The last few weeks have been all about bush fires on the east coast of Australia. My husband is a volunteer fire fighter and he’s spent some of that time back burning in the Blue Mountains. This is where the phrase ‘fighting fire with fire’ comes from. Fire fighters move to areas ahead of the fire front and deliberately burn out the undergrowth in the path of the fire, or in areas where it may spread. There is still damage to the bush and to wild life, but the hope is to stop the fire by depriving it of fast-burning fuel. The large trees survive.
The process reminds me of chemotherapy. You do something deliberately destructive in the hope of preventing something worse.
For those that don’t already know, chemotherapy involves filling your body with something toxic that kills off fast replicating cells. It’s almost certain that in the future they’ll develop better ways to specifically target cancer cells but, for now, the best option for some cancers is to knock out anything that reproduces quickly, including healthy cells. That’s why your hair falls out. Hair cells grow quickly. So do skin cells and the cells that line your digestive tract.
If the strategy goes to plan, the healthy cells are replaced by my body and the cancer cells are wiped out.
Sometimes back burning goes horribly wrong and actually causes serious fires. The same thing can happen with chemotherapy. There are risks of serious side effects. A head cold can kill you because white blood cells, the ones that protect you from infection, are fast replicating. Chemotherapy also carries the risk of permanent heart damage and there’s a risk of leukaemia ‘months or years after treatment’.
There’s also a risk that you don’t wipe out all of the cancer cells and the remaining ones are now resistant to the chemotherapy and therefore more aggressive than the ones you started with. Triple negative cancer metastasises all through the body. A more aggressive form of an already highly aggressive cancer is not a happy thought.
The trouble for people with this cancer is that doing nothing is not really an option. My tumours doubled in size inside four weeks. It’s reasonable to assume that without any treatment I would be dead inside a year (probably six months). Having chemotherapy to target those tumours prior to surgery is now considered to be the best strategy for triple negative breast cancer. If I can achieve a full pathological response (no tumours) before I go in for surgery then my five year survival rate improves by about 10%. That puts me in the same category as other breast cancer patients.
So I accept the risks and the collateral damage in the hope of extending my life. Back burning.
There is one phrase that helps me more than any other:
I WILL CROSS THAT BRIDGE WHEN I COME TO IT
You wouldn’t be human if your mind didn’t drift down the dark alleys of frightening possibilities, but this phrase pulls me back to the present. There is no merit in dwelling in that darkness. It will not make me wiser or better prepared.
There are times when not building a comprehensive picture of all the possible outcomes in my mind is a good thing. What I need now is distraction and avoidance. It’s against my nature. I’m usually the kind of person that likes to think things through. One of my greatest challenges has been to just let go of the things I can’t control. I can cross those bridges when and if I come to them. For now I need to focus on what I can control.
I can control what I eat, what I think, and how well I take care of myself. I can control the extent to which I follow the instructions I’ve been given and the amount of exercise I get. I can make decisions about meditation, relaxation and sleep. I can decide to prioritise my health over everything else.
I’m much better at taking care of myself now that I have a solid appreciation of the stakes. I am temporary. We are all temporary. Some of the things that make us temporary are beyond our control but many of them aren’t.
I’m not doing anything extreme. My body is going through enough with chemotherapy. My approach is to do what I can to reduce any other toxins from entering my system and to nourish my body with good food and good habits. There is, of course, the lingering questions about why it took cancer for me to realise how important it was to do this.
I am feeling well. I’m about a third of the way through my twelve weekly doses of paclitaxel and I’m looking and feeling healthy. I’ve now got a fine fuzz of what looks to be white hair. The rose hip oil I’m using on my skin has done a better job of reducing fine lines, wrinkles and age spots that any expensive chemical concoction. Of course any concern I ever had about looking my age has evaporated but it’s a small bonus.
I’ve already had the wonderful news that three of my tumours are gone. Last week the tumour site kept pulsing and aching. A good sign according to my oncologist. This week it’s a dull ache and I’m hoping that means the primary tumour has taken a big hit.
Over the next few months we’ll see what we always see after a bush fire. Large trees will sprout fresh, new growth along their trunks and branches. For a while they’ll look like they’re covered in green fur. The surviving animals will return and rebuild. The blackened trunks will remain as evidence that fire came through here but the bush will come back.
I hope my body echoes that regenerating ability.
I hope my cancer doesn’t.
And if it does?
You know which phrase goes in here.