The Coming Week Won’t Be All About Cancer

Tomorrow, I’m heading off to the US. My erstwhile UMass roomie K and I are going to a UMass reuinion. Chris has to stay home and look after Gentleman Jynx, Coolest Black Cat In London while I get to spend time with people I haven’t seen for close to four decades. The last time I was in Amherst was in 1980. The last time I was anywhere in Massachusetts was 4 September 2001––I was in Boston and flew out of Logan airport exactly one week before 9/11. But I digress.

I’m really looking forward to this trip. I love my friend K; I love her forever. Some of the best times we’ve had together was driving up and down the Massachusetts coast, looking for a beach. The beach actually wasn’t as important as the time we spent together in the car. It’s a long drive from her place to Amherst and it’s going to be fun. Even if she’s going to be stuck doing all the driving again, as I no longer have a valid driver’s license. (I could drive in an emergency but there’s no point in getting a driver’s license here in London. We don’t have a car and couldn’t afford it even if we wanted one. But I digress again.)

In preparation for the trip, I’ve been riding a stationary recumbent bike every other day at EasyGym, my new health club of choice––inexpensive but even more important, so conveniently located that total round-trip travel time is under half an hour on the bus.

I haven’t had a gym membership for almost three years and I haven’t been regularly active for slightly longer––Old Eternal (my late mother) made getting to the gym almost impossible. But prior to that, I was getting a fair amount of exercise regularly, which paid off when I got cancer. Nurses regularly exclaimed over my magnificent veins (unquote), resting pulse, and blood pressure.

Starting over again after a stretch of relative inactivity is something I’ve always hated. But I always forget how much the body remembers: after only three sessions, my colour was better, my endurance was up, and my heart-rate was down. Like the man said, reasons to be cheerful, one, two three. I came out of the gym after each session tired, but in a good way––not fatigued. I felt bulletproof.

Exercise is something every cancer patient needs. If you have a friend who has cancer or some other chronic illness and you wish you could do something to help, help them get some exercise. If you belong to a gym, take them with you as a guest––either drive them there or splurge on a cab to and from. Sometimes it’s the mere prospect of having to get to and from that defeats them before they can even get off the couch. That was true for me.

Of course, that’s assuming there is no medical impediment or handicap that would prevent their becoming more active. I would be doing this even if I didn’t have cancer because of my lower back. There is absolutely nothing organically wrong with my back––no disc problems, no bad bones. It’s all strain from muscles that need to be conditioned and toned up. The recumbent exercise bike, as one of my all-time favourite gps Dr. A told me, works exactly the right muscles to make my lower back stop screaming, ONE MORE STEP, BITCH, AND I’LL KILL YOU!!!!! every time I walk farther than a block. I know he’s right because it’s always worked before. I think it will probably work even better since the hernia operation (which for the record was how they found the cancer). The repair has held up.

I prefer the recument bike to the regular bike. For one thing, it’s better for your posture––instead of being hunched over handlebars, you sit up straight, with your legs stretched out in front of you. For another, a recumbent bike doesn’t hurt your inner thigh/groin area; there’s no need for padded bike shorts. The “handlebars” are on either side of the (comfortable not cushy) seat. I plug into my music, set my mind on Create: Freestyle (okay, maybe some people would say ‘daydream’) and pedal away for thirty minutes. It’s probably very revealing that to me, this is a description of heaven. Maybe pretty obvious as well.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: But, Pat––indoors? Wouldn’t it be nicer outdoors?

Two words: climate control. That’s air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter.

Two more words: traffic and topography. Biking in London is a risky proposition. Yes, there are bike lanes but not nearly enough. When a bike lane comes to an end––and they all come to an end, usually before your journey does––that’s it. You’re either in a bus lane or mixed into regular traffic. And bus lanes come to an end, too. You’ve got to be an experienced city biker or, failing that, you have to have quick reflexes and 360º awareness. I’m so medicated, I’d end up as a smear on someone’s front end.

Yes, I’m sure. Embarrassing admission: I have never ridden a bicycle with handbrakes––only footbrakes. I’m that old. But I digress.

The other t-word, topography, is basically, Damn, I never noticed this stretch is uphill. Even a gentle slop upward can be trying. On a recumbent exercise bike, I can increase the resistance in stages. When I reach my limit, I leave it there; when it becomes too much, I adjust it downward. Customised terrain! (That’s on the manual setting; there are preset programs, too, but after thirty-six years as a freelancer, I prefer to call the shots.)

I’ve become such an exercise bore that I’ve taken to posting warnings on my Facebook page whenever I’m going to talk about exercise. I probably should have posted a warning on this entry except I didn’t know I was going to digress so much.

Anyway. I haven’t put in enough time on the bike to fix my lower back but I feel sturdy enough for several days with K and all the other people I haven’t seen for yonks and yonks.

Although I have to say, I’m a little bit nervous. In 1988, I was in Boston doing a talk and K and her husband D came to take me out to dinner. Shortly after that, K told me she was pregnant. Then something over ten years later, Chris and I visited K and D while I was on a book tour. Shortly after I got home, K wrote to tell me she was pregnant…with twins.

And now, I’m going to see her again.

Whatever it was about me, I hope it’s worn off…

So, Can You Be Healthy Even If You Still Have Cancer?

I guess I’m going to find out.

Today, I did a whole fifteen minutes on the recumbent exercise bike. Okay, fifteen minutes with breaks.

EasyGym has fancy-schmancy machines with hook-ups for iPads and iPods, as well as a whole entertainment package (which costs extra). I’m not sure if the wifi is free or not. I forgot my earphones so I had to cycle with only the sound of other cardio machines in the background. I will never, ever forget my earphones again.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been so out of condition; not even after childbirth (they don’t call it ‘labour’ ironically). It was the toughest fifteen minutes I’ve put myself through lately, even with breaks. But I did it. Tomorrow, maybe sixteen minutes (with breaks).

Afterwards, in the locker room, I discovered EasyGym’s secret to keeping costs down: you have to keep pressing the shower button. There’s no just standing under the spray like a zombie who cares about personal hygiene. No temperature or spray adjustment, either––the water comes out how it comes out and you adjust yourself to it. In between, you soap up without the water running (this makes sense to me). Then you rinse off.

As I still don’t have enough hair for shampooing, the inconvenience is minor. But what the hell, the membership is super-cheap, especially if you don’t take classes.

Once clean, I had to sit down and recover from standing for a prolonged period. I must have looked pretty done in. A young woman who was putting on her make-up nearby asked me if I were all right. 

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m just out of condition.” This was genuine British understatement. I’ll have to train every day for at least three months before my level of fitness is high enough to qualify as very poor. Right now, I’m off the scale, and not in a good way.

And speaking of scales: I got on one. The good news is, I am not even close to the upper limit of the mechanism. (According to the sign, the upper limit is 500 pounds but what the hell, good news is where you find it and what you make of it.) The better news is, I have already lost another kilos since I saw the oncologist. (Well, yes, it might have been sweat. But the scale doesn’t make any distinctions––weight is weight. If the scale doesn’t care, why should I?)

It was a pay scale––for a quid, it told me my height, weight, BMI, and percentage of body fat. None of that was good news but the bar for bad news is now so high that the worst thing I can say about these figures is, they’re data.

More good news: while it doesn’t take much to raise my heart-rate, it comes right down again just as it always has. Also, no chest pains, no problems breathing, and no dizziness. (The tiny hairs in my inner ear have grown back so I’m not suddenly lurching to one side or the other like a drunk failing to keep it together.) What this means is, as woefully out of shape as I am, I have no physical problems that would prevent me from getting fit again.

The oncologist recommended I make that a priority now that I’m done with chemo and taking hormones (not HRT––certain hormones can in some cases keep recurrent uterine cancer stable and prevent it from growing). As I’m so unfit, exercise is going to own the days for a while––I came home feeling good but done. Eventually, however, I’ll be able to do more than take myself to the gym and go home afterwards.

And I’ll be able to walk all I want without my lower back screaming, ONE MORE STEP, BITCH, AND I WILL CUT YOU!

It’s nice to have things to look forward to.

And Now, The Toughest Part Of All, or Live Is A Verb

We now resume our regular programme, which is already in progress. I.e., if you’re not completely well, you’re as good as, so get back to work, kiddo. 

Crisis more or less over, it’s now time to pick up where you left off in normal living. And honey, if you thought were behind before, you must now run about a hundred miles an hour just to keep from falling any farther behind.

It’s my belief that 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. <———– That used to be a joke. What the hell, it still makes me laugh. And who knows, perhaps duties, obligations, and work ethic have a power that will dwarf mere chemotherapy.

Today is not all about cancer, or chemo, or life-span. It’s about getting back to work. It’s about getting more exercise, it’s about living, and living means you’ve got things to do.

No, you can’t go from 0 to 60 immediately––but you are expected to work your way back up to your previous level and then move beyond even that. You really want to live? Live is a verb, active not passive.

As an old Reebok commercial once pointed out, life has two settings: pause and play. Press play and get your ass in gear.

You don’t just beat cancer and celebrate. You have to keep get up and beat it again, every day. And in the wse words of the immortal Satchel Paige, Don’t look back––something might be gaining on you.

Okay…let’s go!

Yeah, Cancer, You Better Run!

Well, it’s not gone. But it’s a shadow of its former self. I start on hormone tablets today, which, the oncologist explained, could shrink the remaining cancer cells further or at least keep them at bay…for years. I can’t have any more chemo at the moment and the oncologist thought I might need another unit or two of blood as well. But we’ll see.

Once I’ve had my blood test and picked up my prescription, Chris and I will repair to Yo! Sushi, where I’m going to stuff my face with salmon and sea weed and rice and tuna and all that good stuff. 

Cancer, you are my bitch. What you’re feeling right now? That’s my stiletto heel on your neck.

It’s Been A Busy Few Weeks In Cancerland…

…and none of it was cancer-related. Well, not directly.

What’s going on? Glad you asked.

The last weekend in May, I made my first-ever visit to Copenhagen, as a guest at Fantasticon along with writer Ian Watson. Fantasticon is not an enormous convention––about 150 or so people attended. It was my first trip outside the UK since September 2014, and the first since I was diagnosed. The convention wasn’t too demanding, the people were wonderful, and it was a pleasure to hang around with old friends like Ian and new friends like Lars Ahn Pedersen and Ian Watson’s wife Cristina Macia––who turned out to be an old friend, sorta.

It turned out I had met Cristina back in 1990, at the worldcon in The Hague. We were on a panel about translating, moderated by the late John Brunner. I was on the panel by mistake––I’d never translated anything but I only had one other program item and I decided that I could talk about being translated. John Brunner was rather impatient about it when we met in the Green Room but he smoothed out as the panel progressed. But that’s not the important part. I was sitting next to Cristina and what she said about the challenges of translating made me look at my work in an entirely different way. She was responsible for a sea change in my perspective on who I was writing for and my approach to language. I ddn’t remember her name and I never thought I’d ever have a chance to tell this lovely woman how she had affected me.

Then I saw her at Fantasticon and I remembered her face. This is remarkable in itself because I have a slight problem with prospagnosia, or “face-blndness.” But I just knew it was her––she had barely changed. After she participated in a panel discussion about translating (I wasn’t on that one) and she talked about her experiences, I asked her if she had been in The Hague. She had, and she remembered the panel. It had been her first-ever panel and, she said, she was so nervous she was shaking. I remembered that, too, her being young and nervous, but she had made herself understood, especially to me. It was such a pleasure to tell her that listening to her all those years ago had made me think more carefully about my language.

Anyway, that was a pleasant surprise, and it led to another invitation, to a conference in Spain in July. But more about that in another post.

I made it home in one piece from Denmark, caught my breath and then, yesterday (6 June), I had the pleasure of sharing GOH duties with Brian Aldiss at the British Science Fiction Association/Science Fiction Foundation annual general meeting. 

The day began with a panel discussion, moderated by Graham Sleight, about my (ahem) Hugo-Award winning story, “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi.” Yes, my ego and my head are now so big and fluffy that they barely fit in the living room. And I got to say a few things about the story, too.

This was followed by the Brian Aldiss interview. I strongly, strongly, strongly suggest that we get some kind of project going where we record videos with the older members of our field––Brian, Ursula Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm, Bob Silverberg, Michael Moorcock, others––and just let them talk, about their experiences, about the people they’ve known. We have reference books and histories galore but we need the anecdotes, the personal views, all those things you get in oral history.

After lunch, Tanya Brown interviewed me. I love Tanya. She first interviewed me in 1993, for a magazine, when I was a GOH at MexiCon, which was not in Tijuana but Scarborough. I nattered on, about cancer, about writing, about writing with cancer and the story I’d written deliberately drawing on my diagnosis. My husband Chris assured me I wasn’t incoherent but I think I did get a little ADHD, trying to get everything in. But Tanya was lovely, the audience held still for it.

After that, there was a fascinating discussion about growing up with Brian Aldiss––i.e., people who had grown up reading Brian Aldiss’s books, how they viewed his work on first meeting it and now. It was fascinating.

Then Chris and I piled into a taxi and went home, exhausted. But happy. I can’t thank the BSFA/SFF enough for thinking of me. Because, like last weekend at Fantasticon in Copenhagen, the days weren’t all about cancer. It wasn’t that I didn’t mention cancer––I talked about it a lot and I was wearing my Secretly Hoping Chemo Will Give Me Superpowers t-shirt. But it wasn’t about having cancer, being a cancer patient, being ill. It was about still being who I’ve always been, doing what I’ve always done, and looking forward.

A couple of weeks ago, they gave me a CT-scan to see how well the chemo worked. I see my oncologist the day after tomorrow to get the results. If the chemo has worked as well during the second half of the treatment as it did during the first half, the news will be very good. But there are no guarantees, no sure things––I’ve always known that. And I can deal. I’ve always known that, too.

Regardless of what I hear on Tuesday, I’m definitely going to schedule some time to ride roller coasters this summer. It’s a thing with me. My whole life, I was too scared to ride roller coasters. Then I finally got on one and discovered I’m not afraid of anything.