A Year Later...
Still (just) in time to wish you a Happy New Year!
May 2018 be filled with love, good health, ample laughter and abundant happiness – and also all the resilience, patience, and kindness you need as the year unfolds with its unknown share of surprises and challenges. Winter has already brought days so cold that the outdoor ice rink on Parliament Hill had to close when the ice cracked. Canada - where it’s even too cold for ice! And, just this week we were wakened by a booming thunderstorm that unleashed torrential freezing rain (a first for both Angie and me). Ice rinks for everyone! The weather, at least, continues to bring surprises and challenges.
When I wrote our last fulsome update towards the end of January last year, I didn’t think it would be about a year before I wrote the next one. Not what I had in mind when I said I’d be in touch “from time to time”.
2017 was a different year than we had anticipated. When we popped champagne to celebrate the end of radiation treatment for me (January) and intensive physiotherapy for Angie (February), we innocently thought we were now “all better” and that life would be quickly “back to normal”, enhanced by all the good lessons learned. It has taken a bit longer – actually, for me, much of the year – along with a reluctant recognition that I will have continuing side effects and susceptibilities for some time.
That said, we both have a clean bill of health. My follow-up mammogram/examination was clear; I’ve adjusted to life on letrazole, the long-term, hormone-blocking drug; and, my energy and capacity has steadily returned. I am thankful that my body has proven so resilient and good-natured about all that has been happening to it. Angie’s range of motion is greatly improved along with her strength and gusto. Over the summer, she did much of the heavy work preparing the ground, and, with helpers a laying a new front stepping stone path in flagstone.
I’ve taken up pickleball as my winter sport and Angie is back to her all-season walking (outside or on the treadmill). Her 2017 Fitbit statistics record an impressive total of over 4 million steps taken and 3000km travelled. Persey, our sweet, chatty and cuddly cat, turned 20 in August – a venerable and still remarkably healthy old age. We feel lucky, grateful and optimistic.
But to backtrack a little. After a buoyant, even productive period in February and March,1 and figuratively only, I fell down a rabbit hole. My oncologist pushed back my Return to Work from early May to late June after I reviewed various ongoing symptoms with her. We headed to Hilton Head, SC for 10 days in April to stay in the vacation home of good friends for a restorative vacation with ocean breezes in a place we love. While there and after hitting some golf balls at the range on a warm day, a fair amount of lymph fluid backed up in my arm and chest. And thus, the lymphedema that had been hovering made its unequivocal entrance. This ushered in several months of managing new side effects and addressing continued side effects. Deep body fatigue. Limited stamina. Brain fog. Disturbed sleep. Aches and pains that turned into conditions needing treatment in my hands and feet. Our attentive family doctor paired the results of my previous MRI with an elevated cholesterol reading and started me on a statin. My days became a whirl of appointments and therapies – chiropractor, occupational therapist, lymph drainage, cancer and exercise class, various doctors, cancer coach, podiatrist. Much of this was organized through a formal plan to prepare me for a graduated return to work and all of it was helpful.
At an emotional level I hadn’t anticipated (much of) this and hadn’t planned for (almost any of) it, unlike the well-oiled ‘treatment triage’ of the previous year. I confess I felt a little crushed. And I didn’t know how to talk about it or write about it. I was even a little embarrassed that I wasn’t “all better, on schedule”, after all. Thus, it was helpful and reassuring to learn from one of ‘radiation buddies’ that she’d gone through something similar: ‘the 2-3 months that followed radiation were probably the most difficult ones, as with you all my joints were hurting! I had difficulties getting up from the couch! I was in better shape during my treatments! It was so discouraging that I thought I’d never be able to get back to my normal activities But, after a few months it started improving. I am slowly getting back into shape and feeling good about it.’ A mark of my own improvement was when I could again loosen and retighten the gas cap without effort and pain when I refueled the car!
A colleague steered me to a growing literature about the period “After the Bell” and the process of moving from Treatment to Survivorship.2 As another friend and fellow cancer traveler has put it, ‘I think all of us have lingering, complicated hold-overs from the treatments. The best I can say is that all of us post-cancer women, with the passage of time, seem to have learned to work around the effects and fashioned ways of accommodating and restructuring.’
And thus, we were able to put some concepts around our experience that lurking after Treatment was another phase that required us to rally. I’ve tried out various names the initial period of it: Aftermath, A Great Silence, Recovery, Lessened Expectations.’ In practical terms, I had to let go my various ambitious summer garden projects and simply appreciated Valerie’s tending of the garden when its growth and weeds overwhelmed me.
It still looked beautiful and gave us pleasure from spring bulbs to last flowers. I settled into BBC’s Gardeners’ World on YouTube and avidly followed its (many) episodes. My expectations of a banner summer for golf had to be similarly tempered. A golf pal sourced a much-used electric golf caddy for me, so I didn’t have to push my clubs (much appreciated, once I learned to control the remote and keep it clear of people and sand traps). I had to accept it when my body dialed me back - to fewer holes, to riding a cart for some instead of walking. In a happy measure of progress, I was able to walk the whole course by the end of the season and had put my swing and tempo back together again.
I returned to work part-time in late June and full time by the end of July. I ‘practiced’ getting back to teaching by administering a summer rebroadcast of my course. I got back into the classroom for the Fall semester beginning in September. As I prepared, I found it disconcerting to re-read the material and to see it somewhat differently after the time away and the brain scrub of treatment. I lived the academic idea that there is no set or fixed meaning to a text! Whenever I became overwhelmed, I learned to stop and ask, ‘now how did I do this before’ - prepare a lecture, craft a readings schedule, provide feedback. I began to call it attending to ‘The Method’. It had been a similar process earlier in the year when I co-wrote a paper on judicial education. I had to strip it right back to the basics of outlining after becoming completely stuck – I likened it to putting wet ink on a page and then stirring it until it was a brown sludge. But, I was pleased with what ultimately emerged from the outline.3 As with the paper, The Method got me through my re-entry to teaching. And more – even as it was ragged around some edges, it engaged and stimulated my mind (and perhaps, I hope, some of my students minds as well!).
Through all of this, my counselor encouraged me to practice ‘compassionate patience’, to accept that what I could do – for now - was enough. It was almost like laying down a physical burden when I took her words to heart (and yes, to mind).
The year was also full of a wonderful mix of ordinary and extraordinary pleasures. We celebrated our 25th Anniversary in the garden with a crowd and scattered rain showers in late August. A great niece – Evelyn – was born to our nephew Dan and his wife Bryn, who were married at the house in 2015. She joins our other greats – Aneese and Cade, niece Chantal and Jon’s lively offspring. We travelled to Prince Edward Island to greet our godchildren Fletcher and Nellie along with their parents Diz and Geoff when their ship came in to Charlottetown Harbour for Canada’s 150th Anniversary on Canada Day, July 1. Their ship being the ice-breaker carrying the C3 Expedition – Canada: Coast to Coast to Coast. Geoff was the expedition leader and Diz the education director for this amazing voyage undertaken as part of the Canada 150 celebrations. Over 150 days, in 10 legs, the ship went around the entire Canadian coastline, including through the fabled NW Passage.4 Geoff was with the ship for much of the journey with Diz and the kids joining for some sections. While in PEI we visited Cavendish Beach with Diz and the kids and spent time with Angie’s brother Brendan and his wife Maureen. We also celebrated nephew Rory’s housewarming in Round Lake Centre and spent time with Emma and their dad, Angie’s brother Brian. Angie’s other brother Dave was part of a crew with Angie at Robbie Burns Day at the Black Sheep in Wakefield at the end of January. Along with a haggis duly piped in.
My golf highlight was volunteering at the CP Canadian Women’s Open LPGA golf tournament in August. I was on the course for 6 of the 7 days of the tournament, marshalling the 13th hole (a lovely par 3 over water) with a group of folks from Rivermead where I golf. It was a fantastic, fun experience. We managed the flow of people and players around the hole and saw all of the action on it. We got to see all of the top women golfers including my superstars – Lydia Ko from NZ and Brooke Henderson from Canada. Brooke won the NZ Open later in the year and I was brimming with kiwi pride somehow (I think I’ve created the two of them as some sort of Kiwi- Can composite!).
I turned 58 in late December (although Nellie has me pegged at 85 because when she asked how old I was going to be I said it had an ‘8’ in it and a ‘5’. A logical sequence for her). Angie turns 59 in March. OMG, 95!
As we’ve thought about 2017 and opened to 2018, we are thankful for the many gifts we have received along the way. Time to spend with friends and family – the delight of a weekday lunch together or greeting the kids off the school bus. Potluck dinners and pizza night with friends. The importance of human connections. The young ones in our lives with their optimism and wonder at their expanding worlds and capacities. We are also so aware of and feel deeply the losses, illnesses and challenges faced by others around us. Friends with cancer, concussions, work challenges and changes; friends losing parents. People around us taking on new studies or new horizons. The great human condition.
A loving kindness meditation, comes to mind in the midst:
"May you be loved; may you be safe; and may you live life at ease."
This then is our hope for you in 2018 and beyond,
1. P.S. The blog is still up at www.abreastcanceryear.com.
2. E.g., https://www.drsusanloveresearch.org/preventing-recurrence. I’m also reading more of the literature addressing the longer term. The unequivocal value of exercise (at least 300 minutes a week for breast cancer survivors). Recognition that breast cancer is a chronic, long-term recurrent disease, mitigated by long-term use of aromatase inhibitors such as letrozole. New research suggesting that estrogen in diet can interfere with said aromatase inhibitors. A heady mixture consumed in moderation and counterbalanced by many novels! Latest ‘find’: Susie Steiner (British police procedural, with a twist).
3. Dawson, Kehoe and Thomson, ‘Mark Rosenberg: Judicial Education Leader’, in To Ensure that Justice is Done: Essays in Memory of Marc Rosenberg (Thomson Reuter, 2017) at 249.
4. For more on the voyage see https://canadac3.ca/en/homepage/.