My summer radiation dresses have now been replaced by woolly layers, gloves, and funky tights, although the radiation scarf continues to protect me from the elements: now, the chilly wind. The seasons seem to be moving at a much faster pace than my health recovery and my return to writing. My website also repeatedly prompts me with notices of software updates, reminding me that it, too, is feeling neglected. Meanwhile, I rebuild my cellular self and reconnect with my soul—achievements, I realise, I knew very little about, but which I find fascinating and critical to carrying on.
Over the summer and autumn months, some of my loved ones fade out of my life, while others appear to embrace me. Into the fall, I feast my sweet tooth on a very generous selection of Purdy’s chocolates and nourish my hunger for distraction from my more daunting tasks with the final books in two favoured trilogies, all of which are delivered mid-summer by my Wish Fairy Cousin.
Satiating Peanut Butter Cookie Craving
For months, I am unable to satiate my cravings for peanut butter in its raw form and in cookies—possibly yearning their magnesium and salt content, which I may be deficient in as evidenced by my recurrent leg cramping. My sweet neighbour bakes up a batch of his grandmother’s recipe just for me, while I continue to devour spoonfuls of the creamy peanut and salt sensation—with my growing jar collection serving as emergency water supply for my earthquake preparedness “kit”.
Satiating Peanut Butter Craving / Stocking the Earthquake Preparedness “Kit”
In mid-September, the spreadsheet that I use to organise my life gets corrupted, and my previous backup copy only reaches to the beginning of July. This means that I am not only flying without an organisational safety net for my current activities, but also that I lose the details of how I survived and thrived throughout my radiation treatments during the summer, including my list of events from “Maggie’s 40 Days of Celebrating Life”.
Backup Computer Generously Gifted
Fortunately, I manage to recover some of the content from the corrupted spreadsheet, but it is all jumbled up, and for months now, I cannot bring myself to untangle it into a coherent form. And for much of this time, I do not even have a reliably functioning computer with which to undertake this daunting task, since even the backup computer—supplied so kindly by a generous friend, as a potential replacement of my faltering regular one—eventually has a meltdown too and needs to be revived.
All this technological aggravation of the past months leads me to realise that, in the vast expanse of life, computer troubles can serve as a metaphor for ill health. As though reflecting the state of my health, my computer troubles continue to plague me since the spring. I realise that each of them is a tool, and when a tool isn’t working, it needs to be looked after, fixed, and maintained, before it can be used to accomplish the things that it was designed to do.
I can try to keep doing things with the computer while it is sort of working, but then it corrupts my files, or it takes longer to do something, or it requires constant vigilance and small frequent fixes—and achieving things doesn’t feel very rewarding; it feels frustrating, or at best, like a relief that something got done, but not at all rewarding.
And it seems to be similar with the state of my health. If I keep trying to push too hard and move forward with my life too much or too quickly, I run into roadblocks: something hurts; I don’t feel well; I can’t think; I get a cold; things don’t work out; I break stuff; I need to heel from small wounds; I am tired. Essentially, without my health tool in better order, I feel like I keep taking two steps forward one step back—and nothing feels good like an achievement; at best, it feels like a relief that a task can be crossed off the to-do list; life feels mechanical.
So, I conclude that I need to stop (or at least slow down), and fix the computer and my health for a while, so that when these tools are more functional, then I can get on with doing other things. “If you ain’t got your health, you ain’t got nothin’.” There are of course ways around broken tools, different ways of doing things—which I am quite familiar with—but then, one also might need to expect different results.
Mozart on Music and Life
As though to answer my internal conflict about what level of activity and achievement constitutes the notion of living—and not merely surviving, administering self-care, and feeling like a burden on others—one afternoon, the dreams of other people’s lives contained in one touring band’s van greet me with an affirmation for mine:
“Music is not only in the notes but also in the silence between.” (W.A. Mozart)
Aunt and Uncle Visit from Back East
Also in mid-September, I receive two separate family visits from back East. My Aunt and Uncle arrive on a marvellously sunny day and we spend it together strolling along the seawall; basking in the downtown views from the False Creek Ferries; sipping, munching and resting on a Granville Island patio; and treating ourselves to a morsel of truffle chocolate from the Public Market.
Mother and Aunt Visit from Back East
A few days later, my Mother and Aunt arrive by the transcontinental train, making the 4,500km journey from Ontario, to spend a week of taking in the Vancouver sights, rainforest weather, and sportive atmosphere, as well as filling up my freezer with freshly prepared Polish homemade food. In my kitchen, they are like two gears with perfectly fitting cogs. After days creating a grand total of 12 dishes, they are still smiling together whenever I arrive for a taste test. By the end of the week, they have miraculously stocked my freezer—which should nourish me at least till Christmas.
Spelt Flour Pierogi with Sauteed Onions and Shiitake and Red Sauerkraut and Carrot Salad
The 12 pre-Christmas dishes include:
- spelt flour pierogi with sauerkraut and mushrooms
- spelt flour pierogi with kale, spinach and Swiss chard
- bigos (sauerkraut and sausage hunter’s stew)
- golabki (cabbage rolls)
- pasztet (baked meat pâté)
- salatka jarzynowa (potato salad)
- zupa pomidorowa (tomato soup)
- barszcz (beet soup)
- sos grzybowy (mushroom sauce)
- baklazanki (braised aubergine)
- nalesniki z serem (crêpes with sweetened cottage cheese)
- sernik (cheesecake)
Between the technological red tape and family visits, I reflect back on my experience with the radiation therapy that I took daily over the course of six weeks over the summer. I recall how the entrance to the radiation chamber cautioning possible annihilation, the noisy mechanised high-precision equipment, and the painfully hard bench and headrest—all reminiscent of the movie “Aliens”—causes me to chuckle ironically to myself that I consciously chose to put my body through this recommended “treatment”. Despite these scary and grim surroundings, for me, the most traumatic aspect of this “therapy” turns out to be the careless and dehumanising bedside manner of some radiation therapists. In the weeks that follow, I don’t take the anti-anxiety drugs that one doctor suggests as a way of dealing with what is rather a clinical personnel training and behavioural issue. I do, however, seek a counselling session that another doctor recommends—but I do it more as an awareness-raising exercise for the clinic’s support staff.
I also follow a third doctor’s advice and send a 2-page compliments and complaints letter to the clinic’s administrators, depicting my experiences from my 6-week-long daily encounters in the “torture chambers” of the radiation floor—providing commendations for a couple of attentive, considerate and warm-hearted therapists, and constructive suggestions for improved training of the more careless, disrespectful and hostile ones. I am rewarded in my efforts with speedy feedback about my “well-received, fantastic letter” and with indications of resultant strategising by the clinic’s operational leaders about the learning opportunities for staff to enhance their goal of “putting the needs of our patients first”.
Radiation Therapy Self-Care Kit
A few weeks into my increasingly dreaded daily dosing sessions, I also take matters of my personal comfort and humanity into my own hands—and remembering that everything goes better with chocolate, a satin robe, and plush turtle slippers, I strap my panniers stuffed with these self-care supplies to my commuter bicycle, and henceforth, my experience becomes much improved. I am pleasantly amazed at how much the moods of grumpy therapists can be sweetened with a morsel of quality chocolate.
The Writer Visiting with Friends in Vernon
After 27 dosings with two types of radiation to my breast and lymph nodes, skillfully aligned to avoid most of my reconstructed-breast’s implant—thus reducing the chances of “capsular contraction” (a painful hardening and shrinking of the scar tissue that envelopes the implant)—I am treated by some good friends to a mini holiday in Vernon. There, I nurse my patchy, itchy and throbbing skin burns; nourish my body with delicious and lovingly prepared meals; and begin the slow process of re-cultivating my energy reserves. I also alternate my literary entertainment between vicariously following a young Canadian writer to France in her “Paris Letters” and devouring the mitochondrial nutrition research of a female physician who reversed her disablingly advanced symptoms of MS through diet and lifestyle changes documented in “The Wahls Protocol”.
The Writer Sporting Her Radiation Dress on the Beaches of Vernon
Since the end of my radiation summer, I continue to ingest the vast knowledge and theories about the chronic condition of cancer contained in books, online resources, diverse health practitioners, and other highly experienced fellow winners of the cancer diagnosis lottery.
For some more dreamy distraction, I revel in the paths that others have taken to relocate their lives and passions to the cultural and culinary delights of France, reading their stories in English, and most recently, discovering the French translation of Peter Mayle’s “Toujours Provence” (having read several years ago the other two books in the trilogy of his life in Provence: “A Year in Provence” and “Encore Provence”).
The Writer’s Vicarious Travels to France
While my book writing is still on hold—not the least because of computer meltdowns, indicative of my tentative health and mental state—I continue to digest my thoughts, discoveries, and insights in my Daily Morning Pages (that are neither daily, nor morning, but still exceptionally supportive). I continue to also practice the craft of writing by reading other authors’ work with an awareness of what appeals to me, what doesn’t, and why. I think I am listening to the universe asking me to be patient while it conspires with my tools, as every time I express a serious intent to resume my work on my book, my computer seems to tell me that it is not yet time.
Some side-effects of my treatments are also giving me plenty of opportunities to practice being patient, mindfully observant, and compassionately attentive. A recent one is now even interfering with two of my favourite activities: cycling and cooking. In addition to the constant pins-and-needles along the length of my arm and across my hand, whenever I stretch out my arm to signal my intent to turn left on my bike or to reach for something to my left in my kitchen, it feels as though my elbow’s funny bone gets a hit, shooting an electric shock down my arm. After a few weeks of this painful and tiresome excitement, I must admit that it is getting on my nerves. As with a similar side-effect after chemo the first time around, I am hoping with some aerobic exercise, distressing in its own right, that whatever may have gotten plugged up, will clear up again this time—without the need for carpal tunnel surgery or copious doses of painkillers that tend to get offered when I seek professional medical attention. My complementary medicine practitioners advise that the itsy bitsy teenie weenie acupuncture needles might also help resolve this—and at this point, I am starting to seriously consider this milder form of self-torture.
Now that my surgeries and radiation treatments are behind me, I continue to dedicate my time and efforts to the other 80% of my cancer treatment and recovery plan, which includes doing less and loving more, and which I have captured in both verse and prose.