If ever there was a time I might feel like a cartoon character it would be now, and I choose Russell, the tubby boy scout and accidental stowaway in the Pixar-Disney movie Up. One reason for this might be Russell’s innocent optimism and persistence in his quest to ‘do a good deed’ for the grumpy old Carl, despite Carl’s rudeness. Or it could be how Russell’s initial terror at being stuck on the front porch of Carl’s house as it’s hoisted skywards by a clump of balloons the size of Arkansas, turns into excitement and wonder at this inadvertent adventure.
While both are valid reasons, they’re not my reason for identifying with Russell which boils down to one scene. Russell and Carl and their balloon-house are being stalked by the bad-guy Charles Muntz in a dirigible. Muntz yells at his henchmen, ‘Does anyone know where they are?’ and a moment later the hapless Russell, holding onto a rope with both hands, is dragged across the windscreen of the flying machine, complete with an awkward swiping sound. Relive the moment here – the Zen proverb ‘let go or be dragged’ is made manifest by this scene don’t you think? It could also be a roadside signpost on my own continuing Big Breast Adventure.
When last I blogged, dear readers, we were about to start sifting through a list of possible treatment options for the return of my lobular cancer – this time in my gut as opposed to my breast. (And no, I won’t be changing the name of this blog to My Big Gut Adventure because it just doesn’t have the same ring to it.)
As one might expect, the list of options presented to me by my trusty oncologist was extensive. It included standard sorts of recommendations like drug therapy, and some right-out-there suggestions like clinical trials in Bulgaria. There were also a couple of things that were suggested but dismissed in the same sentence. These were (a) surgery to remove the growth – a no-go because it’s so miniscule at present – and (b) a thing called a ‘laparoscopy’ or exploratory procedure for the purpose of biopsy-ing the site, or collecting fluid from around it, to identify beyond a shadow of a doubt that cancer cells are gathering there. In my oncologist’s opinion, this exploratory surgery is just another invasive, inflammatory procedure I’d have to undergo in a bid to confirm what we already know – that the cancer is back and it’s taking up residence in my pelvic area as we speak.
And there was a final put-a-pin-in-this-for-consideration-at-a-later-date suggestion of a thing called immunology or white cell therapy. As succinctly as I can describe it, this treatment essentially reprograms the body’s own white cells to kill off the cancer potentially creating what the medicos call a ‘permanent remission’. What’s not to like about that, right? There are clinical trials for this sort of immunology treatment going on in various places around the world, including Australia. However, none of these are for my kind of cancer. Also, because of the way clinical trials work with something newish like immunology, a patient needs to have tried and failed to achieve any benefit from traditionally proven therapies like surgery, radiation and drugs in order to sign-up. So, this option goes into the ‘interesting but over the horizon’ basket for the time being.
In amongst all my oncologist’s recommendations and counter-arguments, one stood out like the proverbial sore thumb – getting a second opinion from another cancer specialist. Second opinions are, of course, a patient’s right but in my experience, the suggestion to seek one almost never comes out of the mouth of the specialist in question. In fact, the patient (the one who’s sick, remember?) usually runs the gauntlet of serious disapproval, even scorn, when requesting it. The fact that my own oncologist made this suggestion off his own bat, entreats me to trust him even more than I already do!
Anyhoo – to cut a long story short – I sought that second opinion, visiting an oncologist in Brisbane who’d been recommended by my BFF at the genetics lab. In preparation for the consult I was asked to prepare a list of all the pills I’m currently taking, ‘even vitamins and natural remedies’ said the form. Testament to the adage ‘be careful what you wish for’, I turned up to the appointment with a list as long as my arm.
The pharmaceuticals numbered only two – daily doses of aspirin and Somac, the reflux drug I’ve been on for a few months now – and these were at the top of the list for easy reference. The rest of the A4 page comprised naturopathic, homeopathic or straight out woo-woo spiritual remedies that no self-respecting traditional health practitioner would venture to call ‘medications’.
Just as an aside, here, Cat’s Claw tea is one of these. Recommended by the Medical Medium Anthony William, Cat’s Claw is hailed as nature’s most potent antiviral, anti-inflammatory and anti-free radical compound, and a HUGE cancer-fighter, among other things. Because of the taste, one might be forgiven for thinking this tea is made from the claws of actual cats but no, the herb comes from the bark of a South American jungle tree-vine. Nevertheless, me and my husband have been putting it down our respective hatches in bucket-sized cups for the past month or so. We’ll keep you posted on any noticeable results like better night vision or in my case, that helpful nine lives thing for which cats are renowned. But for now, it’s back to our regular programming.
The oncologist in Brisbane confirmed that he too thought my cancer had returned, even without biopsied cancer cells to prove it. His recommendation was that, as soon as possible, I should embark on a low-grade chemotherapy drug coupled with a thing called Letrozole, an aromatase inhibitor or ‘hormone blocker’. Apparently, this combo drug treatment is a relatively new and highly successful way of stopping early-stage, sneaky-bastard cancers like mine in their tracks.
My Sydney-based oncologist explained that because I have what they call a ‘hormone receptive’ cancer, the Letrozole or ‘hormone-blocker’ drug starves the cancer cells of the stuff that makes them grow and multiply. Then, the low-grade chemo drug goes in for the kill. This is why the drugs have to be taken in combination and why the expected results are so promising. The other benefit is that these drugs can be administered by my good self in the privacy of my own home – no requirement to attend an outpatient chemo circle or hospital, which is a great relief.
There were, however, a few things I needed to do before starting the treatment which, BTW, made it difficult for me to laugh-off or play-down the seriousness of my situation. The first of these was an electrocardiogram (ECG) to see if my heart is strong enough to withstand the chemo. Thankfully it is. The second test was a positron-emission tomography or PET scan that forms a baseline for later comparison, to see if the cancer is still spreading or receding due to the drug treatment. The PET scan results were mostly good despite showing a small lymph node in my pelvis that was ‘lit up’, presumably with a colony of rat-fink cancer cells.
I also had to have a baseline blood test to measure the cancer markers 125, 15.3 and 19.9 (that have been jumping to new heights the whole of last year), and to keep an eye on my ‘neutrophils’ or white cell count which usually takes a hammering during chemo treatment. Most annoyingly, my white cell count is already below the recommended threshold and all of my CA markers have gone up yet again despite the claws of a zillion cats. C’est la guerre, I guess, and more evidence that the cancer is definitely on the move and needs to be nuked tout de suite.
Because I’m unsure how the recommended drug combo will affect me, given the extent of the ‘scare because we care’ list of side-effects, I’ve taken a step back from work for at least three months to allow me the freedom to take to my bed if necessary. Additionally, Dr Google informs me that hair loss may well be among the side-effs of the chemotherapy drug (it is chemo after all). So I skipped off to my local hairdresser and got a pre-emptive pixie cut as my way of saying ‘feck this for a game of soldiers’. Oh well, if I do go bald think of all the money I’ll save in hair products?
And so, strapped in for another ride on the merry-go-round of mirth that is cancer treatment, I started my drug combo on the 1st of April undeterred by the fact that this date is also April Fool’s Day. The reason I started on the first of the month is that while the hormone-blocker drug is taken daily without interruption, the chemo drug is taken on a 28-day cycle – 21 days on and 7 days off for recovery. I’ve been on this combo treatment for a week now and aside from feeling a little more off balance than usual, so far so good.
Getting to this place of readiness – both physically and spiritually – has been a long and drawn out process, as you can probably tell from this jumbo-sized blogpost. I’ve spent a lot of time addressing the temporal in my life, such as what to do about work and how to tidy up my affairs in case the unthinkable should happen. I’ve also invested a lot of effort into the ‘A’ thing – acceptance and relinquishing any struggle around what ‘is’.
To say that I am annoyed about the return of my cancer would be the understatement of the millennium. I’m also vastly disappointed that my only real option for treatment right now is the very stuff of struggle, in my humble opinion – chemotherapy, a toxic substance designed to kill. OK – we’re talking about cancer cells here so no one will weep for their demise, least of all me, but I’m sure you can see the paradox. Accepting ‘what is’ while embarking on a path paved with resistance doesn’t seem to add up somehow. It’s certainly not what I’d envisaged for myself five years after my initial breast cancer diagnosis and yet, here I am.
And then I remember poor little Russell, gripping a rope for grim death while being dragged across the windscreen of a dirigible. For the longest time I thought acceptance of crappy things like a return of cancer or the Trump Administration, meant condoning them. Apart from being a card-carrying, certifiable control freak, one of the reasons I’ve always had difficulty ‘letting go’ is that it appears to me as the highest form of defeatism.
I was so troubled by this that I sought out the guidance of some eminent spiritual teachers for solace and guidance. Here’s what I found:
‘Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.’ – Eckhardt Tolle, author of The Power of Now.
‘Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.’ – Hermann Hesse, author of the classic spiritual text Siddhartha.
And, as always seems to happen if I can just slow down enough to see them, little messages from the Universe come out of nowhere to light my path. This time it was the chorus of the beautiful Red Balloon track on Scottish-Canadian singer-songwriter David Leask’s new album Six in 6/8.
‘Let it go, let it fly. A red balloon in the big blue sky. Let it ride on the wind. So many things we can’t hold, let it go.’
The first two people to comment on this post will score their very own copy of the CD – so get to it people! And if you’d like your own download version of the song or the album, you can get them here. Love your work, Dave.
Bless you for reading and I’ll be in touch again soon.