What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. – T. S. Eliot
Finally, it is done! Chemotherapy is finished. I had my 6th and final cycle of chemo five days ago. If I wasn’t so exhausted, still in chemo haze and over the whole thing, I would be jubilant. The thought of more surgery ahead also takes the tarnish off, but it is a huge relief to be able to give chemo the big tick and put it behind me. The day of my final chemotherapy infusion brought back vivid memories of submitting my PhD thesis 19 years ago, a culmination of 4 years of blood, sweat and tears. That last all-nighter as I collated and proofed the final copies ready for the binder is indelibly etched in my mind (and the photo below ensures I remember how spent I was!).
I remember taking the bound copies and submitting them to the Office for Research at the University…..and then just walking away thinking “well, that’s that done then”. Of course I was happy, but mostly a feeling of enormous relief. The chapter wasn’t quite closed yet as it still had to go to examiners for review, no doubt requiring changes to be made before final acceptance, leading to graduation. That’s very much what my last day of chemo felt like; happy to be done with it, but still the side-effects to get through and recovery from 4 months of chemotherapy, along with knowing I’ll be having surgery again in the not-too-distant future, before going on to Tamoxifen for at least the next 5 years.
However an ending is an ending, and should be recognised as such. There is an absolute certainty in life, that with every ending comes a new beginning. Even with death itself, for those of us who believe, comes a new beginning. I have therefore given this new post-chemotherapy beginning much thought over the past few days, and taking a look around me, see that new beginnings are everywhere. It is spring and the burst of new life and fresh beginnings is blinding; my neglected and rampant garden is a riot of blossoms and colour. Everywhere there are birds darting and weaving and playing, filling the air with exquisite birdsong. I sit for hours watching the honey-eaters taking their fill of nectar in the blossoms and then bathing and quenching their thirst in the murky old water feature that we thought was just an eye-sore and should be emptied. Winter and hibernation really have come to an end. And nature is celebrating.
As the dead and dry skin sloughs off and the ulcers, sore throat and indigestion ramp up again, the thought strikes me that at the end of this process, I will have been rejuvenated and regenerated inside and out…..six times over. Every time those dividing cells have been killed off by the chemotherapy, stem cells all over my body have come to the fore to replace and replenish those cells. Of course this happens naturally anyway, but chemotherapy might be considered a bit of a “de-tox” in this sense – out with the old and in with the new. Apart from being pale (from anaemia) or flushed (from the dexamethasone), throughout chemo my face has maintained that “just been to the spa” luminous look and feel. I’m thinking my face is not averse to the constant forced turnover of skin cells. However, given what we know about turnover of cells leading to shortening of telomeres, which leads to aging, I’m wondering if when I compare before and after photos I’ll look a lot older. I was therefore greatly heartened to read an article that came out this week in Lancet Oncology that shows that healthy lifestyle changes can have an impact on aging and age-related diseases on a cellular level, by increasing the length of telomeres. It is well known that eating whole foods, exercising, meditation and a supportive network of family and friends are linked with better health. This new study shows that it is never too late to start reaping the benefits of changing to healthy lifestyle — and that those changes could even reverse cell aging. This is music to my ears and just what I needed to hear this week as I start life post-chemo. A new beginning, utilizing all the tools I’ve been learning and developing and implementing over past months.
I am eternally grateful that chemotherapy exists and I’m living testament to its effectiveness; it saved my life 33 years ago and hopefully has done its job with this new cancer. Thirty-three years ago, at the end of 18 months of high-dose chemotherapy, we had a huge party on the Children’s Cancer ward with all the staff and oncologists to celebrate the end of my treatment. I figure it’s time to reignite the euphoria of that time and soak up the messages of congratulations and well-wishes that have been pouring in from my many friends, drink that bottle of French champagne a friend dropped off and enjoy every moment next week of staying in the holiday house by the sea that a friend has given us as a post-chemo treat. I am so very blessed by the support and care of my friends and family! Chemo is finished. Yay! Let life post-chemotherapy begin.