Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Deb Fowler is talking with Dr. Sherry L. Meinberg, author of A Cluster of Cancers: A Simple Coping Guide for Patients
FQ: As you mentioned in A Cluster of Cancers, you found it necessary to “get past the trauma and drama” after your diagnosis. Just how long did it take you to accomplish this, and when did you feel it was critical to your well-being?
MEINBERG: Not long at all. A couple of days, at the most. That is because I had experienced other major trauma and drama in my life, and lived to tell the tale: epilepsy as a child, physical, mental, and emotional abuse from my first husband, and 50+ years of being stalked (I am considered to be the longest-stalked person in the nation—which includes deliberate car accidents, guns, kidnapping, etc.), alongside my extremely high blood-pressure (the systolic number was 300, for which I was called the “walking dead” by hospital staff), and several other unrelated operations, all while teaching for 34 years in inner city public schools (with the daily negative nonsense involved), and 16 years as a core university professor. So it was like a “been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, and still wearing it” experience; a “here-we-go-again” roller coaster ride.
FQ: It’s not easy to even hear the word “cancer,” let along have it. Many people run through a gamut of emotions, including anger. Were you angry, and how did you deal with it?
MEINBERG: I was irate, more than any thing else, shouting at the Universe, “Oh, come on! Cut me some slack here!” But I had already gone through the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance— proposed by the great Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., with previous above-mentioned experiences, and didn’t feel the need to address those issues again. Other than a short fit of anger at first. I thought I had paid my dues already. And I was in the middle of writing “Autism ABC” (a book for both children and adults), and the timing wasn’t right for me. I felt that I didn’t have the extra time, effort, or energy to deal with cancer, as I was so totally focused on my manuscript. The general public didn’t know much about autism back then, and I wanted to finish my book, without worrying about my own health. Having cancer later was better for me, but the Universe had different plans. I figured that my cancer situation was just one more hurdle I had to jump. So I decided to treat my cancer as a temporary experience, and rolled up my sleeves, and carried on. I had learned early on that moaning, groaning, and crying about any situation didn’t help matters, and that I just needed to barrel on through the ordeal, and get on with my life. So I focused on raising autism awareness, and gave my cancer situation short shrift. After all, I had lived through other tough experiences (I never thought I’d make it past forty), and I was still here! My positive approach helped me to continue writing, instead of freaking out over my cancer prognosis, wherein I was told to go home and get my house in order (a living will and health proxy, or power of attorney)! The good news is that I survived the operation, in which a five-pound cancer tumor completely encapsulated my left kidney, so both had to be removed. It was a “touch and go” procedure, in which a second physician had to come in and help). Thereafter, Autism ABC (2009) won 23 awards.
FQ: You had a rather negative experience while shopping around for medical care. Perhaps you can impart to your readership just how important it is to find an oncologist or specialist they can work with.
MEINBERG: Choosing your urologist is one of the most important health decisions you can make. You need to have an “interview” appointment, to use as a kind of litmus test. Even though the doctor has the necessary skills, consider your compatibility for the long run. Are you comfortable being in the same room together for any length of time? Having good communication and collaboration with your doctor is paramount.
At first, I met with a cranky, elderly doctor, who told me,” You made your bed, now lie in it.” Say, what?! There was no understanding, support, or respect involved. His way was the only way it was going to be. He was way past the time when he should have retired. I passed. Next, I met with a middle-aged doctor, a Lord of his own Kingdom kind of guy, who sat behind his huge desk that appeared to separate him from the unrefined and riff raff. His eyes bored through me. He never arose, nor did he shake hands. He rarely smiled, and when he did, it seemed forced. He was abrupt and impatient. He appeared to love the sound of his own voice, allowing little input from me. He was extremely rude, treating me like a kindergartner. I demanded someone else. Later on, I met Dr. John Paul Brusky, and we instantly bonded. I felt safe in his hands.
FQ: You dedicated this book to your oncologist, Dr. John Paul Brusky. What qualities or treatment approaches did he have that made you know he was “the one” for you?
MEINBERG: A cancer patient is in for a lifelong relationship with his or her doctor. As such, you need to find one that is a fit for you, one in which you have a connection, someone that can be trusted, and whose personality is acceptable. First of all, Dr. John Paul Brusky had a smile on his face, as he walked in and introduced himself. He gave me total eye-contact, instead of being focused on files, handheld papers, or the computer. His delivery was quiet and self-assured. He actually listened to what I had to say. He included my husband in all the discussions, answering our questions, at length. He made sure we understood all the tests involved, the diagnosis, treatment options, the procedures, and the prognosis. He didn’t give us the bum’s rush, with an eye on his watch or the doorknob. He appeared to genuinely care (this wasn’t just a job for him, it was a calling). He also had been a practicing physician for years, and was the head of the Urology department for the Kaiser Permanente Orchard Medical Offices, in Downey, CA, so he had the background and experience needed. and was highly successful in his field.
FQ: The online Mayo Clinic was one resource you personally studied. What were some of the other online resources that you found especially helpful in your journey towards wellness?
MEINBERG: As a patient, you can’t expect the doctor to “fix” you. You must actively participate in your recovery process. Get moving. Take action. Do something toward regaining your health. Fully engage yourself in the subject. One way to do so, is to read cancer books and magazine articles, and use online resources, for both general and specific information, such as:
FQ: You are infectiously optimistic and your writing uplifting. Are you a natural-born optimist, or was this something you learned along life’s path?
MEINBERG: I don’t live a cookie cutter existence. My weird, wacky, off-the-wall daily experiences are often hard for others to believe. But with some space and time between such encounters, I can usually find something funny and positive about any negative events. As Mary Poppins sang, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” All such occurrences become story fodder. I can tell the most vile classroom or personal experiences during my lectures, but have audiences laughing a short time later. My attitude is: Leave ‘em with a smile!
FQ: A brief mention was made of your sixty-two books about dreams and dream interpretation. Obviously a special interest for you. Tell us a bit about this interest in dreams.
MEINBERG: I had married a psychotic schizophrenic and didn’t realize it, until we were driving home from the wedding, during which he said three things, which totally changed my life: (1) “Oh, by the way, I lost my wallet, so we can’t go on a honeymoon.” What a liar, I thought, but I was so mad, I couldn’t articulate what I wanted to say. (2) A little further on, he said, “Oh, by the way, I quit my job, to play the horses full time.” I was shocked silly by this, as I came from a family that was strictly against gambling, and how was I going to explain this to them? And I was a new teacher, with very little income, that couldn’t cover my own expenses, much less his. What to do? What to do? Again, I was so shocked, I couldn’t utter a response. (3) A little further along, he announced, in a perfectly normal sounding voice: “Oh, by the way, if you ever have a baby, I’ll drown it in the bathtub.” I was struck dumb by then, realizing that I had married a monster. [The details are chronicled in my third book, The Bogeyman: Stalking and its Aftermath, which became the premier episode “The Bogeyman” on the Investigative Discovery Channel (I.D.), on 12/12/12. I was later told that it became their most popular rerun.]
Anyway, he said that he would kill my family, if I ever left him, so I endured. I couldn’t get doctors, the police, or the legislature, to help me. Of course, this was long before the general public paid attention to spousal abuse, and long before the word “stalker” was coined.
And so there came a time when the Night Train chugged into my life, and my vaguely threatening anxiety dreams graduated into full-blown nightmares. Now the creepy-crawling terrors of the night took hold, and I slid into the world of Hieronymous Bosch. Later, I dreamed a series of operatic dramas, including voice-overs, flashbacks, and fantasy sequences—two or three each night—in which I was murdered in the culminating scene. Each in a different manner. By my husband. These dreams were brilliantly intense, and colorful, with accompanying sound effects, while the disturbing strains of Chopin’s Opus (“Marche Funebre”) played solemnly in the background: Dum, dum, da dum, dum, dum, dum, da dum, da dum. It was all too Gothically spooky.
Although each murder was creatively different from the next, the final scene was always the same. My coffin was slowly lowered into the ground, and after thumping to a stop, I could hear the dirt shoveled in on top of the lid: thud, thud, thud. Jolted wide awake, freaked out and jittery, with my heart hammering wildly in my chest, as a warped recording of “The worms crawl in...” ominously scratched into my awareness. Of course, with 31 flavors of fear coursing through my mind, I was afraid to go back to sleep.
So, being a champion researcher, I plunged heavily into the subject of dreams, reading everything I could get my hands on, in an attempt to understand my situation. It was writ so large, you could have read it from a Space Station, but I ignored the obvious, of course. Consciously, I hadn’t a clue, but luckily instinct and intuition lent their guidance. Thank goodness, I was picking up the information subliminally, so I finally got the message: I was being sized up for a chalk outline. My husband was literally plotting my imminent death.
Then I started reconsidering all the near misses, and the variety of unusual incidents, and bizarre accidents, I had encountered over a number of months, and putting them all together, the light finally dawned. Duh. At length, I accused him of planning to murder me. Breaking into a malevolent grin, he happily answered in the affirmative, taunting in exuberant glee, “A wife can’t testify against her husband!” I haven’t carried life insurance since.
FQ: Many people do turn their “problems and woes over to a Higher Power.” Was this a motivating factor that helped you to push beyond all the worldly woes and stress cancer brought to you?
MEINBERG: Of course, I believe in a Higher Power! But I surely didn’t, when I was going through the worst of my stalking problems. I had lost my belief. Over the following years, I worked myself out of that deep, dark hole, and have resumed a strong, spiritual faith. Studies show that resolving spiritual issues can significantly support your recovery from cancer, as your spiritual or religious connection has a healing impact. I truly believe that the form one’s faith takes—whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, or whatever—is less important than the love it imparts.
FQ: Now that you are a cancer survivor and have written a book to encourage others, what’s next in Dr. Sherry Meinberg’s life?
MEINBERG: A Cluster of Cancers was written this year (2015), as was Seizing the Teachable Moment, and Alzheimer’s ABC. The first two were also published in 2015, whereas I am still waiting for the art to be completed for that last book (which is for both children and adults), so it will be published in 2016. No grass grows under my feet! That will be my 14th nonfiction book. I have no solid plans beyond that, until I get excited about another subject. I am all about getting the word out! As such, I am open to suggestions, from any and all (feel free to contact me at email@example.com).