Pulse Check

It’s coming to three months since I finished active treatment and as I’m about to change things up radically, I thought I should do a check in of where I am right now. My personality is coming back and is both the blessing and the curse it has always been. Obsessive, diligent planning is assisting with preparing a schedule to aide my recovery, while my lifelong insecurities are wreaking havoc.

Physically I’m so proud of myself. My swimming is incredible, I’ve gone from it being excruciating to put on bathing suit, to now swimming two and a half kilometres. Two and a half kilometres would have been a feat before I got sick! I’m doing yoga and pilates and I’ve taken up belly dancing. I’m terrible at it but it makes me laugh and gets me moving and thinking in a way I don’t usually. I still get incredibly tired and I overdo it regularly, I’m still trying to learn balance and my limits.

I’m surprised by how well I’m adapting to only having one breast. The lack of breast and the scar doesn’t bother me as much as I expected, I’ve taken to wearing a sports bra and looser tops whenever I go out and I’m surprised that it’s not noticeable. At the beginning I thought everybody would be staring but it turns out everyone’s fairly self-absorbed. With myself I’m okay, but I panic at the thought of showing it to a lover.

I smile at myself in the mirror again. I don’t think I’m ugly anymore. I love my eyebrows. I get immense pleasure from them and recognising myself again. My post chemo hair is so thick and I think I have curls. I have no idea what to do with it.

I’m struggling with my weight gain. I’ve had very little success losing weight, and I struggle with how my body looks. Like all women, I’ve been trained since birth to despise my body and these changes have made it harder to accept. I know it’s detrimental to my emotional health to be so cruel to myself. Bizarre that I worry more about my weight gain than my mastectomy. 

When I swim I wear a bikini. I figured if I was writing about swimming for recovery, I shouldn’t hide my unilateral mastectomy or weight gain, so I bought a bright coloured top which doesn’t disguise anything, I wear it as a personal challenge for myself. I shower in the communal showers and, while I don’t flaunt my mastectomy scar, I try not to hide myself. I don’t know if any of this helps but I guess they’re all small steps to becoming more comfortable with my changed body.

I was very concerned about my mental capacity and chemo brain. I forget what I’m saying a lot, I drift off partway through sentences, I make silly little mistakes that I would never have made before, but I’ve also seen a marked improvement in the last couple of weeks, I no longer have to write down everything. I’ve started Luxembourgish lessons which is challenging (as are all languages for me) but I’m a genius in my brain training games.

Emotionally I’m struggling. I’ve isolated myself significantly, feeding off lifelong rejection issues. Isolation was partly to be expected, people can only retain interest for a certain amount of time, and when the crisis is over and the hair grows back, people expect you to go back to normal and, let’s face it, it’s not much fun being around the depressed cancer patient. Not working has been hard as it’s an additional isolation but I’m not ready to work yet. As the initial crisis passed, I realised how much of my identity came from my work and I worry about how I will be able to perform.

I’ve started seeing a new psychologist and it seems very positive. We discuss me in terms of who I was before, what my values are, what I care about, what I miss and where I want to be in the future. It reminds me of what is important to me and I have hope that this will help me move forward.

My world has become so small in the last year. I’m desperate for change, desperate sunshine, desperate to get out of Luxembourg. I’m desperate to not think about cancer all the time, to be distracted by something else. I’m going away soon. I have three weeks in Turkey focusing on my physical recovery, losing some weight and being active in some sunshine. I can’t wait. And then I’m just not coming back. Well, I’ll be back briefly for some tests and appointments and then I’m going to Portugal for some more sunshine and another health retreat to continue the physical recovery process. Then I’m going back to Australia. I can’t wait to see my family again when I’m not sick and horrible.

I have been socialising a little bit. I go to bellydancing and I go to Luxembourgish classes and I chat and giggle with my classmates. But I don’t know how to build friendships now. Do I tell them I’ve been sick? I like the anonymity of not telling them about my cancer but I also feel like I’m deceiving them somehow by not talking about the biggest thing in my life, and also when I talk about work, where obviously I haven’t been for a year.

I’ve found the cancer foundation and joined a pilates class there. There’s a woman who is going through chemo and I’m surprised by how triggering it is to see her. I try to tell her she’s brave and encourage her but I remember how awfully debilitating it was. It is a relief to be surrounded by people who have gone through the same thing you have though.

I’m surprised by how little I worry about recurrence. The comment I read a few months ago to the effect of what if treatment did work rather than what if treatment didn’t work really hit home. I assessed what I would do if I found out I was dying and what I would do if I found out if I was cured and realised that in both scenarios I would live as happily and healthily as I could, and I seem to be doing that somehow, which is quite interesting from such a pessimistic woman. I figure my oncologist threw everything she had at me and if that hasn’t eradicated cancer from my body, there’s not much that will. There really isn’t any more that we could have done, so I’ve somehow made peace with that. This is not a natural state but I like it so I’m keeping it. Of course, I have my first follow-up blood tests coming up and I’m stressed about that, so maybe I’m not as cool as I think I am. 

Menopause hasn’t been as horrific as I was expecting so far. I had joint pain and headaches when I first started treatment but that seems to have eased up. I don’t sleep anymore though. I have hot flashes through the night, not wildly bad but getting stronger, and they’re consistent enough to wake me up regularly. My skin is getting dry and my eyes are deteriorating. My tolerance to alcohol has gone.

I get very flustered. I’m not quite as quick to anger and tears as I was a few months ago but when I get stressed I blush violently and it takes me a long time to calm down. 

My interest in sex has disappeared. I worry about what relationships would look like in the future. If I will ever have one. I wonder how you initiate a relationship after cancer and a mastectomy and hormone therapy. It’s hard enough at the best of times and now… I’m trying not to worry about this as I have been single most of my life but I do think it will be harder when foreplay includes conversations about a disfigured chest and lubrication requirements.

So if I try to summarise where I am: physically, getting stronger, mentally, not as incapacitated as I thought I was, emotionally, pretty fucked up. The depression is ending though.

When I look at how far I’ve come in the last six months, four months, two months, two weeks, I have hope for the future.

I spend time gazing at my eyebrows. They are beautiful. And I walk by the river. It gives me peace.

Distance swum since last post: 1.0km
Distance swum to date: 19.3km
Distance to go: 180.7km

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