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* Embracing Chemo – six week course commences February 2013*


I am so deliciously peaceful. A few hours past surgery and I feel good. And excited. My breathing is deep and restful and my hands are warm. And I am basking in this moment. I now officially have two bumps. And though new and raw, I treasure them. Dr David managed to do my expansion while I was under. I was never huge. There is a quietness in how blessed I feel. And the special people around me. The love of family and friends and people I’ve only just met flowing to me and through me. My body is responding beautifully. Just a mild pressure, nothing more. I woke as I asked myself to do so. Comfortable and peaceful. I am so in awe of how special we are.  The special abilities we all have inside. How that deeper part of us responds to our gentle directions when we allow it to do so.

Miracles. Yes. They are possible. And they often come in the most beautiful and unexpected ways…

Don’t you love it when the penny drops? When something finally clicks into place like a missing piece of the puzzle. Well, I had another one of those moments recently. Without me really noticing, something had obviously been ticking away quietly inside my brain and then at that precise moment, it clicked into place and became a conscious thought – one of life’s wonderful ‘aha’ moments. And finally I understood at a deeper level the many reasons why slowing down your metabolism can make chemo easier.

It all has to do with understanding how we heal. Understanding the importance of slowing down, breathing deeply and practising what Dr Herbert Benson calls the relaxation response. Our bodies have two modes if you like – one is fast – this is the stress mode and it helps to get us out of danger – and one is slower – this is the rest and digest mode where we do our healing. But in this day and age with all the time demands, and our fears and worries, it can be difficult to slow down, can’t it. Our bodies and minds are running continuously full steam ahead.

And it makes sense, doesn’t it. If we do our chemo while our bodies are running full pelt, the normal healthy cells are working much harder and faster and take up more of the chemo. But if we can slow things down as the research shows, our healthy cells will simply not absorb the same quantity of chemo. And to my way of thinking surely this would leave more chemo for the cancer cells to suck up. Seems like a good idea, doesn’t it. And there was something else I realised in that moment… that when our bodies are in rest and digest, our organs are working beautifully and it is these very organs we rely on to process the chemo toxins out of our body. Because, when we’re stressed many of our organs shut down. Not something we really want to happen when we’re relying on them to detoxify our bodies, is it? So by taking a leaf out of the tortoise’s book, it seems we could possibly get a bigger hit in exactly the right spot, and then get the chemo out quicker. I’d love to see some research done on this.

And there’s quite a few ways to slow things down, aren’t there. I’ve found research to show fasting before chemo brings your metabolism down which reduces side-effects. I checked this out when I was having chemo and my beautiful oncologist again was so supportive. Or having chemo when your body is at rest in line with your circadian rhythms has been successful too. Practising relaxation, and diaphragmatic breathing does wonders to retrain the way our bodies are working. And laughing, that full on belly laughing until your sides ache laugher, is pure magic in helping us switch over into healing mode.

I wonder, have you ever considered what the fear of chemo does to your metabolism? Your heart races, your palms sweat, your breathing becomes shallow. Because fear increases our metabolism, doesn’t it. And it’s not something we need more of. Many people don’t realise that the fear of chemo can actually exacerbate the very side-effects we seek so desperately to avoid…

The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself
– Franklin D Roosevelt

Sometimes I find the sadness creeps up on me. And it seems this can happen when I’m tired from a particularly gruelling week. A sadness, a grief for the ‘me’ I used to know. A lamentation for my old self, the one I knew for 40 years before the cancer. And the tears just flow with the sense of loss. In fact it seems my eyes just seem to stream sometimes even when I’m not actually crying. Perhaps this is a reflection of the depth of the sadness that can come with the losses we suffer through cancer.

And there are many losses, aren’t there. And I’m not just talking body parts. There’s the loss of strength physically and psychologically. My right arm that has always been my dominant arm is simply not the same as it use to be and I feel this profoundly. There’s the loss of sensation, the itches that can’t be scratched because the skin is numb, perhaps never to recover because the nerves were cut as they worked to save my life. And though my hair has grown back beautifully, it is thin and every morning I grieve the loss of my thick grey coiffed mane I use to love. Then there’s the loss of freedom in being tied down to the relentless medical appointments which continue years after the treatment is over. Other losses too, like the freedom to fly without the need for compression bandages, although I am delighted when I forget to wear them and my arm is none the worse for wear. There’s the loss of stamina, particularly noticeable when my six year old beats me in a running race. And perhaps one of the hardest to bear is the loss of sexuality, both physically and emotionally. Because as one woman said, it can be hard to feel sexy with only one breast, can’t it. Especially when we live in a society that idolises women’s curves. And to add insult to injury there’s the loss of libido as the oestrogen blockers affect my brain. But I’m working on that one and determined to win. There are the losses as relationships change and loved ones disappoint us as they too try to cope. And I haven’t even mentioned the financial loss, though I feel this loss pales into insignificance compared to the personal losses and the loss of identity.

Grief is not something we seem to do very well in this society, is it. We’re more the stiff upper lip type. But amongst the pink ribbon days, daffodil days, mother’s day walks and morning teas, perhaps we should have a day where we don our black arm bands and have a good grieve. Allow ourselves to feel the sadness that comes with this loss of self. And it’s important to mourn these losses, isn’t it. Allowing ourselves to feel the sadness helps us to move through and move on. Because the losses are real. And although the new ‘me’ that has arisen from the ashes is strong and beautiful, sometimes I don’t quite know how to relate to this new person. It’s like I have to get to know myself again and learn to love myself anew.

I remember reading years ago of a couple whose little boy was brain damaged in an accident. And they held a funeral for their little boy. And though they were criticised by many because he was still living, it was important for them to mourn the loss of the little boy they once new before they could welcome the ‘new’ little boy who had taken his place…

I wonder if you’ve ever realised how other people can affect us without us even noticing? And it can be in such simple ways. Sooner or later, everyone’s had the experience of seeing someone yawn and voila! – you’re suddenly yawning too. I even yawned as I was looking at pictures of people yawning to put with this blog. It just seems to plant a seed doesn’t it.

Isn’t it interesting how people can affect us at a deep subconscious level. The truth of this came home to me after Steve and I spent 14 months ‘trying’ to fall pregnant with our first child. A bit over the cycle of disappointment, we eventually decided to have a holiday overseas and look into fertility treatment on our return. So it was we booked 3 weeks away. I was 30 and had never been overseas before. I was very excited! And I guess you won’t be surprised when I tell you that a month after we got back I was pregnant.

Perhaps it was because we relaxed and stopped ‘trying’. But looking back, I now remember my father’s words – ‘make sure you go overseas before you have kids’. And I think the impact of his words are closer to the truth for me. At the time, I didn’t really give them much thought. But a part of me must have. It was as if a deeper subconscious part of me was listening and took it to heart. How easy it was then to give myself permission to fall pregnant once I’d done what Dad had suggested. No doubt the other factors probably helped too.

I noticed the same thing happen as I was going through chemo. The first cycle was easy. A bit emotional, but nonetheless, okay. My beautiful oncologist congratulated me on a job well done. ‘No side effects are compulsory’ he said. He always makes me feel so good. Whenever I visit, I’ve noticed that he waits for me to tell him if I have any concerns, rather than make suggestions as to what concerns I might have. He’s a wise man, and I am grateful for his care. But then it seems I came undone when I went for a check up with other medical staff. Have you ever noticed how some medical staff have no idea about the impact of their words? And it doesn’t help when chemo staff tell you what each drug is going to do to you as they administer it! And so despite my protests, I was asked the usual questions – did you have any side-effects? Did you feel nauseas, did you have diarrhoea? Again it seems a seed was planted. My second cycle was by far the worst I ever experienced. Nausea almost to the point of vomitting, diarrhoea. A complete wipe out. Chemo Monday I called it, the third day after chemo, and it was my lowest point throughout the whole 5 months. This time it hit me pretty hard.

But it didn’t last long. I was fortunate to have therapist friends who worked out what had happened and helped me to get the suggestion of these side effects out of my head once and for all. And I never experienced nausea or diarrhoea again. Each chemo cycle just got easier and easier. By the last cycle I was euphoric! I’d got there and I’d found resources within myself to make it easier.

So now I don’t read the side-effect lists. I pop them away, and if I have a problem I can look into them. I see no point in even entertaining the possibility. After all, how often do we imagine things to be one way, only to find out the reality is something quite different, in every other area of our lives? Each time I have a check up now the medical staff continue to be surprised by my lack of side-effects. But I’m not! And neither is my oncologist. Sure chemo is a physical thing, there’s no getting away from that. But I often wonder how many side-effects occur because a seed has been planted…

I love to tell this story. During one cycle of chemo, I had the most wonderful opportunity to hear about John and ‘Bloody’ John direct from John himself. As he sat beside me getting his port flushed, he told me his story. I was so excited by the possibilities!

 John met ‘Bloody’ John in the chemo suite while they were both going through treatment for cancer. ‘Bloody John’ had been so named by nursing staff because, as a great Aussie bloke, every second word he said was ‘bloody’. John and ‘Bloody’ John were both diagnosed with the same cancer, and given the same chemotherapy drugs: 10 cycles in total, one every two weeks for near on six months. John found it difficult to eat anything for the whole six months. He could only stomach fruit and lost an incredible 20kg. Despite his slenderness, he was in great spirits the day I met him with his treatment over. Bloody John however, ate steak and veg the whole six months of chemo. John just couldn’t believe it. How different it was for ‘Bloody’ John. The chemo just didn’t seem to worry him. Isn’t interesting how two people can experience the same things, at the same time in such different ways?

 I remember my beautiful oncologist saying ‘no side effects are compulsory’. And how important our minds are in the experience of cancer. He’s spot on. Given that external circumstances were the same, the differences between John and ‘Bloody’ John could only have come from inside of them. Many people don’t realise how tapping into our internal resources can make all the difference…