We write letters for many different reasons; in thanks, to share joys, to commiserate in sorrows, to simply share experiences. This is a letter of gratitude, appreciation and mutual respect, and I couldn't find a better way to express the following sentiments.
To my body,
In over thirty years together we have shared some extraordinary things, yet rarely have I thanked you or even acknowledged your continued marvelousness. Your efficiency in running the fundamental day to day activities that I largely take for granted (breathing, walking, speaking, thinking) is magnificent, and your ability to rise to a challenge is amazing. Together we need to hone that ability further.
We've been through some fights already you and I. Physical, mental and emotional. Physically we've climbed mountains all over the world, we've slogged our way around the London marathon, completed several triathlons, numerous half marathons in the UK and Kenya, and we regularly take on the Shropshire hills burdened with children, sling, backpack, dog etc.
I'd like to think I've kept you in good nick. It's mostly been a respectful relationship. I consciously put you under duress to make you stronger. I test, then rest, your legs and lungs weekly during Park Run, elongate your muscle fibres in a quest for flexibility during hot yoga. Mentally, I aim to stay sharp and keep learning. Give me a problem to task my brain, and I will relish it (preferably a verbal one as numbers are not my forte). We now meditate daily, pray sometimes, I write to express my emotions. Basically I try and do what I can to keep fit and healthy.
Training and preparation are key to mental and physical strength. Evidence proves that diet and exercise increase endurance, enhance focus, reduce fat and flab, build muscle tone. I love our partnership. I’m not ashamed to admit I like you, my body, to look good. There have doubtless been times when I’ve whinged about extra inches on my stomach and thighs, or a lack thereof around my upper chest. But broadly speaking I’ve been happy. If I’ve been discontent, I’ve acted on it, and you, my body, have responded. Look good, feel good. A positive and symbiotic relationship.
Of course there have been a few issues over the years. Liver and kidneys I am sorry for how I treated you at university and occasionally since. I fully accept that Jagerbombs and Smirnoff ice are not the fuels of champions. But you've survived and coped admirably. Thank goodness the liver regenerates and regrows when treated respectfully.
When asked to respond to the primeval urge to reproduce, you kicked-started the processes and organs that had remained dormant for much of my life. The miracle of pregnancy. And what a miracle it is. In this respect I have been exceptionally blessed.
Of course you grumbled at times, the extra weight grated on my pelvis girdle, small spidery explosions appeared on my legs like dark snowflakes, evidence of the pressures within as new blood fills the system long before the world can see any obvious physical swelling of the belly. All this you did with only minimal fuss and fanfare.
Birthing too, a source of much angst for every new mother was relatively uncomplicated. I consciously exercised the mind to inspire emotional calm, you delivered the physical goods. An intense, primordial experience for which there can be no equal. You did that twice. Two children carried without consequence, born at home, fed from my own milk. If this was all I had to be grateful for, this would be cause enough for ecstatic celebration.
And so we stand on the precipice of yet more challenges.
These challenges are not of my choosing, nor yours. Unlike completing a sporting event, there was no training physical or mental for the emergency surgery and for what has now followed. That felt like a cursed lightning bolt to the abdomen, electrical shocks felt throughout the body. Flesh literally torn apart, inners assaulted, cut, handled, rearranged, sewn and glued back together. Brutal but absolutely necessary. Literally life-and-death.
I am sorry I didn’t listen sooner to your gentle yet foreboding peristaltic spasms in preceding months. Your warnings were too quiet for one who has been through birth and has the permanent distractions of toddlers. It was all too easy to ignore.
You have recovered from surgery well, for that I am grateful. The scar is healed, the intestines have finished their spasmodic protestations and settled back into a new rhythm, albeit with a different physical conclusion at my stoma. A swift return to physical mobility has allowed me to be an active mum again, one who can lift her own children, roll around with them and be present in their lives.
Since the operation we have braved further explorations and investigations by clinicians as we prepare for the feast ahead. Today was simply (hopefully) the last of these appetisers before the main event. The Hickman line. Where my arms failed to provide veins of a sufficient girth to accommodate a PICC line, my neck has succeeded. Wires now protrude from my neck and left breastbone in readiness for chemo, an odd balance and symmetry to the stoma and bag on the lower half of my torso.
Artificial openings into the body are in place. We are ready, or as ready as we will ever be for the toxins to come. Let them come.
I have been reading up, others have shared their wisdom and advice too. The supply chain of wondrous supporters both local and remote is poised ready with nutritious goodies to help us out. Food for the body and the mind. Organic meals, supplements of turmeric and ginger, vitamins to nourish your bodily systems. To enable you to recover, to empower you to fight back and to overcome.
I promise to do my best to eat well, however little I want to. I will adhere to the practical insights of chemo survivors. Above all I will endeavour to keep warm. Peripheral neuropathy, in which the nerves at the extremities of the body, fingers and toes, are attacked is very common with my type of chemo, oxaliplatin. Extreme sensitivity to temperature, hot and cold exacerbates this. At its worst permanently debilitating; pain walking, an inability to perform simple dexterous functions (buttons, zips, tights), hopefully temporary, but not for all. Of this I am most afraid. But this is a risk we must take together.
Beyond this I promise to moisturise, to treat the body with respect, listen to the mind, rest, breathe, exercise when I can. All this I will do for you, but the bits I cannot see you must do alone.
For you are ultimately a mystery to me. My elementary understanding of biological functions does not permit me to comprehend exactly what wars you are waging within. I cannot see and may never know which cells, inflammatory markers, growth factors, antibodies are in play over the coming weeks. As you articulate and express symptoms I will perhaps guess at what it going on, but it will simply be a guess.
Tomorrow we begin. I will be cheering us on from the hippocampus, from the control centre of the brain. In the words of Kelly Clarkson ‘What doesn't kill you makes you stronger’. Together I hope we can do this and emerge stronger and healthier. Bring on the champagne.*
Thank you for all you have done and continue to do.
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*See my previous blog post ‘Yo yo days’ if the reference to champagne makes no sense!