Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Getting back on the bike

I woke up on the First Day of Chemo (note seasonal theme) determined to be proactive.

Regular exercise will play an important part in your statistical chances of survival, say the sages. Good then.

I know it in my head. I've done my homework. Right now, it will help reduce oedema. (God knows I have enough of a challenge already when it comes to puffy arm syndrome, given that I'm minus the left-hand lymph glands.)

It will help fight off depression. (And I've had problems with depression for most of my life.)

It will help prevent weight gain. (Don't mention my Polynesian ancestry.)

It will help sustain my mental acuity. (See 'Candy's greatest fears about chemo'.)

And so on. It's a no-brainer. Pardon the pun.

Only one small issue to deal with: I just love organised exercise. I love it the way fish love riding bicycles. I love it the way I love jamming a splinter under my thumbnail. Hey, I was the one who selected three languages as electives at high school, because it meant I would miss PE- which, under the eagle eye of the aptly named Miss Butcher, meant forty minutes or so of standing in lines and being yelled at if you weren't able to climb a knotted rope when the whistle blew. YOU get knotted, I'd say, as I fell off again.

Under my breath, of course. To say such things aloud meant instant detention beyond school hours, when I had far more important and creative fish to fry. Piano practice. Poetry writing. Crafts. Examining and drawing the petal structure of wildflowers, or painting my favourite composers' faces on my bedroom walls.

So as you see, I've had to come late to moderate exertion. But now that I live on a dead quiet, level country road, the obvious choice for effective, low-impact aerobic exercise is cycling.

Cycling. Oh my dear lord. I am a fish, remember? Or at least partly. Moon in Pisces is enough. Fine motor skills? Superb. Gross motor skills? Um... pass.


My first attempt to ride a bicycle was at about 10 years of age, when my best friend put me on her bike without explanation and gave me a push down the dead-end road. When I say 'dead-end', perhaps I should explain that it 'ended' in a steep drop into Kuring-gai National Park.

That friend's a teacher these days, and a good one. I'm sure she's learned to show her students where the brakes are by now. Me? I have no idea how I avoided going over the edge, but it ended in equal proportions of gravel rash and indignity.

Amazingly, I didn't break anything (not even the bike), but it kept me away from those danged two-wheeled contraptions until ten years later, when I was going out with Mark- a champion water-skier and lifelong physical activity disciple.

He took me to Rottnest Island, didn't he? I loved everything about it except the transport arrangements- it was ride a bike, or walk and see about a quarter of the attractions before the boat left for home. Fortunately Mark proved a good teacher, full of faith in me, and I did well- right up till the moment we crossed a narrow causeway in single file, and self-fulfilling prophecy took over. Fear of going off the edge sent me off the edge.

(There's a lesson there.)

That error of judgment sent me down a drop that seemed like three metres, but was probably only one. Pity about the large, jagged rocks all the way down to the bottom. This time I hurt both the bike and myself; I was black and blue for weeks, and poor Mark was wracked by guilty pains too.

Quite unnecessary, of course; I am an expert at looking confident when I'm not, and at going on when I should stop. We got over it. He's still a supportive friend today, god love him.

My ex-husband had a go at teaching me, too. That ended in tears with me banging into a rather exclusive parked car in a rather exclusive street of a rather exclusive North Shore suburb. (Not a good look; fortunately the damage was mostly to my ego and my then-husband's faith in me.) But this time we persisted, keeping to parklands rather than streets, and I kind of got the hang of it.

Cycling rule 1: If in doubt, pedal harder or stop. That's the only decision to make.

Jools provided, yet again, the kick in the arse I needed to get me back on the bike once I moved up here. Her own health issues mean that cycling has become a passion for her, and she managed to transmit a little of the joy to me. We acquired two bikes so we could go up and down the road together when she came to stay, and she taught me a few more rules.

Cycling rule 2: Keep the wheel straight when you're starting, or going through gravel.

So I've only had one tumble since then. Unfortunately, it cost me over $400, given that I had my almost-new laptop in my bag at the time (don't ask- I offer you only two words: 'overconfidence' and 'idiocy'). I shall not relay the curses that emanated from my sweet lips when I opened it up in dread and discovered that I'd shattered the screen.

So getting back on the bike now, alone, for the first time since my diagnosis required something of an act of faith. (And a bit of support from the Bear, who managed to get the bike working smoothly again after some months of neglect.) But this is war. No half measures. I was going to get my blood moving around my body before the poison went in and made me sluggish and gluey inside.

It was The Best Thing I could have done for myself. I, the Hater of Exertion, say that without hesitation. I pushed myself just hard enough to get to Eagle Bend, but not so hard that I made my lymphy arm any worse. A few fearful restrictions are probably just what I need to stop me overdoing it, because while I'm not a particularly competitive person against others, I'm a ratbag when it comes to competing against myself.

Now it's a matter of balancing the fears. Fear of lymphoedema, vs fear of losing my mind. Or my life.

Yep, it works for me. I am determined to live.


A romantic diversion, for those who'd like it amongst all this talk of death, poison and (worst of all) sweat.

Eagle Bend. As one of my blog readers pointed out, it's such an evocative name. Yet it describes a rather ordinary-looking right-angle bend in the middle of our long, long road.

That's not its Official Title, you see. Nobody calls it that except me, the Bear, Jools. Eagles are part of the Bear's personal mythology, and so have become part of mine. Along with his dogs, eagles helped save his sanity when he lost his last beloved to breast cancer.

And when we first came up here, eight years later, an eagle appeared in front of the car as we drove towards our home, soaring low and smooth through the archway of forest and then rising to come to rest on a branch of a dead tree at that sharp but nondescript bend.

It seemed like a sign. Leading us to safety, perhaps, from the terrible times that had troubled us so deeply.

Eagle Bend it is, no matter what the maps tell you.


Back from my ride, I got myself through the morning routine and tried to make myself look less like a beast bound for the slaughterhouse. Feel like a victim, become a victim. But I'd rejected the Lyrica the night before, fearful that it might conflict with the poisons about to be pumped through me, and had had less than two hours' sleep. I looked like shit.

Gotta love mineral powder foundation. But taking the terror out of my eyes was a little harder than removing the dark circles.


We parked in a space clearly labelled RESERVED. Like we cared. I Have Cancer. There was nowhere else, and I wasn't leaving the Bear stranded looking for non-existent parking after dropping me off; he was having enough coping issues already. If I was a rabbit in the headlights, he was a sweet puppy in pain. What a pair.

We pulled it together by the time we got upstairs to the St Vinnie's chemo suite. Front-of-house Donna, who'd already introduced herself on the phone, greeted me warmly at the door- but without the cloying over-familiarity of the Sultana of Turbana. (It's a fine line; well-walked, Donna.)

The explanation of what was about to happen was brilliant, complete with hand-drawn illustrations, and made a mockery of anything I'd been given before (thank you Margaret). The icing on the cake was being asked if I minded the student nurse watching my procedures.

"Of course not. I've been a teacher of one sort or another for over 30 years," I replied.

Margaret's surprise seemed genuine. "Thirty years? You don't look old enough to have thirty years' experience."

"I'm 56. How old did you think I was?"

"Oh, late thirties, early forties..."

God, I love my mineral powder. And my Polynesian skin, even if it did come with Extra Hip-lard and F-cups.


There Was Paperwork. Pre-emptive anti-nausea medication. And more paperwork.

More explanations. More paperwork.

More waiting, while the anti-nausea meds took hold.

Despite the local anaesthetic swabs, there was a painful jab into my Port-a-cath, the fixed line almost straight to my heart that Dr Goodguy put in so expertly during the mastectomy operation. I know he put it in expertly, because later on the Doxorubicin (which has similar properties to battery acid when applied to anything but the inside of a vein) didn't turn me into an emergency case due to internal leakage.

Margaret pushed it in with what looked like a horse needle, ever so slowly, waiting for me to scream in pain if it leaked and burned. It didn't. Go you Good Guy.

Before the Doxorubicin, there was saline. (A Lot of saline.) After that, there was Taxotere. And finally, Cyclophosphamide. None of it hurt. None of it made me sick.

In between there was more saline. And more waiting. And Lovely Liz bearing fresh sandwiches and caramel tart and soup and green tea.

Next to me was a woman who'd lost her hair in a week. (I pulled at my own locks this morning, but they were still firmly in place.)

She was replaced by an elderly gentleman whose wife died two weeks ago. (I counted my blessings.)

Some of my fellow-travellers had the Bad Wig thing going on. (I felt better about Truvy and her dead setter.)

It took five hours. I handled it. Look.

I haven't thrown up once. But I was so absolutely stuffed by the time I got home, I managed to organise a complete pill pack for the next three days in a manner worthy of Laurel and Hardy (think flying capsules shooting across the table and having to be retrieved from under the furniture; repeat till pill pack is done).

And then, after all that, I managed to forget to take my late night dose of Dexamethasone.

Pride comes before a fall. I'd cooked and eaten a 50-50 plate of Atlantic salmon and steamed broccoli without flinching; look at me, no nausea at all! I am Chemo-Woman, hear me roar!

And gone straight to bed.


Two a.m. Wake-up with desperate need to pee. (All that saline has to go somewhere, you know.)

Still awake at 4am, feeling nauseated for the first time.

Fuck. If this is what it's like with the extra anti-nausea meds they gave me, how will I go without them?


Oh fuck. Did I take the last lot of meds?

(Goes through previous night in mind.)

(Visual Learner can NOT see open cover on late-night pills in memory scanner.)

(Gets out of bed.)


(Takes tablets meant for 10pm at 4.15am.)

(Spends next hour alternately peeing and worrying about when and if to take the morning dose, and how bad she'll feel if she doesn't.)

(Goes to sleep around 5am, determining to call hospital and ask.)

Sorted it.


I am determined to live.

I got up at about 7am, despite the excruciating previous few hours. It took a couple of my spoons. But I was getting on that bike if it killed me. Because not getting on it might kill me, in a less than figurative way.

With each pump of the pedals I think of the poison pushing into tiny blood vessels, picking off the enemy one by one as my father did once at an enemy machine gun post.

Find them. Kill them.

I come home feeling better than when I set out. I Am Fine.

So far.



A final word: more about eagles, if you have the appetite and like poetry. I wrote this for the Bear before we were lovers, after he told me how he'd been evicted from their rental house straight after his Narelle had died. He'd ended up living alone, high on a mountainside in somebody's derelict shed, too broke to even retrieve her ashes from the funeral home so he could have closure.

(Breast cancer is a bitch on the finances. Believe me, I know.)

When I showed the poem to him, he cried.

"It's like you were there," he said.


From Harvey’s Shed

Your fugue to the wild crown of Middle Brother
made the hidebound flinch, some fear of madness
filling their empty hearts with vicious stones
to sling at you in flight. Stripped at the last
of all but ruthless freedom, still your being
found a breath of peace in the brutal congruence
of owning only pain. Her dogs surged upwards
to the sky where she must be. Pulled in their wake
or by the monstrous vacuum of her absence,
blindly you found calm. 

                                    From Harvey’s shed
you read the clouds like eulogies, heard lays
of bird to fallen timber, felt the stars
drum your loss upon the taut skin of night,
moved to the cycle of light. Below, the river
shivered with dissent, while blank-faced strangers
tramped the fading gardens that you’d tended.

Above, the eagles went about the business
of survival, plunged unconscious of their beauty
from sky to valley floor, soared side by side,
paired daggers for your heart. From your eyrie
you learned the rules of exile and of grief,
a waning spirit caught in the crushing winter
behind her last migration. The dark rushed in.

Inside, the dogs took over, watched the door,
climbed onto the table, ever scanning
the emptiness for signs, their silent howling
fit company. You took them in your arms.
The days stretched blank upon a vast horizon
live with the pulsing empathy of wings.

* * * * * * * 

In the shivering void of night the hot coals winked
like demons. In the chasms of your waking 
there coiled in wait the spectre of the ferryman 
who stood before the casket, dark suit dangling 
like seaweed in the Styx. Once more he sought of you 
three thousand ducats for a pound of ashes, 
a single dollar more to gild his pocket. 
He laughed as you turned away. Robbed of her shadow, 
all traces of her being, drowned with rage 
against the black machinery of the system, 
you churned the papers over till the fate lines 
all pointed back to earth. 

                                     And so you stall now
and fall to ground amid our scuttling half-lives, 
fluttering weary wings against our windows 
to seek her ransom. Bruised by the glassy world, 
cage bird to the heartless, still you gaze 
as if from those precious heights, your eyes mandalas 
lit by a gentle candle for her peace. 
I see the pale flame flicker and I tremble. 
Let it go now. Ashes are just ashes, 
slipstream of the soul, the choking dustcloud 
hanging in the path behind our wheels. 
Toss them to the wind. She is not there. 
From Harvey’s shed you saw an eagle lunge 
towards the growing light like a dying woman. 



  1. Your story here ... well, I'm getting used to your being able to turn the most horrible material into amusing wit. The poem, it's sensational, and reminds me why I went through an iambic pentameter stage myself.

    Get back on the bike this minute, woman.

    1. I did. I did.

      Or did you mean the iambic bike?

  2. Yay for you, Candy! Being a fellow member of the anti-exercise brigade, I can well sympathise with you - so proud of you getting on that bike! I have one thing I can recommend though, if you can borrow one or can afford it (no idea what they cost in Australia) is a Wii Fit.

    It looks lame, but still gives a pretty good aerobic workout and best of all - you don't have to leave the house to do it. Here I've found it great for actually getting exercise when it's freezing cold or I'm in a black hole and really don't want to face Outside. It helped me to regain strength in my legs after vein surgery a few years back, and I even lost 4 kilos purely on the Wii Fit the year before that. It also has the benefit of being silly games, so you don't feel much like you're exercising, which is good if your mood is low. If I'm feeling low, I start with a couple of the balance exercises which generally perk me up enough (lovely bright colours always help me) to move onto the more vigorous exercises - 'step class' or hula-hooping or ski-jumping or some such.

    It's certainly not a replacement for the biking, but could be useful as a backup for days where you know you must do something but can't face it, or if it's pouring with rain!

    Sending big hugs from chilly Britain :-)

    1. That is a smart suggestion, Caitie. I hadn't really thought about the rain... and when it rains here, we can be housebound for weeks. What an excellent excuse for some more retail therapy!