Three words to guide and inspire as we move into 2011

Last year I was prompted to select 3 words to guide and inspire me throughout the year.  The 3 words recovery, discovery and laughter came easily to me and they stayed with me as a mantra. I have found the task more difficult this year, perhaps because I really like last year’s words.  However, things must move forward and I very much trust that the coming year will be different from the outgoing one.

So in that spirit, after night time and daytime deliberations, I feel that I have settled on my new guide for 2011.

Harmony, vitality and adventure.

Harmony is the main essence of how I want to see the year.  It represents the need to maintain a balance in life, especially between work, health and leisure.  It shows the importance I hold in keeping a space for creativity in my life.  It also shows my dislike of conflict and wish for peace, in my life and in the wider world.  It also has the dimension of being in harmony with my body.  Much as I wish for NED I know that there are no guarantees.  So no matter what the year throws at me, I intend to be at one with how I handle it physically.  And in a very different vein, harmony in the musical sense shows my love of music and its importance in my life.

Vitality covers my wish to feel the full benefit of feeling well, and enjoying life to the full.  In a wider sense, I feel it can also cover a broader approach to life, embracing and each new day and new challenges.

I decided to pick adventure as my third word, as it also has a range of meanings which I feel will guide and inspire in the coming year.  It shows that I want to push myself and reach for new experiences.  If we look at its origins – (I knew learning Latin all those years ago would have a use) the word is made up of the verb to go, or move.  The prefix “ad” brings the notion of forward to the motion.  So adventure also represents moving forward.  I most definitely intend to keep moving forward, no matter what the year throws at me.

My wish for 2011 is that the year is kind and brings health, happiness and harmony in every sense to us all.

Happy New Year!


A very different Christmas to last year!

I have just returned from a wonderful beach break for Christmas, with no access to internet, international phone and for most of the day no electricity!  But with clear blue skies, warm, gentle water and 14 kilometres of silver sands, who needs electricity when you are in a hammock, walking along the beach or in the sea anyway?  Pure bliss!

It was a totally different Christmas to the one I spent last year in so many ways.  Distinguishing features between the two include:

  • Beach-based, not Bangkok based
  • I was able to choose anything from the menu
  • I was able to taste and enjoy what I ate
  • There no blood tests, appointments, countdown to chemo, groundhog days of other medical distractions
  • I didn’t have to wear a mask to avoid infections
  • There was no need to avoid children, ill people or crowded places
  • There was no sign of Dr Evil in the mirror
  • I had energy!
  • I didn’t need to take my temperature twice daily
  • I did not need to worry unduly about infections
  • I did not need to have multiple daily naps
  • I had no access to internet or phone

Most of all, I had an overwhelming feeling that not only did I survive to see last Christmas, but I am alive and well enough to really enjoy this Christmas.  All in all, I was in a very different place – mentally, physically, emotionally and geographically!  A very different and great deal kinder place.

If you celebrate (and even if you don’t), I do hope your Christmas was as good to you as mine was to me.

Yangon mornings in images

Dawn seeps over the Yangon skyline, on the winter solstice morning.

Children with their traditional schoolbags, green lyongi and white shirt uniforms, and thanaka on their faces.

The thanaka logs.

A 3 seater trishaw in the lane.  Incredible how the drivers manage to sleep soundly on these!

Pink robed nuns in prayer.

A lone monk with his fan to shield the sun when it comes up, and his string of blooms for offering

The line of monks, as the sun rises, in a line to collect alms.


The start of another December day in Yangon.


Good Morning, Yangon!

A December morning takes shape, shrouded in cool misty air as the darkness fades and the day begins.

• Rickshaw driver, somehow sound asleep on his rickety trishaw, hat tipped over his eyes keeping the coming day at bay
• Figures emerging in the twilight
• “Good morning, Ma’am” in clipped perfect English, from a pyjama clad gentleman in the lane
• Wide smiles from the two women as they pass, each bearing a large bowl on her head, the feet of the three dead chickens sticking out over the rim of one. The other holding its secrets.

• Sleepy dogs curled up in custom made potholes at the roadside, exhausted from a night of howling their secret messages
• A trail of maroon robed, barefoot monks silently treading along the roadside, collecting their alms
• The jasmine seller, moving alongside us, his razor blade slicing a fresh thread of jasmine blossom in exchange for a grubby 200 Kyat note and yesterdays faded bloom
• Two young women carrying their lunches in stainless steel tiffin boxes and lotus leaf woven baskets, smiling and giggling “Minglabar!”
• Three young children heading to school, fresh, carefully smoothed thanaka on their cheeks and their green and white uniforms
• “Morning sir”, from a random young guy as he cycles past
• Chitty chatty mynahs passing the morning gossip and news from treetop to telegraph pole
• The first rays of sunshine reaching out from the glowing red sphere nestling on the horizon, casting a pink light on buildings and progressively creating elongated shadow palm trees, like shoots unfurling

And so another day begins.

Good morning, Yangon!

Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas future

I had warned that this was coming.  A Christmas post, rather than Christmas – although of course Christmas is also coming.

I have been living in Asia for over a decade, so Christmas does not have the same prominence as it did when I lived in Scotland.  However, it is still a significant , psychological point in the year.  I did not truly realise this until September of last year, when I discovered the dreaded lump.  As the fear started to take shape, I was certain that if it was indeed cancer, then I would not live to see Christmas last year.  I know that sounds shocking and dramatic, but that is what lodged in my mind.  And although I can sit here and now, in the knowledge that although the nasty lump was in fact two tumours with an attempted break out to neighbouring nodes, I am still here, yet I still have this block in my mind about Christmas.

Last year I came back home to Yangon late in November and stayed until mid December when I had to return to Bangkok for chemo 3.  As more Christmas decorations appeared in Yangon, I found tears at the back of my eyes when I saw them.  Then one evening, outside our gate I heard some music.  I had no idea what it was, as the words were in Myanmar but soon it became clear that the tune was “Jingle Bells”.  This was in fact the Yangon version of Christmas carolling!!  Well everyone thought this was marvellous and went out to listen to the singing at the gate.  Everyone except me.  I sloped off unseen to the bedroom because the tears were pouring down my cheeks.  I cannot adequately explain it, or even understand it but I think it was a complex mix of intense emotion which included relief, fear and the enormity of the cancer diagnosis.  No doubt the fact that I was in a physically drained condition following the surgery and first two chemo sessions contributed to that.

The moment passed, and I kept quiet about it, as I was embarrassed about this display of emotion.  We returned to Bangkok a few days later and to the next chemo and the anonymity of the big city.  And despite the number of sparkly lights, Slade renditions of Christmas hits gone by, Christmas decorations and marketing around the city it didn’t “feel like Christmas”.  The groundhog days took care of most of the Christmas period anyway and in no time it was past and it was New Year and chemo 4 on the doorstep.

And that was that.  Christmas gone for another year, and I was still there to tell the tale.

So this year I was surprised to feel those tears pricking behind my eyes again when the Christmas signs started to appear.  Last week I was heading out for my Saturday evening swim and saw a group of musicians outside a house.  Thinking it must be some festival, I passed by – and then suddenly realised that it was the same Myanmar version of Jingle bells again!!  It was carol singing time again!

The next evening a group of young carollers called round and sang their carols in our living room.  This time I could not slope away and found myself struggling to hide the determined tears.  I tried joining in the singing to stop my voice shaking and to distract my thoughts.  To no avail.  Hubby spotted my trembling bottom lip and it was really difficult to keep it together while they sang the carols.

Now I do want to put this into perspective.  Tears are something I may be good at, but I have found that their appearance has been limited since my breast cancer encounter.  I didn’t cry when I was diagnosed, apart from a wobble when I came out of the consultation.  I didn’t cry when I saw the effects of my mastectomy.  I did have to swallow back tears when I headed to surgery – that was fear!  However, the tears I shed when the last of my hair was shaved off, when the needle came after the final chemo and when I hear Christmas carols were far in excess of the many upsetting and distressing times the cancer beast has brought me.  I don’t pretend to understand it, but this is how it is……

So as we again approach Christmas my emotions seem again to be in a fragile state, but my goodness, physically what a difference a year makes.  This time last year I was in such a different place (as my version of the 12 days of Christmas/chemo demonstrates).

I really do have to count my blessings and recognise how much I have to be thankful for.  This is my second Christmas since diagnosis – not bad considering I believed I wouldn’t last until Christmas last year – that’s Christmas past I guess.  And I  can’t help but struggle with the intensity of the emotion on the brink of Christmas present.  All because every Christmas future from now on is framed in uncertainty.

Trans-portation and de-portation adventures

Tis the season to be jolly, fah la la la la…..

Christmas is indeed approaching and there are quite a few signs here in Yangon.  Many more than there were signs of Pink October in fact.  I am in a very different place to where I was this time last year – but that is a topic for another post.

As well as Christmas approaching, the time is also approaching for my port flushing procedure.  Ouch!  Just to keep me from fretting too much about the procedure itself, a complicated logistical puzzle is forming to take my mind off the scary side.

A special kit is needed for the port – it includes the specific port needle, the anti clotting agent Heparin and various other goodies.  We don’t have a kit in Yangon so I have been working hard to try and get one trans-ported from Bangkok so that my Dr can do it here.  It is turning out to be rather messy!

We seem to have got over the confusion about where the kit should be collected from and delivered to.  We have also clarified that the Heparin needs to be kept refrigerated as it is a cold chain product (I have no idea what that means except that it has to be kept cool).  So far so good.

Now, remember that the port is implanted, as in under my skin.  Unlike Teddy who had his on top of his fur, but that’s life!  The whole reason it has to be flushed regularly is because it is connected to my jugular vein and into the heart (yeeech – heebie jeebie jeebie….)  So while I still have my port and while I am not getting chemo infusions this flushing, or cleaning is important.  Dr W2 is still undecided when or whether I can get my port removed, or be “de-ported”.  So in the meantime, I have to organise this “trans-portation”.

So when organising the logistics, I was particularly alarmed then to see the following instruction in the email, for the collection/delivery of the cleaning kit.

“As far we understand from our client, the port is with her ( the address as below).  It must collect from her and bring it to hospital for cleaning and flushing and return back to her”.

I cannot tell you how alarming that is – the thought of someone turning up, somehow prising the port out from under my skin and carting it off to get cleaned at the hospital!  Then bringing it back and putting it back in!  Yikes!  And of course I am keenly aware of the irony that if it was removed or removable then it would not need to be cleaned!

So I am waiting to see what the latest plan is. My Dr goes on holiday soon so I do have to get it done in the next week,  or I would have to go to bangkok.  What an rollercoaster!

These adventures will continue while I still have my port – so I can’t wait until the ex-port has been finalised!

Barbie toes!

I have to confess, that I am still taken aback a bit by the complexity and sneakiness of the Tamoxifen side effects. The fuzziness creeps up on me and I blame myself rather than the drug. I get frustrated that despite my daily exercise I am not losing weight and forget that it is a well documented Tamoxifen side effect. But the night time cramps? I am in no doubt that the culprit is Tamoxifen.

Last week something must have been going on, some misalignment of planets or imbalance in my diet. Or both. Whichever it was, the result was a series of horrendous night cramps. You know the kind which wake you up with a start? The ones which make you squeal and groan out loud. The ones which sharply snatch your peacefully sleeping spouse from their sleep, thinking there is some dire medical emergency. I have not been too badly affected by the Tamoxifen cramps so far, so when they struck last week I was puzzled about what had triggered them. The first morning they visited, I thought it was a fluke and after hopping about the bedroom trying to loosen the taut muscles in my calf, I soon forgot about them. However, two days later when I was abruptly and very painfully seized from my sleep with a particularly severe onset, I started to wonder what was going on. This time, they were really nasty and clever. As well as the calf spasm, my middle toes joined the contraction party and parted company, deciding to point alarmingly in different directions. I defy anyone to remain silent when under this type of attack. I couldn’t help the cries of pain and no matter how hard I tried to get the cramps to relax, they refused to cooperate. As a last resort, and in desperation I tried to set my foot on the floor to try and lengthen the muscle and ease the cramp. To absolutely no avail. And even worse, I was completely unable to flatten my foot – it remained stubbornly pointed and resisted any movement with a renewed sharp stab of pain. So there I was, with toes like a Barbie doll, prancing around the bedroom wondering why I seemed to have acquired Barbie’s foot and wondering if it would stay like that for the rest of my life.

Happily, the plastic toes finally softened and I was eventually able to put my foot on the floor, gingerly and painfully. Of course it was impossible to get back to sleep – although poor sleeping spouse did manage to nod off again, muttering and clearly re-living the scary Barbie toes experience! I am not sure which is worse – having a wife with only one asset or one with Barbie toes!!

So, Tamoxifen, you certainly know how to make your presence felt. Let’s get one thing clear then – I am prepared to let you into my life, and body, on a very clear understanding. That you work flat out to keep cancer away. If that is understood then I guess I can live with the Barbie toes and your other side effects.

Middle ground

I am in a pretty good place right now.  Apart from kicking myself that I didn’t start this sunrise swimming strategy months ago, that is.

I have now reached the end of the second week of this dawn swimming and cannot believe how good I feel, despite having fewer hours sleep every night.  I am astounded at how much difference there is between an evening swim and a morning one.

I feel as if I have more energy – take that, Tamoxifen!  I hadn’t realised just now tired and fuzzy I was feeling all of the time.  I am still on a bit of a low peep but definitely feeling less tired.  Twang Arm is taking a bashing and it feels as if it is losing its grip (every pun intended 😉 ) – it is less painful and I am able to swim quite a bit faster than before.  More than anything else though, it is a great psychological boost and I find my mood lighter and motivation stronger with this different daily regime.

The timing is good too.  We are in a particularly frenetic period at work and I am finding it hard to keep my promise to myself about maintaining a healthy work life balance and this start to the day helps enormously.

However, I have to remember that I am still in that recovery phase and my body still marked from the ravages of the triathlon hell of cancer treatment.  It is difficult to communicate that though.  In this strange post treatment life, I feel that the rest of the world expects there to be only two states which I can be in – either ill or completely well.  There doesn’t seem to be an in-between.  Yet the reality is that I am physically still very much at an in-between stage.  I am well.  I am pretty strong. But I am not quite fully well.  The punishing months of chemo, surgery and radiation have really taken their toll on me physically.  I still have some neuropathy (numbness) in my fingers although it is improving.  My toes are still uncomfortable, numb and feel stiff and too big for my feet!  I have a horrible kind of deformed toenail where one of my toenails fell off and another is still a gross black colour.  My fingernails keep splitting.  I feel generally sluggish and slightly lethargic, and my thinking also feels a bit slower.  I have the side effects of Tamoxifen to add to that – perhaps that is the main cause of the sloth-like state.  Perhaps I should have a label round my neck which says “handle with care”?

So I feel that I am very much in a kind of middle ground, albeit a good middle ground, which is heading in the right direction.  But a middle ground nonetheless.   I’ll keep you posted on how that ground shifts as I am sure it will continue to do so.