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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Radiation 3

Exactly 7 months since my 48th birthday, I take myself to the Mater Hospital for the last day of my radiation treatment.

It is a beautiful day and, as I navigate the Willpower Mobile through the traffic, I have the windows down and enjoy the feel of a cool breeze through the fine cover of follicles sprouting on my pate.

I think: "It's great to be alive." And I talk to George. I have been doing that a bit lately because I'd like to believe he is still around, watching over all of us, especially Ethel and Al.

"Can you believe it?" I ask George. "Where have the last five weeks gone."

All in all, I seem to have weathered things nicely. The area over my scar is a deep pink colour and the nurses have said it may yet fester a few days after today. But I don't think so.

There is nothing unusual about the visit to radiation services. I park the car and, because I'm a little early, I mosey on down to the coffee shop under the hospital to get myself a coffee.

You wouldn't know it was my last day. It's the usual: check-in, chat, strip, chat, zap, chat, change, chat, out the door. Except when I leave, I shake the hand of Adam, the radiation therapist who has been at nearly all my treatments. I thank him and the other therapist.

Through the last few weeks I've picked up a bit of information about the process. Here are some gum nuts I have picked up: You can be radiated for weeks and weeks quite safely, because it all depends on the dose. You need a Bachelor of Radiation Therapy which you can do at QUT. They radiate for all cancers including leukaemia and can do your whole body at once if need be. The numbers they call out are calibrations to help them gauge the depth at which the rays enter your skin. It doesn't hurt when you're radiated - even if the skin is burned. The room is initially darkened so they can see the laser lights one the ceiling that help them guide the calibrations. Only in rare cases will people need to go through radiation twice.

From the man at the front counter, I also learned that some people they treat actually don't make it. Well, that bit's a downer.

As I leave the radiation room, Adam says I can dump the gown they have given me if I like or I can take it home. I choose to bring it home as I plan to have a ceremonial burning - something to put all of this behind me.

But I can't go home yet as I have to wait a few minutes to see Dr Cox and my nurse, Esther.

While I sit in the waiting room, I think about all the side effects I've been left with. Unfortunately, I believe most of these are permanent:

Firstly, I have vision changes, especially at long distances, things look much blurrier so I suspect I'll need to have the prescription for my glasses changed.

Secondly, I have pains in the joints of my feet. It is painful to walk first thing in the morning. I also have pains in my knees that I only notice when I jog, but not when I sprint. Also I seem to be cramping up a lot, especially if I had been sitting still for a while.

The allergies I had grown out of once upon a time are now quite chronic. Dust, mould, cat hair. So alas, I think I'll be keeping up my stash of antihistamines - but I hope this is for the short term.

My fingernails are like paper but I hope they will strengthen over time. They had six white lines across them which are slowly growing out. Each line, apparently, represents a dose of chemo which killed cell growth.

I imagine when my hair grows back it will have a different texture and also, it will be thinner.

As well, I have a persistent cough that I've had since I went to hospital. That's why I also have an appointment this afternoon with Dr Choo.

After my meeting with Dr Cox, I give her a hug. This is also a side effect of this cancer: I have become a hugger! Who knew.

The way I see it, life is too short to withhold your affection, to restrain yourself from such displays. Give love freely, I say. It's no use to you when you're six foot under.

As I leave Radiation Oncology Services for the last time, I realise the sky is a pristine blue, the sun is out. I really am very happy to still be alive.

I have a couple of hours in between meetings so I confess that I drive to West End without any real plan. I chance upon an Adventure-Trekking shop and go and blow some cash on a piece of luggage I want for my upcoming trip. I even sweet talk the salesman into giving me a 20% discount.

I get to Dr Choo's in good time and have to wait a whole hour before I get to see her. While I sit, I think about all the people who have helped me through this battle so far.

The experts are now finding that cancer patients go through some emotional turmoil once their treatments end.

During treatment, ordinary women who may often be unappreciated slaves at home are suddenly the centre of attention. People, professionals, strangers are caring about them, asking them how they feel and actually taking note of their answers. For most of us, this is a strange place to be. And you get used to it. It is someone's job to care about you. People listen to you talking about yourself, your aches, your pains, your fears.

Then all at once, there you are, your car keys in your hand, blinking in the sunlight and on your way, alone - possibly never to meet some of these doctors and nurses and therapists and receptionists ever again. You're back to being a schmo where most people don't get past 'How are you' and then, in my experience, you have to make it about THEM or you have no conversation. Most people are like this I find: lacking curiosity, one way talkers.

When I arrive at Greenslopes Hospital, I must walk past the Cyril Gilbert Centre and am strangely unaffected. It seems I have overwritten the bad memories.

It's lovely to see Dr Choo again and as I walk in, she laughs and says she's had good updates on my progress via Lee.

When I explain that I've come to see her about my cough, she expresses surprise that it's hung around for so long.

She pulls out her prescription book and tells me she's going to give me a steroidal spray for what she thinks is post-viral irritation of the airways.

Then she pulls out the forms I know too well - for blood tests. My heart sinks.

"I don't need a blood test, do I?"

Dr Choo explains that she has had several patients presenting with adult whooping cough, would you believe, so she wants to check me for pertussis.

Also, I'm to be checked for my white blood cell count, oestrogen & progesterone levels so she can determine whether I am truly post-menopausal now, and amongst other things, I'm to be checked for cancer markers.

As well, she's sending me for a chest X-ray to exclude metatastic disease and a bone density test. Hmmm.

Dr Choo tells me she is putting me on Arimidex and produces a booklet from her bookshelf.

From this I learn Arimidex is a hormonal therapy that is called an "aromatase inhibitor". In other words, it will reduce the amount of oestrogen in my body even further.

The common side effects include joint pain - that I can control through exercise (you beauty!) and fish oil - and loss of bone density so I must be religious about calcium supplements. From the booklet I learn that it can also cause upset stomach, lack of energy, thinning of hair, and headache. Fabulous.

I am to start taking this tablet after the weekend. I must take it at the same time every day ... for the next five years. Yes, I said FIVE years.

I can miss the odd one but it would be a worry if I missed, say, three in a row.

Since I finished chemo I haven't even taken a multivitamin. Now I am back to the world of pharmaceuticals. Yes, it's a bit depressing.

I am to check in with Dr Choo again in two weeks and after I say goodbye, I go down to the chemist on the ground floor and get my prescriptions filled.

The pharmacist is a pleasant Indian girl and she asks me if I've taken this medication before.

When I say no, she asks me if it's for breast cancer.

I say: "Yes, I'm worried about the side effects, but I suppose it's better than death."

I am grateful when the pharmacist explains that thousands of women take Arimidex and that to be considered "common", a side effect must affect one in 100 people.

She says: "It's all in the mind. Have a positive attitude and you might find you get no side effects."

I leave the hospital 2 hours after I arrive. It's peak hour traffic and a slow journey home - plenty of time to think.

So far so good. I've survived the rough seas and my ship has landed on a different shore.

I know life is a little different here but right now, I'm not entirely sure how. Chris has already told me that clarity about this will only really come much later in this journey.

Some people have already asked me if cancer has changed me. Physically of course it has. But I can't really be sure how it might have changed me in other ways although I am intuiting a little of it here and there.

Revelation doesn't come in one big flash. I am still piecing it together. The sliding door has opened and I suppose I'm on the other side. But it's all still pixellated. I am still deconstructed. At least I think I am.

When I return home, I leash up Spunky and go for a 5 km run. (My first in a couple of weeks!)

Al gets home and cooks a delicious meal of fresh salmon.

Afterwards he goes to his tennis night and I go for my weekly campaign meeting with Karen. Later the team pops over to Elysium for a quick drink. This is the last campaign meeting and we give ourselves a toast. We have done our best. That's all anyone can do. Win or lose, we have that to hang our hats on.

Karen and I work out that I first committed to helping her in July 2010. Oh my god! It's been such a long road and here we are today, probably best friends.

On Saturday, Al, me and Ben are going to Sydney and then to Adelaide - it's the holiday we didn't have over Christmas or Easter.

Next week will be the election - something I've worked toward for 21 months. Another big part of my life is ending. Who knows what will happen? Whether Karen will win or not?

I have finished the first part of my treatment. In two weeks, my blood test will tell Dr Choo what the result of my treatment has been. Whether the cancer is in remission or not?

For now, I'm crossing my fingers.

For now, I'm am still working out my new world.

I'll keep you posted.

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