Feeling Whole Again

IMG_1094Earlier this year I got a strong sensation that I needed/wanted to go and spend two weeks hanging out with my sister who is two years younger than I am. She has lived in Europe for 36 years and now splits her time between bustling, vibrant London and relaxing, charming Sicily. I missed her from the day she left Australia and I never really got over her not being nearby. We had shared a bedroom from when she was born until we both left home at the ages of 22 and 20. I got married and she went overseas to model.

I had a yearning, which wouldn’t go away, to have some sister time doing the things we love to do together – chatting, gallery hopping, indulging in great fresh food, hanging out, bike riding and doing a touch of shopping. And that’s exactly what we did for two whole weeks.

IMG_1061London was warm, sunny and inviting. We saw a fantastic exhibition, Classic Italian Fashion 1950-2014, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. From 1980-89 my sister had modeled on the Fashion Runways in Milan and Rome for most of the designers exhibited. How wonderful it was to hear her stories and walk down memory lane with her.

It was an emotional challenge undertaking the trip. In my heart I knew it was something I needed to do. Perhaps it was part of me getting my old life back, reconnecting with the things I love to do and had denied myself for some years with the busy life and responsibilities I had taken on. My husband wasn’t keen for me to go and didn’t understand my need. So I think part of me was in a state of denial, so much so that I didn’t read my itinerary or ticket properly and missed my flight out of Australia – a major inconvenience as all flights from Sydney to Hong Kong were full and I didn’t know when I was going to get on a flight. I decided to wait at the airport in the hope that someone wouldn’t turn up, like I hadn’t, and I would get on the next flight and I did. That wasn’t the end of it. When I missed my first flight, the airline (as they all do) cancelled all of my flights to and from Europe. I had to set about reinstating them, not without some difficulty. It was a salient lesson to me to pay more attention. Or was it a symptom of my occasionally occurring cognitive impairment, post chemotherapy? No matter what caused the mistake, it wasn’t the way I’d planned to start my special holiday.

IMG_1039I filled my creative soul in London. I visited Kew Gardens and indulged in the grandeur of it’s size and the plethora of English and exotic plants. Each morning started with a walk in beautiful Battersea Park taking in its magnificent trees laden with bright new growth. Meditation and yoga were still key. I found a fabulous yoga studio, Triyoga, which I visited every second day.

IMG_3314We walked and walked and walked through Chelsea, Knightsbridge, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Oxford Street, the City, Soho and much more. Our excursions included visits to commercial galleries to see the latest artists and art lectures with artists. With each day I felt more and more enlivened by the gardens, the people, the cityscape, the art and the history. I finished my stay in London with a visit to Tate Modern and the Saatchi Gallery, two favourites. My cup was full to overflowing.

IMG_1120Then we got up at the ‘crack of dawn’ and caught a flight to Palermo. My sister and her partner had finished their dream home in Sicily last year. I was keen to see it – a restored old country house – and its beautiful garden. I wasn’t disappointed. Her partner is a landscape gardener who specialises in old trees. My sister’s impeccable taste was evident everywhere – in the finishes, the furniture and the artwork. And, of course, the garden was exquisite – full of dry climate plants of all ages. I was in heaven and felt fully nurtured from the moment I arrived. I wandered the garden each day with my camera capturing all the different plants it housed.

As my holiday progressed, I could feel my old self stirring, renewing and returning. The feeling of being whole again, in touch with my past, connecting with what was dear to me, having time out and communing with nature.

We visited beautiful old cathedrals in Mon Reale and Erice, the seaside village of Cerfalu, the boulevards of Palermo, historic paved streets of Trapani, the Florio in Marsala and cycled around the peaceful island of Favingana visiting its azure beaches and hidden ruins. All good for the soul. I felt part of my sister’s life, even though it was for a short time.

 

Now I’m back home and into a busy schedule of planning a new business, having treatments for my lymphoedema, sailing, walking and tending my own garden. How easy it all is and feels. I really do feel whole again.

To top it all off, I had my two-year breast screen – mammogram and ultrasound – and check up with my breast surgeon this week and I’m all clear – cancer free. Being true to myself, following my intuition and living my dreams is paying off. How blessed I am.

The Miracle of Acupuncture

Life’s full again and so much fun. I feel on top of the world. I’m working – both paid and unpaid – and that’s a real morale boost.

I’m training to do the 50km Coastrek day walk from Palm Beach to Balmoral, Sydney in February 2014. I can feel my strength building every day that I train on the soft sand. I am so grateful for this. My weekly exercise programme includes two yoga classes, a pilates session and a walk on the other days with a few stairs thrown in to help rebuild my bone density.

Coastrek TrainingLast Saturday three of our four woman team did a 15km beach walk on Sydney’s northern beaches. It was magnificent. So energising. Then I went sailing afterwards and trimmed the mainsail over a 2-hour race. My energy is definitely back.

There’s another cog in my healing journey that I want to talk about. And that’s acupuncture. It was a pivotal treatment for 12 months. I’ve been asked a number of times, “what treatment benefited you the most during chemotherapy?” My answer is two things – acupuncture and meditation.

Japanese AcupunctureAbout six months before my diagnosis, I went to see Michelle Corban, who specialises in Japanese acupuncture. I was feeling tired and out of balance (possibly it was around when the cancer started). She checked my meridians, yin and yang, energy and pulses. The diagnosis was, my yin was depleted and my liver and kidneys were not functioning at full capacity. I had several sessions with her and my balance and energy returned.

Michelle was one of the first people I called when I was told I needed chemotherapy and radiotherapy. “Was there anything she could do for me that would enable me to not have chemotherapy?” We discussed several ideas and I sought second opinions. “There’s no alternative” I was told by my doctors. I decided then to use acupuncture to maintain my body, where possible during chemo, and to strengthen and rejuvenate it afterwards.

Instinctively I knew acupuncture would assist me during my chemo treatment. I didn’t know how. Before the first session, I had an acupuncture treatment with Michelle. The intention was to balance my body and have it be as strong as possible in receiving the chemotherapy drugs.

Acupuncture2From then on my pattern, in my three week chemotherapy cycle, was to have an acupuncture treatment 5-6 days after a chemo session and then 1-2 days before the next session. The rejuvenating powers of the acupuncture were almost miraculous. I could feel my physical strength and wellbeing shift markedly in the following 24 hours.

This was important in my recuperation. The chemo weakened both my yin and yang energy, in particular my yin – the loving, nurturing energy of my body. Once I finished chemo, I continued to have acupuncture regularly – fortnightly at first. I developed an incessant debilitating dry cough after the fifth chemo. Michelle concentrated on my lungs during our sessions with the result being no more cough.  Once it disappeared and my physical strength and wellbeing started to return, I saw her monthly. Now I have acupuncture when I feel I need it.

Yin Yang PearsWhilst acupuncture aided me enormously in rejuvenating my body, I have also needed the assistance of supplements to heal my gastrointestinal tract and my liver. I am still on a range of these. My liver is not fully healed. I’m now on a complementary diet of 75% fruit, salads, berries, bitter greens and vegetable juices. I am struggling with this. I’ve managed to shift my daily intake of these foods to 50%. I am working on increasing it a few percentage each day until I get to 75%.

I cannot recommend acupuncture highly enough for balancing and rejuvenating the body. If you decide to try it, make sure you find a good and reputable practitioner.

Acupuncture Can Help

Questing for Life

The Brain

It’s hard to believe it’s just over 12 months since I ceased chemotherapy. It’s taken the whole year to return to good health, that is, my brain functioning, what I call, ‘normally’; my energy and stamina returning; my hair ‘looking good’ and the feeling of overwhelm or the sensation of ‘I can’t cope’, gone. What a relief it is to experience the miracle of my body feeling healed.

However, this week I discovered that feeling good is not enough. I had a check up appointment with my integrated GP and was told my liver is still under par and my immune system is struggling. So now I’m on a 75% fruit, salad, bitter greens and vegetable juice diet, new supplements and a weight-bearing exercise programme. I’m finding it hard to follow this new eating plan and feel energetic all day. I’m giving it a go. A little more discipline is definitely needed if I want a healthy liver and strong immune system.

365-gratefulsPhotographer, Hailey Bartholomew released a beautiful book recently, 365 Gratefuls. It’s the result of her writing down every day, one thing for which she was grateful, during a bout of depression. She did this for 365 days and has accompanied her writings with photos she took. Hearing her interview with Sam Worthington made me think of how grateful I am for my life, my friends, my family and the opportunities that open themselves to me every day, and especially over the past 18 months.

One of the things I’m really grateful for is the Quest for Life Retreat I attended last year. After being told by my nutritionist and my integrated GP that the mediterranean diet would be best for my healing, I thought, “how am I going to cook the mediterranean way?” It is one thing to know, it is another to do!  I felt I had lost my ‘cooking confidence’. I checked out healing retreats and found Quest for Life in nearby Bundanoon.

With the assistance of my Oncologist, I set up the chemo sessions around the next Quest for Life retreat. My goal, as I said in my last blog, was to practice mediation, and reconnect with cooking and eating healthily – the mediterranean diet. Whilst there I also reconnected with myself.

Community GardenI felt very vulnerable when I was first diagnosed with early breast cancer. Who isn’t? Who could I turn to for advice and support? Whilst there is an enormous community available through the Breast Cancer Network Australia and Breast Care Nurses, I felt I needed something more. It was the powerful love and nurturing Quest for Life provides. We ate healthily, mainly vegetarian food with fresh juices and vegetables from the community garden. Each day started with meditation and yoga, learning a range of meditation techniques. Then followed seminars and workshops which gave us tools to empower ourselves given our individual circumstances. Some partners attended. They were able to express the emotional pain they were feeling.

Self-esteemThe most powerful sessions for me were two one-on-one counselling sessions where the counsellor took me deep inside myself. I connected with my power, joy, love, courage and sense of self. I forgave those who had caused great hurt in recent times.and saw myself as a ‘beacon of light’. I still use this image regularly to uplift and reaffirm myself.

Creating a collage of what we would like our lives to be over the next 12 months was the final exercise. Mine included many of my favourite things – children, healthy food, good coffee, meditation, yoga, travel and photography. Looking back, I have fulfilled on all of these goals. The final one was my recent trip to Africa – an adventure of a lifetime.

My priorities in life have changed. No longer do I work myself to exhaustion. My modus operandi is to love and value myself; to be present to the world and my environment moment by moment; to contribute to the health and wellbeing of others and to love unconditionally. Sometimes that is difficult, particularly when I’m sent unexpected challenges. Quest for Life gave me the tools to cope with this and a renewed confidence and trust in myself.

I am GRATEFUL for my health and my life every day.

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.