Monday, July 31, 2006

it ain't contagious

Cancer makes some people very uncomfortable.

Even some folks I know fairly well clearly find it hard to meet my eye or spend any time in my presence since I started undergoing treatment.

They should be bit more like my friend S. I had beer and nachos with him and a couple of other friends last Friday night (although we've been in regular contact, it was the first time we'd seen each other since I went on leave from work in January). At one point I commented that I was feeling pretty full and sleepy. "Don't pass out!" he admonished. "We'll take a marker and write stuff on your head!"

I really believe it's better to name the elephant at the table. And if you can make me laugh in the process, so much the better.

Tomorrow, I go under the beam. I'll write soon about what is bound to be a surreal experience. Meanwhile, check out David Hlynsky's blog ( It is a beautifully written account of undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. David has finished treatment and his blog is done. I miss it.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

the wisdom to know the difference

I'm not much for prayer but the first few lines of the mantra for twelve steppers ( are speaking to me today. I'm working on "the serenity to accept the things I cannot change" and "the courage to change the things I can."

I've been finding it hard to give myself the space to get better. I am tired of feeling like a cancer patient and I want to feel like my old self again. I had a very important conversation with a very wise friend today about cutting myself some slack. She told me that it's not a failure on my part to admit that there are some things that I am just not ready to do. I really needed to hear that.

The pressure to have fully recovered is not coming from my spouse or my family. It's something I'm doing to myself. I am impatient and I want to put treatment behind me. I also want to remind myself and others that I am smart and competent and that there is much more to who I am than cancer.

I read an interview with an oncologist yesterday who said that, in her experience, the time it takes to recover is the same length of time from the first sign of cancer (i.e. finding the lump) to the last day of treatment (not including Tamoxifen or Herceptin). If this applies to me, and radiation ends on September 6, I should feel like myself again in May 2007.

Meanwhile, I am accepting the things I cannot change. Progress is incremental. Chemotherapy has left my muscles and ligaments stiff and sore. An old case of achilles tendinitis has flared up again so I have had to forego the running clinic. I have lymphedema (swelling in my arm, chest and back due to a build up of lymph fluid), which is exacerbated by heat, salt and repetitive motions (including knitting or spending too much time at my computer keyboard).

Every day look for the courage to change the things I can. I can't run but I can swim. Not well, or for very long, but even a few minutes of swimming or exercising in the water really help with the swelling in my arm. I had thought that swimming during radiation was a no-no but my research has indicated that it's fine to swim as long as I stay moisturized and stop if radiation burns cause the skin to break.

I was tempted to try an aquafit class at my local YMCA but put off at the idea of being bald and one-breasted in an exercise class. I enlisted my mother-in-law and went anyway. It turns out that everyone was too busy exercising to pay attention to me and I was too busy concentrating on the exercises to feel self-conscious. It was a good workout. Tonight my arms are that good kind of sore.

At the end of the class, a woman came up to me in the showers and said, "We're part of the same club." She finished treatment eleven years ago.

It turns out that someone did notice me. I'm glad.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


I am unbelievably tired.

Early mornings with this child...

...and late nights with this one...

...and making sure this family member is exercised...

Have left me so tired by day's end that I can barely move.

I am feeling very frustrated with my post-surgery, post-chemo body these days. My body doesn't look or feel the way it once did. Recovery is slow and there are some things that have been irrevocably changed. I have moments every day that I want to cry from frustration and my feelings of loss.

But my dependents pictured above also take me out of myself, provide love and distraction and remind me of the things I am still able to do.

They're good for me.

I just wish I weren't so damn tired.

Friday, July 21, 2006


Yesterday, I had the following conversation, in a cab, on my way home from seeing my shrink.

Driver: How is life these days?

Me: Good, thanks.

Driver: Are you a married lady?

Me (Don't ask why I answer these sorts of prying questions. It must be the first born child in me, or the fact that I am stuck in this guy's cab with the doors locked): Yes.

Driver: Your kids are out on their own, then.

Me (See above): No, they're not. They're three and eight.

Driver: Oh! So it was a late marriage.

Me: Not that late.

Driver (Turning around to get a better look): You look like you have no hair.

Me (Sharply): I have cancer.

Driver (Chagrined): Oh! I'm sorry. (Pause) I shave my head most summers.


Driver: But I didn't this summer.

Me (Politely): Mmmm.

Long, awkward silence.

Driver: So are you going to be OK? What do the doctors say?

Me: I hope so.

Driver: Good, that's good.

I was enormously relieved when his cellphone rang. It was the longest cab ride of my life.

My spouse, when I told him the story: Did you turn the cab around and go right back to the shrink?

When given the choice, I prefer to laugh than cry. And a little righteous anger never hurt anyone.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

a week in paradise (or what i did on my summer vacation, part 2)

I have a hazy memory of, at some point during cancer treatment, being told by a nurse to imagine myself somewhere that I feel safe and happy (to distract myself from whatever horrible thing was happening at the time). Last week, my physical self got to go where my mind has gone many times over the last several months.

My father-in-law has a cottage on the most beautiful little lake in northern Ontario. Time stands still there but the days go by quickly (I've never been able to figure out how that works). It is a place of healing (my father-in-law sought refuge there during his own cancer treatment two summers ago), relaxation and joy.

On July 13th, we toasted the fact that I wasn't in chemo (I had treatments every third Thursday) and every day I felt a little stronger. On July 16th, we drove home, feeling restored (the kids didn't even fight once during the five hour drive). My little family really needed this respite.

I did mention that we were in paradise, a place where even children behave perfectly.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

what i did on my summer vacation (part 1)

I'm back.

We did manage to get away. And had a wonderful time.

On July 7th, we celebrated my mother-in-law's 65th birthday. The next day these people (her three sons, spouses and assorted children):

all piled into cars and took her on a surprise trip to Niagara Falls (this was taken in our hotel parking lot and it should be noted that D., my young son who dances naked in front of the mirror at every opportunity and loves to be photographed, refused to take part).

During our week end together, I was struck repeatedly by how much I genuinely like each of these people. What's more, their support and love during cancer treatment has made me realize to what extent they are not just my spouse's family but mine, too.

This is a gratuitous photo of my children at Centreville on the Toronto Islands. Doesn't S. look thrilled to be riding with his little brother? For some reason, this cracks me up.

In other news, I have learned that I will start radiation therapy on August 1st and finish on September 6th.

The end is in sight.

Monday, July 03, 2006

what passes for normal

This is what we did today:

In case it's not obvious, the boys are being Wolverine (as so ably played by Hugh Jackman in the Xmen movies).

We used coffee grounds to make the chest hair.

Look at this angelic child. Surely not the same one who's temper tantrums are legendary in these parts.

We had a busy Canada Day with friends and family. I was feeling relaxed and quite celebratory (my own personal no-more-chemo milestone trumping my feelings about Stephen Harper and the Tories). It slowly started to sink in on this beautiful long week end that I am not recovering in order to get ready for the next round. I am done. No. More. Chemo. I am so relieved.

We are in chaos at the moment; trying to get organized to get out of town for a couple of weeks. The house is a mess, we are still working our way through our to do list and my spouse and I have been more than a little irritable with each other. If we are all still speaking to each other, it will be good to get away. I'm going to pretend I'm not a cancer patient, just a very tired bald person.

I've had my "radiation planning session" last week (more on that in a future post) and am now in the queue for radiation. I could be waiting anywhere from two weeks to two months. I plan to use that time working at feeling healthy again. I'm going to do a running clinic for breast cancer survivors at the Running Room ( and maybe take up yoga again.

Unfortunately, I seem to have developed lymphedema in my right arm. I am trying not to feel sorry for myself but it does feel pretty unfair. You can find more info on lymphedema at and

Thanks to all those who sent messages of condolences about Emma-dog. She was a lovely beast and we miss her terribly. As someone pointed out in the comments, we have fourteen years of beautiful memories.