry. I know this is very new to you. I don’t expect you to get it right away. It takes a lot of practice” In my head I thought, “So stop giggling, then.” She then told me to focus only on my breathing as she left the room so that I could get some rest. It took me a little while to do that because I had to process what had just happened. I like to think of myself as being open minded and don’t like being annoyed with people, so before I could relax I needed to sort out everything that just happened. I finally came to the conclusion that what was actually bothering me was thinking about the “Man, you’re white” comment in a figurative sense. There is a lot of evidence that the lifestyle of the western world contributes heavily to the prevalence of Cancer. Before the diagnosis, I completely burned myself out, which (in my head at least) came from a strong desire to provide for Amy and I. I was definitely caught up in the rat race (In fact, when I woke up in the hospital after the first seizure I was convinced that it was caused by exhaustion). The one thing that I’ve noticed as being the key to long term survivorship (especially Brain Cancer) though is to learn to”let go”, “take it easy”, and “listen to your body” which goes against all my instincts as an American. I’ve always considered myself a pretty “laid back” person (which I think is how most people would describe me) but I’ve recently learned that I’m actually a pretty intense person on the inside. My mind is constantly running and I’ve always been told that I “talk fast and can be hard to understand sometimes”. It’s because my mouth is trying to catch up to what my mind is doing, so I can often sound like an auctioneer or that guy that used to do the “Micro Machines” commercials.

As I continued to lay on the acupuncture table I eventually realized that I wasn’t annoyed with May but I was actually annoyed with myself and my lack of patience in regards to making the changes I feel like I need to make in order to get healthy and I’m finding that there is a lot of wisdom in a lot of “eastern” attitudes. I’m also finding a lot of that same wisdom as I meditate daily on scripture. Even with that it continues to feel foreign to me but I think just coming to the conclusion that it was my own frustration with my quote unquote whiteness (again, I’m saying that figuratively) allowed me to finally “let go”, “take it easy”, and “listen to my body” in that moment laying on the table and right when I did that I started feeling like I was literally floating around the room. At first I was totally freaked out (mainly because it felt similar to the beginning of a seizure), but I continued to focus on my breathing and quickly found myself feeling the most relaxed I’ve ever felt (even more so than I did on morphine). This was exactly how Susan (from the waiting room) told me she feels when she goes to acupuncture sessions with May and why I think she considers her “special” and “rare”. After the session was done, I felt amazing.

I had breakfast with my buddy Caleb this morning (Caleb is a guy whom I share pretty much all the same interests with: we like to do geeky stuff like discuss philosophy, theology, books we’ve read, and our shared passion for films and the role that they play in all our lives) Anyway, he reminded me of the story of his first attempt at running a marathon. As he finished about three quarters of the race he ended up passing out and hitting his head against a curb and had 3 seizures on his way to the hospital. After something like that, I can’t imagine ever wanting to try it again (especially since he could’ve died). But he did attempt it again, only the next time, he had a way of measuring his heart rate and was able to be realistic with himself (“listen to his body”) or in other words he wasn’t going off “pure adrenaline” (which I would say is the very “western” way of living life and definitely the way I was living my life before all this). He paced himself, and even had times where he had to slow down which definitely frustrated him. He ended up finishing with a pretty decent time though.

As we were chatting, Caleb challenged me by saying (I’m totally paraphrasing here), “I hear ya talking and see how you’re feeling like you have this new lease and life and that you have this desire to figure out what you need to change about yourself and do it right away so that you can get back to doing what you want to do. I would encourage you though to slow down significantly and take things as they come to you. Take your time and get lots of sleep. I think that’s the best thing that you can do for yourself and Amy.” He then went on to tell me that the wisest character he has seen in any film is “Oogway” (the turtle) from Kung Fu Panda. He talked about the significance of the scene in which Oogway’s apprentice Shifu comes to meet with him after being summoned by the wise old turtle, Oogway. The mentor greets his apprentice, then before discussing the purpose of his invitation, he slowly approaches what looks like literally hundreds of lit candles stacked behind him and begins blowing out each individual candle one by one. Shifu eventually loses patience and with an aggressive supernatural kung-fu “punch” blows out the rest of them before Oogway can finish. Caleb pointed out the wisdom in Oogway’s choice of living life like the tortoise (as in “The Tortoise and The Hare”) and that we should probably all aspire to live our life that way. I’m discovering that In life (and especially when fighting for survival), we really have nothing but the present, which as Oogway so profoundly points out in the film is a gift and that’s why we call it the present.

I believe that there really isn’t too much we can be certain about in this world, but one thing that I think is definitely certain (especially from my own personal experience) is that you can move too quickly towards something and completely miss it by burning yourself out. That is why you can’t let your insecurities push you too hard towards that “something” and miss the gifts that you should be receiving along the way. That is exactly why I’m grateful for my experience with May (in spite of how humbling it was) and for being challenged by Caleb…and even more so for the people in my life that have loved, supported, and encouraged me through out this time (and my life thus far) with no judgment. It’s giving me the courage to slow down, let go, take it easy, and listen to my body. I’m especially grateful for Amy who has always encouraged me to take time to relax and rest and even once told me that “you can never move too slowly towards something” (meaning to “let go” and not try to force things to happen by sheer will power…Caleb told me that exact thing this morning, coincidentally. He also told me a story about something he heard a preacher say once when he was young that really struck him and he has never forgotten and it was, “Hurrying isn’t of the devil. It is the devil.”). As I see Amy struggle with her own insecurities (we all have them) during this time of extreme uncertainty (that neither of us asked for) I’m hoping that I can return the favor (of encouragement) to her as I learn to slow down and be patient with myself and this recovery process. Amy has never ever put any pressure on me to be anything but myself and I’ve always tried to do the same for her. I’m the one who is always putting the pressure on myself. She also has always loved me in spite of my whiteness (I’m saying that now both literally and figuratively).

Words of wisdom by Master Oogway.

Much Love,

Alex

Prayer Requests for this week:

– Alex Should be starting his second round of Chemo. Pray it continues to combat any tiny Cancer cells that might be trying to hang around still

– Continued prayer for protection from seizures

– Our friend Joe who we’ve mentioned on the blog and had a reoccurrence recently, finally had his surgery, and it went well. The bad news though is that the tumor was Stage 4. He is currently doing radiation and Chemo at the same time. Please pray for him and his wife Erica.

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