Posted in Life

Two years on

On this day two years ago, I had my final radiotherapy treatment. I wrote about my final treatments and the effects on my body at that time, noting that it was “getting boring” and that I wasn’t going to write about it anymore.

That was true for then, but what I wasn’t to know then was that two years later there are still lingering after-effects. When writing about my experience of cancer, I was reluctant to call it a ‘journey’. It’s such a hackneyed phrase, but also one I didn’t want to think of as relevant to me. I didn’t want a cancer journey, I wanted it to be done/finished/over. I wanted to close the chapter on that short part of my life and move on.

But it isn’t over; the chapter isn’t closed. The journey, such as it is, continues.

Not in big, sweeping gestures or debilitating treatments but in subtle ways that slink in around the edges, catching me off-guard.

I drive to one of four annual check-ups (breast surgeon, medical oncologist, radio oncologist, mammogram/ultrasound) and fight the rising panic by calling my daughter Emma or my sister Debbie. Emma drove me to many of my treatments and then to work or to home afterwards and can visualise where I am and that familiarity adds to the comfort she provides. Debbie takes me through the 5-4-3-2-1 technique forcing my focus elsewhere, away from the panic.

I take a pill everyday to help ensure the cancer doesn’t return. I try my hardest to get the same brand each month, but if it’s unavailable and I have to take a different brand my joints begin to ache within a few days, my legs swell, I get dizzy, my vision worsens.

I mention it to my radio oncologist at my annual check-up in March. She says many of her patients have noted the same thing. I’m glad it’s not just me; I was beginning to think it was all in my mind. She examines me and is surprised by the amount of pain I experience at her touch. ‘Things often start to get better from the 2-year mark’ she tells me. I’m sure she told me that at the end of the first year too.

My mammogram and ultrasound results have been fine so far. I am doing well. There is no need to worry.

So they say.

And then I let myself think of this as a journey … I know the starting point, that moment when I felt the lump for the first time. The six weeks that felt like many more between then and getting a diagnosis. The surgery, the healing, the radiotherapy, the pills, the annual checks, the regular massages, the lingering, push-it-to-the-furtherest-corner-of-your-mind fear that pops out every now and then … if this is a journey, what’s the destination?

I think about that for a while and decide that wellness is the destination.

If this is a journey, I want it to be a hopeful one. One with a destination I can look forward to. One I don’t ever want to go on again, but one I can think back on and feel comfortable in how I lived it.

I don’t want to pretend it’s all sunshine and roses, but it’s also not a journey full of menace or foreboding.

It’s a journey to wellness.

I can live with that.

Posted in Learning, Life

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There is so much we can control in our lives; so much more we seek to control; and then there are things we simply have no control over.

It rains for days on end, rivers rise, towns are flooded, 300 cows are washed into the ocean.

A low pressure system gets lower, the wind increases, a hurricane/typhoon/cyclone strips trees of their bananas, houses of their roofs, power lines of their energy-carrying capacity.

A volcano spews lava down its mountainside causing mayhem to those at the foot of the mountain and those on flight paths above it.

We are reminded that there are some things we still cannot control; some things are bigger than us, they are beyond us: we are not as powerful as we thought we were. We don’t have dominion over the earth and all that lives on it.

As with the planet, so too with our bodies.

I have been raised to believe that I am in control of my body, in the same way that as thinking, intelligent, problem-solving people we think we are in control of the earth. Mind over matter. If you think you’re going to get sick, you will. To avoid getting sick, you just have to resist it; you have to be strong in mind and not give in to it.

I haven’t vomited in more than 30 years because I refuse to do so.

When I feel the first tinglings of a cold, I simply tell myself that I do not get sick, and most of the time that’s enough. I do not get sick. I do not give in to sickness.

When I feel pain in my body, I remind myself that my mind is stronger, and the pain dissipates.

Sickness is a weakness of the mind. Both of my parents hold firm to this view, and it has become part of the fabric of my being. (I have written about this attitude here.)

I felt this way until Tuesday 25th October at 3:34pm.

It was at that point that I came out of a meeting with Phil and Jo (two new colleagues) and noticed that I was shaking slightly. I felt a bit cold. I went back to my desk and for the next 47 minutes wrote an abstract for an article on workforce planning for beginning teachers. My fingers skittered across the keyboard in often uncontrollable ways, the shaking intensifying the longer I sat there. I tried deep breathing as a way of calming myself, in case the meeting had somehow agitated or excited me; I walked quickly to the toilet and back as a way of warming myself, in case it was the sitting that was making me cold. I didn’t think about getting/being sick … I was just cold. And shaking uncontrollably. And feeling slightly off my game.

One hour and forty seven minutes later I was in hospital. Admitted straight into emergency, even though the woman in the queue ahead of me had been told that she would be waiting at least an hour to be seen by a doctor.

I stayed in hospital for a week.

In that week, I had no control over what my body did, or of what was happening in my body. I couldn’t think my way out of my sickness. My mind and my body were two separate entities: one did not control the other.

Or rather, my mind did not control my body.

I lay in my hospital bed for a week and my mind was quiet (I am toying with using the word ‘blank’): it is usually busy narrating my life, having conversations with a host of others, skipping from thought to thought, involved in a rich array of experiences, ideas, images, connections. My inner life is integral to who I am and while I am quiet on the outside, on the inside my mind is loud and always on.

I realised, though, on my sixth day in hospital, that my mind hadn’t been on for the previous six days. I lay in my hospital bed under six blankets, sheet up to my chin, neatly tucked in, eyes shut against the light, and my mind was quiet. Nothing. No thoughts, no conversations, no ideas … quiet. I’d sleep (a lot) and when I was awake my mind was quiet.

My mind seemed to know that it had to be quiet so that my body could recover. It seemed, for the first time that I can remember, that my body was in charge, rather than me being in charge of it.

I am home from hospital now, and my mind has switched back on. But it’s now more willing to listen to my body. I lie here, in my own bed, with the blankets piled high, neatly tucked in, watching the clouds flit across the sky, and drift off to sleep, my mind on but quiet enough to allow my body to recover.

I am thankful that I am generally healthy: I had no list of medications to give to the doctors, no bouts of ill-health to share, certainly nothing like the 40 heart attacks and plethora of other ailments the woman in the next bed talked of. Even so, I was not in control. Something was happening to me, and I was unable to stop it.

On day 7, the day of my release from hospital, I thought about my/our lack of control. I had just as much control over the bugs wreaking havoc in my bloodstream, as we collectively do of controlling the force of the wind, the amount of rain that falls, or the size of the wave after an earthquake. We are reminded that there are some things we still cannot control; some things are bigger than us, they are beyond us: we are not as powerful as we thought we were.

It’s an unsettling thought, but allowing it is not a sign of weakness.