A Cancerous Friendship or My Friendship With Cancer?

 

 

Friendship is one of life’s great rewards, however in todays online culture this can sometimes be confusing when you consider that the concept of a friend is scattered across so many settings. Which begs me to question have we become more fickle? I mean it’s quite easy to simply Unfollow someone if they post something unsavory or not to your palate, or perhaps just as easy to unlike someone who we once eagerly and impulsively decided we were going to ‘like’ on Facebook. Has this simple click of a button become a catalyst for simply dropping friends in real life just as easily as you can on social media?

 

For centuries we have considered love at first sight or instant connection a guide for investing in friendships and intimacy, however these investments have just as easily turned sour in our modern day friendships too. So what is friendship anyway? According to Psychologists, friendships can enrich our lives to varying degrees. There are of course varying degrees of enrichment, from mutual assistance, companionship, intimacy, affection, dependancy as well as some who seek socio economic goals in their friendships.

 

Aristotle characterized friends into three distinct categories: Utility, Pleasure and Virtue.

Those that engage in mutual pleasure-driven friendships can be described as the friend you go to parties with, see concerts with and generally have good conversations and laugh with. On the other hand friendships of utility offer more of a tangible advantage, this is mutually exchanged and is often done to gain social standing, business or perhaps a political interest. This could be the friend who gets you invited to parties on big boats, or perhaps charity events where you can rub shoulders with hard toned bodies holding Channel handbags. These advantageous friendships can at times be sought out by many and owe their durability to the amount of invitations they get.

 

Of the three categories I hold the virtuous friend in the highest regard as that friendship is based on the type of person that he or she is, not what they have to offer or how many fun times you can have. When Aristotle spoke of virtue I believe he referred to ethics, not in the oft thought stuffy formal sense.

 

The greatest gift a friend can give is their time. No implication here to spend vast amounts of time with a single person but rather the quality of that time spent. No matter if that time is short or infrequent our time is a most generous gift. We all value it and often cling to it and more commonly lament about where it went. My longstanding friends, some interstate and overseas that I unfortunately don’t spend much ‘time’ with anymore are what I know to be virtuous, I have a special soul connection with these friends. An anima cara – soul friends.

 

We have all heard of the term friendship vampire, those that suck us of our energy and take what they can. Sometimes what is taken is not tangible, we can be sucked into unrelenting emotional guidance, take on a barrage of complaints and negativity, be burdened by an individuals harshness or self interest or wasted hours on relationship dramas and gossip which have all drained me of my energy, my spirit, my mind and health and in turn has drawn me away from my anima cara.

 

 

I grew up in a large family with 2 brothers and 3 sisters so my friendships had been established early on mainly within my own family setting. Often times when one of us would invite an ‘outsider’ or ‘friend’ to our home, it was a mutual understanding that this person was a guest to be treated respectfully and in kind, not someone who we would fall on the sword for, as they were not of our blood line.

 

Growing up in the northern suburbs of Melbourne I spent many of my teenage years using my fake ID from Indooroopolly and heavy eyeliner to get into nightclubs like The Underground, Inflation and others too long ago to recall. Would I leave a cousin or friend to throw up in a filthy toilet cubicle after downing too many ‘Cock sucking cowboys’? Never.

Holding a friend’s hair back in a neat ponytail was an honorable duty. This was not what Aristotle had in mind when he spoke of virtue however you get the idea. It’s about owning a strong sense of Bushido, the honor of standing by someone in good times and in bad- Hospital bed or dance floor.

 

In light of a life changing diagnosis such as cancer the friendships I choose to invest in matter considerably more and more. When faced with thoughts on ones own mortality and how I had been accustomed to considering life through my own lens, the aperture quickly sharpened. The new viewfinder and understanding through introspection has made my picture much more clear and focused. I have tried to peel back the veil and see my life for what it is. It is a simple daily practice at living or more aptly the inevitable- a practice in death.

 

Socrates was convinced of the immortality of the soul, but for most mere mortals we become preoccupied with our life right now, and there is no dress rehearsal. A practice of contemplation and gratitude is what I need right now.

 

Perhaps this strong connection to virtue and family is why I have been comfortable to walk alone or share the footpath with companions at varying stages of my life.

 

Yes, I too have unfollowed friends at different moments of growth in my personal life, some friendships may perhaps flourish again, others will remain like the Goyte song; ‘Someone that I used to know’.

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas 

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…. But I’m not exactly feeling it.
Last years potted Christmas tree has been dragged inside, the dead branches removed and the foliage still a little dull from a year of neglect. This year I decided to make crepe paper flowers to decorate the tree, partly because of my immobility post breast reconstruction and partly because I was hoping to create a little Christmas spirit.

  

 
The idea of Christmas is mostly warm and fuzzy, however it seems to be mostly about one thing… the presents. The unwrapping ritual usually commences early morning with a delighted frenzy. The obligatory Bing Crosby tunes will play out in the background with a nod to all things wholesome now lost, wrapping paper will go flying, and my husband and I will be yelling… “Read the card first” over and over again.
There is something quite disturbing about the amount of stuff some kids get these days…including my lot. The magic is long gone and has been replaced by a culture of consuming- a generation of mall kids. For some families shopping has become entertainment, a way to pass the time, to use, to dispose, to replace, to upgrade or to out do.
For me the festive season is also fraught with melancholy, a time when I’m drawn to ponder over my last year. In December last year my father in law passed away after a long struggle with bowel cancer treatment and only days after his funeral I was recovering from a lumpectomy and sentinel lymph node dissection in hospital. It was an emotional month and I mostly remember a fairly constant stream of tears.
Christmas day last year was full of despair, I was afraid of the chemotherapy and the treatment that I would come to endure. I cried in my bedroom between lunch courses and touched up my make up ready for act 2, 3 and 4. We celebrated Christmas lunch on our deck, clinked wine glasses and toasted to better days. My husband would dutifully fling every empty bottle of wine over his shoulder from the deck and it would land with an anticipated thump onto the grass. Much cheering would ensure with each bottle toss. It was a stunning Sydney summer day followed by a late afternoon tropical thunderstorm- I danced in the rain and tasted the rain drops in my mouth with my clothes getting drenched. I was drunk on the joy of being fully aware of the moment. My daily mindful meditation practice had seemed to slow time, I felt connected- plugged in.
  
It’s now approaching four weeks since my Diep Breast Reconstruction and I am slowly starting to move about more, however it’s sill quite painful and uncomfortable. I do know from experience that the body has an uncanny ability to heal itself, holes in the skin miraculously close up, stitches heal and pain slowly subsides. It seems with cancer there aren’t any Get Out Of Jail cards being handed out. It feels like a cancer cloud is always looming, at times it hangs overhead as a reminder of the ‘What if the cancer comes back’? Or it often looms in the distance barely out of sight but I know it’s there hanging around. A lifetime of tests and monitoring lay ahead, a constant reminder of the cloud.

  
Just when I thought I was getting closer to moving forward I got a red flag from my surgeon. It seems they found ‘something’ on my liver during a CT Angiogram. Gulp. Of course I got my Google Doctor on and Googled the hell out of the medical report. I searched for statistics on life expectancy for metastatic Breast Cancer, read articles about the grim survival rates for liver cancer and started to think about the Funeral Playlist I have on my iPhone. Yes, it is odd but I’ve had a Funeral Playlist for about 5 years – I always figured if I ever checked out I would at least have decent tunes, even if I wouldn’t be around to enjoy it.
The moment I surrendered myself to that search engine I pretty much knew that I was about to go for a ride on a rollercoaster without wheels. Looks like this Christmas will continue to have a little cloud hanging about. I see my Oncologist in a few days who I’m told will refer me to another medical oncologist for further testing. Gulp again. Fingers crossed it’s nothing, the playlist still needs some tweaking.

I plan to have a laughter filled Christmas day, shared with friends and family. This time the cloud might be a little too familiar and too close for comfort but I figure I can always open an umbrella or dance in the rain like last year should the cancer cloud decide to burst. I can’t help but to think that I should be so happy that this year will finally be behind me, that I can now move forward and not look back. The little fearful twinge of metastatic cancer might rear it’s head from time to time, but for now I’m going to focus on the present and try to spend my days living mindfully.

Diep Flap: no walk in the park.

 

 

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Drawing: ‘How to put the body parts back on.’

 

The idea of going into hospital for an 8 hour surgical procedure has become dare I say, appealing. The day to day has become mentally and physically tiring, most likely I’m still reeling from the post chemotherapy side effects. Checking into hospital is about the closest I am going to get to a 14 day health retreat only this time there is no spa suite, no sunshine, no swim up bar and I definitely wont be checking out with a glowing tan.

Around this same time last year I was still in the early stages of attempting to grasp this confusing diagnosis and treatment. We were forced to enjoy what would feel like my last vacation before chemotherapy began. I was spending my days taking calls from the breast care nurse who was touching upon frightening topics like chemo, mastectomy, tissue expanders, new nipples and was planning to put me in touch with other women who had already been through these phases of treatment. This was not my idea of a relaxing holiday, I was teary, shit scared and felt a little ripped off.

On this particular beach holiday I vividly remember the day of fun and laughter we had sitting at the pool swim up bar. My cousin unexpectedly popped into our resort to spend the entire day with us, in fact we spent the entire day in the pool with the kids splashing about while I clung onto my seemingly bottomless glass of champagne. I don’t recall exactly how many bottles of Moet we went through in the swimming pool bar, but I do remember repeatedly yelling: “Fuck it, lets get another bottle, I have cancer.”

I’m in room 1004 at St. Vincent’s Hospital and the room lighting is of course the mandatory fluorescent white, it feels harsh and all exposing. The plush holiday bathrobe is replaced by an exhausted looking pale blue hospital gown. I couldn’t shake the thought about the countless patients that had bled, wept, been confused and hollered out in pain in this same blue gown.  I relinquished my own clothing and donned the patient uniform which had become a symbol of my surrender to the system. I was going to lie back and take a slashing in the name of reconstruction.

The bed linen is fresh and has an industrial crispness to it. The drawers and chairs are more of an afterthought and the colour palette is monotone and somber apart from the print of a street scene facing my bed that hints to Seurat and pointillism. I have never quite understood why hospitals don’t have shelving in front of the bed, a chatty nurse kindly took it upon herself to move the furniture around so I could get to enjoy the flowers and gifts that had been carefully chosen by well wishing loved ones.

 

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Drawing: ‘Sitting Uncomfortably.’

 

I woke up from theatre for what seemed like only a few minutes and remember the surgeon’s head nodding and telling me that everything went well.   Apparently I spent three drowsy drug induced hours in recovery then I was rolled into a hospital room. By this stage I was more lucid and the donor site hurt like hell, more like an axe had been heated over hot coals and then wedged into my abdomen. I needed more painkillers and I need them pronto. This time the PCA was not cutting it. The nursing staff felt my pain, heard my groans and someone with a kind face held my hand and didn’t let go. This simple gesture of being touched by a stranger had helped- I was no longer scared or alone, someone cared.

At one point I looked up and saw an assortment of heads surrounding the bed looking down at me, listening to my groans. One nurse suggested that I try to shift my butt as that might help to relieve the pain. I mustered some strength, raised my head and explained to the nurse that in all fairness the positioning of my arse was not going to soothe the pain from the massive incision in my abdomen. She in turn suggested I wait 20 minutes before calling the Anaesthetist. I kept my cool and insisted, letting her know I was certain he would cope with getting a phone call at 9pm.  I figured a few calls were factored into his hefty up front six thousand dollar fee. The PCA dose was immediately doubled, the pain subsided and I fell asleep.

I remember peeking down at my body under the sheets, checking for a mound where my once cancerous breast had been. I was wedged with pillows into what is known as the jack knife position. My knees were raised and bent and my torso was elevated forward: this would be my resting position for the next 12 days in hospital.

I’m now home, still in the jack knife position and can not stand up straight even if I tried. I’m shuffling about hunch back style and showering on a rented hospital bath stool. Standing for more than two minutes becomes painful to the point that I can only think of getting myself into a seated position and quickly.

My new breast looks voluminous and surprisingly natural and of course has a circular flap transfer from my abdomen. It doesn’t look so great but from experience I know that the blackness of the stitches will heal and fade to pale. There is of course the unforgiving incision from hip to hip.  A DIEP FLAP procedure is no walk in the park. In fact the idea of being able to go for a walk in the park seems fairly illusive at the moment. The procedure involved a rather significant amount of stomach tissue and fat that has been cut away and transferred to my breast with blood vessels from my abdomen. It’s nothing short of remarkable to think how far plastic surgery has come. The killer breast tissue that was removed in August by mastectomy has now been replaced by my own living tissue, which I think is pretty damn cool.  However, not being able to stand up straight is far from cool.

On discharge my surgeon flippantly reminded me that this is going to take several months to heal and to not worry about it too much. For the time being I feel fairly redundant as I can’t contribute or help out at home and I am not exactly in love with my hunched reflection.

This road has been quite long, often times it has been lonely and I’m pretty certain that it is not over yet.

 

A pain in the body

I’ve been prodded, pricked, jabbed, slashed, drugged, scanned, reclined, made to sit, told to stand, told to hold my breath, exhale, had my breast tissue and muscle expanded, biopsied, given fluid samples, lost hair, lost sleep, lost my physical strength, told to roll over, shot up radioactive dye, made to wait, made to wait some more and paid a stack of medical fees and have always said thank you with a smile.

It’s no secret that I’ve never been a fitness enthusiast. I’d describe myself as more of a sensory enthusiast. It’s never been about the running or in my case now more fast walking than anything else, it’s always been more about the experience. That warm feeling of the sun touching me on my shoulders, the trees swaying in the breeze and the smell of the ocean is what motivates me and inspires. This is going to sound a little peculiar but from an early age I was convinced that the trees were waving their branches and saying hello whenever they would sway in the breeze. For me this is the kind of stuff that magic is made from, it can transform a person more than any weight bearing exercise.

You see I’ve been training my whole life, not in the must get my body fit kind of training but a different kind of grass roots training- the school of life. I’m pretty sure this schooling begun way before I formally entered the classroom. Which reminds me that on my very first day of primary school I decided to skip class, why I thought this would be a good idea I don’t recall. I timed it right and quietly exited the classroom and hid in the sand pit. I made a bunker out of bins, scrap wood and corrugated iron- this was 1978 and there was no such thing as playground risk and safety assessments. I was much more interested in having sand running through my fingers, feeling it build up in my shoes, under my toes and listen to the magpies singing. I believe a search party was sent out to scour the school playground and after an hour or so I was found. I soon realised that life could be an adventure just not always on my terms.

I was raised in a mostly extroverted big Italian family with at times dysfunctional parenting. I am the youngest of six children – I like to think of it as a social experiment, a bit like living in the Big Brother House. My father had a dose of mental illness, a penchant for gambling and an incredible drink driving skill. He would often drink drive whilst belting out  Neopolitan songs by Caruso or Mario Lanza with one hand on the steering wheel and the other hand on a ‘king brown’ (which is 750Mls of beer in a brown bottle). Meanwhile 6 kids would be rolling around the back of the Valiant without seat belts of course.

I’m guessing that life is basically one big lesson, some lessons take longer to grasp and realise than others. I, like many of us have had my share of trials and events that have been confronting and have demanded a fair amount of calculated resolve.  I say calculated resolve because for some reason in times of great stress, anxiety or life change I have tended to push away any emotional fog that may be waiting in the wings and have always tended to look for a way forward. It’s like a kind of temporary system shut down that allows me to reflect, reboot, start up again and move forward in a positive direction.

What makes a person resilient? Is it environmental or is it innate? Wherever these buckets of positivity have come from I am very grateful for the big gulps I’ve been able to take.  Which brings me back to the idea of life as a lesson, a curriculum that you must complete and at times feel like you must endure. The bizarre thing about this particular lesson that I’m currently undertaking is that it feels vaguely familiar. Yes, I said familiar.

No I’ve never had breast cancer before but I think I have been priming myself for this very moment. Perhaps I chose this very existence and that explains why I feel so ready and capable. Often I think that I’m just living in this body, a temporary rental. I particularly like the idea that my ‘essence’ is the real me – not this pain body.  Perhaps this idea of detachment from the physicality of what my body has had to endure is what has kept me positive and protected.  My body hurts, it is tired and worn down but my essence is still very vibrant and inspired. On the morning of my first chemotherapy, I remember walking through the sliding glass doors of the hospital with a very familiar feeling. I took big confident strides in my pumps, passed the receptionist with a knowing nod and a smile and made my way up the escalator. I had a spring in my step all the while thinking…I’ve got this, I’ve done this before.

So for all the jabbing, slashing and drugging I’ve endured in the past year I have another surgery ahead of me. Two days to be precise. It’s a breast reconstruction.  A DIEP flap procedure that involves microsurgery that aims to transplant living fat tissue from my well fed stomach reserves into my breast. It’s a 6-8 hour procedure.

I’m not worried about the surgery as I’ll be checking the surgeon’s breath for signs of alcohol before the procedure. If he doesn’t look shaky, have blood shot eyes or is unshaven I’m guessing that I’ll be in great hands.

This is just my body that has to endure this, not me.