Living in a Friendly Universe
Dealing with a chronic illness/disease? A positive attitude may be more effective than synthetic medical treatments.
I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996 after a series of neurological tests were performed in order to make sense of some strange symptoms I had been experiencing. Over time, weakness—or paresis, as the medicos call it—had concentrated along my right side. Having always been right-handed, this put an increasingly firm crimp in my daily activities.
Over the years I had progressed (or regressed) from using a cane to depending almost exclusively on my scooter or wheelchair. Walking any appreciable distance had become a dream—a fading memory—rather than the normal mode of transport humans have depended on since we became Homo erectus. I knew multiple sclerosis is a progressive disease, simply meaning it worsens over time, but I was becoming alarmed at the rate at which it was robbing me of my freedom.
I am uncertain as to when I decided enough was enough. The disease had already stolen more than it had a right to. The time had come to fight back. Reminiscent of the government’s anti-drug campaign, I determined it was time to “just say no!”
In the years since the diagnosis, I’ve learned quite a bit about this disease—its possible causes, effects, and treatments. And I have also learned how to adapt to living with my new and permanent, albeit unwelcome, companion. Most importantly, though, I’ve learned quite a bit about myself.
A Matter of Viewpoint
For a period of time, I’d taken to falling fairly often. (Actually, I was getting quite good at it.) I’d see the floor rushing up at me, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get out of its way.
One of my last spills occurred in my garage. There was that unforgiving, horizontal, cement wall coming at me from my right side (how did it get next to me?), and I couldn’t avoid a collision. I did, however, have the presence of mind to have my cell, and I called my wife, who was already on her way home from work. Like I said, I’m getting good at it.
Just when I thought I had a good handle on my health, further injury was heaped on me in 2005: prostate cancer. I have made a conscious decision to fight multiple sclerosis and this cancer—to deny their insistent push toward leaving me bedridden or dead before my time. At first I thought such an effort would be as fruitless as trying to stop the relentless push of lava from Hawaii’s famous Mount Kilauea, which has erupted continuously since 1983. In time I realized state of mind is more powerful, more natural, and more effective than the synthetic treatments doled out to us by the medical community.
Life is full of dichotomies: up, down; hot, cold; difficult, simple; good, bad. No one can deny that Albert Einstein was a brilliant scientist and mathematician, but he also had a deep philosophical side. He once proposed that each of us must decide if we live in a friendly universe or a hostile one. How everything and everyone affect us—whether they will offer respect or mistrust, or approach with confidence or fear—depends on our general perception of life. If a person with a chronic condition views his/her life as being controlled by the disease, then all the shots, pills, inhalers, ointments, etc., would be useless in making that person feel better and happier. A change of attitude—the view of a friendly universe—will lead to a path of improved quality of life.
We’ve all known people who seem to complain about everything. They appear to have such a miserable view of life that everything goes wrong for them. Whether their problems are real or imagined, they have taken the “hostile” view of the universe, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bad situations become worse. I don’t want to become a “grumpy old man,” so I believe—or more accurately, I know—I live in a friendly universe.
It’s a matter of point of view. Dr. Wayne Dyer offered this quotation by an unknown author: “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” By adopting that vantage pont, dark clouds become as beautiful in my eyes as a blue sky. Serious health conditions—even those considered potentially fatal—are less intimidating. Fear fades.
The weaknesses had steadily worsened with the passing years. My right side, in particular, suffered the most. I used to have a nice handwriting style and received many compliments over the years. In fact, my wife joked she married me for my penmanship. The effects of multiple sclerosis had made it difficult for me to hold a pen properly, and my nice handwriting deteriorated to a form of scratch most chickens couldn’t decipher.
"I know I'll live to see my grandchildren grow to adulthood," says the optimistic Frank Cáceres.
I learned to hold my eating utensils in my left hand, to raise my left arm to reach for things, to steer my car with my left hand—to do almost everything with my left. My right arm and hand continued to weaken. But in retrospect, I have to question how much of the muscle atrophy (shrinkage) was the result of disease activity and how much from non-use out of habit. After a lifetime of seeing my right hand and arm as my dominant appendages, they began to look and act weak, almost to the point of uselessness.
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” I came to realize the appendages along my right side were weakening, maybe to a large extent because I was unconsciously ignoring them; I had already condemned them to death. I had inadvertently changed the way I looked at the roles of right and left in my body, and in so doing, I had allowed the muscles along my right side to weaken. As I wrote in “Grabbing The Wheel” (PN, August 2005), I had reached the point where I had to retake control of my health, my life, my future.
It was time to change the way I looked at things as positives (the glass is always half full). I realized I had been maintaining two mental lists: one of things I could still do, and those I could no longer do as I could in my PMS days (prior to ms). I created a third list, one that rests between the other two: things I can still do, but differently. The new list began to fill quickly.
I knew I could no longer allow things to “just happen.” Lifting my right arm to reach for something involves much more effort than using my left, but by deliberately moving the appendage, I find my right arm can still function. While it still isn’t what it used to be, my handwriting is much better now, often earning a positive comment from my wife. Who knows? Maybe my penmanship will improve enough that she’ll be willing to marry me again for our 25th anniversary, in December 2012.
Recently, I went to an optometrist for a routine contact-lens examination. He found the beginning of early stage macular degeneration in my left eye. In time, the center of my eye’s field of vision will become a blur through which I will see nothing. Friendly universe: Multiple sclerosis had already robbed me of almost all vision in that eye in November 1996. If this new development had to happen, it couldn’t have made a better choice of eyes.
In January, my wife and I drove to the Kennedy Space Center (Fla.) and spent the day touring the facilities. Just a few weeks before, I had obtained an electronic orthosis that is designed to reverse the foot drop that makes it impossible for me to walk any significant distance. Together with a four-wheel walker to provide stability, I walked a total of 4.3 miles that day (I had clipped a pedometer to one of my shoes). I hadn’t been able to walk 40 feet prior to getting that equipment. Now, I walk everywhere. In fact, I rarely use the scooter anymore.
Over the years I have undergone several natural therapies, some of which have resulted in significant improvements, others only minor ones, and none in failure. They include biofeedback therapy (PN, December 2007 and August 2008) and acupuncture. Since beginning the latter treatment regimen, I sleep through the night, giving me the strength and motivation to do things, including walking for miles. The acupuncture treatments have also had a positive effect on muscle control.
Mainstream medicine and insurance companies view these therapies as “experimental,” leaving responsibility for payment on the already compromised shoulders of the patient. I am far from being financially well off, but my wife and I live comfortably and I’ve been able to fund these treatments with credit cards, always careful not to overextend myself. Better living through plastic.
One thing that is definitely not experimental is nutrition. The human body is like a luxury car: it requires the best fuel available. The single, most dynamic treatment I give myself is my diet, to which I have given much thought.
When the word diet is mentioned, the image of eating cardboard and weeds to lose weight comes to mind. Of course, this isn’t quite accurate. As important as knowing what foods are good for me is the knowledge of those that are potentially harmful. The effort is paying off. I have biannual blood tests at the James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa to keep tabs on my PSA (prostate specific antigen) level. Test results over the past year show a gradual decline in the PSA readings instead of any increase brought on by a growing tumor.
I refuse to allow the sinister duo to dominate or to shorten my life. My long-term goal is to see all five of my grandchildren grow to adulthood. Given that the youngest just celebrated her first birthday, I accept I’m being quite optimistic, but all good salesmen know you can’t get the sale if you don’t ask for it. At any rate, disease will not rob me of happiness. Remember the pseudo-Latin aphorism, Illegitimi non carborundum: Don’t let those of questionable birth grind you down.
Accepting that I am of the universe and that the universe is of me and recognizing my place in this existence allows me to see the relative spaces between multiple sclerosis, cancer, macular degeneration, and myself. The “terrible trio” are no greater than I am, and I will not give in to them. I work to show those three illegitimate, despicable, and thoroughly disliked beasts that my will is stronger, my body is stronger, and I am stronger.
With every mile I can now walk, my resolve is strengthened. Chronic diseases can run rampant if allowed to, but they can be curbed—even reversed—with the right attitude, strength of will, and determination to just do it!
Sometimes life’s twists and detours make it difficult to see our way clearly, but like headlights on a dark road, a strong, determined, positive attitude will make the journey much safer and enjoyable—and longer. I know I’ll live to see my grandchildren grow to adulthood.
Living in a Friendly Universe
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