The winds of change

September is a mixed month usually in Myanmar.  The rainy season starts to ease.  I returned to a couple of days where the sky was blue, the daytime temperatures soaring and Facebook statuses celebration a break in the clouds.  Quite literally. The months of June, July and August see thick cloud, heavy rains and only a very rare glimpse of the sun.  It is sticky and uncomfortable, yet it is refreshing and life-giving.

This afternoon, I sit in one of my favourite spots, a balcony on a Yangon Tea Salon, bounded with orchids, a peaceful and creative space, attempting to catch up on bloggery and life. The earlier, hot sun has been chased away by gathering back clouds and in moments my peaceful space is turned into a rainforest.

last rainsI love the rains, though I do find the constant greyness depressing and the humidity exhausting.  The rains are warm, unlike our Scottish rain and they bring a wealth of sounds, plant life and noisy animal and reptile life into the everyday.  They disrupt.  Sudden floods and violent downpours bring life briefly to a standstill. But they bring an indescribable childish zest.  I never tire of listening to the thundering downpours.

But now, inevitably we are moving into new times.  The rains will subside, wider swatches of blue sky will appear and by late October/November the rains will be but a memory.

The Yangon sky as the seasons change

The Yangon sky as the seasons change

This season represents a different kind of change for me.  We move through September, and my stomach tenses, my breath shortens and my mind becomes increasingly distracted. I discovered the lump which was to be a door into a new and strange world, the breast cancer world in September 2009 and I face a number of significant anniversary and landmark days.  To reinforce this, the global Breast Cancer Awareness month shakes up a multitude of reminders and debates. And just to add to the intensity, the Great Annual Checks and Scans loom.  As the rains disappear and clouds move into the distance, All Things Cancer sweep forcefully into my line of vision from all directions.

More than ever, I will strive to keep some balance as I navigate the coming weeks.  And I am sure I can be forgiven for wishing to close my eyes and find myself in November, checks behind me and some reassurance to take forward and clear blue skies for some months ahead.

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Season’s Greetings

It can be very confusing listening to a Scottish person speaking.  We use many words and expressions in their own unique way and often these are not abundantly clear.  For example, we go to the shop or supermarket for our messages.  Does that sound strange?  Well, it is not strange to us at all.  It simply means shopping, particularly our grocery or food shopping.  Another word we use a lot is “piece” and you would often hear talk of a cheese piece, a piece and jam (jeely piece) or be asked “what’s in your pieces today?”  To us, a piece means sandwich,. So we also have piece-boxes which are used for packed lunches.  Not quite like the tiffin pot which holds hot food and meals, the piece box holds sandwiches and maybe an apple!

One deliciously expressive word we use a fair bit is “greet”.  It has nothing to do with the broader English language definition of “to salute or welcome in a friendly and respectful way with speech or writing, as upon meeting or in opening a letter”  Oh no – we use it rather it as a colloquial term for crying or weeping and it also has the sense of complaining or grumbling.  It is not a flattering term.  Greeting is not the word we would use for a dignified, composed weep.   And it is none too sympathetic or generous.  The image conjured up of someone greeting is of a contorted face, scarlet and probably snottery, and a significant noise volume attached to it.  To have a greeting face is not something to aspire to at all, with its associations of crabbitness and grump.  (Crabbit being another wonderful expression in Scottish slang for grumpy or miserable).  For example, this description from the Scots Language Centre quotes the use of “greeting face” which is most definitely not a compliment.

So that is the greeting.  But what is the season?  Well, for me it is the season of memories, milestones, landmark days and anniversaries.  We are also on the threshold of Breast Cancer Awareness Month which in itself creates a considerable stooshie around the globe. (A stooshie being another wonderful Scots word for a commotion, rumpus, or row, or a state of excitement or anxiety; a tizzy).  And there is one serious stooshie on the horizon across the blogosphere and breast cancer world.  Thoughts on that stooshie are for another day, today my thoughts relate to that season as it relates to my own experience.

Today marks the start of this season.  For it was 23 September 2009 when I discovered the lump and life as I knew it took a turn for the very different.  The landmark days come hurtling at me after that, with October 2 marking The Day I Found Out, my Cancerversary.  That was the day I heard those life-changing, burned-onto-my-memory words “this is highly suspicious of cancer”. On October 5 I had my surgery, lost my left breast along with its tumours, a heap of lymph nodes and their nasty cells and gained Twang Arm.  Although I spent most of the day unconscious, it is certainly a day I will never forget!  On 21 October my portacath was implanted in time for the first chemo on 23 October.  Exactly a month after the day I found the lump.

So it is a season for greeting, remembering, reflecting and to a certain extent, re-living those traumatic days of October 2009.  Add to that the annual Big Check with the attendant scans, examinations and appointments and you have a very sensitive season indeed.

So please excuse me if I get a bit prickly this season…

Landmark days ahoy!

On the horizon, looming ever larger and seemingly gathering pace are a clump of landmark days just ahead of me. In the midst of these is the big landmark day, the strange CANCERVERSARY.  This is the term I keep hearing which denotes the anniversary of discovering you have cancer. In some ways I find I approach the day with a sense of eager anticipation as it serves as a reassurance that I have survived so far, as well as highlighting how far I have come since diagnosis. In other ways it is dreaded as it is an unwelcome reminder of the horrible cancer beast coming into my life, changing everything like an earthquake, causing the very ground under my feet to lose its solidity and familiarity.

In the approach to the landmark days, I remember this time last year that I was blissfully unaware of how much my life was going to change. I find it hard to imagine what it was really like then, as it feels impossible to rewind back to what it was like not to have been diagnosed.

The first of the landmark days will be on 23 September which marks one year from discovering the lump, and is rapidly followed by another important date which was when I consulted my Doctor here on 25 September. That saw the start of serious worry and loss of sleep as the possibility of the lump being sinister became firmer. There followed a strange week and a half during which I lurched between naive hope that there was an innocent explanation to the lump, and an aching pit of fear of the unknown if cancer was the cause of the lump.

There seem to be no Internationally Agreed Guidelines 😉 for designating the day of a Cancerversary. Some people choose the day of biopsy, some the day of diagnosis, some the day they discovered the sign or symptom which turns out to be cancer. I have chosen the next Landmark day, 2 October, as the day itself because for me it represents the day that everything changed.

October 2 is the day I travelled from Yangon with feeling sick with fear, and desperate for a sign of hope. It is the day I had the diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. It is the day I met Dr W and he pointed out the spaceship like mass on the screen, growing irregularly in different directions. It is the day my life changed, when I heard those words “highly suspicious of cancer”. I have no idea how I will mark the Cancerversary and I have no idea how I will feel on that day.

The Cancerversary is followed rapidly by a number of other Landmark days. On 4 October I will remember a year earlier having to break the news to close family and friends and my work about the impending surgery and almost certainty that it was cancer. I think that was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do.

The 5 October is the day of the surgery and an important Landmark day as that is when cancer was confirmed and the radical surgery was carried out. Any tiny flicker of hope that the spaceship might be innocent was gone that day. Twang Arm came into existence that day. Every time I look in the mirror I am reminded of that day.

Although I knew that the lump was indeed a tumour and that there was lymph node involvement, I discovered the extent of the pathology on the next Landmark day – 8 October when I learned that 6 of the 15 nodes removed had a presence of cancer. A few days later, on 13 October I further learned that there had been no spread and that my tumour was Grade 2, and hormone receptive. I had entered a whole new world of terminology.

On 15 October I met Dr W2. Naively, I had no idea at that time how big a part of my life his larger than life character would become.

The next Landmark day is 23 October when I had the first dreaded chemo. I was terrified of the thought of chemo, the chemo itself and its toxicity, of the side effects and of the procedure. I had been re-admitted into hospital for minor surgery and I remember spending most of that day dreading the time when the porter would come to take me for the chemo. Every time the door opened my heart jumped and my stomach turned over. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed each time a nurse or auxiliary came in. The porter did come, later in the afternoon, and I duly had the first dreaded chemo.

One of the most difficult days will be marked on 17 November, although it was not a day of pain or obvious trauma like the other days. It is the day I lost my hair and met Dr Evil, who was to live in my mirror for months. My hair is still shorter than I would have it by choice, so the realisation that I have had nearly 10 months disliking my reflection in the mirror hits quite hard.

This means that October will see a number of days which will very strongly remind me of what happened a year ago. It will be a strange time and the fact that the Big Check is following soon after means that I know I will approach these days with some trepidation.

It will indeed be Breast Cancer Awareness month!