Sharing What’s Inspired Me!

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What inspires me to blog is a desire to express myself and share with others what I’ve learnt and am learning. It’s also a desire to assist and support others. The sharing of information, experiences and ideas connects us.

Often I think I need to know exactly what I’m going to say before I write. This has been stopping me from blogging for the past few months. Now I know what I want to write about, but I don’t know what I want to say, so I’m letting my pen and the excellent books I’ve read lately do the talking. They’re:

Embracing the Warrior, An Essential Guide for Women by Dr Karen Coates and Vincent Perry;

Beat Cancer, The 10-step plan to help you overcome and prevent cancer (also subtitled How to Regain Control of Your Health and Your Llife) written by leading cancer experts, Prof. Mustafa Djamgoz and Prof. Jane Plant; and

Feminine Lost, Why Most Women are Male by Jennifer Granger, an intuitive transformational coach and author.

All of the books are about getting to know – with different approaches – what makes us well, whole and fulfilled human beings.

I met Karen Coates at Gwingana Lifestyle Retreat earlier this year at a Women’s Discovery programme, which I did with my cousin, who has also had breast cancer. I was inspired by Karen and concerned by what she had to say about how the amount of stress we experience daily and weekly over an extended period, without relief or release, can build the levels of cortisol and adrenalin to a point where we can become sick. What we eat each day and the products we use on our bodies, our clothes and in our homes can also affect our health.

embracingthewarrior1Embracing the Warrior gives a simple and exact instruction on managing the health challenges of the modern world… without resorting to pharmaceutical drugs. Part of the book concentrates on some of the major health issues confronting people today: dealing with stress, managing and preventing osteoporosis, understanding depression and lowering cholesterol. The chapter, Pharmaceutical Dominoes – The Compounding Effect of Drugs, is particularly enlightening. Karen also talks about ‘gut’ health and how important this is to remaining well.

Beat CancerBeat Cancer provides guidance to help you beat cancer. The authors cutting-edge plan covers every aspect, including:

  • The latest essential information about cancer – what it is, what causes it and how to prevent it
  • A thorough review of all the conventional complementary treatments available
  • The lifestyle changes you can make to defend your body.

My best friend, who was a little concerned when I took an integrated approach to my health, bought me the book after hearing Jane Plant interviewed. Jane has lived nearly half her adult life with breast cancer. She now is convinced that an approach that integrates the best of conventional medicine with a good diet and lifestyle is essential to beating cancer. (p11-12)

I believe my friend now understands the approach I have taken to my health. She has introduced some dietary changes into her own life after a period of feeling unwell. These have significantly improved her vitality and feeling of wellbeing.

Feminine LostFeminine Lost explores the premise that all human beings are constructed of two energies, one masculine and one feminine. With the rise of the feminist movement, she says many women have migrated to their masculine side, some to the extent of losing access to their feminine side altogether. Could this be contributing to the increase in breast cancer, I ask?

It’s now 2 years since I concluded chemotherapy treatment. I feel as though the ‘chemo brain’ has finally left and I am fully restored to my former passionate fit self, however with a great deal more wisdom, love and care for myself and others.

I’m ready to return to work and my life as an entrepreneur.

Healthy CookingI’ve teamed with Naturopathic Nutritionist and Chef, Emma Ellice-Flint, to start a new business, The Vital You, as a result of my health travels. It’s designed to relax and revitalize with a weekend of workshops where participants learn how to source, cook and enjoy easy, fresh, delicious, healthy, nourishing food. They’ll also experience some de-stressing techniques with mindfulness, meditation and yoga. We’ll be providing a practical ‘recipe for good health’.

The experiential workshops are designed to provide you with vitality every day and a lifelong, healthy mind and body. If you’d like to find out more about our programme and the November weekend visit www.thevitalyou.com.au.

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.

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In the past six months I have had three friends, all male, diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. They are in they are in their 40’s, 60’s and 70’s respectively. Cancer can strike anyone at any age, no matter their state of health and fitness. My friends are either on chemotherapy or are about to start. This shocked me and has brought back to me my journey last year.

How did I cope with chemo? Did I cope with chemo? I did. I’m still here and yet I realise every day that my body hasn’t fully healed from the experience. I still have after-effects: poor digestion (for which I’m taking a range of supplements to heal my gastro-intestinal tract), aching joints, patchy ability to remember things I’ve just read or said and lower energy. I understand that it will take a year or two for me to be fully robust (if there is such a thing) again.

Cold Cap. 

Penguin Cold Cap (promotional image)

Penguin Cold Cap (promotional image)

So on Thursday 12 July – Chemo 1 Day – I went to Chemo Cottage, met the nurses, sat in a reclining chair, smiled at the woman next to me in the cold cap and had one put on my head. The pain was excruciating at first. Tears welled up in my eyes and I thought my head was going to explode. Then after 30 minutes my epidermis started to freeze and the pain subsided. The ‘cold cap’ is a couple of icepacks frozen to -35C, that are wrapped around your head and changed every 30 minutes. They freeze the epidermis which helps save your hair. Its use doubles the treatment time. It is put on 30 minutes before the chemotherapy drugs are fed into your body and stays on for the time again that it takes to administer the drugs – about six hours in total in my case.

Whilst I was clear I was choosing to have chemotherapy, I had some fear of what the experience would be like, particularly as I am not a person who takes medications; the occasional painkiller perhaps. So I created the drugs as ‘love’ going into my body, making me well, be that in the long term.

I’ll talk more in another blog about how I coped with the chemo and maintained the best body health possible during the process.

I persisted with the cold cap throughout my chemo treatments and it got easier each time. Usually the first 10 minutes of the first two cold caps were the most difficult, then I settled into the routine: made sure I drank plenty of fluid – water and herbal tea; rugged up with the heated blankets provided; wore my ‘glamorous’ Ugg boots and several layers of wool. Then I went home to bed to keep warm.

I found I couldn’t eat or read whilst receiving treatment. Listening to classical music was soothing and lulled me into sleep from time to time.

What happened to my hair? Fortunately and coincidentally, 3 months before I found the lump and started chemotherapy I had had my hair cut short. This was an advantage as it’s less likely to fall out.

For the first two treatments I pretty much maintained a full head of hair. Then it started to fall out with the third treatment and continued to fall out with subsequent treatments and then for a couple of months after the treatment stopped. By the end of the shedding I still had 40-50% of my original hair. It was bleached and thin with a couple of small bald spots. BUT I STILL HAD HAIR!

Post chemo my eyebrows began to thin, then all my eyelashes fell out, almost overnight.

Mia Farrow Cut

Mia Farrow Cut

At the beginning of December, 6 months after treatment started and 2 months after it finished, I was able to have a light hair trim. As luck would have it, the route home was gridlocked with traffic, so I stopped in at David Jones and as I neared the Chanel counter, a ‘divine’ makeup artist asked if he could help me. I said, “I have recently finished chemotherapy and my eyelashes have fallen out, is there any way I can do my eyes to look like I have them?” He sat me down and proceeded to do a full make up. By then end I loved the vision I saw in the mirror. I asked him what he had done. As he told me he didn’t try to sell any of the cosmetics. I felt no pressure and bought the ones I wanted to make myself look the way he had.

Then at the end of January this year I had a very very short haircut and came out of the salon feeling and ‘looking’ like Mia Farrow. For the first time in more than 9 months I felt glamorous.

My hair has grown back thicker, grey and curly. I still have short hair to keep the ‘Shirley Temple‘ look at bay. I still feel glamorous and my friends tell me I look great. OH WHAT A FEELING!

The risk of Lymphoedema

What about lymphoedema? There are so many opinions about what causes this, who will get it, what you need to watch out for, how you can ensure you don’t get it.

I had my sentinel (lymph) nodes (in the chest wall) removed and then in a separate operation, where 18 lymph nodes were removed. This was the most painful part of the surgical procedure – 5 days in hospital, 15 days with a drain and months of pain, discomfort and tingling nerves. Fortunately the nodes were cancer free.

I didn’t even think about lymphoedema, especially because I was slim, until my surgeon said to me, “it would be good if you went to see Teresa Lee”, a lymphatic physiotherapist. I couldn’t get into see her, but I did see her colleague, Carol Morris.

There was so much I didn’t know and hadn’t thought about. The first thing she said to me is, “how’s your arm movement?” Well it was okay but it was getting stiff and tight and I found I had hard threads, known as “strings”, appearing in my armpit and down the arm where my lymph nodes had been removed. These were the lines of tissue which were part of my lymphatic system and had been attached to my lymph nodes.

Carol immediately went to work on releasing these. She set up a 5-week physiotherapy schedule and gave me some stretching exercises to do every day. I realised I was going to have to be good at ‘creeping up the wall and hanging off the door frame’ in order to get the full movement back into my arm, shoulder and upper back.  I wasn’t even thinking of losing mobility in my arm. Thank goodness I took immediate action and went to see her quickly. Within two months I had full use of my arm, range of movement and had regained the strength in it.

It didn’t finish there. She asked me whether I was having chemotherapy. “Yes”, I answered. “What’s that got to do with lymphoedema?” The fluid in your body can increase when you are on chemotherapy and lymphoedema can start at any time, even in slim women.

So Carol measured my body fluid levels before I started my chemotherapy treatment. What a great move this was. Six months later I discovered that this had risen from 5.6 to over 13, potentially putting me in the risk area for lymphoedema. More treatment would be needed.

In addition to being concerned about the lack of movement and strength in my arm and shoulder and the risk of lymphoedema, I had considerable numbness throughout my breast, down the side of my body between my armpit and breast as well throughout my shoulder and upper arm. I had fibriotic tissue in these areas which was causing the pain and discomfort. This is the area of my body that has taken the longest to heal. I still have numbness and tingling a year later and this may last for a further year or more.

Throughout my treatment and healing I felt I had angels looking over my shoulder and entering my life. One of those was Lisa Higgins, a massage therapist who specialises in manual lymphatic drainage. She works with my osteopath. She had heard I had recently been operated on for early breast cancer. She asked me to have a cup of tea with her and talked to me about how lymphatic drainage massage could assist in my recuperation.

Lymphatic Massage

I booked an appointment and a fantastic journey began. I had bi-weekly lymphatic massage with her. She drained the fluid out of the affected areas, broke up the fibrotic tissue and stimulated my body’s lymphatic system. Not only did this give me comfort, it gave me confidence in my body and healing.

My therapists were also my confidents, my listeners and advocates. I talked about my fears, my concerns, my ideas and how I was going in each session. This empowered me enormously and enabled me to really trust myself and to listen to my intuition.

A few months after I finished chemotherapy and six months after surgery, during the hotter months of summer, I started to get swelling in my hand and arm, particularly after exercising. This scared me. I rang Lisa, bound my hand and arm and went back to see Carol, the physiotherapist, as soon as possible. A compression sleeve then gauntlet were prescribed to be worn 8 hours a day, especially during and after exercise. I did this religiously and began to reduce the fluid in my arm and hand.

Twelve months after surgery, I stopped wearing the sleeve, except when flying, and got a fluid reading of 5.3. Back to normal!

I gently massage myself when I have pain and am easing back on my treatments. I still have to monitor myself. Lymphoedema could still start at any time.