Health Diligence

In August this year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I don’t usually get explicitly personal in my blog posts, but I believe there is value in sharing my experience. Cancers are extremely common and for good reason people are afraid of it. I was lucky. Mine was detected early. The health care system in Australia encourages us to get regular testing that will alert us to disease. My message is, USE IT!

I went for a routine mammogram. I was called back for a second one. I wasn’t alarmed. I was irritated. I would get a second boob-squashing and waste a lot of time. When I booked the appointment, I was asked to allow four hours even though I might be out in one. Exasperated, I delayed my hairdressing appointment.

I turned up at St George Public Hospital Breast Screen Clinic and donned the white cotton gown. Sitting in the waiting room, pulling the gown across my bare breasts, I felt vulnerable and patient-like. Opening my Lonely Planet, I distracted myself, researching my trip to India. I tried to ignore the banal Morning TV show. When it was my turn, the radiographer was admirably friendly and empathetic, despite the hordes of complaining women she would deal with every day. She recommended I breathe out through the pain. It helped.

Back in the waiting room I observed an older Mediterranean woman talking on the phone in a panicked voice. I was then called for an ultrasound. The radiographer chatted pleasantly with me as she looked at the screen and ran the wand-thing over my gel-covered breast. Then she  called in the radiologist – the specialist doctor. I felt indulged. One of my closest friends is a radiologist at St George and I wondered if I was getting VIP treatment. At no point did I think the worst. The radiologist told me she was going to take a biopsy. She took four. She told me she was going to mark the concerning spot by inserting tiny metal pellets into my breast. The nice radiographer held my hand.

Back in the waiting room I asked the kneeling Mediterranean woman if she’d lost something. She glanced at me with a look that silenced me. She was praying. I found a brown paper carry-bag next to my chair. It contained a sandwich, apple and water. When the woman got up, she apologised. She’d been crying. I talked to her about her husband and where she lived.

A woman in uniform came to me and introduced herself as a counsellor. I followed her to a room where she explained I had to wait for a doctor and I can’t remember what else. How tedious, I thought. I dressed and went for coffee, the doctor being an hour away.

When the doctor, a breast surgeon, met with me, he explained there was some calcification in my breast. Until they got the biopsy results, they couldn’t say what that meant. Calcification was quite common in women of my age. He felt my breast but there was no palpable lump. I told him I didn’t want to come back the following week – I was going away – and requested I be told the results over the phone. He raised his eyebrows, smiled indulgently, and said, maybe.

The next week, I phoned in. As happens in many large organisations, there was a Protocol slip-up and I was told, without obscurity, I had a cancer and had to see the surgeon. I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t possible. That kind of thing doesn’t happen to me. I went for a walk with some friends and shared my shock and disbelief. They were more horrified than me.

The next week, my radiologist-friend accompanied me to the meeting with the surgeon. She insisted. Apparently, I wouldn’t remember or understand everything the surgeon said. She was right. She explained it all again to me later. I had a 9mm invasive ductal cancer. Small. It didn’t sound small to me. With the margin required to make sure it was all gone, the surgeon would be taking out a golf ball chunk out of my small breasts. That sounded huge. They would also take out a lymph node to see if there was cancer in there. I remembered the surgeon’s drawings: the golf ball with 9mm centre and lymph node, a bit bigger, with lines drawn through to demonstrate the slices that they would biopsy. I was horrified by its enormousness before my friend explained it wasn’t to scale. A lymph node is only the size of a baked bean. I’m glad I took a friend to listen and remember.

Two weeks later I was back at St George, this time at the Private, getting prepped for surgery. Once again, I shunned company because I’d be fine, and why should someone else have to suffer the boredom of the day. It was like two people suffering the grocery shopping when only one needed to. I started to cry as the check-in nurse asked me questions. I wiped away my tears, feeling foolish. Up in the Radiology Department, I had an ultrasound. The radiographer didn’t chat. She did her job and then went to get the nuclear physician. A kind looking man appeared at my side and apologised in advance because he was going to hurt me. He gave a few anaesthetic injections and fed a wire in to meet the tiny metal pellets.

I cried but the pain wasn’t too bad. I cried because for the first time in my life I didn’t have my husband with me, reassuring and overseeing. And I’d chosen not to have a friend by my side.

Over in the Nuclear Medicine Department, radioactive dye was injected to mark the cancer and node for the surgeon. All this takes time and I felt very alone. While waiting for the surgery, I picked up my phone and checked my messages. There were plenty. Messages of strength and kindness and concern. Family and friends were with me in spirit and I knew I was far from alone.

The surgery was over before I knew it but I was groggy for some time. The news was good. No cancer had shown up in the biopsy of the removed lymph node so the other fifteen were left alone. In a week they would be able to tell me if they had found any cancer cells in further slices.

I was lucky. Mine was all clear. I recovered well from the surgery and went skiing six days later. My scar healed well and was a very neat 6cm long straight line. I did have radiotherapy two months later but I’ll leave that story for another day.

I encourage you to have routine tests and look after your health. We have very good hospitals and doctors in Australia and many diseases can be treated. There is no point in being too afraid or busy to have a test. If problems are discovered early you could save yourself a lot of trouble, heartache and suffering. Better a little pain now than a big regret later. Have the test. Talk to your loved ones. If you need it, lean on them for support. Take the professional advice and keep well.

Funeral Rights

Should anyone be stopped from attending the funeral of a loved one? A child, an estranged relative, a divorced partner?

If they loved the deceased and the deceased loved them, even if there had been acrimony, perceived wrong or disloyalty, should those in control, the funeral-throwers or directly bereaved, have the authority to stop that person?

You would hope in those circumstances that the person or people in the controlling position would have empathy, largeness of heart and good will – no matter how much they dislike the contentious person. After all it’s an emotional time and they’re supposed to be thinking of their loved-one’s wishes.

If the bereaved is the wife, husband, life-partner, son, daughter, mother or father, their position obviously has weight. But even if they hate someone, and I’m not talking murderer or rapist here, I’m talking about Joe-average, do they have the right to say, ‘Stop. Do not pass. You are not welcome here, go home.’

Here is why I think not.

Funerals are about paying respects to the deceased and to those who are most affected by the loss. They’re an acknowledgement of a life, hopefully, well-lived. They’re about spending time in deep reflection, remembering who that loved-one truly was: appreciating their strengths, forgiving their weaknesses and feeling them in your heart. They’re a time to absorb the enormity of that person’s passing/leaving/dying, or whatever your word is. Funerals are about accepting the love and loss, revelling in funny stories, crying over sad ones, sharing with others that feel the same way, joining together in a celebration and mourning.

Loved one’s stories are told, embellished and renewed. They become cemented in your mind and heart and in that way, the deceased stays with you forever. A funeral is a fitting closure to a life and should be shared by all that loved, respected or was just touched by, the deceased.

No one should be stopped from attending a funeral of a loved one.

 

With great respect, I wish my father-in-law farewell. You’ve been another father to me since I was seventeen. You gave love, guidance and support for over 35 years. You enjoyed being sociable, having fun and playing the clown with all the grandchildren. You were a good man.

RIP Barry Simmons 9/11/18 (A man who saw images in clouds)

Halloween Horrors

Travelling around my usual haunts, I’ve noticed Halloween more this year than ever before. I’ve been feeling uneasy about this. Not because I’m scared of ghosts or spiders or anthropomorphized pumpkins, but because it’s so American. Or so I thought!

Before I did any research, this is what I was thinking: Halloween is an adopted tradition that has nothing to do with Aussies, that wastes food, that is garish and cheap and ugly, and that encourages bingeing on lollies. I know it’s an excuse for a party, and that’s very Australian, but we don’t really need an excuse! I’m wondering – dark eyed, bloodied, dead people walking around threatening neighbours with nasty deeds unless they hand over the goods – is that nice, is that ethical, is that what we should be encouraging in our children? And the gooey cobweb stuff like stretched cotton wool that’s encasing half the bushes in the suburb – is that good for the bushes or birds or bugs? I think not! It’s not good for the décor either. Whose house looks better with white or purple or orange threads engulfing the fence or hedge? And will it be removed in time for the Christmas decorations? I know, I’m a killjoy, right?

So, feeling a bit Grinch-like, I decided I better find out more about it. Maybe everyone else knows this, but I didn’t!

Halloween’s origins go back 2000 years to the Celts who lived in Ireland, the United Kingdom and France. They celebrated their new year on November 1 and believed that on the night before, the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead became blurred. The Celts gathered around huge bonfires, sacrificed crops and animals, wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and told fortunes.

Celtic, Roman and Christian traditions and beliefs merged over time. The festival was originally very limited in Protestant America. The first American celebrations were related to the harvest, and neighbours shared stories of the dead, told fortunes, danced and sang, in public parties. They also featured ghost stories and mischief making.

With the flood of Irish immigrants fleeing the Irish Potato Famine in the second half of the nineteenth century, Halloween was refreshed. Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money. This eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition.

In the late 1800s, there was a move to mold Halloween into a holiday to encourage community and neighbourly get-togethers. Superstitions and religious overtones were discouraged, and parties became secular. The event grew and now is the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.

So, I’ve changed my mind! It’s not an all-American tradition, it’s a heathen Celtic tradition. It was originally about people feeling closer to dead relatives and hoping for a lenient winter and a good year. That’s all very nice! I don’t mind that the ghosts turned ghastly and witches disguised themselves as black cats. I don’t really mind the sweets. I used to be an addict myself. And anything that encourages people to go out onto the street and meet each other is good. Unless it’s neighbour-rage or the “tricks” turn terrible! But the commercialism, the tacky decorations that waste resources, produce rubbish and violate my sense of the aesthetic… Oh dear, I really am a wet-blanket, aren’t I?!

Disclaimer: My comments on the tacky decorations that…  violate my sense of the aesthetic, do not apply to my friends’ houses that have been decorated with skill and tastefulness! Of course! You know who you are! 😉

 

The Life and Death of A Hiking Boot

Last week I wrote about packing for a night away. More specifically, I wrote about going on a two day walk along the Kiama Coast. The most important things to take were my hiking boots. Only hiking boots can keep you comfortable, upright and dry. Well worn, travelled and loved hiking boots are the best. And such are mine.

My hiking boots joined me in 2009 when my fifteen-year old son was boarding in Kangaroo Valley NSW. This is a school campus that teaches outdoor survival skills and at one point, a parent is required to join their son on a two-day hike. The point is – to survive! Hence the boots. They worked hard and I survived! They loved their first adventure, despite the rain, and a close bond was formed between boot and wearer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They carried me with empathy and support across many Australian landscapes: beaches and bush in the Bay of Fires, craggy rocks and seal colonies on Kangaroo Island, tracks across Orpheus Island, snow and mud tracks along the Thredbo River, farmland in Goulburn, cliffs and bush trails from Shellharbour to Eden on the NSW South Coast, and most memorably, up and down rocky ridges, through desert grasses and along dry, sandy  river beds on the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia.

Day 13 Glaciar Perito Moreno (42)

Overseas, they trekked over frozen ground in Patagonia, keeping my feet warm on windswept farms and glacial waterways. They helped me breathe at high altitude by keeping me stable and comfortable in the dry, arid Atacama Desert in Chile.

Day 37 Atacama desert (27)

And then on a simple walk through the hills and along the cliff, halfway between Kiama and Gerringong, one boot started flapping like a thong beneath my heel. We’d covered some uneven, muddy and grassy ground, leapt over a rivulet, then there it was. Flap, flap. I looked to see what was stuck to my heel, but alas, it was an unstuck sole. A bandage from the First Aid Kit could only slow its leaking lifeblood, and by Werri Beach, my soul had become unstuck!

Kiama Coast Walk Oct18 (34)

I was ceremoniously carried across the last rivulet so as to keep the boot dry. But we had reached the end of the journey. We had travelled so far. The boots had been in shoe-hospital once already. It was time to let them go. I undid the bandage and the sturdy laces, peeled them off my feet and kissed them both goodbye. Then I unceremoniously dropped them in the bin! Despite this callousness, I will always remember them with love and gratitude. RIP boots.

Spoilt for Choice

Tomorrow, I’m going on a trip to Kiama. Not for a week. Not even a long weekend. But for one night. I’m looking forward to it. I’m doing a two day walk with my walking group and we’re staying over-night, which should be fun.

But what’s not fun, is packing for it. It seems to me that you go to just as much trouble for one night as five. And the weather causes a quandary as to what to take. It’s Spring and the weather varies from warm and muggy to windy and cold. And thunderstorms are predicted one day and sunshine the next.

So, do I take long pants or shorts? Heavy raincoat or light? Runners for day 2 in case my hiking boots get sodden? Two caps? Obviously two shirts and a fleece.

But do I also take a comfy trackie to change into after my hot shower? Slippers?

And we’re going out to dinner, so there’s a full outfit, with shoes, and a wrap, because I can’t tell if it will be warm like last night or cold enough for a fire, like the night before!

The toiletries bag always overwhelms me. I try to find little containers to put shampoo and conditioner in. And face cream. And there’s the deo and sunblock and individual sheets of paracetamol and ibuprofen for all those aches and pains that come from hiking. And Bandaids.

I’ll need PJs but what about a gown? Pillow? Will I need swimmers and a towel?

My favourite tea is essential. But what about a teapot? Many places don’t cater for leaf drinkers any more. What about breakfast: cereal, sourdough, Vegemite?

And then there’s the necessary sustainers-of-life in the day-pack: water bottles, thermos, lunch, snacks, camera, hypothermia blanket (is that going too far?), emergency taxi money.

What if the weather is so foul that we don’t feel like hiking? Do I take a book, iPad? Kitchen sink?

At this point, I’m exhausted! But when I think about this, and stop moaning for a minute, I realise how blessed I am that I have all this choice. I have all these things! And I have the luxury of living in a country where going away for a couple of days is normal and easy and safe. It’s a holiday, an event unavailable in too many countries where there are no choices.

Australia. What a marvellous country it is. And how fortunate am I?

 

https://kiama.com.au/kiama-coast-walk

The Power of Now

I need to learn to meditate! My mind races around like static. One thought bounces into another and pushes it out of the way. Is that why I’m getting forgetful? Often, there’s a load of rubbish or dirty washing going around – on the repeat cycle.

I believe this is a common problem; it’s just about universal. But some people achieve the stillness and peace that comes with successful meditating. It sounds appealing!

According to the book The Power of Now by Eckhardt Tolle, you start by learning to be more present, by paying attention to this moment and that’s all. Not the past. Not the future. But Now. He advises that you can start with paying attention to your breath or the nature around you, not broadly, but very specifically, like one flower. He talks about noticing and feeling the space between things and the silence between the noises.

As I’ve revealed in this blog, I’m a nature lover. I like to walk or kayak on my own, admiring the bush and waterways. I also like to walk at night and look at the stars. The following passage from the book resonated with me:

“Presence is needed to become aware of the beauty, the majesty, the sacredness of nature. Have you ever gazed up into the infinity of space on a clear night, awestruck by the absolute stillness and inconceivable vastness of it? Have you listened, truly listened, to the sound of a mountain stream in the forest? Or to the song of a blackbird at dusk on a quiet summer evening? To become aware of such things, the mind needs to be still…

Beyond the beauty of the external forms, there is more here: something that cannot be named, something ineffable, some deep, inner, holy essence. Whenever and wherever there is beauty, this inner essence shines through somehow. It only reveals itself to you when you are present. Could it be that this nameless essence and your presence are one and the same?”

In other words, put down your personal baggage of problems, of past and future, put aside your judgement and running commentary, and just feel the Now. SO EASILY SAID, SO DIFFICULT TO ACHIEVE! Except for Zen masters!

As a writer, this skill would be very useful to me. I’d notice more. And I think I’d be more productive if I made space in my mind by removing the clutter. Also, according to Mr Tolle, “Only if you are able to be conscious without thought can you use your mind creatively, and the easiest way to enter that state is through your body.”

If you want to understand that, you’ll have to read the book. I’m still working on it!

 

I’d highly recommend the App Insight Timer for guided meditations and meditative, relaxing music pieces. My favourites include chimes and nature sounds.

For further study – http://www.EckhartTolle.com

What three things couldn’t you live without?

What are three things you can’t live without? Not relationships, not children, not dogs – things! This was a recent conversation I had with friends and it proved to be far more than superficial. It was a window into each of us: childhood associations, memories, connections and what gives us joy.

Some of the answers were obvious, directly related to what we already knew of each other. And some were unexpected. But each contribution branched off into further conversation.

Mine were sunglasses, sea and strong, milky tea.

Why sunglasses? Because I have light-sensitive, blue eyes and I like to be outdoors for most of the day. Outdoors, especially amongst nature, is where I get my joy.

Why the sea? I love the smell of the sea: the saltiness and the seaweed. I love the sound of the sea: the thundering, the shooshing and the gentle lapping. I love the feeling of jumping into the ocean: the cold, salty water enveloping my face, my hair, my body. And its beauty: the glistening reflections on the surface, the aqua and deep blues, the clarity.

And the tea? The morning ritual, no matter how early, of boiling the kettle, warming the teapot, brewing the tea and sitting peacefully to enjoy the slow sipping. It’s a mindful start to the morning. I do this at the end of day too, to close off the business of the day. I was raised with tea: I’d drink it in bed as a child, lazily drinking while reading books on a Sunday morning. My grandmother introduced me to my brand – Lipton Quality Tips. It’s hard to get nowadays. People are trained to opt for the quicker teabag and many have forgotten what good tea tastes like.

My friends had some other things they couldn’t live without:

– Technology, mostly the iPhone and iPad, precious as a tool for taking and storing photos and for communication with loved ones by phone and Facebook.

– The car because of the pleasure of driving and for independent getting around.

–  the Thermomix!

– Music, a musical instrument

– Childhood teddy

– Pillow

– Photos in albums

– and unable to choose from so many!

As I said, all these led to further conversation as to why those things were so necessary to life. In all respects, the reasons related to lifestyle, comfort, sentimental connection or an innate need that was deep within us that gave us joy. It was well worth exploring.

What would be your choice?