There’s more to Twang than Twang Arm!

It is another Big Landmark Day today.  On 5 October 2009, I had the surgery which would confirm the diagnosis of breast cancer which makes it three years since my mastectomy, three years of extreme lopsidery and three years since Twang Arm came into my life.

There is no love lost between Twang Arm and myself and not an ounce of respect afforded in either direction.  So I want to upstage Twang Arm in a mischievous kind of way today.

The idea came to me the other evening, when I was preparing to go to my writing group. We had set ourselves an assignment and (as too often happens) I was delving into my writing archive to find something to take along.  So often as the day of the group approaches, either I am scrawling away at the eleventh hour trying to finish it, or conceding that I have not created anything fit enough to share and digging deep to find something from past writing.  As I had been out of Yangon, in the capital the previous week and into the weekend I had had even less free time to write, and I resorted to the archive.  I went back a number of years, to my time in Nepal when I found so much inspiration around me, observing little snippets of ordinary daily life, and sharing this.  I was rapidly enveloped in nostalgia re-reading the writing and remembering those numerous moments.  Very like our recent “celebrating the ordinary” challenge which Marie of Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer laid before us.

And I found this poem below, which I had written years ago and completely forgotten about. Memories flood back of the Kathmandu streets and the calls of what I termed the Twang Man”  as monsoon retreats and the cooling temperatures of the approaching winter.

The man with the strange twanging instrument

Outside the bedroom window

along the busy path

of soft mud

swollen by endless weeks

of the season’s monsoon rain,

the morning traders pass

calling, singing, tempting

all to trade with them

Wheeling bikes

laden with fruit, vegetables, fish

to sell.

Bamboo mats, rice nanglos

small matted stools

for us to buy

empty rice sacks, bottles

to collect for a few rupees,

pressure cookers, gas stoves to mend.

A new noise

unfamiliar

competes with their calls

Twang! Twang! Twang!

Who is that man?

What does he carry

against his right shoulder?

A strange wooden object

with a music like string

which he plucks at

as he walks silently

along the lane

Twang! Twang! Twang!

Soon he is seated

in a neighbour’s yard

silently, patiently teasing

the wool filling of the winter quilts,

freeing them of their dampness

brought by the summer’s rains,

repairing them for the coming cold

readying them for their winter work

protecting young and old alike

from the penetrating night time chill.

As the rains slowly come to an end

the man who brings the twanging sound

visits so many streets, yards, homes

silently patiently

day by day

as the skies become clearer

and the cold creeps daily closer.

His work ensures that

each family will sleep

in the warmth and comfort

of the freshly repaired quilt.

In these short autumn weeks

shawls, woollen hats and socks

slowly appear on the city folk

as he readies them

for the night time cold.

In these short weeks

he must earn

enough to feed his family

for the coming months.

Outside the bedroom window

along the busy path

of dried, cold, dusty earth

cracked by daytime sun and night time chill

the morning traders pass

calling, singing, tempting

all to trade with them.

Less one familiar sound

Twang!  Twang!  Twang!

 

Coincidentally this is also Twang Man’s season in Nepal, and if I close my eyes and let my mind drift to the Kathmandu streets I can hear his call.

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The alter egos – or identity theft?

I think it is time I updated you about the alter egos who have been trying to take over the Feisty Blue Gecko!  In particular Dr Evil and Twang arm have been trying hard to take over my identity!!

Dr Evil is the look which I struggle with when I look in the mirror.  After all these weeks I still can’t get used to being bald.  Grizelda the wig is useful but I find I tend to wear scarves more and feel more comfortable that way.  Grizelda is good for travelling from Bangkok to Myanmar and I find I occasionally reach for it if heading out shopping. 

As for the Dr Evil look – even though I am still in the midst of the chemo treatments, I am finding a strange fuzz is starting to grow.  It is not like hair, but more like a down and strangely seems to be a mousey fair colour.  It could even be blonde?  I feel as if I am being transformed into a day old chick.

My other identity thief is good old Twang Arm.  For a long time after surgery, Twang Arm successfully caused more disruption, pain and anguish that the mastectomy itself.  Removal of the 15 lymph nodes caused constant pain, significant nerve damage and restricted movement and really got me down.  I started doing physiotherapy exercises but progress has been slow.  If you add to this, the days after chemo also made Twang Arm extra stiff and immobile. 

I think the turning point, or maybe the first turning point, came when I was finally able to get into a swimming pool on 25th November – quite a few weeks after surgery.  Just bobbing gently in the pool and managing a kind of breast stroke (no pun intended) across the pool a couple of times, really seemed to make a difference.  It was around that time that I was also able to straighten Twang Arm for the first time.

On return to Yangon I made a secret mark on the bathroom wall so I could monitor how far I could stretch Twang Arm.  Slowly, slowly I was able to keep my fingers reaching just a little bit further.

I think the next important turning point, was being able to get in and out of the pool in our apartment in Bangkok.  That meant that I could swim daily and this was something which I have also been able to continue with in Yangon.  It is probably bordering on obsessive now but I am well and truly hooked if so!  I swim a minimum of 5 times a week and get really grumpy if something interferes with this.  Now let’s be clear.  When I say swim and mention that I swim usually 600 – 800 metres (and have even managed a kilometre – yes I am rather proud of that!) I must be honest.  We ‘re talking about very gentle, slow lengths totally devoid of any style, and with my mouth perched as high as possible out of the water.  This prevents swallowing any water and prevents my glasses getting too splashed.  Besides I have never really be able to swim fish like and with my head under the water!

The results?  The mark on the bathroom wall shows that I can now reach considerably higher (more than 6 inches higher).  The tightly strung sensation is considerably less now and I can do the original excercise suggested to more than 3 times (the one where you run your fingers up the wall like a spider) and now I can do this easily and with no pulling sensation.  I used to get a weird shivering sensation across my shoulder which was actually painful.  Now I hardly feel this, and it is no longer painful, just a shuddery sensation which lasts only a second or so.  My left ear no longer tingles when I touch it – more signs that the nerve damage is healing.

Now, Twang Arm is still making its presence felt and I am not convinced it will ever be totally better.  It still sleeps on a pillow as if it is a precious jewel on a velvet cushion and it does feel uncomfortable most of the time.  But when I compare it with even a month after surgery, it is playing a much reduced role in my life and far more manageable.

I find this really encouraging, and I am sure that if I keep on with the gentle physiotherapy excercises, and particularly the swimming, I will ensure that it is not able to take over my life in the way I feared earlier.

Now, I have an appointment with my surgeon Dr W tomorrow, so maybe I had better see what he says too.  His expectations are always a bit higher than mine and he produces a new trick for Twang Arm whenever I show off my progress!

So between the day old chick down chasing away Dr Evil and Twang Arm being banished by persistent if gentle excercise, I can focus on the main identity thief.  That has to be the beast at the root of all this – breast cancer.  And my focus here is clear.  I am look ing towards the day when I am no longer a cancer patient – but a cancer survivor.