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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Old Me

Today I wake up and realise there is something important to celebrate.

It's exactly 31 months since diagnosis.

I know, it's an odd month to suddenly sit up and notice how far I have come, but hey, I am essentially odd, so screw it.

This week has been pretty hairy.  My sister Fiona had a problem with one of her implants and found herself in hospital for observation.

She has been working pretty hard setting up her language school, completing her phD, fiddling around with a novel she's writing, while also managing a home of currently four children, one husband, a dog and a large garden.

It doesn't take a genius to deduce she has been doing too much.

I must admit, hearing she was sick sent me into a bit of a spin.  You start contemplating all those 'what ifs'.  And I realise that there is no greater fear than imagining someone you love might one day not be here.

As it turns out and much to our family's relief, Fiona responded well to the antibiotics and was, in true Vander Poorten style, back to her stoic self in no time.

But at least this speed bump gives Fiona and I another chance to talk about the thing that connects us even more profoundly than our sisterly genes.

We talk about breast cancer and the emotional fall-out it leaves.  I know I have alluded to it in one way or another over the duration of these chronicles.  But truly, regardless of how things may appear from the outside, I would guess that most, if not all, women who have dealt with breast cancer must  confront some fairly dark emotions from time to time.

Even 31 months after diagnosis, I know that those emotions can flare at any time.  The key trigger for me is fatigue.  I know that if I do too much and reach a certain state of exhaustion, I will feel a surge of a familiar beast, lurking like a monster under the otherwise still waters of the loch.

Indeed studies have found that as many as 50% of women who have a breast cancer diagnosis suffer from some form of depression and anxiety up to one year after diagnosis.  But I daresay, there are many for whom the spectre lurks possibly for much longer - as it does for me.

So perhaps the odd 'mood' is here to stay for a while.  We shall see.

Other than that, regular readers will recall how, in the early days, I noted how the smallest physical dysfunction would have me thinking that cancer had returned.   Still, all these months later, the most benign occurrences - a raised lymph gland, a headache, a feeling of exhaustion or even a mere cramp in my scar - can have me panicking - albeit for a millisecond - and wondering if my number is shortly to be up.

Actually, I think about the 'D' word quite routinely, in fact, each time I hear about someone carking it thanks to the 'C' word.  I think about who will give my eulogy, the music I'll play, and the awesome poem I'll write so that everyone weeps so profusely, truck loads of Kleenex will be used up for the purpose.  I think about my final days and fantasise about George Clooney appearing in a Tuxedo in his private helicopter to have a cup of tea with me on my death bed.

But of course, I jest a little.  Thinking about being a die-er, doesn't mean things are dire.  They're not.

I find that 31 months on, there are also many things to celebrate.  Or at least, there are compensations.

Physically, it's true that there are many things the old Bronwyn could do that the new one cannot.

For example, arthritic fingers mean I can no longer open jars without the assistance of one of my blokes.  (That or slamming the offending jar lid fruitlessly against a door jamb, in the hope that it will loosen).

I used to be able to do 50 push-ups in a row.  Now, I am lucky to do 10.

I used to love the gym.  Now I hate it as it is really a gallingly unsatisfying pursuit.   Who can be motivated when you cannot see results?   Post-chemo and into menopause, I can report that it is quite difficult to build muscle.  So I've given up.  Who cares.  Anyway, you don't find too many women who are built like Arnold Schwarzenegger in nursing homes - although I have seen a few in nurses' uniforms (hahaha).

Additionally, I am still unable to run, owing to permanent damage to my ligaments.  This has put paid to any dreams I might have had of becoming a small time thief, as chances are I would not be able to make a speedy getaway.

Not to be deterred, at 24 months since diagnosis, I joined a rowing club as you will know.  Now three mornings a week, I join my crew of eight or my doubles partner and now very good friend, Cath, for a session on the Brisbane River.    I love it but, I have to sadly admit, not as much as running.  However, I do think I would love it more if I had my own personal Nepalese Sherpa to carry my boat into and out of  the water.  It's the most onerous part of this sport.  That, and being confronted in the early mornings by the sight of 60 year old gentlemen in tight-fitting zooties.  (I say Jeeves, has anyone seen the family jewels?)

I try really hard to keep active.  On most Mondays, I walk 10 kilometres with Lee, and do shorter walks when I can with Spunky.  As Al and I are now located in the CBD of Brisbane, I've been enjoying discovering the sights and sounds of the inner city.

On Sundays I still referee and am making a slow graduation to the Senior League where I now more routinely share a pokey dressing room with a bunch of cocky grown men - as opposed to cocky young boys.

Next week, I am going back to golf now the weather is cooler.

Yes, my feet are still painful in the mornings, but I have developed ways to focus on the bits that don't hurt and it actually works a treat!

Yes, I do have dodgy joints and terrible arthritis in my fingers but if I don't think about it, it's amazing how it simply ceases to be an issue.   But I also take a daily pharmacopeia of supplements to cope, after consulting the Arthritis Australia website:  fish oil, magnesium,  Boswalia (an Ayurvedic herb), this amazing mineral called SAMe, calcium and Vitamin D.   And alcohol.  Actually, that's not for arthritis.  That's just because I am a fan of a nice sauvignon blanc.

Yes, my hair is thinner and coarser and more unruly than it once was, but I am now used to it and besides - you would be amazed at how much time you save when all you need to 'do' your hair is towel dry it and run your fingers through it.

All in all, I am chugging ahead like the Little Red Train.  I sincerely believe that "if you think you can, you can" and Dr Poh See was right from the start.  It is always mind over matter.

But that's not what I really wanted to celebrate.

Mentally I think I'm doing okay.  What I am most proud of is the fact that my memory has returned - and I keep working on it.  I do small, easy things.  I practice remembering shopping lists and recipes without writing them down.  I play Scrabble.  I do the odd crossword.  I am teaching myself Spanish.  I am addicted to quizzes.  I drive down new roads if I can as I believe this is good for the brain.  I try not to lose things (easier said than done).  

Emotionally, as I have said, things can be a bit up and down.  But I take supplements such as Selenium and SAMe (which is also supposed to also assist mood) and, importantly, I work hard on not doing too much because I do fatigue much more easily these days. In other words, while being constructive in the vertical position, I also believe the horizontal has much to commend it - especially if it includes a good book.

Finally, spiritually, perhaps I don't fondle my rosary beads so regularly.  But I do sometimes send short prayers of thanks heavenwards, discounting of course my frequent usage of the phrase 'Oh My God' and perhaps just the very occasional 'Thank Fucking Christ' (with apologies to any judgemental Christians out there).

All joking aside though,  it is my deep and profound belief that I would not have survived my cancer ordeal if it had not been for my faith in the fact that, at the very least, Jesus was a good bloke with some pretty decent suggestions on how to get through the Shit that is Life.   You can pooh-pooh (if not Eeyore-Eeyore) religion if you like, but there is something about believing in a kind of penultimate goodness that is the buoy we need when the going really gets tough.

But that is not what I really wanted to celebrate.

What I want to celebrate is this.

Yesterday I found a pair of black pants in Harry's cupboard that clearly looked too small for him.  A Size 8 pair of Country Road pants.  As I know for a fact that my son is not a cross-dresser, I believe that the garment was most likely to be mine and had mysteriously slipped past my post-cancer cull.

You see, I thought I had given away all my Size 8 clothes.  (My beloved collection of dresses and trousers are probably now most adorning the wardrobe of a svelte Sudanese refugee somewhere in the arse end of Logan).

So what to do but try on this rogue pair.  Would I fit?  First one leg then the other, then up to the zip and will it?  Will it?

Yes it will!  The trousers fit!

To celebrate PRESS THIS LINK!

So stuff the depression and the arthritis and all that other crap, man.  Who cares?

I fit back into my jeans!

Because you know what that means?

It means the old me is still here!

That's really something to celebrate, don't you think?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Plastic Surgeon 3

It's a momentous day today in more ways than one.

Today Al and I celebrate 20 years of marriage.  It's nothing short of a  miracle that we have weathered two decades without murdering each other.  Or at least needing a rolling pin.

They say that it takes just two words - 'I Do' - to create the world's longest sentence.

Sentence or not, the occasion has me pondering the basis of a basically successful marriage - with all its highs and lows.

Al and I have certainly been through thick and thin:   richer, poorer, sickness, health.

Before I married, my mum - an inveterate matchmaker - used to tell my sisters and I  that the secret to a good relationship could be nutted down to one thing: a commonality of interests.

I hope she is right because to this extent, Al and I have ticked a few boxes. We met about 23 years ago when, after returning to Brisbane after a sojourn in London, a mutual friend, Jeff, told me about the need for a flatmate in the house he shared with Al.

Very soon after moving in, I discovered Al and I had a record collection that was almost identical.  I discovered we both loved throwing parties.  We both enjoyed what was, back then, an occasional hit of golf.   We also discovered a mutual love of art (creating it, admiring it).  And of course, we are from a similar profession:  I work with graphic designers, and he works with PR Consultants.

Philosophically too, Al and I seem, in the main, to connect. We both agree that birds should not be caged; spiders and snakes should not be killed;  animals should not be hunted.  We agree that U2 is overrated; that the best hotel in the world is in Sri Lanka (the Kandalama designed by Geoffrey Bawa); that Malcolm Turnbull should be Prime Minister;  that the Coen Brothers rock; and that 'Black Comedy' actually translates to 'Not Funny'.

But we have our differences - and plenty of them.

For starters, I think being 'hot in bed' is a menopausal symptom and Al, well I don't think he would be too impressed to find George Clooney (in a G String) lying spreadeagled between us.  :-)

Al doesn't like coriander (heresy to an Asian) and I despise parsnips (that horrible root vegetable that looks like a pale, geriatric penis and which Englishmen like Al insist on roasting).

I believe in reincarnation, the hereafter and chiromancy while Al rolls his eyes seeing death as final and Evolution making a monkey of religion.

He likes fishing while I would rather watch Clive Palmer playing strip poker.  (Fishing is sooooo cruel!)   He likes buying everything second hand (except maybe for undies) while I do actually like a new thing or two (especially undies!).

His idea of relaxation is soft music, a massage, and candles.  Mine is abseiling down a cliff.  With a dagger in my mouth.

But in the main, I think Al and I make a relatively good match.  20 years since we walked down the aisle, we are relatively comfortable with each other.

And that's a really good thing because today is momentous in another way.

Today I pay another visit to my plastic surgeon, Dr Lily V.

Following my SatNav on my way to Sunnybank, I am pleased when I remember which way to turn on Beenleigh Road to reach her office.   Not so long ago I would have driven aimlessly the wrong way and got half way to Ipswich before realising...

When I arrive it is all very familiar - the waiting room, the receptionist.   I flick through a copy of 'The Breast is History' while I wait.  (It's part of a sales pitch I will  deliver to her in the hope that she'll BUY A BOOK).

I have to wait about 15 minutes before Lily can see me.  She hasn't changed at all.  She is still trim, beautiful, professional.

When she asks me how I am, I slyly tell her I have WRITTEN A BOOK, she makes an appearance in it.

But it really is important to explain why I am really here.

Today I explain to her that I have decided that I don't really want to go through any major operations for the sake of two lumps.  I tell her about how my sister Fiona had breast cancer (it's all IN MY BOOK) and had a 'oncer' and I was wondering if I could have the same thing.

I am only interested in an 'instant' reconstruction if possible and, if not, I want her to just tidy things up around my scar and I'll call it a day.

Lily asks me to remove my top and expertly feels around my chest.

There is an unsightly piece of skin hanging under my arm that I would like removed if I am unable to have a reconstruction.

Lily says this is called a 'Dog Ear' and is quite common.

After I put my top on, she says that it is unlikely I will be able to have an implant on the radiated skin.

She says she can cut away the dog eared bit under General Anaesthetic.  She said the scar will extend further under my arm.

I will need two weeks to recover as she says radiated skin does not heal very quickly.

In the mean time she notices the way I am scratching the cheloid scar on the other side.  She says that, if I like, she can inject that with cortisone while I am 'under' as this can settle the itching.

She says it cortisone injections have to be given under anaesthetic because they are very painful.  That is, in my view they most likely hurt like both fuck and buggery combined.  Two or three injections will be needed to completely stop the itching and apparently, my scar will go purple!

I ask her if there is anything she can do to help get rid of the cheloid scarring.

'Do you know why there is no cheloid scarring on the other side?'  Lily asks.  When I shake my head she explains that apparently, the way to get rid of cheloid scarring is actually radiation.

The problem is that, while the radiated scar looks nice and pale,  radiation has otherwise fucked my skin.  In fact, the radiated side seems to sag much more than the other side.    It is much too loose (if not Lautrec) to be able to hold up a silicon implant.  The only way I can have an implant is with the help of a created or introduced 'muscle'.

In other words, the chance of an instant implant are pretty much zilch.

As I have been expecting this news, I am neither upset nor surprised.

We agree that I will have my 'Dog Ear' tidied up.

Lily writes out a few instructions and tells me she will leave it up to me as to when I will have the operation.

As I rise to leave, I decided to forget all that subliminal crap.  I overtly pat the cover of my book.  'So are you going to BUY MY BOOK?  YOU CAN BUY this on my website.  The Breast is History.Com' I tell her, staring into her eyes hypnotically.

Lily blinks.  "Yes" she says, zombie like.  "I plan to buy 1000 copies.  In fact, I plan to buy 10,000'.

Unfortunately, I made that up.   What she really says is:  'Sure'.  Meaning, 'as soon as you have left my office I will forget about you completely, you pathetic and desperate dog-eared bastard.'

At the front desk, the receptionist tells me Lily has only charged me for a follow-up visit ($90) as opposed to the $220 that is a new consultation.  Yes, that is very sweet of her... But I take this opportunity to tell the receptionist that I have WRITTEN A BOOK and how difficult it is these days to SELL A BOOK.

I hope this means the receptionist too will BUY MY BOOK but she appears to be obstinately disinterested and wants, instead to tell me about her friend who wrote a film script in French.  Who fucking  cares?  I want her to BUY MY BOOK!

In the car on the way home, while I wonder why no bastard wants to BUY MY BOOK, I think about the fact that in possibly a few months, the whole saga of Nicky and Paris will be well and truly over.

Making this decision has taken me months and months.   Al  has said that he is going to leave it all up to me.  It is all about how I feel about it, he has said.

So how do I feel?  How will I feel knowing that I am never to have breasts again?

I think I feel OKAY (especially if more people, you know, BUY MY BOOK).

It is true that sometimes I do feel a bit sad about the memory (Mammary?) of breasts and what they represented - that whole idea of being still healthy, carefree, unaffected by cancer, unaffected by much at all.

It would be a total lie to tell you that I am completely and totally fine with everything that has happened.

It is true that, just the other day, I shut my eyes and rubbed my chest, trying to remember what it felt like to actually have a breast.

It is true that I am sometimes startled by the lack of sensation on my chest - the fact that it feels basically numb.

But it is equally true that I don't sit around pining for what I was before all of this.

It is true that I have come to acceptance.  Of my ruined ice creams.  Of it all.

My Buddhist forebears would be proud.  Especially if Dr Lily, her receptionist and everyone reading this blog BUYS MY BOOK!


Yes you can BUY MY BOOK at  It is also available on Amazon so if you live in Outer Timbuktu, you too can BUY MY BOOK.    And, after you have READ MY BOOK, I would appreciate it if you would leave a review.