A useful tool in social work (and indeed in life) is to be able to hold an assortment of different versions of reality in your head at the same time. And that is what is going on here in New Normal land at the moment.
On the one hand I am very well indeed. Apart from having almost no hair (imagine the Fuzzy Felt board…) I do not look ill.
I walk, cycle and drive, use public transport, hold reasonable conversations and cook edible meals. There is the sheer relief that all the treatment is over, certainly for the time being. A few side effects remain, and some new ones have arrived such as the peripheral neuropathy (numb and tingling fingers and toes) that was a bit late getting to the party in early January, along with the brittle and crumbling toe nails and flaky lined finger nails, also a result of chemo.
Radiotherapy was painless and with minimal side effects apart from slight reddening and drying out of skin, and occasional days of lethargy and weariness. I travelled to Dundee by bus for forty minutes each way each of the fifteen days and watched the scenery, different every day, the sun on the Tay and the mist on the hills, horses in coats huddled in a muddy field, the drivers in the lorries we raced passed. I listened to other people's phone conversations and marvelled that they had no sense of privacy or confidentiality.
Topics ranged from the banal ('I'm on the bus…') to the intriguing ('Are we buying or selling? Forty thousand then…') and I listened and stared out the window.
In the treatment room I lay down on a bench and got zapped for five minutes by machines that hummed and loomed over me with lights and clicks, connected to a computer screen covered with unfathomable data and a sign that lit up saying 'Beam On', like I was being instructed to produce a rictus maniacal grin.
And running parallel to this is a sense of alarm that really this is not real at all. A part of me feels like my toe-nail looks, crumbling, bruised, ugly and rotting. About to fall off the edge with all the horrors hidden from view in a striped ankle-sock. All that treatment, all the time in hospital, and then it stopped, quite abruptly. And into this vast and empty space galloped all the fears and anxieties and stresses that have been held at bay since June last year when I acquired a cancer diagnosis. This is the stage that is not often talked about, as if it were 'letting the side down', which is why I am writing about it here. (In fairness it is briefly mentioned in the leaflets but not as a significant response. I thought I would just be skipping with joy when it was all over.)
A few weeks ago I made a pizza from scratch and my tingling fingers and broken nails fumbled while putting it into the oven. The toppings slid all over the cooker and the work surface. I roared, swore like a trooper, shouted and cried. Susan dashed through imagining Armageddon, and I learnt a lot about how much anger and fear was still hidden deep inside me. (I also learnt that a pizza still tastes delicious when the toppings are all mangled up, scooped into a bowl and re-applied to the misshapen base. Thank you Susan.)
I took my peripheral neuropathy to the GP who was not worried about it but he suggested that I contact the local Maggie's Centre in Dundee and while it took me a few days to do so, I eventually phoned them and arranged to go in for a visit. (It took so long because having spent most of my working life arranging support services for people I forgot that I could access them too.) It was lovely, a beautiful purpose-built building that has won architectural awards, made from natural stone and wood and full of peaceful and secluded corners, cushions, light high ceilings and glorious views over tree tops across the Tay to Fife. Peace.
No medical treatments or appointments, just a group of highly professional staff and volunteers who understand that the period after treatment finishes is often the most frightening time of all. I spoke with one of the workers, perhaps for half an hour, but with no sense of a time limit, and she suggested I attend a weekly writing class, and perhaps mindfulness later in the month. I stayed on for an hour of gentle yoga (another first!) and got the bus home. I now hope to attend the writing group and the yoga every week.
In April we head off for our week's holiday. Those who have followed this blog will know that the plan began with Cuba, briefly flirted with North Africa, then whizzed even nearer home to settle in North Berwick.
A few weeks ago when I was feeling a bit pathetic I suddenly felt that the exposed north sea coast felt too daunting. I had visions of being blown off a cliff like a plastic bag and ending up in the North Sea. So we found, and booked, a lovely hotel known for its fabulous food on the shores of a loch and surrounded by woodland near Pitlochry, a simple half-hour on the train north.
It feels gentle and nurturing and all the trees will be in bud, the evenings will be lighter and the weather should be milder. I have bought a hiking pole (as opposed to a walking stick – language is important!) and hope to manage several strolls around the loch and through the woods regardless of the state of my feet. The Kindle will be loaded with short stories, I have written a spoof itinerary for Suz (including a Mountain Rescue Loyalty Card and two distillery tours) and so the journeying continues.
I will report back!
EDITOR: Alison's first blog can be found here. There are 16 separate blogs which are all linked. If you have not read them before, do take a look?