By PEGGY DILLS KELTER
For the Hood River News
Peggy Dills Kelter is an artist, art educator, and monthly columnist for the Hood River News. In the summer of 2001 she was diagnosed with breast cancer folowing a routine mammogram. The following is a chronicle of her experience:
April 2001: I've been hired by a local graphic designer to calligraph a series of strange, clinical sounding words. Dosimetry. Linear Accelerator. Radiation Oncology. I haven't a clue what they all mean, but it doesn't matter. I'm interested in the way the words look, and not their definitions. The client is Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles. I guess they're opening some sort of cancer center there. I think "That will be nice for all those people with cancer."
May 2001: Celilo, the name for the center, holds an open house for the community. I attend with my daughter for purely selfish reasons. I want to see how my calligraphy looks displayed around the center. Upon arriving, I am awed by the beauty of the building. It's not what I expected a cancer center to look like. There are windows everywhere, and curving walls, and the sound of falling water. I remark to my daughter, "If I ever have cancer, this would be a nice place to come for treatments."
July 2001: Following a routine mammogram, I get the call. The radiologist wants me to come back for more x-rays. I comply. I get another call. The films look suspicious. The radiologist wants me to have a biopsy. I comply. He tells me that 85 percent of these biopsies are benign. I'm sure I'll be OK.
Aug. 7, 2001: My doctor knocks on my door at 9 a.m. She's also a friend, so I assume she's coming for a visit. I flippantly remark "Oh, are you stopping by with bad news?" She shakes her head in the affirmative. Cancer is no longer something that happens to other people.
Aug. 21, 2001: Surgery day. Familiar faces at Providence Hood River Memorial and the loving touch of my husband help me deal with my pre-lumpectomy jitters. Several hours later, I'm resting at home, bandaged and groggy, but feeling OK. I'm sure that the surgery has taken care of my cancer. As a precaution, though, my surgeon has referred me to a radiation oncologist and a medical oncologist.
Sept. 4, 2001: I have an appointment with Dr. Keith Stelzer, the radiation oncologist at the Celilo Center. I'm sure he'll tell me I don't need radiation. Instead, he tells me I need six and a half weeks of daily treatments. I am incredulous. How can I continue to work? I have too much to do. I don't have time to go to The Dalles every day for two months. Linda, Dr. Stelzer's nurse, takes me into a quiet room, beautifully decorated, with a huge window looking out on some gardens. She lets me vent, and then cry. She tells me that I must slow down and take time for myself. Concepts I hardly recognize . . .
Sept. 14, 2001: My friend Leslie drives me to Portland to see a medical oncologist. She's a breast cancer survivor who had to travel to Portland for her radiation treatments. She said the long daily trips were exhausting. The clinic is huge, windowless and depressing. Driving to The Dalles doesn't seem so bad after Leslie's story. The doctor tells me I don't need chemo -- a huge relief.
Sept. 19, 2001: Each day when I arrive for treatments, a massage therapist gives me a neck and shoulder massage. Every patient, and his or her caregivers, receives the same. It's such a wonderful way to relieve anxiety and feel at peace. The huge IMRT machine seems much less daunting after a daily massage. The radiation technologists -- Mark, Steve, and Craig -- are great. They have wonderful senses of humor, and are full of kind words. After my treatment, I head for the meditation room, a beautiful curved space full of light -- and delicious treats to eat.
At 10 a.m. the Guided Relaxation class meets at the center. Susan Erikson leads patients and friends in a relaxation exercise every Wednesday and Thursday. As I lie on the lounge chair, the sunlight pours over my body, and her soothing voice transports me. I may have cancer, but I haven't felt this good in years. Later, I write this in my journal: "The hills are so strong, soft and quiet" the way I feel right now after being with Susan for the last hour. Working with her, I went from tension to tears to some feeling of resolve. My breath slowed, the hues and shapes around me seemed clearly defined.
The strength of the hills remind me of the strength I need to have, and can have, in my own healing. Outside, I see the flag at half-staff, a reminder of the strife all around us in the world these days . . . Is there some relationship between my cancer and the violence in the world? If so, how can I adapt and deal with the cancer in a way that embraces it, doesn't fear it, doesn't fear those around me . . . How can I get rid of my fear of the radiation machinery, how can I embrace the cold hard surfaces and laser beams? How can I see the diseased tissue as a gift, not a curse? This morning I awoke feeling sick and depressed. Five hours later I feel calm, almost elated, as though I can deal with my illness. My work with Susan calms the crazy, buzzing fear.
Sept. 20, 2001: Today, like many days, I finish my visit to Celilo with a walk through the labyrinth. The beautiful circular walking feature lies just outside the center. Its design is the same as that at Chartres Cathedral in France.
A labyrinth is not a maze. Once started on the path, you have only to follow it, and it will lead you to the center, and back out again. Labyrinths have been used for centuries for meditation, spiritual guidance, and relaxation. The labyrinth is a wonderful visual metaphor for my life now -- I must trust the path I'm on, even though I may not know where it's going.
Sept. 24, 2001: Last week, I felt uncomfortable traveling along the outer edge of the labyrinth. Today, I'm not afraid of that edge. I realize I have to walk slower along it -- a good reminder to slow down when I'm in a dangerous spot. I tell my friend Barb, "With all the metaphors in my life now I feel like I'm living in a poem."
Oct. 30, 2001: Dr. Steve McClennon, on staff at Celilo, is a medical doctor dedicated to understanding the connection of body, mind and spirit. To that end, he counsels patients in stress reduction and non-traditional healing practices such as meditation. Today, he told me he read that all human emotions can be traced back to just two -- fear and love. My work at Celilo confirms this. I now know that if fear controls my life, it is not a life well lived, or lived with wellness.
Nov. 2, 2001: My last treatment at Celilo. In September, I thought I would rejoice in this day. Instead, I feel strangely sad. I'll miss this place -- the beautiful environment, the harp music on Thursdays, the doctors, massage therapists, secretaries, nurses and technicians who have become my friends.
I'll miss Susan, who reminded me to slow down, look inward, live in the present. I'll miss Marge, a brain cancer patient, and Marcia, beloved wife to a lung cancer victim. I'll even miss Klaus, the physicist, who frequently emerged from behind his computer to drink coffee, tell jokes, and share stories.
The Celilo Oncology Center understands the connection between physical healing and mental well being, and embraces it through architecture, personnel, and environment. Because of Celilo, my bout with curable cancer has been a gift, not a burden.