Respite

Respite

I have spent the last month attempting to keep all things “cancer” out of my mind. Apparently, that included posting to this blog, as I realize it has been over a month since I’ve updated everyone who follows me here. Cancer treatment is a long road and can consume all of one’s time, energy and thoughts. Clearly, it is a road worth taking, but like any long journey, sometimes it is necessary to step back and gain a different perspective before continuing. This month long break between chemo and radiation was just the respite I needed in order to rebuild the strength and determination I need to finish stomping cancer out of my life.

The last round of chemotherapy brought some challenges, but my focus in July was to push through and enjoy as many fun summer activities as possible before the start of radiation, which will impose some limitations on me.

I think I did fairly well during this break in treatment. My returning energy levels and diminishing side effects allowed me to take a couple of camping trips (one by motorcycle), I did some hiking, spent a week at the family lake house, attended state fair (I even went on a couple of rides), and hit some outdoor music festivals. Sadly, I was unable to participate in the Riverwest24 (a great neighborhood 24 hour bike race), but I was able to observe the event as a spectator, which gave me an opportunity to see friends and share the event with my kids. All of this was punctuated by weekly doctor appointments which served to remind me that I’m not over this yet.

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By the end of July, I had a final appointment with the medical oncologist, during which she told me that I was doing great and my blood work proved that I was ready to move on to radiation. She passed me on to the Radiation Oncologist, with whom I met on Friday, July 29th. He seemed confident that I would tolerate radiation without problems. He assured me that it would be a breeze compared to chemotherapy. I was told to expect fatigue, and localized damage and burning to the skin at the site of the radiation. I was also told to stay out of the sun and no swimming. This was, perhaps, the hardest pill to swallow, as August is my favorite month specifically because I love hot weather, the feel of the sun and swimming (things that are cruelly limited in Wisconsin). After the meeting with the doctor, I went in for radiation mapping. The mapping involves a CT scan, lots of measurements and small tattoos to mark the precise location where the radiation will be targeted. After this appointment, I was scheduled to start radiation on August 6th, which allowed me one more weekend to escape.

I took the opportunity to combine two of my favorite things for the first time. Motorcycling and camping. Both are also a huge passion of my boyfriend’s – so much so, that he has several books on the topic (traveling250.com for more). We had a campsite reserved north of WI Dells, but a last minute change allowed us to meet up with some of Andy’s friends, an Australian couple traveling the world by motorcycle. Their travels brought them to the EAA fly-in in Oshkosh, so we left Milwaukee a day early so we could join them. It was my first time to the fly-in. I was completely blown away by the magnitude of the event.

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The ride took us through some significant storms and we arrived, late, to a soggy campground, where we had to set up the tent in the dark. It was worth it, as we got to share some wine and travel stories with some fascinating travelers well into the night. The following day, we walked all over the elaborate grounds of the EAA, attempting to squeeze way too much into too little time, as we wanted to leave early to beat the rain to our next campsite. We didn’t quite make it, and we arrived at Roche-a-Cri state park just as the hail hit. The ranger let us hang out in their shelter until we got a clearing in which to set up camp and cook dinner. The next two days were beautiful and we filled our time with hiking, relaxing and a couple of motorcycle meet ups with a group of friends, which took us through the dells, and a trip on the Merrimack ferry on the way home Sunday.

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Back to my current reality after the camping trip, I went back to the hospital (Andy wouldn’t let me run away and extend our trip indefinitely…). Wednesday, August 6th would be my first day of radiation, which actually involves simulating the treatment with x-rays and further measurements and fine tuning to make sure everything is correct before administering the radiation. It was torture! Still not properly healed from rotator cuff surgery, I found it extremely difficult to lay still with my arms up over my head for such a long time. First, my arm went numb. Then it progressed to pain, then my arm started to shake from the pain, at which time I was reprimanded for moving and told that if I wasn’t completely still we would have to start from square one again. That was enough to make me push through, but I was nearly in tears by the end and not sure I would be able to hold this position 33 more times (yes, 5 days a week for 6 and a half weeks). They told me that the simulation would be the longest one and that subsequent sessions would not be that bad, so I went back again on Thursday to start radiation. Again, there was some fine tuning and double checking, and my arm went numb again, but did not have time to progress to pain by the time it was over. Friday was shorter yet, and my kids were with me, so they got a chance to see what I would be going through, which removed some of the mystery for them. They got to see the machine that gives their mom super-powers. And they got chocolate. What more could you want?

Healing Henna

Healing Henna

I can’t go so far as to say that I am glad that cancer came into my life. What I can say is that I am fully embracing the healing journey that this life experience has plunged me into. I can also honestly say that some of my happiest moments have come to me as a result of this experience. I’ve made deeper connections with people with whom I may never have crossed paths with otherwise and they’ve brought so much to my life.

I face round five of six chemotherapy infusions today. Previous rounds have involved a pre-chemo margarita with friends to prepare myself for the rough patch that sometimes follows an infusion. However, this time, I decided to make use of the fresh mint proliferating in my garden to make mojitos with my friends. This was also my way of thanking those who helped me whip my backyard gardens into shape (see Victory Garden). I also invited a friend from the neighborhood to join us and do henna tattoos for everyone, with the finale being a full henna tattoo on my bald head.

We made our mojitos and enjoyed a cookout while we watched in amazement at Anita’s talent as she created her beautiful art on our bodies. Her true talent shines through in the flawlessly smooth strokes she uses to create her art. She started with the kids and, somehow, through her brief conversations with them, and nothing more than the images that she envisions in her mind for them, she created unique designs which seemed to perfectly suit each kid’s personality. I am absolutely amazed at this talent!  See more of her work at Hands of Henna by Anita.

Towards the end of the evening, as all the other tattoos were completed, Anita had a wonderful suggestion. It was nearing 10:30 (on a school night), and she mentioned that she did not want to rush my tattoo, but rather go to the beach the following day to work on mine. I love the beach, so this sounded perfect to me.

It couldn’t have worked out better and the experience of tattooing my head on the beach will always have a special place in my heart. We chose my favorite time of the day to go to the beach. It was a beautiful, clear, sunny morning and the sun was sparklingly beautifully off the water. We found a great spot in the warm sand to spread our blanket, close to the water so we could hear the soothing sound of the waves gently lapping on the shore. We set up Pandora to play world music, and I settled in comfortably on the blanket, feeling the sun on my skin, and perfectly relaxed in a kind of meditation. The feel of the henna going onto my head, with the backdrop of the music and the waves and the feel of the sun, was incredibly soothing, reminiscent of a scalp massage.

We spent the next two hours in relaxed conversation. I’ve know Anita for years, but only casually from living in the same neighborhood, and having some mutual friends. This was the first time we really spent a solid chunk of time getting to know one another. It was a really special moment. We spoke of our love of travel and passion for living fully. We also shared our experiences with life changing events. I attempted to express how cancer has changed my perspective on how one goes through life, and Anita shared her experiences recovering from a life changing accident. We talked about how to raise our daughters to be strong, independent people, and how to involve them in travel more to expose them to the variety of cultures on this planet. It was a really wonderful experience, and all the while, Anita created a beautiful work of art on my head. It’s one of those moments that I never would have enjoyed had cancer not entered my life, so for that I am grateful.

After finishing the tattoo, it would be the first time venturing out of the house without the concealing protection of a hat, though the tattoo was, in a sense, a beautiful head covering which allowed me to walk around with a feeling of confidence. I received a lot of compliments when I picked the kids up from school. The first question people asked was if it hurt until I explained that it was a temporary henna tattoo. My kids’ classmates were the best, because kids have that uninhibited way of wanting to see new things and learn. Some thought it was a wild haircut, others wondered what it was, but they all thought it was really cool. Adults asked questions too, but with a little more reservation.

All in all, it was a perfect way to get myself mentally prepared for another round of chemo. I need to make sure the positives of this experience outweigh the negatives. There are definitely moments when I just want to have all of this behind me. But since I can’t control that, the least I can do while I endure the treatments is to create wonderful memories that I will cherish as I put this experience behind me. So far, so good.

The Early Bird Gets the…

Freshest air, apparently.

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I have always been a morning person. In fact, I prefer to be up before the sunrise. Since I moved into my new apartment, my routine has been to settle on my east facing couch with my cup of coffee and wait for the sun to rise. It’s my zen moment of each day, my chance to reflect on things, organize my thoughts and prepare myself for the chaos that usually envelopes the rest of my day.

For this reason, I have been fascinated by a particular story in the book I am reading. The book is called “Radical Remission”, and the author follows the stories of people who have beaten cancer against all odds. The story that caught my attention is about a man sent home because there was nothing more the doctors could do for him. He woke before the sunrise and was grateful for another day. Each day, he went to his rooftop to take in the sunrise, feeling that each day truly was a gift as he prepared to die. He focused on the energy from the sun and his breathing. Then he began to notice that the birds were singing well before sunrise. Curious to track when the birds began to sing, he woke earlier and earlier each day, until he discovered that they always started 42 minutes before the sun rose, even though the sun rises at a slightly different time every day. Further researching why this would be, he found that trees start photosynthesizing as soon as it gets light out, which happens to be 42 minutes before the sun rises each day, and that the birds are taking advantage of this peak time of fresh air. His take from this was that deep breathing exercises at this time of the day provides a maximum amount of oxygen.

My days and nights have been a bit mixed up lately, as I’ve struggled with insomnia, so I am usually wide awake around 3:30am. Yes, 3:30am. I like mornings, but this is a bit ridiculous, even for me. What these sleepless nights are doing, though, is provoking thoughts about the man’s theory about the birds. In the past, I recall wondering why I was hearing birds in, what felt to be, the middle of the night. Now that I am aware of this interesting fact, I am listening for the birds. Yesterday, I started hearing birds at 4:51, and sunrise was at 5:34. Today, I heard birds at 4:48 and sunrise was at 5:32. This is pretty fascinating in my opinion. Almost fascinating enough to set an alarm 52 minutes before sunrise every day to track when the birds start, as my own little scientific experiment.

Almost.

But I know that sleep is also crucial to my healing, so I prefer to try to sleep when I can these days.  I’ll just put my trust in the fact that the birds know what they are doing. They are far more in tune with nature’s rhythms than most humans are.   That being said, maybe, instead of my cup of coffee while waiting for the sun to rise each day, I will open a window and focus on my deep, healing breaths.