Follow by Email

Monday, March 25, 2013

The End

A hot and humid Monday follows a night of lightning and thunder.

The wind howled.  The rain lashed the sea.  The electricity went out.

I went out on the deck with my IPad, unsuccessfully trying to capture the sight of forks of light, splaying the sky.

We all went to bed early.

It was a dramatic end to a really great weekend.

I spent most of Saturday at my very first double tennis tournament - where I and my partner, Sue, were roundly thrashed by some dwarves masquerading as twelve year olds,  and a couple of sweet little white haired grannies, amongst others.

Yesterday, Sunday,  I took my hiking group out to Mt Coot-tha where we ranged through some fantastic Australian bushland.  

But it was a big weekend in one important way.

On Saturday, I celebrated the 18-month anniversary since my cancer diagnosis.

This represents an important milestone in more ways than one.

It's 18 months since I first heard those words.  "You. Have. Cancer" and in my mind, it is the perfect moment in time to bring this blog to a close.

The fact is, I am so at home with pontificating and posturing, I may be tempted to sentence my readers to a lifetime of regular missives from the blogosphere.

Come on, you know I do love talking... and talking.

So this kind of deadline is just what I need to realise that well, 100,000 plus words since this diary began, the time is right for endings.

In this blog I have tried to share with you the events that follow a cancer diagnosis, as they have happened, along with the thoughts that flow from those events as I have thought, if not thunked, them.

What you have read here is not a work that has been honed and brightened.

It has been full of errors, typographical and others - pretty shoddy if you ask me.

Its imperfections have been on full display, along with my own.

I have tried to be honest and open with you, not shirking from my duty to be accurate and, if possible, entertaining.

For those who have bravely persisted - and many have not (unreliable bastards!) - I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

There have been many dark days where it has only been the image of you that has motivated me to get out of bed and report to you the passings of that week or day.

While many have referred to me as an 'inspiration' (cringe, cringe), the reverse has been true.

My friends and family caring enough to read and share these ramblings have in turn provided an inspiration to ME.

Now, some 557 days since receiving that great smack in the head by that rogue curve ball, courtesy of the Universe, I know that this is a good time for a closure of sorts.

Because, after cancer, life goes on.  It really does.  Halle-bloody-lujah.

Next week my mum will celebrate her 75th birthday.

In a fortnight, Al and I will celebrate our 19th wedding anniversary.

That week I will commence a Certificate I am doing with my sister, Nicky.

In three weeks,  Al and I will be moving out of the home we have held for the past five years.

I will play my first ever game of hockey.

My sister, Fiona, may have commenced her radiation treatment.

In late June, Al, me, Harry, Ben and Ethel are off on our last big holiday adventure together.

In September, I celebrate my 50th birthday.

Beyond that, I cannot say what is in store.

Will either I or Fiona have a recurrence?

Will I ever run a sub-60 10 clicker again?  The way my knees are playing, up will I run, full stop?

Will I decide to have reconstruction?

Will Ben flunk Year 12 and really end up as a ditch digger?

Will my foray into the world of hockey be a disaster of epic proportions?

Will I ever master Sudoku (Japanese for 'Get a Life' I' told).

Who the fuck knows?

Cancer has, more than anything, taught me how fragile it all is, the whole system that holds us together.

We are, all or us, constructed from the most unreliable of material: flesh and bone that may fail at any time; circumstances that may alter with a change in the wind.

There are Lego sets that are more reliable than we are.  If humans were cars, we would, most of us be lemons!

The only thing we can rely on is right now, right here.  You and me.  This.  The only thing that really holds fast and true is this moment.

Cancer has taught me this, and more.

Even as little as 18 months after a cancer diagnosis, cancer has given me a level of wisdom, knowing, faith, and fearlessness I don't believe I had before - or maybe I didnt really know I had it.

Cancer has been an incredible teacher whose lessons will continue into my dotage, should I be fortunate enough to have one.

It's no wonder it's been described as the "Emperor of Maladies".

This powerful illness has strengthened my relationships - with my husband, my children, my family and friends, and with my God.

It has expanded my world in ways I could not have imagined.   It has allowed me to look more deeply into my heart, and into the hearts of others.

This 'Emperor' has challenged me to question everything I know.  It has comprehensively altered me.

It has asked me to dig deep.  It has demanded my all.

Meanwhile it has constantly told me - sometime shouted at me:  Shit Happens.  Deal with it.  Move on.

You think Cancer is the end of the world?  It's not.  The End of the World is the End of the World.  As long as you are alive and kicking, wherever you are is not the end.  Unless that is what you want.

The Emperor of Maladies has taught me that humans are amazing.  Because with the right attitude, and with enough help and support, you can turn any situation into something that serves you and your interests.

If you are submerged and overwhelmed by a circumstance, then I believe that is a choice you make.

Yes, truly, thanks to cancer,  I know absolutely that happiness is a choice.   Recovery is a choice.  Dealing with it and moving on is a choice.

Everything in your life is a choice:  love; friendship; freedom - it has always been your choice.

True, there are many circumstances that cannot be changed.  But you can always, always change your relationship to those circumstances and your perspective.

You can't change luck.  You can't change fate.  You can't change chance.

What you can change is your attitude to what your luck or fate or chance delivers to you.

Fate has delivered to me the following situation:

I hope I have not disgusted you by flaunting this scar.  Because that is really all it is.  

There is not a day that goes by that I don't miss Paris and Nicky.  But they are gone.  They ain't coming back.  This is what is left.

This is how I've dealt with what life has served up to me.

I am not angry or depressed or saddened by what cancer has taken away from me.  I am instead, empowered and strengthened by what it has give me:  lessons that are priceless.

How you deal with adversity in your life is up to you.

Is there adversity in your life?  A void?  A need?  A problem? A despair?

Will you let it give you a reason to be angry, to wallow in your despond, to bring you down and colour your life that loveless shade of grey? (You know, the 51st one?)

Or will you dust yourself off, stand up to it, and give fate the finger?

It's your choice.  Your life and how you live it has always been your choice.

Don't let anyone or anything take that power away from you.

Plant your feet.  Take a stand.

And choose.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Bex and a Good Lie Down

I have no idea why I routinely commence these blogs with a description of the weather.  But why buck a trend?

It's a cool but overcast day today and I am, all in all in pretty good spirits.

After weeks of despair about the lack of meaningful work, I am in the throes of writing a lovely capability statement for one of my fave clients, who are based in Melbourne.

I love my work and find it very therapeutic these days, would you believe?

But this  is not why I am putting finger to keyboard today.

Today I have had an itch to share with you a really excellent line of reasoning I have fathomed to explain a possible cause of breast cancer.

Did you know that in Australia right now, roughly 14,000 plus women are diagnosed with breast cancer ever year BUT, by 2020 (yup, seven years from now), this number is expected to rise to 17,000 plus.

That's a staggering increase and I suppose I wouldn't be completely human if I didn't allow myself to dwell, albeit temporarily, on the reasons why the incidence of breast cancer is growing, well, like tumour.

Look, to be honest, I am a little impatient with the philosophical concept of causality.  We as a race seem obsessed with explaining things.

Having originated from a mainly Buddhist culture, there is a part of me that prefers a certain fatalism.

My predisposition in the main is to argue that fate is random.

Why does everything have to have a reason?  Some things just are.

One can get one's self in a needless lather in a quest to find an answer to that most perplexing of questions: Why.  Or as one particularly articulate solicitor friend of mine, once notoriously questioned in a personal injuries case before a court:  "Why, oh why, oh why, oh why".

Where breast cancer is concerned, several theories abound, and among those I give credence to are the following:
  • Genetics
  • Excessive alcohol consumption (more than 2 standard drinks a day)
  • Having your first child after the age of 30.
  • Fertility treatments.
Some specialists claim other factors could be considered.  Such as starting menstruation early.  Or not breastfeeding long enough.  I guess, in the main, anything that stuffs around with your hormones should be considered.

My sister, Fiona, who is given to profundities that elude me (these days!), even has a theory about emotional states and their impact on the whole shebang.

But there are other potential causes, posited in brief in various literature but backed by little evidence-based research.

One I've fixated upon is the (possible likely) influence of phytoestrogens.

You see, breast cancer feeds on oestrogen, and phytoestrogens apparently impact oestrogen.  It's not such a long bow don't you think?

Did you know that phytoestrogens in the form of non-organic, manufactured soy products are distributed to an alarming extent throughout our food system.  Chocolate, yoghurt, peanut butter... it's the substance used to make things creamier and, in its name, gazillions of hectares of the Amazon and other important habitat have been razed to the ground.

What to do?  Become some sort of organic nut, slaving over a domestic buttery, yoghurt maker, juicer, fruit dehydrator?  Slaughter my own hens?  Rear my own llamas?  Hive my own bees? Maybe weave my own clothes?  Take to making incense sticks from patchouli to sell at the markets along with my fatted pigs and those Indian dreamcatcher things (that always look like very bad macrame)?  

Hell, I should have made do without caesarians too and Harry and I should have perished in child birth - just like the good old days.

The fact is that I'd rather spend my time playing sport, reading, painting, entertaining my friends, raising funds for my causes - than bothering with all of this.  Living a full life takes devotion and I'm afraid, perfecting my home-butter doesn't make it into my bucket list.

I have no patience and, as far as I am concerned at least, the horse has bolted.  So screw it.  Pass me the chocolate!

But today, a lightbulb moment.

Look at this stupid graphic I googled.  It's even got the photographer's stamp on it in case you are so desperate, you want to use this contrived and completely unnatural image in one of those documents you may be preparing for one of your multi-million-dollar pitches.  I don't know about you, but it had me immediately thinking of 'Liceblaster'...

Today I have come up with a new and different theory about the causes of breast cancer, with my train of thought developing as follows:

It seems a lot of women (including me) are obsessed with exercise and losing weight.  Health size 10?  Not thin enough!

But the cautionary thing is this.  Of the women I know who have had breast cancer, the vast majority - yes, the majority - report that they were in their absolute "prime" when calamity struck.

Many if not most of the breast cancer babes I know were fitness and health nuts - and I mean NUTS.  You would have believed they were the very last people on earth to have ended up with this DREADED DISEASE.  (Note dramatic use of capitals).

You see, if I was a scientist - which I sometimes am when, for example, attempting to dispel unpleasant odours left by rotting pork chops, forgotten in the back of Al's Prius -  I'd be investigating the effects of CORTISOL on our health.

Science has proved that women who have high stress levels at the time of conception - such as money worries, a demanding job, or living up to family or societal expectations - have higher chances of producing a girl.

If cortisol = girl; then girl must = Estrogen.   And we know Estrogen = cancer (infact, breast cancer feeds on estrogen).

Cortisol, as you might know, is a stress hormone.  It's created by the adrenal glands.

The reality is that most women today exist in a state of high stress. We stress about our looks, our clothes, our children, our relationships.  (Some of us stress about sagging boobs.  Others stress because their mastectomy scar is bloody itchy.)

We extend ourselves to ridiculous heights because, it seems, the bar is never high enough.

These days women are never thin enough.  There skin isn't smooth enough.  There lips don't pout enough.  We aren't being paid enough.  Our husbands don't listen enough.  Our children aren't brilliant enough.  Our gardens aren't weeded enough. Our dogs aren't trained enough (shit, Spunky, when will you EVER learn how to fetch me a cup of tea, dumb dog).

In short, our lives are neither pristine nor perfect enough and so we stress, stress, stress.

Already slim but wait! (or Weight!).  You need to be as thin as that 20 year old.  As muscled as Michelle Bridges.  As gorgeous as Heidi Klum at 40.

Already smart?  But wait, little Junior must get an OP 1 or else we will remain unvalidated and unworthy.

Already living a great life?  Then let's stress about something else?  Our families.  Our friends.  What's going on in Syria.  Or Outer Space.

So women stress out.

So they practice yoga - no, you fool.  Not the one that involves breathing, sitting still and langourous stretches.  No, you have to feel the burn.    You have to do it in a room heated to 400 degrees so you feel like one of those hot chickens in the window of the counter at the IGA.  You have to become a human pretzel.  Fatless, limber, an Olympic gymnast at 80 - that's the goal!

So they meditate like a guru - perhaps in a cupboard under the stairs, which may be the only place they get some peace and quiet.  Then they emerge to scream at the kids to pick up their towels.

So they sit on their bums, thinking laziness passes for 'inner peace'.  Meanwhile I see them screaming at their kids, equilibrium too easily upset by small annoyances.  Actually, that also applies to people who don't sit on their bums.  Our equilibrium, overall these days, seems to be too easily upset.

Or they turn to alcohol and/or anti-depressants.   Or shopping (which has the same effect - I mean, who isn't instantly uplifted by the sight of a bargain).

But stress isn't just a 'first world' problem.

Over on the other side of the world, in those developing countries where they actually have you know REAL PROBLEMS, the stress is even worse.

On my various journeys around the world, I've seen them first hand.  While men loll lazily in doorways, it's the women sweeping, toiling, carting, washing, begging.  Those bastard males just get to lie on their bums, chewing their beetlenut.  It's an effort even to scratch their balls through their cool sarongs.

Never mind that.  I think we can all relate to the levels of stress that any grandmother, mother, sister, or aunty feels when the family struggles.  Poverty with its plethora of associated ills is, in my view, the ultimate stressor.

Effectively, ladies, what I'm saying is: It is fucking stressful being a woman these days.

Unlike our grandmothers, no, we aren't content with baking cookies and slow gossip at the town hall after Church on Sundays.

Mass media has meant that we constantly have inequity shoved in our faces.  There is always someone we know who is 'better off'.

That human tendency to compare ourselves has been pushed to the zenith until it has all become about exteriors, keeping up, worrying about what people will think.

And it's not necessarily conscious.

Meanwhile, we don't have that grounding force which is that extended network that was once typical of smaller communities - families working together for mutual goals; friends who would check in from time to time to say hello and see if we were okay.

We have become stressed AND we have become disconnected.  Perhaps even lost.

We are all isolated and alone, our insecurities fuelled by day-time TV and those fucking Kadarshians.

Could it really be cortisol?   Is stress really the root cause of rogue levels of oestrogen, feeding latent cancers?

The Harvard Medical School maintains walking as little as three times a week for 30 minutes reduces the recurrence of breast cancer by 50%.  Is there a reason why it's gentle WALKING and not riding a bike up Mt Coot-tha in low gear while carrying Clive Palmer on your back?

Nutritionists maintain that a diet rich in greens, with smaller portions of carbohydrates and protein assist in preventing recurrence.  Is there a reason why there are no urgent strictures about avoiding certain food groups, not eating after a certain time, not eating while wearing anything floral, perhaps not eating at all, NOT NOT NOT?

I believe there is and the reason is stress.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to imagine you life without stress.

But for what it's worth, I hope I have made you at least stop and think about why managing your stress levels is more important than you think.

These days, I notice the younger kids have a saying when the adults are losing it:  "Calm your farm" (best expressed in the intonation of a Julia Gillardn -  possibly ith the word 'Love' attached for extra effect.

Maybe those ankle biters know something we don't.

'Calm ya farm, Love.'

Take that chill pill.  Cool your engine.

For today, that's my breast advice.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Finish Line for Fiona

After literally days of heavy rain, I wake to sun, sun, sun, sun oooohhhhhhoooooooo.

It's a big day today - the last chemo shot for my darling little sister, Fiona, who has been an absolute trouper through her ordeal.

This morning, as usual, I'm picking up my elder sister, Nicky before our visit to the hospital but first I have to drop off a craft box to the local art gallery, Yurara.  My artistic friend, Annie, is one of five artists who has agreed to decorate a box.

(I will be auctioning these at a fundraiser I am organising for cancer research in April.)

But after I have arrived  at the cute timber house at Cleveland's Pinkland's showgrounds and completed my errand, I make an error of judgement as I drive away in my Prius.  I decide to navigate my way over the grass only to find that I am... bogged!

 Nooooooo!  Shit.  My nicely planned and minutely timed day is instantly ruined.

In a dither I ring Nicky to ask her to come and pick me up - thinking I'll sort out the towing later.  At this very millisecond, would you believe, a huge four wheel drive ute happens to pass before my eyes.  Concluding my call I turn and eye the driver, wondering if I look helpless enough.

Sure enough, this Prince Charming stops and before I know it, he has winched me from the bog and I am able to drive away with a toot and a cheery 'THANK YOOOOOU' shouted out of my car window.

It is serendipitous and once I am on the road again, I ponder the Universe and how, while generally, I have found it to be somewhat of an arsehole, sometimes, it does surprise you with an unexpected kindness.

But I really am off with the fairies this morning and it is a frustrating journey I make. Three U-turns and 20-minutes of needless extra driving later, I finally reach my sister's house.

I will cut to the chase.  The visit to the hospital goes without drama.  Fiona has pretty much the same reaction I had to her sixth chemo.  It's all that negative psychology that has you wincing and retching and feeling sick.

The only thing to report is that Fiona had a very kind male nurse called 'Greg' today.  We also had to deal with a very rude female nurse.

After five hours, therefore, Nicky and I are able to leave, confident that Fiona has finished her final, last, never-to-be-seen-again God Willing chemotherapy experience.

On our way down in the elevator I say to Nicky:  "I never want to see a cannular being inserted again."  God willing.

I believe that Fiona had many more 'false starts' than I did in that department and really, she has been incredibly brave.

Much braver than I in fact, because you have to understand, this woman didn't even know what an antihistamine was on her first day of chemo.

The world of drugs and medication was completely alien to her and look what she has endured?

I am incredibly proud of her and simply relieved that this utterly vile period of her life is over.

Fiona's treatment protocol of course, will be completely different from mine.

She will have radiation and only then, a lumpectomy.

She doesn't need a mastectomy because the cancer has literally disappeared before her eyes.

I believe she ascribes this almost miraculous healing to a combination of factors.  Firstly, she was in the rudest of health when she became ill.  Secondly, she has received simply fabulous care.  Thirdly, she follows a rigorous regime of supplementation. And fourthly, she is incredibly self-disciplined when it comes to dietary and other changes.

Additionally, at this stage, it seems Fiona will not be taking the hormonal medication and I respect her decision.

It is a big leap for a woman who routinely practices yoga, who prefers organic food, who is meticulous about her dietary choices to pursue a regimen of daily drug therapy.

What can we do but what WE believe is right for US?

Who is anyone else to tell us that our choices are wrong?

At this point I don't care.  I am just happy, happy, happy that she has finished the most ghastly part of the whole process.

Personally, I think she looks much better than I did at the end of things.  She has handled it all fantastically and I think has bounced back much better than me, overall.

Looking back over the past 18 weeks, I don't know if I have been much of a Sherpa.

I just know she's got through it.

I also know that Fiona is going to go from strength to strength from here.

I believe that, like all my fellow breast cancer survivors, Fiona will gain the clarity that only cancer can provide - about herself and her relationship to her world.

Because cancer, while a foe to be respected, is also a teacher.

It has taught me to be aware of the every day struggles of people.  Because no matter how big or small they are, it is the crosses we bear that make us who we are.

It is our pain that so poignantly reveals our character.

Our hardest hours are, often, our greatest hours.

Now, my day with Fiona over, I stop at Nicky's for a coffee, helping the twins with a little of their homework.

Afterwards, as I drive home, I realise that the sun is still shining.  More.  I notice a large rainbow spreadeagled across the sky.

When I reach my house, Ben is in the shower washing Spunky who has rolled in something stinking it seems.  I lasso up my wet dog and go for a 10km run.

Returning I cook dinner when Al returns home with the real estate agent in tow.  Al goes off to tennis and by 8.30 pm we have accepted an offer on the block of land we have been desperately trying to sell.

For the first time in ages, I feel hopeful about better things afoot.

Yesterday, Al's twin second cousins celebrated their first birthday.  Next week, it will be the first-anniversary since George's death.

Cancer has made me keenly aware of the the nature of fate, how random it is, the chaos that is, ultimately, its foundation.

It has confirmed one of my long held beliefs:  That the only reliable thing in life is change.

It has allowed me to embrace uncertainty, to not fear the unknown.  No, that's not right.  It has made me aware that there IS an unknown.

What was I before all of this?  Oblivious.  I knew change was inevitable but I did not anticipate it.  I did not really - no, not REALLY - appreciate the tenuousness, the fragility of, well, everything - you, me, here, now.

And after?

After me, after Fiona, what is left, is cancer's greatest gift and that is an absence of fear.

Isn't that just gold?

The rain has eased for now but I believe another cyclone is brewing off the Coral Sea.

Who knows if more storms are coming?

I'm not bothered.  Fiona crossed the Finish Line.  *happy dance, lifting top and showing... um... scars*

Storms?  Bring them on!