Riding the Chemo Wave

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I rode a metaphorical wave last year and I find I’m still riding it. It’s easier now, but memories of chemotherapy still keep coming back.

With the cold I’ve just had, my muscles were so sore for 24 hours, I thought I was back on chemotherapy – no energy, aching muscles and fatigue. Thank goodness it was just a very bad cold that laid me low for 10 days.

Photo by Julie Geldard

Photo by Julie Geldard

I’ve now recuperated and have just spent 9 days at Airlie Beach for Race Week. I was crewing on a J70 (7m) sports boat with my husband and two friends – perfect for recuperation of every aspect of my mind, body and spirit. The best part was we had a fun week and came third in our division. Very exciting!

My recent illness has caused me to think again about last year and riding the wave of feeling and being unwell.

Thinking back, when I had the initial consultation about chemotherapy with my Oncologist, we discussed what the side effects and experience would be like. She said, “some people say, ‘I’ve had worse hangovers than this’ and others have been on the phone to the nurses and me from day one.“ I thought I’m going to be the ‘hangover’ type. For the first three sessions (of FEC) which I had once every three weeks, that’s how it was.

I would feel unwell, needing to go to bed each afternoon for an hour or two (rather than not being able to get out of bed in the morning) over the first 5 days. In the second week, my energy would begin to slowly return. In week three I’d start to feel a little like my old self. The hardest part was  knowing I was going to have another session in a few days time and start the cycle all over again.

As the treatments progressed, I began to experience a disconnection between my brain and body. My mind couldn’t work out what was going on. It wasn’t like having a virus where your mind goes with the flow of your body. It was like I was being poisoned.

Two days before the each chemo session, I would feel deeply sad and constantly break into tears when anyone talked to me.

By treatment three, I thought ‘I need help. I’m not coping with the emotional roller coaster I’m on.’ My Oncologist had told me that there are psychologists who specialize in assisting cancer patients. She’d recommended a practice on Sydney’s north shore. I got in touch with them, made an appointment and organized a referral and a five treatment programme through my GP. This enabled me to claim the sessions through Medicare. Fortunately I only needed two.

I wasn’t sure what I was so upset about. Was it that I had had early breast cancer? Was it post-operation depression? Was it the thought of beginning to feel well and then filling my body with more chemotherapy?

Even though I imagined the chemotherapy drugs as being ‘gold’, killing the cancer and making me well again, it didn’t feel like it. Going from feeling well to intentionally making myself ‘sick’ was mentally and emotionally tough. I felt desperate.

Body Surfing

With the assistance of the psychologist, I created the experience of being on chemotherapy, as being like body surfing. Sometimes you catch a wave and it dumps you. Other times you catch a wave and have a fun easy ride. This analogy made the experience easier. Whilst it didn’t stop the emotional roller coaster, I was able to accept the chemo, go with the flow of it and be okay with feeling sad and emotional. I gave up trying to stop ‘being dumped’.

Throughout my treatment I meditated every day. This gave me access to another sense of freedom which I’ll talk about next time.

Exercising on Chemo

This time last year I was supposed to be skiing. My mind was willing, but my body was completely incapable because of the chemotherapy. My doctor had said it was unlikely that I could ski and she was right.

I’ve been away skiing this week. I thought my body was healed after the physical trauma of last year. I had a rude awakening. Even though I look good and thought I was 100%, skiing really tested me physically. My muscles struggled each day, aching after a relatively short period of time skiiing – 1.5 hours on day one, 2.5 on day two, 4 on day three and the same again on day four. By the evening of day four, my body decided to pack it in and I came down with one of the worst colds and chest infections I have experienced in 18 years. I am hardly ever sick, so this has been a shock. I now realise I have to pace myself a little more slowly in my healing process than I have.

Lots of questions went through my head before I went skiing. Am I up to it? Will I still be able to ski? Will my passion for skiing still be there? What if the snow is bad, will my body be up to skiing in difficult conditions? Well, my body answered those questions very directly.

My physical confidence has been knocked in the last year. In a matter of 3 months (July to September) I went from slim, strong, physically fit and able to go trekking to being puffy with chemo fluid and physically depleted. The experience upset me at so many levels.

Before I started chemotherapy, I decided I was going to keep as active as I could. I’d seen a health programme on TV about the benefits of exercise whilst on chemotherapy. How it gives you some feeling of wellbeing, stops depression and provides some energy. I committed to exercising every day no matter how I felt and I did.

Taking steps towards good healthI walked every day, sometimes a short distance; other times further. My pace progressively slowed down to the point where some days my husband would drive me to the beach and we’d walk on the flat as far as I could. When I was very depleted, this was about 200m. Towards the end of chemo my lungs and body couldn’t provide the energy required to walk. However, enjoying the elements and breathing fresh air did me the world of good throughout my treatment and I am sure assisted me mentally.

At the beginning my integrated GP had given me a range of advice, the key one being “don’t lose any weight or muscle mass. Muscle is very difficult to rebuild.”

So I returned to yoga, a very gentle Hatha Yoga, once a week and maintained my Pilates. My instructors were enormously patient, thoughtful, loving and generous, supporting me in doing as much as I could.

Yoga has been one of my most important forms of exercise over the past 12 months. It has helped me stay centred and connected to my body giving me what I needed to heal. It has also assisted me to regain strength and balance. My Yin (left side of my body) was depleted during chemo. It took more than 6 months to regain strength in this side of my body, the side on which I was operated, and I am still working on it.

As I have said, outwardly I look like I am completely healed. I’ve realised in these last few days that it is going to take more time for my body to rebuild itself.