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Friday, January 27, 2012

Chemo 5

This morning I wake after a lousy night. My anticipatory nausea kicks in especially early and I am gagging before I drift off. I'm awoken by gastric reflux. I lose a few hours sleep.

In the morning, Al and I are little disorganised as we are both tired. We have to pick up Nim from Cleveland and then drop Ben at school. I'm concerned about being late but it looks like I needn't have worried.

We are right on time when we arrive at the Hospital, me bearing some love cake to share, Nim with a fruitcake for the nurses, rolls and fruit salad for us. (She is happiest I think when she is sharing food).

Tracey has arrived quite early and is waiting for us. Lindar is running late as she has school drop offs. Janet is a no-show because of work commitments. Linda C is dropping by later.

Before going in I dutifully take the extra anti emetic Dr Choo has prescribed. Here's hoping it kicks in quickly.

So my support group accounted for, I am shown into my cubicle fairly quickly. As we sit down, Tracey gives me another beautifully wrapped gift of a hot pink, hot and cold eye mask. I keep telling them to stop giving me things but it hasn't seemed to work.

This time, I have a young English nurse, Lisa, who seems reasonably efficient but I have to just find out how experienced she is.

She's been practicing for 7 years and says she's put in 100s of cannulas. Still, I notice the absence of that calming banter older nurses are so much better at. To the younger ones, the job is about process, not niceties I think. There's less small talk and no attempt to make a connection.

Lisa seems to take a longer time than usual trying to find a suitable vein and when she does, the cannula after it's inserted malfunctions - and it hurts like buggery. No, it REALLY hurts.

Tracey clutches my hand and I say "I really, really love you Tracey". I feel teary thinking of my friends, not just these two, but everyone who has been cheering from me from the sidelines.

Nim is standing and holding my other hand. She's trying to take my mind off the pain.

"It's because you've helped so many people," Nim consoles.

"I'm not that special," I snivel. "I don't do that much."

Lisa is flustered and realises more veins have popped up. She asks if I want her to get someone else to try. I say no (I don't want to hurt hurt her feelings).

But the sight of a nice plump vein has her hopeful and confident. She says she's very sure she'll get this vein. She says a failure to properly place a single cannula can ruin her whole day.

And so, again I'm pricked. This time it's a success but it still hurts.

I try to make conversation through it, trying to think of what I might actually resent about all of this. Surely there is something.

Lisa is ecstatic, she connects the saline drip and leaves the room.

The next thing I know Nim has burst into solid tears and is weeping into her hands. Tracey leans over to comfort her. I'm feeling sad too.

"I just want my old friend back," Nim sputters.

"It told you not to come. I knew it would upset you, Nim," I say.

I try to keep talking so Nim isn't so upset so I say what I resent is losing my body. I worked so hard all these years and now I see my friends going running and gymming and dragon boat racing and soccer training while I have been transformed overnight into a bald, retching frump.

Another nurse realises it's an emotional scene and asks us if we'd like some privacy. For the first time, we are curtained in so that we can collect ourselves.

I also ask for some tissues for Nim.

By the time Lindar arrives, we are ready to have the Adriomyacin injected and she's missed most of the drama. She gives me a present of a Guatamalan Worrry Doll. It's really cute. Apparently you whisper your worries to the doll and put it under your pillow.

It's really nice to chat away with my friends while all the time I'm just aware of the now familiar cold feeling up my arms.

We talk about how amazing my brain memory has been, nauseating me a good 24 hours out from this session. We talk about how memories are trapped in bodies and how unhealed emotions, grief that has not been addressed and other emotional roadblocks are now being linked to dementia. We agree that seeking therapy or talking openly and honestly about your feelings to someone, anyone, is essential to moving on.

When it's time for the Taxotere, I'm feeling nauseous as predicted and worried that that damn tablet didn't work.

Through this Lindar, Tracey and I reminisce about our Sallyanne days. I tell the story of the Marketing Director who thought I needed help with my English and made me buy a Roget's Thesauraus, English Oxford Dictionary and Fowler's English Modern Usage before writing a speech for the Lord Mayor who wanted to suss out my potential to be speechwriter. I took a whole day to write a 5 minutes speech for The Great Aussie BBQ. When he saw how fabulous it was, he looked sheepish. And it was only then I realised this chap must have thought I was illiterate, just because of my then still thick Sri Lankan accent.

I'll tell you this at least. I've written literally hundreds of speeches over the years and I've never, ever, ever needed to cheat the dialogue from 'Wall Street'. Surely there are some pretty lame speechwriters out there Mr Albanese.

It's only after the Taxotere is finished that Tracey quizzes Lisa as to why she didn't put the fingernail-protecting ice gloves on. Lisa had forgotten and I was in too much of a state to pick it up.

And so, it could be that my nails will be ruined after this treatment. What to do?

Nim notices my dry lips and distributes her delicious freshly prepared fruit salad including cherries and lychees (my favourite).

I start to feel better when I'm finally eating the roll.

Soon after this, Linda C arrives. She looks lovely I think to myself. She brings an upbeat vibe to the room.

We have a cup of coffee courtesy of the hospital and eat it with a piece of my delicious love cake.

I'm feeling okay by the time the Cyclphosphamide is injected, the nurses moving quietly in and out of our cubicle to change the drugs.

And then I'm done. I can't believe I got through it.

In the foyer we are met by one of Nim's Turkish friends. She's absolutely lovely and arrives in a taxi, bearing turkish delights. She's made a special stopover. I can't believe it.

The four of us - Nim, her friend, Linda and I go up to see Dr Choo.

In the waiting room, we are so loud and chatty that the receptionist asks us to keep it down. What a spoilsport. There are only other elderly people there. They're probably half deaf anyway.

Afterwards, my meeting with Dr Choo is brief. I wheedle my way out of the blood test next week by saying that I know my counts will be low.

She checks my last blood test and in fact, it looks like the white cells had rallied strongly and the platelets were sound. That explains why I had the energy to run last week!

As Al is still working in the man pad, Linda drives me and Nim home. I'm feeling drowsy. A little worn out.

When I get home, it's funny because I don't have a key so I have to let myself in through the doggy door.

I'm praying that the extra kilos I've hoiked on won't mean I am irretrievably wedged. But as it is I'm able to drag my bum through there getting only a little mud on my pants.

I am reminded that Dexamathasone, one of my prescribed drugs, is not only used to enhance the effects of anti-emetics in chemotherapy, but is also prescribed by some vets for the treatment of ear infections in dogs.

There's probably a good reason why I chose the doggy door today. Maybe tomorrow I'll feel the need to go and bury some bones, chase my tail or scratch the back of my ears with my feet.

Dexamethazone is also abused by Bangladeshi women who want to get fat. It's 26.6 times more powerful than human cortisol, 2.6 times more powerful than prednisone. It can lead to irrational feelings of feeling good, and dependence. It's also uses to enhance athletic performance and improve weight gain. How that works I don't know. Stuff your face then go for a 10KM run? Seems counterproductive.

Anyway, I am now packed up to the gills with a load of drugs fit for any fading AFL star.

Al and Harry get home and not long after that Vlad and Evelyn drop by with a book called "Superfoods". It's sweet, really, the way people want to reach out to me. They have a quick glass of wine and leave as I'm clearly a little dopey.

It's grey and drizzing outside. I don't feel like going for a walk but content myself with finalising a painting I'm working on.

Today has been a stressful day I think. It wasn't a particularly good one. I think it was quite awful for my friends and, even though we had our usual conversation, I felt bad because I am not really handling things any better.

The place where the cannula went in is still hurting a bit. I'm retching miserably as I write this.

I apologise for the poor calibre of this post but my hurling innards have made this one particularly hard.

Oh well, things can only get better after this. After all, there is this to shout from the rooftops today: HOORAAAAYYYY! ONLY ONE MORE CHEMO SESSION TO GO.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Radiation Oncologist

Exactly four months since my initial diagnosis, with my rescued and nicely manicured wig in place (thanks to Maria and her sleight of hand), Al and I drive through a rainy Brisbane afternoon to meet my 'radiation oncologist' for the first time.

I've rescheduled this appointment no less than three times so I'm glad to finally be meeting her.

The Radiation Oncology Mater Center (ROMC) is directly opposite the Mater Mothers, and I can't help observing the juxtaposition of birth against a process generally associated with dying.

Located in a fairly old red-brick building, I present myself at the front counter and afterwards, go to sit in a virtually empty waiting room. I don't know how long this is going to take so look around for some reading material.

I am quietly amused to note the stack of novels on offer. Just how long do people have to wait here? A cursory inspection reveals that, thankfully, it's more a 'Mills and Boon' rather than a 'War and Peace' kind of waiting period. The tea urn, microwave and television also do not augur well, suggesting one should get comfortable.

It isn't too long though before I'm called in by Dr Judith Cox. She's older than I had imagined, a lady with a trendy short cut who immediately strikes me as being open, kind and friendly.

In what passes for her office, there's a little bit of a kerfuffle as we realise that several pieces of information are missing from my file and she's not 100% on the details of my case.

She doesn't know I've had a mastectomy, and then, I can't remember if I had one or two lumpectomies.

As we wait for the missing paperwork to be recovered, I launch directly into my pressing concern: whether I can wheedle my way out of radiation.

I talk about all my other friends with radiation, Kim who hasn't had chemo and I don't think she's had radiation either, Chrissy who didn't have radiation, Cathy who didn't have chemo, Mary who didn't have a mastectomy. Why do I have to have all four, including the hormone treatment? I'm going to have the other breast off. I'm pitching as hard as I can with Al also offering up any arguments he can.

You see, if I'm to have radiation, that will add weeks to my treatment.

But most vexingly, it will mean that I will have to wait six months until I can have a reconstruction and then, my options will be severely limited because of the extent of damage radiotherapy can do to your breast tissue.

The business of getting on with my life will be severely retarded.

As it is, initially, Dr Cox thinks I've only had one lumpectomy and she leads me to believe that perhaps radiation is unnecessary.

I can't believe my luck!

But when Dr Cox says she needs to see the results of all my procedures before she can provide a definitive answer, my hopes are quickly dashed.

I am interested in what the pathologist had to say about the results of my mastectomy: "The sections show residual classical lobular carcinoma in situ... There are three foci of residual invasive lobular carcinoma in this area measuring up to 2mm. There is extensive lobular carcinoma in situ throughout all quadrants of the breast. Further 2mm focus of invasive ovular carcinoma is present in the lower inner quadrant. The invasive and in situ carcinoma appear well clear of margins of excision. There is no lymphovascular invasion. There is no invasive ductal carcinoma identified. No lymph nodes are identified..."

To a layman, it would appear that surely, all is good? The margins are clear. The lymph nodes are not involved.

But Dr Cox is concerned about the occurrence of carcinoma in the inner quadrant which is the area closest to the sternum.

She produces a pen and starts writing in my file. She adds up the findings in the pathology report for each procedure I've had so far and it's close to five centimetres when she's finished.

I've already been through this with Dr Lambley so I'm not surprised.

Dr Cox says that my breasts are not particularly big (really!) which means the occurrence of carcinoma closer to the chest wall is a concern.

The verdict, alas, is that she strongly recommends radiotherapy. In fact, the look in her eye suggests I'd be a fool not to go through with it.

At this stage, it looks like five weeks with around 25 shots to be given in that period although this is still to be confirmed.

I ask her about side effects and she mentions skin changes in the treated area.

I ask her about fatigue and, apparently, if you've had chemotherapy, you won't notice any difference. (The fatigue can be chronic if you only have the radiation).

Dr Cox says I'll need to present next month for a 'planning meeting' and then, I'll commence radiation three weeks after my last chemo.

Apparently there is presently a 6-week wait for access to this service but I'll be sweet as I've come in to see her early enough so I'll be in the queue.

I can't say I'm excited. In fact, I feel as flat as, well, half my chest. It sucks.

That's five more weeks of being treated like a 'patient'. Five more weeks of hospitals. Twenty five more days of sitting in waiting rooms. An extra 50 hours minimum of travelling.

I know I should be grateful. Yesterday I spoke to Eddie who is doing some landscaping for us. He wanted to know about my bald head so I explained my situation.

Eddie used to be a bodybuilder. But he was also a smoker and you can tell from the raspy voice and the cough. (It's funny imagining him pushing weights and stopping in between sets for a drag on a Winfield Blue). Eddie had radiation and chemotherapy for both thyroid and pancreatic cancer he tells me. He received his treatment at the Atomic Research Centre in London. As a result of his chemo for thyroid cancer, the poor bugger lost all of his teeth. They fell out one by one. He was in his early 50s at the time.

He showed me his teeth and tapped them with a finger. "All false," he announced.

"Well, here you are live and kicking so I guess it's all worth it," I said.

"Yup," said Eddie. "I've got nothing to complain about."

"Yeah, we're really lucky, Eddie," I replied.

I'm lucky I have such great support - from medical staff, from family, from friends.

I'm lucky in so many ways.

Today my race simply got a little longer.

I'm just going to have to dig deeper for that second wind and hope like hell that when I cross the finishing line I won't be completely cactus.

What is there to do but buckle down.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Chemo Fog

It's a wet and dreary day today and I wake to an early nosebleed.

This is probably only the second or third nosebleed I've ever had in my life but it interests me, the things that are going on in my body.

It's just one of the many inconvenient side effects of chemotherapy.

Apart from the nausea, fatigue, hairloss, onset of menopause and discolouring of nails that I've already described, there have been other symptoms.

The most disturbing is an effect that was once ignored but is now widely recognised. It's called 'chemo fog' or more technically Post-Chemoetherapy Cognitive Impairment (PCCI) the long-term symptoms of which, apparently, are almost exclusively seen in patients treated for breast, ovarian, prostate and other cancers of the reproductive system.

Doctors and researchers call chemo brain “mild cognitive impairment.” Most define it as being unable to remember certain things and having trouble finishing tasks or learning new skills.

In other words, my memory is cooked!

Now those who know me well will know that my powers of recollection are unreliable to say the least.

Sure, I can learn off reams of information by rote if pushed but if you ask me what I did with my keys, it's likely you'll find me going round in circles (especially now that I have one breast and am favouring one side).

In fact, my penchant for leaving a trail of forgotten things behind me is legendary, and, sadly, I have passed this unfortunate gene onto my children.

Sunglasses, reading glasses, car keys a nd important documents I touch seem to disappear into the ether and this phenomenon was so endemic once, I convinced myself I was being dogged by a poltergeist.

What else do you do but blame a mischievous sprite when from car to front door, your car keys vanish?

I also keep a small statue to Saint Anthony, the Patron Saint of Lost Things on my desk as divine intervention is often all that is left as yet another valued item mysteriously disappears.

Indeed, my penchant for forgetfulness has often had my husband Al, growling into his morning bowl of muesli and he can barely contain his disdain these days when I claim: "It must have been stolen."

Because, clearly, the many objects I've lost over the years would indicate that I am being stalked by an entire generation of nimble-fingered gypsies (if not Winona Ryder), probably hiding at the bottom of my garden as I speak!

As I've alluded to, I believe this terrible illness that is forgetfulness and constantly losing things is a genetic curse as it seems to run in my family.

In fact, growing up, I have very clear recollections of my mum and dad's regular morning routine: running through the house shouting "Has anyone seen my keys!"

Once my sisters and I were all driving too, it was a little like a nuthouse at home. Five Sri Lankans going apeshit together in search of the elusive, disappearing keys. Very funny.

If breast cancer is caused by the stress of genetic forgetfulness, then I've always been a sitting duck.

But chemotherapy has taken this particular foible of mine to an entirely new dimension.

The quantum of stuff I'm forgetting seems to have exploded. I can't find words. I can't remember appointments.

In the middle of conversations I find my mind drifting off to Planet La-La.

I will start to tell you something and then completely forget what the hell I was going to say.

I have to ask Al to remind me of basic things.

My friends, bless them, have of course, tried to console me with claims that they suffer this too. It's old age! It's been happening for years!

But I don't buy it.

I used to be the one who did not need a diary to remember an engagement.

Today I went to a function at my mum's house to celebrate my Aunty's 76th birthday. I've had to ring three times to confirm I had the date right.

The ironic thing is that of anyone I know, I've taken my brain the least for granted. With a background in aged care, for years I've been saying how one of my deepest fears is that I'll end up with dementia.

I've always valued my mind. Short changed in the looks department, what else is there to feel good about other than maybe knowing the capital of Upper Volta and being able to crack a decent cryptic clue?

Still, knowing about 'chemo fog' is a good thing. Now, when I find I've stuffed up - forgotten something, lost the plot - I have something to blame.

And I guess one good thing is that, with this fog, I can forget some of those things worth forgetting - like blood tests gone bad!

In the meantime, I am grateful to have this blog, and you my readers inspiring me to keep recording this journey because, damn it, by tomorrow it's likely today will be a complete blur.

And next time you find me stumbling over a word or an idea, be a pal will ya, and remind me?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Oncologist 3

Eight days after Chemo, I think I should be feeling better but it's not to be. I want to chronicle this because it seems that it's taking that little bit longer to feel tickety-boo after each intoxination (is there such a word?)

I wake with pain through my legs and make the mistake of taking two Nurofen. Immediately I get heartburn and lie in bed feeling generally lousy.

In the morning I do some housework. Then I go to the doctor as I'm told I need a referral from a GP to Dr Choo in order to continue to receive my medical benefits. It's such a system, really. With comprehensive medical insurance that I've had for at least 25 years, you'd think these things would be easy!

Al has had to go up to Mooloolaba and, because Harry needs my car, I ring my sister Nicky and ask her to drive me to the Hospital. Bless her, she makes herself available without any fuss and soon, we are driving in.

If nothing else, it's a good chance to catch up with her as we haven't spoken since Christmas Day.

When we arrive, 10 minutes early, the waiting room is packed. It's a good thing we are both keen conversationalists as we are able to flit from one subject to another as we wait... and wait.

My appointment is for 2.30 pm but I don't get into see Poh See until 4.10 pm.

What I like about my oncologist is that she never rushes but will patiently and thoroughly answer any question I have. She answers every call on her mobile phone and will never say "I'm with some one, I'll ring you back." She addresses her patients as if they are intelligent and worth her time.

It's Nicky who later observes afterwards that my oncologist must lead a life of barely holding it together. Her shirt is creased, her hair barely tended, her face free of make up. These frivolous concerns must be unimportant in a world where your job is to keep people alive but, we bet. she also has to do the cooking, cleaning and laundry at home.

As it is, I have a very informative conversation with Dr Choo, and it's helpful that Nicky is there as my sister has an avid mind and a great curiosity for everything.

Firstly, I want to know about my menopause symptoms, what else to expect. Here is what I'm told.

Menopause mainly comprises the symptoms of hot flushes, mood swings, the loss of bone density (over time), increasing issues with vascular health (i.e. cholesterol) and vaginal dryness.

Obviously, each of these symptoms has ramifications of its own so I'm concerned about how long they last.

Dr Choo explains the persistency of symptoms varies from woman to woman and is dependent on the amount of oestrogen that remains in the system after treatment is over. In other words, it's the luck of the draw.

My mother sailed through menopause so I'm hoping it'll be the same for me.

The great news I take out from this is that, while menopause symptoms are intensified in women undergoing chemo, the whole process will be substantially shortened compared to 'normal' based on my age.

One other good effect of this is that I learn that my platelets are actually up! Yeah! As a chronic anaemic, it is good to know that my poor red blood cells finally have a chance to regroup and make friends with each other.

Antarctica is now officially barren (fingers crossed!) and the overall effect on my eco system may result in more energy in the future.

I ask Dr Choo how long drugs stay in my system, when I can expect other side effects to ease. She tells me that the drugs are expunged from the system fairly soon after treatment but the effects will hang around 2-3 weeks after my final chemo.

Other side effects, such as fatigue may take up to four months to abate.

We move on to the vexing issue of my continued and chronic nausea. Dr Choo says I have an 'anticipatory response'. We discuss possible other interventions, such as psychology. I ask her for a drug I was told about that you can take before you actually arrive at the chemo centre to pre empt the nausea and she writes me a prescription.

I should be done now, but I want to talk about my breast reconstruction and my options. I am thinking of having the other breast removed completely and then waiting a while to heal completely before worrying about perfecting my boobs.

Who needs boobs when you're dealing with vaginal dryness for god's sake!

Nicky is keen to know whether having both breasts off reduces the chance of recurrence, why, after chemotherapy and radiation it is necessary and so on.

What I surmise is that oncologists see every combination and permutation of cases, and of course, in some, recurrence does occur in the other breast.

In my case, I'm not so much concerned about recurrence, but I hate being unysmmetrical.

You have no idea how hideous a single, low hanging Double-D breast looks on its own. It's like that last withering mango that not even the bats are interested in. It's like that lone sock, left on the washing line. You know the one? It's usually discoloured and has a hole in the toe. It's the where you know the matching pair is missing and you wonder how long you will leave it there before you can make the effort of reaching up and unclipping the clothes peg?

Dr Choo tells me something I didn't know before: chemotherapy is only effective in the event that there are malignant cells present. So yes folks, all of the shit in my body could be a complete waste of time. A bit like shooting fish don't you think?

Anyway, that's basically why the norm is to attack cancer on several levels. You can never be too careful.

We should be done but after years of interviewing people, I can't help myself. I ask Dr Choo if her job ever depresses her.

I'm surprised at the depth of her answer as she goes to great lengths to explain the motivations of an oncologist. She talks about the importance of leaving her emotions at the office, respecting people's wishes and the fact that ultimately her job comes down to the "privilege" of helping people cope with the ramifications of their disease - i.e. carking it.

I expect it's a well practised spiel and I'd love to ask her more questions but people are waiting. Between Nicky and I, the poor woman could be stuck in her office answering questions until next Christmas (although, come to think of it, according to the Mayans, there ain't gonna be a Christmas this year).

When we leave, I am still feeling squeamish. I realise that even going within a mile of Greenslopes Hospital makes me feel like chucking. My stomach is churning and I feel truly vile. Almost as vile as when I listen to any version of the "Hokey Pokey"... that's what it's all about!

Nicky drops me at home and as I go through my front gate, I check the mailbox.

Inside is a small, book-sized parcel addressed to me. It's wrapped in waxy paper and has a white string tied around it and is covered in stamps.

Inside I find a special Sri Lankan cake (very time consuming to make) called a Love Cake. It's from old family friends, Moira and Tanya. There are a few ants clinging to the side like Indians on a rail siding, but I am really chuffed. I love love cake. In fact, I love, love, love love cake (in which cashew nuts and semolina form main ingredients).

Within minutes of arriving through my front door, Al has dinner on the table. God Bless my man!

An hour later, Craig picks me up and I go to a meeting. (I'm working on a political campaign for my friend, Karen William, who is running for Mayor, and things have started to become nasty).

It's actually a funny night because, at the end, we have to record a jingle.

I get home late, I have to say still feeling bloody awful. By 12.30 pm I still can't sleep so I take a sleeping pill.

After just five hours sleep, I'm now awake.

This morning I'll be baking some cupcakes for a funeral tomorrow. A 10-year-old girl, Chloe, in my nieces' class at Sheldon College, died on Christmas Eve, after a short battle with a brain tumour.

I think about her grieving family.

I think how little time some of us are given.

I think: I have nothing to complain about.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Demon Days 4

Day 2: A beautiful, fine sunny day segues into an overcast one and I spend most of the time in bed, reading. I'm chuffed that, with some determination, I'm able to concentrate long enough to power through several chapters of the book I'm reading. It's one I've set for a book club I've organised for next month so it's given me some motivation.

I feel a little more tired than I did last time. I also noticed the yukky feeling in my mouth has settled in a bit sooner than usual.

Louisa rings in the morning suggesting a walk, but I know I am tired and demur.

Anne rings soon afterwards, offering to cook me a meal and I'm thinking maybe next Friday would be good. She says she is always there if I need anything.

Janet rings around lunch time and we have one of our longest conversations yet, covering a host of topics including World War 1 and the pitfalls of rigorous exercise.

I hear Lee arriving at the door to give me my injection and finish my conversation. These seem to be hurting less as I guess I'm getting used to them. There is also Lee's immaculate technique as she is really a highly experienced nurse.

We chat for an hour or so and in-between, I field a call from someone wanting me to write a grant application. Work is the last thing from my mind right now.

In the afternoon I go to the shop briefly to pick up some art materials. In the car, I realise it's a bad move as I feel exhausted.

When I get home, I think about hopping back into bed but decide to attempt a walk. It's a breezy afternoon. It feels good. I manage 3.5 km.

Day 3: I wake after a bad night of alternating hot sweats and feeling cold. I know menopause is setting in and it doesn't feel good.

I have a stomach ache and I feel queasy.

I spend nearly the whole day in bed, making further progress through my book, dabbling on Ebay, fiddling on Facebook, completing a cryptic crossword.

It's not a good sign when the ceiling fan malfunctions. I send Harry to the garage to fetch the back up air cooler. Hot flushes are no good when it's steaming outside.

Ethel is pottering around. She is such a gem. If she weren't keeping up with the household laundry for me, it would all be putrid by now.

Fiona rings and we have a nice long chat. My sister is starting her PhD this year. It's difficult to keep up with her as I swear, she can do 10,000 things at once. She's got a brain that never sleeps!

Later Al tries to fix the ceiling fan in fading light but tonight we have been invited to two 50th birthday parties - for Wasiela and Spitzie.

Even though I have said I will go to both, I think I can only manage the one closer to home. I feel a bit bad about continuing to miss out on fun and outings but what to do? As the summer holidays disappear before my eyes and Ben is only weeks away from returning to school, again I am aware of being the one outside the lolly shop with my nose pressed up against the glass.

I last 3 hours at Spitzie's party which is held just down the road. A few people comment on how good I look and I observe that makeup and dim lighting helps!

Day 4: I wake feeling quite nauseous to mild sunshine and a still morning. I notice that my fingernails are quite discoloured. Apparently, I'm to expect them to fall off eventually but I'm hoping I'll be lucky.

The day pans out unexpectedly. The sky clears and it's a pristine day, Al completes the installation of the fan in our bedroom. I swear, this man can fix anything.

It's a stinking hot morning and it's stifling inside though there's a breeze outside. Waiting for Al, I fiddle on my guitar on the back deck - I'd love to get back into the classical guitar I learned briefly a few years ago. I reckon I'm about Grade 4 but I'm really really rusty.

Fan fixed, we decide to mooch down to the Redland Bay markets with Harry and Ben but it's already 10.30 am and half the stalls have packed up - it's so damn hot. I buy two mingy handbags from a woman because I feel sorry for her - and regret my purchase, as you do.

Harry drops us down at Pelican's Nest, a lovely little restaurant overlooking the water. The breeze is brisk here and thankfully cool. Al and I have a light breakfast and walk home.

On the spur of the moment we invite the Neils over for an early dinner and cook a chicken, spinach and mango salad together in the kitchen.

Al remarks upon how well I'm holding up and I have to say, I am!

By the time we are sitting on the deck, eating and chatting with our guests and watching the full moon rise in a pink sky above an incoming tide, the only clue that I am unwell is the fact that everything tastes terrible. Mind you, the anti nauseas are helping.

It's a great day - everything considered.

Day 5: Unfortunately, I have a terrible night. The hot sweats are terrible and the nausea is chronic. I am dry retching over the toilet bowl at midnight. (Choice, broo).

Eventually, I cede to a sleeping pill.

I am woken by Al with a recording of a recent development: my chronic snoring. Actually, it's quite funny.

It's a putridly hot day and I'm tired and still squeamish so I lie like a half-dead squid on my bed nearly all day. I do a tiny bit of work on the painting I'm doing, I finish my book, I watch 'Jane Eyre' on Foxel. It's about as constructive as I can be the way I'm feeling.

The thing I'm noticing again is the disgusting smell of this process. I hate to tell you this but seriously, the extrusions from my good self are indescribably putrid. I can't stand the sight or smell of me right now. It's utterly gag-worthy. I feel like Chernobyl on legs.

At mid morning, the lady from 'Damp Doggy' comes to shave my dog, Spunky. Now the whole Hope Family has joined the 'Shave for Solidarity', as Al calls it.

Speaking of which, there is something else that is funny today. I had thought I'd lost my wig but it's turned up: accidentally washed with a pile of towels in the washing machine. Ethel says it's acrylic and should be fine but it looks like a sad rug. I spray some wig sheen stuff on it to see if it will bounce back.

In the late afternoon, I coerce myself out of bed for a 4 km stroll. I go bald headed wearing a pale tee shirt my sister gave me for Christmas. It says: "Cute Bald Chick Kicking Breast Cancer's Butt." I don't know about the 'cute' part. On the way, I pass a couple of tall, teenage boys, carting their crab pots home. I don't know if I feel self-conscious but I try to hold my head high.

Two younger girls pass on bicycles and smile, in sympathy I'm guessing.

By the time I return home, I know my body is sore to the touch, like it was last time.

I pray tomorrow there'll be a storm and this revolting heat will break.


Day 6:
I have difficulty sleeping yet again and, perhaps ill advisedly, take another sleeping pill around midnight I'm guessing.

When I wake, it's hot outside but not so stifling indoors. I feel okay today but there's still a disgusting taste in my mouth. I spend the morning reading until on the spur of the moment, I suggest a movie.

My wig looks dank and pathetic on its wig stand. It would give Donald Trump's rug a run for it's money I reckon. It looks like I should spray Baygon on it. It looks like something pulled from a drain even though I've combed it several times, trying to tame the bits that don't quite seem to sit so well anymore. I'm hoping Maria will be able to rescue it.

Al has to drop off a car we're trying to sell in town, so I agree to drive in with Ben.

On the way, I am acutely aware of how exhausted I feel.

We have a very quick meal in South Bank and I rue the fact that I cannot taste my apparently delicious red beef curry.

We go to Southbank Cineplex and watch 'Sherlock Holmes' with a full theatre of 500 people. It's only afterwards that I think maybe it was not such a good move.

On the way home, I'm aware of feeling surly and removed. Later I worry that my sense of humour may be evaporating.

Increasingly these days I am aware of a lack of expression on my face. It is I guess what I would call resignation.

As a regular Facebook User (hey, at least it's not heroin!) I am aware of how many of my active, joyful friends are out exercising, experiencing life.

People are moving onwards and upwards while I seem to be wallowing.

We get home close to 6 pm. Al cooks me dinner and goes off to play tennis. I read a little more of a new book and when I've reached 60% (thank you Kindle), I turn the light off.

By this time Al is snoring.

Day 7: It's a humid morning and I can sense a scorcher coming on. I have a blood test today and must try to drink at least 2 litres of water before hand so that I am spared the ordeal of being pierced once too many times.

Tomorrow, I have another appointment with Dr Choo. She wants to check my white blood cell count. If it's too low, my next chemo may be delayed.

My taste buds are still a little way from normal but I'm grateful that at least, last night, I managed to drift off to sleep without the use of pharmaceuticals.

There are other things I'm grateful for, of course. I still have a smattering of eyelashes and eyebrows; I may be as big as a cow, but at least I'm not an elephant - yet; some people do still care enough about my welfare to continue to check on me.

This afternoon, I'll hopefully go for a walk with Linda.

There's a cool change anticipated later in the week and I remind myself, everything passes.

Nothing is forever.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Chemo 4

It's an overcast day and slightly drizzly when I leave for my fourth chemo session this morning.

I need to pick up Nim from Cleveland and get there in good time to reach the hospital for T-Time (Toxin Time).

I'm 66% of the way through this series of frankly unpleasant experiences, and I've been channelling the spirits of the Anzacs. Each new phase is a new attack on that dark Gallipoli beach, out of one trench, across the bullet drenched landscape, ducking and weaving the potential shells, the barbed wire lines, bayonets fixed at the ready until the safety of the next trench.

I'm now just two trenches away from safety, having so far withstood the enemy fire by Adriomyacin, Taxotere and Cyclophosphomide (the Axis of Evil).

Just think what the Anzacs did for Australia? That is what true courage is. This business of beating cancer is nothing in the scheme of things.

Today, only Harry is able to accompany me in with Nim, where we meet Lindar and Tracey and once again, I am embarrassed by the orgy of gift giving. Do my friends ever stop?

Nim has also brought food including a Belgian Chocolate Cake especially for the nurses. This woman knows how to win friends because later, we will discover the cake has gone down a treat :)

As I am called into my suite, I feel nauseous already and before I sit down, I can feel the burn of reflux in my gullet.

What's going on? You see, I'm told the brain when routinely exposed to experiences - good or bad - begins to engineer itself to predict your responses. It's really amazing. If only we could channel this capacity to other parts of our lives. Lacking motivation? Feeling anxious? Then retrain your brain!

Today my toxicologist is a pretty Korean nurse called Sun Yee. She is young and sweet. I learn that her mother and brother still live in Seoul. She has been here four years. Her father died at 61 of a heart attack. Kim Jong's Death has unsettled the people of Seoul. Any day now they could go from Shreddies for breakfast to Shrapnel.

I told you already: different shit, different mountain. We all have a hill to climb sooner or later.

Nim has made chicken rolls and delicious fruit salads in enormous proportions. There are also ginger bread cookies.

Later Janet arrives bearing coffees and with her, some memorabilia to help take my mind off things.

I decide to give out the belated Chrismas presents that I have bought. I give Lindar a bracelet and scarf, Tracey a recipe book, and for Janet, some earrings plus a book called "Naughty Origami". (There's a story there but basically, now Janet and her husband Bob can enjoy hours of fun making origami boobs, vaginas, 'French Ticklers' (illustrated with the use of a banana) and I believe, even what looks like a threesome. It's appropriate. Trust me.

To oversee my cannula insertion, I have a nurse I've had before, Mel, and I have to say it hurts rather badly when it is inserted.

At one point she observes my tiny veins and says: "It's not size that matters."

"I tell my husband that all the time," I say.

"Well we won't tell him and embarrass him," Mel laughs, getting my lame attempt at innuendo.

"Aah no, it's the other way round for me, Mel," I say, "You know he eats a lot of hay."

With such banter, some anxiety lifts. The good thing is that it takes just one go with the cannula and eventually the pain subsides as I practice some brain reengineering muttering "It doesn't hurt, It doesn't hurt." It seems to work.

The girls chat sweetly around me. Janet has brought some photos to show us of the many, many good times we've shared over the years.

One is a photo taken on my 41st birthday. There is Lindar, Tracey, me and Janet and dammit, we all looked so hot! Time, that incompetent fool has left us with someone else's saggy jowls.

Janet has also brought some unusual memorabilia to share. Some ancient artefacts, 2000 years old, gouged from an archaeological site in Rhodes, and courtesy of some drunken archeologists she and her husband Bob befriended by bibulous banter behind a bar. What an unusual experience, one I could really dig! (boom tish).

As it happens today's conversation does graze over a wide array of topics: beginning as you do in ladies' circles with the vexing issue of vaginal dryness - at some stage ladies, I will have to discuss this subject with you - one of the several and somewhat disconcerting effects of menopause, one of the side effects of my treatment which will be discussed in depth in a later blog.

The conversation is candid as we move onto discussing the sex education of our kids, comparing notes of our 'bad mother' moments (the ones you usually have when hidden under that handy cone of silence: the family car - when you can blithely threaten murder and bombard your children with crushing vitriol and sarcasm, possibly scarring them for life, just because you are ready to explode with frustration). We all feel a lot better sharing these stories: just knowing you are not alone in allowing "Psycho Mum" to show her ugly head.

But for all the joviality, when the Adromyacin is being inserted I feel a bit anxious and my friends work really hard on keeping my eyes away from the syringe full of red fluid. If only it weren't coloured red, I'm sure I'd cope a lot better.

However, by the Taxotere I am really felling quite unwell. Nim and Janet stroke my hands. Soo Yin offers me the anti nausea tablet that has a sedative effect and I decide to accept it. I feel hot and vile.

In an effort to perk me up, Nim hand feeds me some home made fruit salad because my hands are in the oven mitts.

"I would hate to be a seal," I observe as the lack of fingers is really quite a handicap.

Then she feeds me a chicken roll she has brought for each of us, with a bit of the chilli both she and I love. What can I say. This friend is just a gem. She was probably Florence Nightingale in a previous life. Of Nim I have discovered she is the Yin to my Yang, a woman who continues to teach me about opening up other parts to the person I am, and vice versa. Nim is open, passionate, competitive, driven, emotional, giving, generous, and operates on about 400,000 KW of energy. She assesses most people from the heart and will lavish love and affection on people without a second thought.

I on the other hand have a Virgoan's natural caution with people. I am an observer and in many cases,gravitate toward those I wish to be friends with based on a fairly cerebral assessment of their personal qualities and how they mesh with mine. As I found myself saying just yesterday: Life is to short for cheap wine, bad coffee and boring conversation. May I emphasise Good Conversation. It really seems to be a dying art and when you find it with someone you meet she or he is a keeper. Good conversationalists are rich in life experiences, many are highly educated and/or well read, they have an ear for listening, they usually have lots of interests, and they show an interest in others. In short, like cancer-free left breasts, they don't grow on trees so if you find them, hang onto them.

I imagine that, as time goes on, Nim and I will adopt the best of each of us in our efforts to some balance in our interactions with the world. From this, who knows what could grow in the future?

The point is, I choose my friends wisely, and I hope that this is one reason I have four such wonderful women by my chair-side today.

So, after being spoon fed, I don't feel as ill and, once the cyclophosphamide is doing its work, I feel kind of okay but a little woozy still.

Janet, Lindar and Tracey finish off Nim's fruit salads and are very thankful.

After we leave, Lindar drives Nim and me to the Manpad under construction in Merivale Street. I manage to get home without falling asleep, dropping Nim home safely.

Today I have managed a few laughs although I can tell that the intensity of my bon homie
is plateauing.

I anticipate that over the remaining two sessions, I will find it quite a struggle and I'm hoping my friends will have the energy to see this through with me to the end.

I did not see Dr Choo today as she is on holidays. I will see her later next week.

Dr Choo has said that after Dose 4 is when the true menopause symptoms should start to raise their cheeky little heads from the tundra of my own Antarctica. Global warming it seems has already commenced and I have started to spend most nights lathered in a veil of sweat.

I have also started to notice that I am as sensitive as a hand grenade when dealing with vexatious situations - like not being able to find something unimportant - and the poorly educated halfwits who want to argue politics.

What other unpleasant experiences lie ahead this week time will tell.

All I know is that I'll be ducking and running as fast as possible through the explosions across that battle field until another 3 weeks when my next trench is claimed.

In the meantime, Al is battening down the hatches. And my Mum is making me my favourite spicy fish balls as I speak.

Harry is working on a DJ mix as he's been secured for the launch of a new 'Scooter Magazine' down the Gold Coast next week. (He's quite chuffed about it, actually).

Tonight we are going to Ethel and George's House for dinner.

Everything seems pretty normal.

And I will continue to work as hard as I can to keep things that way.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A New Year's Resolve

It is January 1, 2012 and I wake to a slightly sullen morning although the cool breeze is welcome.

Yesterday, I spent the last day of 2011 pleasantly enough. I had coffee with Louisa, I worked on a painting nearly all day, I walked 5 km.

Then last night Al and I gave 2011 the Finger at a lovely dinner at Craig and Desiree's place. Karen and Peter were also there and the six of us toasted the year we've had while downstairs, Craig's dog Elton, tried unsuccessfully to shag my dog, Spunky.

We left at 10.30 and I was glad that I was able to stay up until midnight for what was, I suppose, my own Bald Lang Syne.

Al fell straight to sleep but Ben and I dozed lightly waiting for the fireworks on Channel 9. As Richard Wilkins announced the New Year, my mobile rang with Harry and his girlfriend Robin, ringing to wish us Happy New Year.

Harry's jolly "I love you mum," brought in 2012 for me and I guess will set the theme for my year ahead. I will rely on love, more than anything, to get me through what I know still lies ahead.

You'll understand why I'm anticipating 2012 with a little trepidation as I stand in front of the mirror and take stock of my shiny pate (with a few stray hairs popping through), my missing breast and the two kilos I've added in the last three months.

It's a different version of me that is greeting this particular New Year.

2011 was obviously a doozie but frankly, I'm not holding out too much hope for 2012 either as I ponder something else about illness - how it influences the kinds of goals, plans and aspirations you set yourself.

If a New Year is about resolutions and a fresh start, illness certainly puts a new spin on things.

A case in point. Even as little as four months ago, I was a person who, on January 1, would not so much resolve to change, but rather plan activities that would affirm my self esteem. By nature goal driven, I would mentally set myself what I thought were challenges.

Every year, for example, I'd affirm to: "Learn or Do Something New". This year it was refereeing. In other years I've given classical guitar, Russian, salsa dancing, tap dancing and even badminton a go.

I'm a glutton for new experiences and will try absolutely anything at least once. Because that's what "living life to the fullest" is to me... having a go. At everything!

But illness has thrown a spanner in the works. I am mentally and physically fatigued and feel a little sad that maybe this year, the 'new things' I'll be experiencing will be pretty bloody crap.

Plans and aspirations, both humble and grandiose, will have to be drawn up with the codicil: "If health allows."

Some small goals are surely achievable. Meditate; play golf weekly if possible; read a book a month; get back to refereeing.

Other resolutions it seems, are pointless

Finish my novel? Unlikely. It's a comedy and half the time these days I'm as funny as a bunion ...You know bunion's jokes are really corny :)

Lose weight? Hmm. When that other breast comes off I'll be 1.5kg lighter than this time last year. Do I really care about spare kilos anyway?

Get fitter? Does beating breast cancer count?

Instead, in 2012, I shall have to satisfy my self with just one resolution: To weather the inevitable storms ahead, and simply get through it.

I must resign myself to the fact that this year will not be about "living life to the fullest".

This year it will be about living life as best I can.

And given the challenges ahead, you know what?

I think I'm happy with that.