Friday, February 1, 2013

I'll have what she's having

The trouble with this goddamned Freeloader is he keeps shifting the goalposts.

Of course, people warned me that the whole chemotherapy thing would be a moveable feast- that I'd feel different during different cycles. Probably worse, as the poisons built up in my body. That's completely logical; the more damage the chemicals do to the stray cancer cells as time goes on, the more collateral damage there is to the normal cells.

I didn't want to hear it, of course. I have some sort of unquenchably naiive belief that if I gather enough information about my body's reactions and analyse it obsessively, the Freeloader will stay between the lines of 'what I know' and I'll be prepared for anything he throws at me.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Dammit.

I mean, it'd be so handy if he'd just stay still. Then people could read my blog and know what to expect from this sort of chemo, couldn't they? And that would be really useful. I'd feel like I was doing a proper community service. You know, "If you have what I'm having, this is what will happen."

It doesn't work like that.


This time round I've been as sick as a dead dog, all the way from Day 3 to Day 9. I'm talking lie-in-bed, what-bike, fuck-the-Wii sick. I'm talking who-cares-if-I-get-lymphoedema, couldn't-be-bothered-with-mouthwashes, all-bets-are-off sick.

I'm talking wobbly legs that would barely take me to the bathroom, a bladder that screamed for relief every hour on the hour day and night, intestines that changed their mind about how to torment me four or five times a day so that regulating them was impossible, and a brain that was so trashed I could barely make my mouth form words (let alone entertain myself while I waited for the express train to finish running me over). I'm talking a hideously sore throat that had me taking my temperature every few hours, a hacking cough and a mouth that felt like it belonged to a cadaver. There I was on Day 9, when I usually start to feel human, still unable to taste a bloody thing or swallow anything at all without pain in my throat. Not even water.

Yep, it's been a tough one.


Just to add to the joy, in the middle of all that along came Cyclone Oswald bearing 250mm of rain in 48 hours (that's TEN INCHES!? WTF) and insane wind gusts that threatened to blow the trees right out of the sodden ground. By the time the Bureau of Meteorology issued their major flood warning for our area, the creek had risen so violently that we'd already been cut off at both ends of the road for hours.

(Hello, BoM, a warning means you told us in advance.)

We joke that this area should be called the Bungawalbin Archipelago. Once the floods hit, the road becomes a chain of non-navigable islands in a treacherous sea of forest; if you're not prepared, you're in deep doodoo. I thanked the gods that I'd done a major shop before my chemo session, leaving us well-placed to sit it out- if you discount the fact that one of us happened to be dangerously immunosuppressed and was showing a few rather worrying symptoms.

From the other side of the border, Jools fretted over the frequency of my trips to the loo, worried that the Dexamethasone had pushed my sugars up to dangerous levels. The Bear listened to the barking cough and nudged the thermometer in my direction every few hours, his eyes darkening.

So here we sat, the miserable chemo-blob and the Bear with a toxic case of cabin fever, for days. Trapped, and stressing out. Oh, it was such fun. Especially when the sun came out over all that standing water and the humidity rose to Stupid Per Cent. Especially when we woke on the second morning of being marooned to discover that one of our alpacas had decided the drama was all too much for her and shuffled off her mortal coil for no apparent reason.

You try disposing of a fully grown, sopping wet and extremely dead alpaca on your own, in a wetland, in 35 degree heat after ten inches of rain. The Bear managed it, though by the time he'd finished his eyes resembled antimatter; I stayed well away from him, as being sucked into a black hole isn't the way I want to go.

It takes a certain type of tough to survive in the Bungy- we all know that. Especially when you've run out of beer. And damn, we are tough. When we finally escaped from the far end of the road yesterday and got out to town the long way, nobody had starved to death or had their eyes poked out with a fork.

But it was a near thing now and then.


While we were flooded in I was cursing myself for forgetting to buy the blue cheese. When you can taste hardly anything that you like, it's easy to get a little obsessed by any food that's the tiniest bit enjoyable; strong cheeses have always been one of my guilty passions, and when I discovered I could actually taste the blue cheese gnocchi at Cafe Cappello my head was spinning with pleasure.

I am such a hopeless food junkie.

Trying to recreate the flavour of blue cheese armed only with cheddar, parmesan and paprika kept my mind off the thought that I might have to call for a medical evacuation if the sore throat and cough developed into a fever. As I choked down disappointing hunks of rarebit on soft white bread, I contemplated instead the thought that I was barely halfway through the black tunnel of chemo.

How much worse could it get, FFS? Was I going to end up unable to swallow at all? It really felt like the entire lining of my throat had sloughed off, leaving a red-raw tube choked with a slurry of dead tissue.

The threatening fever never developed, and by Day 10 my bladder did finally stop behaving like a leaky pool liner. I think I was just suffering from an overload of dead cells in my mouth and a cumulative case of fluid retention on my hips thanks to the Dexamethasone, but there were some anxious moments there.

No helicopter ride for me. I tried not to be disappointed.


I'd thought that booking in to a 'Look Good, Feel Better' workshop on Day 9 of my treatment cycle was a safe bet, but that was before the Freeloader started redesigning the playing field again with help from Uncle Oswald. On Thursday I was ready to cancel, but when Friday dawned we found we could get to Lismore the long way round if we really wanted to- and I felt marginally less ratshit.

So I got up.

I showered, and dressed, and choked something down the red-raw tube.

That was about enough exertion for one day. I was ready to head straight back to bed.

GO, Candy.

So I did, even though I felt like crap. Even though I knew it would take an hour and half to get there. Even though I knew the Bear would have to twiddle his thumbs for another two and a half hours while he waited for me.

It sounds like a stupid decision, but it turned out to be a smart one.


Ladies, if you ever get cancer and you land an invitation to one of these workshops, GO. No question about it. GO. I don't care if, like me, you've never fussed over makeup in your life and all the signs seem against it. Just do it.

Honestly, because I've been lucky with my natural looks- good skin, regular features, strong colouring- I never paid any attention at all to the whole beauty routine thing. I just winged it from the start. And even after all the information and luscious product I was supplied with at the workshop, the truth is that I'll probably just go on winging it till the day I die. But that's not actually the point.

Eyeshadow? ME? You're kidding...
The point is that it takes you out of your sick self, that all-consuming monster that's been eating your life, and puts you in a place where you're focussing on something else- something a little self-indulgent, and rather fun. You get led into this little self-care routine that feels very pleasant- and sensory pleasures are just so few and far between when you have cancer. The touch of gentle fingers patting and stroking your face... lotions that cool, lotions that slip smoothly under your fingers... it's lush.

We need lush. We need it desperately.

The finished result
And then the make-up- well, I guess it's a bit of art therapy. A few magic tricks to hide the faults... blotches that vanish, eyebrows that reappear... so many women were totally transformed in front of my eyes yesterday.

Little old ladies, greyed and beaten when they arrived, were turned into elegant women who may have just walked out of a Double Bay deli. Exhausted-looking younger women took on life and vibrancy by the time they departed.

It was, truly, magical. I went in with plenty of preconceptions about women who devote hours to their appearance every day, I can tell you- I mean hell, what sort of a life is that? Surely we should be caring for others and contributing to the world, not primping in front of a mirror for half the day. What the hell does that achieve?

Ah, but not when you're this sick- all bets are off when you're this sick. It's not really about vanity, or about self-indulgence. It's about feeling empowered, about getting up off the mat where the Freeloader's thrown you and saying "I refuse to look beaten". It's about saying "I'm still worth something- I still deserve some pleasure."

There were woman there yesterday who know the Freeloader will beat them. They know their treatment is just stalling his ultimate victory. But when they left, you couldn't tell which ones they were, because on this particular day they were winning.


By the time we got to the wigs, I was feeling chirpy enough to agree to be the model. Sure, I might have staggered a little when I stood up, but motivation got me to the chair.

There was a lot of laughter happening by then. For example, we'd agreed to a new law banning magnifying mirrors; expect legislation to come down any day soon. (There's an election coming, right?) And when Amanda reminded us that opening a hot oven with a synthetic wig on was likely to leave us with a frizzy perm- bzzzt!- it only added to the giggles.

In this spirit of good humour, I agreed to test-drive a variety of wigs. What the hell, I'd already had my meltdown in Shartan months ago. I was over it.

The redhead look drew some appreciative gasps. Yes, I guess I actually looked like that once, when I was about 30... I was quite comfortable looking at myself in that one, while Amanda explained how to ensure that one's locks didn't blow off in a strong wind.

Perhaps the colour was, um, a little strong for my age. All very well when I'm made up to the gills...

Then there was the streaky, light brown look- much more like my usual colour these days. A flattering tone, but I felt a bit like there was an echidna on my head again. Amanda showed us how we could fiddle with the wig for slightly different looks, tucking strands behind our ears or fluffing the fringe this way or that.

"Please don't take to it with the scissors," she reminded us gently. "If it needs a trim, bring it in to us. The thing about a wig is it doesn't grow back."

Cackles from the crowd.

And then out of sheer mischief, I decided to try being blonde. Just for a laugh, you know. I am SO not a blonde- never even wanted to be, not for a moment. But one of the other ladies had tried on a blonde fringe, to the hearty cheers of the audience, so I felt a little entertainment was to be had.

Oh my, didn't that just open a can of worms. I looked in the mirror with my cute little blonde shag cut, and saw Meg Ryan looking out at me. Seriously, I felt I should be grasping the edge of the table and moaning. I totally got the giggles.

That's why the cheeky look in the photo to the left- I was waiting for someone to say "I'll have what she's having..."

The longer I looked at that damned wig, the more I realised it was actually a serious proposition. Hell, I couldn't stop laughing while I had it on, so that had to be good. If I have to look at a different me in the mirror till this is over, why not a totally different me?


By the time the session was over, Ferdinand was starting to protest. The little sandwiches provided at the workshop had proved too much of a challenge for my poor mouth; I'd barely been able to swallow a mouthful. But it was a long road home, with plenty more chores to complete before we headed back into the back of beyond, so I shut up and put up till we'd fed Centrelink a new medical certificate (doesn't that sound simple? I'll leave you to guess how long it took) and done a raid on the supermarket.

What fool I am sometimes.

When the fish is hungry, you feed the fish. By the time the Bear dropped me off by the roadside in Casino to find something soft and palatable (and I'm telling you, in Casino that's a serious challenge), I was beyond good sense. Still channelling Meg, I watched the man in front of me at the greasy spoon order chips and gravy. Mmm, potato! crowed Ferdinand. Still tastes like potato! Mmm, gravy! Soft and slippery! I'll have what he's having!

Gentle reader, when you're having chemotherapy it knocks out random taste buds. In my case, I've noticed that one of the things I simply can't taste at all is salt. If I'd been less ravenously hungry, I might have engaged my brain and realised that the gravy powder they use in fast food outlets is basically composed of three things: food colouring, stock powder and salt.

In the other order.

I mean, I actually worked in a fast food store for all of four days once, until the guy in charge decided that my adherence to good hygiene practices constituted dereliction of duty. "You're too slow," he leered as he sacked me, one greasy palm planted on the sandwich he'd whipped from under my gloved hands and which he was now hastily cutting for the stoned fruitpicker at the counter, who wouldn't have blinked if his sandwich arrived tomorrow by elephant.

But I digress. I tasted that despicable gravy when I had to make it for Mr Greasy. It was outrageous. And here I was, dipping floppy strips of fried Sebago in it and wolfing them down as though this humble condiment was the nectar of the gods.

Let me remind you: I couldn't taste the salt.

It wasn't until I was down to the last couple of floury wads of potato that my mouth started to feel even more strange. It was as though the Sahara and the Gobi had called a party on the insides of my cheeks. On my tongue, my resident budgie was rolling around creating a grit-fest reminiscent of a sandstorm on the Nullabor.

I mean, imagine if you emptied a whole sachet of Macca's salt onto your tongue and just left it there for five minutes or so. (My son did that once when he was a kid, for a dare. I'm not sure he thought it was worth the dollar he won as a result.)

It was dire, and it wasn't going away. I'd just managed to poison myself a little bit more, out of sheer stupidity.

Thanks for that, Ferdinand. By the time we got home I was gasping for water and realising that I'd probably just condemned myself to yet another night of getting up every hour to wee. I was on the sixth glass before I started to feel any relief, and it took two more cupfuls till Ferdi threatened to float up out of his tank and I decided I'd better stop while I was ahead.

Meanwhile Amanda had posted her pictures of the workshop to my Facebook, and I showed the Bear the shots of Meg.

I swear he started to slobber.

"You look horny," he declared.

I collapsed into giggles yet again. All that crap about blondes having more fun, gentlemen prefer blondes, blah blah blah? Maybe there's something in it after all. The rest of the evening passed in a haze of blonde jokes, one-liners from When Harry Met Sally and cheekily raised eyebrows.

Dammit, I think I'm going to have to buy that wig.


  1. I have spent years swapping my hair colour from its natural blonde through to red, brunette, black (slight error of judgement in that one), blue, pink... now back to blonde, though only to cover the grey... And I can guarantee you that blonde gets more male attention every single time.
    I hope you bought the wig.
    And thank you for inviting me to read your story.

    1. I did buy it. And it's good to have you here- thanks for reading.