Swimmingly

May 3, 2010 at 11:35 AM (after chemo, Family, Happy, Mood, Zen) (, , , , , , )

I’m not sure what it is about swimming that appeals to me. Probably not the part where you have to wear a bathing suit, although it’s hard to get a decent tan fully clothed. (That’s a whole ‘nother post, that one.) And it’s probably not the part where you get all wet and your hair goes nuts and your makeup washes off. (Gee, now I sound like a high-maintenance princess.)

I was on the swim team for years. Not fast, usually last. Practice went on forEVer, and you can imagine how appealing that was to the Class Couch Potato. I still wonder whether the only reason I did it was to keep my family from pestering me about never getting any exercise.

But I love to swim. In a lake, in a pool, in a river, in the ocean. The best part is swimming underwater as far as I can, trying to make it to the other end of the pool in one breath. Something about the isolation, the peace of the water bubbling past my ears, the dolphinity of the whole experience really zens me out. The blue of the pool, or the dark coolness of open water.

And then there’s snorkeling. Last week, after absent-mindedly skirting around the reefed edges of the cove beach where we were staying, Mr. Wonderful and I rented sea kayaks (!) and took the boys for an adventure to a small cay about a mile off the shore. When we had beached the boats, the boys and I explored the beach and the Custom House ruins, while Mr. Wonderful explored the apron of coral that wrapped around the south side of the cay. After half an hour in the water, he came ashore, handed me the fins and mask and said, “You won’t believe this backyard treasure.”

Compared to the anemic reef left on the mainland, this was like comparing the zoo to the African veldt. Huge schools of fish, forests of healthy coral, herds of black sea urchins gathered under overhangs. Riotously colored parrotfish crackling nibbles of algae and making sand of old reef. Angelfish the size of manhole covers. And all the while, the gentle sway of the waves and the quiet of my breath in my ears. I was overcome with the simplicity and peace of the scene, the utter irrelevance of humans to the intricate relationships playing out below me.

I stayed in the water until my goosebumps had goosebumps; giving up was almost unbearable, like leaving a loved one for a long journey. I could have gone back in and stayed for days, but we only had the boats for three hours. I didn’t snorkel again during the last three days of the trip – I guess I didn’t want to be disappointed if the next reef didn’t measure up. But the pool opens in two weeks…

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There’s no way to capture an experience like that on film or video, so I’m sorry I can’t share it with you. Do you have a favorite meditative place?

The cay is on the right side of the photo. Best snorkeling ever. Photo courtesy http://www.maho.org.

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Get Up Offa That Thing: Exercise Helps Cancer Patients

March 16, 2010 at 4:18 PM (Energy, Happy, Recovery) (, , , , , , , )

Don’t hate me because I’m in good shape.

When I was younger, I was a sloth. My mom signed me up for gymnastics classes, diving classes, riding lessons, the local swim team. I didn’t last long in any of them. The problem was, they all involved exercise and effort. I was much more of a sit-down-and-read-a-book kind of girl. Because sports were mandatory at my school, I volunteered to be the goalie for both field hockey and lacrosse, if the coach would let me get out of running laps with the rest of the team. (Hey, if I could stand in one place for the whole game, why did I have to get in shape?) I was even voted “Class Couch Potato” in my senior yearbook.

Then, when I was 21, I met this guy. He never sat still. Rollerblading, cycling, running, hiking, sightseeing… if I wanted to spend time with him, I had to get up. But still it took an engagement ring before I really got serious about working out. (Holy crap, a wedding gown? I better get my rear in gear.)

Fast-forward to the birth of my first son. All of a sudden, working out became a treat (sort of), a ninety-minute period of alone time when I was responsible for no one but myself. And, as any mother, stay-at-home or otherwise, can tell you, we don’t even get that in the loo. If I had to exercise for some peace by myself, I’d do it. (Never mind that it had to be at 5:30 a.m.; that just gave me the excuse to nap when the baby napped.) It turns out I am vainer than I am lazy.

Fast-forward again to my life P.C. (post-cancer). When I recovered from my first surgery, I realized that without all those tumors inside me, I felt better than I had in at least a year. Possibly since before I had had kids. So I kept working out. And during the IP chemo, which I was told came with “crushing fatigue” (boy, did it ever), I kept working out. Some days just a lurch down to the bottom of the hill and back, but I got moving. It helped me to feel in control of my body, in control of my life, in a disease process that is totally out of the patient’s hands in so many ways. It gave me time to think things through while I staggered, and make some personal decisions without interruption. I’m convinced that having a pretty high percentage of muscle mass helped me come through the six rounds of IP cisplatin as strongly as I did.

Once chemo is over, every time, and I start crawling out of the pit, exercise helps me feel like a normal person (at least until I catch sight of my squishy, pale, bald self in the weight room mirror). It helps me get my energy back sooner than I would have just waiting inside my house. It helps me get rid of the carbo-belt that develops around the waistband of chemo patients, thanks to the fabulous anti-emetics available nowadays and the raging cells looking for sugar.

Today, I found a study that shows how cancer patients that get regular exercise have more vigor and less emotional distress than cancer patients who don’t. (Sign up for a free MedScape account to read it – they have great articles.) Which I probably could have told you without the grants and the patients and all that time, but now we have proof.

So my advice for cancer patients: GET UP. Lurch down the hallway and back again. Once you can do that five times, add some stairs. Go for a swim. Walk the dog. Go down to the end of the driveway and get the mail. Once you finish chemo, treat yourself to a gym membership or a daily walk with a friend, and keep moving. The oxygen will help your body recover; the muscles will burn off the spare tire, and the companionship will keep you coming back.

Look, I love an afternoon in a comfy armchair with the cat and a good book as much (and probably more) than the next girl. But it isn’t going to prolong my life the way being in shape will.

Besides, the chair and the cat will still be there in an hour.

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Annoyed

January 15, 2010 at 4:25 PM (Energy, mommy guilt, Recovery) (, , , , , , , , )

Cancer giveth, and cancer taketh away. The giving part is another post for another day. Today, we gripe.

Actually, it’s sort of a meta-gripe. I had a lousy day earlier this week, I won’t bore you with the details, but the thing that really cheesed me the most was this overarching feeling I had that I ought to just stop grousing and be thankful that I had a life to live. And that made me madder.

Not only has cancer taken away the innocence of my assumption that I’ll live to be a hundred like my grandmother, that I’ll be around to annoy and embarrass my teenage sons, that I’ll get a chance to spend some of the (admittedly smaller than previously) IRA my tax refund funnels into every spring, among other countless losses. Now I can’t even have a lousy day, sink into a funk, eat too much chocolate and ignore my vacuuming without feeling guilty? I have to be so THANKful that I’ve surVIVEd long enough to be having this day at all? That just sucks.

Wow, someone needs a nap.

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Drat. Mom Was Right Again! And Here’s A Cornell Study To Back Her Up.

January 11, 2010 at 7:44 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

When we used to go outside to play in the snow, Mom always told us to put a hat on. We’d ignore her (hats were NOT cool in the ’80s – hard on the feathered hair or some such) and slog around for twenty minutes, then come inside complaining that our feet were cold. “If your feet are cold, put a hat on,” she’d say. What kind of fool sense was that? If your feet are cold, clearly you need better boots. With wedge heels and faux shearling peeking over the top. Or possibly we just needed hot chocolate.

Now that I’m a cancer chick, I’ve come to realize that there may be something to this “cold feet/body = cold head” thing. Without hair, I’m FREEZING. All the time. From mid-June to mid-October, I’m okay, but the rest of the year? Cold. Layers, and lots of them. One of the layers must be wool (ok, cashmere), including the socks, or I’m shivering. I have rediscovered the magic of hats (and thank Kors they’re fashionable again!), and wear one all the time, inside and out. (Side benefit of baldness regrowth: no hat-head!)

My constant hypothermia has become a bit of an inter-gender needling trigger chez moi. Mr. Wonderful, whose metabolism usually runs at a high boil, is comfortable in the house in a t-shirt and jeans, bare feet. Occasionally he’s been known to take the dog out in the snow in said bare feet. He’s comfortable with the thermostat set at 64 (financially as well as thermally). My boys are always complaining that when I’m cold I make them put on sweaters. I, as previously noted, am only really warm in a hot shower or tucked into bed in (dead sexy) flannel PJs and a (dead sexy) fleece hat. Oh, and please set the thermostat to at LEAST 67. Preferably 69. All three boys find my shivering amusing, and think I’m making my griping up (but have come to expect that I’ll get them with my frosty fingers in the ribs at least once a day).

Today, there’s proof for the ladies. I discovered that some researchers at Cornell have released a study that proves that bald people are colder than people with hair! That’s right, four Biological and Environmental Engineering students put sensors on the heads of test subjects and put them in a cold environment for twelve minutes. They already knew that the head is a major source (60 to 80%) of heat loss (Mom was right!). The test subjects with hats showed little difference in head temperature regardless of hair length or thickness, but subjects without hats showed much higher heat loss through the head if their hair was shorter than one cm, and once their hair length reached two cm it started adding significant insulation to the skin.

I don’t think my hair is two cm long yet, but even if it were, I’d still quote this study. Rock on, my hatted bald-chick peeps.

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My Kilt Encounter – An Update

January 4, 2010 at 1:39 PM (Hair, Karma) (, , , , , , , , )

I was checking my stats and noticed that several hits from the past few days have come from “xmarksthescot.com”. An unfamiliar URL. I traveled there to discover that it’s a community of kilt-wearing scotsmen. I guessed they were amused by the tale of my Trader Joe’s encounter of last month, and discovered that someone had put a link to my story in a comment thread. When I navigated back to the original comment, look what I found!

http://www.xmarksthescot.com/forum/good_feeling-t55992/index.html

The universe works in mysterious ways.

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Hair Envy

December 30, 2009 at 10:24 AM (Energy, Hair, Recovery) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

It’s not easy being green. Having to spend each day perusing magazines like InStyle with their seven-page editorial spreads of people like Blake Lively, Debra Messing and Penelope Cruz. Watching a little TV at the end of the day and being confronted with Pantene ads of models flipping their glossy, wavy, scapula-long locks around like modern-day incarnations of Cher.

As I’ve said before, baldness didn’t scare me this time around. I’d been through it before, had a DYNAMITE wig, loved the ease with which my morning routine rolled along, and relished the break from shaving, plucking, zits, etc. (Yes, the shiny-face-in-photographs thing was annoying, yes, sweating off my eyebrows six times a day was tedious, but they all beat being dead.) But as a (prematurely) post-menopausal female rapidly approaching the big 4-0, I could use all the feminine beauty mojo I can get. Baldness, and the subsequent Death-Valley-Ultramarathon that is growing out curly hair, eventually loses its silver lining and gets just plain cloudy.

So watching these twenty-something robo-babes and their semi-professional hair-flipping contests is starting to bum me out. Maybe it’s because I still think of myself as looking like them (at least in the respect that we’re both female) and when I catch sight of myself in the mirror I look SO unlike that now that it’s shocking, even more so than seeing my formerly Yul-Brynner self after a shower. I think of myself as having hair now, and this? Is so not it.

I think we need a Bald Channel. The King And I; the Star Trek with the bald chick in it; G.I. Jane; Shaft; the Natalie Portman movie where they shave her head; Kojak reruns. Ernie and Bert marathons. There could be made-for-tv movies about alopecia so chemo patients could understand that they’re not alone in the world, starring LeeAnn Rimes. Cancer patients all over the country would flock to the advertisers: moisturizers, wigs, great hats, Sephora tutorials on eyebrow and eyelash application.

Oh, great, like I don’t have enough projects already.

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Energy Comes Back; Organizing Skills Not So Much

December 18, 2009 at 8:59 PM (Energy, mommy guilt, Recovery) (, , , , , , , , , )

For three-and-a-half years, I said “no”. No volunteering, no Class Mother position, no field-trip chaperoning, no personal projects, minimal cooking, no homemade Christmas presents. I’ve focused on the four people and two pets in the little brown house, and on holding myself together enough for my kids to keep speaking to me and my husband to be able to hold most of the weight of running the household.

Fast-forward to December, 2009. Finally feeling like a human being again, like my brain is firing on all cylinders. Able to keep track of the location of my sunglasses while simultaneously talking on the phone and switching the wet laundry to the dryer, I am getting a little full of myself. So I start saying “yes” – yes, I’d love to edit the school newsletter. Yes, I’d love to bring in a dish to contribute to the second grade’s Country of Origin feast three days before Christmas. Yes, I’d be happy to give the neighbor a ride home from the hospital on a Wednesday night after a support-group meeting and a whirlwind trip to a very crowded Target. Yes, I’d love to make six pounds of spiced walnuts to give as gifts to the teachers and service personnel in our lives. Why sure, I’d love to go to a fundraising dinner on December 17. In formalwear. The evening after a chemo treatment.

And thus a few of the juggled balls have hit the deck. Had to pass off the newsletter to the previous editor because my software skills were exceeded by the amount of work that needed doing. Failed to check with my seven-year-old on the due date of his research project and had to pull him out of bed at 7:50 on a school night to help him finish it. Got all the stuff I needed at Target and the neighbor home from the hospital but then blew parking my land barge in my teeny garage and dented the fender on the support column. Remembered to buy a present for the birthday party but forgot to make a playdate for the other kid for the same afternoon. Made it to the fancy party but blew off my boys all afternoon because I had so much to do before the sitter came that I couldn’t take ten minutes to read a book. Haven’t had time to call my dad back from a call he made to me three weeks ago.

Now I’m realizing that perhaps I’ve bitten off a little more than I can chew. Remembering that even before I got sick, I was maybe not the best multi-tasker on the planet (raging hyperbole). Remembering that this mom thing leaves little room for personal activities and ambitions, and that getting to the gym four times a week might be the pinnacle of my independent activity. Realizing that in my rush to fulfill what I though of as my neglected community obligations I had to put my homefront responsibilities on the back burner.

So I’m making no one happy right now. Family resents the fact that I’m busy. Kids are calling me a grouch. Dog hasn’t been on a real walk in four days. Laundry piling up, dust bunnies multiplying. Christmas spirit cowering in the back of a closet. Wherever I’m focusing, I’m feeling guilty that I’m not working on something else. And I’m afraid that this isn’t going to change as I get healthier; this is the standard modern mom’s dilemma. Crap.

The first thing to do is spend the day with my family NOT stressing about the projects that haven’t gotten done yet. The second thing to do is trim the fat from my obligations list. Or maybe I’ll leave that for the New Year – I really need to finish the Christmas cards. Okay, start the Christmas cards. And call my dad.

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Passing

November 15, 2009 at 8:06 PM (Hair) (, , , , , , , )

Aside from the insulative value that having your own hair adds to a winter’s day, it’s an amazing mental hurdle to feeling normal. Last spring, when I was going through chemo, the stuff I was on didn’t make all of my hair fall out; in fact, I only lost about half of my volume (which I can assure you is enough hair for any three other people). To the average observer, all systems were nominal.

This summer, when my hair started falling out in earnest (thanks, Taxol!), I was expecting it. I was even, in a small part of me, looking forward to it – quick showers, no salon appointments, no shaving, cooler summer days. And yet as blase as I can be about some of the stuff that happens with this battle, there’s something so unnerving about being bald. Oh, I know I have a cute head, that my wig is fabulous and I don’t even mind going around in a bandanna. But all of a sudden, the world looks at you differently. You’re a cancer patient, and everyone can tell.

Why does that bother me? I should be proud to represent, a survivor who’s still plugging along through the soccer mom’s routine: walking the dog, going to Target, meeting the school bus. Does it make me uncomfortable to get special dispensation — no, please, go ahead of me in line, I insist — or to accept help to the car with my groceries? Lord knows, there are days I can use it. Is that why I want my wig to look so natural? (Or am I just really vain?)

Do I worry about making other people uncomfortable? I’m more than happy to talk about my illness, diagnosis, symptoms, not only because I hope I can help someone else who may also be sick but because, really, who doesn’t like talking about themselves. Once people know you’re sick, though, they make sure to always ask you how you are, if there’s anything they can do for you, and I think I’m very conscious of that switch — I’m not just your average girl any more. I want people to want to know how I am not because they know I’m sick and are being solicitous of the poor cancer lady, but because that’s what you ask your friends. (And yes, I know that’s ridiculous; I know who my friends are and that they love me. This is not an entirely rational process, kids.)

It’s been so hard to teach myself to accept help from those who offer it, not just because I need the help but because it gives those who offer it a way to have some control over an uncontrollable situation. Offering help is a way to make it better, even if it’s only a casserole. So maybe passing for “normal” is another way I need to let go, be the best baldy I can be. Or maybe I’ll keep fighting to look “normal” because looking good, for me, has so much to do with feeling good.

Anyway, thanks for the casseroles.

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