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Monday, May 28, 2012

Research 1

It's a cool and perfect morning when I set off for the Wesley Research Institute. It is with some trepidation that I go as the Institute is based at the Wesley Hospital where George died two months ago.

As I walk through the familiar corridors of the hospital, I imagine George's spirit hovering somewhere. You know he pulled his own suitcase in there when he was admitted - and he never managed to make it out.

Still, I put away these unpleasant thoughts as I follow the signs to the Institute which is located on a basement floor. The receptionist makes a call and I am redirected somewhere to Floor 8 in the East Wing.

I am here today at the invitation of Dr Cameron McDonald who is conducting a study into the effects of Omega 3, exercise and nutrition on women who have completed treatment for breast cancer. It's quite a fluke I'm here and owe it all to another friend of mine, Judy who is a dietitian. Dr McDonald is an associate of hers I believe.

In preparation for this initial assessment, I've had to avoid all exercise for the past 48 hours, something that was probably a godsend as I am still battling a nasty cold. I was also required to note exactly what I consumed for breakfast, avoiding all tea and coffee. (I had 60 g of Sultana Bran with 100 ml of full cream milk in case you are interested).

Aside from that, I've had to present in a swimsuit worn under sports clothes. It's a little tight - actually, I feel like I'm wearing a body condom it's so snug - but I'm wearing my softer temporary prosthesis so at least it's not too uncomfortable across my chest.

When I arrive on the 8th floor I am met by a petite Asian lady call 'Ewie' (I think, 'Funny you're not walking in circles') who introduces herself as an exercise physiologist and leads me through to a narrow room that is bathed, somewhat stereotypically, in a blinding neon light.

After I sign a waiver form, Ewie first makes me-ie stand against a wall to measure my height and, to my dismay, I discover - after all these years - that I am 0.8 cm shorter than I have been led to believe. No, not the majestic, towering, awe inspiring height of 160cm on my driver's licence, but 159.2 cm. Now that means I truly AM a short-arse.

Then she makes me hop on some fairly techno scales and scribbles some numbers on a form. She measures my waist (77 cm) and hips before making me lie down on a bed so she can note any signs of lymphodaema. (Thankfully my right and left side are nice and even).

At this point, I am led to an odd looking contraption at the end of the room. It looks like a large egg the has a certain 'Austin Powers' feel to it. Here is a picture of it.

Ewie gives me a lairy purple swimming cap to put on. I'm directed to stand on a weighing platform and then I have to sit in the egg which I discover is called a 'Bod Pod'. I am told to sit as still as possible, breathing normally as Ewie shuts the door. From the inside, it feels as if I'm driving the Egg, staring out of a big windscreen.

I hear a sound like a garden sprinkler...a regular 'thuck thuck thuck' sound. This happens twice and then I'm done.

Afterwards, Ewie announces that I have 17.5% body fat and am officially 'lean'. Here is the form she filled in:

I am led to an ante room to fill in a questionnaire where I have to really think about my current situation. There are four or five pages of questions such as: "Do you feel like crying?", "Do you feel unmotivated?", "Do you feel tired?", "Do you feel depressed?", "Do you feel pain?"..."Do you think about dying". Mostly I answer "A little bit" but I answer "Extremely" when the questions relate to joint aches and pains.

Before I have a chance to finish the questionnaire, Dr McDonald comes in and I have to say the dirty old woman in me is momentarily excited. He is, to put it mildly, gorgeous. Tanned, blonde and dressed casually in bermuda shorts, Dr McDonald looks like he wouldn't be out of place in a scene from Mills and Boon (although he doesn't have the obligatory 'slate grey eyes' and his name is alas, not 'Raoul'). He looks more surfie than academic. Secretly I think, well, well, well - perhaps this isn't all going to be totally dire after all. Oh, yeah.

We have to return to the basement premises so catch a lift where I have the chance to explain to Cameron the difficulty I've had giving two hoots really about diet (especially) or even fitness. I explain how I was the fittest I've ever been before I got sick and how now I keep thinking "Fuck it, what's the point?" My other Breast Cancer friends of a similar fitness background agree. We feel we've been shortchanged, naturally.

At this point Cam raises an eyebrow and says: "Let me tell you something. All the studies show women who have a good fitness profile do MUCH better, they just have a better chance." He really emphasises the 'much', in case those capitals haven't given you the right picture.

Soon I find myself in another tiny office where Dr McDonald takes my blood pressure - which remains low despite the tantalising proximity of this fine young specimen.

He puts a heart monitor on me and the fact that my resting heart rate is 61 BPM - which just proves one doesn't always hyperventillate when letching.

I do a grip test that, sadly, only involves grabbing a measuring device - and not, perhaps, one of this young man's firm buttocks.

All this filthy daydreaming is soon curtailed as I'm led out of the room and into an adjacent gymnasium which is chockful of equipment. The only person in there is an old gent who is doggedly peddling a stationery bike.

Dr McDonald soon has me on a treadmill where he keeps increasing the intensity of my walk until I reach my target heart rate of 146 BP which is 85% of the maximum heart rate for an old geezer like me. It takes 17 minutes before I get there and I think I'm doing okay, considering my knees are buggered.

When we start, I ask him a few questions about his study. He has 30 subjects but he needs another 40. I want to keep talking but he tells me talking increases the heart rate and may impact the accuracy of the measurements.

I am led back upstairs to complete the rest of my questionnaire where I am also given a device known as an 'accelerometer'. It looks like a tiny headlight which flashes intermittently. I'm to where it in the same position each day for 7 days, 10 hours a day minimum if possible. I also have to roughly report on my general eating habits.

There are three groups in this study, one who will take Omega 3 supplements only, one who will also have an exercise and nutrition program, and a third group who will only have the exercise and nutrition program. Apparently we will be randomly allocated to a group and I do hope I am not in the Supplement Only group as that would be quite boring.

And so I am done for the day. On the way home I pop into a Skate Shop to buy Ben's birthday present.

As soon as I get home, I make a delicious pie for dinner as Ethel is coming over and Al is working in the City.

I go for a 5 km run with Spunky. (The air is bracing and I feel great when I get back).

I change quickly and whip down to the local shops where I'm to be in a photo that will hopefully make the local rag. It's to promote a Cancer fundraiser where I've been invited to speak.

Later, I change into my referee's formal uniform and drive to Mt Gravatt where, in a room bursting with youth and testosterone, I manage to stay awake through a two-hour Youth Coaching night.

It's nearly 10 pm when I get home. The house is quiet. Al, Ben and the dog are all asleep.

It's been an unusual day but before I finish,please let me know if you know of any woman who may have finished her breast cancer treatment within the past 12 months, who lives near Brisbane and who might wish to participate in this study. Oh, and who might, like me, have an eye for a fine specimen of manhood. (BYO tissues).

It only takes a little time and you never know, it may really help her.

Besides, like me, they may find it way of deriving a greater purpose from this ordeal.

That, and an opportunity for some lechery. Remember my motto ladies: "Numquam etiam olio perve".. You're never too old to perve.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Celebration 1

Four weeks to the day I finished radiation (on Friday last week) I realise that I have come to a turning point in the narrative of this tedious breast cancer odyssey.

The revelation comes as I approach the 10 kilometre mark in one of what was once a three-times a week routine: an afternoon run.

Since chemotherapy and now, on Arimidex, I have already mentioned the impact of these treatments on the condition of my muscles and joints. Overnight, as I complain to a few of my pals, I seem to have been transformed into a very old woman and sadly, the loss of Nicky notwithstanding, I don't think I'll ever be 100% again.

They are kind, as you'd expect, and try to brush away my concerns as signs of 'natural ageing' or perhaps the cold that has come with the Brisbane winter that is now nipping at our heels.

But I acknowledge it: the fact that the body that was fairly strong and limber is now a little on the rickety side. I am aware of aches and creaks whenever I move my limbs. When I bounce up and down on my knees they make a sound not dissimilar to cockroaches at the bottom of a drawer - a sound that makes my skin crawl a bit.

Sometimes in bleaker moments, I imagine my activities reduced to water aerobics and a few leg squats to the riveting beats of Glen Campbell and "Galveston" emanating through some tin-pot iPod speakers.

But Friday's run is instructive. Up to the two kilometre mark, my knees are bloody painful and I find myself thinking: "This is how you get through this, Bronwyn. Keep moving. Keep going."

By five kilometres I settle into it and, although I know I'm slow, I'm just pleased that I'm barely puffing.

By the eight kilometre mark, a shooting pain up the side of my right knee indicates that perhaps I should stop. I'm thinking that I may be overdoing things but I can't be sure. You see, this is not a well body that's running - it's one that is still a little on the sick side, if the truth be told. So those twinges, they could be unusual, but then again, they could now just be par for the course.

But here's the thing. I keep going because I keep reminding myself what Dr Choo told me at our first meeting: "It's mind over matter."

Before I know it, I've reached the 10km mark and, on the way, I even managed to field two phone calls! One from Lorelei to arrange getting together for lunch. One from Maddy, inviting Al and I over for home made pizzas in the evening.

As I walk the few metres back to my front door, each footstep is an 'ouch', but I'm feeling quite chuffed about making the distance.

I think it's about now that I realise that I'm at a turning point - that phase of my story where I'll start reclaiming a little of my old life, and reinventing the parts that need to be remodelled, to suit this slightly ricketier me.

So it seems serendipitous that on Sunday, yesterday, and quite on a whim, I have a party for which I'm expecting around 92 people.

What started as an intimate lunch for 30 kind of got out of hand. It's typical of me. I've been an inveterate entertainer since my late teens and it's a habit of mine that I'll keep inviting people until I actually make a list and then go: "Oops. Now that's a lot of people."

I think the classic was the day a policeman turned up my door to return some licence plates that had been stolen off my car. I was having dinner party at the time and invited him to join us. Ha ha ha.

I do love entertaining though because really, it's the only way I get to see most of my friends and frankly, it's one reason I was really attracted to Al - because he's a party man too!

Together, we make quite a pair as we are both quite social. Ergo: party = lots of people.

The uber-entertainer in me was, I think, inculcated in my early years when I'd watch my mum prepare cakes, short-eats and other delicacies for the annual Christmas Party at the 'rugger' club that was so central to the social life of Ceylon's planters. (The rest of the time, this was the cook's job).

Later, in Australia, I grew up with Mum's dinner parties and lunches when she would invite a literal hoard around to savour the many delicacies she would painstakingly prepare.

I often tell the story of some of the first such events my Mum held when Brisbane was described as "a small country town" and pasta would have been considered a 'foreign' dish.

Mum's guests, usually from the office where she worked, would circle the smorgasbord displayed on our dining table, literally clutching their empty plates to their chests as if to shield them from a fate worse than death. Then Mum would begin explaining what was before them. "In Ceylon we call that 'parripu' or lentils and, oh, that?, that is a curry leaf".

I once watched a guest spit something into her spoon and stare at it as if it were a sample brought back by the Mars probe. She was relieved when we explained it was a cinnamon quill.

As it is, this event (held yesterday) is partly enabled by Mum's easy offer to help. (She could be sitting on her bum complaining about her varicose veins like other oldies but she's not of that ilk). It's also enabled by Ethel's generous willingness to help clean up the house in preparation. And long-suffering Al's readiness to tidy the garden.

It's a mammoth process in the end with preparations for this random event beginning last Monday. Mum and I go shopping for the ingredients for what will be 'lampries', a special Sri Lankan dish that is time-consuming to prepare but very practical for large scale events.

Throughout Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning, my Mum cooks up the components, a process that will consume around 20 hours of her time.

On Thursday and Friday, Mum and I together spend 15 hours putting the packets of food together. The glasses and a pie oven needed for keeping the food warm are delivered.

On Saturday, after refereeing soccer for a couple of hours, I spend seven hours on my feet without sitting down, just getting the house in order. In the evening Al and I go to the trivia night at the Redland Bay Tennis Club and come third.

When I get home I'm shattered.

Yesterday, Sunday, is a beautiful day. Just right for a party on the back deck.

When 92 old friends, including a couple of acquaintances descend on our home, it's high tide and the mild sun is warming my arms.

Before too long, the conversation is loud and happily, I realise that most have found someone to chat to.

After lunch is served, I make a speech where I thank my friends for their love and support throughout my cancer ordeal and burst into tears.

Janet and I pull out our old party trick: a duet where we sing Elvis Presley's "Wooden Heart" in the hope that our audience also has "Wooden" ears.

Oscar, Harry's friend from school, a hugely talented guitarist and singer performs through the afternoon.

A few people leave and it's about now I manage to extort a favour from my special guest, Karen, the - er hem - New Mayor of Redlands. She agrees to showcase her yodelling skills, a rare performance that has guests talking for hours afterwards. (Karen is REALLY funny and has my audience in stitches, god love her).

Around a dozen stalwarts remain as the sunsets and the stars come out. And Oscar keeps playing until it's too cool to be outdoors and the mossies have started to annoy us.

I think we are all fast asleep well before 9 o'clock.

In this way my party-for-no-reason becomes a party-for-a-great-reason.

I'm a three-month cancer "survivor". Yayyyyy!

I've almost reached my 49th birthday. Yayyyy!

I've got the best family and friends in the world. Yayyy.

And the biggest "Yayyy" of all.

Yes, my body is creakier and more rickety than 'of old'. But it can still run 10kms - it can KEEP GOING NO MATTER WHAT.

And best of all? It still knows how to party.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Oncologist 4

I wake after a particularly bad night's sleep that was exacerbated by a bad head cold. I got maybe two hour's sleep if that. It really was a lousy night. I couldn't breathe at all and there was a moment there when I was wishing someone would give me a lethal injection and put me out of my misery. Then I thought about Marilyn Monroe. Then I imagined her bonking JFK. And then it was morning.

After Al has brought me a cup of tea, I drag myself out of bed. I have no time to dilly dally as I have an appointment with Dr Choo this morning.

Harry drives me in and along the way, I notice the dry skin on my arms. I feel old and leathery. I blow my nose. I sneeze. I blow my nose.

I also know that the radiated area on my chest is now almost black! I look like a bit of me has been borrowed from Kamahl. It's actually quite funny because my name, "Bronwyn" means "White Breast" and I wonder if there'a name that means "Half a Black Breast".

Lately, all I can seem to think of is breasts. That's all I appear to notice. Like yesterday, while I had coffee with Louisa all I could look at was her breasts (big ones) resting on the table as she sipped her coffee. At the tennis club I was looking at photos on the notice board, all I looked at was the tits: Lyndal's push-up bra, Mel's pancakes. All I see are cleavages and bra straps and nipples poking out of tee-shirts. I seem to have discovered an inner 'dirty old man'. I tell you, this has become a DISEASE! In fact, it's so chronic I've decided I'm going to set up my own area of study. I'm going to call it "Titology".

You think I jest but in truth, it's quite annoying to me right now just how much time I'm wasting thinking about boobs. I mean, really, it's not even going to help me win at trivia as I can reliably report questions about mammary glands are few and far between.

And so, with boobs still swirling around in my mind, Harry and I arrive at Greenslopes Hospital. On the way up to Dr Choo's I make a beeline for the pharmacy and buy myself a family-sized box of tissues. I am wary about spreading my germs and use my pinky to press the button on the lifts.

Upstairs in the waiting room, it's not too long before I am in my oncologist's office yet again.

Today we are going to discuss the results of my various scans and blood test. Basically the news is all good. Dr Lambley has already telephoned to inform me that the CT Scan was all clear. Except for a couple of fibroids down in Antarctica, it seems there are no signs of metastasis. I've already announced it on Facebook and people have been congratulating me. It's as exciting as having a baby it seems! Such exceptional news is like a new arrival. God bless my friends!

The blood test, Dr Choo explains, also shows that my oestrogen levels are nice and low meaning I am well in the range of post-menopause. Just so you really appreciate the importance of this... prior to cancer, I was expected to achieve menopause at the age of 55 (based on my mum's experience). I'm 48 years old now which means that a process that would have taken 7 years minimum, has been achieved in 6 months. No wonder I'm fucking cranky!

Also, my Vitamin D levels are excellent so everyone who has been emailing me information about how Vitamin D prevents breast cancer you can take a chill pill - this was never an issue.

Also my white cells are looking good which surprises me. I seem to have spent the last two months feeling crook so I'm thinking those little fuckers really need to stop lazing around. You'd think they'd be doing a better job!

Now I ask Dr Choo if the low oestrogen might mean I still have to take Arimidex for five years (you can't blame me for asking). Alas, the answer is yes.

I tell her I have started taking the tablets and the side effects don't seem too bad, just the bad moods and I suppose, the joint pain. I wonder if they will get any worse as my treatment continues.

She says that probably the joint and muscle aches will worsen. What to say but shit, fuck and bugger. I'll just have to deal with the fact that I feel like I'm a hundred years old these days.

With my scans clear, I ask Dr Choo what the chances are that the cancer will recur. She has to think a bit then says: "Mmm, about 10%." Look, anyone worth their statistics will know that that's not super-great. 1 in 10? Put it like this, I have the same chance as getting the flu! (And less chance than getting hemorrhoids (25:1), being audited by the ATO (175:1) or fatally slipping in the bath or shower (2232:1).

It's obvious I have a cold and Dr Choo laughs when she says I was fine through chemotherapy and now seem to constantly be sick. She tells me I am depleted after my radiation and I need to rest.

I admit to my insomnia, how the bad nights outnumber the good.

When I explain I have just completed a long involvement with a political campaign, she raises her eyebrows. "That probably hasn't helped," she says, and smiles.

Dr Choo recommends I take a sleeping pill for 4-5 nights so I get back into a natural rhythm of sleep.

Then we discuss my radiation burn. I have some broken skin there now and I'm worried about infection but she says, I should just keep rubbing in the sorbolene cream I've been given. Eventually, apparently, the skin will return to normal.

Unfortunately, this area won't be completely healed for at least another two weeks. I ask her if I can do any exercise with my arms.

"Yes, but take it easy. Don't over do it." So no tug-o-war for me.

As I leave Dr Choo's office, I think what a bore this business of beating cancer has become. The five weeks of radiation are now seven weeks and I'm looking at least another two weeks of recuperation.

I'm to see Dr Choo every three months from now on and, according to Dr Lambley, I won't need any more scans unless there are concerns.

So, after paying my 90 bucks for the consultation, I meet Harry in the foyer where he has procured a coffee for me. I drop him off at the man pad and then head off back home.

I stop off at Target to buy some moisturiser - and while I'm there I also shout myself a new pair of shorts and a shirt.

Afterwards, I go to meet a lady I met on Facebook called Kim. Kim's son, Carl, passed away after an accident while walking home one dark night on Anzac Day, three years ago. We got to talking after meeting on a political blog, she ranting, me raving. I took a shine to her.

Kim's story is one of the deepest loss, the loss of a child. Carl went to Ormiston College where my boys go. He was 21 I think when he died.

I meet Kim in a coffee shop in Cleveland. She's gracious, warm and outgoing.

I am surprised at how easily we fall into conversation. She's a good listener and to me, she seems to have found that place of appropriate grieving. I can't explain it: that place where you can talk easily about what you have been through without being, I don't know, sorry for yourself? Self pitying?

It's inevitable of course that, when she speaks about her child, at some stage she will cry and I'm prepared for that. But she recovers and soon I find that an hour has passed quickly as we talk about Carl, about politics, about grief, loss, the afterlife.

On my way home, I think about the courage it takes for Kim to get on with her life after the loss of her beloved boy. I cannot even imagine the depth of her aching. What could be harder than dealing with that?

It makes dealing with cancer seem like a breeze. At least I can hope that I will come out of it, that I'll be among the nine. I won't be the one who has to go through this shit again.

For my money, Kim is much, much braver than I am and I salute her, this woman dealing with her loss, carrying on.

When I get home I am in two minds about exercising as there's a conference of dark grey clouds looming in the sky. But stuff it - I have the all clear. As if it's going to rain on me!

So I change into my walking gear and leash up Spunky. I tell Ben to cook dinner and leave out the recipe and ingredients.

I walk 6.3 km at a brisk pace because the light is fading quickly. Along the way, I can feel my prophylactic chafing my skin. I don't care. I can't breathe very well. I don't care.

I'm boob free - as free as the wind blows, as free as the grass grows... you know the song.

It's dark by the time I get home.

And I must say, Ben's fish soup is delicious.