Ring the Bell
Radiation treatments have come (December 15th) and gone (January 23rd). At the outset of each of my 25 sessions, I’d spoken a mantra welcoming the beams into my body and inviting them to clean up any lingering or potentially persnickety cells. On the final day of radiation, I said “last one, goodbye!” after each turn of the gantry arm and each buzz of the radiation collimator.
Done. Done. And, done: a year and a day after the ‘suspicious’ mammogram. After the final buzz, a very big, slow breath out. Followed by a giddy thanks to the (wonderful) technicians, a final change back into civilian clothes and a happy walk down the hallway to the reception area to meet Angie and our pal Jackie. Whereupon I rang the bell marking the end of treatment. Tears shed. A happy, emotional moment. Hooray, and hooray!
Later that evening, some friends gathered for a champagne toast to celebrate. In reply, reflecting on the year, I commented, “At the beginning, I was feeling vulnerable, in shock and at risk. When Angie fell, it felt like it could all break apart. And yet. Through it allwe’ve been held, held together and held it together. We've been abundantly, practically, kindly, even unexpectedly, supported by ‘our village’ of friends and family. We’ve been in safe medical hands. Able to recover and set off on the path to being well again. Savouring the moment, even knowing there are no long-term guarantees or invulnerability. Profoundly grateful.”
Angie has observed that the year has been an emotional roller coaster. As it began, I was grappling with the ending of a long-term association with an organization Bad news and good news. Building up to a treatment and celebrating its completion, only to face the next treatment and its uncertainty. Getting through one treatment and getting well, only to experience the depletion of the next treatment and getting well once more. The only constant has been champagne after each turn of the loop. Not a bad thing.
Angie is also doing remarkably well in her rehabilitation. She is regaining her range of motion and strength. She’s become the
shovelling stalwart creating an impressive network of impeccable paths in the snow. When she handed over the prescription from her surgeon for nine months of physiotherapy, she told Louise at Physiosport Chelsea that “it will be kind of like having a baby together.” Now ten months later, she has kitted out a newborn baby doll (ePaule: "
A bundle of humerus joy") to mark the ‘birth’ and to thank the amazing team who’ve midwifed her recovery.
She’s now moving into the weaning phase. Four more weeks and she sees her surgeon for sign-off. Champagne?
As for me, I’m now shifting into the follow-up phase of breast cancer treatment. I’ll see my radiation oncologist in a month for follow up. By then the radiation will have finished crisping my skin and my tissue should be on the way to healing. I’ll be able to get some lymphatic drainage massage in about five weeks, should the current mild swelling continue or worsen. In March, I’ll see my medical oncologist. I see my surgeon in May to plan the next scans in early Fall. Thereafter it will fall into a pattern of someone every four months. Watching like a hawk.
Top of the list for the appointment with my medical oncologist will be reviewing the “joys of Letrozole”, the hormone blocker I began in November and am scheduled to take daily for up to ten years or 3650 pills. I’m determined to stay on the Letrozole given its effectiveness against recurrence in estrogen-receptive cancer like mine. However, it is challenging medication. An informal survey of friends who are also on this class of aromatase inhibitor suggests that it finds ‘the weakest link’. In my case, 82 pills in, that is my hands, where the neuropathy lingers. It’s now been joined by joint and bone pain from the Letrozole. Fingers variously numb, tingling, burning, or aching. A recurrence of carpal tunnel syndrome at the end of the year complicated things but was helped by some chiropractic/ART treatment. I’ve now learned some yoga exercises, which are helping immensely. All of this has made typing a one-thumb effort on the iPad or Tylenol-assisted short bursts on a keyboard. But, all that said, the affliction it’s creating does seem curiously appropriate... stopping me from ramping up too fast!
Thankfully, I’m regaining my mental energy and my brain is beginning to fire on more cylinders. Meanwhile, I’ve finished Book 25 (Waters of Eternal Youth) in the Brunetti series which kept me company during radiation along with the aspirationally inspiring, The Layered Garden. I’ve applied my sharpening brain to the searing, unflinching and ultimately redemptive memoir, This is Happy, by Camilla Gibb and have gotten underway with Margaret Atwood’s, The Heart Goes Last. I’m even nibbling at Room by Emma Donoghue. Five years, two million copies, translation into 35 languages, an Oscar and endless reassurance by friends that it’s not too dark have finally worn down my resistance. I’m being drawn into the story and even liking it. Worst comes to worst, Brunetti 26 is due out in April!
I’m anticipating that I’ll return to work at the University in early May. This seems do-able so long as my various lingering symptoms and tiredness continue to improve. I’ll use the time until then to continue my recovery and orient myself to life ‘after breast cancer’ and to integrate changes based on the various insights of the year - about not over-working primarily but also about exercise and gratitude.
I’ve noticed – how could I not – that this year has brought a focus on Body. Most recently, I had an MRI in January (related to some migraine recurrence). It came back clear but as my radio-oncologist reviewed it onscreen, I found it startling to see my own brain. To realize that brain is body too, not some free-floating mind or consciousness. The brain health material I’d facilitated in some education seminars, suddenly applied to me too. In combination with all the evidence that points directly to exercise being key to quality of life and reduced risk of cancer recurrence, we’re setting a goal over the next three months to integrate exercise into our daily routine. It helps that it feels good and restorative once one has dragged oneself to the starting line. There was a point midway through radiation where I was feeling miserable and a little overwhelmed. A long swim restored my spirits completely. We’ve renewed our memberships at the health club and pool so we’ve created the external conditions for success! Angie is more conscientious than me which will help - prodding me out the door. We walked the Sugarbush Trail in Chelsea this weekend. It fits into the ‘very easy’ category but it’s still a lovely walk through woods along a groomed trail in the snow. Next weekend we’re joining some of our athletic pals (and many dogs) for a more vigorous snowshoe.
The mellow days of the Holiday period already seem far away as we move through the hardening days of January. We had a good, social couple of weeks. We enjoyed an old-fashioned country Christmas Eve. We took turkey and trimmings through the woods to our neighbours Diz, Geoff and the sainted godchildren on the day. We also went to a pig roast in late December, and a riotous pot-luck with friends on New Year’s Day. On a chill winter night, we warmed ourselves beside a neighbourly bonfire. We shared a quiet meal for my birthday on December 29th. When Angie’s next birthday rolls around in early March, it will also mark the one year anniversary of her own surgery. Full circle, a new year. No doubt there will be more champagne (and sparkling water).
Last weekend, while I tended the home fires and fiddled with a Scottish playlist, Angie and some MacDonald family members gathered for the annual Robbie Burns bash at the Black Sheep in Wakefield. The lead singer of the band Ecosse, our friend Bobby Watt, dedicated the last song to the MacDonald clan gathered. He recalled the year of challenges with illness, injury and surgeries, but also of happiness with a wedding and two new beings coming into the world. The song was Heart of the Home: “when the hard times come around, may you see them through together, may there be love and laughter in the heart of your home.”
May there indeed be love and laughter in your home.
Thank you again for being part of our village.