Live While We’re Dying
Alice Zielinski

Told I had less than six months, I took immediate and swift action.

Melanoma. Skin Cancer. Stage 4, metastasized, untreatable. And the doc would barely look me in the eye when he said all this. I’d gone to a new doc who didn’t just burn off the moles (again) with nitroglycerin and blow me off (again, as my PCP had so many times about so many things), so now I had an answer as to why I was so sick. All the time. Headaches that came and went frequently. No appetite, or at least very little. Pale and drawn face, skin, eyes. And in that one minute it took for him to tell me, everything changed. I mean, my outlook on life, my dreams, my hopes, my plans, everything.

It was like a bad dream. Me, sick? Outrageous! I’d hardly been sick in my life since my teen years, and it was never serious. A cold here and there, the flu once in my early twenties…but cancer? I mean, I figured it would be like LUNG cancer, not melanoma? Moles? But I’d had them all my life! I’d never even had a whisper of something like this! Most don’t, as it turns out. Had the lesion not started at my throat, I might never have even known and died before I knew what was happening.

I hate the word, cancer.

Itself, it’s like its own bad omen when you hear it. I’ve never known any other word in the modern English language that could inspire so quickly such pain, panic, fear as that word does. Finding out I had it took me some time to wrap my brain around. In the following minute or two, my mind started spinning. Cancer. There was so much I hadn’t done, so much I’d meant to do, so many things to learn yet. I retreated to the bedroom I’d shared with my significant other and began to cry. I could barely tell him the news, much less look at him.

A jumbled kaleidoscope of thoughts and memories raced through me so fast it was like Nascar up in my head for a while. Faces of people I’d known but lost over time. People I loved and hadn’t told enough (I thought). And my kids! The anguish is nearly impossible to describe at the thought of having to tell them. We’d lost their stepdad to lung cancer just six years prior. Now I would have to tell them and my people what was going on. Oh, dear God, I thought; I don’t, DON’T, want to tell my mother! I could already hear that conversation and all the advice she’d throw at me insistently, as is her way to do when she panics. I thought, I’m panicked enough I don’t need that.

And I was beyond treatment.

I’d known I was sick for a long time, but not sure how I was sick. I’d had test after test and it was the one thing I hadn’t really considered. Sure, the moles had changed some over the years; new ones had sprouted up on my face around my eyes and there was one at my throat too. That one at my throat didn’t look like a mole though after a few months. It looked like a ringworm hole or something. Tired of my then-doctor blowing off my concerns, I called a friend who got me to an oncologist. Alarm bells had gone off and I felt it was best to seek another opinion.

They took tests, including tiny slivers of all the moles that had changed and the blood tests were many. But at the end of the day, after a CT and MRI on top of everything else, the evidence was the same. Three lesions near my brain stem; blood full of metastis; moles changed all over, larger, more colorful, some were very sore to the touch…and I went to my room. All the practical stuff kicked in; make arrangements for my son and daughter, get my old man down back where he grew up and had friends at (he was going to need the support, I figured), leave my job…oh, God, my job.

I wasn’t ready to quit the fight just yet...

I called my best friend in the world, who lived across the state from me with her husband. She is Native American and I knew there were some things they could do outside of modern medicine that might help or even save me. Now, before you judge me as a lunatic for such a thing, let me just say that this all took place seven years ago. SEVEN years ago. For a chick who was not supposed to still be here by the end of 2008, I’m doing well, and they are the reason. I knew they had some things they could do in some instances, so I called Karen and asked. She said yes, long story short, and I went.

Here’s where I get a little more long in the tooth. Bear with me. This was a strange and difficult thing to go through, believe it. I packed up my son, and myself, gave my notice for the end of February 2008 at work, called my other relatives and told them what I was doing and what was happening, gave my landlord notice…and my son and I went on Amtrak to the other side of the Cascade Range to an uncertain future and outcome. I didn’t really believe they could save my life, but I was willing to have enough faith in my dearest friend and her tribe to do what modern medicine apparently could not; save my life. Either way, life as I had been living it, as I’d known it for so long, was over.

Let me describe, if I can, what the Medicine Lodge was like. Yes, a “sweat lodge” of sorts but more than that. The difference between those two types of sweats are vast. One is primarily for spiritual enlightenment and one is for healing. I was looking for the healing one, the Medicine Lodge. I crawled in after a few people and was seated with about 19 others in that dark, canvas tent-like, igloo-looking thing. Karen told me I’d want to lay down shortly and I snorted at her. I was wide awake! I wasn’t going to miss this for all the tea in China…but five minutes later, I had to lay down. HAD TO. I couldn’t stay upright.

“There is every chance, given how far along this illness is, that this could kill you,” explained Tall Tom, the Medicine Man who would be running this sweat lodge. “Or it could heal you. Either way, you remain inside until we’re done, but we’ll watch over you.” This is a risk you always take when going into any sweat lodge; not that they get the temps too high too much of the time, but it has happened before. I didn’t care; I just wanted the cancerous disease gone!
And as I’m laying in there, the drumming started, slowly at first with one lone voice of the medicine man chanting in Sioux, then others joined in the chorus. They began to drum. Time seemed to slow down, like some version of the Matrix, that one scene where Carrie-Ann Moss drop kicks one of those androids through a wall. My eyes closed but I didn’t sleep. Couldn’t sleep if I wanted to.
The drumming got louder and the singing…that’s what they were doing, singing! The singing got louder too. As crazy as it sounds, my eyes stayed closed. This is the darkest dark of the darkest night…but I close my eyes! I still don’t know why I did that, but I did. Imagine one of those very dark nights out in the boondocks…now subtract stars. Pitch fucking black in there. Yet my eyes are closed. All I can hear is the singing of one of the women in the Nation (women are revered that way in most Native cultures, I understand) and the drums.

A flap of canvas is pulled back, there is a sharp command from Tall Tom, a reply given by the young man holding red-hot stones on a shovel at the entrance to the sweat. It’s added to the middle of a dirt pit that has hot stones in it already, stones that had burned all day in a firepit to keep them perfect for the lodge. The canvas flap comes down and there is more drumming. I begin to smell herbs burning, and I think I know what a few of them were…But then, an hour in, I start to see things happening—with my eyes shut! Yet I can see…and I forget trying to ID the herbs I smell…
My stomach hurts all of a sudden, like gas is building up in me. But I have hardly eaten, as usual, that day. Drank a lot of water—I mean a LOT of water!—but why would I have gas? Then I see it; emanating from my belly button comes a thin but horribly ugly shade of slime green mist that I can only stare at in wonder as it makes its way up and out from my belly to dissipate in the blackness above me. Then, of all things, a white looking or silver looking fox comes bouncing up to sit on my stomach and it’s…smiling at me? Smiling? Yes, that’s what it’s doing alright. It smiles down at me, benignly, before it scampers away.

Then a pool of water above me, maybe three feet up, appears and here comes an otter. Swimming to me. Also smiling. (I was thinking, ‘what the hell did they put in MY water?!?’…oh, wait, those were sealed bottles from the store, so they couldn’t have spiked me. Those bottles never left my side as I was told to drink as many down as I could over several hours time. I sat next to those bottles I’d picked out and drank one at a time all day long, usually in just my own company, listening to the drumming and singing the People were doing. (Later I would learn that it’s one of the ways they pray, drumming, and that the prayer was for a safe journey through what most people outside the Tribe would call the “worm hole” or the “other side”).

Now, how was I seeing this animal in the pitch black dark? The otter smiled at me and waved her front paws at me as though begging for a treat, then vanished as though she were made of mist as well. Just poof, begone, went away. The drumming got louder and suddenly I could sit up again…and the drumming got louder, the singing got louder, the fire got so hot I could hardly stand it. And then it was over. We all crawled out.

When I emerged, I had changed. Two hours later, I came out of that canvas igloo (well, that’s what it looked like, an igloo, just made of canvas and hides from animals)and sat, wrapped in a blanket one of the natives draped over me. I was still alive, okay, that was a good thing. Moles? I looked at the few that were exposed that I could see, felt the one at my throat, still there, and thought, ‘oh, well, at least I tried.’ But I felt…better. Different. Peaceful. I’d never felt such peace before or since then, not like that. So peaceful I was quiet. In my mind and body, I was still and awake and…different.

They encouraged me to eat, but I still wasn’t all that hungry, so I ate a little and waited to get home. I was dog tired, pitted out, and wanted a shower. “Oh, no,” said Karen emphatically. “You have to sleep in the medicine, you understand? You can shower in the morning.” Whatever, I thought. By the time we made it back to their home outside of Shelton, a 30 minute ride, I just wanted sleep.

I awoke the next morning in the same position I’d fallen asleep in, that’s how hard I slept. I made some coffee—it was nearly seven AM— and took a shower. Felt good. I felt clean, really clean, for the first time in a long time, inside and out. And realized…I forgot to scrub my face! RRRR!

I wrapped the towel around me and went to the sink. I gingerly applied my St. Ives to my face and began to wash…when I realized the moles were gone. Gone! Above my eyes! The four that had cloistered there were gone! I yelped, waking my friend Karen up, who came racing into the bathroom. “What? What?” I couldn’t speak. I pointed to my eye. She yelped. Her husband woke up going “what, what?” just like she had, though he was still in bed. Then she said it: “What about the one on your throat?”

I stretched up my neck and it popped off.

Popped off, into the sink in front of us all, showing only smooth skin underneath. I yelped again and began to cry, tears of something like relief flooding me. I simply touched a few more of the others that had hurt me before and they just…fell off! I was ecstatic! “It worked!” I screamed. Karen screamed in delight. Her hubby, now fully awake, got up and he came in and saw all those ugly things in the bathroom sink. He just smiled and hugged us both tightly.

Did they save me? Yes, I think they did. But it wasn’t just the moles, the cancer that was eating me up inside-out that they banished that night. I changed as a person, somehow, completely in those two hours of sweat. I was humbled and awestruck. And I knew certain things about myself and my life that I had been too frightened, too lazy, to address before and I knew the time had come to make the changes necessary for me to keep on going.

I was given warnings.

Wear abalone always, it will protect you (yes, I still wear it today around my neck and I never take off the shell). Keep your spiritual house in order. You will not die from cancer in your lifetime, but you can die from so many other things. Change that which is toxic in your life and you will live many more years. But only if you change some things. I heard and took in all they said and did just that. I left that job; it was slowly killing me inside. I moved back to my “hometown” of 8 years (I no longer live there) and eventually ended my relationship of the time, 12 years we’d been a couple by the time I ended it. I brought my son home. I returned to my spiritual roots and I remain there as much as possible today.

Did they save me? Yes. In all the ways that mattered. The journey has been long since, much longer than the rest of my life seemed. I look at the last seven years and think I could’ve done better maybe, but I did what was right for me and my family. Corny or not, I live a better life today though I am financially poor and single. I have my dignity and self-respect. The man I had been with for those twelve long years, I broke up with.

He sent me a single line text: “I hope you find what you’re looking for.” I laughed when I read it, a last-ditch effort of a man who was pissed that I would no longer tolerate abuse of any kind from him. He had just spent thirty minutes telling me my failures and dire warnings about not coming back to him, how wrong I was. The text was the last thing he ever said to me about it. I didn’t text him back, but if I had, this would have been my message:

“I did. I found me.”
____________________________________________________________________UPDATE: Errors in the original article have been corrected. My apologies for the confusion!

If you liked this article, please do hit the Recommend button. Sacha Mills publishes under the pen name Jean McNamara. You can follow her on Twitter as Jean McNamara or visit her Facebook page.

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