Brain Cancer: Heart-open living


Tuesday afternoon we drove to Denver, going over the mountains in weather that looked like winter threatening. (The photo above is the view north toward Kenosha, the third and highest mountain pass we cross on our way to the city.) But when we arrived in Denver, the temperature was still 80 degrees, the weather summery. It was a mite disorienting.

The whole trip was a mite disorienting, in fact. Good news… and not so good news, all jumbled together. (Like life.)

So what do we know, after another set of MRIs revealing the intricacies of Richard’s brain in cross-section slices, and consults with oncology, physical therapy, palliative care, and social work? We know that it looks like Richard’s tumor is “pretty stable,” according to his oncologist. That’s good news, since his previous MRI (in July) showed an explosion of tumor activity more or less throughout his right brain.


We also know that since July, he’s lost “a lot of ground,” in terms of right-brain function.

He walks more slowly, sometimes dragging his left leg a bit, and using a cane for balance. But he’s still walking. In our morning yoga time, he no longer attempts the more difficult balance poses, especially the standing ones. But he’s still doing yoga.

In conversation, his gaze tends to drift off to the right (that’s “left neglect”–basically, his right brain is “neglecting” to process the visual information from his left side). But his conversation skills are still sharp, his mind still incisive, his sense of humor intact and his vocabulary much better than mine.

When we were talking to his palliative care psychologist about adjusting to the losses he’s experienced, the concept of “executive function” came up, his ability to pull together disparate information and begin a project like, say, carving a basin out of a boulder.

“That’s my pre-frontal cortex,” he said. The psychologist and I looked at each other and grinned. She’s said before that he’s a Lamborghini in terms of intellect, running a high-powered and finely tuned engine of a brain, and he still proves her right.

He’s developed painful skin sores, places where old scars have broken open as a side effect of the chemo, which slows the tumor growth by preventing actively growing cells from hooking up to feeder networks of blood vessels, and thus also slows or even reverses skin healing; and his bladder control is unpredictable, probably as a result of impaired right-brain function.

The former resulted in a joint decision with his oncologist to postpone the next chemo infusion to give his skin a chance to (re-)heal.


The latter spurred a discussion as I drove us home through howling storm winds about the best way to manage when traveling through rural Colorado or wandering an old and rambly hospital building where bathrooms aren’t easily located. (The photo above, by the way, is the same highway as the first photo in the blog, only two days and one high-country snowstorm later.)


I did some thinking while Richard snoozed, trying to get my tired brain to respond creatively while keeping the car from blowing off the road and stopping now and again to jump out and shoot a photo of the dramatic contrast between new snow, a foretaste of winter, and autumn’s blazinng golds and oranges.

Back at home, after we unloaded the car and I pulled togethere dinner for Richard, I thought more while I harvested the last of the tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, and Japanese eggplants from the kitchen garden in advance of a predicted frost that night.


What I take from the disorienting course of this journey with Richard’s brain cancer–the one-step-forward, another-step-back rhythm is a reminder to remain open to each changing moment, to practice living with an open heart. To continue to approach life with the courage and strength that grow from staying flexible, from leading with love.

Living with an open heart allows us to take joy from the terrible contradictions inherent in life: delicate new snow borne on destructive winds, rich colors in autumn’s dying foliage, the basket of juicy tomatoes harvested by flashlight with freezing hands. Living heart-open, love uppermost allows us to revel in the sheer miracle of life and the living of it, step by step, moment by moment–in all its imperfect, bewildering, difficult and fabulous glory. It’s not easy, but the rewards–like those tomatoes–are very, very sweet.