Towards the end of my radiotherapy sessions, Kristy told me about a woman also receiving treatment at the same time as me. She'd had chemotherapy and lost all her hair, but would turn up every day looking fabulous: a wig or a hat, make-up, beautiful clothes. Then one day she arrived looking pale and wan, in drab clothes. Kristy asked if she wasn't feeling so well, but she apparently replied in a deadpan voice: "First day back at work."
I can absolutely understand this, as I slowly wind my way back into a fuller programme of work (writing; supervisions; eight lectures; a conference in London; and a research trip over the twelve week semester that starts this week). I'm feeling very wary of slipping into old ways of taking on too much, and don't trust myself to be strong enough to protect myself. There's no doubt I'm over the most difficult parts of my treatment, but while I'm starting to feel physically stronger in lots of ways, it's quite clear to me that I haven't yet finished being sick. In one sense it's lovely to feel some energy returning, but it's so clear to me that I can't return to the same life I was living before September, when the little dimple appeared and called a halt to life in the academic fast lane. I'm almost sorry I don't have some more visible sign of illness to protect me.
This is contradictory, of course: ten days ago I was sitting in a lovely restaurant with my partner and son, my writing collaborator and another dear medievalist friend. We had toured the amazing Werribee Mansion, and were just sitting down to a crisp white tablecloth and local Shadowfax wines, before heading to Torquay beach for the afternoon, and then tea with my parents. All of a sudden, I announced with deep, clear and joyful conviction, that I didn't feel like a sick person anymore. And it's true: I don't. I'm walking along the creek every morning for about forty minutes; and while my right arm is sore after playing tennis on Sunday and trying too hard, too soon, to start working on my serve (the scar under my arm feels pulled and strained today), I was, nevertheless, running around the court, and not feeling too tired by the end.
But I still feel, very clearly, that I haven't finished my recovery. There are still huge and clear limits to my energy levels, especially when it comes to drawing on reserves of emotional and social energy. I feel I have no such reserves any more. I still need a nap most days; I still quickly feel overwhelmed and a little panicky. I'm sure it's not at all like having a nervous breakdown; and yet I do feel as if I have, indeed, lost my nerve. Literally, of course, this is exactly what's happened: I'm still numb and tingly in sections of my arm and shoulder where the nerves were cut as part of the lymph node biopsy. In this case, the bodily metaphor has a literal correlative.
It's difficult to write about this, since I don't want anyone reading this blog to feel they are imposing, or creating difficulties when I have agreed to do things. I am directly responsible, myself, for my health and the careful decisions I've made about teaching and other projects over the next few months; and am only doing things I want to do. So no one needs to worry about that.
The other difficult thing to think about, and it's something I've been very coy about until now, is that I've had to tackle the idea — ok, the fact — of menopause, rather earlier than I was anticipating. Because my tumour had a high rate of responsiveness to oestrogen and progesterone, the recommended treatment is to lock down the body's response to these hormones (this is what the Tamoxifen tablets do). I'm also having the further treatment of monthly injections of a drug that effectively shuts down my ovaries (ovarian ablation is the term here). Menopause came on pretty swiftly: my body gave up its menstrual cycle without a word; and I'm having periodic hot flushes (or 'flashes', as they are called in the US; or 'power surges', if you are feeling confident and strong), but also sometimes cold flashes. Oestrogen, it turns out, helps you regulate your body temperature.
So far, this hasn't actually been too bad, but it's another reason why I feel I've barely begun to process everything that's happened. I haven't finished reading all the cancer-diet books; we only got about a third of the way through Middlemarch; I'm only just beginning to establish the meditation routine I began in December; and I don't yet know how to make the changes I want to make in my life.