Monday, January 24, 2011

All Structures are Unstable or Shit Happens

In Eckhart Tolle's book, A New Earth, the author shares a memory of being out for a walk in a nature reserve and coming across the ruins of a country house obviously destroyed by fire several decades earlier. Posted at the site was a large sign that read, Danger: All Structures are Unstable.

Howard reminded me of this quote when he saw me struggling with the Why Me? of breast cancer. The struggle wasn't the usual Why do bad things happen to good people? It was a struggle over the fact that I don't have the risk factors that lead to breast cancer. I gave birth to both of our children before the age of 30, hardly ever used hormones in our almost 30 years of marriage, didn't smoke nor drink abusively - though there were times I wished I had (snicker), breast fed both children for a long period of time, and always ate my fruits and vegetables. If I wasn't running, I was biking, swimming, teaching aerobics, snow shoeing, knee boarding, hiking, rock climbing, and chasing our children as they moved from babies to emancipated adults. I am the healthiest person that I know at my age. Even my friends were shocked by the diagnosis because I was the last person they would ever consider to have breast cancer. My pre-existing cognitive structure had me healthy until I was way into my 90's flirting with the cute young waiters in an assisted living center. But, a breast cancer diagnosis comes along and there ya go, All Structures are Unstable, especially, the cognitive ones.

Two days after my second breast surgery, I found myself standing the night watch in an ICU at the bedside of a second cousin who -( I tell everyone, feels more like a nephew than cousin) - was fighting for his life. Steve and Terri Wiley, his parents living in Boise, ID, had called earlier that evening, crying that Alex was admitted to Overlake and was diagnosed with leukemia.

Alex, a 20 year old, bright, inquisitive, socially engaging, charming, funny, spirited, intelligent, strong in stature, attractive, witty, respectful junior who's big brown eyes and toothpaste commercial smile lights up a room, who was just finishing his first quarter in the civil engineering program had his cognitive structures hit full force with a diagnosis called Acute Myeloid Leukemia. AML is a mid-life man's disease. It is incredibly rare to see it in young males but occasionally it rears it's ugly head in the lives of them - men just beginning to get a feel for the road ahead.

AML requires an induction period of chemo to knock out the disease. Alex' treatment didn't take the first time so he had to do a second round. Luckily, the second round knocked out the cancer and now he is on what is called, consolidation chemo or maintenance chemo to keep him cancer free until he is able to get a stem cell replacement.

Last week, his "big bro" in his fraternity presented him with a home crafted sign reading, Shit Happens. The sign wasn't fancy - a small canvas with the background painted a medium gray with a suede textured finish with big bold letters. A simple truth from a young college student. An older brother, passing down the most needed wisdom, Shit Happens or All Structures are Unstable.

Last week, I drove Alex and his family to Sea-Tac Airport for their return trip to Boise. Arriving at the airport, we unloaded the luggage, almost missing the sign tucked into the side of the wheel well. Spotting it at the last minute, I announced, "Alex, don't forget your sign!"

He responded, "Oh, yea, thanks," with a proud smile on his face.

Those of us being broadsided by the limitations of those externals in our lives that we think strong enough to hang our hats and everything else on, desperately need the signs in our lives that remind us that All Structures are Unstable and Shit Happens. These signs are our life lines. They keep our eyes on what is real, what is eternal, what lasts forever and ever and ever.


If you were to look at my To Do List, you'd see the most unusual line up -

1. Let go of your hold.
2. You must be here.
3. Accept absolutely everything about yourself and your life. Embrace with wakefulness and carry your moment-to-moment experience.
4. Use cancer to bring you back to This Moment.
5. All Structures are Unstable. Let go.

On Saturday, our friends, Troy and Marj Kilcup, sponsored me on the No Sun Fun Run. A quick, speedy little 5K here on the South Hill of Puyallup. With the surgeries and the current radiation treatment, I haven't been able to train as often as I'd like and Marj offered up no pity. She kept me at a nice, little clip the whole way through. Each step took effort but it woke me up to the beauty and strength of the power of this moment. While closing in on the finish line, Marj asked , "How do you feel about the cancer?"

My response was, "I am so thankful for the cancer." Cancer has taught me immeasurable lessons about love, friendship, the kindness of so many people, the gift that we get to be alive with those that are so important to us, and the knowing that when we allow ourselves to be fully present in this moment, we are always home. I'd be lying if I said that I have fully mastered letting go of the unstable structures in my life, but it's getting a little better each and every moment.


  1. Great post! I'm making your To Do List my To Do List today!

  2. Tommy, you always make me smile. Jules, Ho Brion is really a long time friend of ours-named Tom Chapman. I just can't call him Tom because it sounds weird to me. He started running barefoot after reading Born to Run. If you are doing the Rock-n-Roll this year, I will introduce the two of you. He is coming up from AZ. Tommy is doing a tri in May and June and then doing the Rock-n-Roll just for fun. What a guy!

  3. I want to thank you for writing this and sharing it. You reminded me, strengthened me, and helped increase my resolve to make something more of my life despite the "Unstable Structures."

  4. "All structures are unstable", love it. Your strength and outlook (maybe it should be inlook) are so inspiring. This is just what I needed to read right now. Thanks for sharing!
    Hi Tom. Don't know if I'll be doing the RocknRoll but if not and you have time, swing up to "the factory" for a visit. Good luck on your barefoot journey!

  5. Ashley, I wish that I could mirror back to you how much love, peace and joy you share with everyone that comes in contact with you; the three things that this world needs so dearly.
    Jules, I hope you and Barefoot Ted can come rock us. I miss you. I need to stop by the factory and pick up those new laces. After today, 3 more regular radiation treatments and 5 boosters and I'm home free. I was telling someone last night, I just want to go for a really long, strong trail run. To me, that is the best medicine.