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Monday, July 23, 2012

Milestones

Monday afternoon and it's the start of 'Think Pink' week. It's the week when we'll hear lots of news about breast cancer research. I heard all about it on the radio, as I drove home from the Wesley.

Briefly I wondered why and how pink came to be the colour associated with girls. Why not purple, or puce? Or aren't baby boys 'pink' when they are born? Mine were.

Today I was reminded that every day, 38 Australian women receive a diagnosis of breast cancer. Currently there are 70,000 women battling the condition.

Appropriately perhaps, today I mark seven months since diagnosis. It's a milestone as I rattle into the second half of my 'annus horriblis'.

It has also been a weekend of milestones of a different kind.

My sister Nicky, and good friend, Cathy who is also battling breast cancer, marked their fiftieth birthdays yesterday.

Two separate celebrations of very different personalities were attended on the weekend, both very pleasant and providing an opportunity for me to cavort and catch up with old friends.

Nicky's party was a real family affair. My eldest boy, Harry deejayed the night, Fiona made a speech, I put together the visuals. My mum and dad, and even Ethel got up and danced. Nicky's terrible twins ran amok. Her eldest Lily led the Macarena. Even Harry' gorgeous girl, Robin came along. My sister's favourite, Engelbert Humperdink, was played. It was a hoot.

But it was as I was watching my mum dancing in her lovely silver grey outfit that something awful happened. I looked at her feet and realised she was wearing sensible black pumps. My mum was wearing old lady's shoes.

A wave of sadness swept over me - a sense of loss.

I realised that the Mum I knew who once got around in her insensible and colourful sandals was now at an age where she would be described as 'elderly'.

For a moment I pondered the whole horrible reality of it, the way time overwrites us, and inexorably transforms us into a memory recalled in the past tense: "The Way We Were".

But today, in the cold hard light of day, I realise that my maudlin moment was ill-deserved.

That my mother now gets around in sensible shoes is not to be regretted but celebrated. Even boasted about (she's really rather spry).

Nowadays I realise, more than ever, how getting old is a privilege. And getting old with all your faculties in tact (if not your teeth) a true blessing.

Yet for too many of us, the idea of getting older can be petrifying - the thought of failing bodies, sagging boob(s) and faces caving into the ravages of too much vodka and sunbaking, perhaps waking up one day and seeing Joan Rivers or Bert Newton in the mirror.

No wonder so many of us are tempted to lunge for the vats of botox.

No wonder some of us dress like lamb, hoping to camouflage the mutton we have become.

But age is a privilege, from my perspective and should be a cause for 'Yahooooo' not 'Boo Hoo'.

The opportunity to wake up to embrace another morning, living and breathing, is not to be taken lightly.

The trip so far has, if nothing else, heightened my appreciation of what I now realise are scant moments spent on this earth.

I have always been a 'carpe deum' kind of girl, but, as I observed to Al just this week, the way my 'deums' are being 'carpe-d' involve an added level of mindfulness these days.

Yes, yes, as long as I can remember I've been cautious about planning too far ahead, always looking over my shoulder for that truck that could run me over.

I've never taken much of this thing called living for granted and I don't know why that is.

I have for years had a very intense awareness of my mortality.

If you were to believe in reincarnation as I do, you may explain it away by reference to a past life where, perhaps, my life was ended all too soon (most likely strangled by a husband who could no longer tolerate an impatient wife).

I just never have taken life for granted.

But breast cancer so far has taken this particular quality in me to a different level.

It's not just that I don't take life for granted. I also don't take the power I have over my life for granted.

The best example I have is the week that has passed.

After my earlier blog where I explained to you how I've struggled a bit of late with special 'moments', I decided that it was time to take back some control.

So in ensuing days, I have really focussed on addressing my motivation and taking greater charge of myself.

I have given myself a stern talking to and I'm just not going to get unmotivated Bronwyn get away with it.

I have hit the reset button and literally FORCED myself to plan activities and follow through.

Ergo, to my list of activities now tried I have added Bikram Yoga (truly an uncomfortable and unpleasant experience but one I did twice and intend to return to). Unfortunately, it's good for me.

I ran a total of 23 kilometres (very slowly), I went to the gym twice. I also started up social tennis (I truly SUCK!) and managed to drag myself to refereeing on Saturday despite feeling a little sore.

As for the persistent cold which, I believe, was at the root at my mental malaise, I have told myself that I must accept my poor breathing status and just work around it.

It is what it is. If it gets better then that's great. If not, well I am just going to have to deal with it.

The thing that I have realised is that there are some things about this illness I am powerless to change.

I cannot grow my breast back. I cannot return the thickness of my hair. There is still only the intuition of an eyebrow line (is there such a thing as 'eyebrow plugs'?) I cannot regain the vigour of my ovaries or it seems, my temper.

But the things I can change? By god, I'm going to work hard to change them.

And if all that requires is for me to get off my arse and out of bed, then by golly and by jingo, I will do it.

Now a caveat: I don't know if I'm kidding myself. Perhaps this 'reset' is nothing more than a temporary correction. Maybe there is a pattern I must adjust to of sloth followed by mobilisation.

For now I shall just rally on in the hope that this time next month, I can report that the improvement I have described has become habit: that I have truly returned from the brink of pink.

Meanwhile, I'm off to walk the dog. Come on, Spunky.



Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mind Games

It's Saturday morning and a tepid wave of sunshine is slowly creeping through a cloudy sky.

It's been raining fairly consistently for a few days and in the Hope household, chaos has reigned.

Prior to the rain, Al had got a digger in to remove our front porch area. We're putting in a new garage and extensive earthworks have been needed.

In the meantime, the massive shed, big enough to house a light aeroplane I reckon (this property was once the site of a cabbage farm) has been gradually emptied and is in the process of being dismantled.

Some of our extensive collection of sundry possessions - memorabilia, sports goods, tools - have been moved into the house, under it and out on the deck.

In the meantime, Al has decided to carpet some of the rooms in our massive home. Inside, large rolls of carpet have been deposited in the kitchen, front room and media room.

Meanwhile, the rain has transformed our huge garden into a muddy pool of red mud and soggy grass.

Shoes and clothes have been ruined and Spunky, my oversized, hairy labradoodle, has had to be closely monitored on his loo breaks.

To add to the picture, the removal of the shed has resulted in the cutting of our telephone connection. So we have no internet and no landline.

Connection to the rest of the world has been severed and we are off line until Monday next week at least.

It is in this environment of upheaval, damp and dirt, of disconnection, and of boredom, that I have found myself over the past few days taking stock of the mental condition that has come with my breast cancer treatment.

Probably one of the most common pieces of advice I have received from those women who have gone before me in this largely unpleasant journey so far is the importance of 'looking after my head'.

I really had no idea what that meant. After all, hasn't my transit so far been highlighted by frequent congratulations for my positive attitude? Friends both virtual and flesh-worthy have routinely described me as "inspirational".

I am, it seems, a positive summer breeze of good vibes despite my unfortunate circumstances.

But here's the rub.

For all the spin I can put on a battle with illness, the truth is that as the days have become weeks and now months, I acknowledge that my mind has started doing some strange things - and some perhaps not so strange things.

As long as I can remember my mum has called me 'impatient'. Post cancer treatment, I find that this character flaw has increased exponentially. I have become a time bomb whose mechanism is triggered by even the most trifling impediment to an immediate course of action.

Intent when thwarted even briefly results in an explosive outburst.

For example, I must take several deep breaths to stop myself from plunging an axe into my computer screen when the thing decides to stall. When the oven's not working, I feel like ripping out the door.

It is so bad that Ben approaches me routinely as he might an untended bag at the airport or perhaps one of the sandwiches created by his father (unusual combinations nearly always involving cheese): with caution.

But this is not so strange. As I explain to Al, my long-suffering husband: "I know that patience is not one of my more endearing qualities."

He is used to my more spectacular tirades that usually evolve from malfunctioning computer devices and most commonly results in the statement: "Useless fucking piece of shit."

My family in short are used to my impatience. Certainly, my outbursts are a little more frequent these days but they're used to it. Really!

It's not the impatience that concerns me.

Now anyone with even a rudimentary association with me will know that I am a person with general enthusiasm for life.

I am lucky to usually enjoy a range of passions and interests, some consuming, others sporadic, a few seasonal.

Running, golf, soccer, gym, indoor cricket, badminton, entertaining, debating, swimming, reading, refereeing, cooking, painting, classical piano, guitar, philosophy - they've all comprised past times for me at one time or another. From abseiling to skydiving, trivia, brain games, crossword puzzles, cryptic crosswords, origami, sewing (extremely badly), jewellery making, ceramics, and even a brief dalliance with knitting, I am not averse to giving anything a go and will find something about any pastime or pursuit to interest me.

I am a serial joiner - the Hash House Harriers (where I was given the unsavoury nickname of 'Penis' as in 'Pianist' - blame the beers and an out-of-tune piano at the Rockhampton Criterion Hotel), the Redlands Poet Society (which I felt should have been renamed the DEAD poet's society, so moribund were its members) and the Redland Ladies Drum Corp (an unfortunate story that ultimately had me fantasising about the places I could implant my drumstick where the Sergeant Major was concerned). Next Tuesday I'm even trying my hand at tennis and, perhaps ill-advisedly, have signed up for a season in the Ladies C Grade.

In short, I am interested in most subjects and I do believe that broadly speaking, most of my friends would describe me as energetic and motivated.

But post-chemotherapy, post all the perturbations so far, there is a different me I am becoming familiar with.

It's a 'me' who can't be bothered. It's a me who struggles for motivation. 'Geronimo!' has been replaced by a rugged snore from the depths of my doona cover.

'Just Do It' has been replaced by 'Oh, Fuck It'.

As a result, tasks that might have once upon a time have been attacked with verve and brio require feats of motivation simply to finish.

"You'll feel proud of yourself if you just do one more set," I find myself saying to me at the gym.

"Come on, it's 10 o'clock. Get out of bed. You'll feel so much better once you're up and about," I encourage Bronwyn.

If you had told me seven months ago that one day I'd wake up and just want to roll over and go back to sleep because I could not be bothered with anything, I would have laughed.

Yes, I have discovered what it feels like to have no motivation whatsoever for anything. However it is alleviated by something that always stands me in good stead - honey, it has SAVED me - and that's my perverse and innate desire to please.

It is this that motivates me to complete my laundry - because it will please Ethel who often tut-tuts at the brothel my home sometimes becomes.

It is this that motivates me to go to the gym three times a week - because it will please Dr Cam and I have committed myself to participating fully in his research.

A lack of motivation is not a great concern. I do try to deal with it and am blessed, at least, by some power of will.

What concerns me is this.

Yesterday I had what I call a 'moment', the type that has been increasing in frequency.

It's a 'moment' that lasts maybe 5 minutes, maybe 10 minutes. Sometimes a couple of hours.

In this moment I am overwhelmed by a deep sense of hopelessness, an unutterable despair that is underscored by a profound sense of loss.

At this point I am consumed by a feeling of worthlessness, of unfair selection. I feel some bizarre combination of self loathing and self pity.

And I start thinking about the ease with which one might despatch oneself away from all of this. I think about it. I really do. Car exhausts. Plastic bags. Sleeping pills.

Yesterday, amongst all of the mud and the upheaval, I had a 'moment'.

Now I'm no genius, but I've got a few brain cells that function quite well and I see these 'moments' for what they are and, in a short space of time I have already learned to anticipate them.

A 'moment' hovers like a feral cat on the peripheries of my vision and I can almost see it as it comes into focus. I see it stalking me, the way it wags its tail.

I can almost sense its mean eyes. And the arc it makes as it sheaves the space between me and it with that outstretched body and extended claws - and pounces.

I know that depression is a wide spread societal ill and I know that not enough people really talk about it.

I also know it's perfectly natural given the hormonal imbalances in my body as it is shafted into menopause.

For me it is a small cat but I do understand that, if I let it, it could grow in size perhaps into a panther.

But like anything in life, one can make these things as big or small as one wants to.

Come on. It is quite unreasonable to expect that we can be happy all of the time. It's quite a normal, human emotion to feel sad - sometimes.

So here is how I've discovered a way to bat away that bothersome cat.

Firstly I took a moment to understand just why I felt like this. I have been sleeping poorly and felt almost as if like I was jet lagged.

I decided to treat my body to some pleasures.

In the car I thought about depression and how it is often referred to as a 'black dog'.

I decided to go to Mel's cafe, 'Harvest' for a vegetarian breakfast and a delicious coffee.

At the counter, Mel joked about minding Jono's black dog. She said she had had all her windows at home professionally cleaned and the dog had managed to lick every single window.

I thought to myself that I wasn't going to let my black dog lick quite all my windows.

After breakfast and a coffee I felt a little more restored.

I made myself go to the gym and doggedly completed the circuit that has been set for us by Dr Cam. I felt my world fall a little more into order.

I went to the shops and bought myself a couple of jumpers. Well, they were on sale. Who could resist. By jove! I was starting to feel okay.

In the evening, Al and I went to Elysium and then we went out to dinner with Lou and Adam and Greg. We had some laughs.

Last night, I slept pretty soundly, without the aid of a sleeping pill.

And so I realise that getting through this illness at last, really is a mind game.

It's a mind game that firstly involves the story you tell yourself, about where this narrative is heading. All the while, you keep your eye on the ending, the part where the heroine emerges victorious from the fog, wielding a gun and the entrails of a dead Alien stuffed into the pockets of her camouflaged trousers. This is a story propelled by hope and a belief that, in the end, there are rewards that must be reaped to equal the balance. Some day.

It's a mind game that involves self talk, the kind of talk that tells yourself not to give up, that it gets better, that nothing is forever.

And in my world, it's a mind game that involves prayer, the constant assignations to the Universe, your God, whatever. Because it's not over yet, is it. It's not over after chemotherapy or radiation. It's not over after losing one breast or two. What is there left to rely on but a belief in divine intervention that may, after all, be the key to delivering the ending you desire?

I find myself now inhabiting an afternoon in a McCafe where the Wi-Fi is free and the coffee is palatable.

This afternoon Al, me and Ben had lunch at Chucky's Carolina Kitchen with Tim who is visiting from Sydney, and Mark, who I haven't seen for ages.

The garage was fully dismantled by 2 pm this afternoon.

Spunky ran through the house with muddy paws but not too much damage was done.

In the story I'm telling myself, I have no need for the axed, and my computer has not been hurled through a fifth storey window.

The house is returned to pristine brilliance and makes the cover page of Home Beautiful,

Al and I make a small fortune and traipse off to gallivant the world for six months.

Benjamin surprises us all and pulls five As out of his bum.

Ethel has decided there is no hope for me and my laundry and has embraced her retirement, and is travelling the Orient Express with two ladies from the golf club who don't bore her with complaints about their various failing body parts.

Spunky has been trained not only to wipe his paws but to deposit the dirty mat in the washing machine. I have also trained him to make the perfect margarita.

Harry is travelling in Vegas with his Entourage in a stretch limousine, resisting the urge to shout the words 'See Ya Motherfuckers' from the open sun roof.

And I, well, I am FREE.

Well, what can you expect?

After all, I live in the Land of Hope.