10. “Feeling dizzy” — Chemo, Round 5

Have you ever been informed about something important after the fact and then had to deal with the consequences?

 

On Tuesday, December 29, 2020, I spent only five and a half hours in a hospital chair at the cancer clinic. I would be out of here sooner, according to the nurse.

“How come?”

“We will not be giving you that big bag of saline like before, nor the diuretic pills.”

“Why not?”

“Your medication line-up was recently reviewed by a new team of doctors, and they decided to drop them.”

“Fine.”

And fine was also how I felt for the rest of 2020. “I cannot wait for this year to be over,” I told my twin sister on New Year’s Eve Day. “I remember sitting on my balcony on July 1, 2020, thinking how tough the first six months had been because of the pandemic and predicting that the second half would be much better,” I reminisced.

“Well, we both know what happened,” she commented dryly.

“Indeed,” I said and assured her that, for a change, I would stay up until midnight to usher in the New Year in style.

“I’ll see you then,” she answered.

At 11:30 pm, when I could no longer keep my eyes open, I decided that a quick nap was in order. Of course, I should have set an alarm because I woke up at 10 minutes past midnight and then had to apologize to my twin sister who had wondered what happened to our online date. “Happy New Year — let’s hope it will be a healthy one!” I said. Then, I enjoyed the non-alcoholic peach cooler my trusted neighbour had gifted me for the occasion.

Most of New Year’s Day was spent on the couch trying not to worry about the future (too much). To help ground myself, I took the time to express my sincere thanks to every single person who had accompanied me on my cancer journey in 2020. “My goal for 2021 is to be the healthiest and most cheerful, positive person I have ever been,” I said in my message — and for added emphasis I sent along a delightful arrangement a recording of me playing a delightful arrangement of the well-known Christmas carol Joy to the World for pipe organ. They loved it!


 

Happy New Year

The next morning, I woke up to severe tingling in my hands, horrible numbness in both of my feet and my right thumb, excruciating joint pain, and crippling fatigue. “What a crummy way to start 2021,” I moaned, not interested in getting dressed.

When I eventually got up to have breakfast, I felt incredibly dizzy. “Vertigo? That’s a new one,” mentally adding it to my list of side effects. “Thankfully, I don’t have to go anywhere today,” I told myself, dragging myself to the couch to alternate short naps with longer naps before and after lunch.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. “Who might that be?” I wondered. I got up — very slowly — and put on a mask to investigate. It was a beloved colleague who had been let into the building by a neighbour.

A very special Christmas treat

“Happy New Year, Barb! I brought you one of my mom’s famous boozy Christmas cakes to celebrate how far you have come,” she said. “There’s so much alcohol in it, you will be able to nibble on it for all of 2021,” she added with a smile.

“That is so kind of you,” I replied. Then, the hallway started spinning.

“I am so sorry; today is not a good day,” I apologized to her.

“Get well soon, Barb,” she said, and waved goodbye before I closed the door.

Then, I prayed I would not faint prior to making it to the couch. “I will need to stay put here for the rest of the day,” I decided.

“Do you want me to bring up some supper?” my trusted neighbour texted a while later.

“Yes, but please use your key to let yourself in.”

“Are you all right, Barb?” she asked upon entering, and for good reason: I had never made such a request before.

“Not really,” I replied and told her about the dizzy spells.

“Take it easy and remember to eat something; it will give you strength,” she recommended. Since the food she had brought smelled heavenly, I followed her instructions, albeit an hour or so later, and went to bed soon after.

“How are you feeling today?” my twin sister asked the next morning.

“Marginally better,” I answered. Another bad vertigo attack hit after lunch, making me feel tired, weak, and frustrated. “I will have to cancel our stretching routine today,” I informed her.

“No problem,” she said. It was her standard reply when I did not feel up to joining her for even the gentlest of exercise sessions.

Another headache, loud ear noises, and body temperature issues (“hot or cold — which one is it?”) bothered me the following day; an entire week had gone by since the last treatment. Arguably, my body was taking longer than ever to bounce back. As far as I was concerned, the change in medication was the main culprit, and I was angry that my oncologist had not kept me in the loop. What else was she going to change without my knowledge next time – the patient, perhaps?

To promote the healing process in general, not just on a physical level, I added a daily meditation practice back into my life. It had been an effective tool to help quiet my chatty mind; much to my regret, I had let it slide after the pandemic hit A quick look online led me to a free, 21-day meditation commitment online, courtesy of Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra. It focused on inviting abundance into one’s life and included meditations that were not too long.

“This is perfect for my ‘chemo brain’,” I remember thinking. I knew I would stick with it when I read the meditation’s “centering thought,” as Chopra calls it, to be pondered on Day 1: “Today, I behold all the abundance that surrounds me.” How true and profound!

During my first outdoor walk of 2021, on January 9, I had a spiritual epiphany of sorts after posing the question “What was the best thing about 2020 for me?”

The answer was immediate — and unexpected: “I did not die!” said my heart to my head. Neither the little girl inside me nor the adult charged with taking care of her had been prepared for such an honest, “face your own mortality” reply.

It also reminded me of a dream I had in June 2020 prior to noticing symptoms. At the time, I had viewed it entirely through a pandemic lens; now, I considered it somewhat prophetic. Specifically, I had been on a plane (representing my life path?) that was going to Germany (representing my career?) when turbulences (the cancer?) made the pilot (“Dr. Barb”?) land in a long, dark Autobahn-like tunnel (the cancer treatments?) instead of the tarmac. Much to my relief, we landed safely, and I walked off the plane — fine, but visibly shaken (my recovery?).

“I feel so lucky to be alive,” I told everyone who listened, including the nurses at the hospital located near my house who got me ready for the CT scan on January 14, 2021. To my surprise, I had been quite emotional in the waiting room, recalling my appointment in late July 2020 when I still had a full head of hair, unlike now. Like clockwork, whatever little bit managed to grow back between rounds would fall out three weeks later, including my eye lashes, one by one.

Thankfully, hair was not required to play the organ, I told myself on January 16, 2021. I had enough energy that morning to record prelude music for an upcoming church service. I dedicated my repertoire choices to my mother, who had passed away on that day, 36 years before. I have always admired her and my grandmother for making the best of life despite terrible odds.

Genetic role models

In her mid-40s, my Oma had worried about the safe return of my grandfather, who had been sent to a concentration camp after speaking out against Hitler at a local pub; he was released when the Americans freed the camp. The picture I have included here shows my Oma in the middle, with her sister Marie to her left and my grandfather to the right. My grandmother had also buried five of their six children, including my mom, who had taken care of my sick dad for 13 years while raising four girls. “Thank you, universe, for having these incredibly strong women pass their DNA to me and serve as wonderful role models during my formative years,” I said out loud. I could swear both were proudly winking back at me from the other side.

 

Ms. Piggy on steroids

I was weepy a couple of days later when it was time for blood work (“one last time,” I said to my twin sister) in preparation for my last cycle of chemotherapy. Was I afraid of the treatment being delayed again? Or was I relieved about getting to the end of the dark “chemo tunnel,” an image that, in hindsight, perfectly captured this long and arduous part of my health journey?

I suspect that my tears were related to something different entirely, however. My diet had been less than stellar in December, thanks to craving sweet and savoury treats non-stop. Many years ago, a colleague had once jokingly described me as “Miss Piggy on steroids.” My inner child promptly threw a temper tantrum the size of Saskatchewan, while “Dr. Barb” tried to shrug it off.

As a person who has struggled with her weight and body image for a long time, this thoughtless comment began to haunt me now — “I am back,” the most famous of all female Muppet characters seemed to say every time I put food into my mouth, looked in the mirror, and turned on the video camera icon on my phone or computer. Maybe the oncology nurse would judge me when I stepped on a scale tomorrow morning. Perhaps others had already commented on my chubby cheeks behind my back.

In short, I was not in good shape prior to my last chemotherapy treatment.

 

Out of control

A scheduled telephone call with the oncologist the day before had done little to cheer me up either. First, I begged her — successfully — to change back my medication, which I believed was to blame for me feeling beyond crappy. Then, I shared my concerns about the PET scan which needed to take place before I started radiation a month from now and could only be done in a bigger, far away hospital.

To my frustration and likely that of many other cancer patients living on their own in Saskatchewan, neither buses nor trains were an option. This meant that I would need to either beg or hire someone outside my tiny bubble — my trusted neighbour had already declined in December — to drive over 500 km on the same day in unpredictable Canadian winter weather.

“That’s a tall order, especially during Covid-19 times,” I told the oncologist.

“You still need to go,” she insisted.

“I have also lost a lot of sleep over my ‘panty liner guests’ and continued belly pains,” I replied. “Will these symptoms worsen during six consecutive weeks of radiation treatments with multiple side effects?”

“You have done really well so far — you have no reason to be anxious, Barb,” the oncologist said.

Of course, that was exactly what happened when she told me about the results of the CT scan.

“We found a cyst on your bladder, but it is small and will likely not rupture,” she explained.

“Great,” I thought sarcastically, not at all inspired by her confidence.

Her final piece of news — she was going on maternity leave as of March 1, 2021 — freaked me out completely. “I am so happy for you,” I said to her. And I meant it: my oncologist had been wonderfully caring and kind ever since the day of my biopsy almost six months ago. But who would look after me (and my inner child) in the meantime?

“The hospital has hired a replacement,” she said.

“That is good to know.” I was trying to hide my fear of having to fend for myself until she returned to work.

“Have you joined a cancer support group yet?” was the oncologist’s next, arguably perceptive question.

“That is what the social worker has been suggesting for a while,” I replied.

“Please do it, and soon, Barb!” she said, adding, “Let’s chat again in late February to see how you are doing.”

“I’ll talk to you then,” I said before I hung up, once again in tears.

To calm myself down, I began preparing supper but became so distracted that I cut myself in my left thumb. “Oh, for God’s sake,” I blurted out when it started bleeding like crazy. My main guide watched me put on a band aid in a bit of a panic and then insisted I call my oldest sister. She was a retired high school language teacher with a life-long passion for alternative, non-invasive healing methods.

“Put pressure on it, elevate it, and then call me back in half an hour,” she instructed. Right around the 25-minute mark my thumb stopped pulsating. Five minutes later the bleeding had stopped completely.

“Wow — you are amazing; why didn’t I call you when this happened back in October?” I said to her on the phone.

“I am glad you did today,” she replied.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the healing energy you have sent me throughout this journey,” I said.

My oldest sister was only one of the many wonderful people with awesome superpowers of their own — you know who you are! — who always had my back.

“We have absolutely nothing to worry about, now and in the future,” I said to my inner child, and then we both fell asleep.

 

This profound realization is also meant as a signal that the trajectory of my story is finally about to change.