The Beacon

Before I can continue, I have to go back a little in time – right back to the start.

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, any type of cancer, you’re loaded up with brochures: What does your diagnosis mean? How to deal with Chemotherapy? How to deal with Hair Loss? How to explain to your children… your family… your friends… I think you get the idea. Most of the brochures I was given are sitting in a box, in the bottom of my cupboard, collecting dust. By the time the brochures made their way to me, I had already spent hours on the Internet researching; the information was old news. I’m not suggesting they stop printing these brochures, I’m 100% sure there are many people that find them helpful – not everyone is inclined to tap into the world-wide-web.

The main cancer organisations, like Cancer Council, produce the majority of brochures covering general treatment. Then you have cancer specific associations, such as Breast Cancer Network Australia, that provide its own support material. As you can see there is a lot of support out there, if you want it.

BCNA also produces a free national magazine, The Beacon. It’s a quarter-yearly magazine that covers a range of topics related to breast cancer. As I was reading the last publication I noticed a section to submit a story. I investigated further and saw the topic for the next addition was: Obstacles. Additional challenges faced through treatment. I instant knew I wanted to share a story – of course I would. I wanted to share how I found being young, fit and active a challenge. I’ve already written a blog about this – I’m 32 not 50 – so I decided I would send an edited version to meet the word limit requirements.

…then I received an email saying it was being considered.

…then accepted.

My words have been finally published! All three hundred and seventeen of them.

Here is the link: http://www.bcna.org.au/sites/default/files/thebeacon67_0.pdf

(page 10)

Up, Up and Away

Today I get to talk about a great love in my life. Travel. A love that was formed from an early age, roughly age eight. Mother, sister and I were travelling to New Zealand to visit family and the flight attendants let Sis and I hand out sweets to the passengers. I remember being so excited. I believe my career path was shaped from that moment. At age twenty-six I finally fulfilled my dream and started working as a flight attendant for Qantas. Prior to that I worked as a travel consultant. So you could say I have a fairly good understanding about travel, inside and out. And when I wasn’t jumping on a plane for work, I was making the most of my discounted travel benefits. It was a common occurrence for me to book a ticket, jump on a plane, and meet up with friends anywhere around the world. No stress; no planning, just go.

Last year I received an invitation to attend a friend’s wedding in Israel. Who wouldn’t want to miss two beautiful souls celebrate their union, plus Israel is one of my favourite places in the world. It was always going to be touch and go with the timing of treatment and finances. I didn’t think it would be possible considering I haven’t worked since last August, and now that I’m looking at having surgery done privately. Then I was blessed with a paid airfare over! I must have done a lot of good in a past life, the amount of generosity I’ve received since my diagnosis is mind-blowing. Timing was now also on my side as the earliest appointment I could get with my plastic surgeon is May. I um’ed and ah’ed. Should I go? Was I ready? I was convinced by a few people that I deserve a nice treat, considering everything I’ve been through.

Now, the Rochelle of before wouldn’t have thought twice about travelling to the other side of the world. Throw some things in a bag and off I’d go. Unfortunately, now, a bit more thought has to go into it. It’s moments like these when the reality of the ‘cancer’ sets in. The reality of how my life has changed. So what are the new concerns? Firstly, the medication I’m on can cause blood clots. I have to wear compression stockings to reduce my risk of clotting when flying. The dreaded DVT. Secondly, as I’ve had lymph nodes removed there is an added risk of developing Lymphedema (in simple terms, arm can swell), so a compression arm sleeve is recommended to reduce this risk, also. The past few weeks I’ve been telling friends and family (and this blog, actually) that I no longer need to wrap myself in bubble wrap, I’m not sick anymore. It seems I have to wrap myself in compression, instead. Sourcing these things last-minute has caused some (read: A LOT) of stress. It’s amazing how trying to find an arm sleeve can bring me to tears yet having chemotherapy for 3 months didn’t. Breathe…

The next reality check came when I jumped online to organize my travel insurance. From now on, and forever, I fit into the ‘pre-existing medical condition’ box. Box A – tick. Cancer – tick. I now have to pay a premium to be covered. Frustration sets in. Yes I had cancer. Yes I had treatment. I was fine about both (as fine as you can be about getting cancer)…but it’s these little things that will continue for the rest of my life that really bother me. I often say Cancer is a life-sentence – this is a clear example about why I feel that way. Don’t get me wrong – I know having to pay a premium for travel insurance isn’t the end of the world, I don’t take for granted that I am alive and well (and lucky enough to travel the world). That IS what’s important. But things used to be so simple…

With the support of some special people the nerves were calmed and all the little things were taken care of. The option of cancelling last-minute did cross my mind. But if I stop doing things I love because it’s too hard, Cancer wins. Cancer doesn’t deserve to win because of silly little things like wearing a compression sleeve or paying a bit extra for insurance. I just have to adapt. I have to think and plan ahead. Also, if the body coped with a triathlon, it will be fine on a flight – I just have to do the right thing and keep moving around (as everyone should do anyway!).

Today is the day of travel. Skins compression tights are on, arm-sleeves are packed in my carry on… along with my noise cancelling headphones and iPad. My new travel essentials. A nine-hour flight to Bangkok followed by an eleven-hour flight to Tel Aviv is ahead of me. My old tradition of sitting down to a glass of champagne pre-departure has been replaced by sparkling water. That’s what I call adapting (sigh). Time to go…

Side note: SURPRISE! I haven’t told many friends that I’m coming. I can’t wait to see all my favourite people in Tel Aviv!!

I TRI

I think it’s clear I have a habit of throwing myself in the deep end. Act now; think later. Sink or swim. It’s a common theme in my life. Recently, it’s been clearer than ever: I signed up for the CrossFit open after month’s absence from the gym. I signed up for a 10km run having only run 2 x 5km in a few months. What next?

The past few months I’ve kept an eagle eye on the local triathlon schedule. Each month came and went and I was forced to peacefully accept that it wasn’t time to return to my new loved sport. Knowing surgery is weeks, if not months away, I re-visited the triathlon calendar. Hello April. Hello Luke Harrop Memorial. The race is conveniently held on the Gold Coast, an easy commute from Ipswich.

Now, I haven’t taken part in any specific triathlon training in the past nine months. I wasn’t allowed in public pools during chemo and I had a self-inflicted cycling ban (incase I fell off and broke something; me, not the bike). The goggles and bike have been collecting dust, literally.

Two weeks out from the race I finally committed and registered. I knew I would have to work my way back into things, slowly, so I signed up for the ‘Enticer’ distance. The, as I like to call it, ‘baby distance’. Also commonly known as the ‘fun distance’. It would be crazy of me to jump back into a longer distance race. This would be my tester race; see how the body holds up. I like to believe in muscle memory – surely the body will remember how a triathlon works and just go along with it. Right?

With a bit of time up my sleeve – two weeks – I emailed the head coach of the local Tri Club. I told him I was finally ready to start attending sessions. Two weeks and three training sessions came and went. I managed to get back in the pool and on the bike. It wasn’t enough training to expect a podium finish but enough to regain my confidence.

The morning of the race I was more relaxed than I’d ever been before. Even before a longer distance tri. Maybe because my expectations of myself were lower than normal. I hadn’t been training. It was just for fun… Right?

The parents and sister came for support. I gave them a tour of the transitions so they knew where to take some snaps and cheer me on. In no time we were heading to the swim start. I jumped in the water and swam some laps to calm my nerves – this was going to be my weakness, it had been nearly nine months since I’ve done any proper swim training. I exited the water and returned to the support crew to wait for the start. The race briefing started and the first wave commenced. Then the orange caps were called to start. That was me. A 300-meter swim would have been fun before, now I was concerned. The starting horn blared and the body propelled forward. No more thinking; just doing.

In standard race form there were legs and arms everywhere. It was all coming back to me. Unfortunately it was an uncomfortable swim. I couldn’t get a good rhythm; I couldn’t calm my breathing. But I kept going, one stroke at a time. The exit was in sight. Out of the water and straight into transition – this I remember; this treatment couldn’t have affected. The family missed me coming out of the water as I joked they would have time to relax and grab a coffee while I flapped around in the water. I should have given them a realistic time. It was only 300 meters. I was out in 7 min 44 sec.

Shoes on, race number on, helmet on. Pick up the bike and run. Transitions have never been my strong point. I can’t blame chemo for that weakness. Getting on the bike is also a weakness. I haven’t mastered the elegant movement of gliding a leg over and locking into the pedal. Have you ever seen a giraffe kicking their leg about? That’s me. Next purchase will be triathlon bike shoes. Every second counts…

Thanks to the coaching from my friend Scott while out riding last week, I was comfortable moving through the gears. I managed to keep a good pace. Every time I saw another competitor with standard sports shoes and pedals on their bike I sped up and overtook them – it’s as bad as a Barclay bike rider overtaking you while you’re in your professional cycling gear. It’s not acceptable. They should not be going faster than you. 10km was a breeze. I sped towards the end point and dismounted. A few seconds lost, again, but no embarrassing stacks.

I zoomed back to transition with cheers from the family. I racked the bike and changed into my running shoes. Now for the 2.5km run. After two track sessions with the Tri club, an average of 10km per session, this should have been easy…but it wasn’t. I’ll be honest… I struggled running. Frustration set in. I was mentally comparing myself to my former self – mentally I was heading into dangerous territory. I tried my best to block out the thoughts and continued looking straight ahead. Inching towards the finish line I picked up my speed and emptied the tank. There may be photo evidence that I overtook a young girl to sprint to the end. Hey, every second counts…

Then it was done.

Was it fun? Yes. Did it ignite the fire in my belly? Yes. I’m quietly happy it’s near the end of the tri season. A whole year to train and aim for podium finishes next year.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out I finished 10th in my category. Top 10. I really can’t complain. Overall my times were only one to two minutes slower than last year – pre-treatment. I’m confident I’ll gain those minutes back, and more.

The morale of this story is that treatment (and cancer) hasn’t ruined my life. It’s given me a new one. New goals. New targets. I have mentally decided treatment is over. I know I still have surgery to come, but I feel healthy and am feeling stronger every day. No more bubble wrap, no more cotton wool. Life is returning to normal.

A look of concern.