Stressing over stress

Zsolt just walked into my makeshift ‘office’ in his sister’s old bedroom here in Pecs, Hungary, and asked if I could take a break from my work. (Quick aside: this isn’t work. I love doing this – writing, blogging, social mediating, and all the while enjoying the breeze through this large open window before me and listening to the sounds of the neighbourhood – mostly dogs, a few cars). And since Zsolt never walks into my makeshift office asking me to take a break, I immediately listened to the man.

“I sent you an email,” he tells me.

Catherine opens her email.

There in my inbox is an article link.  It’s a piece from the Huffington post by David Katz, M.D. on the “super six” – his list of factors to help prevent recurrence (or occurrence) of cancer. With the inevitable reminder that “lifestyle practices are the ship and sails, but there is still the wind and waves”, which I thought was a rather well-put reminder. Do what you can, but there are no promises. However, we can at least do what we can.

Anyhow, here are the six factors suggested by David Katz to give attention when trying to fight cancer – feet (exercise), forks (diet), fingers (no smoking), sleep, stress, and love.

And then Zsolt says to me: “You’ve got all of those covered, except for your stress.”

Ah! Nailed.

Before diagnosed with cancer I was stressing over ‘where will we live’ and ‘where do I belong’ . . . then came the cancer (a stress-pie in itself) . . . and Zsolt’s application for residency in Canada . . . and now that we’re finally here in Hungary, enjoying our summer of time and leisure, and I’m stressing over our move to Canada and how things will go at the border and how we’ll settle into adulthood in another new country (new for Zsolt, and I’ve only ever been a student in Canada, so this will most certainly be different).

Now I realize this post is essentially a written rant on worrying about worrying. And Zsolt has just told me that he’s getting worried over my endless list of concerns (poor man, I don’t want him to be dragged down). Plus, I’d hate to leave you with the impression that all day, everyday my brow is furrowed and I’m ruminating over the next difficult hurdle (because really, and I know this, every hurdle is surmounted whether you want to climb that obstacle or not. During chemo I thought, “this is impossible” and yet – it’s done.) but it’s just a realization reminder: In the words of my husband, “Catherine, you need to relax.”

This entire summer was constructed with the idea of relaxation, but it seems location and convenience alone are not enough to master the art of calm. My mind still picks on the wriggling points of uncertainty – Will we have problems? Is the paperwork arranged? What will come next?

Same thing it’s been doing ever since I was a kid.

However, I also learned a new trick this past year. Talking about said stress – writing, blogging, journaling, releasing – I don’t know how that factors into the ‘super six’ but for me personally it’s a great help. I let out the pressure . . . which is a start.

Anyhow, with the conclusion of this post I will try and not worry any longer about worrying. Instead, I’ll google meditation classes in Ottawa I can slip into once we arrive in the country.  Like all other aspects of that super six (particularly diet and exercise) I’ll feel better – physically, mentally, emotionally – once this issue is challenged with some proactive behaviour. And in the meanwhile, maybe I’ll go for a walk. That’s meant to be stress relieving, right? Never mind the barking dogs – they’re all stuck behind their fences. Everything will be just fine. (As she breathes in and out, now anxious to leave this post behind.) Everything is fine.

I need a cup of tea.

Reoccurrence reassurance

So I guess the general rule for this blog is that when I say, ‘I’ll write about this tomorrow’, it really means, ‘I’ll write about this in a day or two or three’ because things get busy. Yesterday morning I woke up with the intention of doing three things: Washing the dishes. Making Lunch. Writing  a post about my trip to the hospital.

Two out of three isn’t bad. And here we are today – somehow more dishes have sprung up overnight and lunch will need making again. However, they had their chance yesterday. Today is for the writing.

On Monday I went to my GP and asked her to refer me to the hospital. Apparently this was an unnecessary step – I could have contacted a breast care nurse at the hospital directly, but it was good to catch up with Dr Kind (plus I needed to refill my prescription).

Tuesday morning I had a call from the hospital, “Hello Mrs Brunelle, we’ve got a space for you tomorrow morning. Can you make it?”

Yes.  I could make it. This call came just as I was entering my acupuncturist’s office, but not even she could help me relax after that point. There was something she did with my eyebrows that was divine and always knocks me out, but five minutes later I was thinking about that breast exam and getting wound up again.

[Zsolt is sitting here on the bed as I write this post, eating some yogurt. Every twenty seconds he asks a question: are you a biolife? Are you a chumbawumba? Are you a konyec? But I have no clue what a konyec is, apparently it means ‘the end’.]

Anyhow! It was nerve racking. My body revolted against me later in the day and served up a killer stomach ache, which was subsequently blamed on a leftover Valentine’s day dish of cabbage and pork, but was likely also due to stress.

Wednesday I went to the hospital. They sent me to the clinic that contains all things cancer – this is where the oncologists, surgeons and radiation doctors meet and mingle. Passing us in the waiting area was my surgeon who nodded to Zsolt (I was absorbed by my magazine), and as we were shown into a consultation room my oncologist passed by and waved hello too.

Again the nurse asked me to remove my top and put on the cape. You do not have to put on that terrible cape. Maybe if it takes five minutes to remove your clothing, do what they ask, but so long as you can whip off your shirt – why bother with an ugly, cold, and awkward cape?

Generally we wait about 30 to 45 minutes in those consultation rooms, but this time things were quick. In walked a doctor, a student (baby doctor) and – ugh!the same breast care nurse who was in the room when I was first given my diagnosis. Panic threatened to set in, but then I thought to myself, ‘why would they bring a baby doctor along if they had bad news?’ which was logical. It turned out they couldn’t have given me bad news, because they literally had no idea why I was there. A file had landed on their desk (with most of the contents missing because my original file was lost) and they knew I was worried about lumps. But that was all.

After retelling my breast cancer story, showing off the tidy scar, and having my breast checked by yet another doctor, I was assured this was probably nothing, ‘but we’ll send you for a scan anyhow.’

The breast care nurse was very generous in telling me that my fear was normal. ‘If you didn’t feel this way, then we’d be worried.’ I suspect that isn’t true, but it was kind of her to say.

And one hour later I had my ultrasound.

Fast, no?

Again they shot cold gel onto my chest. Again some slippery rubbery thing glided around my breast. Again it probed the lumps. ‘I can feel what you mean,’ said the doctor, ‘but everything looks normal.’

Whew. This was a relief. One – I hadn’t imagined the problem. Two – it wasn’t cancer.


And now I can finally enjoy how much better my body feels. Wednesday afternoon I ran up the stairs at work, and only realized half way through that I was RUNNING. My face has regained colour (blood), and my energy is picking up. True, my finger nails are still dying, but significant progress has been made in all areas.

There’s so much to look forward to now; the next six months will be wonderful. Hard in some ways because we’ll leave our home, but amazing in others (travelling, spa-going, resting, hanging with husband, graduation, Zsolt turns THIRTY).  I’m finally free to enjoy, boob bumps and all.

So there you have it! I admire women who get past the fear of reoccurrence. It’s something that I need to learn. But at least until my next scan I have this release. It feels really good, amazingly good, and I’m thankful.

Killer whales and cancer

My Disney Land perception of whale behaviour was shattered last week when Marcelle told me a story about killer whales attacking mother grey whales and their calves. *Sigh* Nature is ruthless . . . Beautiful, but ruthless. In the end it’s about survival. If the mother whale pushes back against the orcas, then the attacking group will retreat. If not . . . hard luck for the baby.

So why am I writing about this? Good question, which I’m ultimately wondering myself – but having promised a discussion on whales, I’ve got to deliver.

Here Mom’s take: Nature is ruthless, and if you want to survive you need to push back; same with cancer, same with any illness. Passivity doesn’t pay. This extends to all corners of life (e.g. trying to negotiate internet fees, getting a refund, etc.). If you want to win, you have to fight.

Thank goodness there is help, because it’s one thing to tell a newly diagnosed patient to ‘fight fight fight’ and it’s another thing to know what that really means. How do you fight cancer – how can you fight something without knowing the cause?

It’s the eternally frustrating question that still haunts my twenty-eight year old, no family history, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, and exercises regularly, diagnosis. What am I fighting against?

Initially it’s the problem: fight the cancer. Push back against the tumour – surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy. The surgeons, oncologists, nurses all helped me to fight, and I’m thankful for their expertise.

Next there are the emotions: Fight the saturation. Cancer seeps, it seeps into your life – like a stain on the carpet that’s sunk deep and low. It spreads, it settles, it stains your mind. Fighting means connecting with other survivors, letting family and friends support you, talking about the depression or the fear, finding release when life gets too heavy. Stress is linked to illness, and I’m sick of being sick. I fight back by talking about my feelings, releasing that stress. Thank goodness for my support network, they’ve been incredible.

Okay, and now treatment is nearly over and we’re left with this window of possible reoccurrence, what is there to fight? Fight the cause. I do not know what caused my breast cancer, but nevertheless, changes must be made. From taking supplements, re-examining diet, going home, pursuing writing, chasing dreams, and having fun. Change will be the name of 2011, and hopefully it’ll be a really healthy year.

Screw those killer whales (though they are lovely creatures). I’m pushing back. We’ve got to push back.