If you had been walking or cycling or even boating along the canal du midi in october 2010 you may have seen a woman on a bicycle cycling effortlessly along the towpath.
On a sunny crisp autumnal day.
You may have noticed how perfectly her image was reflected in the canal, so still was the water .
If you were watching her by her reflection you would see her appear and disappear and then reappear again as the image of her was broken by the trunks of the many plane trees, also reflected, lining the canal bank.
The bicycle, an old fashioned affair and upright, (A high nelly they were called in Ireland) was painted yellow with red tulips on the skirt and chain guards. The saddle, broad and made of leather was a good choice, for at this stage she had cycled many kilometres and needed the bicycle equivalent of a squishy sofa to travel on. The handle bar grips were also of leather.
Friends had laughed at her when they heard she was doing the cycle on such an old fashioned slow bicycle. ‘You need a mountain bike for that sort of journey’ They advised kindly ‘All that bumpy towpath cycling? you won’t last a day’
But the woman had faith in her yellow bicycle.
It had taken her through a different journey recently and she knew that it would succeed in this one too.
Anyway she preferred to sit upright without hardship to her wrists. But back to the scene in question.
She was wearing a loose fitting colorful flowing dress and sandals on her feet . (Another bone of contention between her and her friends)
She looked more artistic than elegant and even in the water you would notice her hair has a slight frazzled appearance.
If you looked closer (mind you don’t fall into the canal)you would see that the wind, made by her pedaling, was causing the hem of her dress to lift, allowing you a view of her swollen right foot.
But it was not her foot or hair or clothing that would catch your attention.
It was her smile. Wide and joyous.
Like the smile of one released from prison.
And that is how she would describe that year.
The year of interferon.
Her savior but her captor too.
Raising her smiling face to the sky she is enjoying the warmth of the sun indeed even making her peace with it! And all the while the pretty ‘Écluse’ houses don’t pass her unnoticed.
Those now renovated into cafe’s enticed her to stop for a cafe au lait and a chance to watch the last of the summer Péniches making their way west to Toulouse (The Écluses on the canal du midi close for the winter on the first of november)
Looking at the list of side effects from interferon, it occurred to me that, by the time I had completed the course, there wouldn’t be much left in the line of known ones that I hadn’t experienced.
Nausea, headaches, joint pain, thirst, depression, shivers and shakes, to name a few. And I would be inflicting these symptoms on myself, Injecting myself three times a week with this substance for a whole year without the certainty it would actually work (research of its success was ongoing at the time).
‘You can opt out if you find the going too tough’, my surgeon muttered as if ashamed of putting me through all this, ‘After All we don’t even know how successful it is’.
Opt out! Was he mad? He obviously didn’t know what I was made of and had forgotten my surname? (Never tell a peppard woman that she could give up because the going might get too rough or tough. We thrive on toughness).
‘Thats all very well’ said my mind ‘but this is for a year’. ‘I CAN do it’ I answered determinedly.’I just need to persuade my body that it can too.’
I am an optimist.
I try to find a good reason for everything and interestingly in everybody.
The other day at work we were discussing the toughness in caring for a particularly difficult patient.
‘Arrogant and rude’ were the words they used to describe him.
‘I like him’ I announced. They all turned to stare at me. ‘Well’ I admitted underneath their astonished gaze ‘I know he is rude and arrogant but he has a great dry sense of humour, he is well read and has an interesting outlook on things! plus he is ill’ My voice was sinking lower under their stares of disbelief. ‘And being ill, he is vulnerable’.
This last bit came out as a whisper.
‘Whaat!’ They shouted ‘That may be so but it’s no excuse for being rude! No wonder his wife left him.’
It struck me then how similar this patient was to my own ex husband.
A man I had spent years excusing of rudeness because I saw beyond that to interest and cleverness. (How did I not realise that his rudeness and arrogance towards others and me was not acceptable).
Later, mulling this over coffee with a good friend and mentioning how I never seemed to find a nice man,how I was always meeting up with those no good for me, she pointed out that I was too nice!
‘No! not too nice’ she added taking back the compliment swiftly (our friendship was one where we showed affection by insults.)
‘Essentially it’s just, well, you always looked for the good in people no matter how badly they treated you. It’s a wonder you weren’t snapped up by one of those men with Narcissist personality disorder’ She continued ‘You are just the type of woman they go for!’.
No sooner had she uttered these words than we both stared at each other, eyes widening in disbelief.
‘Ooops’ She grimaced ‘Eureka!’
In one sentence, My friend had diagnosed my ex husband .
I hung my head feeling stupid and naive and TRICKED.
‘But you were young’ she said ‘And trusting! Don’t blame yourself .’ I was still reeling from our potential discovery when she continued.
‘But now this trait will come in useful’ She filled my empty wine glass which I didn’t remember drinking.
I took a sip and looked thoughtful. ‘Yes’ I agreed ‘I could use it to look for the good in interferon, see it as something positive rather than something negative. Rectify my mistake. Redeem myself.’
‘Ah you didn’t make a mistake’ she said kindly ‘ Finding a good husband is really just luck. Sort of being in the right place at the right time. In your case it was just being in the right place at the wrong time.’
‘In my case’ I grimaced ‘It was being in the wrong place EVERY TIME’
She ignored me and continued. ‘I read that Visualization is a good way of doing that positive stuff and don’t forget to make your peace with the sun too. Harboring resentfulness won’t help! You need to let go all negative feelings from your life. Maybe do that sage smudging thingy in your house’
She was joking about the latter. Just as giving compliments made her uncomfortable, the idea of traipsing round rooms with a piece of smoking sage in your hands to burn out negativity would send her running.
Which made me think that for all her positivity she was finding my illness difficult.
She stood up and started searching for her keys.
She was always losing things but having chosen a good and solid husband I overlooked her scatty ways.
Once she even admitted to losing him.
She told me how one saturday morning passing the garden shed and, seeing the door swinging open, she closed it and bolted it securely.
Later when out doing a bit of weeding in the garden, she heard faint knocking sounds but presumed they were coming from her neighbors next door.
Leaning back on her heels she surveyed her weed free herbaceous bed with satisfaction. The faint knocking irritably continued. ‘For godsake’ she thought ‘those neighbours! always at something! If it’s not the mowing machine, its the electric hedge trimmers! and now this hammering’.
She stood up and went in and made herself a cup of tea, calling up to her husband whom she guessed was upstairs writing.
There was no reply. Finishing her tea she went back out into the garden and still the knocking was going on. Louder now. It seemed to be coming from the shed.
Cautiously she approached the shed, it was definitely coming from inside.
Nervously she unbolted and opened the door and there stood her husband still clutching the garden shears he had gone into the shed for that morning!
‘Was he mad’ I asked in fear for my friend.
‘Ah no! he just thought it was funny how we are so well connected. That we both had the same idea of getting some gardening done. Why would he have been mad? it was just a mistake’.
And so I started my year.
It would be a year without shortcuts.
If the interferon didn’t do its job and my cancer came back, it might be my last year, Therefore I didn’t want to wish it past.
If it worked, then I wanted to be able to look back and remember the moments in it that changed my life.
Another friend produced a book.
‘The 90 day cancer recovery book’.
I can’t remember it’s exact name and I have since passed it on to someone else.
It was a book aimed at people who had developed life threatening illness, Not just cancer but heart attacks, strokes, diabetes It was not a ‘new agey’ book but rather a practical one,
It gave you tasks to carry out, starting with a few and gradually adding to them. And in doing each task for ninety days you were rewarded with percentages of survival.
Laughing for example, would give you maybe 2%.
Is your illness a catastrophic incident? ‘maybe yes maybe no’
How you view it could gain or lose you 1%.
Morning yoga (oh how that left me weak and breathless ) gained me 2%extra time.
Eating good food, another 5%
drinking water and green tea, 10%
A daily walk (i clutched my water bottle like a drowning man his life belt, so severe was my thirst) another 3%
Deep breathing 4%
Little by little I was gathering ‘points’ and adding to my chances of survival.
I started visualization. (a big 7%).
Every morning I visualized that the interferon was like a pod of smooth joyous dolphins leaping through the turquoise sea scooping up and ingesting the black algae (my cancer cells) I totted up my scores.
Things were looking good.
I took other steps towards positivity.
I no longer talked about ‘ fighting or battling’ cancer. Those words seemed too harsh and aggressive and after all the cancer cells were part of me. Did I want to do battle with myself? Instead I talked of ‘gentling’ my cancer cells, of ‘calming’ them.
I renamed as my ‘bad days’ as ‘bed days’ Those days when I felt so shaky and ill that I could hardly hold a pencil,
I took my paracetamol (for headaches and fever) and cyclizine (for nausea)and sitting propped up on cool soft pillows, I wrote my thoughts in my diary and drew what I saw in front of me. My straw hat hanging on the back of the bedroom door in preparation for next summer. (See? In my head I had already planned to get better).
The bamboo,growing outside my bedroom window. Its leaves, jolted by the wind, dancing bizarrely, catching the light like a Renoir Painting, was a thing of beauty and my inspiration.
I drew it at every hand’s turn. Catching its different moods and textures from my bed. (Strangely it died around the time I finished my therapy).
On the days I could, I walked. Though everything was an effort. I had to look at the shower for a long time before i was able to coax myself into it.
Changing the sheets on my bed a major task which left me out of breath and as weak as a kitten, but I had no option seeing as I wasn’t one to opt out so I struggled on.
I lost weight, my hair turned brittle, my skin wrinkled.
Days passed, then weeks then months. and one day I injected myself for the last time. It was over.
I had finished my sentence.
It had been planned that when I was finished my treatment I would have an ultrasound of my liver.
If this cancer was heading anywhere, it would head (like a glass of wine) there. If the ultrasound was clear, then that year had not been in vain.
I knew by the way h the radiologist went over a certain spot again and again that something abnormal was showing. He looked at me gravely, ‘It may not be anything but we better do an MRI to be sure’.
Shocked I blurted out, ‘My bike is packed and ready’. The tears ran down my cheeks as I was rolled into the MRI machine. After all that I had gone through, after keeping my side of the bargain! all visualization and positive thinking flew out the window. A waste of a year I thought sadly.
I refused earplugs and the ‘knocking’ that some people found frightening didn’t bother me , nothing bothered me except my utmost desolation. The knocking continued and I began to smile as remembered the story of my friends husband locked in the shed. ‘Feck it ‘ I thought ‘No matter what I WILL go on this cycle’.
‘Don’t move . Nearly finished’ A voice boomed through speakers in the MRI machine.
One of my colleagues was moving to a new job and there was a celebratory dinner that night in the small bistro across the road from the hospital. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be at home curled in a ball, grieving.
‘Come on’ my friends at work said. ‘It will be good for you, distract you’.
So I went.
And drove everyone mad with my fear. Eventually feeling that I was spoiling the party, I made my excuses and left.
As I walked towards my yellow bike, a large figure came looming towards me in the dark, carrying a brief case.
‘I hope you were not in there drinking wine with a liver result like yours’?
It was my oncologist. ‘Well?’ ? I asked fearfully ‘Have you the result?’ ‘It’s ok ‘ he smiled ‘just a fatty cyst’, Go easy on the wine’.
‘Go easy on the wine!!! was he mad? I was about to start cycling across france! Not exactly the country you might avoid wine in’
I jumped on the yellow bicycle and sped off down the road………
I note how my writing rambles. and how towards the end I got sick (pardon the pun)of writing about my illness. It makes me realize though, that writing is as good as a psychotherapist’s couch. I am just sorry that you the reader had to be witness to my purgings. Yes, I am ready to let go of my year of interferon, to wave goodbye to it and send it out of my life. And my thought’s on my cancer? I still believe everything happens for a reason but sometimes, as my leg becomes swollen and tired I will admit to feeling it’s a pain in the butt. But it is what it is and now I plan to load the yellow bicycle, my tent and my camping stove into my car and head west, to cycle small roads. Swim. Sip wine (that fatty cyst disappeared within a year) and have sweet dreams in my small tent with the waves tickling the shore.