With two rounds of surgery done and dusted – a lumpectomy with sentinel node biopsy, followed three weeks later by a re-excision of the margins and auxiliary clearance – it was time for chemotherapy to commence. Recovery from the second surgery five weeks prior had been slow and arm movement affected far more than I had expected. But it was time to mentally give that the big tick, put it behind me and move on to the next stage of treatment. Chemotherapy. The phase of treatment that I was devastated to learn I would need because my sentinel node contained macro metastases; even though all up only 1 of the 16 lymph nodes removed and biopsied were positive. I was so mad with myself – if only I’d gone to the doctor when I first found the lump in my breast, quite a few months prior…perhaps it would not have spread to the first lymph node, and chemotherapy would not be part of the required treatment. Still, we got on the with surgery and thoughts of chemotherapy were buried and removed from conscious thought; all energies were needed to recover from the surgeries.
But time moved forward and the week before chemotherapy arrived. I became a complete mess. Fear became all-consuming. My scientific mind and my firm religious beliefs tried to rationalise it, but I could barely think straight the fear was so great. This new journey with cancer brings so much emotional baggage, from the journey I travelled 33 years prior. Osteosarcoma, bone cancer of the leg, at the age of 15. It was 1980 and chemotherapy following amputation had only been a treatment option in very recent years. Prior to the introduction of chemotherapy, osteosarcoma had a 5% survival rate; since chemotherapy had became part of the treatment regimen, the chances of surviving this highly metastatic form of cancer jumped to 60%. I had the works – 18 months of high dose chemotherapy, consisting of 6 months of adriamycin and 18 months of methotrexate and vincristine. It was brutal; I lost my hair (traumatising for a teenager in the big-hair days of the 80’s), I was so violently ill, I spent most of that time in hospital or at home being cared for by my amazing parents and family. The first 6 months with adriamycin were the worst. It was the days before the excellent anti-emetic drugs that exist now. I developed anticipatory vomiting, where I only had to see the blue door of the treatment room (even years later) and I would become physically sick. The thought of the sight and cold feel of that red drug being infused into the back of my hand, even today, brings a knot of nausea to my stomach. One of the best days of my life was the day my oncologist told me I no longer had to have adriamycin, since my ECG patterns had changed and it was starting to damage my heart. Halleulujah! I wanted to kiss him. After that, my hair started to grow back and the remaining 12 months of high-dose methotrexate and vincristine as an inpatient every 3 weeks, were bearable.
Yes, it was brutal treatment, the best on offer at the time, but it worked. I was cured. Life moved on; I recovered, I studied science and obtained my PhD, I back-packed around Europe, traveled extensively and lived in several places around the world, I learnt to ski on one leg, I danced and immersed myself in the pub music scene of the 80’s and every concert I could go to, I had numerous boyfriends and found the one I wanted to share my life with, I had 3 wonderful children, moved to a most beautiful part of rural Victoria and forged a successful career, with an internationally-respected role in a job that brings me great satisfaction and makes a difference. Life was and is wonderful. But one never truly forgets one’s past and the thought of having to endure chemotherapy again was just too much for me to come to terms with. How was I going to do this?And then a small thing happened, in keeping with my firm belief that there is no such thing as coincidence…..
Treatment was to commence on Monday 3rd June. On Saturday 1st June I had signed up to attend a Quiet Day at our local church, where I am a churchwarden on council. This Quiet Day had been planned for more than 6 months. Saturday mornings are full of running around for swimming lessons, supermarket shopping, domestic chores that any parent who works full-time has to cram into their schedule on a weekend, however I had determined some time ago that I was going to grasp a few hours of quietness and indulge myself by attending this Quiet Day. Feeling somewhat guilty for leaving my husband to tackle Saturday alone with the 3 kids, I attended this Quiet Day, not really sure what to expect but loving the idea of peace for a whole 5 hours. After a short service, we were to spend the next few hours in quiet contemplation, in the stunning rural setting of the church, not speaking to each other but doing whatever we saw fit. To me, who very rarely sits still and even when my body is still, my brain is thinking of countless things at once, veering off on tangents, this was all a bit daunting. I could see a struggle coming up…until we were pointed in the direction of a table bearing reading material, that we might find useful during out quiet time. Phew! We could read. Pure luxury, to be able to spend the next few hours, tucked away from the world, reading. I bolted to the reading table, and there was the book that has set me on a path to a new awakening, peace and learning and has helped to tackle my fear of chemotherapy head-on.
Published in 1996, “Kitchen Table Wisdom; Stories That Heal” by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D, is an old book, but had the look of a book published just recently. Dr Remen’s opening chapters of “Life Force” drew me in and were the balm I needed. “Accidents and natural disasters often cause people to feel that life is fragile. In my experience, life can change abruptly and end without warning, but life is not fragile. There is a difference between impermanence and fragility……The tenacity toward life endures in all of us, undiminished until the moment of our death. ” These were powerful, healing words. I took the book home with me, and over the next few days as I commenced chemotherapy for the second time in my life, I clung to the words within this book. Yes, I cried when I arrived at Day Oncology to get started (how embarrassing!); Yes, I needed the “happy drug” to take the edge off (“Oh yes please, just give it to me now”) and Yes, the extremely rare adverse reaction to the taxane drugs was terrifying and debilitating (there is no pleasure in being the “special one”), but the words and the thoughts that came to me from this book sustained me and became my anchor. Within days, thanks to social media, they had lead me to Lissa Rankin and her book “Mind over Medicine”, the recognition for the need for stillness in my life and an awakening to mindfulness…..an amazing path of learning had begun.