Written on the Body #22, July 18, 2020 — Corona Blues and Chemo-Therapy

The last post took a while to write because of so much happening in the world. This took a while because of internal events and changes.

First of all, today is my father’s birthday: born in 1907, he would have been 113 years old today; he died on Aug. 10, 1993, at the age of 86. I miss him always, but in the past couple of years, I have been really wanting to talk to him about the medical matters I am facing, and also the changes in cardiology since he retired from practice in 1982. With a few other doctors in New York, he helped develop the first stress test, then called the two-step test– patients walked up and down a two-step ladder and then had an ECG to measure their heart function. I find myself telling this to the technicians as I have ECG’s and echocardiograms now, all part of the procedure for the new drug I am taking (which could affect the heart, though so far I am doing okay).

I have been experiencing more side-effects, probably due to the increased dose of the chemotherapy pills I have been taking since last year rather than the new drug itself (I am not mentioning specific drug names here, as everyone reacts differently to these medications and their combinations). Fortunately, I have a wonderful oncologist at Princess Margaret who listened to me when I said I was feeling “not great,” instead of my usual “things are going well…despite a minor side effect here and there.” The major issues were fatigue, some digestive problems, and red, burning (like a bad sunburn) on the palms of my hands and soles of my feet — a known effect of the pills on the capillaries of those area, now worse than before. The doctor stopped the pills for this round of chemo, so I only have the IV of the new drug, and will reduce the dose for further cycles. It is great to have a doctor — and his team — who listen to me, and try to balance the need for these powerful drugs with my own tolerance level. And it is a delicate, changing balance. I am now beginning to feel better, which is a relief. Needing to pay so much attention to my body and its physical needs (e.g. Sleep Now! Pay attention to these symptoms!) is important, but draws energy from other things I would like to do and think about.

In my chemotherapy session this past Thursday, I was in a room with a woman who was there for her very first chemo treatment — understandably overwhelmed and scared. The nurse asked if I would talk to her about my “port” — a device about the diameter of a nickel, implanted in my chest to take in medications and draw blood, which is much safer and better than using a vein in the arm. I was glad to do this, and our talk expanded to thoughts about the illness and treatment in general; possible things to expect (e.g. sudden episodes of fatigue, even when you were feeling okay ten minutes ago), and how to talk to her kids. Unlike me, she has young children — something that would add greatly to one’s stress and anxiety; I know it would have been much harder for me if my son were 9, not 39. (It’s still hard, but at least he is launched in his life and we can talk as adults). We agreed it is important to take things day by day, and be honest with the kids (according to their age level), and I gave her a few suggestions for helpful resources — e.g. my relaxation group at Wellspring. As a friend of mine said when I told her about this conversation, “You’re back at work doing therapy.” “Chemo-therapy,” I replied — a new twist on the word.

I also think I, like many people, am feeling the continued effects of the COVID-19 isolation and fears. Though our basic daily life hasn’t changed that much, as Roger and I are both retired and used to spending time at home, I miss the visits with friends over coffee, occasional visits to a museum or seeing a play, just walking casually on the street. And he is looking forward to his physiotherapy clinic reopening: loss of that treatment has increased his pain from arthritis. Even contacts with neighbours are restricted; we are fearful of talking to people without masks on, worry about people not following “social distance” at the grocery store or drugstore. And we wonder about how long this will last — especially seeing the horrifying increase in numbers in the U.S. We worry about friends and family, in Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere — and also about the general state of things, in this time of turmoil and change: schools, the arts, sports, politics, all in flux. These fears and precautions are necessary — and much better than the “I don’t care/I have a right not to wear a mask!” attitude that some people have, but they do put a damper on human sociability. I am grateful to Zoom, for letting us make some connections with loved ones and also letting us experience some events (readings, concerts, talks, etc.) — including ones I would not have been able to attend in “real life,” such as my friend Lisa Alther’s readings and discussions of her new novel, Swan Song, which I recommend highly. As Lisa says in the book, “When you started seeing only the sadness of life, with none of the simultaneous beauty and humor, you were in trouble.” https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/612219/swan-song-by-lisa-alther/9780525657545

So my thought for today is — keep trying to see all these facets of life — beauty, love, humour, grief. And thanks to friends who keep sending good wishes, cards with flowers and hummingbirds, and healing thoughts. It does help, so much!

About Ellen

I am a member of The Writers Union of Canada, the League of Canadian Poets, and CANSCAIP. I have received grants from the Ontario Arts Council for both writing and teaching. I currently work with Learning Through the Arts and Living through the Arts, programmes run by the Royal Conservatory of Music that enable artists to work in schools and community organizations. I have also taught in many other school and community programs, and have been a judge for various writing contests for both young people and adults.
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