Learning to Still My Mind – Reiki

COne of the best things that going through cancer treatment has taught me is to be still.  Maybe that sounds a little crazy – who doesn’t know how to sit still?  But I didn’t.

In my real life, I didn’t really know how to be still. Day after day I would run around town, doing errands, taking my kids places, working, doing volunteer work, and keeping busy.  If I wasn’t busy, I felt this guilty nudge like I should be doing something productive.  I would go out with friends for lunch, go out for fancy dinners with my husband and other couples, and all the while, my brain would be running with my to-do list and other items I had to remember.

In June, however, everything came to a screeching halt with the cancer diagnosis.  I was sicker than I had ever been in my life; hopefully sicker than I’ll ever be again.  I couldn’t focus on getting myself out of a chair without outside help, much less a to-do list. During that time, when I was at my sickest, I didn’t care about productivity and I had to learn to ask for help, and my friends and family really pitched in.

In May, while still in Japan, I took a first step toward stillness and tried Zazen Mediation, but nothing could have prepared me for this. Just getting the chemotherapy required me to sit in a chair for upwards of six hours at a stretch.  My utter lack of mobility in the days following treatment demanded that I sit in front of the television for hours on end.  In fact, my brain power was so low at certain points, that I had to watch re-runs.  I couldn’t even watch first-run shows because I couldn’t understand or remember the plots! This was a totally new experience for me – my brain wouldn’t perform the necessary functions to deal with real life.

In August, at the recommendation of my cousin Anna, I tried Reiki treatment.  I had always had such good luck with acupuncture, but Anna, a Bikram Yoga instructor, reminded me that I was already receiving a lot of invasive treatment and perhaps something less intrusive to my body might be in order. Anna found a Reiki practitioner for me right in my neighborhood in Maryland.

Reiki is a Japanese healing art, developed in 1922 by Buddhist Monk Mikao Usui.  The main idea is that the practitioner lays his or her hands on the patient and believes that energy in the form of Ki is being transferred from the hands to the body underneath, which encourages healing and balance.  In Japan, the practice is more common and accepted as a healing art.  Here in the U.S. Reiki is seen as an alternative health option, best used in concert with Western medicine.  My friend Kendra, however, reminds me that my oncologist’s job is to get rid of my cancer; my job is to take care of myself and my body while in treatment.  Reiki is one way that I have learned to relax.

The practitioner I found, Naning, is an Indonesian woman, who has lived in the U.S. for decades.  Ironically, I learned upon first meeting her, that she had also lived in Japan for a number of years as a teenager, and attended the International School of the Sacred Heart, located not far from my Tokyo apartment. We had a lot in common immediately and I felt comfortable.  She has not only practiced Reiki at home for years, but she also works with doctors and nurses at local hospitals, giving them Reiki treatments to improve the care they give their patients.  The literature she gave me discusses the healing benefits of Reiki practice for patients and practitioners alike.  She also gave me a card with the five precepts of Reiki on it:

At least for today:

  • Do not be angry,
  • Do not worry,
  • Be grateful,
  • Work with diligence,
  • Be kind to people.

I still look at it every day – so I can think and remember and act in a mindful way.

Naning led me upstairs to the dedicated Reiki room in her home.  The entire room is done in white and cream colors, with blinds over the window to allow only soft light to come into it.  At the center of the room is a traditional massage table, which she drapes with colorful and silky Indonesian cloths. Naning invited me to lie on my back that first time, and from the very first second I put my head on the small pillow she placed under my neck, I felt myself letting go.  She put a pillow under my knees to increase my comfort and we got started.

With Naning, I did something that I haven’t done with anyone else – and I mean anyone, even my husband.  I took off my head scarf so I was completely bald. I wanted her to see me completely and participate fully in my own wellness.  She washed her hands, murmured a prayer, and put her hands on my forehead.  The relief was immediate.  Her palms warmed against me.  She touched my head, my cheeks and even my nose initially.

Her hands sort of naturally settled at the sides of my head, on my temples and she rested them there. She had a little timer that chimed every five or so minutes and she moved her hands to a different part of my body.  She concentrated a lot on my head and face, but she also touched my arms, my stomach and parts of my legs too.  Then I turned on my stomach and she put her hands on my back in various places.

It wasn’t like a massage; her hands were mostly warm and unmoving.  But for some reason my mind was completely still.  I’ve had it done a number of times, and it makes every single thought go out of my head.  I am only aware of my body, my breath, and Naning’s hands.  When the little chime rings and she moves her hands, I actually feel something move inside me.  I can feel the energy; I can feel the warmth.

The effects from the Reiki last for days.  I feel calmer; my side-effects ease; and it’s easier for me to concentrate on something if I have to.

I will always be grateful to Naning for showing me how it really looks to have a still mind.  I had never experienced it before.  I hope that I can carry this feeling back into my “real” life as my health hopefully returns.  This ability to focus inward for even a moment allows me to be centered and then re-focus on the parts of my outer life that need attention.  It’s a gift – and another one of those silver linings of cancer.

The Chemo Room

In the big recliner in the chemo room

In the big recliner in the chemo room

Every three weeks I have chemotherapy at The Katzen Cancer Center at the George Washington University Hospital.  It’s not the place I would chose to spend my time, but since I have to have chemotherapy, this is the place I want to be.  Every person, from the women who check me into the center, to the people who draw my blood, to the people who schedule appointments all work together to ensure that my experience is as painless and easy as possible.

The room itself is very sunny with about fifteen chairs – or chemo “stations” if you will.  There’s a big desk in the middle where the administration of the room happens, but it’s all so open that every nurse can see every patient all the time.  Each chemo station has a huge recliner and a small table along with separate lighting.  The nurse can come and do what she needs to do with each patient in a well-lit environment, but then adjust the lights so the patient is

It's open and bright!

It’s open and bright!

comfortable.  I often sleep a lot during treatment, so I like the lights lower.  There is a chair for a companion and plenty of room to store stuff and move around.

It takes a really special person to be an oncology nurse and this staff is no exception.  Every person is great, but every time I’ve been in the room, I have been under the care of Katy Dolan, who makes me feel cozy and comfortable.  She

Katie and me!

Katy and me!

tells me what’s happening every step of the way and is as gentle as possible.  I’m so grateful to her.

Every person’s experience with chemotherapy is different.  Some people stay awake, some sleep; some people needs four hours and some need longer.  I am taking not only chemotherapy, but also a monoclonal antibody called Retuxin, which is a drug that attaches itself to bad “B” cells in the body and kills them.   I have  B-cell lymphoma, so I need to get rid of these B cells, so this is the drug I need in addition to the traditional anti-cancer drugs, or chemotherapy.  Unfortunately I had a reaction to the Retuxin early on, so the nurses are extra careful when giving it to me, meaning they drip it into my port very slowly and pre-medicate me to prevent reaction.  All of that means that my version of chemo/Retuxin days are very long and very sleepy.  I am in the chemo room for about seven hours and I snooze for most of it.

My dearest friend Bonnie has accompanied me into the chemo room twice now, cancer centerand she is as impressed as I am.  Bonnie is a chemistry professor at the University of Maryland and keeps track of my drugs, my blood work, and every other scientific element of my disease and treatment that is of concern to her.  Katie explains every step to Bonnie as well, and in a way that is better for Bonnie – on a scientific level that I don’t need to know.

With Dr. Siegel

With Dr. Siegel

The other amazing element to this entire process is my wonderful Doctor, Dr. Robert Siegel, who is the head of the Hematology Oncology Department as well as the Director of the Katzen Cancer Research Center.  I’m so lucky to be under his care, and under the care of his team.  He supervises a team of interns and fellows and to a man, each one under his tutelage  is as kind and gentle and encouraging as he is.  Dr. Siegel answers not only my questions, but also Bonnie’s and my husband’s.  Knowing that Marc is in Tokyo, he offered up his email address and told Marc that he would answer any questions he had.  Dr. Siegel always asks about how Marc is holding up so far away, as does Katy.  I always feel like my whole self is being cared for, not just my cancer.

I am so lucky to have my treatment in this wonderful place with these caring, terrific people.  Doing the treatments  is not a choice – to get well I have to go through all of the treatments, including the yucky side effects.  I’m also extremely lucky that the treatments are going well. So if I have to do it, I’m grateful to be doing it here.

A Change in Summer and Autumn Plans

clockWell, just when  you think things are going along all right, life throws a curve ball.  More in tune to a writer however, as a friend of mine likes to say when things go wrong: PLOT TWIST!

I wasn’t feeling so well when I left Tokyo in June for a long visit to the U.S. and there was good reason why.  I have lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes.  No panic necessary – it’s a curable form of cancer and I am tolerating the treatment – chemotherapy – quite well.  Oh, I don’t mean to imply that it’s all fun and games, but the good news is that treatment appears to be working already and I will be my regular reading, writing and raring-to-go self in a matter of months.  I have an excellent team of doctors at the George Washington University Hospital and my friends and family in the U.S. have been wonderful.  I have treatment every three weeks through October, and then post-treatment testing, so it is likely that I will not be back in Tokyo until after the December holidays, in January.

In the meantime, as I undertake this treatment, I am going to try to do some writing about not the ins and outs of cancer treatment, but more like what’s happening in my brain as I go through it.  What happens in my brain is much more interesting (and less..um…gross!) than what’s up with my body.

So, dear reader, I hope you will forgive my many-month digression away from solely Japan-based writing and continue to read my blog for other reasons as well.  Don’t worry – I’ll be back in Tokyo and writing about it with fresh eyes in no time.

Happy summer, wherever you are.

Western and Eastern Medicine

Since August I have had a sinus infection – or sinus issues.  There have been some days when the fog of my clogged head was rivaled only by the fog created by the allergy medication and decongestants that worked only sporadically.   I have seen general practitioners and an ear-nose-and-throat specialist.   I have been on four rounds of antibiotics in four months. And yet, as if on a sine wave, my ability to breathe properly ebbed and flowed depending on the day.

Then, a good friend of mine insisted that I try her acupuncturist.  To be fair, she has trying to get me to try it for practically a year, and I have resisted.  My resistance was more for reasons of time and money than fear of needles, which generally do not bother me.  But recently, I was willing to try anything.

The name of the place is Theracua and it is located in Kami Osaki, just steps from the west exit of the JR Meguro station.  All of the practitioners in the studio are women and it is owned by Ms. Yuko Sugeta, the sensei of the group.  Sugeta-sensei speaks perfect English.

My first visit was on a Friday night about two weeks ago. The first appointment is long – nearly ninety minutes, so I expected it.  Sugeta-sensei took a complete health history from me, while testing my body and its responses to stimuli.  She explained to me the way the nervous system works as well as the problems she perceived in my body.  She believed that I have been so busy and under so much stress that my immune system is compromised.  She promised that if I was willing to come to see her every week for a little while, then she could work on getting my body healthy so that it would be able to fight off bugs.  Perhaps, she suggested, I wasn’t getting infections at all, but various viruses to which my body, in its weakened state, was receptive.  She said a whole lot of other stuff about my body and lifestyle that I won’t repeat here, but the things she observed about me and my life and my body were spot-on every time.

She put needles in my legs and belly to work on my internal organs and my hip placement.  She then put needles in my face along the edges of my sinuses.  She warned me that the best way to keep healthy is to keep my feet warm and my head cool, so she had a heat-lamp on my feet and an ice-pack on my head.  Her colleague massaged my head and face while the needles worked their magic.

I thought we were through after that, but nope; I had to turn over and she put some general health needles in my back.  That first visit she talked the entire time – about the ideas behind acupuncture and what she was hoping to do for me.  It all sounded terrific.

Lo and behold, I felt like a million bucks walking out of there.  Sugeta-sensei though that might happen – and warned me about it.  She also wanted me to take note on when and how badly the symptoms returned.    As the weekend, and then the week progressed, I did take note – of all the tissues I was NOT using!  Oh, I wasn’t perfect, but I was a sight better!  I went again only five days later and felt even better about everything.  The second visit was barely an hour and just as great.

I have my next appointment in a week now, and as of this writing, I’m still pretty comfortable with my nose.  On a scale of 1-10, I’m at about a 2-3 at any given moment, which is excellent considering that since August, my best number has been about a 6.  I am completely, 100% un-medicated for the first time in a long time, also.

Since my first visit with Sugeta-sensei, I have come to find out that another friend uses her as well.  These are two women I trust regarding their health, and mine.

I am not writing this to eschew Western medicine.  Quite the contrary; it definitely has its place.  But there are  times when an infusion of Eastern thought and therapy are just what the doctor ordered.  This is one of those times.

Bullpen Dentistry in Tokyo

Let’s face it – Americans are pretty vigilant about their privacy.  So when I first saw the bullpen style dentist office for myself, it was pretty shocking.  But the efficiency of it has made a believer out of me, if I can get over the fact that anyone can see me with my mouth wide open.

Dr. Kaku’s office in Hiroo has been open for quite a while.  Though he is Japanese, he studied dentistry at Boston University, so he practices in a western style, and belongs to all of the American dental organizations.  He and his wife, also a dentist, practice general dentistry, pediatric dentistry, and orthodontia.  Besides the funky office and the delightful staff, there is a lot to recommend Dr. Kaku, including:

  • If you bring in your appointment card that they mail you after you call for an appointment, you are entered for a monthly drawing for movie tickets – but only if you are on time for said appointment.
  • If you get a good brushing report, you get a wooden nickel.  Collect 7 wooden nickels and earn a spin of their prize wheel.  Ah, but no wooden nickel if you are late for your appointment – even if your teeth are sparkling.
  • If your teeth are not sparkling when you walk into the office, there is a pre-appointment brushing station in the waiting room, complete with toothbrushes.
  • There is a movie screen on the ceiling above every chair.  The patient picks the movie.

But really, what got me was the bullpen of seven dentists’ chairs in a big room.  Everyone runs around from station to station doing what they need to do, and it works.  The Japanese have a different attitude about privacy than we do, and it works for them.  It isn’t as horrifying as you might think!