Let’s Be Honest

October 27, 2010 at 7:30 PM (Family, Happy, Karma, Silver Lining) (, , , , , , , , , , )

I’ve been avoiding writing this post for three or four weeks now because I know no one wants to read it. (No, I’m not dying. My CA-125 seems to be responding to the new chemo, although I have yet to feel any practical benefits.)

But things at the ol’ Casa Carcinista are, well, different since I got back from Colorado.

Sure, there’s the coughing and wheezing, the resting after a flight of stairs. The utter lack of an exercise routine. But I’m talking about more meta-changes.

For the past four-and-a-half years, we’ve been sailing along through open seas, scanning the horizon with our telescopes, peering from the crow’s nest at the edge of the world, looking for signs of what’s to come. For that time, there’s been no sign of anything, just flat horizon. Some days we’ve had calm seas, and picnics on the deck; other days have been stormy and I’ve stayed below decks. We’ve just kept sailing, waiting and watching.

Now, there’s land on the horizon. Distant, hazy, indistinct, but it’s there. And that’s where we’re sailing. Don’t know how long it’s going to take us to get there, nor whether we’ll change course and sail somewhere else first, but there’s no doubt of my destination.

I think what triggered this all was the realization, in Estes Park, that I was not well. For the first time, really, since forever, I was sick and not getting better. There were things that I just couldn’t do because of cancer, and the likelihood that I ever would be able to do them was small and shrinking. Even during my IP chemo routine in 2006 (the energy nadir of my life), I was able to drag myself to my best friend’s wedding as MOH and even threw down a little swing with my sweetie. Sure, I paid for it for days, but it was a hoot, and I got better. I’m still waiting to feel as well as I did before FD. (Nothing personal, FD – I still love you.)

Strangely, I’ve found these recent changes in my life almost comforting. Where the null-sum of cancer is undoubtedly the waiting, the uncertainty that comes while a surgery date approaches, or while you’re twiddling your thumbs until the scan results come back, any kind of certainty in this free-for-all can be the equivalent of a neatly solved equation, exhaling a long-held breath. As our therapist reminded us this morning, we’ve entered the last healthy step of the stages of grief: acceptance. Not that my demise is imminent, but that it’s out there, on the horizon, whether we’re sailing there directly or around the Horn first. Can you imagine setting out on a journey that will last the rest of your life and not knowing where you’re going or when you’ll get there? (And forget about knowing what to pack.) You see my point.

Even more strangely, a field of calm seems to have settled over Casa Carcinista. With this acceptance has come relinquishing of closely-held argument positions, reductions in conflicts, a willingness to compromise and see the other guy’s point of view. The little brown house is full to bursting with love. Mr. W and I are more likely than we used to be to drop what we’re doing and have a hug, or sit at the table after the boys are excused and just talk quietly about our day. We listen more closely when our kids stop us to talk. We are always available for snuggles. We are focusing on the stuff that really matters – building and maintaining healthy relationships, following family traditions, spending time together – and, for the most part, filtering out the dross.

So no, since you asked, I’m not scared. There are still plenty of things I’m pissed off about, and for damned sure I’m not anywhere near finished fighting this battle. But the cloud of acceptance and love that has descended over Casa Carcinista has made us better people, and I wouldn’t trade that for a house at the beach.

And while we are speaking of beaches... here's my favorite.

Photo courtesy Mr. Wonderful.

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Storming The Castle

October 7, 2010 at 10:30 PM (Energy, Family, friends, Help) (, , , , , , , , )

Despite my facade of bravado the night before, I woke on Thursday nervous as hell. Picture it: a woman who, regardless of recent fitness, has a lifetime history of athletic underachievement, a recent history of daily two-hour midday naps, and a bad case of altitude sickness (not to mention stage IV lung mets) spending six hours climbing a big rock and then rappelling down it again. Teamwork and awesome support notwithstanding, the potential for failure was pretty high. But then again, that’s what First Descents is all about, right? Pushing past your fears, self-imposed mental and physical limits, and getting on top of the rock.

Everyone was pretty jacked up by the time we left the lodge. The plan was to revisit the big thumb we had climbed on Tuesday, just outside of Estes Park, but when we stopped by Mary’s Lake to throw in rocks covered with our inhibitions and self-criticisms, the horizontal rain and strong winds threw a wrench in that plan. Flexibility and going-with-the-flow might be the secondary mottoes of FD staffers and CMS guides: within minutes, a new plan was formed, and we took off for the Boulder area and Castle Rock. The hour-plus drive was beautiful, and gave me a chance not only to admire more of the amazing mountain scenery but to psych myself up for the challenge that was looming over my head like a cliff. I had gotten over the whole being-carried-up-the-approach thing; now I had to trust myself, which seemed significantly harder.

Down a winding valley road just outside of Nederland, Castle Rock appeared around a corner and everyone gaped. Three hundred feet of lumpy granite rising into the air like a tower; a creek runs around one side and the road around another. It looked as if it had been set down inside a bowl, with the hills curving around it – maybe that would cut down on the wind? Whatever, it was tall, and we had to climb up it.

The campers split into two groups: the more expert climbers (Alabama, Psych, Foodie, Sprouts, DoBo, Fluff) and the less expert climbers (Spike, Clover, Milf, Caribou, Wiki, Kale, and me). Guides were everywhere, looking very businesslike, draped with hundreds of feet of rope and dozens of carabiners, talking intensely in hushed groups and planning like generals. We scattered into the bushes for last-minute bathroom breaks, and I noticed dusty chalk prints in the cracks up the steepest southern face of the Rock. Clearly, it was a top-notch climbing spot; I just hoped we’d have slightly larger handholds.

And in came the Sherpa. Nicknamed Luddite, I had gone all jittery-schoolgirl when he’d introduced himself at breakfast: 6′ 3″, strawberry blonde, broad shoulders. Now, with a coil of rope split over each of his shoulders, he was positively psyched about practicing carrying me up the approach – whether his insistence that I was doing him a favor was just blowing sunshine or actual fact I’ll never know, but who the hell cares. Check out the photos:

It was rough, I tell you, rough. His shoulders were so broad it was hard to get my arms around them. Grinning like an idiot the whole ride. You see I needed the team tiara to really polish off the effect.

Away we went, leading the north-side group like the Pied Piper. Low branches were a bit of a hazard, but fortunately the approach only took about five minutes, as opposed to the twenty-five minutes of the other rock we had planned to climb. I didn’t have long to feel guilty.

By the time we got started actually climbing, it was nearly noon. Good news: lunchtime! Warm sunshine! Bad news: naptime was approaching like a dive-bomber. Sometimes I got frustrated at the hurry-up-and-wait nature of it, each of us climbing in pairs up the pitches, but the rest time while we waited for the team to reassemble gave us time to rest and eat and drink. The guides were amazing – the spaghetti pile of two-hundred-foot ropes, carabiners, and climbers they had to belay and keep track of was staggering. There wasn’t much conversation with them, although they did pause for an occasional smile and a contribution to the ongoing “If…” book discussion. Special shout-out to Spare Parts, who worked the belay like a machine all day long.

 

That’s Li’l Bits – and 40 lbs. of gear.

Each pitch in itself wasn’t that hard for me. The irony of the whole day is that I actually found myself liking climbing. It’s like putting together a puzzle: a hold for the left hand here, a step for the right foot there, and hoist! Now a right handhold, a left foothold…no? Can I brace with my thigh? Very rewarding and satisfying to the female tetris-loving brain, like watching a needlepoint project or a jigsaw puzzle turn into a whole image from the teensy mosaic pieces. There were moments where I got frustrated because there wasn’t an easy solution, but the cheering from the teammates and occasional coaching from the guides helped my confidence enough that the pieces fell into place, and I found myself flopping over the top ledge like an exhausted swimmer out of the pool.

 

Second-to-the-top pitch. Sherpas don't get cold ankles, apparently.

After about stage three, though, I was done. No, really. My legs were like Jell-O, my arms too tired to lift over my head. I had eaten good complex carbs and drunk plenty of Gatorade, but the burst of renewed energy was not coming. I think my body doesn’t do that anymore. But no sherpa was going to haul me up the rock. And there was no bathroom at the summit. So this is where I usually fall flat – I’m really tired, it’s time for a nap, I can’t do any more today, I’ll be in my office. Take me home, put me to bed, see you later. This day, from somewhere, I had to find the energy to keep climbing.

I just didn’t think about it, any of it. Not about how tired I was, not about how crappy my lungs felt, not about how tired I was of being cold and clinging to a rock. Not about how far my life had come from what I’d imagined it would be, nor how pissed I was at that. I just climbed. Waited ’til it was my turn, and climbed. And then I was up.

Once we were all there, it was strange – we were all jubilant, incredulous at the magnitude of our accomplishment, but exhausted. No one seemed to want to leave, whether we were all too tired to move or just didn’t want it to end. Photos were taken, jokes were told, and then it was time to go.

Rappelling was less terrifying to me than belaying; I guess I’m a control freak, because once I was the one holding the reins (so to speak) letting me down the cliff everything was fine. It doesn’t make stepping backwards off a perfectly good 250-foot cliff any easier, though, even when I’m well rested. Which I was not. And yet, I think the exhaustion quieted the jitters: by the time my jelly-legs had gotten me to the brink, and Spare Parts had hooked my harness to the ropes, I was simply so eager to be finished that I cooked over the edge and started bouncing my way to the ground.

After what felt like ten minutes, but was probably only about two, I stopped for a rest. And looked around me. The sun was setting, the shadow climbing the wall of the bowl around me. The sky was blue. No one was asking me for anything. I had gotten up and over that big friggin’ rock under (mostly) my own power, despite my misgivings. Holy crap. Then I made a mistake – I looked down. People are very tiny from that far up, as are minivans with reclining front seats. Time to get cracking.

Shoulders get sore passing handfuls of rope to yourself over and over again. Switching hands wasn’t an option, though, so I rested a couple of times. I was really cognizant of being the third one down, though, and that there were about twenty people up top who needed to follow me down. Past the hundred-foot pine tree, over the ledge, run out of footholds and swing precariously, and then hands on my waist helping me down. Done. I could barely unhook my climbing harness and stagger to the van. Seat down, feet up, pass out.

And not be able to fall asleep. As I lay there staring at the bushes outside the window, so many things ran through my head. First was, “Why the hell did I do this? I can’t believe I signed up for this nightmare. I’m so tired I’m going to die.” Next came the cascade of memories from the day: rooting for reluctant climbers; Slash’s ridiculous sing-alongs; the sunshine on all of us at the top. As I heard subsequent rappellers finishing their descents and cheering for each other in a mob, I was overcome with jealousy: at their energy levels; at their ability to stand up after that day; at the fact that some of them were over their disease; at the fact that I wanted to plan to do First Descents again and might not get the chance to. Tears of exhaustion. Frustration. Nap.

Spare Parts opened the tailgate some time later to start loading in equipment, and threw on some tunes for the assembled cheering squad – the clock said 6:45. No wonder I was zonked. It took another forty-five minutes before everyone was down and loaded. I was so excited to be driving home I could hardly stand it. Nap. Forget dinner – to bed, to bed. My pre-noon flight the next morning would probably require an early wake-up call, so I was eager as hell to check out.

Ha ha. It seems that other members of our team were HUNGRY. We stopped in Nederland at a Nepalese restaurant called Kathmandu for dinner. I was nearly in tears again at the thought of having to get up and walk into the restaurant and make conversation for an hour. Oh, and it’s buffet. Now I have to balance a plate, stand up and make conversation. Then it came to me, like a message from heaven: I. can. order. a. diet. Coke.

Caffeine, food, and chai actually dragged me out of my funk, and I completed a couple of sentences at the table. But by 8:30 I was practically herding people out the door to the vans. Slash said that once we got back to the lodge, we still had a Campfire meeting to get through, plus the awesome slideshow from the week. Bedtime? Maybe midnight.

I did finally fall asleep in the van, but it took everything I had left to pry my bod out of bed, wrap myself in a sleeping bag and shuffle outside for the Campfire. I won’t share everyone’s secrets, but it was clear ground had been broken, lifetime friendships made, personal limitations smashed.

For me, my contribution to Campfire was that the day’s heroic achievements had been so huge there was no way I could summarize them without some sleep. I said that when I woke up on Tuesday, I’d probably blow my own mind at how huge the day had been. I was seriously so drained, and the magnitude of our journey so epic, that to this day I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.

What I know for sure is that the next morning, when I had to say goodbye, it was like cutting off my arm. First Descents felt like an entire year of college, with its friendships, shared in-jokes, and constant togetherness, crammed into five days. I was so tired I thought I wouldn’t make it through security (thank heaven for first class lines!), staggered to a kiosk for a fatty bagel-egg-bacon-cheese, collapsed at the gate and burst into tears. How does one come down from a high like FD and return to the real world? The regular real world would have been hard enough, but I had to psych myself up for chemo in two days. I needed some motivation.

Memories.

Day 1: What have we signed up for?

Day 2: Post-climb chillin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sprouts, Spike, and Shotgun revel in the view from the top.

Day 3 mountain hike, and sweet Clover.

First Descents #53 Colorado Climbing camp, victorious.

I’ll be back.

Photos courtesy Kale, Clover, Spike, DoBo, Wiki, Wildflower, and Garçon. I forgot to take any.

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Catching My Breath

September 27, 2010 at 7:49 PM (after chemo, Energy, Faith, friends) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Of course I didn’t sleep well on Saturday night. What with the day being exhausting and the nervousness about missing my flight and the excitement about First Descents finally being here, I maybe strung together three hours of sleep. Just the way to start four days of exhilarating physical exertion, right?

Our group of thirteen campers found each other at the baggage claim area of the Denver airport in two shifts with the help of the very enthusiastic camp director and EMT volunteer. By the time I rolled up, some of the campers had already nailed down their nicknames and were admonished to use them exclusively, but their first stabs at a name for me (“Starfish!” because of my earrings) didn’t feel right. I wanted a perfect fit; there is a chance I’ll be using this nickname for years, and just-okay wouldn’t do. I knew it would have to come up organically, so I waited.

First Descents camps assign everyone a nickname upon arrival to distinguish the camp experience from the real life that many of us would like to forget. Camp is the opportunity to rise above your definition of yourself as “cancer patient” or “cancer survivor” and simply to be the person you are that week. You don’t have to be anyone’s mom, kid, wife, husband, sister, friend, co-worker; just yourself, an incredible sense of freedom. Not to mention a really easy way to remember the names of twenty new people at once.

Six of us plus Patch, the FD EMT volunteer, made our way to the short-term parking lot and a rented van in which we’d ride the hour-and-a-half to Estes Park. I’m not sure where the immature urge came from, but my competitive-sibling gene forced me to shout, “SHOTGUN!” by the side of the van. Hey, if no one else was going to call it… The nickname was found. (And, when discovered later by members of my family, confirmed as unassailably perfect.)

The first night, following my well-deserved nap, included an up-to-the-minute personal medical review with the staff and medical team (during which I filled them in on my fevers, lungs, and failed clinical trial), a delicious vegan organic dinner with the other campers, staff, and guides, and trying to remember everyone’s names. After icebreaker games (flashbacks to freshman orientation) and a rundown of the next morning’s plans, everyone drifted off to bed.

Monday morning, excitement made it easy to wake up and get ready to go; my new gear was shiny-clean and primed for action, and the two-hour time difference meant I had even had a decent night’s sleep. The altitude was having an impact on my breathing, though – at 8,500 feet the atmosphere contains about 35% of the oxygen it does at sea level, and I huffed and puffed climbing a flight of stairs or completing a sentence. Being winded made me nervous about the rock-climbing: how much would I be able to do? Would my fitness level and push-ups training make any difference?

The training climbs were planned for a rock formation not far from the lodge, within walking distance (coolers of food and drinks! folding chairs!) from the parking area, and the campers scrambled up to the base, eager to get started and afraid of how we’d do. The gusty wind made it hard to hear the instructors’ careful lessons on knot-tying, belaying, and checking our gear – I found out we’d be belaying each other; somehow that made it more scary than if the instructors had been directly involved. I hadn’t grasped the importance of the trust between teammates, the one climbing up and the one keeping watch at the bottom – when I climbed, I was in control, even though the belayer was watching my every step and keeping me safe from falling. But once it came time to belay back down (to lean back at a 90-degree angle from the rock and hang by my harness from the rope and pulley controlled by my belayer on the ground) I was terrified. You want me to what? Walk backwards off this cliff hoping that my brand-new best friend is paying attention and holding on tight? All the 40 feet back to terra firma? Holy crap, what was I doing here?

BAM, the magnitude of where I was and what I was doing hit me. I was up on the side of a rock, in a city and state I’d never been to before, surrounded by people I’d only known for eighteen hours cheering me on and hanging my butt, literally, in the balance. Cancer patients put their trust in doctors, nurses, family members… people we’ve known for years, interviewed carefully, background-checked. Who were all these campers? Ultimately, I think it was this overwhelming unfamiliarity that helped me sink into the new, delicious abandon of trust, tip myself over the verge and bounce backwards to the ground.

The cheers and support of my new best friends made all the difference that day – they helped each of us to climb past our personal insecurities and to back down to earth again over and over. As we rooted each new climber to the top, as we spotted belayers and checked everyone’s gear before a new climb, our reliance on each other and our shared triumphs hitched us all to a common purpose that WASN’T cancer, and that felt really, really good.

After lunch in the sun I tried a tougher climb, but about halfway up the altitude and the fresh air and physical efforts conspired to stop me – other campers later spoke of watching me “hit the wall” on the side of the rock face – and I cried, “I’m done!”, belayed down and headed for my chair for a nap; I knew I was finished for the day. I dozed in my chair for an hour or so, then the concerned doctor gave me a ride back to the lodge and my bed around 2PM. As I slept more, my headache grew. I wanted to take some Tylenol to kill the headache (it couldn’t be dehydration, as I’d had about two quarts of water since we started climbing), but was feeling nauseous and knew I needed to eat first so I wouldn’t get sick. Vicious cycle – I dozed off and on for about two hours until Clover came to check on me and I asked her to get the doctor. Hack finally showed up and gave me some Zofran for the nausea and some Diamox for the altitude acclimation, and forced me to eat yogurt. The food helped me get down some Tylenol; that and some more napping wiped the headache clean. Turns out all that water is nothing for a day of exertion without some salt: should have been Gatorade and a bag of chips. Lesson learned.

By 6:30 I was able to get up and have dinner with the crew, and felt better enough to join the after-dinner “campfire” session to talk about the day and how much fun we each had had, and how proud we were of our accomplishments. And to enjoy the dynamic that was developing – the personalities were linking, meshing, overlapping, and we were getting comfortable enough together to start making fun of each other, the true test of friendship. Things were starting to get good. My addition to the evening’s observations was that FD staffers and volunteers are TOTALLY as cool as the hype I’ve heard about them – their enthusiasm was contagious from that first moment at the airport.

Next: Overestimating my abilities…

Photo courtesy: Wildflower

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