6. “Feeling relieved” – Recovery, Part 2

Have you ever been thankful and disappointed at the same time for not having to engage in an activity that you either used to enjoy or know you would never take pleasure in, dear reader?


It’s fine with me  

The month of September tends to be excruciatingly busy for most academics in North America.

Specifically, settling into a fall semester “routine” of sorts takes effort, energy, and stamina, both physically and mentally, according to “Dr. Barb” (and she knows what she’s talking about.)

Only twice had I not been required to entertain the “little darlings” (as I have been known to refer to my students) in Saskatchewan: in 2009, when I was on a 12-month study leave, and in 2020, when I was recovering from cancer surgery and scheduled to start chemotherapy.

“How do you feel about not getting ready to lecture for the fall semester?” my best friend had asked in late August.

“It’s fine with me,” I commented.

In fact, I was relieved that I could carry out administrative tasks and research remotely until my upcoming study leave which would begin in January 2022.

My colleagues, however, were still trying to recover from teaching university classes remotely for eight straight months; that is, from September 2020 to April 2021.

“I don’t think I slept for more than four hours a night, even during the Christmas break, Barb,” I was told by more than one of my peers.

“I bet you liked how little effort it took you to show up for work, though,” I commented, smiling (“How did you know, Barb?”).

The 2021 spring and summer months had been nothing short of an academic guessing game. Would classes still be held online? Would instructors and students be allowed to return to campus in person? If yes, when?

Ultimately, the local university administration decided that the fall 2021 semester was going to be a transitional semester to ensure a measured, safe opening while the pandemic kept raging on.

In other words, “more of the same online @#$%,” to quote an esteemed colleague who shall remain nameless.

At the same time, some of my fellow instructors loved the fact that students from all over the world (including from India and China) were now signing up for their courses.

Others bemoaned the fact that online cheating had become rampant (“It’s worse than the pandemic!”), while many lived in fear of random power outages (“It already happened twice this week during class.”)

And did I mention that everyone from work I talked to experienced serious work-life balance issues (“I feel like I have to be online 24/7, Barb”)?

My Greek colleague-friend and fellow cancer survivor was not looking forward to returning to the “black abyss” of teaching in “Zoom land” either (her words, not mine.)

“I am glad that your medical team insisted you stay away from course prep and delivery, Barb,” she said. “It sucks the life out of you.”

“How are you doing now without your mom at your side?” I remember asking her.

“We miss her every single day, Barb.” I could hear the emotion in her voice.

It had been a real shock when this strong and humble 85-year-old matriarch died unexpectedly from non-Covid-19 related causes in mid-July 2021.

I had met her many years ago at a faculty and staff party hosted by her daughter. An expert cook, this Greek Ya-Ya immediately recognized me for who I truly was: a quantity eater (“More is more”) who appreciated quality food.

It made no difference that I could not understand much of what she said to me that evening – except, of course, for wishing her Kali orexi (“Bon Appetit”) as I ate my way through the culinary delights she had prepared. (You guessed it: it was literally all Greek to me.)

“How is that research article of yours coming along, Barb?” my dean, and fellow historian, wanted to know in mid-September.

“I’m so grateful that I get to finish it now.”

I had been working on it when I received my cancer diagnosis in late July 2020. Returning to the article a year later and seeing it through to publication in October 2021 was truly exciting. (If you’d like to take a look at the finished product, here’s the link to click on.)

Whenever I had some spare time (like on weekends), I would try and work on the manuscript of Perfect Timing. Given that I still had little to no energy compared to pre-pandemic times, I was not impressed with my progress.

Was my memoir-textbook ever going to see the light of day?

“I think you should review the lessons you outline in the ‘Epilogue’ chapter,” my pastor-friend recommended when I whined to her about it.

“You are referring to the section entitled ‘Supergirl’s Creed,’ aren’t you?”


I was grateful for this reminder to stop being “everything to everybody” (to quote my best friend who had flagged that “Barb trait” early on in our relationship.)

Instead, I now needed to focus 24/7 on being everything to myself first.

That was going to require time and effort on my part, and lots of it. While my head seemed to understand that concept, my body seemed to struggle with it, however.


Blissful ignorance

It had been two weeks since I reported my IBS symptoms to my medical team in Saskatchewan.

“It’s kind of weird that nobody has called to check up on me,” I said to my best friend from university.

Sightseeing highlights

She was another fellow German immigrant and had visited me for a week in September and witnessed my “neighbour issues” as a result.

“It could mean that no one in Saskatchewan is worried about you,” she concluded with a smile on her face.

Her advice as a fellow hemorrhoid sufferer – who knew? – was much appreciated (“This over-the-counter medication really helps me whenever I have a flareup.”) It allowed us to do some sightseeing together (“Willows Beach, here we come!”), much to our mutual delight.

A couple of days after she had given me a long goodbye hug (“Stay healthy”), my phone rang.

“Hello, I’d like to talk to Barbara Reul.”


I had picked up because I recognized the number as belonging to staff working at the cancer clinic in Regina.

“Hi, it’s your friendly dietician – we met prior to your very first radiation therapy appointment in February.”

“Yes, I remember you!”

Her explanations of the positive impact that diet choices have on the side effects of radiation therapy had been most helpful at the time.

“You have been experiencing IBS symptoms, Barb?”

“Yes,” I admitted. “They have been affecting daily life negatively for about two months now.”

I had expected her to chide me for not checking in with her earlier. (“Barb 2.0” did.)

Instead, this consummate professional gently explained to me that my gut was likely still stressed from my cancer ordeal and needed to be retrained to heal properly. To that end, she assigned some homework to me.

“I am listening.” (I sounded remarkably like Dr. Frasier Crane, the title character from a hilarious TV show I would watch religiously as a graduate student.)

“I want you to add one teaspoon of Metamucil powder to your breakfast for seven days in a row, starting tomorrow, Barb.”

Her request to consume a fibre-supplement that had helped with my constipation issues during chemotherapy confused me.

“Really?” I sounded somewhat incredulous.

After all, I was trying to get an active volcano to stop spewing lava, if you know what I mean.

When she explained that psyllium husks would help with that as well, I decided to take her word for it.

“Good girl,” said “Barb 2.0” (in my head.)

“Buy the unflavoured kind,” the dietician suggested (on the phone.)

It would not affect the taste of the bowl of oatmeal with bananas and lactose-free yoghurt I ate every morning.

“And please report back to me, Barb.”

“You got it! Thank you so much for being in touch.”

Then I grabbed my purse and went straight to the drug store to buy the requested item.

When I called the dietician back a week later, I could not wait to share the most amazing news.

“My diarrhea has stopped completely, and I can feel my hemorrhoids shrinking as well!”

“I am so glad to hear that, Barb!” She seemed very pleased with my progress.

In fact, I had begun drinking black tea again – just one cup in the morning – and felt like I had some of my life back.

“If there’s anything else I can do for you, let me know, Barb.”

“As a matter of fact, I could use your help with something.”

There had been a health-related phone call from Saskatchewan that had made me wonder whether I was, in fact, close to death but blissfully unaware of it.

The caller ID had indicated that it was a doctor’s office in Regina, so I picked up.

“Hello, I am calling to confirm your colonoscopy scheduled for October 4.”

“What colonoscopy?”

It turned out that my worried oncology radiologist had made an appointment for me without my knowledge.

In hindsight, I admit that it didn’t really surprise me, given his thoroughness and attention to detail (“I want to know everything that’s going on inside your body, Barb.”)

“Is it possible to move this appointment to the end of October?”

I explained that I was currently out of the province and did not want to get on a plane unless absolutely necessary – Covid-numbers had been skyrocketing in Saskatchewan in September.

(For the record, I did refrain from commenting on my aversion to someone shoving a piece of medical equipment up a certain part of my anatomy during this conversation.)

“October 4 is the only cancellation date we’ve got available before your CT scan, Ma’am.”

“Oh, my God,” I thought.

Why had my radiologist ordered a CT scan as well – did he perhaps suspect that I had colon cancer …?

The odds of that occurring in the first two years after surgery were high in my case.

My inner child promptly started weeping (“The cancer is back … is back … is back …”.)

It was time for “Dr. Barb” to take over.

“What CT scan are you talking about?” I sounded remarkably calm.

“It says here that you have one booked on October 11.”

“They want me to come in on Thanksgiving Monday?”

I remembered the actual date of the holiday because my twin sister and I had recently pondered the important “Do we serve turkey or ham?” question together.

“Look,” said the scheduler, getting more and more annoyed with me. “Do you want this colonoscopy appointment, or not?”

“No, thank you – you can cancel it.”

“I will,” she said and hung up on me.

Twenty minutes later (no joke!), the phone rang again. It was the hospital informing me about my upcoming CT scan.

“So, I cancelled that appointment as well,” I told the dietician. “After all, thanks to your brilliant advice, I feel so much better now.”

It had, however, been difficult to get a hold of my radiologist and explain why I had gone against his wishes. In other words, I didn’t want to annoy him (“any more than necessary,” added “Dr. Barb”.)

“Would you forward a message to him on my behalf?”

“Absolutely, Barb.”

I felt relieved when I hit the “send” button on my “rationale e-mail” later that afternoon.

Since my favourite radiology nurse never contacted me about it, I figured I was not in trouble – and not facing death either.


Stop smiling like an idiot

“We are privileged to have Dr. Barbara Reul speak to us from the West Coast today.”

I was about to present my patient story online to members of the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency’s Board of Directors and hospital administrators on October 7, 2021.

I had been suggested to them by Freya’s mom. It was her day job to line up patients willing to talk about their experiences.

PowerPoint wisdom

“I told them that you would put a smile on their faces, Barb, and not make them cry like the three previous speakers had.”

“Your wish is my command.”

My goal was to give a balanced account of what I had been through in approximately 25 minutes.

To that end, I was going to include quite a bit of humour. After all, it had been an important tool to get me through those dark days and nights that had punctuated my health journey.

“I am very honoured to be sharing with you some of my experiences as a cancer patient during a pandemic,” I said.

After I started sharing my computer screen, I should have either asked everyone to turn off their cameras or minimized my gallery view as not to be distracted by anyone or anything.

But since we were using a different online platform that I was unfamiliar with, I decided against it.

If you guessed that that turned out to be a huge mistake on my part, you are right.

The first ten minutes (“Blah, blah, blah…”) went off without a hitch, as I clicked my way through a plethora of pictures and colourful SmartArt Graphics. (By the way, there was also no written-out script for me to read in favour of adopting my usual pre-pandemic lecturing style: I just talked my way through the slides.)

As always, I had spent quite a bit of time practicing what I was going to say and when. I also kept an eye on the clock as not to go over the allotted time.

Then my attention suddenly began to wander – I could see something moving on my computer screen that was not part of my PowerPoint presentation.

Was it perhaps an animal?

Winston and Freya often joined their human parents during Zoom calls, as did the pets of other colleague-friends (“How is Morse [the cat] doing today?”).

While “Dr. Barb” was trying very hard to focus on the task at hand (“Blah, blah, blah …”), my inner child was watching one specific camera square like a hawk.

“Let me move on to my next slide,” I said – and promptly lost my train of thought during the visual transition cue.

Was that, um, underwear – white and loose fitting, to be exact – staring back at me?

“Keep it together,” I was told by a stern-sounding “Dr. Barb”.

“I am trying.”

For the record, I had no idea who this person was, or why they were getting up in front of their camera in the first place.

Then I noticed more movement.

“Oh, dear Lord,” I thought, but kept talking (“Blah, blah, blah…”).

“Try to look more sombre,” I was advised by “Dr. Barb”, to match the slide I was talking about (“The not so good.”)

Then a most unprofessional, as in stupid, grin began to settle itself permanently on my face, and for good reason.

The individual in question was putting on a pair of pants right in front of their camera. Worse, the latter was pointing straight at a certain part of their anatomy when they pulled up the zipper.

When that happened, my inner child was killing herself laughing (“More, please!”). And was that my top-hatted guide wiping tears from his eyes, reminding “Dr. Barb” that this was “no laughing matter”?

“Thank you so much for your attention,” I said and clicked the “stop share screen” icon.

Only idiots smile like this!

To admit that I was relieved about having reached my final slide without losing it over a (private?) online fashion show, is arguably the understatement of the 21st century.

At the same time, I was embarrassed for smiling like an idiot for what had felt like an eternity – not unlike in this selfie which was taken on my balcony in May 2022.

The twenty-minute Question-and-Answer period that followed, went well; everyone appeared to have enjoyed my presentation.

Freya’s mom sent the following e-mail later after I had said my final goodbye (“Thank you so much for having me.”) With her permission, it is quoted in full:

Did you see my chat comment? It was wonderful, Barb. Yours is a difficult and emotional story to tell, and you handled it with aplomb! Words can be so detached and impersonal, but when they tell your own personal story, words take on a whole new meaning. The PowerPoint was excellent. VERY impressive. Thank you. How do YOU feel about sharing your story? Now I want to audit one of your classes so I can see your academic PowerPoints!!!!!

Well done, my friend! Thank you!

My reply was short and sweet:

Thanks, my friend. No, I did not see any of the chat comments. All I saw during the presentation was …

Her reaction was priceless.

OMG Barb! I didn’t see that!!!! Is that why you had a smile on your face????? OMG woman! That is hysterical!!!! Worth the price of admission!!!!!

Will I ever forget what happened that day? Never.

Will I remember to ask everyone to turn off their camera when presenting online? Yes.

Was it a healing experience to share my personal story with others? Absolutely.

Why, then, had I spent the early morning of October 7 in considerable gastrointestinal distress?


It’s not always about food

For the life of me, I could not figure out what had set off my symptoms. I was 100 per cent prepared for my presentation and was not nervous at all. Thanks to having taken some over-the-counter medication, I had also felt perfectly fine during the presentation.

Yet, more abdominal cramps occurred after a light lunch (“Not again!”). That’s when I recalled part of my “Why am I feeling so crappy?” phone conversation with the dietician.

“I don’t think it’s always the food you eat that makes your IBS symptoms flare up, Barb.”

“What else could it be?”

“Your physical anxiety levels.”

“What do you mean?”

She explained that while I felt strong mentally, my body had been in overload mode for over a year now. It needed help to heal properly, especially the organs in my mid-section.

“So, what I can do to help with that – rest more, work less?”

“Sure, but you also need to start trusting your body again, Barb.”

“What makes you think that I don’t?”

Compared to six months ago, I felt much stronger physically, in part due to exercising on a regular basis.

To try out something new, I had even begun attending a barre class at a nearby recreational centre (“Barb, the ballerina.”) The instructor, a trained dancer, was nice enough.

Her questionable choice of music – what, no Tchaikovsky? – and confusing explanations (“I call this the ‘starry moonlight pose’”) were not inspiring me, however.

“If you are expecting your body to freak out, it likely will,” the dietician clarified. “In other words, you need to work with your body on healing itself.”

“Instead of questioning its superpowers, you mean?”

“Yes, Barb.”

That piece of advice sounded remarkably like something my twin sister had pointed out a while ago. Apparently, I needed to hear it from an outsider to accept and internalize it.

After putting a new roll of toilet paper on the holder – I had just bought another huge batch (better safe than sorry!) – I began to wonder what it would take for a specific physical symptom to disappear. It had been ailing me continuously since my third round of chemotherapy in early November 2020.

My medical oncologist kept blaming the radiation for my ongoing “burning vagina” pains. I was not so sure.

Could it perhaps be related to some sort of cancer trauma?


I look like a pony

Having “Barb 2.0” staring back at me during my online presentation (finally) made me admit that I had reached the “impossible hair stage.” I blamed the West Coast’s high humidity which had managed to turn me (or, more precisely, my head) into a plant-eating mammal with solid hoofs.

After calling a couple of hair salons nearby, I was excited to be offered an appointment that very afternoon. Wearing a mask, I checked in with the receptionist upon arrival.

Oddly enough, I was extremely nervous and could not figure out why.

“It’s not a pelvic exam,” my top-hatted guide observed, slightly confused. “So, what’s the big deal about someone cutting your hair?”

“We are ready for you,” the receptionist said.

A bespectacled woman in her late 30s approached me, introduced herself, and then led me to her chair.

“What are we having done today?”

“I’d like a no-fuss, no muss hair cut, please.”

“That sounds like a plan.” (“Does she have one?” asked “Dr. Barb”, fearing for the worst.)

Then I followed the “hair lady” (to quote my inner child) to the back of the salon to have my hair washed.

“Please use the most organic shampoo and conditioner that you sell in this store,” I had asked her.

I explained that as a recent cancer survivor, I was not keen on using chemicals of any kind on my hair.

“Of course.” Then she went to work.

“Yikes,” I thought after a few minutes had passed. Was she going to wash every single hair on my head separately?

While she kept slowly and methodically massaging my scalp, I was busy wiping water off that was running down my neck. (My inner child thought that was funny; I did not.)

Ten minutes later, when she was towel drying my hair, it began to dawn on me that she was trying to sell me a “haircut experience.”

What I did not dare to tell her was that my trusted hairdresser at home was much better at it, especially in the efficiency department.

When we walked back and I sat down in her chair again, this hair care professional struck up a conversation.

“I am glad you told me about your health story,” she said. “But I would have known anyway.”

“How come?”

“Because the texture of one’s hair is different after chemotherapy.”

“How so?”

“It’s hard to describe, but I would call yours ‘bendy’.”

The fellow cancer survivors I had talked to about this matter had all been annoyed with how long it had taken for their hair to grow back. The breast cancer survivors, in particular, all hated the fact that it was much thinner than before (“I wore my wig for ages afterwards, Barb.”)

I had nothing to complain about nine months after my last round of chemotherapy.

On the contrary, my hair was incredibly thick and full. Thanks to the organic hair care line that I had been using for years – which had been developed for the creator’s mother when she was undergoing breast cancer treatments – it was growing back in record time.

At the same time, this poker-straight whitish hair did not “feel” (for lack of a better term) at all like what had been growing on my head prior to receiving chemotherapy.

“And it’s going to take a good twelve months for your hair to behave normally again,” this hairdresser pointed out to me.

“I didn’t know that.” (I was going to ask my hairdresser at home for a second opinion.)

Then I shut up, trying to stay calm while my hair was cut and styled at a snail’s pace.

“Dr. Barb” promptly offered various scenarios as to why. Perhaps, this was her first week on the job. Or maybe she was trying to impress me and/or her new boss.

Regardless of what “the deal” was (to quote my top-hatted guide), I decided to be kind and even leave a tip (“Thank you and have a good rest of your day.”)

When I left the salon after an hour that had felt like an eternity, I was relieved to be heading home. Only my “little one” had enjoyed herself (“Those sparkly lights around the big mirror were really fun.”)

“Oh, my goodness!” My twin sister was surprised to see a “new Barb 2.0” talking to her via video chat.

“That pretty much covers it!” I felt annoyed. “For the record, I will never go back to that salon.”

“Why not?”

“Because this lady took twice as long to cut my hair, charged me twice as much for it, and now I look twice as old as a result!”

My younger sibling wouldn’t stop laughing about my rather blunt assessment.

For my aunt

Neither would my trusted hairdresser in Regina when I texted her a headshot of myself (“OMG, I miss you!”). For obvious reasons, I am not including the latter here.

Instead, I am sharing a picture of my youngest nephew that was taken on September 30, 2021. It shows him holding up a very special sign he had made himself to support the 2021 Cops for Cancer Tour de Rock.

This annual event involved law enforcement and emergency services staff who cycled along the BC coast to raise money for childhood cancer research and support services at the Canadian Cancer Society.

I was so proud of him and incredibly touched by his gesture, to say the least. He has a big heart.

Two weeks later, on Thanksgiving Monday – when we ate neither turkey nor ham but opted for a pot roast with potatoes and carrots, plus pumpkin pie and ice cream – I expressed my gratitude to him again and to my other relatives for taking such good care of me.

Then I thanked the universe for providing such meaningful and continued assistance throughout my recovery.

A short “You are welcome, dear Barb” ditty promptly started playing in my head (to the tune of Happy birthday to you, in case you were wondering.)

It made me grin from ear to ear.

“Life is good!” I told my “inner crew” when I went to bed that night and turned off the light.

“Let’s hope, it will stay that way,” my inner child piped up.

As always, she watched me adjust my eye mask and stuff in my ear plugs.

“It will,” I replied confidently. “After all, I’ve got the universe on my side.”

Then I said my evening prayers (“… Amen”), bid everyone in my head a good night, and went to sleep.


Share This Book