Friday, October 24, 2014

How to eat an elephant

I write this from the bedroom, where I sit propped up in bed with aching head and pouring nose. The throes of a spring cold are upon me, and for all the cheerfulness I can muster it might as well be man-flu. I'm not particularly ill, but I'd like nothing better than to lie in bed moaning while my poor, long-suffering better half brings me worshipful offerings and does all the housework.

Sorry for myself? Not really. Just lacking in any tolerance whatsoever for being ill. Two years of fighting the Freeloader has left me minus any capacity for patience when my body mucks up yet again.

It's hot outside. I should be back in the lagoon, pulling out more bloody salvinia. But my body won't co-operate. I've realised that the lagoon project is a monster of fearful proportions. The idea of clearing it in one season is just ridiculous, as I found out by the end of last summer as I slipped and slid around on the increasingly treacherous mud slick beneath my feet. I finally decided that my good intentions were going to end up manifesting as a broken leg if I wasn't careful. I left it to the gods and another season, praying that the hideous stuff wouldn't grow back to such an extent that all my work was undone.

One woman working by hand just isn't going to do a job that size in one go. I need to stick at it for years, not days or months. It's an elephant waiting to be eaten- an elephant with a knowing smirk on its face, laughing internally at my pathetic little daily nibbles. And how do you eat a whole elephant?

One bite at a time, my friends. One bite at a time.


Not an elephant. I don't have a picture of
an elephant. But close- my puppy's dad.
This philosophy was taught to me by one of my support group friends, a woman who lives day to day with a Stage 4 diagnosis leering at her. She surprised all of us when the metastasis news came along by turning immediately from fearful little mouse to steely lion.  And now she's nipping off one little piece of the future at a time, and purposefully avoiding looking at the size of the beast on her shoulder.

This year, as the weather's turned warm enough for me to test the lagoon waters again, I've started to understand how very relevant that approach is to so many situations. Take my fitness, for example. Many a time I've whined to you all about how weak I was since chemo, how quickly my arm started to ache when I did any work, how easily I tire since radiotherapy.

And yet this year, as I drag armful after armful of heavy water weed to the bank, I realise that it's easier than last year. I'm clearing more in a session now than I did then, and I'm less pooped afterwards. It takes time to work the destruction of treatment out of your system. It's not going to happen in days or months. It takes years.

Don't expect too much too soon. One bite at a time. And stick at it.


Mind you, sometimes I'm a slow learner. One of the simple joys of life that's come along with the second mastectomy is being able to run freely for the first time since I was a child. Naturally, once I discovered that I could run I tried to swallow the full pachyderm at a single gulp. I took to walking / running for my high intensity interval training three times a week.

Sadly, though my ability to run may have returned to the days of being 12 years old, my knees have not. Soon I was in fucking agony. I had to give away the HIIT altogether for a few weeks while my joints recovered.

You're 58, idiot, and you're taking little lumps of concentrated bone degenerant every night for five years. Get a grip.

How did I turn myself from this elephantine creature
on the right to the silhouette in the next photo?
'One bite at a time' in this context has turned out to mean walking / gentle jogging, and saying 'no' to my perfectionism on the days when I realise I'm getting twinges of pain. It probably helps that I'm theoretically not meant to be losing any more weight before my reconstruction surgery next month; torn between keeping my circulatory system in top condition and maintaining a bit of stomach fat so I don't end up undergoing major plastic surgery for the sake of two mosquito bites on my chest, I'd probably been erring on the side of keeping the blood pumping. So I do have some sort of rationale for doing less.
Point one of a kilo at a time.

Hard on myself, aren't I? It was ever thus.

I have to remind myself that it's the duration of the exercise per week that makes a difference to my survival, not the intensity. Half an hour walking the dogs every morning would be enough on its own. I don't have to run.

But gee it's nice to stretch out without knocking myself out with a pair of flying tits. Or even just one.


Speaking of flying, it was the second flight to Melbourne to see my plastic surgeon that brought on the lurgy. Apparently when smoking was banned on aircraft, they stopped circulating fresh air through the body of the plane and instead started recycling it to save fuel. I guess if the same germ flies past you three hundred times in two hours you're probably going to catch something sooner or later.

But I digress (cough, hack). Seeing Dr Yes was a complete pleasure. It was the CT scan he ordered afterwards that gave me the roaring heebie jeebies. Yes, sure, sure, it was just to check on the size of my abdominal blood vessels, but there's always that gremlin whispering in my ear they're going to find something else.

Fuck off, gremlin. And when you get there, fuck off some more. At this stage I've had no urgent phone calls telling me to come in immediately, so I'm guessing no Christmas lights showed up.

But back to Dr Yes. What a man.

We sat across from each other, each armed with a MacBook Air. I shot questions at him. He shot information back, complete with illustrations, and I speed-typed his answers into my document. Huzzah for the age of technology!

Yes, I'll be confined to walking only for six weeks, but he'll try to get me up out of bed the day after the operation (huzzah again- I am Not Good at lying still). No swimming in the dam till I'm fully healed (damn indeed- why did I choose to have this done in summer?). No driving for at least three weeks (see Candy go stir crazy). But I can probably fly home after I've had my one-week check up (and that's three huzzahs for the win).

And so on. I'm nothing if not thorough, and neither is he.

He pulled out a circulatory CT scan, so I could see how clearly the size of the blood vessels to each side of the abdomen show up.

"If you don't have a major vessel on each side, we'll have to do a TRAM instead of a DIEP on the side without," he explained. "It's not like we can wake you up to ask if that's okay, so we try to get as much information as we can beforehand."

Not keen on having my rectus abdominus spliced and resected on my chest, or on having my internal organs on that side restrained with mesh, I'm now praying for two whacking great arteries showing up so he can just use the fat to make my nearly-C-cups instead of messing with the muscle. There's even a chance (though a small one) that I won't have a major vessel on either side, in which case the operation becomes a double TRAM.

Looking at my (apparently minimal) stomach fat, he assessed the situation and then chose two implants of approximately the same volume. Opened a zippered kit, handed me an appropriately-sized bra and a flesh-coloured stretchy top.

"This will give you an approximation of the result, so you can judge whether you're likely to be happy with it or whether you want me to put implants in as well."

The result was surprising. I'd been fretting about having such a small chest after living with double-Ds or greater all my adult life. But I have to say, it looked good. It looked fine.

Not like mosquito bites.

No implants for me.


And so that's another bite of the reconstruction elephant taken care of. It's going to be a long journey; after the initial operation there's the six-week checkup, fat injections using liposuction if I'm suddenly unhappy with the size or shape, nipple construction surgery after three to six months, tattooing of the nipples...'s a fully-grown pachyderm on my plate.

One bite at a time, Candy... just as soon as I get over this damn cold and get my appetite back.

It's a bit like how I got myself through treatment, really. Just diagnosed in this one.

Halfway through chemo and feeling like unholy crap in this one. Yeah, I look fine.
That because I'd spent two hours at 'Look Good, Feel Better'.
And, finally, on the other side... my birthday this year, two years to the day after the first photo.
I did make it through. One. Bite. At. A. Time.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Shiva, Vishnu and the virtue of acting on impulse

I have often been called impulsive, usually in a somewhat derogatory tone. It kind of ticks me off; often the actions that others label impulsive are the ones that are most completely authentic. My impulses are often a response to that native third eye instinct that somehow didn't quite get taught out of me by my white, lower-middle-class upbringing. They're the sign that I am, for once, actually listening to myself.

And so it was on an impulse that I pulled up outside Dr Rosie's clinic last week and, despite knowing full well that she was booked to the gills for weeks in advance, tried my luck at a walk-in. It certainly wasn't on my list of tasks for the day. But it suddenly seemed important.

And walk in I did, because her next patient was running late. Impulsive me: 10. Judgemental wankers: 0.


See, the black cloud hanging over me hadn't gone away. Despite my best efforts to exercise, eat well, sleep plenty, think positive thoughts and seek support from others in the same circumstances, my depression was hanging round and worsening.

It didn't help that Shiva, Goddess of Destruction, had turned up last Saturday in the form of a vicious hailstorm centred on our property. One moment we had glorious sunshine, and the next we had Narnia.

I'd tagged my friend Angie in this photo on Facebook, nostalgic for relaxed mornings sitting on her veranda with good coffee and great chats. A few hours later, I sat in the same place on my great grandmother's rocking chair wondering what the fuck just happened.

It was mind-bending. After ten minutes of sheer mayhem as ice pelted from the sky, often whipped sideways by a treacherous wind, the Bear and I wandered around in amazement, transported to an unfamiliar landscape which we may never see again.

The animals were just as bewildered....

....So that's why we have all this fleece?
But, of course, once the sense of wonder wore off we headed miserably for our vegie garden, where we'd spent a good many days at the end of August getting the jump on spring. 

Anyone for coleslaw?

We couldn't even see some of the plants under a good inch-thick layer of ice. There was, really, nothing left.

To say I felt picked on was an understatement. I'd really had to make an effort, weighed down as I was by misery, to put my mind and body into buying the makings of our spring garden and encouraging the Bear to get the beds ready. I knew that the sooner we had our own produce, the more likely I was to be able to eat a healthy summer diet. It all translates into that bottom line, surviving the Freeloader

I want to live. But Nature, who has so often helped me stay rational, had turned on me.

In my fragile state of mind, it was all too much.


And so, impulsively, to Dr Rosie, who in typical left-of-centre fashion started in on the Hindu gods.

"Do you have spiritual beliefs?" she asked, after I'd rattled off the list of strategies that had failed to lift my gloom. "Do you believe in anything bigger than yourself?"

"Well, sort of, but I don't label it as a god. I believe we don't know everything, and anyone who pretends to is a fraud. And I believe in nature," I replied, "but even that isn't on my side at the moment." 

I recounted the story of our own private hailstorm hell as she listened in wonder; even two properties away from us there had been only a few random hailstones, and in town they'd just had a little rain.

"Well, you know," she countered, "the Hindus believe that Shiva destroys to make way for Vishnu to create. You have to find a way to build from this."

And wrote me a script for Pristiq, because that's the sort of all-rounder she is. Always looking at the big picture, using conventional medicine as one of her many tools. I've never once walked out of her office with just a script, no matter how busy she is. There's always something to think about as well.


And so to Vishnu.

If, like Dr Rosie, I look at the big picture, then Shiva has been active in the guise of the Freeloader too. I see that some vital links have been destroyed between my Bear and me. All those months where I simply couldn't take part in farm life have led us to living very separate lives each day. He's become accustomed to doing all the heavy, dirty farm work by himself. I've become accustomed to doing my exercise, then falling in an exhausted heap and either entertaining myself with indoor tasks or resorting to my internet addiction. I can spend hours achieving absolutely nothing more than cooking the evening meal and making coffee, while he slaves away outside barely keeping pace with what has to be done.

Hardly a wonder that he's exhausted too.

Hardly a wonder that we don't always connect. Misunderstandings happen. Sparks fly. 

How can I build something better?

The Pristiq, for all its side effects, does seem to be working. Despite the twitchy legs, the reduced appetite, the sudden-onset tiredness, I do feel lighter less than a week into the first script. Some people get exactly the opposite effect from that intended and get plunged into a suicidal state; luckily I don't seem to be one of them. The first night was pretty ghastly, complete with insomnia, nausea and such badly restless legs that I felt like I was back in the throes of menopause, but things have settled down quite quickly since then.

And so now I must be active to undo Shiva's work. I try to spend less time at the computer, though its siren song is always at the back of my mind; the numbness of my puzzle games is a great escape for a restless mind, which is all too quick to start ruminating on my lack of employment and my lack of breasts. I dragged the Bear unwillingly to town, where we visited the little seedling nursery together to buy some replacement stock for the garden. Poor Bear. If I was shattered by the hail, he had his hard-working heart broken. He loves his garden.

But the nursery was a hit. He immediately fell into a delightful conversation with the owner, and came home much cheered. And instead of leaving him to do the work of re-digging the beds and replanting, I made the effort to get out there and help. We've all but forgotten how to do things together. It's time to build that back up.

"Good to be in the garden with you," he says to me about every half hour.

"It is," I reply.

And the twinkle in his eye reminds me of another crazy impulse, over ten years ago now, when I was standing next to a man I barely knew at a New Year's Eve bonfire. He'd recently taken up a tenancy in the cottage on the property I owned with my then-partner; we'd barely exchanged a word up till now.

"I'm going back to the valley tomorrow to see some old friends," the man said to me. "I might stay there."

I have no idea what happened next. There is no explanation for what came out of my mouth, and a less impulsive person would have crushed those words into oblivion rather than speaking them out loud.

"Don't go," I said. "I want you to stay."

That man became my Bear.