All This and Cancer, Too

It was my birthday a few days ago and normally I would have celebrated with a post noting it was the fifth birthday I wasn’t supposed to see, take that, Cancer, and Mortality, those pains you feel are me, flamenco-dancing on your face in stiletto heels (it’s my defiance fantasy, I can flamenco-dance in stilettos). But I was too busy worrying about my blood pressure. And, as everyone knows, worrying about your blood pressure isn’t good for your blood pressure.

A few weeks ago, I was supposed to have some extensive dental work done under sedation (yeah, that’s right, I flamenco-dance on Cancer but the dentist makes me scream like a girl). I’d had sedation before and I wasn’t anticipating any problems. Then they took my blood pressure.

I won’t give you the exact numbers but suffice it to say that they were equivalent to, ‘Stand back, boys, she could blow at any moment!’ The procedure had to be postponed while I had a talk with my doctor.

Worrying and high blood pressure aren’t like me. Worry and anxiety require a lot of effort. I’m too lazy to work that hard unless it solves a problem, and worrying only tires you out without letting you accomplish anything. It’s like running a thousand miles in place. My blood pressure was always low, even back when I was still smoking. Even back when my mother was alive, and if anyone could have caused every blood vessel in my head to explode, it would have been her. (She didn’t develop hypertension until sometime in her mid-80s.)

Of course, I was a bit younger then. Also, I didn’t have cancer, and I wasn’t taking progesterone.

Among the more charming side effects of progesterone are mood swings, anxiety, and high blood pressure. I was doing okay for a while but I’ve been taking progesterone for five years. It’s been doing its primary job very well—i.e., keeping my cancer at a low level, even reducing it little by little. This has kept me alive, which means I’ve been getting older, and to my shock and dismay, having cancer didn’t make me exempt from the more ordinary problems that come with getting older, like, say, high blood pressure. All this and cancer, too.

So I’ve spent the past week taking my blood pressure three times a day and keeping a log of the readings for my doctor. She prescribed some medication and I start taking it this morning. I have to continue logging my blood pressure for the next two weeks, and then we’ll talk again.

Cancer never made me as tense as this has—and high blood pressure is far more common, at least among the people I know. In fact, I was shocked to find out how many of my friends have been coping with hypertension, and for quite a long time, longer than I’ve been coping with cancer.

They call hypertension the silent killer, and I had no idea how apt a name this is until that day at the dentist’s office. The oral surgeon asked me if I’d ever had this or that symptom and I could honestly say no, I hadn’t. I never felt a thing. I felt normal. I still do.

Maybe you feel normal, too. Get your blood-pressure checked anyway, even if you’re under forty. Yeah, I always thought of it as an over-forty thing but it isn’t. Anyone can develop hypertension, for any reason.

I never had high blood pressure until after I started taking progesterone. And I blush to admit this: I honestly believed that since I wasn’t hypertensive to begin with, my blood pressure wouldn’t be affected by medication.

Live and learn.

The key word in the previous sentence is ’live,’ which becomes iffy when your blood pressure is so high, your dentist is afraid you’ll stroke out in the chair before he even hits you with the first syringe. My blood pressure was—no, is a more serious problem than my cancer at the moment. Dammit, it’s just not fair.

(That was a joke, if you couldn’t tell.)

So I’ll start the new medication today, and make the recommended lifestyle changes—-better diet, more exercise—and we’ll see what happens. I’d feel pretty stupid if, after staring down cancer and dodging Covid, I keeled over because my head exploded.

Although I’ll still be wondering from time to time what the hell Mortality is going to throw at me next.

(Did I mention you should get your blood pressure checked? Do that, okay?)

Okay. Okay. Okay, Yes, Okay!

If you heard something you thought was a crazy banshee on party drugs, that was me.

The Macmillan Cancer Centre told me they were going to call me this afternoon. Instead, they called this morning and it’s taken me a while to calm down enough to type.

The level of cancer in my body has dropped a whole bunch of points. Everything else is okay, except I have to stop taking calcium supplements because I’ve got a little too much.

So I’m off calcium supplements and I don’t get another oncology appointment for another six months. Just as well. I need a couple of days to pull myself together after this one.

So now I know. Cancer is afraid of me. It should be.

Guess What? You’re Scared!

It wasn’t until we booked the car to get us to the Macmillan Cancer Centre for my usual blood test that I realised what’s been biting me for the past couple of weeks.

I think of my oncology check-ups as routine—after all, I’ve been cruising since mid-2015. I have no worrying new symptoms, just the usual side-effects from the progesterone. All told, there’s really nothing to worry about.

Yeah, right.

I only think I think of my oncology check-ups as routine. My subconscious mind is only too willing to pick up the slack in the anxiety department. I’ve had a hard time concentrating for the past couple of weeks even on minor things. I thought for a while I had forgotten how not to fidget all the time.

I’ll have my oncology check-up on Thursday afternoon, by telephone, and despite my getting nothing but encouraging news for the past six years—i.e., that although I’m not in remission, I still have my Technicolor Doc Martens boot firmly on cancer’s neck—I will be no good for anything until I hear from one of the oncologists.

Life in Cancerland: no matter how well-adjusted you may think you are, you’re not. Pro tip: that’s okay. It’s not your job to be well-adjusted. Your job is to stay alive. Trust me; I‘m experienced.

To be continued on Thursday afternoon.

Okay, I Gotta Be Honest––

I really didn’t think I’d last this long. Don’t ask me why, or why not; I just didn’t. But here I am, still plugging away, still writing, still making plans for those better days when we’re all vaccinated and allowed to go outside and play again.

For a while there, I wasn’t sure it was going to happen in my lifetime, whatever that would be. But I should have known better. We were all put on this earth to accomplish a certain number of things and I am now so far behind, I can never die. And as Old Eternal told me so many years ago, back when I was a scared kid thinking the Cuban Missile Crisis was going to end with the world blowing up, nothing will get us out of what we have to do tomorrow.*

But then, I never thought I’d ever get cancer, either, and even when I did, it was like a non-event. They caught it so early, I didn’t need chemo or radiation and I figured that was the end of the matter. I never once gave a thought to the possibility it would come back, not when they had caught it so early. Who knew? Not me.

Well, as I’ve said many times here and elsewhere, I never felt like I was going to die. I’ve never felt like I was in a serious physical decline. I’ve never even been in pain––not the kind of pain that calls for anything more than ibuprofen or naprosyn. Recovering from chemo took some time but I felt like I was recovering, not waning or fading. At most, I feel the effects of getting older––and getting older isn’t dying. Unless, of course, you choose to see it that way, and if you do––jeez, get frickin’ counselling, because you really need it.

And now, I’m starting another year.** Oddly, the Diagnosis of Doom came at the end of 2014. ”Two years, or it could be less” has become six years and counting. There’s nothing to indicate that New Year’s Eve 2021 won’t be seven years and counting, but there’s no guarantee it will be, either. But there never were any guarantees even when I didn’t have cancer––only my mother’s assurance that nothing’s going to get me out of work tomorrow. I simply can’t imagine not being alive, even though I’ve actually been dead.

So I guess it’s odd for me to say I didn’t think I’d last this long. But living happens in an unending Now. Tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, next decade, none of them has come into being, I can’t live there, nobody can. As I said, when I got the Diagnosis of Doom, I abdicated from the future. I read about things that were due to happen or to be finished by 2020 and thought to myself, Well, I don’t have to care about that. 2020 was too far away to see with the naked eye. And then before I knew it, 2020 was Now.

Life is funny. Life is a habitual practical joker with an endless supply of whoopee cushions.***

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*For those who haven’t heard this story: I grew up in Massachusetts during the Cold War. McCarthyism had run its course but there was a lingering fear of war-mongering Communists, complete with TV footage of Nikita Kruschev banging his shoe on a desk, supposedly promising to bury us, an idiom that lost its original meaning in translation. ‘We will bury you’ actually meant ‘We’ll outlast you’––Communism would be at Democracy’s funeral. What the US heard was, ‘We’re gonna kill you.’ Turns out both sides were wrong. Life is funny. In any case, the Cuban Missile Crisis (Google it––this footnote is long enough) looked like it would finally tip us over into global thermonuclear war and the end of the world. I was already pretty high-strung due to the chaos of my early life, which had taught me that most grown-ups weren’t reliable and the more powerful they were, the more likely it was that they’d do all the wrong things. One night, my mother was putting me to bed and I asked her if this was the end of the world. She told me we weren’t going to get out of having to get up and go to work and school in the morning. “Nothing’s ever that easy, Putschka. Now fuggedaboudit and go to sleep.” It’s the one thing she was always right about. No matter what happens, it won’t get us out of work, or school, or a dental appointment, or a deadline. Deal with it.

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**Granted, this year was pretty difficult, not just for me but for everyone, everywhere. It’s going to be a while before life returns to anything approaching what we think of as normal and even then, it won’t be quite the same. Life is funny.

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***Made you look!

It’s Christmas Eve and You Know What That Means––

It’s time for my favourite Christmas story!

Experienced readers will know this is not your standard Christmas story. In fact, it’s not an actual Christmas story at all. I first heard this story over twenty years ago, and when the holiday season rolled around, it was the first thing I thought of. So I’ve been posting it every year, and I’ll be posting it every year until further notice:

One night, Confucius had a dream about chopsticks.

In the dream, he was transported to Hell, where he saw multitudes of people sitting at enormous tables set out with wonderful foods of all kinds. There was so much food that the tables groaned under the weight and the various delightful aromas made the mouth water.

But the people sitting at the tables hadn’t touched any of it.

They had been told they could eat as much as they liked but only if they ate with chopsticks that were five feet long. None of them could figure out how to feed themselves with five-foot-long chopsticks—it was impossible. All they could do was stare helplessly at the delectable feast before them and cry in hunger, misery, and despair.

Then Confucius was taken to heaven where he again saw multitudes of people sitting around enormous tables laden with glorious foods. They, too, had been told they were allowed to eat as much as they wanted but only if they used five-foot-long chopsticks. But these people were not crying with hunger and misery and despair. They were eating their fill, talking and laughing together, enjoying themselves.

Because in heaven, they were feeding each other.

My friends, whatever holiday you celebrate, however you celebrate it, I hope it’s heavenly.

Green Bananas For Everyone Again!

I swear, they told me this was terminal. 

The oncologist called to tell me that once again, we have kicked cancer’s ass. Let me assure you, it never gets old. Later, Chris will go out and get us some green bananas so we can watch them ripen while I stand with my Technicolor Doc Martins on cancer’s neck.

It does come back to me from time to time what my oncologist told me at my first appointment with her back in December 2014: ‘Two years. Or it could be less.’ 

But immediately after that memory, I always hear a still small voice from within––you know that voice, it’s the one we all have deep inside that always speaks the truth no matter how inconvenient or painful––and it says: ‘B!tch, please––you didn’t really think you’d get off that easily, did you?’

And I have to admit, no, I sure didn’t. Nonetheless, I still believe every day above ground is a good one, It’s not necessarily the best one ever or even better than the day before but hey, nobody gets off that easily, do they?

And Once Again, We Send Cancer Packing! Green Bananas For Everyone!

I had to go out to the Macmillan Centre for the blood test––haven’t been out since the last blood test. It was painless. No, I mean really. The Macmillan phlebotomists are artistes.

But the oncology appointment took place over the phone again, like last time. And like last time, it was good news. I ain’t complaining. Next appointment will be sometime in December.

As a rule, I don’t spend much energy thinking about that time when the cancer decides to assert itself. The drugs work, I can stand the side effects, and all I have to do is get through today; tomorrow happens tomorrow. But what worries me more than cancer is Covid-19.

The pandemic puts a new wrinkle on things. If I need treatment, I can’t have Chris with me. He can’t be there if I need chemo, or if I’m hospitalised. Illness of any kind was never easy. But compared to what it’s like now…

It’s not something I want to dwell on. I’d rather look forward to a vaccine putting an end to the quarantine. I’d rather dance around and add green bananas to our grocery order. But having to self-isolate and maintain social distancing, taking a car into central London knowing that the driver wiped it down thoroughly with disinfectant before we got in and will do the same after we get out, seeing arrows on the sidewalk directing pedestrian traffic, wondering why the hell some people are walking around with masks pulled down, wishing my own damned mask didn’t keep riding up over my lower eyelids––these things and much more are neverending reminders that not only do we have problems, our problems have problems.

Funny how things are never so complicated that they can’t throw us a total curve from an unexpected angle. I’m old enough to remember: nobody saw AIDS coming, either.

But never mind. Some things in our lives are in our control, some things aren’t. The one thing that is always in our control is how we respond. Which is why it’s crucial to find whatever’s good in the present moment, and to thoroughly appreciate it.

With a mask on, of course.

But Then I Had To Go Out After All—And Kicked Cancer’s Ass, As Usual

Just to get a blood test. Chris and I used a car service going and coming; we chose them because they’ve made a point of trying to make transport as safe as possible for their passengers and drivers.

The Macmillan Cancer Centre has it all figured out, too. They let patients in one by one––and only patients. Chris had to wait outside. Fortunately, we went in early so there were few other people occupying the widely-spaced seats in the waiting room. So that was Friday.

A doctor on my oncologist’s treatment team called me today and, yes, I’m still stomping the sh!t out of cancer. So I’m feeling pretty pleased.

I’d have posted the Back-To-Buying-Green-Bananas Report earlier, except that I had my usual eleventh-hour nervous breakdown and after getting the good word, I collapsed for a while.

Undone by good news. Even in the year of the pandemic, there’s still good news.

And as an added bonus: my jeans fit!

Drinking Dry Quarantinis In Cancerland

How to make a quarantini:

Add one measure from each bottle of whatever you’ve got left, excluding beer and wine (oh, come on, you’ve got to have standards). Hope you bought the good stuff, back in the days when we were allowed out.

Today, I read we’re really screwed for the foreseeable future, as there’s going to be a whole generation of people who have been home-schooled by day-drinkers.

So how about that pandemic humour—-is it grim or what?

Being in lockdown is like the the second week after chemo—-you don’t go out and let people breathe on you. Except you don’t know when it’s going to end. I envision the gym now as the Golden Promised Land, redolent with the scent of sporty air freshener and alive with the sound of strenuous, 150bpm dance music. The gym looks like heaven when you’re not supposed to go outside…at all. The second week after chemo wasn’t that bad.

Right now, I should be in the Yes-We-Have-No-Green-Bananas phase of springtime, as my appointment with my oncologist is next week. However, I called MacMillan to talk about the current worldwide situation. The person I talked to told me to follow up with an email, and then yesterday, one of the doctors on my oncologist’s team called me back.

At my request, my check-up has been postponed to August. Yes, I know, normally I get nervous and kinda and start bouncing off the walls. And then afterwards, I’m bouncing off the walls because the news was good.

This time, I’ve decided to make an act of faith.

Rather than risk going out among people with compromised immune systems, I told my oncologist that I don’t feel any different than I did the last time I was there, all of my previous check-ups have been 5-star epic wins. In August, conditions may be better. If they aren’t, I won’t postpone the appointment again. But right now, I think it’s safer not to see the oncologist.

So it’s green bananas all around until August. I have faith.

And if you’re feeling a little shaky right now, don’t worry, you’re covered—-I’ve got enough faith for all of us.

Yeah, You Just Keep Running, Cancer

The last checkup was a personal best. Today’s checkup was even better than that. The level of cancer has fallen by a substantial amount to an unprecedented low. After five years. Which is three more than I was supposed to get. And I’m in my late 60s—-not the time of life generally associated with healing, restoration, and/or improvement.

Which just goes to show you: old doesn’t mean it’s over. Cancer doesn’t mean it’s over. And being old and having cancer doesn’t mean you’re marking time till you keel over.

It’s an extraordinary thing, to be alive. As corny as that sounds, it means something to me.