Everything Kills Cancer!

A day at the battle front:

I wake up ready to fight cancer and reflect on my amazing body’s ability thrive in adversity.

I dress in my cancer-fighting clothes. This is my armour and I’m ready for the battle. Okay, most of it is poly-cotton but that in no way diminishes the cancer fighting benefits.

A couple of cups of cancer-fighting coffee, complete with soluble fibre (because cancer just hates it when my digestion is working well) while I check in on Facebook and load up on all that cancer-kicking love and support from my friends. Then it’s a shot of Babushka kefir yoghurt for all those amazing probiotics and I smile once again at the way this brilliant product has prevented any nausea during chemotherapy. Cancer hates probiotics. Screw you cancer!

Now it’s time for my cancer-anialating yoga. Cancer really can’t survive yoga. I remind myself that the days when I feel the least like yoga are the days when I most need yoga. I also contemplate the benefits of any yoga, even five minutes of yoga, over no yoga at all. Start with cat stretches and see where it takes me. Now I need warrior poses because that’s how I’m feeling; I’m a warrior and the cancer is my enemy. Here I come to kill it. My energy level is rising. My breathing is deep and calm. My body is moving effortlessly into poses that only a couple of years ago would have been impossible for me. Wonderful. What hope does cancer have? None at all.

Breakfast, like all my meals, is a cancer bomb. Take that cancer! Mostly organic and full of all kinds of nourishment that kicks cancer’s arse. Add some hemp seed for the omega 3 because cancer shrivels in the face of it. Maybe some walnuts because cancer loathes walnuts with a passion.

Good food makes healthy cells and helps my body to kill off anything that isn’t perfect. Good food stops deformed cells from setting up a blood supply and turning into tumours. I’m eating this way for the rest of my life.

If the weather is fine, and often if it’s not, I’ll head into the garden. Sunlight lifts my mood and cancer hates happiness. Working in the garden gives me that sense of flow, where time passes joyfully. Flow is the natural enemy of cancer. As I prune back bushes and seed heads I imagine the cancer being cut out of my body. As I pull weeds I imagine the chemotherapy weeding out the cancer cells.

Showers are a particularly effective weapon against cancer. The warm water helps the drugs circulate to my cancer site. I imagine the damaged cancer cells dying and washing out of my body and down the drain. So long cancer.

The shower reminds me that it’s important to drink plenty of water. My amazing cancer-fighting body needs water to function well, and to flush out those cancer cells. Drink more water.

A light lunch in the afternoon might include some organic, grass fed meat because it’s the only kind with omega 3. The other stuff has too much omega 6 and cancer just loves it when I don’t get enough omega 3. Screw you, cancer, here comes another food bomb. I might add in some turmeric because there’s research saying it could help, and in sensible quantities it certainly can’t hurt. Tasty, nourishing, cancer killing food is a source of strength and joy to me. I eat loads of organic vegetables and fresh herbs from the garden. I might have a shot of juice made from beetroot, celery, strawberries, ginger, apple, parsley and anything  else fresh and healthy that I can find. Just a shot though because I don’t want to overdose on the anti-oxidants. Chemotherapy oxidises cancer and I don’t want to counteract it.

The afternoon might be spent writing or reading, or back out in the garden, or catching up with chores, or, lately, just resting as I start to feel the fatigue that comes with chemotherapy; think of it as my body’s way of telling me it needs rest to really hit that cancer where it hurts. No matter what I’m doing, I’m fighting. There’s no escaping me.

I might do some research. Knowledge is power which is why cancer hates it. I’m informed about my treatment and confident about the choices I’m making. Fear is cancer’s best friend. I can disable cancer by killing fear.

If I’m inside I’ll put music on. Sacred Earth or something like it. I feel the music move between the molecules of my body and vibrate the cancer away. Resonating. Harmonising. My body loves music and cancer has no chance against it.

In the evening there’s usually a cuddle with my husband and we plan what we’ll be doing tonight. Cancer withers with cuddles. We might cook dinner together or one of us will cook and the other will clean. Lately he’s had to do both but he doesn’t mind. He’s a genius at coming up with tasty, cancer fighting food and tempting me with it even when ‘metal mouth’ strikes. We often put mushrooms in with dinner because there’s some interesting research results around fungus and cancer. Cancer hates mushrooms.

If we watch a movie it’s likely to involve laughter or violence. Laughter shakes cancer loose and rattles fear.  Movies fire my imagination. I am Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. It doesn’t matter how many times cancer tries to knock me down, I’m coming back. I can dig myself out of a grave. Fuck you cancer!

At night I clean my teeth with my cancer fighting toothpaste, use my anti-cancer skin oil and curl up between my magical cancer destroying sheets for another night of fighting cancer; I’m so good at this I can do it in my sleep!

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Health Update

Here’s a health update, because I realise that I haven’t posted one for a while.

I’m now only four treatments away from finishing chemotherapy. I’m still feeling happy and positive but, as predicted, a bit more fatigued than I have been. I’m now working on balancing the need to maintain some healthy exercise with my natural tendency to overdo it. The 23 December 2013 will be the last trip to the chemo cottage and my birthday is the next day. You can guess what I want for my birthday!

I’m starting to get some numbness and pins and needles in my hands and feet. This is peripheral neuropathy caused by nerve damage. It may or may not be permanent. I have ‘stage 1’ so we’re not going to alter the chemo dose but we’re going to keep an eye on it. ‘Stage 2’ involves pain and ‘stage 3’ involves disability. My brilliant oncologist has cautioned me not to be stoic about any pain and to report it immediately. I replied, “I’m not actually stoic. I’m really just this happy.”

My wonderful Mum has organised a holiday for us both in late December.  We’re off to Norfolk Island for a week in a two bedroom luxury villa.  It will be great to spend so much time with her and I suspect that by adoring husband will also appreciate a break from being a primary carer.  To be fair, I’m pretty low maintenance but it must be so stressful.

I’ve got surgery on January 15 to remove what is hopefully cancer-free tissue from my left breast along with some sentinel nodes. There’s a week’s wait for the biopsy results. After the last fabulous scan I was looking forward to another on by my oncologist tells me we already know everything we can from an ultrasound; the chemotherapy is working. We can’t tell how well without the biopsy results and anything we see in another scan would be inconclusive.

The great news is that on examination yesterday she agreed with my own assessment. By breast now feels normal, it’s back to it’s original size and texture and all of this points to me being tumour free.

If the tissue they remove during surgery is free from cancer then my survival odds improve to be the same as those for people with the other less aggressive forms of breast cancer. This is what I want. If it’s spread then we’ll figure out what to do next. Either way, I’m very happy that I had chemotherapy prior to surgery. It’s now so clear to me that this is the best treatment for triple negative cancer. Any cancer cells, anywhere in my body, whether or not they are visible on scans, have been hit with chemotherapy as soon as possible. My chemotherapy has been able to target my tumours and we’ve been able to watch them die and vanish. We know it’s working.

Once surgery is over I’ll have six weeks of daily radiation therapy to ‘mop up’ any remaining mutated cells. This helps to prevent the cancer coming back. Fortunately I’ll be able to have this treatment close to home. Although it’s available through our public hospital I’m choosing to pay to have it done privately because they will take an image before each treatment to make sure everything is on target, whereas the public hospital will only image once at the start of treatment and once half way through. When your tumour site is right above your heart you want as much accuracy as you can get. I’m nervous about radiation therapy. I need to do more reading.

So around about March next year I’ll be out the other side of treatment and hopefully cured of triple negative breast cancer. I know some people have an issue with the use of the word ‘cured’. I don’t. I will always have cancer to the same extent that everyone else always has cancer; we now know that everyone has cancerous cells circulating their bodies all the time. I will be cured of this cancer. I will not be anticipating the next one. I don’t think that’s healthy.

No More Mouth Ulcers: No Excuses

 

Mouth ulcers are a possible side effect from chemotherapy. I’ve come up with some strategies for avoiding them as much as possible, and for treating them quickly when they happen. It’s important because pain in your mouth goes straight to your mood. Mouth pain affects our ability to eat and to communicate, and struggling to do either has serious implications for how well we feel.

Eating well is one of the few things we can control during chemotherapy, and has the potential to help us feel positive about the extent to which we’re supporting our amazing bodies in the fight against cancer. Mouth ulcers undermine that.

With some good habits and a bit of vigilance it’s possible to get through chemotherapy without suffering from weeks of mouth ulcers. This routine will also help you to avoid oral thrush:

DURING CHEMOTHERAPY

  • Drink water. Yes, you will need to roll your stand to the loo a couple of times but the water will help to reduce the impact of the chemicals on your mouth.
  • Suck the ice. For some types of chemotherapy (e.g.: FEC) they’ll offer you ice to suck during treatment. Keeping your mouth cool reduces the blood circulation and therefore the impact of the chemicals on your mouth lining. Keep putting a little ice in your mouth throughout treatment and you’ll reduce the risk of ulcers.
  • Take some ice with you when you leave and keep putting it in your mouth for about half an hour after treatment.

AT HOME

  • Drink water. Water is your body’s natural lubricant and much better for you than any other kind of drink. In particular, avoid sweet drinks like soda and fruit juice, or if you do drink them, have water afterwards. While it is possible to have too much of anything you can safely drink around two litres of water every day. This will also help to minimise the impact of your drugs on your liver. Make a point of drinking water as soon as possible after you’ve eaten anything, particularly anything sweet.
  • Switch toothpaste. Strong, minty toothpaste usually contains something to make your mouth slightly numb. This increases the risk of you scratching your gums and providing a starting point for mouth ulcers. I really like the Grants brand:
    http://www.ausnaturalcare.com.au/grants-of-australia-mineral-herbal-toothpaste-with-aloe-vera-110g gclid=CLG57ceV_LoCFcHwpAodojIAAg
    It’s aluminium and fluoride free and contains aloe vera, so it’s very soothing on your mouth. I’ve also found that switching to this brand solved my problems with reflux and heartburn. It turns out that the strong peppermint in a lot of commercial toothpastes is an irritant.
  • Get a new toothbrush: Only use a soft toothbrush. I’ve seen children’s brushes recommended but they’re so small you’ll spend half the day cleaning your teeth. I find that a good, soft, adult brush is just as good. There’s an OralB brush that has rubber bristles on the outside of the nylon bristles and I find this protects my gums from being scratched. I’ve recently found some bamboo toothbrushes and I’m switching to those because I like to avoid plastic as much as possible. They’re really soft, do a much better job of cleaning my teeth and last for around three months.  I bought them here:
    http://www.newint.com.au/shop/body-care.htm
  • Change your brushing technique. We all know that if we want to clean something we can use more effort for less time, or less effort if we take our time. The main aim during chemotherapy is to avoid scratching or cutting the gums, so going gently and cleaning for longer makes sense.
  • Brush your tongue and the roof of your mouth. Just like your teeth, these parts of your mouth will accumulate plaque and bacteria. Brush them gently and if your toothbrush comes with a tongue cleaner (usually a bumpy bit on the back of the head) then get into the habit of using it.
  • Floss gently, but only if you already floss. If you’re a regular flosser your gums will be used to it, but go carefully. If you’re not in the habit of flossing now is not the time to start. It’s likely you’ll make your gums bleed.
  • Rinse thoroughly. When you’re done brushing, rinse your mouth a couple of times with water and spit the water out. This is particularly important if you decide to stick with one of those popular, minty toothpastes. Check the label. You really shouldn’t be swallowing this stuff.
  • Choose your mouthwash carefully and use it after every meal. Alcohol based mouthwashes like Listerine can actually cause mouth ulcers. Try a good sized pinch of bicarb or salt in water but be careful not to overdo it. Too much bicarb can promote thrush. I’ve seen a lot of places recommending a whole teaspoon of bicarb. I think that’s too much. As an alternative you could try Biotene mouthwash. It’s designed for people that suffer with a dry mouth and my oncologist recommended it. It doesn’t contain alcohol and leaves your mouth feeling fresh without the explosive hit of an alcohol based mouth wash. They also make a spray that you can carry with you for times when you’re eating out and won’t be able to get to some bicarb.
    http://www.biotene.com.au/?mid=bioteneAU:Search1&gclid=CIyDmKWY_LoCFY1fpQod5TkAmA
    My own routine is to use a pinch of bicarb in water after meals and then the Biotene at night before I go to bed.
  • Pull coconut oil. Buy some organic coconut oil (also sold as coconut butter) and put about a tablespoon full in your mouth. Don’t worry if it’s solid because it will melt. Pull the oil back and forth between your teeth and swish it around your mouth for around five minutes. Spit out the oil. Coconut oil is naturally anti-fungal and this routine will help you to avoid thrush as well as conditioning your gums. Some people do this every day and if you’re particularly prone to ulcers or have active ulcers then daily is a good idea. If you’re just doing it for prevention then once or twice a week is fine. As a general guide, if your gums feel a bit raw or ‘furry’ when you run your tongue over them, then pulling coconut oil is a good idea. Pulling oil will also help to keep your teeth white and will provide a gently flossing action between your teeth. Brilliant! In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, they believe that pulling oil removes toxins from your body. I can’t find any proof of this but given all of the other benefits I’d highly recommend you try it. I believe that pulling oil and switching toothpaste are the main reasons I’ve had so few mouth problems.
  • Avoid sugar, chocolate, artificial sweeteners, alcohol and very sweet food. Too much sugar will promote mouth ulcers and thrush. If you’re going to have something sweet then follow it with a long, slow glass of water. If you have active mouth ulcers then skipping the sweet stuff for a few days will help them to heal.
  • Avoid food that’s likely to scratch your gums. I need to be really careful with some cracker biscuits and potato chips. You can still eat crispy food but please be careful.
  • Eat well. Avoid highly processed foods and eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Your mouth, like the rest of your body, needs good food to be healthy.
  • Avoid anything too hot. It’s easy to burn your mouth at the moment so you might need to let everything cool down a little. I haven’t had a problem with spicy food but I ate a lot of it before I became sick. Pay attention to what irritates your mouth and avoid it.

AT THE FIRST SIGN OF AN ULCER

  • Kenalog Kenalog Kenalog! Kenalog in orabase is THE treatment cream for mouth ulcers. You need to ask the chemist for it. You don’t rub it in. If you can imagine covering the ulcer with a sticky blob of plastic then you’ve got the right idea. It’s best applied at the first sign of an ulcer, no matter what time of day it is, and then reapplied at night after you’ve cleaned your teeth.
  • Diflam Diflam Diflam! Diflam make a range of sugar free lozenges that are anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. Look for a packet that says ‘plus anaesthetic’ because these will numb any pain from mouth ulcers. Carry some with you and pop one in your mouth if you get that tell-tale twinge.
  • More Diflam. Diflam also make a mouth gel that’s handy to carry with you. It’s much easier to apply than Kenalog and is a good stop-gap until you get home and hit the hard stuff. If you’re happy to carry the Kenalog and use that then you won’t need this. Just a note here that I haven’t used the Diflam mouth wash but I notice they also recommend it for mouth ulcers. If anyone has tried it I’d like to know what you thought of it. I’ve spoken to some women that don’t like the taste or the feel of Kenalog and so they put up with ulcers. This cream won’t work as well or as quickly as Kenalog but it’s better than using nothing.
  • Coconut oil. Any day that you have active mouth ulcers, or the twinge that tells you they’re on the way, I would strongly recommend pulling coconut oil. My own experience was that just doing this stopped a lot of ulcers in their tracks. Scroll up for all the details on pulling oil.
  • Check your mouth care routine. Ulcers might be a sign that you’ve gotten a bit slack. You should be rinsing your mouth after every meal using either Biotene or water with salt or carb soda. If you’re eating out then at least have a drink of water after you’ve finished eating. You can also use Biotene mouth spray. Check that your toothbrush is in good condition and replace it if it’s not. Pull some coconut oil at least once a week.
  • Avoid cleaning your teeth straight after eating. Seems odd, I know, but depending on what you’ve eaten the acid in the food will have left your teeth and gums more susceptible to damage. Drink water or use your mouthwash, but wait at least half an hour before you brush.
  • Watch your snacking. It could be that your routine is great with regard to rinsing after meals, but if you’re having a lot of between-meal snacks you’ll be altering your mouth acid. Drink water after a snack, or have water instead of a snack. If you’ve had something very sweet then use mouthwash.

So that’s my ultimate guide to mouth care and avoiding the pain of mouth ulcers. So far I’ve only ever had to put up with an emerging ulcer for around twelve hours before this routine has restored things to normal.

I think what’s really important is to not just accept ulcers as part of your treatment. They will seriously effect your mood, your immune system and your enjoyment of food. If they’re serious they can effect your ability to talk and provide an entry point for serious infection which can lead to neutropenia and an unwelcome stint in hospital on intravenous antibiotics.

At chemotherapy yesterday I met a woman that told me she’s been suffering terribly with mouth ulcers. When I mentioned Kenalog she replied, “Oh, yes, I have some of that but I just haven’t been using it. I suppose we put up with a lot of things that we don’t need to put up with, don’t we?” I don’t understand this. Why would anyone put up with that pain when with a good routine and a bit of vigilance you can live without it? I want my body to be fighting cancer, not mouth ulcers.

The feedback I’ve had from other cancer patients is that my routine has helped them either avoid mouth ulcers, or treat them and prevent their return. The comment I hear most often is that, not unlike a toothache, mouth ulcers are the kind of pain that you put up with and then realise what a huge impact it was having on your life once it’s gone.

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I hope you have as much success with it. Please let me know.

Learning to Draw Eyebrows

Last week I went along to a ‘Look Good, Feel Better’ workshop with my friend, Deb. I was a bit dubious. I have a lot of concerns about some of the known carcinogens that sneak into our makeup. I’m not one of those people that can’t leave home without their ‘face’ on. I’ve always considered my actual face to be a perfectly adequate one.

It fascinates me that there appears to be no requirement for men to wear any kind of makeup, but a clean faced woman is considered underdone. Years ago when I was sent off to a police psychologist for assessment I turned up without any makeup. I have naturally dark eyebrows, blue eyes and fair skin that supplies its own blush. The psychologist peered at me and said, “Are your wearing makeup?” “No.” I replied, and he scribbled something on his note pad. Had he asked me about it I would have told him that I rarely wore makeup to work. Maybe a swipe of eyeshadow and a bit of lip gloss if I felt like it, or if I was going to be giving a presentation or attending something in an official capacity. When the report on my mental health was issued the absence of makeup was noted and the psychologist flagged this as a possible indicator of depression! Really?

I’m pretty sure he’d seen several male police that day, and wondered what his notes would have said if any of them had turned up in full makeup. “Gender identity issues” perhaps? How ridiculous to classify me as potentially depressed just because I chose not to smear chemicals all over my face in order to conform to a mass marketed perception of ‘beauty’.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I had some hesitation about a workshop that promised to lift my mood by teaching me how to apply foundation and eyeshadow. Still, my girlfriend has often commented that she’d like to learn more about applying it, I figured there’d be some nice freebies that she and my daughter could share and it would be an opportunity to meet up with some other local cancer patients and share a few laughs. I didn’t have very high expectations. Put on some makeup to play along, take it off afterwards and spend a pleasant day with my friend.

I was certain that I’d have no interest at all in trying a wig. A friend sent me a whole box of wigs very early in my treatment. We had a lot of laughs putting them on my head and naming them things like ‘The Dolly Parton’ and ‘The private school girl’. I looked like a middle aged woman in a wig. I’ve seen photos of my friend wearing these and she always looks amazing, but on me they looked like a hairy hat! No thank you very much.

What a wonderful workshop. What a surprise. If you’ve got the opportunity to go to one of these as a patient or as a support person then I highly recommend them. They’re run by volunteers, many of whom have been doing this for years, and all them really excited to help you feel better about your appearance.

Some of the other patients at the workshop were clearly depressed about their looks. There was awkward shuffling and downcast eyes as we were all offered turbans and some women revealed their bare heads with embarrassment. Regular readers will know that I’ve previously shaved all my hair off to raise money for cancer (!) so I happily walk around with my ‘nude nut’ uncovered, but not everyone feels this way about being bald. When you see other women bald you can see why. Depending upon the shape of your head it can look really scary.

Turbans on (except me – I prefer the ventilation for my hot flushes!) we were taught some basic skin care and then moved on to makeup. I picked up a few tips here, like learning that powder will set eyeliner and lip liner and stop them smudging.

Then we drew eyebrows.

I looked in the mirror and couldn’t help smiling. I’ve missed my eyebrows. My amazing, cancer fighting body has managed to hold on to some tattered remnants so with a bit of pencil I had a good approximation of natural looking eyebrows. I looked a lot less like a cancer patient and a lot more like me. I felt better. Hey, this stuff works!

We finished applying makeup and I found a new lipstick colour that I never would have tried and really liked, and discovered a great way to apply eye liner to that it opens up my eyes. In between there was loads of laughing and banter around the room as we joked about treatment and side effects. We were all hugely impressed by the use of colour correctors on those women that had developed red splotches on their faces. Green under the foundation! Who knew! But what was really impressive was the looks on the faces of the women around the room as they saw their former selves emerge from their faces. Wonderful. Very moving.

The makeup volunteers finished and an exuberant woman called Jan started demonstrating wonderful things to do with scarves and hats. She started slipping wigs onto people and before I could object I had a medium length brown bob. My girlfriend gasped. This is how my hair looked about three years ago before my big shave and a decision to go grey. “You made the right decision,” she said, “That brown is too harsh on you now.”

Next came a short, grey wig that was so like my old hair it could have been modelled on it. I looked in the mirror and saw a healthy version of myself. There was Meg. Not the cancer patient but me. Here was the person I had been before cancer.

More importantly, here was the person I intended to be once treatment was over.

There’s something powerful about seeing yourself as you hope to be. Visualisation is all well and good but having that reflection of yourself, clear eyed, with a full head of hair and an arch above each eye is so much more wonderful than you can imagine.

Next week I’m going into the wig library and I’m going to borrow a wig. I don’t plan on wearing it all the time but I think it will be nice to have it for Christmas parties. I can just be ‘Meg’ and not the cancer patient. I’ll get a break from my treatment and my illness and so will my friends and family. More importantly, I’ll be starting to make the transition back to being healthy.

I’ll look good. I’ll feel better.

Go To Your Room, Cancer!

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After last week’s blog I’ve been thinking a lot about the extent to which cancer has become a central focus of my life. This has been necessary.

During the first few months of diagnosis there’s a lot of learning to do, sorting out the facts from the fable, making decisions about treatment and then figuring out the best way to support that treatment.

I’m five months in now and it’s time to start shifting the balance.

My new habits are well established. I’m eating really well and we’re all benefiting from a mostly organic, made from scratch diet of healthy food. My skin has never looked better and my fitness is great thanks to my regular yoga and gardening. Meditation hasn’t figured as much as I thought it would but my yoga is a kind of ‘moving meditation’ and my gardening is also meditative. I still need to drink more water.

I’m continuing to cope really well with treatment and most of the time I feel healthy. I’m taking extra precautions not to catch anything, including using hand wipes on shopping trolleys and washing my hands compulsively.

The mental shift that came with my diagnosis has now become my default setting. I worry less about the small stuff. I’m kinder. I’m a lot more relaxed about a whole lot of things, including my ‘to do’ list. I’m more interested these days in my ‘want to do’ list.

I decided this week that it was time to diminish the importance of this disease. I am sending cancer to its room! No more constant vampiring of every conversation. No more chewing up my Facebook page with endless details of my chemotherapy, side effects and progress. It’s time to start shifting the balance. I want to tip over into being me again, rather than everything being about this disease. It just feels like the right thing to do.

Certainly it’s getting boring. I think having such good results so early has allowed everyone to relax. Friends and family are now certain of my recovery. “We always knew you’d be like this. We knew you’d beat it!”

Of course I haven’t beaten it. Far from it. I still have a primary tumour to deal with, surgery in January, radiation therapy for six weeks after than and then three to five years (depending on who you ask) with a very high rate of recurrence and the risk of metastasising tumours in my major organs. But I don’t need to walk around with that pinned to my forehead! I can certainly understand everyone else’s desire to think of me as ‘cured’ or ‘clearly going to be cured’ so they can stop worrying and get back to their lives.

I think it’s much better for everyone, including me, if I start to diminish the significance of cancer in my life, in the same way that I’m managing to shrink away the tumours in my body. I don’t want to be defined by cancer. I want to be able to laugh and love and enjoy the company of my wonderful friends without cancer being perched on my shoulder like a vulture. I don’t want a pink ribbon tattoo, or hat, or T-shirt. I just want to be myself again.

I’m putting cancer over there, in its own little room, where I will visit it when I need to. I’ll pay attention to it on Mondays when I have chemotherapy and when I have appointments with my doctors. I’ll look in on it from time to time to make sure it’s getting smaller and smaller and I look forward to the day when I can disinfect that room and use it for something beautiful and useful.

As part of fighting my remaining tumour I’ve invented an imaginary creature for my visualisations. He looks exactly like the best cat I ever owned, a huge mackerel tabby called Toby, but he’s called ‘The Paclitaxel’. Toby used to be my constant gardening companion, inspecting everything I did and chatting to me while I worked. We’re pretty sure he was part Siamese, due to his language skills. He used to come into bed every morning for a cuddle and could be relied upon to perform purr therapy any time I was unwell. He lived for 15 years before dying suddenly of what the vet thinks could have been a stroke or a tumour. I couldn’t bare to have him autopsied so we don’t really know. We cried for days.

It’s been wonderful to reinvent him as one of my anti-cancer campaigners. He’s now assisting the cancer fairies in the end battle. He has the ability to self replicate and he shreds cancer with his claws and rips it apart with his teeth. Chemotherapy is now an adventure called ‘The Attack of the Paclitaxels!” So the room I’ve put my cancer in has a cat door. Let’s see how that tumour deals with confinement and a vicious pack of cats!

At night, all the Paclitaxels curl up together and purr. Cancer hates purring.

I’ll keep cancer here, in this blog, because the blog has been extremely therapeutic and an excellent tool for keeping my head in the game. I’ll also keep all of my facebook information about my medical progress on my positive3negative page, but my own facebook page will now be cancer free. I’ve put up a new profile picture of me with my beautiful daughter on a trip we took together last year. We are both so happy. I have hair. I’ve told all my friends that from now on I’ll be keeping cancer away from the page. I got a lot of ‘likes’ for that. I’m sure everyone is as bored with cancer as I am.

It seems to me that there is something very healthy in reducing the prominence of this disease. When I wrote last week about ‘sympathy addiction’ it struck a chord with a lot of people. Everyone seemed to know someone that leads with what bleeds; people that can’t wait to tell you about their latest health issue or personal drama, even when, in the overall scheme of things, what they’re suffering from is not really all that serious. Everyone is different and some people must need that sympathy and ongoing attention. I prefer to be happy, positive and a lot more fun to be around.

It’s time to start giving back. Making things easier for the people that have been taking care of me, extending my heart felt gratitude to those that have hung in there and making sure I thank all of the medical staff in a way that lets them know I really mean it. Not everything is about me…….and that’s a really healthy thing.

So I’m sending cancer to its room for the final stages of its death.

Release the Paclitaxels!

No Camellias Please

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It’s been four months since my diagnosis. We’re all well and truly ‘over’ cancer. If only I were well and truly over cancer.

When you’re first diagnosed everyone goes into shock. There’s a rush of thoughtful gifts and flowers and offers of help. There’s cards and kind sentiments on Facebook and the sudden reappearance of long lost friends.

Fairly quickly most people return to their own lives and their own struggles, keeping in touch from time to time to see how you’re going, and the people that are your very close friends figure out what their role will be in this united front against a horrible disease.

But now I’m feeling like a five year old on a long car journey. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

I want my life to be mundane again. I’m sick of being sick.

I remember the first time I saw Camille, the glorious old Greta Garbo movie. It would have been television and probably a Sunday afternoon, when the local station was fond of showing ‘classic cinema’. How I loved Hollywood’s golden age. I’d swoon at the romance and the clothes, and Fred. But I really didn’t like Camille the first time I saw it. She dies? What do you mean she dies! What kind of a movie is this? Where is my happy ending? Up until that point in my short life I’d grown accustomed to the type of movie where, no matter how bad things had become, there was always a U-turn in the last twenty minutes that guaranteed a cheerful and reassuring outcome. Nice things happened to nice people and bad people ended up dead or worse.  I didn’t understand the appeal of a movie that ended in a tragic death.

What curious creatures we are, paying to watch the slow demise of a beautiful woman and to weep collectively over her untimely death. What’s that about? It fascinates me that we should enjoy tragedy. What is it about the human psyche that makes us want to vicariously experience the misery of others. Perhaps it’s a case of giving us some perspective on our comparatively minor troubles. I know that my diagnosis has caused me to refocus on what’s really important in my life but it’s interesting how often friends comment that it’s had the same effect on them.

Perhaps the thing about someone else’s tragedy is that it reminds us that we are all temporary and it give us the motivation to put plans into action. Friends have finally taken that big trip, started the renovations and cleaned the junk out of the garage (both literally and metaphorically) and told us that it was my cancer that motivated them to get started.

Perhaps we enjoy tragedy because we’re hard wired to do so. It turns out we get measurable physical and emotional benefits from caring about other people, and watching someone else’s tragedy might stimulate that benefit. The vagus nerve that connects our brain to our vital organs, including our heart, is the calming half of the systems that triggers our fight or flight response. If cortisol and adrenalin are what winds us up then it’s the vagus nerve that soothes us. If it’s not functioning well it effects everything from our digestion to our sex drive. It’s probably the reason that helping depressive people to care for others can be of so much benefit to them.

It turns out, ironically, that selfishness is bad for you. Research into the function of the vagus nerve is showing that even meditating on good things happening to other people can improve your health. The power of prayer appears to be in the benefit to the person praying, rather than the object of their prayer.

All this matters when you’re unwell because it helps you to welcome the assistance that other people give you and to recognise that their generosity is rewarded with better ‘vagal tone’. It’s good for us to help each other. For someone like me that worries about ‘being a burden’ or inconveniencing others it’s helpful to know this.

Even so, I’m not really cut out for the role of romantic heroine, although I now have a much greater appreciation of the appeal of this role. Sympathy can be addictive! When you’re the object of sympathy you can say and do as you please without too many concerns about sanction or retribution. Everything rude or inappropriate can be attributed to your condition. “You’ll have to excuse her, she’s fighting cancer.” I recognise how easy it would be to provide people with the noble, tragic figure that deserves their admiration. “She’s so brave!” they would say, as I recline on the couch in my silk gown with my hand to my forehead. So tragic. Such a waste. Surrounded by my adoring family and my loving friends I would gaze off into the distance, say something profound and then gently close my eyes for the last time. Roll credits. Not a dry eye in the house.

There’s only a couple of things wrong with this scenario.

Firstly, I’d be dead. Dead is dead. No curtain call for my brilliant, tragic final scene. No waiting for the reviews. Dead.

Secondly, real death is never romantic. Not ever. Not one bit.

I’ve seen more death than most people thanks to my previous occupation. Some of it was sudden and some of it was expected but none of it involved elegant women in silk gowns surrounded by beautiful camellias from their adoring suitors. That stuff only happens in movies.

I helped my Mum nurse my Dad through the last stages of cancer. That’s about as unromantic as it gets. Cancer steals everything before it kills you; your appetite, your vigour, your humour and towards the end, your dignity and your mind. It’s messy and distressing and there’s no film crew with vaseline on the lens to soften the reality.

I am very fortunate to be surrounded by people that refuse to feel sorry for me. My close friend, Jacqui, shocked diners in a restaurant last week when she said, “That’s enough about you and your cancer. We’re all so OVER that!” My friend, Murray, was booked in for minor surgery for haemorrhoids (could there be a less romantic condition) and quipped, “That’s the end of your cancer halo. Everyone’s going to be paying attention to me next week.” On days when I’m becoming self indulgent and feeling sorry for myself, as opposed to genuinely and appropriately sad, my beautiful husband will usually say something like, “Planning on dying today are we?”

We’ve had pragmatic conversations about finances and funerals and organising power of attorney but that’s very different to feeding a sympathy addiction. Planning for a bush fire doesn’t mean we’ll get one. Planning for death doesn’t mean it’s imminent. Although, of course, we are all going to die at some point so it’s sensible to make plans.

So far I’m coping extremely well with treatment. On my last visit to the oncologist she called me “lucky”. I responded that I was working very hard to be this lucky. There’s a whole strategy here. It includes diet and exercise and doing exactly what my doctors have told me to do. It also involves what I call ‘the head game’, keeping my thinking in a place that promotes my recovery and improves my chances at a long and happy life.

For me, a big part of the head game is not falling prey to the appeal of sympathy, although I can certainly understand the appeal of having everyone feel sorry for me. It’s like sitting in the middle of a circle of other people’s energy. They care about you. You soak it up. You reward them with another reason to feel sorry for you.

When I look around I can think of at least a couple of people that live their whole lives this way. They will never be truly well. Their disease, or diseases, define them. I used to wonder why some people were not just sick all the time, but felt the need to always talk about how sick they were. Now I think I understand. When you’re a parent you figure out why children are behaving a certain way by asking “What is the reward for that behaviour?” It’s only recently occurred to me that this applies to dysfunctional behaviour in adults too.

There are ‘rewards’ to being obviously and seriously ill. It’s so much easier to say “I’m unwell.” rather than “I choose not to.” But why would you need to be sick to do exactly as you please? Surely it would be better to be healthy and learn to be assertive. Of course, you’d get no sympathy being healthy and your relationships with other people would need to operate on the basis of mutual caring, rather than everything flowing towards you.

I don’t mean to denigrate those that are genuinely, seriously ill.  If you are sick and you need help then of course you should ask for it.  I’m getting my head around something else here. Some people seem to be defined my their illness.

One of my closest friends has been fighting a serious disease for most of her life. She’s spent good chunks of that life wondering if she’d make it to the following Christmas. She’s had countless surgeries, a colostomy bag, and all manner of complications to deal with. There are no national charities for her condition. No fund raising campaigns or parties of people in matching outfits with stories of survival. She and her family fought this alone.

Here’s the thing. I had no idea about her condition for the first five years of our friendship. I found out about her illness when I gave her some mandarines from my garden and she wanted to explain why she needed to peel every bit of pith away from each segment. This woman is one of the most joyful people I know. She does not want anyone’s sympathy. She’s too busy being as healthy as she can be, laughing, singing, enjoying great food and wine with her deservedly large circle of friends. If she didn’t already have so many ‘best friends’ I would want that spot. Her condition is serious, and often life threatening and it is highly likely that her life will be shortened because of it but she chooses to focus on living rather than dying and that includes not talking about her health unless it’s necessary and relevant. She does not want my sympathy. Just my love and my friendship. She has both. She also knows that if she need my help to fight her disease I’ll do everything I possibly can for her.

She’s my inspiration right now. I want to be as healthy as I can be. Not just ‘cancer free’ but HEALTHY! Wouldn’t it be great if my cancer wasn’t just an opportunity to shed the insignificant and unhealthy from my life, but an opportunity to be healthier and happier than I’ve ever been.

So please don’t feel sorry for me. Cheer me on. Make me laugh. Take me walking or drive me to chemotherapy or help weed the garden. Keep seeing me as ME and not as my disease. Reward my courage and my strength and make fun of me when I slip into self-indulgent self-pitying miasmas. It clears the fog.

No camellias please. I have no intention of dying just yet.

My Best Skin Since Childhood

I’ve had some requests following my last blog to share my chemotherapy skin care routine. You don’t need to have cancer to try this.

THE THINKING

  • The skin is a permeable membrane. We know it’s an excellent vehicle for delivering drugs to the blood stream which is why some medications are now available as stick-on patches.
  • What I put on my skin will, to some extent, always wind up inside my body.
  • The regulations relating to ‘beauty products’ in Australia really only relate to truth in advertising. There is no requirement for companies to put warnings on products that contain known or potential carcinogens. I will do my research on the ingredients before I put anything on my skin.
  • The best skin care products for me are safe enough to eat. They are also organic, to avoid any insecticide or pesticide contamination
  • While I’m having chemotherapy and flooding my body with poison to kill cancer cells, it seems that one of the best things I could do to support my treatment and recovery is to reduce, as much as possible, the toxic load from other sources.
  • While I’m fighting cancer I’m also wiping out healthy fast replicating cells, which means my skin won’t heal easily and wont renew itself while I’m having treatment. I need to take really good care of my skin to avoid infection, damage and other skin problems.
  • My skin is also going to be more susceptible to insect bites, fungal infections and allergic reactions.
  • ‘Natural’ does not necessarily equate with ‘non toxic’. The leaves and seeds of cherries contain cyanide. So are the leaves of tomato plants, the berries of the asparagus, all forms of nightshade, angel’s trumpet, columbines, wisteria and thousands of other plants.

THE PRODUCTS

Soap

http://uniquelynatural.com.au

This company makes beautiful skin and hair care products that don’t have the usual cosmetic nasties. I’m using their body wash instead of soap. Soap is much too harsh when you’re having chemotherapy. The body wash comes in a pump pack. Hold on to your first empty one and reuse it for your body oil.

Uniquely Natural also make a luscious body bath that makes the whole house smell delicious.

Lip Balm

I’ve bought several of the Uniquely Natural lip balms so that I’ve got easy access to it wherever I am.

Moisturiser

Possibly the most important because you rub it all over your body and leave it there, so I’ve made a point of using edible oil instead of traditional creams. Options include hemp oil from here:

http://www.hempfoods.com.au/shop/products-page/hemp-oil/hemp-oil-500ml-retail/?gclid=CMnwqZ3gxLoCFQNgpgodzDQAFA

Hemp oil is high in omega 3 and great for your skin but I don’t like the smell so I’ve added a couple of drops of essential lavender oil to it.  I keep it in a pump pack that originally contained my body wash. Don’t leave it in the original packaging if you put anything in it.

I’ve also used organic coconut oil (sometimes sold as coconut butter). It’s anti-fungal and will cure any dandruff or tinea that bothers you. It’s a bit more difficult to use because it’s solid but it melts quickly between your hands. Once again the smell can be an issue. Warming it gently and adding essential oil will help but make sure you take it out of the original jar if you do this so nobody eats it.

Other alternatives include avocado oil, almond oil, light olive oil and even canola oil. Always buy them from the food section of the health food shop or supermarket and get organic if you can. You may need to experiment a bit until you find one you like. The good news is that you can use anything you don’t like in cooking. Just make sure that if you add fragrance you try a small quantity first so you don’t contaminate the whole bottle.

Do not use bio oil or any of the copies of it. They’re based on mineral oil (also known as ‘baby oil’) which is a petrochemical product. You don’t want to be putting that stuff on your skin.

If you don’t want to make up your own oil then Uniquely Natural and lots of other organic and low toxicity brands sell massage oils and baby oils.

Not everyone likes using oil and a fall back would be plain sorbelene from the chemist or a moisturiser from a company like Uniquely Natural, but check the list of ingredients. Generally speaking, less ingredients is better. The oil is an important part of my skin care routine and I don’t think I’d get the same results with ordinary moisturiser.

For cuts, pimples, rashes and other strange skin adventures

It doesn’t pass the ‘edible’ test, but tea tree oil is still my favourite for all of the various things that happen with your skin. If you want to be extra virtuous then buy the essential oil and mix it about 10% with your favourite organic carrier oil. To my mind, you use so little of this that it’s okay to just go with the supermarket version. If you can get one that doesn’t have a mineral oil base then that’s a better choice.

Tea tree oil is a naturally derived disinfectant and anti-fungal but don’t swallow it because it’s toxic. The best way to apply it is sparingly with a cotton bud.

It’s a good idea to have plenty of band aids on hand for the times when you damage your skin. Bandaid now make a ‘fast healing’ range that look like opaque silicone. You put them on and leave them on. They keep me from scratching bites or bumping minor wounds.

I’ve become aware that I tend to hurl my body at the world without proper consideration for the delicate nature of my skin. Cancer has helped me to change that behaviour.

Face

If you want to you can just use the same moisturising oil on your face that you use on the rest of your body but watch for pimples. Some oils are more inclined to clog your pores than others.

I love rose hip oil. I’ve used it on anything that might scar since I saw a knife attack victim heal her facial wounds without a mark. When I started chemotherapy I decided to abandon my usual facial moisturisers (usually either Olay or L’oreal) and just use the rose hip oil. Now I wish I’d done this years ago.

Exfoliating

Don’t do it. Remember your skin isn’t renewing at the same rate it usually does and rubbing off the top layer of dead skin cells to generate faster renewal of the underlying cells in not a good idea. Avoid any sort of scrub, body brush or loofah. I’ve found a gentle scrub with a washer is all I need. Pat your skin dry rather than rubbing it and use a soft towel. Remember that a lot of pimple creams work by encouraging peeling of the skin so if you must use them, do it sparingly and wait for the results before you re-treat.

Sun Block

It’s now starting to attract attention as a potential carcinogen so I’ve avoided it as much as possible. I wear long sleeves and a hat if I’m going out into the sun. I also have a cotton scarf that I can use to protect the back of my neck or my chest. A cotton sarong works well as a scarf that you can expand to give your sun protection when you need it.

If you must use a sun block then buy something made for children. It’s hopefully going to have lower toxicity that adult formulas.

Fingernails and Toenails

Because they also fall into the category of fast replicating cells there’s a risk of your nails peeling and splitting. I found that my oil regime meant that my nails stayed in really good condition until about week twelve of my chemotherapy, so I didn’t do anything to them except rubbing in my body oil and filing them down. Filing has less risk of splitting your nails than cutting them. My oil routine also meant my cuticles stayed in really good condition and staying out of the sun meant I didn’t get sun damage to my nail beds.

I use gloves for gardening and washing up and I’m avoiding using my nails to peel off labels or open packets. I went to get something off a high metal shelf at the supermarket a couple of weeks ago and managed to chip three large chunks out of my fingernails. Fortunately the damage didn’t extend below the quick. I was grateful that I’d decided to leave my nails just a little longer than usual. I purchased a low toxicity nail polish ‘base coat and top coat’ online and I’ve been using that to reinforce my fragile nails.

If your hands are going to be in the sun a lot then the standard advice is to paint them with a dark coloured nail polish but please check the ingredients before you buy one. Even some of the better brands are still highly toxic. I like the Scotch brand:

http://www.nourishedlife.com.au/brand/scotch-naturals.html

Consider treating yourself to a pedicure (without the polish) to keep your toenails in good shape. I often end up accidentally cutting the corners on my toes and when your body is slow to heal that’s a really bad idea.

I’ve kept using a pumice stone on the soles of my feet but very gently. The oil routine has also healed the cracks I had in my heels.

Makeup

Try this; empty out your makeup bag and start googling the ingredients. It’s got WHAT in it! Fortunately there are not a lot of healthier alternatives when it comes to makeup.

My first strategy when it comes to makeup is to not wear any at all. I know this isn’t an option for some women but I don’t understand why. My husband never wears makeup and he looks just fine.

I usually save makeup for special occasions and I’ll use a concealer rather than a foundation. Less is always better. I have some Nude by Nature products and I like them, but I’m still not convinced they’re entirely safe.

Because I wear it so infrequently I haven’t done a lot of research into this subject. I like Sarah Wilson’s blog and usually check it before I buy anything:

http://www.sarahwilson.com.au/2011/05/toxin-free-cosmetics/

THE ROUTINE

Showering

I love my shower and use it as an opportunity to imagine the water washing all those cancer cells out of my body. With no hair to worry about I figure I can use the extra time to really enjoy my shower.

When I’m done I step out onto a cotton bath mat and cover myself from head to toe with my body oil. I do this before drying off. The water on my skin helps the oil to emulsify. I find I don’t need to use a lot of oil if my skin is still wet.

While I’m applying my oil I like to think about what a great job my body is doing fighting cancer and how I’m rewarding it with my oil.

I finish with my feet and pay particular attention to my toenails and in between my toes.

I dry off with a hand towel because I’m going to need to wash it and washing a full-sized towel every day is not an option when you live with tank water. Because of the effect of the oil on the water a hand towel is big enough to do the job.

I put socks on my feet so I don’t track oil through the house.

Next I get my rose hip oil and massage about ten drops into my scalp. I like to give my scalp a really good massage. This skin is very thin and needs special care. Then I rub another ten drops or so into my face and neck, and the skin at the top of my chest that gets all the sun.

I finish by wiping the excess rose hip oil on the backs of my hands.

At night I just wash my face with a face washer and some water and re-apply the rose hip oil. If I have any cuts, scratches, pimples or rashes then I apply tea tree oil with a cotton bud before the rose hip oil. Yes, it does sting a little but it works really well.

THE RESULTS

My skin feels amazing. My age spots have disappeared from my face, chest and hands. My fine lines and wrinkles really have visibly diminished.

Any rashes or blemishes have healed quickly and pimples usually disappear overnight. Rashes and pimples are both side effects of chemotherapy.

My nails and cuticles are in the best condition they’ve ever been.

I have loads of room in my bathroom cabinet.

I’m also saving a fortune on ‘beauty products’ and having less impact on the environment.

* * * * *

Well that’s my skin care routine for those of you that were asking. I really do have the best skin I’ve had since I was a child. My husband comments on how soft it is and how well I’m looking.

It amuses me that a life threatening illness could have fringe benefits.

Cancer; the disease that just keeps giving!