Alone among a Field of Women

Image

Pink Lady (Photo: Sean Garnsworthy/AFL Media) from aflphotos.com.au

It is not even a year since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, yet it is starting to feel like a distant dream. Almost surreal. Did that really happen to me? Did I really just go through that? Pumped with poison and zapped with radio waves? Did I really lose all my hair?

Whilst cancer has moved way down my list of daily preoccupations, this weekend I was reminded how significant this chapter of my life has been. And just how lucky I am.

Mum, Paul and I attended the “Field of Women” event, organised by the Breast Cancer Network Australia to raise awareness of and funds for breast cancer. Fifteen thousand people descended on the hallowed ground at the MCG* to form the shape of the BCNA symbol, the pink lady. This represents the number of women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer every year. 15,000 every year!

P1040476

Preparing to go onto the MCG

P1040477

I wasn’t quite prepared for the cocktail of emotions I would feel. There was excitement at being on the MCG. A sense of solidarity with thousands in their pink ponchos, the iconic colour that now represents breast cancer.

Yet tears poured down my face and my heart broke at the sad stories shared and the images of those not so lucky in their battle with cancer.

A Field of Women

A Field of Women

At one point the women who had been diagnosed with cancer were asked to raise their hands. Within my immediate peripheral vision, mine was the only hand raised. Despite being surrounded by support, I didn’t expect in that moment to feel so alone. No matter how much support I had, this battle was my own and no-one could fight it for me.

But most importantly this event reminded me yet again how fortunate I am. Fortunate that I have the opportunity to put this chapter behind me. That I have the luxury of losing my perspective all over again.

Sometimes I forget that I am still going through treatment. The only reminder, my three weekly visit to the chemo day unit for an intravenous infusion of Herceptin. I usually feel annoyed and inconvenienced by these treatments.

In part this is because I don’t feel like I am sick so there’s no physical evidence to remind me that I need treatment. Like having to finish antibiotics long after your symptoms have eased. And in part I don’t want to be reminded of going through chemo. I want to put it behind me and get on with living.

But at the event I was reminded how lucky I am to be receiving Herceptin at zero cost. As little as 10 years ago this drug cost $60,000 and was completely out of reach. I am so grateful that this is now funded by the Government, thanks to lobbying by the BCNA.

So whilst at times I am guilty of losing perspective, in some ways this is a sign that life really is moving on. Which can only be a good thing.

(Photo: Sean Garnsworthy/AFL Media)

*Melbourne Cricket Ground

 

Post cancer stress disorder

Have you ever gone through trying circumstances valiantly, where you keep it all together, stay brave and strong, only to collapse in a heap after the situation is over? Well that’s my experience with chemotherapy.

I haven’t written for nearly three months and there are probably many reasons why. Being back at work full time, teaching and practicing more yoga has kept me busy. Feeling like I don’t have as much to write about. But in truth, it’s mostly because I’ve been struggling. My emotions have been hanging out at a theme park. The red light on my resilience tank has been blinking ominously and I don’t know where to refuel.

Running on empty

When I re-read my last post, I wonder who wrote it. At the end of last year, I was feeling like I sailed through chemo relatively unscathed, both physically and mentally. I was (mostly) able to maintain a pretty positive attitude, and in fact had periods of feeling calmer than I ever have before. At Christmas, when my Dad was visiting, he told me how much he wished I didn’t have to deal with “all of this”. I told him, “Dad, I have already gotten over it and moved on, you need to keep up”.

But when I returned to work in the New Year, in the midst of an organisational restructure, I found myself becoming an emotional mess. Quite regularly. Let’s just say that I have cried more tears in the last three months than I have in the last 10 years. And I couldn’t understand it. I was through the other side of chemo, feeling good physically, my hair was growing back. Yet whilst I haven’t felt like I am stressed or worried about cancer itself, I have found that my resilience for dealing with any other area of my life that caused me stress was just not there.

You know, the little things that cause stress. Like worrying whether you will have a job. Like feeling unattractive and butch with short, stubbly grey hair. Like trying to make decisions about what to cook for dinner. Like dealing with deep seated and complex issues that manifest both physically and emotionally. That make you wonder whether not dealing with them is what gave you cancer in the first place.

Of course, I was going through radiotherapy at the same time and have started hormone therapy. Although as I said it hasn’t felt like cancer treatment has been what’s worrying me. Radiotherapy thankfully wasn’t too tough but perhaps just going there every day and being surrounded by people battling with cancer has more of an impact on my mental health than I was aware of.  Where I used to get a sense of comfort from going to the hospital, once I started going every Monday to Friday for six weeks, I very quickly became “over it”.

For those curious about what radiotherapy involves, here’s a typical day: I arrive at reception and confirm my appointment time for the next day. Sit in the waiting room until I am told to get changed. I go to the cupboard, where I have my own shelf, upon which sits a bag with my own hospital gown. I remove the top half of my clothes and get into the gown. I then go to another waiting room and wait to be called onto the radiotherapy bed. Every day I have to recite my name, date of birth and address and what part of my body is being treated so the staff know that they have the right person. To relieve the tedium I give my date of birth as 1984 to see if they notice.

Then I climb on the bed, lower my gown and have two to three people hovering over my breast, drawing texta marks on my skin. You learn to give up any modesty pretty quickly.They line the marks up with laser beams to ensure that the exact same spot will be treated each time. Then the staff leave the room and I am alone, vulnerable. I suck at being vulnerable. Thankfully the actual “zapping” is quick, and I don’t feel a thing. But progressively my skin gets more red, tender and sore as the weeks progress.

At the end of it, there is some relief. It’s a significant milestone, but I still have another 6 months of 3-weekly intravenous infusions. Thankfully, I am starting to feel better and more myself. I have a new role at work which I am enjoying, I am teaching yoga one night a week, and I am planning a three week trip to Europe in May. The emotional roller coaster has dipped and is climbing high again.

Onwards and upwards

Reflections on 2013

2013 was many things, so many highs and lows that it is hard to summarise. It is probably an understatement to say that it will be memorable. There have been three significant “episodes” that have defined this year, all of which pushed me out of my comfort zone in a series of escalating challenges.

The first was being asked to act in my Manager’s role for a period of 5 months. A fabulous opportunity, for which I felt honoured, but also totally daunted. Looking back, I see that in the beginning I was immensely stressed. A perfectionist, with extremely high expectations of myself, I later realised that a deeply held fear of failure was what really challenged me.

Fortunately I did eventually find my feet, and started to feel more comfortable, indeed more confident in the role. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it. But an important realisation was that this was more to do with how and where I get job satisfaction from, and that it wasn’t to be found in this role.

The second episode was undergoing my 200 hour yoga teacher training qualification. Of course, learning anatomy, something I haven’t studied in any depth, stretched me. Yet it was the philosophy that confounded, confused and challenged me more than anything I have studied before. It has opened my mind to a belief system, a way of life, indeed a paradigm that was completely foreign to me before.

But it was the personal and spiritual growth that was truly profound.  The discovery of deeply held beliefs about myself (like the aforementioned fear of failure) totally astonished me. And to have experienced the unconditional love of strangers changed me, in ways that I cannot articulate or, I suspect, even yet know.

Of course, the final chapter of 2013 was being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. On paper, it sounds like this should have been the most difficult challenge of my life. Yet it doesn’t feel like it. I’ve been through heart ache (haven’t we all); I have been ship wrecked in the middle of the night; I have felt the pain of loss. And some of those things I have not coped with as well as I have coped with cancer. Sure, there have been some tough moments. But I cannot help think that the months preceding my diagnosis equipped me with resilience, with an ability to be vulnerable, and with the tools to cope with life’s curve balls.

Of course, I am lucky to have a “good case” – early detection and containment, not affected too badly by chemotherapy, a strong survival rate. Not to mention the sheer good fortune to be born in Australia and have access to some of the world’s best health care. But I don’t want to belittle what it’s like to battle cancer. It’s just that in the face of cancer I found so much to be thankful for. Like the ability to be present. Like learning to look for the good that can come from bad. And the opportunity to take stock of what is really important in life. Like family and friends. It’s brought me closer to people, allowed me even deeper connections. So many people have told me they have found me “inspiring” this year. But it is I that has been truly humbled by the love, support and generosity of those around me.

They say that people come into your life for a season, a reason or a lifetime. I think this must also be true of life events. I really do believe that I will look back on 2013 as a year that happened for a reason. There are new doors opening, a new pathway unfolding, that each of these episodes have helped lead me towards. I know that had they not happened, I would not be opening those doors. I don’t know which way they will lead me, and I am sure there will be more obstacles to overcome. But I am ready, and I am excited.

Happy New Year.

Lessons from cancer

IMG_7754My first post wondered whether cancer would change my life. Naively, perhaps, I didn’t expect it to. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking. Almost five months since diagnosis and three months since starting chemotherapy, I am more calm, centred and peaceful than I can remember feeling in a long time.

So much has shifted for me. I no longer feel the need to control so much of my plans, my environment, my destiny. Instead I am more open to “going with the flow”. All I have ever had, all any of us ever have, is an illusion of control. When you realise that, it is much easier to let go.

It’s also been an exercise in letting go of perfection. The scarf I am knitting has become a metaphor for this. It is sloppy and uneven. Moments where my mind has wandered can be seen in a dropped stitch, or a diversion from the pattern. As I watch my own progress, I have been learning to accept my less than perfect piece of craft. In the end, does it really matter? It will be made with love.

A few short months ago I was consumed by fear, guilt and loss of identity over the need to take a step back in my work. I wondered what on earth I would do if I wasn’t busy and productive. Yet now, I am relishing the greater balance I have in my life. These days, when I feel tired, I don’t always just push through. Life doesn’t have to be so busy. It’s a choice, and it’s got me wondering what it is that we are so afraid to be faced with if we are still.

My attitude to my yoga practice has also changed. Six months ago, I mostly practiced a powerful vinyasa style of yoga. My attitude to gentler forms of yoga was that it was my form of cheating – the yoga I practiced when I couldn’t find the energy to undertake a demanding class. I certainly did not value the stillness. When I attend a gentle yoga class now, it’s bliss. Even when sitting in a pose that causes discomfort, I can still relish the time to be still and just relax. It seems so obvious now, yet it has been so freeing to realise that I don’t always have to push so hard. Doing is important, but so is being.

A number of things have helped me reach this relaxed state. There’s no question that yoga and meditation has been a key part of it. Yoga has provided greater insight into my self. A greater awareness of my mind, my emotions and my deepest held beliefs. Yoga gave me the tools and cancer lead me to apply them.

Perspective has also been a factor. And I don’t just mean the perspective you’d expect from cancer – you know, the awareness that the “little things don’t matter”. Throughout this time I have been repeatedly shown that there is always someone in a worse position than you. Always. Yet at the same time, we all have crap to deal with, and just because it’s relative doesn’t diminish what our own situation feels like to us. And we are entitled to feel whatever it is that we feel.

While this can sound like a cliche, the other factor that has contributed to my sense of well-being is the love and support of family, friends and colleagues. I’ve never felt so loved and cared for. The generosity of those wanting to do something, anything, to help ease this process, has been humbling.

Tomorrow is my fifth round of chemo. By the end of 2013 I should have completed my sixth and final round of chemotherapy. I may have lost my hair, but I have gained so much. 2014, I am ready for whatever you may bring.

Eyebrow frivolity

IMG_1116[1] My eyebrows have always been wild. Dark, bushy and unkempt. In fact, they were quite ahead of their time because now my 18 year-old nieces are deliberately exaggerating and accenting their eyebrows into dark ominous slashes above their beautiful blue eyes.

My cousin owns her own beauty salon and she has been wanting to attack (read, “shape”) my eyebrows for about 20 years now. I let her wax them once. Only once. The pain was searing. But in all truth, it’s not really the pain that prevents me from maintaining neat and tidy eyebrows. Basically, I am lazy. Or I like to say, low maintenance. But the the truth is that whilst I might appreciate the appearance of a freshly plucked pair of eyebrows, I simply cannot be bothered maintaining them. And the in-between phase just looks hideous. (It’s for this same reason that I don’t paint my nails: I can’t be bothered with the upkeep).

Anyway, my faithful commitment to my eyebrows has been rewarded through chemotherapy. For as far as I can tell, I haven’t lost any of my eyebrow hairs. They are as unkempt as ever. And for that, I say thank you eyebrows. Whilst the hairs on my head have abandoned me one by one, you have stuck with me through these testing times. For that I will reward you with my undying loyalty and a renewed commitment to leave you just as you are.

IMG_1118[1]

Planning to be present

I have always been a planner. An organiser. I’ve always considered it a strength. Yet as I learn more and more about being present, it has made me realize just how often my mind is “in the future”. Between my yoga teacher training, meditation course and reading the Power of Now, I am starting to realize that the key to happiness could be as simple as living in the present moment, as often as possible.

Of course on a practical day to day level we need to make plans sometimes. We need to think ahead or there would be no groceries in the fridge when the time comes to make dinner. But it seems that most of us live in a state where our minds are either in the past or in the future. But rarely are they in the present. It seems that we have lost the ability to be still, mindful, and totally focused in the here and now. Our minds seem to crave distraction: you only have to look at your fellow passengers on public transport. Everyone has their nose buried in their smart phones. These days I can’t even sit and watch TV without feeling the need to multi-task on my phone – checking emails, looking things up on the net, making sure I haven’t missed out on anything on facebook.

For those who spend a lot of time thinking about the past, this could be a nostalgic view of better times, or perhaps beating yourself up over past behaviour, or dwelling on regrets. For those living in the future, as I do, it’s often a case of planning for better times. Planning holidays, dreaming of a better house, imagining the next job. Or else it’s stressing about things which may or may not ever happen, like forecasting what might be said in a difficult but necessary conversation, or worrying about side effects which may or may not happen as a result of chemotherapy.

So I have been employing a range of strategies to practice being present. Which isn’t as simple as it sounds once you realize how rarely you are in the moment. I guess it’s what they call “mindfulness”, where you pay a lot of attention to the sights, smells, tastes and sounds around you. Activities where you can totally focus on what you are doing right now. Meditation and yoga have of course helped, but I’ve also been trying some things that I haven’t done since childhood.  Like colouring in and drawing. A friend has just re-taught me how to knit. I am cooking more too.

All of this mindfulness has made me realize that negative emotions are a trigger for my mind to go into the future. If I am bored, unhappy, afraid, anxious or merely uncomfortable, my mind copes by escaping. An example of how this plays out is that at some point on this “cancer journey” I realized that I was spending a lot of time trying to plan a holiday for my fortieth birthday next May. Now, on a practical level, it can be beneficial to plan holidays some time out because you can get cheaper deals, do thorough research – it’s actually part of the fun. But when I started to stress about the fact that I couldn’t book anything, couldn’t lock down any plans due to the risk of treatment dates getting changed, I realized that this wasn’t helpful. I also realized that I was creating a state of “conditional happiness”. In other words, life would be better when chemo and radiotherapy were over and I could bask on a Croatian island.

But I didn’t want to live life like that. Sure chemo sucked. But that didn’t mean that everything in life was miserable. At least it certainly wouldn’t be if I didn’t spend the entire time dwelling on my treatment. So I have really made a concerted effort to live in the present and appreciate the moment. As well as letting go of little things that I stress about. I really think it’s made a difference. I am conscious and content, enjoying things as simple as the sun on my face, the breeze on my neck and the flowers in my pot plants. I contribute at work when I can and don’t think about it when I am not there. I now sit on the tram and watch the passing scenery instead of burying my nose in my smart phone. And I watch my thoughts, catching them drift away into the future and gently guiding them back to this moment. Right here, right now. This is where I am.

Smell the...petunias?

Smell the…petunias?

More good than bad

Funny how it’s easier to write about a bad day than a good day. I don’t feel as if I have much to say on the good days, yet thankfully they far outnumber the bad.

Fortunately, the second cycle of chemo has been fairly low impact. I was able to manage the symptoms proactively because I knew what to expect. Apart from the fact that I am rapidly approaching baldness, you wouldn’t know I was going through chemo.

In fact, I have been receiving a lot of compliments about how well I look, and it feels weird. These are coming from people who know that I am having “some health issues” but don’t know specifically that I am going through treatment for breast cancer. So I guess they expected me to look sick. In their eyes, I’ve lost a few kilos, have a perfectly coiffed hair-do and am applying new make-up (received from the Look Good. Feel Better program). If only they saw me without the wig, they wouldn’t be telling me that I look great.

I think I have managed to find a happy medium at work. I may not be operating at full mental strength, but that’s ok. I can still contribute. As long as I honour my mental and emotional health as readily as I do my physical health, when I need to, then I should still be able to work through my treatment. That has eased a lot of my self-imposed stress and angst.

Today was meant to be my 3rd chemo cycle, but it has been postponed a week due to my platelets being too low. (Chemo kills off your blood cells and the 3 week spacing is meant to give enough time for them to regenerate, but it seems the dose may have been a bit high.) This was a great opportunity to test my approach to not pinning my happiness on milestones such as each round of chemo. Whilst I was looking forward to reaching the half way point, it’s really just a minor inconvenience. And it will mean that I am feeling good for some quality R&R with my Dad who will be visiting from interstate.

So I thought I’d share a few highlights of my last couple of weeks. The things that have made me laugh, brought be peace, and filled me with love.

  • Getting a mohawk for a few days. This is the version once my dear friend Alicia tidied it up. It didn’t last long but it was fun.

IMG_8807 IMG_8814

  • At the Look Good. Feel Better program I hit it off with a 69 year old lady who was going through her second case of breast cancer. She was feisty and sophisticated, elegant and proud. She invited me out for a drink, and expecting coffee, I was amused and surprised when she ordered a vodka martini and half a dozen natural oysters. Apparently she had been experiencing nausea with her last round of chemo and oysters were the only thing she could stomach. I couldn’t eat oysters at the peak of health! Picture it: two women surrounded by men in business suits, one wearing a silk scarf tied on her head, the other a Mohawk, drinking cocktails on a Tuesday afternoon.

Image courtesy of Maggie Smith/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

  • I started a meditation course and was pleased to learn that we weren’t going to “blank our minds” but were instead going to practice channeling our thoughts in a positive direction. Thinking positively is a great tool and proving very helpful. Learning about the soul, however, is challenging me immensely:)

Image courtesy of Master Isolated Images/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

  • I spent a few days in one of my favourite places in the world: Coles Bay, Tasmania. So good for my inner peace. Especially seeing dolphins!
Beautiful Coles Bay

Beautiful Coles Bay

My favourite animals

My favourite animals

  • And finally, today I got the all clear to resume stronger yoga classes. Surya Namaskar A, here I come!
Image courtesy of samarttiw/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of samarttiw/FreeDigitalPhotos.net