I believe Winston Churchill first said the words, ‘Never, never, never give up’, but today’s zeitgeist is so saturated with this sentiment one could easily think it was Lorna Jane or Bear Grylls who came up with the idea! The past few months have certainly heightened my appreciation of this strong message of persistence and resilience. Lately though, I’ve been feeling it’s too warlike and perhaps a tad egotistical, to be of continuing use in my current circumstances.
When I was going through chemo the first time, I received many well-meant messages from friends, colleagues and acquaintances about fighting the cancer, standing firm, holding on and eventually beating the disease. And I get it, I really do – a cancer diagnosis is tantamount to a call to arms, and not just for the patient! The loin-girding starts even before the shock has worn off. My first diagnosis came on a Tuesday in mid-December 2013. I asked my GP what the chances were of having surgery before Christmas and he said, “You’re already booked in for Thursday.” Sheesh – glad I’d gotten the Christmas shopping done early! No time to think, just pluck that Sword of Damocles out of the air and get a move on.
Flanked by my family, a legion of friends from around the world and, of course, you my dear readers, I fought that good fight five years ago and cancer didn’t get the better of me – that time at least. But as you all know, I’ve been facing the enemy again for the better part of this year and this time, it’s more like the Cold War than a pinpoint bombing raid. I’m not beaten by this re-emergence of my lobular cancer so much as being beaten into submission – a vastly different proposition, and one that casts a decidedly judgmental light on the ‘never, never, never give up’ mantra. In order to better explain my burgeoning disquiet with this war cry, allow me to put you in the picture of what’s happening now.
I’ve completed my seventh 21-day round of ‘home hospital’ chemotherapy and have four dual bum-cheek injections of the hormone inhibitor under my belt (pun very much intended) with another scheduled before Christmas. The two main cancer markers we’re tracking (CA 125 and CA 19.9) have descended from the dizzy heights recorded back in March and are now dancing at the edges of their recommended outer limits. So, technically speaking, the treatment is working but like a playground see-saw, as one side descends the other side (with the effects) is bound to rise.
These side-effs are cumulative, that is, the conga line gets a bit more crowded each time I have a round of chemo and fresh bum-cheek injections. And while ‘conga line’ might imply something a bit festive, I can assure you, this is no dance party. Actually, it’s pretty boring if the truth be told, so I’m only going to relay the major issues here:
- When I venture out of the house these days I take a walking stick because I feel wobbly on my feet all the time. My hips and knees ache a lot and there’s swelling in my upper legs. I never want to see my thighs again.
- I only drive if I absolutely have to and even then, it’s usually local errand-running at times of the day when traffic is lighter. Trips to medical appointments or blood-taking require a companion who also has a driver’s license. If no-one’s available, I get an Uber. All grocery and household items are now delivered and for things that can’t be procured in that way or have been forgotten by me (a very regular occurrence these days) a family member is dispatched on weekends.
- What I used to refer to as general fatigue is now best described as exhaustion. Household chores are punctuated by rest breaks every fifteen minutes, which is roughly how long it takes for me to start feeling woozy from being upright too long. These days, my favourite place in the world is stretched out on the couch, legs aloft to alleviate the swelling, a cup of tea and the remote control within reach, watching a re-run of Foyle’s War that goes for two hours, thereby reducing the need to move. Pathetic.
As vexing as these physical side-effs might be, like last time, it’s the psycho-emotional impacts that are the real snakes in the woodpile. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix, the whip-smart Hermione Grainger accuses her friend, Ron Weasley, of having the ‘emotional range of a tea-spoon’. Spot on for me too, Hermione, although my teaspoon contains only two emotions at present – sadness and ‘I don’t give a crap’ – hardly ‘a range’ by any stretch of the imagination.
The only advantage is that both emotions are fleeting and between them is mostly numbness. Tears spring to my eyes and before I can explain why to my concerned loved ones, the sensation has passed into the realm of can’t-be-bothered. Oddly, that ‘past caring’ feeling is a weird yet welcome salve to the poignancy and frustrations of my daily life in the slow lane.
The best I can do to explain this strange sensation of comfort wrought by lethargy is that classic scene in 1980s movie The Big Chill. A group of college friends gather to attend the funeral of one of their cohort, Alex, who’s committed suicide. They end up spending the weekend together and the inevitable conversation around the dinner table ensues – why did Alex do it and could any of them have prevented it? When they’re all at a loss for answers, the character Nick (played by William Hurt at the top of his game) pipes up with, ‘I know what Alex would say. What’s for dessert?’
I don’t mean to imply that I don’t care about anything. Clearly I do because I’m still taking a range of homeo-and naturopathic medicines; I’m doing my bit for the planet by recycling and composting food waste with religious fervour; and I’m urging my 18 year-old son to make haste and get on the electoral role so that he can help unseat Tony Abbott at the next election.
But here’s where the not-beaten-but-beaten-into-submission thing I mentioned earlier comes in. Every round of chemo is an inexorable march downhill in general health terms and while I hope to eventually bottom out (pun very much intended again) on a grassy plain or verdant river valley, right now I can’t see that far ahead.
From the outset of this chemo-hormone inhibitor combo treatment, my dear oncologist has ever so gently maintained that this is not a cure – it’s merely putting a lid on the relapse, getting the cancer markers back into acceptable ranges and keeping them there. Perhaps he was a little too gentle in spelling this out because it’s only relatively recently that I’ve come to fully understand what it means. With each round of treatment, I feel my grip on the ‘never, never, never give up’ mantra becoming weaker and weaker. I’m sorely tempted to give up, but if I do, my citizenship of Loserville will surely be confirmed.
Earlier in 2018, before I even knew I was having a relapse, I was fortunate enough to travel to Montreal to attend my god-son’s wedding. During the ceremony my beautiful friend and mother of the groom read a moving poem about creating a happy and enduring marriage. Perhaps it was a portent of things to come but one line in that poem resonated very deeply with me – ‘give in but never give up’.
While I hesitate to liken marriage to being treated for a cancer relapse, it’s true that both require commitment over long periods of time. One simply can’t remain in fight mode for the duration – trust me, I’ve tried. Indeed, the great Eckhardt Tolle (author of The Power of Now) goes a step further by exhorting us to cease our resistance to what’s happening because struggling only begets more struggle.
Or perhaps our good friend Hermione Grainger got it right once again with her advice to Harry and Ron when trapped in a nasty patch of Devil’s Snare in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – ‘You have to relax. If you don’t it will only kill you faster’. Relive the moment here.
I’ve written a lot in the past about acceptance, surrendering and yielding, but seven rounds of chemo and two small words – giving in – have finally led me to this conclusion. Giving in is not giving up. Surrendering is not losing. Acceptance is not defeat. Softness can also mean strength, as described so eloquently by the father of Taoism, Lao-Tzu:
Water is fluid, soft and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.
And so dear readers, as My Big Breast Adventure reaches the five-year mark, I’ve made the decision to stop just writing about surrender and actually do it for a change. As of today, I’m giving in to the reality of my current health situation and downing tools on my work life. In the past month I’ve relinquished all of my company directorships and, as of today, I’m stepping down from my role as Principal of For Pity Sake Publishing.
While my duty-bound inner-Methodist is experiencing heart palpitations at the very thought of referring to myself as a retiree, the grief of giving in on the work front is, paradoxically, heavily laced with relief. Patently, it’s time for me to take the road less travelled and my heartfelt Yuletide prayer is that all of my dear readers will want to continue alongside me on this ramble.
Wishing you all a blessed and peaceful festive season and a prosperous start to 2019.
All the breast!