Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Letting the river flow in

I can't leave you sitting on the razor edge of that last miserable old blog post any longer than necessary. So let me tell you that today I am probably about a seven out of ten on the coping scale.

Not so much on the health scale; if I felt like this on any normal day, I'd be staying home from work and feeling sorry for myself. But actually, in the world of cancer, the coping scale is far more important.

And let me tell you about my visit to Dr Rosie today, too, because those visits are always full of hope and surprise.


Not very interesting? YOU try
living without power for a
week, and this will be the
most interesting photo in
the WORLD.
Naturally, the fact that the new inverter arrived yesterday helped A Lot. No more staggering around in the dark, collecting water for later use, limiting my internet use (in truth, that was one of the worst parts of the experience)... and I can buy ice cream and ice blocks again! Hip hip hooray!

With my mouth ulcers healing nicely thanks to the Kenalog and aloe vera water, I've also been able to reacquaint myself with Ferdinand. Honestly, he's been sulking in his empty pond for a week and I've been ignoring him; given that they reckon a fish has a memory span of about seven seconds, I knew I was definitely going to have to put in some work with him, and so it proved. He was still turning his snub and scaly nose up at Everything. Who the fuck are you, and why are you throwing that shit in my pond? he seemed to say.

Seafood, I thought, trying to ignore the abuse- which of course expressed itself in suppressed heaves at the sight of food, rather than in actual words. Ferdi likes seafood, even when he won't eat anything else.

My idea of heaven...
Bloody little cannibal. I hope when this is all over I don't find I can't face fish, or there'll be hell to pay.

It must be the Polynesian ancestry; I could live on fish quite happily, and shellfish- ahhhhhh! My dreams come true, served in natural hygienic packaging. So even though the smell of the can of salmon was incredibly strong to me- bugger you, chemo nose- the Bear and I laboured away to make Ferdi some fishcakes.

He accepted two for dinner. Then thought quite seriously about recycling them.


I throw up so rarely that it takes me a moment to recognise the signs... but there was no doubt my mouth was suddenly full of saliva, and my digestive system was starting to make waves, if you know what I mean. Peristalsis is the polite and scientific term, if my memory serves me well.

Peristalsis, I thought, can go take a flying leap at a rolling doughnut. No way, you contrary fish.

I put my hand over my mouth. Breathed carefully. Stayed very, very still.

Thought keep-it-down thoughts.

The moment passed. Hallelujah!


While we're on the subject of food...

...there is nothing certain about chemo. That much I've learned. What happens to any one person in any one cycle seems to bear, at most, a peripheral relationship to what happens in the next, let alone to what happens to anyone else on the same regime.

And so shopping for food is a comedy of errors. My biggest problem with anything edible at this stage is that I am Totally Over sweet things (never thought you'd hear me say that, did you?) after supping on custard, Fruit Tingles, Wizz Fizz lollypops and god knows what other sugary treats day and night to try to get this awful taste out of my mouth- and, given the parlously dry state of my tongue and gums, I can't even bear to think about eating anything salty.

That doesn't leave much in the middle. I sent the Bear to town with a shopping list of Things I Might Be Able To Stomach last week, and most of them are lying sadly in the fridge still, barely touched.

The shaved ham and tasty cheese and pineapple rings, which I'd turned into a mental pizza? They tasted like nothing. Nothing at all. The Pringles potato chips, which I thought might provide some texture and just dissolve on my tongue? My tongue felt like the Sahara. No way was I adding more salt.

And that shows just how changeable my appetite can be. Maybe by Friday, or Monday, I'll want those things again. And maybe not. (And maybe they'll all be stale or spoiled by then anyway.) This is a damned expensive disease, and not just because of the pharmacy and doctors' bills; the amount of wasted food is a real worry.

Never mind; this morning Ferdi accepted one more fishcake with much more grace. Perhaps we're getting somewhere.


I went to Dr Rosie to get something to address the asthma that's tormented me for the last week or so, but on the way I had to drive my ute out to the highway to pick up the Bear after he dropped his car off for a service.

Oh dear. Gentle reader, I am actually a good driver- I pride myself on it. But when I got out to the highway, chemo brain chipped in with a vengeance. In the midst of a stream of honking, hurrying semitrailers, do you think I could find the right driveway? I didn't even know if I was on the right block. I felt, for the first time, like the Megwig had truly made me into something out of a blonde joke.

Suddenly in a most uncharacteristic panic, I turned down a side street away from the cranky truck drivers and tried to approach the repair shop from the rear. Except there was no rear entrance- well, not in this street, anyway. I pulled over and took a deep breath (and coughed my lungs out for a minute or so).

I'm sure there was a rear entrance.

U-turn. Back on the highway. Spotted the Bear turning in to the miraculously reappearing driveway of the repair shop. Phew. Followed him in.

Suddenly lost all confidence in my ability to park the car.


By the time the Bear had come out of the office, I'd put myself firmly in the passenger seat.

Surprised, he raised an eyebrow.

"Do you want me to drive?"

"I am not fit to be driving. I have chemo brain. I just got totally lost driving to a place I've visited at least twice a year for the last five years."

He shrugged and started up. He doesn't like me talking about chemo brain; he's likely to remind me of my success in completing last weekend's Samurai Sudoku, or still beating nearly everybody I play against at Scrabble, as counter-evidence. But the thing is, it strikes you in the most unexpected way and with no consistency at all. That can be a little scary.

Anyway, the Bear took one look at my expression and shut his mouth like the proverbial trap. I Had Spoken.

And then he drove out the miraculously reappearing rear gate.

Oh. It's in the lane, not the street.

Sigh. I never thought my driving ability would be compromised... but now I'm having serious thoughts about whether I'll be going out by myself at all until this is all over.

Cabin fever, here we come.


Next stop, Dr Rosie. The Bear dropped me at the door and went off to do the shopping; it was another triumph for chemo brain that I never thought to ask him if he had any money on him or to offer him the keycard.

I guess he would have said something if there was a problem, right? But I always ask.


Yep, this photo was in the local paper too.
And that's the only photo of the Bear
you're ever likely to see here.
The waiting room was empty- a good sign- and the receptionist and I chatted for a while about the local triumph against Coal Seam Gas in the Northern Rivers. That is mostly what my out-of-work-hours life was about, before cancer hit- saving our beautiful area from the greedy and corrupt multinationals. My neighbour Christine and I had started the first anti-CSG group in the Richmond Valley Council area, and it was a terrible blow to me to abandon ship halfway through the campaign.

Never mind; the right side was winning for once- the first such victory to come to light. It was so good to think that Round One of the battle had gone to the people, and Metgasco had turned tail and fled.

For now, anyway.

I settled down to read a magazine while I waited, and discovered that Miss Chemo Brain had left her glasses at home. Oh, well played. Squinting just didn't do it for me. Large print books for blind 56-yr-olds seemed in short supply.

And then this gaggle of Aboriginal teenage girls walked in the door, and I was totally distracted. How beautiful they were, every last one of them. How happy they were, smiling and joking with each other till I caught their eyes and started to laugh too.

I wanted to tell them how lovely they were- not just on the outside; their joy radiated from somewhere within. But I simply didn't have the breath. I was still coughing every time I tried to speak. I grinned at them instead, and they grinned back.

And then I was called in, and yet again had reason to be grateful for my amazing GP.


After ribbing me a little about my status as a media star, Dr Rosie got down to business. I gave her a longish serve of my woes with my poor sore tongue and my mouth ulcers, and how I'd got myself back to a stage where I could talk without sounding like W.C. Fields after he'd been at the whiskey.

"Tell the chemo nurses before your next treatment," she suggested. "They'll have an idea what to do, whether it's adjusting the dose or some other strategy."

"Will Targin help?" I queried.

"Possibly," she replied, writing what I hope will be my last narcotic script for the duration. One more treatment. One more treatment.

Then she listened to my chest as I coughed and spluttered and tried to breathe in and out for her.

"I don't think it's asthma," she proclaimed. "Just a bad allergy." And prescribed Seretide, in a highish dose given the severity of my breathlessness, twice a day; one puff on the way home, and I'm much improved already.

"Rinse your mouth after you take it," she warned. "These cortisone-based drugs do tend to give you mouth ulcers, and you hardly need that."

(Thanks for the warning, Dr Rosie. The last thing I need is something that makes my tongue worse.)

And after dealing with a few other minor woes, she got down to the holistic approach again. She's big on meditation; it's not something I've ever felt able to try, simply because I know how damn active my brain is and how impossible it is to keep it still.

I don't actually want to keep it still.

"Do you think of your disease in any symbolic form?" she asked, after I'd shrugged off the idea of meditation.

I explained to her about Ferdinand, and the Freeloader, and how personifying them had helped me so much to cope with both the disease and the terrible feeling in my guts.

"And what is replacing the cancer as you get it out of your body?" she asked.

Wow. I'd never thought of that.

"I think it would be good to imagine a positive force that is taking up the space that the cancer used to occupy," she went on. "It's time to stop talking about the cancer now, and to start talking about the good health coursing through your body in its place."



And she's right. As I thought about it, sitting quietly in the chair as she wrote up the scripts, I could imagine a shining, silvery-white river taking up all the empty space the Freeloader and his mates have left behind them. God knows I've had enough experience of the power of water to know that it is unforgiving. It sweeps everything away that stands in its path. It courses into every channel that's left open to it, whether as a trickle or as a flood.

Freeloader, you're about to be washed away.


We talked about the Bear's fear of radiotherapy, too. He really is so reluctant for me to undergo it; I know it's all about what happened to his last partner, who found the treatment so unbearable that she spat the dummy after two sessions and went home to die.

"That was a large area to radiate," said Dr Rosie. "She would have felt like her whole chest was on fire. It would have been terrible."

"Whereas mine will be pinpointed," I volunteered.



By the time I got out of there, The Bear was sitting in the waiting room chuckling with the Aboriginal girls. Everyone in town assumes he's Aboriginal himself; he totally looks the part, with his grey dreadlocked curls and his bare feet and his kind, darkest-brown eyes. He's had indigenous men walk up to him in the street- hey bro- and share their life stories with him, just because those eyes are so kind. And he seems so like one of them.

And he always, always says hello as he passes Aboriginal people in the street. He amazes me. It's in his blood somehow, a relic of his grandfather's work in Central Australia with the indigenous population. They say there's a racial problem in our little town. I've never seen it- not for a moment.

The girls were shrieking with laughter by the time I signed the account and was ready to leave. "Bye," they chorused cheerily, waving as we walked out.

I felt like they were a gift to me today. They were so full of hope and positivity, so unafraid of talking to a wild-haired stranger who even at their young age they'd assessed correctly as a good man.

They made my day.


Off we went to get my scripts filled. On the way back up the road the girls had poured out onto the footpath, their business done; they all waved and cheered and caroused as we went by, and we waved and caroused back.

It was lovely.


The main street of that town follows the river all the way to the Meeting of the Waters, a place where three major rivers meet and flow together towards the sea. As we cruised along it- and cruise we did, the Bear once having been accused of driving as though he was sitting in an armchair- I thought of the way those rivers get overloaded with water after constant rain, and how our particular branch, the smallest of the three, stops running and backs up to flood us in.

That isn't a river. It's a flooded forest...
I can use that. Water is so powerful. It fills every space. It's merciless. It drowns everything in its path. Yet I still love the rivers beyond anything else in this beautiful landscape.

So look out, Freeloader. Run now. The flood is coming, and you'll never escape it.

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