New beginnings, new challenges

New beginnings, new challenges

Cancer. The gift that keeps on giving.

Not many people know this, but far beyond the reaches of the chemotherapy ward, even months and years after cancer patients leave their infusion chairs behind and take brave steps forward trying to find all the remnants of their former selves and stitch them all back together, the toxins from such heavy duty treatment continue to wreak havoc on bodies and minds.

There is the threat of painful oedema in limbs where lymph nodes have been removed, there is tight roping scar tissue that makes it hard to stretch. There is peripheral neuropathy that continues to numb our extremities and make simple buttons and jar lids as difficult to open as if we were ninety. 

There is lung scarring left over from radiation, fatigue, dry skin, weak nails, dental problems and just a general distrust of our bodies. 

But most frustrating for me, of all my long-term side effects of cancer, is Chemo brain.

The Anthracyclines that hopefully killed off all my cancerous cells, infortunately had similar effects on healthy cells as well. Chemo brain is a well-documented side effect of cancer treatments, and the drugs that were pumped through my veins to save my life are among the most likely to affect future brain function. While their toxicity was a necessary evil, not a day goes by where I don’t notice their impact; on my memory, on my mood, on my day-to-day brain function.

There are days where I feel like I’m losing my mind. I wrote about it recently as my application for university study. I had to write a piece detailing why I wanted to study Professional Writing. The following just flooded out of me, and while it felt like a strange application essay at the time, the words needed to be written down, so I did not fight them.

Something must have resonated with the course enrolment officers, because I am now a uni student once again. This time round, I couldn’t be more excited.

Here it is. I guess it explains that for some of us, writing isn’t a choice. It’s a need. I need to get my music out. It will not stay inside.

Yesterday I couldn’t remember the word ‘opinion’. There I was, mid-conversation with a colleague over lunch, and suddenly the word I was searching for, ‘opinion’, disappeared from my vernacular. Gone.

Now, I know everyone has moments like this, where words on the ‘tip of their tongue’ vanish the precise minute they are meant to appear. I’m sure right about now, you’re sitting there thinking, ‘no big deal’. The problem is, and I haven’t said this to anybody else yet…this forgetting…it’s been happening a lot lately and I’m terrified. I have always prided myself on my ability to articulate well. It’s one of my defining qualities, and I am starting to feel it slip away from me.

At 38 years of age, I am showing several, small but noticeable signs of early-onset dementia: forgetfulness, memory loss, even the ability to recognise people’s faces. At first it was pretty insignificant: a couple of missed appointments, hazy recollections of prominent life moments, torturous hours spent trying to remember the most ridiculously simple words. But lately it’s become far more obvious.

Most excruciating, are the multiple times I have met someone, and then subsequently ‘re-met’ them again after forgetting their face and name completely. When I reply to, “Hey, have you guys met?” with a “No,” but the other person says in a confused voice, “Yes we have,” my heart sinks. Then I cartwheel through the depths of my brain trying to stir up any small flicker of identification. Just a whisper of a memory that might serve correct. More often than not, I am left flailing in an awkward pause the size of China, clumsily feigning recall but retreating as hastily as I can. People must think I’m so rude!

Why all this excruciating back-story when you really just want to read my application to enrol in Professional Writing?

Well, so far, the writing section of my brain seems in tact. I write and I am free of the awkward pause, the lost word, the misplaced memory. Where the immediacy of speaking often leaves me anxious and clammed up, writing feels easier. In writing, there is no befuddlement, no frantic wading through the depths of my mind for missing puzzle pieces. Somehow, the chasms melt away at my keyboard and I am able to prise open my clamshell and the words still come.

Last year, I found myself writing through a cruel and unfair time. I wrote because I was searching for meaning and needing to purge my mind of grief and fear. I wrote because I had no choice but to.

Now, I write to hold onto myself.

It’s Finally Here: My Very Last Chemo!

It’s Finally Here: My Very Last Chemo!

It’s here. It’s finally here. Tomorrow I will have my very last chemo infusion.

jim carrey celebrate gif

Six months ago, sitting in my hospital room, boobless and sore, I was staring down the barrel of a long, gruelling chemotherapy regimen and wondering how on earth I would get through it all. Still dazed by my sudden swerve into Cancerland, and the speed at which my life had unravelled, all I could do was nod numbly as my Oncologist spoke about my proposed treatment and how it was necessary to poison my body in order to purge it of Cancer. Everything I heard and read left me distressed and scared.

It’s a strange process, Cancer treatment. You have to get sicker in order to get better. The day of my Breast Cancer diagnosis I had been for a long morning run, I had even been to see an Asthma specialist at the Epworth and passed his lung capacity test with flying colours. I was, in my mind, a picture of perfect health! Yet, just hours later I was back in the very same building with a referral to see a Breast Surgeon.

Since then, it’s been a long and difficult road. Chemotherapy is toxic, and it has ravaged my body with countless adverse effects: extreme nausea, vomiting, fatigue, muscle and bone aches, insomnia, a constantly dry mouth, changed taste sensations, mouth ulcers, nose bleeds, hair loss, constipation, diarrhoea, nerve damage, tender fingers and toe nails, dry eyes, watery eyes, weight-loss, night sweats, and a very low immunity. Quite a list, isn’t it? In fact, managing the emotional lead up to each infusion, and the physical fall-out that follows has almost felt like a full-time job. It has hijacked my life, taken over my thoughts, stolen my freedom.

chemo sucks chemo sucks 2

So you’d think that I’d be ecstatic to be emerging out the other side, right?

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Well, yes and no. I kind of have mixed feelings.

From a physical viewpoint, I can’t wait to be rid of it! Each time I have gone in for chemo treatment, the smell of the place is so acrid it makes my stomach churn. I watch all the lovely oncology nurses gown up in their purple protective wear, pop on their goggles and gloves before handling the drug mixes and I wince at the fact that while they’re worried about a tiny spill of the stuff, the whole bag of cytotoxic splendour is being pumped through my poor body. The labels on each batch don’t make me feel that great either!

chemo sign

But as each infusion date has been gloriously crossed off my calendar, I count down the hours now, knowing the list of side effects above is mostly behind me. I have made it through the fog and am emerging out the other side, ready to reclaim my lost stamina and get this body of mine moving again. Hair has starting sprouting atop my head again, and although its downy soft, and pure white, it is a small sign that my body is on the mend. If you look hard at the picture below, you might just catch a glimpse of my new fuzz!

kate new hair 3

The flip side of chemo ending is purely an emotional one. Back in January I joked about planning a ‘remission soirée’ to celebrate finishing active treatment. I envisaged partying through to the wee hours with all my favourite people, rejoicing in the idea that I’d kicked cancer to the curb and could get on with my life.

I’ve since come to realise that finishing treatment can actually be a very anxious time for cancer patients. You see, even though chemotherapy is hideous to go through, the impact of its effect on your body, however debilitating, kind of feels good; as if the severity of my side effects is somehow a testament to the drugs’ efficacy. To be released from its guard is scary. Suddenly I am on my own again: Me versus Cancer.

It feels like I’m on the edge of a great precipice about to take a leap of faith, knowing full well there’s no safety net to catch me if I fall. Actually, I kind of feel like this guy, but way less prepared:

Tightrope walker Nik Wallenda walks the high wire from the U.S. side to the Canadian side over the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario, June 15, 2012.   (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
Tightrope walker Nik Wallenda walks the high wire from the U.S. side to the Canadian side over the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario, June 15, 2012. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Fortunately, I’m not completely on my own just yet. After tomorrow, I will continue to head in to the Hotel Epworth for tri-weekly infusions of my targeted therapies, Herceptin and Perjeta (aka the wonder drugs), in mid July I start 6 weeks of daily Radiotherapy, and soon enough I’ll be put on some sort of oral Hormone therapy too. So, for now, I am still in the soothing safety net of active treatment, but without the nasty side effects of chemo drugs. So I guess that is a GREAT BIG WIN, isn’t it?

HOORAY FOR MY LAST CHEMO DAY!

keep-calm-celebrate-last-chemo

A Whole Lot Of Awesome

A Whole Lot Of Awesome

A few years ago, probably on the back of a particularly gluttonous festive season and far too much wine, some friends of mine and I started a little running group.

It was pretty laughable at first. (Sorry girls…perhaps I’m speaking for myself here!) We’d meet down at the local park at 7am on a Sunday morning (hello commitment!), lycra’d to the hilt, and pound the pavement huffing and puffing our guts out.

I can’t speak for my friends, but for me, wearing Lycra to actually exercise was quite a new phenomenon! I had been pretty good at wearing it in the guise of exercising (which really just meant I’d found a good way to validate not having a shower before school drop-off). Yep, until running group started, my collection of lycra had only ever served as a lazy alternative to clothes, that had the added effect of making me appear like I was prioritising fitness! Win-win!

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Chemo Comes and Chemo Goes

Chemo Comes and Chemo Goes

Chemo is such a mental game.

Don’t get me wrong, the physical side effects of putting cytotoxic drugs into your bloodstream aren’t pretty, but the tougher game is in the brain.

The first time I went in for treatment, I was a great big ball of nerves. In the weeks prior, I had armed myself with as much information about chemotherapy as I could muster. I had lists upon lists of the potential side effects, and was absolutely convinced I was going to experience everything from hot flushes to heart failure.

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Phantom Nipples

Phantom Nipples

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My nipples might be missing in action these days, but I will let you in on a secret peeps (‘coz you know, we’re totes close and BFFs share stuff like this): my brain still thinks they’re there.

WHAT. THE.

YUH HUH.

Tonight’s fun discussion topic, for all you playing at home, is phantom nipples, just because I will bet 20 cents not one of you has ever had an inkling of a thought about them, let alone read a whole blog post dedicated to their existence.

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How To Stave Off Mange

How To Stave Off Mange

Who notices the odd, innocuous stray hair?

Perhaps you occasionally see a few poking out of your hairbrush bristles, or accumulating in the plughole of your shower. Perhaps you casually brush one off your cheek, or pull it from the knitted loops of your jumper?

I have always grumpily noticed the ones my husband leaves strewn through the bathroom sink after shaving, that’s for sure. Although now that he is cultivating a fair bit of facial hair, the scatters of stray hairs are likely mine. EEK!

I pore over them. I try and count them. It’s become a weirdly wretched obsession!

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Dancing with the Red Devil

Dancing with the Red Devil

It’s nearly February, people. Already!

How is it that time seems to creep by us ever faster each year? As a kid it passes excruciatingly slowly; everything seems to drag. Nowadays, I feel like could practically blink in September and miss Christmas altogether. And boy am I glad that Bakers Delight start selling hot cross buns in January, because I need the three-month heads up or I’d totally miss the flicker of time before Easter!

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