Sunday, January 31, 2010

Silence on a Sunday

Everyone breaches the Fair Trading Act when they're dating. C and I went rollerblading on our first date and haven't been since. I probably told lies "I like nothing better than cooking five lamb chops, mashed spuds and boiling up some frozen peas - heaven!" And worst of all, he pretended to be interested when I read him snippets from the Sunday paper.

Sharing or not sharing fascinating tidbits from the Sunday paper is the simplest way of describing, defining and dividing people. Male, female, gay, straight, old, young - all stale and irrelevant classifications. Either you read aloud from the paper or you don't. I do, C doesn't. Dad does, Mum doesn't. The non- readers hate being read to, the readers hate not being listened to. It's a miracle that relationships between what are essentially different species survive.

Just this morning, I made a new vow (one I break and re-make most Sundays) not to disturb C by sharing the paper. I made it all the way to the entertainment section. That, for a speed reader like me, is a good 5 minutes of silent, non-sharing. Practically a lifetime. Then I saw ads for at least 3 concerts I want to go to and I could contain myself no longer:

Me: "James Taylor, The Winery Tour of Bic Runga, Dave Dobbyn and Tim Finn, Dianna Krall - why so many concerts I want to go to when my priority has to be saving for a clothesline?"
He: Hmmph.
Me: "I'm so proud of the way I'm controlling my spending and saving. I'm really starting to grow up and mature into a truly responsible person."
He: Mmm.

And then I turned the page. Full page ad. One Night Only. Whitney Houston. Live in New Plymouth. OMG. I have to go. Screw the clothesline.

I'm especially fond of New Plymouth given our last concert experience there. Full page ad. One Night Only. Elton John. Live in New Plymouth.

I booked the seats late and flew direct so the cost was horrendous - about $1500 bucks. Upgraded to good seats - $300+ each. Accommodation, taxis, dinner, babysitter - all up, it was looking like a $2500 24 hour mini-break. But Elton John? Come on - the man's a musical genius and so many sparkly costumes - heaven!

Until it rained. And rained, and rained. New Plymouth was absolutely freezing. From the moment we arrived and the mountain was ominously shrouded in cloud I knew bad things were ahead.

Me: "Good thing I brought my jacket."
He: "Won't the stadium be warm anyway? I didn't think I'd need one."
Me: "It's an outside concert darling. Remember me telling you that on Sunday morning as I read the details aloud from the paper?"

A visit to Kathmandu to purchase $2 ponchos didn't help matters. Town was teeming with older folk (EJ's target market) in every manner of ski suits, oilskins, and wet weather gear.

He: "It's very cold isn't it? And wet."

We called a taxi and, dressed in everything we had packed, ventured out into the storm. While we waited C hesitantly suggested that as he didn't really do wet and cold and didn't really like Elton John that much and wouldn't be such great company perhaps he should stay in our hotel room and watch Coronation Street. "Why don't you come along, and if it gets too cold you can always come back early?" As we climb into the taxi, united together as only people engaged to be married with three children between them can be, C suddenly stops and declares, "I can't do it."

I remarked to the people around me at the Bowl of Brooklands, "I know who the empty seat on my right belongs to, my brave and fearless fiance, but who owns the one on my left?" "Our friend Natasha" the couple one seat over said. "She's just getting hot chocolates." And then I saw her. Possibly the largest woman New Plymouth has ever seen was making her way up the aisle towards me. I'd like to say she sat next to me but in truth she sat on me. Her legs spilled over her seat, her arms spilled over her seat - her flesh was one with mine. God Bless Her. By half time, at -1 degrees we had become firm friends. I nestled into her snuggly buggly warmth and asked her if she would mind me reading aloud to her from the paper on Sunday mornings.

Was I angry with C with my friends wanted to know. Absolutely not. I love people who know their minds, who don't put themselves in positions they know they'll hate just to please others. That kind of carry-on might just cause cancer. Which is why, if I do go to Whitney Houston, I'll be pleasing myself and going alone.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Let your little light shine

Radiation Diary

Day 1: It's no wonder the treatment is carried out in bunkers - the waiting rooms look like bomb sites. There are tatty signs about the place saying sorry for the mess and the delays but no one apologises for the old men sitting about in blue booties. I'd refuse to wear them. Sloop John B is playing on the stereo and is immediately followed by California Dreaming. This is a sign. Two significant songs, just for me. "Don't forget to bring your ID card with you tomorrow" a helpful technician shouts as I leave.

Day 2: "Did your bring your ID card?" No, and I won't be bringing it ever. I know my name, my date of birth, my hospital number and can recite all three in less than 5 seconds. If some crazy fool pretends to be me and goes to the trouble of shaving their head and slicing their boob off to look the part, let them have some radiation. It might just fix what's ailing them. "Which problem does me carrying my ID card solve?" I politely ask. Okay, it wasn't exactly polite but I didn't snarl. Apparently the old chaps in the blue booties sometimes stand up when any name is called and as ( I swear this is as close to a direct quote you'll get without a tape recorder) 'the men are the same age and look the same' occasionally someone gets the wrong dose to the wrong body part. "What if I promise to not let anyone else get up when you call my name? What if before you begin you ask me my name? What if you look at the great big bloody photo of me inside the folder with my name on it and compare it to the person you're about to radiate?" Do you know what she was thinking? "Why don't you, stroppy tart, just bring your ID card like everyone else?" Why not indeed?

Day 3: "I've made you a new ID card." I didn't think it was quite the right time to share my B.N.I but I'll share it with you now. At the start of every radiation session I take off my top and walk bare chested, naked from the waist up, from the little changing cubicle across to the treatment table where a sheet is draped across me for a few seconds before it is removed. The technicians, male and female, then place their hands gently on my naked flesh at either side of my body and wriggle me into position. They are uniformly kind and professional and I actually don't mind the contact. But, despite the best efforts of the sheet draper person I am inevitably topless for much of the time. I would be more comfortable if they were all topless too. That's my B.N.I. Improve patient comfort by disproportionately increasing the discomfort of the staff.

Day 4: Sloop John B and California Dreaming are playing again. It is not a sign. It is the Forrest Gump soundtrack. "What are the men in booties having?" I ask. Much squirming and verbal wriggling follows. Feet in stocks, it turns out they are having their 'groin' area nuked. They are allowed the decency of pulling down their pants whilst under the sheet. More evidence of the comfort of staff coming first, and fair enough. What young woman wants to look at old geezers bits? It might solve the ID problem though. While faces are the same, my somewhat limited experiences lead me to believe that prostates and their surrounds are very different.

Day 5: Further advances to the B.N I. The males that fondle me must be naked from the waist down for their discomfort levels to be sufficiently high to offset mine. Mum commented the other day that I didn't seem to miss my boob. She's right. I've always been offended by the notion that women shouldn't go topless on the beach but men can. I have never come across sensible rationale for this discrimination. If the male radiographers were topless like us sheilas they'd just preen. If their bottom-half bits responded to the cold of the radiation table in a similar way to my lone nipple we'd all have a good laugh at the absurdity of what is taking place.

None of my chemo nurses had received chemo and none of the surgeons I've had bothered to have similar surgery. I no longer listen to their approximations of the pain, side effects, possible adverse outcomes. They know jack.

Yesterday I had an appointment with my oncologist Associate Professor Bridget Robinson. I had the following questions prepared:

1) Given that I've started menstruating again, in your years of experience, does this mean I am not going to experience early menopause as expected or does it mean nothing of significance yet?
2) Might my eggs have survived chemo and be useful for my friends and family who are having challenges conceiving?
3) Will any fertility hormone drugs I might contemplate having reactivate the cancer?
4) In your twenty plus years of treating cancer what do you think are the most significant lifestyle changes to make in order to prevent its return?
5) The biggest cause of stress in my life is my family. Should I leave them all and stay alive miserably on my own in a cave? Or stay with them and get cancer again? What are your suggestions for finding the middle ground?
6) Seeing as how I hate being fat, and am (so far) useless at being disciplined around food and exercise, can you prescribe some wicked form of medical 'speed' that will deal to the fat?
7) In your professional opinion should I still drink alcohol?
8) Since beginning radiation my scar is tighter than before. I am the defending runner-up of the following prestigious titles: Sumner Tennis Club Mixed Doubles Plate, Women's Singles plate, Women's Doubles Plate - should I continue playing tennis in the 2010 championship and work through the pain or take stronger drugs?
9) Do you have the results of my echo cardiogram? Shall I continue with Herceptin or have I already sustained damage to my most important muscle?
10) Don't you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?

Bridget didn't leave her office to see me. Her daughter or maybe her great niece - anyway, some child posing as a registrar popped in to the consulting room instead. All terribly nice, but barely out of med. school.

She: How's it all going?
Me: Great.
She: Any questions?
Me: No.
She: Worries?
Me: No
She: Concerns?
Me: No
She: Are you sure you don't have any questions?
Me: Nothing I can think of other than why did nobody tell me that you were going to be here.

I know experience has to be gained at sometime but so far every time I've bothered to ask one of the teenagers a question they've had to 'ask around' and get back to me. At least Dr Indian Spunkyfeatures has Indian Spunkyfeatures. Perhaps he'd like to take part in my B.N.I.

Anyway, I promised all 30+ of my Facebook friends that I was going to shine like a bottle of plutonium during radiation just like the boss. Check him out anytime you need a lift.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Four year olds and death

I don't want to die. Not yet anyway. Lately P has asked me a couple of times about dying.

P: When are you going to die Mummy?
Me: Not for ages and ages, when I'm really old. Why do you ask darling?
P: Just thinking.
Me: Are you worried?
P: No. Just thinking. Daddy will die first won't he because he's the oldest?
Me (to myself): Hopefully.

And in a split second, a moment of crystal clarity announced its arrival like a sledgehammer to my heart: I don't want my precious little girl to ever have another mummy.

I used to kiss P goodbye before overseas trips and remind her of my promise, 'Mummy always comes back'. These days, I mumble something less reassuring but with more urgency even when I take a trip to the dairy. "Don't forget I'll be doing my very best to be back here if in all the circumstances returning to you will be possible, notwithstanding that unforeseen events occasionally occur and throw our lives into quiet disarray so best to start practising being resilient right now just in case.....". What's worse? Making promises that might not be kept or disappointing her now with wishy washy vagaries? She's only 4 and a half but she does not miss a thing.

A new mummy might be better in so many ways. More patient, more homely, a better cook even. More handicrafty (w.o.t.w), better looking and more interested in nail polish and makeup and ponies and cats. More caring, less bossy, less messy, more clean. More sparkly, more spangles you know what I mean. Less chaos, less fuss, more vigour and vim. Yes Dad, please, a new one, she's bound to fit in. Make her taller, and sexy with more hair than stubble, less sick, less cancer, that's what started this trouble. Ask Santa for next year, a new mummy please, he'll knock one up with the greatest of ease.

The feeling of being replaced is shitty no matter the context. I've been fine about plenty of breakups until my exes have meet someone else. Ouch. At 22 I was at my lowest, a pathetic creature. Ringing an ex-boyfriend at his new girlfriend's house 'just to hear your voice.' Please don't ring here ever again he begged. 'I know', I'd sob into the phone, 'it's just that....'

I can't think of a single thing anyone could have said that would have made any difference to that girl back then. And in many ways I envy her.

I don't need reassurance of my importance to my children or confirmation that my laissez-faire approach to parenting is ok. I just think that if it came down to it I ought to be able to make some suggestions about my replacement. Just like you do when you leave a job - 'you should look for someone who's prepared to put up with long hours for shitty pay working with morons like you.'

So, if you truly care about my happiness, print this list out, keep it somewhere safe and know what.....and then after that, C meets someone and they know can all remind him of what's important.

Qualities and characteristics of a suitable step-mother for T & P:

1) She must be very ugly. Anything else will distract them when she is teaching them French.
2) She must be French. This will enable her to continue the good grounding I have already given them in this most beautiful of languages. "Put your bloody clothes away or your bloody Father will have a bloody fit when he gets home from bloody golf." "That's swearing Mum." "No, it's not," I tell them. "It's bloody French."
3) She must be very fat. Anything else will fail to reinforce the importance of daily exercise and eating well. She will be a constant reminder of the perils of inactivity. Obesity will prevent her from climbing the stairs to my bedroom and laying with my husband whilst I am still warm in my grave, or smouldering should I choose cremation as the preferred means of disposal for my earthly temple.
4) She must have lots of long dark hairs on her face. This will mean she can role model shaving for T and allow P to practise doing plaits and braids.
5) She must be very smelly. See number 2 above.

As you know, action rather than moping is my m.o, so here are the top two things on my to-do list for this year:

1) Stay true to the course of beating cancer and being the best handicrafty mum in the house
2) Teach T & P to sniff out French women and spontaneously attack them, biting their ankles like wild dogs.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Tattoos and tests

Tramp stamps have never been my thing. Like miniskirts and skinny jeans I've always thought tattoos looked great on other women. But now I've got three of my own. It all happened quite quickly and fortunately did not involve choosing between a daisy chain and a butterfly. My sister K came with me to my radiation planning appointment where I was laid out on a table, and pushed and pulled into position by the kindest hospital staff encountered so far. "Try not to help us", they instructed as they manoeuvred me into the perfect position for radiation treatment. All the while, my arms were locked in above my shoulders and I wished I'd remembered to shave the one hair that stubbornly grows out of my right armpit. With words that are all too familiar the tattooing began. "Just a little prick" the radiographer announced and before I could make the obvious joke about the men who never bother to announce that when you first meet them, I had the first of my tattoos. A perfect dot right where I imagine my sternum is. The other two are on my back.

I like to pretend that a character from a Dan Brown book will discover me, whisk me away to an ancient cathedral and hold me up to the moonlight at 3.33am at which time the three stained glass windows whose beams triangulate my dots will reveal the answer to an ancient riddle. In real life I have to take myself along to the bunker at Christchurch Public Hospital for 25 blasts from the radiation machine. The staff will line up their laser beams with my three dots and that way they'll know I'm in the correct position.

With only 5 weeks of full on treatment to go, followed by another 8 (or so) Herceptin sessions, I am increasingly asked when I'll get the all clear. If only breast cancer worked like that.

For all we know, I no longer have cancer. The chemo and radiation and Herceptin might be total overkill. The cancer in my breast has been removed. The cancer found in one of my lymph nodes has been removed. But the possibility that cells have escaped to elsewhere in my body meant that at my age and considering the stage of the cancer, it was prudent to have chemo, radiation and Herceptin. Adjuvant therapy they call it. Partly just-in-case, and partly to-be sure, to-be sure. The only way we'll know it has succeeded is if the cancer doesn't come back. And the only way we'll find that out is to wait. The great thing for me, she who hates not knowing, is that because my cancer is/was aggressive, the likelihood is that if it's coming back, it'll be back sooner rather than later. And we can get on with fighting it hard, again.

Think of dropping a teaspoon full of red food colouring into a glass of water. You can see the red as it infiltrates the water. The water in the glass was my boob. The red is cancer. Stay with me here. I promise it's worth it. Now imagine the glass full of water tipped into a bucket of water. The bucket of water is my body. There's every possibility there's now red infiltrating the water that we can no longer see because it's been so diluted. But it's there. And unlike food colouring, cancer has a life of its own, and will grow and take over the other parts of the body that it spreads to.

So no all encompassing test coming up that declares the cancer eliminated, evaporated, extinct. Just more echocardiograms to monitor my heart function, blood tests to check other stuff and daily fondling of my entire body checking for lumps and suspicious bumps. The most recent lump I felt in my chest where my boob used to be had me scrambling to see my specialist, tearing off my shirt and begging her to touch my scar - now! - to confirm my self-diagnosis. She did. It was my rib.