Belated-ness, bachelors and bravos (The I”m-sorry-I’ve-been-away-so-long-but-I’m-back-now-post-that-will-be-followed-by-a-real-one)

A few weeks ago, I had the honour of being the guest speaker at the Bachelors for Hope Auction here in Thunder Bay. Somehow, I ended up with two full tables of family, friends and colleagues present, who got themselves dolled up to varying degrees, some stepping decidedly out of their comfort zones to do so. I can’t believe I didn’t get a picture of everyone. I guess I was a little distracted, and by that I mean terrified, nervous, convinced I wasn’t going to be able to walk in heels after this year spent largely in Blundstones and Cougar boots (I actually practised walking the ramp to the podium about ten times), and also quite certain the fake eyelashes I had been convinced to wear were going to detach themselves mid-speech and blind me so that I wouldn’t be able to read the speech my mother had so kindly printed out for me in large print so that I wouldn’t have to wear my glasses (they wouldn’t have fit over the eyelashes anyway.) I’m actually not joking. The level of anxiety I have experienced over the past couple of months has put me in this kind of state of mind quite often. That’s fodder for another post. 

There were many people who wanted to hear my little blurb, and it’s for those people that I am posting it now. I think it went well. Some people laughed, some people cried, and everyone stood up at the end. Here it is. 

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My name is Tanya Gouthro. I am mother, daughter, sister, friend, lover, teacher, writer. I am a lover of kitchen dancing, hot yoga, trail running, good film, good books and good wine.

One year, and 27 days ago I also became a breast cancer patient, and all of those other things took a step back.

My tumour, when detected, measured .8cm and it was alone. A month and a half later, when it was removed during my bilateral mastectomy and removal of 17 lymph nodes, that tumour had grown to 2.3cm and was now accompanied by 5 other tumours. Of the 17 lymph nodes that were removed, 3 of them tested positive for cancer. This cancer was not messing around.

I didn’t know how to DO Cancer. No one does. There is information out there. Lots of it. But until you sit across from a doctor who tells you she doesn’t have good news, until the file with the red sticker on it saying Further Action Required bears your name, you don’t really internalize that information. You certainly don’t fully understand the extent to which Cancer changes a person. A family. A group of friends. A community.

True understanding of the intricate ways in which this particular diagnosis and subsequent treatment alter a woman, physically and emotionally, is reserved for the women I am now completely comfortable calling Warriors out there, with whom I now share some collective memories.

Moments that stand out to me, the good and the bad:

My sister, taking my face in her hands on the day of diagnosis and looking me straight in the eye, crying, but so strong, saying “Okay. Listen to me. This is going to be a really crappy year. It’s going to suck, and it’s going to be really hard, and then you’re going to be okay. Do you understand me?”

The surgeon in Winnipeg kneeling in front of me, drawing the ‘cut-lines’ on my torso prior to wheeling me in. And me ‘finding the funny’ in an otherwise terrifying moment – making a highly inappropriate comment to him about being on his knees in front of me. Finding a way to laugh my way through the last time I saw my breasts taught me that this would become part of my approach to the entire year of treatment.

Having my PICC line inserted, prior to starting four months of chemotherapy. Thinking I could do that appointment alone, and falling apart, totally unprepared for the impact of facing the reality of signing my life over to treatment.

Having my ex-husband shave my head, as counterintuitive as you may think the combination of razors and ex-husbands may be, with our boys present, in anticipation of the loss in front of me, and watching my youngest crumbling, and wrapping him up in my arms so that he could cry and I could tell him everything was going to be okay. I have found that if you say those words out loud often enough, their believability is heightened.

Having a full-blown panic attack when they started the drip during my 6th chemo session, and reaching up, because I thought I was going down, and grabbing at whatever would keep me standing. Unfortunately, this happened to be the nurse’s breast. If you’re here tonight, Nurse, I apologize. Again.

Spending a few minutes in front of the mirror one day, nearing the end of chemo, and taking in the reality of my body with what I thought of as ‘no punctuation marks’. Hair, eyebrows, lashes, nipples, all body hair, missing. I remember being struck by the feeling that I was disappearing. And then learning to use an eyebrow pencil really, really well.

Laying in a radiation session, listening to the combination of the machines groaning and moving and zeroing on the next location to aim at on my body, and the 80’s radio station that played 2 and a half songs for each of my sessions belt out “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benetar. And trying very, very hard not to burst out laughing at the (kind of dark) irony.

There is, I have found, almost always a way to find a ‘hook’ out of the dark places in which we can end up. Sometimes it’s finding the funny. Sometimes it’s a walk outside and a reconnect with our physical selves. Most of the time, the hook pulls us up and out of the dark place, and allows us to be fully present in the here and now.

And, sometimes, it’s really really challenging to find that hook. This winter has presented me with some of the most difficult months of the entire year. I won’t share the gory details with you tonight, partly because tonight is a celebration, and partly because I’m just not ready. I am very thankful that my current difficulties are not being caused by cancer.

I haven’t found my hook yet. I’m working on it.

I will say that it is in the dark times that hope becomes a lifeline. When the present is really really difficult, as it can be on this journey – surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, reconstruction – they all come with their list of risks and side effects and complications. Sometimes we get lucky, and sometimes we don’t. Through all of it, we need desperately to know that there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. We need hope.

The Cancer Centre has, throughout my journey, helped to provide me with that hope. I had excellent care.
My treatment was seamless and all of the worry and questions were taken away from me during that time. The Centre was flexible and allowed me to ‘Do Cancer’ my way – which included having an entourage at every chemo session, sometimes in costume and sometimes not, but always raucous. The people at the Cancer Centre made sure I had the ‘party room in the back’ whenever possible, because they understand that everyone needs to find their own way to get through treatment. Mine was just a little louder than some others’.

I was lucky enough to have care close to home, which is not the case for everyone.
During the Look Good Feel Better workshop I attended, I met three young women, all mothers, who were undergoing five weeks of radiation treatments here in town, which meant they were away from the people they needed to be around the most: their families.

Our Cancer Centre really does provide hope and excellent care to people in our region.

Nights like tonight help to ensure that patients’ hope be fuelled by confidence in the state of the art equipment we have, and in the amazing medical staff we are lucky enough to have here.

Our hope is fuelled by friends and family. By laughter and tears. By research and by medicine.

It is also fuelled by you, who have chosen to invest in that hope by attending tonight’s event.

Last year I came to this event freshly diagnosed, and prior to my first surgery.
I was scared, and I was not, to be honest, very excited about attending. About ten minutes into the event, my best friend reached over and grabbed my hand, tears running down her face, as they were mine, and said “Sweetie, we need to be here!!”

She was right.

 

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Fatalism, fed-upedness and fatigue (Or, trying to find my way out of a funk)

I remember a day not long after diagnosis when I was driving away from the hospital, away from the Cancer Centre, where I had been at one of a gazillion appointments. The focus was, of course, how to keep me alive – kind of the point of cancer treatment. When I went to turn left onto one of the main arteries a car came out of nowhere and I narrowly missed a massive collision. I remember swerving, slamming on the brakes, and immediately pulling over because my hands were shaking too much to hold the wheel. And I remember falling apart. Feeling like maybe it didn’t matter what I did. Maybe my ticket was, simply, ‘up’. Maybe it was all out of my hands. That everything I was doing to treat my cancer was going to be futile anyway, because this was all some bigger-than-me cosmic joke. This thought left me in one of those can’t-breathe-god-I-wish-I-wasn’t-publicly-crying places that no one likes. You know the ones – where you want to acquire some sort of sparkly-red-shoe power that will allow you to click your heels together and disappear onto the floor of the corner of your kitchen, because that’s your safe place and no one will watch you get messy with snot and tears. 

I pulled it together pretty quickly that day and managed to be on my way home, physically shaking my head to banish that thought and any more of its nature from my brain. I have continued to use this head-shaking strategy over the course of the last year, moving steadily forward and often employing the tactic of purposeful denial to shelter myself from that dark kind of fatalism.
It’s come back as of late. Since this reconstruction fail, I seem to be spiralling a bit. I’m conscious of it. I’m trying to stop it from happening. I’m talking it out. I’m trying to get out of my house. I’m finding the funny in all of this, when I can. But complications in healing are frustrating me. It would appear that skin that has been operated, radiated, stretched to transparency and then cut into three times in two months isn’t super fantastic at healing.
And so I am stuck. Stuck in a place where I cannot move forward because every time I look in the mirror I see ‘freshly-operated’. Stitches still in, after over 3 weeks. Still limiting activity. Still not getting outside and walking because, despite what the surgeons hoped, I wasn’t all better in a week and the go-ahead to ‘resume normal activities’ has been revoked. I am cranky. The combination of next-to-no sleep and never-ending-winter (I know I’m not alone here!) and physical discomfort and loss have me finding it difficult to be around people a lot. Overwhelmed really easily by noise and movement and crowds. Unsure about entering into conversation with anyone about how I’m doing, because I’m not okay. Sometimes I’m up enough to make it funny – crack jokes about how I have to fatten up for surgery, or talk about the serious (SERIOUSLY!) need for some sexy post-mastectomy lingerie and swimwear in this city / country / on this continent. (I am currently looking at having mastectomy bikinis sent from the UK.) (There’s a whole other topic for a blog. I’ll get back to it. ) Other times, I’m not so funny. Other times, I get half a sentence out and stop talking because if I continue, I will cry. And nobody likes a cry-baby. Myself included.
So. This afternoon, I sat down and tried to think about what usually helps me put things into perspective. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I think about other people’s ‘shit’. And by ‘shit’, to be clear, I mean the difficulties that other people are facing in their lives right now. The kinds of things that other people are facing that are, for them, as difficult as this is for me, because for them their trials may be the worst they have faced to date. It didn’t take me long to realize that I’m in good company. Without looking very far at all, there are people dealing with fresh diagnoses, juggling fear and children and uncertainty. There are mothers worrying about children, about potential horrors that they may face. There are daughters dealing with the loss of mothers, missing daily interactions in ways I can’t even stomach imagining. There are friends whose parents are ill, and who are too far away from them to help in the way they need to. Brothers, separated from sisters by distance and feeling like they’re in the wrong place. Friends who have found love and are frustrated by geography and circumstance. Marriages that are silent and empty. Marriages that are full of too much noise and anger. Friends learning that they must stop doing what they love the most in order to be healthy. Friends that need to be medicated in order to do what they love. Others that live in constant fear that their world will come crumbling down around them.
My companion likes to remind me that I’m not alone. I know that this isn’t what he means. But that phrase carries much weight.
And in thinking about that, and about the loads that others are carrying around with them, somehow my own doesn’t seem quite so heavy. So I’m going to send out a whole pile of really, really good vibes to those who need them, and open myself up to the ones I know are coming my way, and keep breathing.