I haven’t written since January 4th. Since Dryanuary. I cannot believe how fast time has flown this year but it has been four whole months and I haven’t written a single post. It isn’t due to lack of wanting to write or even lack of having anything about which to write. So why?

That is a very good question. And now I will try to figure it out. I think I know the reasons. More or less. You see, I kind of feel like I’m in purgatory. I’m between worlds. As time has passed I must admit that although — in some shape or form — I think about “the cancer” every day, I don’t think about it the way I used to and I really don’t dwell. It’s more like I catch a glimpse of myself naked or something and think oh yeah, cancer happened and shit. And then I move on. The passage of time has caused me to think about it less, pure and simple.

Sometimes I worry that this failure on my part to obsess on what was such a life-altering event is arrogant. That for such I might be punished. I mean, who am I to say there isn’t some nasty little cell taking hold in my liver as I type. I sit here in bed trying to block out the idiot outdoors who is drunk and having an altogether too loud conversation with his comrades and what I really ought to be doing is freaking out that hey — this thing could still kill me.

But I won’t do that. I am a realist, not a masochist. And there really isn’t any point to doing that. For now, I’m done with cancer. I’m not ever going to be done thinking about it or indeed talking or writing about it, I don’t think (although never say never). But for the most part I have moved on. And I should not feel guilty about that. I can still write about it — now with some distance and perspective, I like to think.

I consider turning this blog into a book. Something I would very much like to do at some point. And I consider that I never bothered to input SEO into this puppy (search engine optimisation) so that people would actually find and read my GD blog. This I do regret. Although I can and will do it retroactively, at some point, once I figure it out (what? It’s on my list…).

So why is the title of this post “purgatory” (which incidentally I didn’t know how to spell since the first time I wrote it I used an “e” rather than a “u”)? Duh. Well see it is because I have now begun the third and final term of my interior design course. And when I get my certificate I would like to start a design blog. I want to write. Desperately. Just it’s going to be about — as Monty Python would put it — something completely different. But I don’t know what that means. Does that mean I cannot still write killingitblog? Does it mean I do both? What do I do? Quel conundrum.

At the end of the day, I think that my voice is my voice. Irrespective of whether I write a blog about cancer or about design. Because either way I will probably write about more than either of those things. Either way I will be writing about life. Either way it will be me (yes I am being agrammatical on purpose) and you get what you get. I will not pretend to be cute. I will just be myself and, as usual, will let it all hang out. Like it or not.

The hard part is to know how to make the transition and when. And whether it will be weird that if people Google my name this funky cancer blog pops up in addition to whatever design thing I eventually have going on. But then I think, “oh who cares.” Why shouldn’t they know. It’s amazing what you can tell people that might shock the hell out of them and what they will forget — or at least won’t focus on for long.

And speaking of letting it all hang out… Today I went to work out at my gym with Anna, my personal trainer. Anna has helped take me from a pathetically skinny figment of my former self (I was pretty much skin and bones after chemo, let’s face it, not to mention bald and pale so generally looking pretty hot) to my current fit self.

After my workout this weirdo who likes to strut around the gym wearing a Richard Simmons outfit (if you don’t know who that is Google him for crying out loud), generally all red or all blue, with shorts soooo short that at any minute you could have a loose ball situation, came up and told me that I work out too hard. “What?” I asked him, incredulous. “You don’t need to do all that with the trainer. You are already fit. She pushes you to the limit.” I blinked and for a moment thought I would just smile and get on with my stretching, but then I let him have it. “You have no idea where I’m coming from,” I said. I told him I had cancer two years ago and I was skin and bones. All this muscle we have put on since my treatment. It didn’t just happen by itself. And furthermore I am not being pushed “to the limit” because it isn’t like I am throwing up. He looked pretty surprised and was speechless for a moment. And feeling rather satisfied for having shocked him, I threw in “bet you didn’t know that, didja?” “No,” he said.

But before I could feel all self-righteous he started babbling about how I shouldn’t eat dairy because “it’s a killer” and how soy is okay and how he only drinks goat’s milk. Then he went on about some Japanese mushrooms that will keep cancer away for sure and some weird salt that I have to go to Croydon to get. “Cancer won’t touch you then,” he said. Well gee, great. If only he and his too-close-to-being-loose balls had been readily available when I moved here I could have dosed up on shrooms and designer salt and cancer would not have touched me. Alas. No such luck.

So of course I immediately regretted having spilled the beans, which I almost always do. Because people don’t know what the hell to say to you so they fill the void with nonsense or just irritating bullshit — wait is that redundant? Rather than just saying, wow, that’s something else. Right on, motherfucker, keep killing it at the gym. Serves me right. When I left I said goodbye to him and he looked thoughtful for a moment and then offered up another turd — ahem — kernel of wisdom: “you know, sometimes people’s stressful careers can cause it too.” “Yes,” I agreed. Wondering why on earth this person decided to take it upon himself to try and figure out why I got cancer, when the top doctors in London and Boston cannot answer this question. “I guess I was just lucky,” I said.

But really I do feel lucky. I feel like Andy Dufresne, who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side. And I feel particularly lucky that I haven’t been assaulted (yet) by a loose ball from my pal at the gym. But there’s always tomorrow. Anyhow, I got pretty off topic there, didn’t I? But that’s okay. Let me know your thoughts about creating a new blog and what to do with this one. I’m all ears. And meanwhile I will be hanging here in purgatory, just trying to figure out how to get to the place I need to be.

The New Normal

Last Friday marked the one-year anniversary of my eighth and final chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Following that I did have five weeks of radiation, five days a week, so my end of treatment was technically July 27 (not including another surgery later on). Radiation, however, was a cake walk compared to everything else up to that point so June 7 just carries more significance for me.

When you embark on chemotherapy they warn you that the medicine — in addition to killing cancer cells, which is sort of the point, duh — will affect you, not only immediately, but also for some time in the future. No one can say exactly how and how long you will enjoy the effects of this venomous intravenous cocktail, because how you react and for how long, like so many things medical, are highly individual.

Of course, a number of “individuals” told me what I was in for, either from personal experience or from what they had heard or observed in others undergoing treatment. Solicited, this is helpful advice, provided you don’t take it as scripture since you don’t really know what you, yourself will experience. Unsolicited, it is, well, not. There are things that you know you will probably have to deal with, such as fatigue, loss of muscle, appetite issues, lowered immunity, hair loss, et cetera. And then there are other things that may or may not strike you, such as oral thrush, loss of finger nails or having a constantly runny nose or watery eyes… I could go on but how long have you got?

The thing is, you just don’t know. What you do know is that you will not feel “normal” for some significant period of time. I was prepared for that, as much as one can be. If I’m honest about it I have not really felt like a normal person ever since I suspected that I might have cancer at age 39, because that in and of itself is not normal and made me feel physically weird.

But what is normal? That’s the question I have been asking myself a great deal lately. Normal is somewhat tricky. It’s a little bit shifty. Elusive.

I am sitting here digesting the last year and a half and thinking about how I felt before, during and after treatment. And how I feel right now. At this very moment.

And I have to admit that I do not know if I feel completely normal, one year out from that final chemo. I am not trying to be cute or philosophical here, people. I don’t mean that mentally I will never be the same because I am “forever changed” by this experience. I am talking physically. I’m talking about how my body feels.

See, about two weeks ago I thought that I felt normal. And then something happened and suddenly I noticed that when I woke up in the morning I had so much more energy. And at the gym I had so much more strength and stamina. And I thought, “gee, I guess my body is still ‘recovering’. I guess the way I felt three weeks ago, although I thought it was pretty good, wasn’t as good as it’s going to get.”

And you know what? A few weeks before that (aside from an unfortunate stint with some unexplained infection which dragged on for weeks and seems to have started with a stomach virus) I thought I felt normal, too. But clearly, if I feel the way I do now, then by comparison, the way I felt then was, if I may borrow a line from Ving Rhames in Pulp Fiction, “pretty fucking far from okay.”

I remember chemo. I remember the first time, which I did before I had a port surgically implanted into my chest for treatments two through eight. The nurse pushed the juice into a vein in my left arm. I watched the liquid flow from the huge syringe gripped by her gloved hands through the line and into my arm. I began to feel the effects immediately. My nose tingled, a metallic taste enveloped my tongue, and when I went to the bathroom my piss was pink because the doxorubicin was red in colour. Let me tell you: this was somewhat less festive than rosé champagne and eminently less drinkable. By the time I went home I was rather grey in the face and very tired. And didn’t have much of an appetite. Which for me is not at all normal. I never refuse food unless I have an acute stomach virus. And even then I try to relish the white toast, flat Coke and sliced banana. Oh wait — I lie. There was one time recently when I refused food on a Bangkok Airways flight because the mystery meat was just a little too mysterious even for me. Ew.

I had a dose every two weeks, and by the end of the second week I was always feeling better, more — yup, you got it — normal. And then they would hit me again. Halfway through I was switched to another medicine (part of the original plan) which was easier to take but had other side effects. And then suddenly there I was in my pink wig and feather skirt (see Zero) for my last treatment. And that was it. Dunzo. So when that third week rolled around and they did not hit me again it was fucking magic. I mean I could not believe how much better I started to feel. It was like someone flicked a switch. In fact, you can actually see it on a graph that reflects the data from this exercise circuit I had been doing at the gym. You see a slow decline over the course of my chemo and then the day I worked out in that third week following my final treatment the graph jerks right up into a steep climb.

I remember how I felt that day at the gym. How much easier the exercise was. How much more normal I felt. I thought, “wow, I cannot believe how good I feel.” But now, looking back, I realise how good I didn’t feel. My reconstructive surgeon alluded to something along these lines last year. He said you think you are doing pretty well and only later do you realise you actually felt absolutely crap. I get it now, dude.

And it isn’t always linear. There are ups and downs and setbacks and gains and the whole thing is linked to mood so it’s really very difficult to measure what normal is.

One morning last summer during our visit to the US I waited in a small, sandy parking lot with my husband to meet our dear friends riding the Pan Mass Challenge (a hard core two-day bicycle ride to raise a hellofalotta money for cancer — see http://www.pmc.org). They would do a quick pit stop before making a hard right and continuing on. I remember standing there, chest all beet-red, enraged from radiation, barely any hair on my head, skinny and certainly a little weak. It was so great to see them. But I did not feel normal. I felt like they were riding for me. It was moving, unnerving.

Fast-forward to two weeks ago Saturday when my older daughter (who is eight) and I did a four-mile walk through Regent’s Park to support people fighting cancer at the school by raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. The walk was fun and easy and although our legs were mildly fatigued by the end it was great. And it hit me that throughout the walk and afterward I felt as though we were doing it to support others. Not for me. It wasn’t for me anymore. Because I am that much closer to normal. There is a whole universe between that day and the day I stood in the sun on Cape Cod waiting to spot my friends.

So what now? Well, after aspiring to normal for so long I’ve decided to scrap that, regroup and come up with a new plan. Normal, whatever that is, is no longer my end game. I want to feel amazing. I want to feel awesome. Sometimes, already, I do. But I want it consistently and I’m going to get it. By the way, I know many of my friends and family are chuckling and thinking that I have never been remotely “normal.” Very funny, people, but you know what I mean.



No More Weak-Ass Sh*t

I was at the gym earlier this week with my trainer (who is excellent and skilled and kind and lovely). We were in the midst of some squats with the bar and some (light — don’t be too impressed) weights and she asked me if I thought the workout was harder than the previous week. Immediately I thought I was slacking and that’s why she had asked me. But she said that she had increased the weights and wanted to know if I had noticed. I hadn’t.

Hot damn, I thought. I’m getting stronger and I didn’t even know it. It’s amazing how fast it’s happening. Two months ago I remember doing a workout with her. I looked in the mirror. I was bald and wearing nothing on my head because it got hot in the gym and by that time I really didn’t give a shit. That I had no eyebrows or eyelashes didn’t enhance my look, although I had drawn some eyebrows on with pencil. Anyhow, I spotted my reflection and the person (or should I say freak? — read my last post if you don’t get it) looking back at me was somebody else. Somebody pale and skinny who didn’t look strong. Ew, I thought. No like. Naturally, owing to my honey badger tendencies, I ignored the weak-ass spectre in the mirror and kept working out. It’s only temporary, babe, as my friend Susan Plum always put it.

I looked at myself during my workout this Monday. Night and day. I may have extremely short and ashy hair but it’s thick and it’s mine. The eyebrows and eyelashes have completely grown in. Sometimes I even leave the house without any make-up on, which is something I didn’t do for months. Although admittedly most days I lavish every single top eyelash with mascara because I am so damn happy to have lashes again that this ritual has taken on new significance.

Back to the gym. It’s Wednesday. Time for another training session. I spot a man doing suspended leg raises, you know the kind where you hang from a thing with your arms on pads and bring your legs up at a 90 degree angle to get a really good ab crunch. “Good Lord,” I thought.  No way I could do that. About thirty minutes later, however, that’s exactly what I was doing, but only because I am a good soldier who follows orders. It made me feel pretty badass.

The best thing was when my trainer told me that some gym buddy of hers had said “you know that lady you were training? She is really strong.” And then she told him about all the bull shit I had been through and his response was “you’re fucking kidding me.” She promises me that she didn’t make this story up but even if she did it totally worked because I felt very motivated. And did I mention badass? She told another one of her clients about me, a doctor, whose response was “poor girl.” She just looked at him and said “she is not a poor girl.”

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t mind peeling off my long-sleeved shirt once it starts getting too hot because then I can watch my muscles. It’s just so damn nice to have some again because the chemo makes you atrophy like the deuce. Nasty shit that it is.

The curve is steeper than I figured it would be, which is a nice surprise. I’m literally stronger every week. I can open heavy doors that I struggled with a month ago. Fold down those jump seats on the tube without that telltale twinge in my pecks. Lift each of my children up above my head until my arms are straight.

So do me a favour won’t you? Don’t tell me to be careful or to take it easy. And don’t ask if my trainer is specially qualified to train “someone like me.” I know what I’m doing and I am not going to hurt myself. I am not, however, going to take it easy. I am going to do workouts that are hard and that make me feel tired by the end of the day. I am going to do the last repetition because she is standing there telling me to do it even when I start to shake. I’m going to get my ass kicked at the gym and then the next day I am going to enjoy the burn of that lactic acid build-up. Because that’s how I like it.

I don’t want to feel special and I don’t want a special assessment. I don’t want to be strong “for a person who just went through surgery, chemo and radiation.” I just want to be strong, period.

No more weak-ass shit.

Work it Out Redux

I just got back from the gym. Seeing as it is the Monday after my final chemo (which was just last Thursday), I will own up to the fact that I am a wee bit drag-ass. But not terrible.

I still have to set the cardio on the elliptical and the exercise bike to about 60% of what I was able to do pre-surgery in early February. And I have frankly lost track of how much I downwardly adjusted the weight on the other machines. But, I haven’t had to knock them down again after I adjusted everything a few weeks ago so I am at least holding steady. That’s something. I’ll take it.

Sometimes I peek over surreptitiously at the person next to me on the cardio to try to see how many watts they are doing and just how lame I am. Being a cancer patient doesn’t make me that much less hard on myself. Because if you start going down that road of excuses, where does it end?

There is reasonable, and taking it easy and not pushing too much. And then there is just sorry-ass lame excuse making. I don’t ever want to be in the second camp. Do you?

So anyhow I have formulated a plan. It is a loose plan because I will have to play it by ear and see how I feel during radiation a/k/a radiotherapy (doesn’t that make it sound like a pleasant spa treatment involving music?). The plan goes something like this: Now that chemo is over, it is time to start ratcheting things up at the gym, little by little. So that by the time I am ready for my summer vacation, I am looking and feeling fit and strong for the beach. Even if I have to wear a mumu or a full body tent in order to protect my skin. I want muscles under that tent.

After my cardio/weight circuit this morning I moseyed on into the stretching room to see just how much those pecks have atrophied. I did ten push ups, girl-style, on my knees. Normally this would piss me off. But I know that I am not ready for the full deal. And that is okay. Because I will get there again. But I don’t want to bust anything.  No pun intended.

It is a crappy rainy day here. My husband left his raincoat at work over the weekend. Bad timing. And my older daughter decided not to wear her Wellies to school this morning even though it is the textbook day for such attire. Alas.

Are you wondering what to do on this crappy rainy day here in London, or for that matter wherever you are, be it rainy or sunny or hailing or what have you?

I’ll tell you what to do. Get off your ass and get to the gym. I haven’t reminded you in a long time (see Work It Out) and it’s about time I light another fire under that caboose of yours.

I’ll be right behind you, huffing and puffing away, killing it as much I am able to at 80 watts and climbing.

Work It Out

I realised yesterday that I hadn’t been to the gym in a week. Lame. Could this be because I have been sitting on my bum writing blog posts every day for the last seven days? Yup.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am loving writing. I am loving having the blog. It is so energising, liberating, cathartic, cleansing, fun and different. And I plan to do it obsessively for the foreseeable future. But all this blogging is going to make for a flat ass and that simply won’t do. I need a nice juicy little behind to match my newbs (well, as much as I can have one without plastic surgery at age almost 40). Who says a cancer patient can’t have it goin’ on?

When we first moved to London in late July of 2011 I avoided working out for a few months. I had the usual excuses. “We just moved here.” “I have so much to do.” “I walk a lot so it doesn’t matter.” “I’m not sure where to join.” Blah blah blah. But all that was load of BS. Finally I investigated local gyms in October.

I did a blitz of the workout places in the hood.

The first place was the most convenient and by far the weirdest. It was a small neighbourhood gym about a six minute walk in amongst the lovely houses of Belsize Park, which is the only reason I can think of to justify the exorbitant membership fee. (No offence if you own this gym or you have worked out there since you were 12 — different strokes for different folks, people.) I walked in. The reception had a low ceiling and the first thing I saw was a cafe. Assaulted by the aroma of coffee and pastry. I don’t need to be smelling that shit when I am in workout mode.

I was taken on a tour. I cannot even describe the different rooms I went into, all on different levels and connected by various narrow stairways and hallways and doors and really just a labyrinth of British bizarreness. No way in hell I would have remembered what was where. And the cardio room, which I sort of remember, was totally 1980s and not my vibe. Even if I had been a good sport about the confusing interior I would certainly have fallen down the stairs at some point and injured myself. And the low ceilings and labyrinth thing and 80s mirrors made me feel like Alice in Wonderland on a bad acid trip. Not for me.

Then I tried the gym in the O2 centre, which had recently been purchased by Virgin. It was large and more Americanised than the little gym. It seemed to have a lot of decent equipment and a variety of classes. But I didn’t get a friendly vibe about the place — it was rather vanilla and commercial. The decisive factor really was that it was too far for me to walk to and I knew I would never haul my ass there, thus resulting in a colossal waste of funds and influx of self-inflicted guilt. Nope.

The third and final gym I checked out was a smallish place across from the Royal Free Hospital, which is an NHS hospital. This gym is housed in an old armoury and the downstairs used to be a shooting gallery. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? That’s right; I’m liking it already. And at this point I don’t even know I have cancer. The place has very high ceilings because the building is shaped like a barn. It is not shiny and new but it is clean, has a lot of good equipment and the staff is friendly. (In American staff is singular, people. I like to mix things up to keep you on your toes.)

And there is zero glitz factor. I will not be running into scathes of perfectly coiffed blonde mommies who have come to “glow” after the morning drop off. Thank God. Au contraire, there is a real diversity of people in this gym — different races and from very young to quite elderly and all sorts of physical types, folks with disabilities — you name it.

The manager explains that they are about to get a new German cardio/weight training circuit that will be centre stage. Each member who subscribes to this program will get a personalised chip card, which after an initial set-up, when stuck into each machine, will cause it to adjust automatically to your body. A cylinder of bubbling water in the middle of the circuit tells you when to change machines. Did I mention it also has pretty coloured lights that tint the water while you watch? Oooh ahhh. You are supposed to get a complete workout in only 35 minutes, the time it takes to complete two rounds on the circuit.

Well, folks, after hearing about this I’m sold. The Germans are efficient and know how to make shit and the circuit seems like the ticket for me. Oh, and I can walk to this gym in under ten minutes or take the bus and be there in five if I’m lazy or it’s hailing.

I start working out. The circuit is good. Within a couple weeks, I begin to see results. A couple weeks after that, I find my lump. I keep working out, taking a break only for Christmas holidays (you know what I did over vacay if you read my first post, Halfway Through Chemo… How Did I Get Here?). The day after my diagnosis, my husband plays hooky and we both go to the gym. I am a little fragile, but with him by my side and my body wrapped around those machines I hang tough.

Throughout the month of January, I kill it. Go to the gym and do that circuit regularly, and also throw in some yoga at an airy venue in Primrose Hill. I start to get sort of ripped. I feel strong and fit and powerful. Gearing up for war.

I decide to tell the gym staff about my diagnosis and impending surgery. (The poor manager is so shocked when I tell him he is speechless for about a minute.) The people I tell are super supportive and assure me that they will help me through it, making whatever adjustments are necessary to my training throughout the process.

My last workout is February 5, two days before surgery. It is a Sunday and I walk to the gym from Hampstead Heath where I have left the girls and Bill and two other families sledding and throwing snowballs. (What? That’s totally normal for London.) On the way I spot cute pyjamas and a bathrobe in a store window. I buy them so I can be fashionable while strutting up and down the hospital hallways. Then I go for that last workout. I kill it. I’m good. I’m in a good place.

No question that I recovered from surgery more quickly because of that German circuit. And even though I couldn’t pick up my kids much less carry a grocery bag for weeks after the surgery, I gradually recovered. Now I don’t even remember what I felt like two months ago. Because I am back there, killing it, bald as a cue ball and with my machines set to about half of what I was doing pre surgery.

But it don’t matter. I will keep going back. Through the chemo, through it all. Whenever I can. Because no fucking cancer is going to keep me from getting a little more bootylicious.

Are you still sitting there? Reading this?

Get off your ass and get to the gym. What’s your excuse?