I received a pap smear reminder in the mail a few weeks back. It had been three years since my last smear. Regular pap smears every two years reduce the risk of cervical cancer so they say, especially if you are too old to have received the cervical cancer vaccine. Whatevs. I’ve always loathed that word ‘smear’. I don’t know why? It rhymes with many other excellent words; dear, beer, career, cheer…
What’s the point of having my cervix scraped to check for abnormal cells when I’ve already had cancer and all the trimming and trappings of treatment; amputated breasts, gouged out lymph nodes, chemo poison, radiation burn, ovaries shut down, the humiliation of permanent hairloss, and all of the ongoing health issues I have from Zolodex and Tamoxifen medications, blah, blah, blah. I’m alive. I’m lucky. Surely I couldn’t get a second primary cancer?
Could I even face the scrape? Can I be bothered anymore? Why am I so despondant?
Then began a distant chant. At first it was faint. It sounded was like it was coming from the new mosque that hasn’t yet been built in our town but is warmly anticipated. Or perhaps it was from some far off place further up the gully. “Face the scrape! Face the scrape! Face the scrape!”… the chanting got louder and louder.
Then one restless night at 3am this chanting woke me. To be honest, I actually wake every night at 3:00am. Not a moment before, not a second after. I’ve dubbed this hour MI hour, which stands for “menopausal insomnia” hour. This is the hour that menopausal women all over the world open their eyes, throw off the covers because they are hot and sweaty and curse the Gods and get as far away from their partner as they can.
Anyhow, in the dead of this particular night I turned on my iPhone and read this article. “More cancer patients are hearing the words: ‘you have cancer – again!‘” (NBCnews.com, Aug, 24th, 2015). This is the story of the very lovely Judith Bernstein of suburban Philadelphia. Judith who has eaten more shit sandwiches in her life than anyone I know. Judith has had eight different types of cancer over the last two decades, all treated successfully.
Get the fuck out! EIGHT DIFFERENT CANCERS!
At one point Judy thought she had cancer in her little finger. Which is totes normal for any one-time cancer survivor. But eight times?!?!? Judy, Judy, Judy. Bless you Judy!
The article went on to highlight another tantalizing tit bit… “Nearly 1 in 5 new cases (of cancer) in the U.S. now involve someone who has had the disease before.”
So armed with this knowledge and the seemingly endless “Face the scrape” chanting, the very next day I made my appointment and later faced my fear of the scrape head on.
My excellent womens health doctor had a bucket load of information to catch up on regarding my health. Cancer – check. Ovaries turned off – check. Medications – check. Mental health – check. She is always incredibly thorough and I hadn’t seen her since the lump in my breast was diagnosed as cancer in January 2013.
After our lengthy discussion, I went behind the curtain and removed the bottom half of my attire. I lay quietly on the bed with knees falling gently with feet remaining together. A white blanket gave me some modesty. Women the world over know the drill.
Turns out the scrape is now more like a semi-automatic gun which rotates and bangs tiny holes into your cervix. True. Then my WH doc said, “Oh I can see the walls of your vagina are thinning and dry from your early menopause.”
Excellent. No really, that’s great!
That my friends, was the day my vagina got old. T’was a perfect spring day in our town. I have marked it in my calendar. I might even add it to Facebook as a life event. And the Queen might send it a birthday card when it turns one hundred. Which might not be too far away. I’m also assuming that there will be no more movie roles offered to my vagina either now that it is deemed ‘old’. <Insert sad face>
Now I really can’t wait for the narrative from my first colonoscopy.
P.S last months bone scan was clear. Sorry, I forgot to come and tell you the good news. I’m still having some follow up tests.
As a family, we are absolutely blessed with a huge team of supportive people from all walks of our lives and this network grows and grows; friends, family, work colleagues, running club, school, kinder, long term friends and new acquaintances. I am particularly grateful for this “team” of ours, especially at this time of year as Christmas approaches when it’s easy to reflect on and appreciate the great relationships we have.
Cancer points out in both a brutal and beautiful fashion who you can count as on your team. People help in any way they can, in different capacities with both practical and emotional support to offer. Sometimes those that you would expect to be of support aren’t able to for many reasons, and that is okay. But I am unlikely to ever forget the love and support we received last year, and still receive. I am richer for this lesson.
Through the horror that was 2013, Radical Man (self anointed) and another mutual friend of ours called Sharpie and their families, really astounded me with their support. I had only met Radical Man and his family about four years ago. And yet, together, Radical Man, Sharpie and myself carry on like siblings. We have joked that Radical Man is the oldest brother, Sharpie is the middle sister, and I am the baby.
There is loads of facetiousness in our interactions and that is perhaps why I feel so close to them. My own family and siblings thrived on facetiousness and sarcasm through our growing up years. So Radical Man and Sharpie have plonked themselves into the part of my brain and heart where the deep connections with people are kept.
They could turn up at my house anytime and make themselves at home on my sofa and it wouldn’t be strange, or they could eat the last of our hidden chocolate stash, or borrow our things and break them in an annoying sibling type fashion and that would be fine by me.
Throughout my ten months of active treatment when I was wallowing in the depths of Struggle City, my phone would ‘ding’ with a new text message. It would very frequently be Radical Man or Sharpie with something to say, sometimes stupid; sometimes meaningful; but always appreciated.
When I came home from hospital after having my first mastectomy and axilla clearance with surgical drains, Sharpie texted “be prepared for a front door deposit of an edible kind” and Radical Man would text “food at your door”. And without having to type any more words than necessary, the gourmet food would magically appear; fresh baked enchiladas; the best Italian meatballs with napoli sauce that was garnished with fresh basil; the most exquisite Massaman curry complete with toasted almonds and coriander; the heartiest family lasagne; a Sharpie favourite Chow mein, warm cookies freshly out of the oven; or an extra batch of cookie dough for the freezer so they could be baked for our kids again down the track.
My children would say… “Mum, that was the best spaghetti I’ve ever had. Even better than yours and Grandad’s”.
When I was halfway through chemo, ‘ding’ went my phone… “I don’t want thanks”, Radical Man texted… “But please tell me if you can’t be bothered cooking, as I’m not a good guesser”.
Along with all of the incredible meals we gratefully devoured, came more and more of the supportive texts, and those ridiculous Facebook message stickers, little out of the blue silly symbols; big thumbs and predominately smiling faces that are rather annoyingly easy to send to someone by mistake. Those would later become a bit of an in-joke between us.
Then Radical Man would message “We are on your Team!”
At the time I would laugh and shake my head. That Radical Man and his family are hilarious. Yet the “We are on your team!” messages continued to come. “We are on your team! Sounds like you need some lasagne” texted Radical Man.
There was also the time Radical Man sent me a picture he took of the shoes of a colleague on a course he was attending. Ever so thoughtful to feed my penchant for photographing the shoes of my doctors, I was delighted!
In my haste to start overcoming the impacts of my cancer treatment, I signed up for a half Ironman Triathlon. It had been a long term goal I had been working towards through running and doing some sprint distance triathlons. It was while having the best fitness and body weight I had achieved in years, that I found my lump and it was all down hill from there.
In February this year, Radical Man and I, along with another mate of his, sat glued to our computer screens, adrenaline filled and poised with trigger fingers to gain entry into an event we thought might sell out in minutes. With a blend of absolute terror and excitement we gained entry into a Half Ironman Triathlon which involves a 1.9km swim, 90km bike ride, and a 21.1km (half marathon) run. We immediately messaged “Can’t quite believe we just did that!” And “I’m still in shock!”
There were well meaning people who suggested I was being really unrealistic. That I was pushing myself too hard. But Radical Man never did. We believed that each other could achieve it and there was nine months of training to pull it together for us.
Then rolled round June and it became pretty clear to me that in light of my very slow, post treatment, fitness progress and my continued pelvic health issues thanks to Tamoxifen, I would not be able to pull it off this year. So I had to withdraw from the event, as did Radical Man’s other mate, and this left just RM to go it alone.
Late in November, my family and I took a 1700 km road trip to see Radical Man complete his first half ironman. It was a no brainer… ’cause “We are on his team”.
Congrats to Radical Man on his achievement and thanks for continuing to inspire me to persist at the times when I feel like giving up. Those stickers and messages of support meant more than he will ever know, and watching him run into the finish chute and stop to give Mrs Radical Man a big smooch brought a tear to my eyes. Like me, Mrs Radical Man also picked a good one! To be there cheering Rad Man on with twenty or so of his friends and family all dressed in orange made this an incredible weekend.
As Radical Man himself would say… “How lucky are we?”
January the 18th was an awesome day for so many reasons. Twelve months on (and ten months of breast cancer treatment between), I went back and completed my second sprint distance triathlon. The first was done a week after diagnosis and marked the beginnings of me entering the fray of the disease blog genre when I published this post.
Three hundred and sixty five days ago I was filled with the terror of cancer and what was to lay ahead for me. When I made my way into the river for the triathlon start, all of the cancer related anxiety disappeared. I checked out of Cancerland and tuned into the sights and sounds around me in the immediate moment. It was sunset, there were hundreds of heads and arms thrashing about ahead of me so I waited at the back of the swim pack to compose myself. There were large rivergums on the banks and the sun dappled through their branches, there were sulphur crested cockatoos and galahs screeching at each from the treetops. Through my goggles I could just make out the Port of Echuca Wharf in the distance.
I recall the exhilaration of commencing movement through the tea coloured water, of seeing air bubbles emerge from my mouth, stick to my face and be pushed away with the momentum of swimming. Of seeing arms and legs thrashing and churning through the water. The thrill of turning the large meander bend in the river and swimming within metres of paddles steamers. Of being pushed along by the current of the ancient river towards something great. The sensation of fine river sediments squishing between toes as I stood to make my way up the hill to the bike transition. I was alive and the Dread Dragon from the previous week had finally taken a nap and didn’t return for a couple of days. My family and friends were there to encourage and support me. I wondered if I would ever do anything like it ever again. I would have to wait a long time to see.
Two days later, the Dread Dragon returned and breathed fireballs at everything that mattered to me in my life. Struggling to sleep and eat from the fear of the unknown, the long road ahead of cancer treatment ate away at me. Mr Cool took me off to my local hospital, anorexic from my short dalliance with the anti-depressant medication my doctor had tried to help me with a week earlier, nauseated and with heart palpitations from the sheer anxiety and terror of being a newbie to the world of cancer. The waiting for results had began.
After finishing ten months of treatment and giving my radiation burns time to heal I decided to return to this event. In November, once treatment was complete, I took off like a rocket and tried to train as I once had, six times a week. But it was too soon and too much for my chemo and surgically depleted hemoglobin. I was falling into bed at 7:30pm and was unable to wake in the mornings. So I dropped the training back to three sessions a week and that seemed to be enough to help lift my treatment fatigue. I almost gave up on the idea of returning to the same triathlon. For weeks it just seemed unachievable and unrealistic.
But in mid December I decided to have another go at reaching the goal and I started training more frequently again. I wasn’t waiting any longer. My goal was just to go back and finish it again, 700 metres swim, 20 km’s on the bike and a 5 km run and feel comfortable in myself through the process.
I’m glad I didn’t give up on this idea. I’m glad I didn’t wait.
This time, there was much less fear about doing the actual triathlon even though I had a lot less fitness. Having completed it before helped, but there was something about what I have been through in 2013 has made me a bit tougher with respect to challenges. A bit more of a go getter. Some people suggested I should wait. Wait till my body had recovered more. But there is no time to waste. Why should I wait to be ready to exercise? To train? What was I supposed to wait for? What was I fearful of? Getting better? Getting past cancer? Getting on with living?
I’ve put off many things in my life thinking there would be a more appropriate time down the track to start working towards something. I’ve made loads of excuses. I sat and waited. The years rolled on by, and I was still waiting. But I’ve learnt this year that the best time to start is NOW. Not when I think I look more respectable in lycra or am fitter, or have faster times or feel more comfortable while running. But to just jump in and have a go. Just drop the fears and the inhibitions that hold us back. I’m not going to be the Mum who sits on the side of the pool anymore and watches my kids. I am what I am. In all of my puffy, wobbly, bald, post treatment glory.
While waiting in a pre race toilet queue, I got talking to a lady who asked me if I had done the race before. My thin short hair still screams cancer to some people and after she glanced up at my scalp she paused uncomfortably. I told her my story and she proceeded to show me her open heart surgery scar from ten months earlier. Surgeons removed what was thought to be cancer on her aortic valve. And there we were waiting in a pre race toilet queue about to do a sprint distance triathlon. Both of us with an appreciation for our lives and making the most of things. Waiting for the loo. But not waiting for the things that were important to us.
Then, while waiting on the grass for the pre race briefing, I spotted a couple walking past the park. They had waited for the right moment to approach me. I bawled like a baby on recognising high school friends Mel from the Blog I GOT THE GOOD CANCER and ‘Bevan Lemon’ that drove a 700km round trip to surprise me. This gesture mean’t so much to me and I will be forever be grateful to them for doing that. Even more incredible was that Mel had just finished 6 months of chemo and here she was, in the northern part of the state on a 39 degree day cheering me on (and she still has better head coverage than me!) and all while waiting to see if her cancer was in remission or not.
When Mr Cool and I went to leave our children with their grandparents to walk to the start of the swim, my oldest son got upset. This was partly because he saw my reaction to Mel and Bevan’s arrival. But it was also about him remembering the details of this previous year vividly.
He remembers the state his Mum was in last time I did a triathlon and it was when his life changed immeasurably. Shortly after that triathlon his Mum went away to hospital many times, she came home with hard breasts with scars and spent long durations in bed and there was a bag of blood attached to her and she kept going back to hospital all the time to see doctors. She couldn’t hug him like she used to because she was in too much pain and she couldn’t lift her arm anymore. Then her hair all fell out and she was too sick to care for him and his brother, and people kept arriving at his home with meals and cards and flowers. He had waited a long time for “his” Mum to be “his” Mum again. And now we were back in the place where in his mind, it all began.
After reassuring him that everything was okay and that I was very happy and excited, he agreed to cheer for us and I gave him our camera and asked him to take some photos. He played with his brother and they watched and waited for their parents to come into view as the race progressed.
With all of the excitement of surprises from sneaky friends and unsettled kids, Mr Cool and I hurriedly made our way to the start and while walking with a friend the tears started flowing at the feeling of being back here. I had waited a long time to get back here, to this moment.
We were late getting to the start line and it was like a comedy of errors with Mr Cool and I trying to get our wetsuits on as the starter called five minutes and a few hundred people gathered in the water below us.
Still conscious of my post chemo Harold Bishop hairdo, (a character from the Australian TV Soap Neighbours) and the complexities of easing the new hot flush me into tight lycra and a wetsuit that fitted me much better pre treatment, I got a quick kiss from Mr Cool and ran down and jumped into the river at the back of the pack and immediately started the swim.
I’m not a fan of menopausal hot flushes underneath a winter wetsuit and swim cap. Half way along I had to stop to tug on the neck of my wetsuit to let some cool water in. Then I resumed swimming. When I reached the river exit I fell over getting out of the water. I was then unable to get the wetsuit down over my much broader chest and my arms were much more tired from the swim this year. I walked through transition and wasted 5 minutes just trying to work out how I would GET THE DAMN WETSUIT OFF! Riding a bike in a wetsuit? Now there would be a challenge. But I took my time and as the transition area emptied itself I was able to pry the wetsuit off my elbows and make my way out onto the bike course.
On the bike the wind picked up and I was at the very back of the bike field pushing on my own through the wind. Despite there being very hot and windy conditions, I rode the 20km’s with a big wide smile. As I pedalled along I reflected on what had occurred in 2013. My body felt more tired with each lap but I felt comfortable, and I was okay with being last. I was just thankful to be there, and so grateful to all of the people that supported us in 2013.
Then out of nowhere a woman rode up along side me. After some chatting about the heat and the wind and some introductions, it turned out it was her very first triathlon. She was intending to enter the event as a team, and wait till later on to enter as an individual. Down the track when she would have developed more fitness and discovered if she in fact liked triathlon or not. But when she went to sign up she discovered her ‘”friend” had already entered her as an individual to complete the whole thing. So on just 18 days of training she turned up and completed the race. What a legend! And that made two of us who were not waiting.
My incredible partner raced the swim and bike legs in the lead pack and then chose to stop and wait forty eight minutes for me at the start of his run leg to run alongside and finish with me. In his mind, I would not come last, as he would cross the line after me.
Yesterday, I surprised even myself. My second sprint distance triathlon achieved, twenty minutes slower than last year and my proudest achievement yet. But most importantly I was again reminded of what an amazing network of friends and family I have around me and in choosing to do this triathlon, I was able to give my sons the image of me running across the finish line, ecstatic and with their Dad in tow. I’m glad they didn’t have to wait a second longer to experience this.
Now if only I didn’t have to wait for some more hair!