Life has been rolling along recently with loads of travel, with celebrations and lots of love. I was shortlisted for the Mamamia Writers Comp, which was some lovely validation for the writing of this blog. I also received an “Australian of The Year” nomination. Which despite making me laugh for weeks also left me secretly chuffed.
I seem to be relishing life at the moment.
As I approach the three year mark since I found my grade three lump in my left breast, the colour is FINALLY returning to my life, despite living with the ongoing side effects (hairloss, menopause, brittle painful bones, digestive issues, lung scarring, medication side effects, continued weight gain) from treatment for early breast cancer, I’m finally emerging from the sinkhole. This despite not even being finished with surgeries yet, as I’m still on a public waiting for reconstruction.
It’s taken some woop arsed counselling sessions, some anti-depressants, and the immersion of myself in the things I used to love to do when I was a teenager. I bought a ukulele in Hawaii and I’m enjoying learning some basic chords and having a sing along. Painting has been such a feature of the last few months. Commissions are coming in thick and fast so I’m finally ready to set up a business.
Here’s a grab of the stages of my latest painting.
I’m no longer thinking about if the cancer comes back. I’m no longer worried about death. I’ve reached the point of que sera sera … the future’s not ours to see, and all that. So thanks Doris Day and thanks cancer for reconnecting me with my creative side which I lost for 26 years.
Marina’s original photograph which she entered in the AIPPA can be accessed here.
Anyone who wants to follow me on Instagram can find me at lisamcdermidfineart.
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.
Yesterday was the day for awards. First the news of my win in Blog of The Year on The Indie Chicks site. Hooray! Then my very talented friend Marina who I have written about previously in the post “This is Us, This is Me” received some awesome news.
Marina received four awards in the NSW/ACT AIPP (Australian Institute of Professional Photography) Awards, in both landscape and portrait categories. Marina was also a finalist in the “Emerging” photographer category at the awards. Such incredible achievements for someone who took up photography as a way of expressing herself after her experience with moving through the other side of brutal breast cancer treatment. But took it up she did with passion and complete gusto!
One of the portraits Marina submitted was from our photographic session last year. I flew to Canberra and she hilariously set up a studio in her children’s play room, borrowed some lighting and bang bang! Here we are.
The print was titled “Moe” in reference to the combination of unique hairstyles of The Three Stooges. It represents my disappointment at my hairs failure to return and frustration at looking this way despite being 15 months post chemo. Incidentally, the image makes my hair look much thicker and darker than it actually is, even now, 22 months after chemo, I am without eyebrows and thick enough hair create any hairstyle.
The judges are presented with each image and given a few moments to score it. There is no title, no story and no details about the photographer. Just the image itself. They review over a thousand images and assess them on content, impact, and professional quality. The judging was live streamed here.
Incredibly, this is how Marina’s image spoke to them. Click to listen. The transcript is below.
Transcript – Judging of Marina’s Image
David: Thank you judges. Print scores Silver Award, 82, congratulations!
David: Now Hilary is on 87 and has elected to challenge. Hilary, you are working with, ah, 78, 84, 82 and 80. Please Hilary, share your thoughts.
Hilary : Um Initially I sort of struggled with the skin tone of her face, um, but it’s such a striking portrait and her intense gaze it really sort of got me in. I read this as she has had chemotherapy and she has lost her hair and her hair is grown back. And I read the fact that possibly radiotherapy and often with people, I’m interpreting this myself, with radiation therapy you can get radiation burns, so maybe she has had radiation on her head, who knows, but I just think that there is a story in those eyes, a story in her face, the hair, the fact that it is presented with such a direct gaze, and a very simple background, black top, you know, it’s an extremely simple direct portrait. Strong, but sad.
David: Hmm, Jacqui Dean I’d like to hear from you please there at 78 please.
Jacqui: I’d put it into professional practice, um you know, we are looking at all the prints and I see that story immediately, but um, there’s just something, ah, it’s slightly lopsided, and her necklace isn’t square on and it’s such a square on sort of picture facing us like this. I feel that everything should be straight, and she’s just going slightly down and I don’t like where it is cropped either. I would like to have seen more of her rather than cropping it there. But you know, I’m listening.
David: Um okay, Paul
Paul: Yeah actually Jacqui they’re all the points that pulled this up high for me. I felt like there is this askew intensity about this. It’s a very well crafted image so to me that spells a deliberateness to where it’s cropped, there is an extra tension in that cut at the bottom where I wouldn’t actually put it. There is an askewness to, to the shoulders and, and the leaning over of this necklace, there’s something is just slightly off. One of the eyes is slightly wider than the other which with that level of intensity I find quite, um, quite full-on actually to experience. And you know with elements of story you can read in I’m actually coming up with Hilary into distinction. It’s a beautiful, beautiful print.
David: Thank you Paul. Can we go back to Hilary please. Hilary your right of reply.
Hilary: Um yeah, no I agree with what Paul has said, I think that the fact that she has gone through obviously some sort of trauma, um you know, things aren’t symmetrical, but they are not even, whatever, so hence I think that makes it a stronger portrait.
David: So Hilary, you are asking your judges to go to… silver distinction. Yeah, there we are. Okay so, Hillary’s score of 87 is locked in. Would the other four judges please re-score.
David: And you get your wish, 85, silver with distinction.
I think the judges are absolutely spot on with their interpretation, despite having no background context accompanying the image.
Nothing about breast cancer or any cancer is symmetrical. Nothing about it sits right. It’s awry. It’s to be scorned, held in contempt. It’s intense. It’s painful. It’s unfair. It’s ugly. Breast cancer is not pink and pretty which seems to be the tack of most fundraising organisations.
Cancer cropped me in places that I didn’t want to be. My hair and eyebrows were permanently destroyed by chemo. There is an unspoken tension in my body language, my position. A crookedness. I cringe.
This tension carries on even in people who are “cured”. Behind the smiling faces of “survivors”, is this “askewness” that one of the judges refers to. This new, wonky, awry, self. This “out of line’ new normal that those diagnosed and treated for cancer have to endure. And this can take some time to right itself, even in the best of us.
Congratulations Marina on having the standard of your images and talent recognised. I can’t wait to see what you capture going forward! Thank you for asking me to be one of your subjects. x
Off to the big smoke today to end my relationship with my hair specialist.
It’s been grand, but a year of hair growth meds and many consultations (cha-ching!$!$$) later, I’ve ended up with enough photographs of my scalp to fill an Instagram account and I’m sporting some excellent facial and neck hair. Might be worthy of an entry into Movember this year.
On the way to the station I stopped to get a coffee and missed my train by just one minute! With only one train an hour on the line I couldn’t wait or I’d be late for my date with the white Eames chairs and the doctor with loads of hair. So I set about chasing that sucker down. Took me ten stations and 100 kms to finally catch the darn thing. But I made it. #catchingtrainslikeaboss #atleastthecoffeewasgood #Taxotears
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?”
I have always thought the word “lump” was a miserable and unimpressive little word. As a noun it has many uses…
- a compact mass of a substance, especially one without a definite or regular shape.
- a swelling under the skin, especially one caused by injury or disease.
- a small cube of sugar.
- a heavy, ungainly, or slow-witted person.
It is also used as a verb…
- to put in an indiscriminate mass or group; treat as alike without regard for particulars.
- carry (a heavy load) somewhere with difficulty.
The origin is thought to be from a Germanic base meaning ‘shapeless piece’; the Danish call lump ‘lump’, the Norwegian and Swedish dialect for “lump” refers to ‘block, log’, and the Dutch call it “lomp”which means ‘rag’.
The last time I felt a lump was 23 months ago I wasn’t really concerned. I actually had two lumps back then that were oddly found to be connected by a strand on mammography and ultrasound imaging. There was a 4 cm lump at four o’clock, connected by a 3 cm lump at 3 o’clock. Oddly, the 4 cm one ended up as benign and that damn 3 o’clock one was not. The cancerous one felt like a chocolate liquorice bullet, long and thin. The benign one was not easily palpable. Then there was also a mass in one silly little lymph node.
The act of feeling a “lump” for a breast cancer survivor makes the blood drain again, it strikes terror and reawakens the kind of anxiety that lies deep within. Last week, in the shower I discovered nestled deep in my armpit area, two, maybe three small lumps of various sizes. These are sitting about one inch from my mastectomy incision scar. They can’t be lymph nodes because they were all skillfully removed by my breast surgeon.
Hello Dread Dragon, its been a while. You have been far, far away while I have been busy enjoying myself, taking interstate trips with girlfriends, having my photo taken for a National Portrait Prize entry, working on getting my pre treatment fitness back, rolling with my busy family life.
On the health front my energy has been improving. I have returned to running and riding. I am seeing small gains, and although small, they are gains. My hair is getting longer but is still awfully thin and receding, despite nine months of taking Minoxidil (Rogaine) for my head hair and Spirinolactone to facilitate the growth of eyebrows and eyelashes (and facial hair!!!). Tamoxifen maintains it’s daily presence, and I’m waiting for a specialist appointment to see if anything can be done about my mutant post treatment ovaries. The trans vaginal ultrasound (also affectionally known as dildo cam) has been a frequent part of my testing repertoire this year, while we monitor said ovaries. I’m also still waiting for the exchange surgery for the expanders. But on the whole life is pretty awesome! I am needing to write less and less these days as my cancer experience fades. I’m trying to protect my children from it more and more. So much of the last few years has been about cancer.
I was hoping my GP would just say… “it will be scar tissue and you don’t need it looked at”. But after a quick palpate as I laid on my back with my arm above my head, they went and said “An ultrasound is warranted given your history”. And the ultrasound order clinical notes read “left breast cancer and axillary clearance, now several palpable hard lumps, prob scar tissue“.
It is most likely JUST scar tissue or fat necrosis from radiation. But the very instance one feels a lump again… I don’t know. I don’t think you can understand this unless you have been through cancer yourself.
I guess this is my life now and as the saying goes… “You can like it or lump it”, which is kind of apt given that synonyms for this include…
… put up with it, bear it, endure it, take it, tolerate it, suffer it, accept it, make allowances for it, abide it, brook it, weather it, countenance it; stomach it, stand it, swallow it, hack it, wear it.
So lump it I will.
Two years on, and no Melbourne half marathon for me yesterday. But inspired by my amazing friends I just ran a few kms for the first time around Melbourne’s “Tan Track”. And the great thing about looking like this 13 months clear of active treatment is people get out of your way when they see you coming. I can also highly recommend getting double tissue expanders, for I haven’t had to wear a bra since! #lifeisgood #thatswaterbytheway #lovemysolesisters