52 half-marathons in 52 weeks, adjuvant tamoxifen, Antrim, bowel cancer, catheter, DIEP Flap, Health Writing Activist Monthly Challenge, hot flashes, life-threatening diseases, Lough Neagh, mastectomy, Phoenix canals, reconstruction, running, side effects, spiritual, spirituality, uterine cancer
My post-surgical lap around the hospital ward, was at best, tentative and unsteady, but that was more to do with all the things still attached to me, the urinary catheter and the JP drains, as well as the stunning realization that standing up straight is just not possible three days after a DIEP flap reconstruction. Magically, just two weeks later, I was walking along the Arizona Grand canal with Ken and our girl. Standing a little straighter, I was thrilled to be outside, the last of the JP drains removed, but also a little frustrated to be reduced to a stroll. My feet wanted to break into a run.
Today is the day I will run. Marking the first truly Spring like day in Phoenix, the temperature should reach almost 80 degrees. Still no side effects to report on this, Day 3, of my adjuvant tamoxifen therapy … only 1,822 days to go. By that time, my daughter will have voted for the first time. But it’s early days, and I have spent entirely too much of the past two days Googling obsessively about Tamoxifen’s side effects and just how long exactly before they make their presence known. I am bracing for, at minimum, joint and bone pain, weight gain, and hot flashes (which I’m assuming is what the Mayo clinic means by “a feeling of warmth”). It may not be too much of a stretch to anticipate fatigue, fluid retention, cataracts, and depression (perhaps synonymous with Mayo’s “feeling sad or empty,” which I have indeed been feeling intermittently since the diagnosis of invasive breast cancer, biopsies, mastectomy, and reconstruction). For some taking tamoxifen, lies the prospect of blood clots leading to deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism. It is truly not comforting to learn from the National Cancer Institute that my new daily regimen is “not known to cause any types of cancer in humans other than endometrial cancer and uterine sarcoma” a fact that sent me scurrying, frightened, to the National Breast Cancer Coalition, where sure enough, I learned that “it has been known for some time that tamoxifen use increases the risk of several life-threatening diseases, including endometrial cancer, stroke, and venous thromboembolic disease. New data indicate that tamoxifen also increases the risk of uterine sarcoma, a rare and aggressive uterine cancer.” More diseases, more devastatingly specific search terms for another excursion powered by Google.
Back to Phoenix, Arizona, on a Spring-like day, in my season of rebirth and recovery. This morning I ventured out for my run. Entirely alone. Not too strenuous, not more than some back home would call a “good stretch of the legs” along the hard, packed dirt of my favorite stretch of canal. It was perfect. Not a hint of pain. Quiet too, save for the sound of my feet pounding on the dirt. I’ve known this quiet before – it was with me years ago, before music accompanied my running via the ipod, and long before that, the Sony walkman. Yes, in the days of vinyl and “mix” tapes, I ran quite regularly through Antrim Castle Grounds and along the pathways of the Lough Neagh shore. As it did back then, this solitary run brings to mind “real” runners. Real runners like Owen Crilly, one of a wonderful family of nine who grew up next door to me. In 1999, bowel cancer took his father, Joe, a big-hearted man, a tailor by trade, loved by everybody. This and the diagnoses of other family members and friends, inspired Owen, at the age of 42, to run 52 half-marathons in 52 weeks. to raise awareness and £15,000 for Action Cancer and Bowel Cancer UK in Northern Ireland.He’s well on his way, offering up every run for people like me. Owen has inspired me to get moving again and to keep moving my conversations about cancer in a different direction, toward cause and prevention.
Owen is, by definition, a real runner. But before I had him to admire, it was legendary Eric Liddell, as portrayed in Chariots of Fire. Liddell ran not for a cure, but simply to glorify God. Cancer has me thinking about him, wondering about the man behind the athlete from the 1924 Paris Olympics, and his resolve not to run on a Sunday. Eric Liddell didn’t bargain. I cannot say the same for myself. Since cancer came calling, I have indeed reverted to childish ways of bargaining with God … “I’ll be a better wife, mother, daughter, friend, boss, human being in general, God, if you could just see to it that my Oncotype DX number falls in the really good range,” or “I will never complain about anything ever again, God, if you could just keep the cancer at bay.” I have questions for this God, too; they come in rapid succession, disturbing my rest: “Did I get cancer possibly because I used my cellphone while driving, or maybe it was directly related to my having a baby at 34, what some pregnancy books in 1997 described as “advanced maternal age.” Perhaps it was because I hadn’t been able to breast feed or been diligent about buying certified-organic produce? Perhaps it had something to do with the full-bodied Zinfandel I used to enjoy at the end of a day, pre-diagnosis. But mostly, the question for which there is no satisfactory response, “Why, oh why, did our darling daughter’s life have to be interrupted by my cancer?” Together, it all adds up to a whole lot of me believing I caused my own cancer. I must have done something. From the ridiculous to the religious, I wander. Had I rebuked God, perhaps? I do not know when I last heard someone use “rebuke” in any context, but this cancer has once again called up what Edna O’Brien refers to as the inescapable themes of my childhood, which today are wrapped up in the long-ago Sunday morning church services at All Saints Parish Church in Antrim. As I write, I can almost hear the minister, like many before him, deliver that beautiful passage from Corinthians, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Childish things, I imagine, like praying to a “quid pro quo” God. So my spiritual struggle continues, all the while mindful and moved beyond measure by the knowledge that my name has been added to the prayer lists of people I don’t even know.
Such questions of faith combined with questions about breast cancer and its adjuvant treatments need time to percolate. Easier today to contemplate the based-on-fact characters that have enriched my life. Characters like the movie-version of Eric Liddell. How I love the movies, especially those based on a well-written screenplay. While it has been highly entertaining in some social settings, being able to quote huge chunks of script has proven only useful in the observation of classroom instruction. With a nod to Dr. Madeline Hunter, I am a master of what is known in the teaching trade as “script taping.” An auditory learner, I can often recall what I heard verbatim. Admittedly, it is a selective kind of memory, not unlike my husband’s hearing when I want him to help me rearrange the furniture or pick out a paint color. It didn’t serve me well as a student trying to recall the stuff of lectures that would prove to a crotchety professor of an excruciatingly dull Philosophy course that I had, in fact, been listening during his lectures. Nor did it help me readily recall anything I heard from the doctor who informed me of the tumors in my breast. No. That would have been too useful. Instead, because I’ve wrestled with the same angst as, let’s say, the eponymous Shirley Valentine, I know by heart what she says levelly staring down the camera: “Why do we get all this life if we don’t ever use it? Why do we get all these feelings, and dreams, and hopes if we don’t ever use them? That’s where Shirley Valentine disappeared to. She got lost in all this unused life.” Ah, that Willy Russell knows how to get into the head of a woman in the middle of her life.
But today, it wasn’t Shirley Valentine or Jane Fonda’s Sally Bender in Coming Home. It was Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, holding court with a group of admirers at the Highland Games, waxing lyrical about faith in the context of a race: “I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.” His sister, a devout missionary cannot comprehend whey her brother would choose a secular sporting event in paris. Poignant and gentle, he rebuffs his sister, smiling with the assurance and grace of a man who is doing the right thing: (and, yes, strains of the iconic Vangelis soundtrack are playing in my head
I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.
I feel his pleasure.
Unresolved questions of faith notwithstanding, I know for sure that at some point, during every run along the banks of an Arizona canal or a County Antrim river, that Liddell’s explanation of his relationship with God, will whisper in my ears. Thus, I run my race, and that will do for now.