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Gratitude, Faith, Joy and Blessings.

Xmas A

Our rooftop abode.

It is at this time of the year during the festive season where we get to spend some treasured quality time with family and friends, after a long and often challenging year that we’re about to put behind us; some of us only too happy to do so.  For me as with many of you, this year hasn’t been without it’s emotional and head scratching moments, but at the same time I am filled with gratitude because it has been a year that has been relatively free of health problems. Yes, I’ve still had to do my monthly marathon runs to the hospital to get my infusion treatments that last a good 6 hours, forcing me to scotch an entire day that I could be at home assisting my kids with their homework, but it’s nothing I’m not used to by now and the staff who take care of me at the hospital that I attend are like my second family now. They get to see me at my worst, but never judge. They are just unfailingly there…always. I am grateful for them and I’m grateful for my treatments. They are what keep me alive for longer and give me more precious time with my family.

In between treatments, I get to spend precious time with family and friends, and do what really brings me joy and happiness. A few nights ago after a particularly hectic week, my husband and I were spending one of our many evenings on the roof deck, catching up on events. We’ve turned the extra space that we have on our roof into our own little piece of heaven; an escape we can run to when things get a little too intense or overwhelming. Discussions inevitably turned to what 2015 has brought into our lives and what the resulting repercussions were. It all made me realize that despite all the obstacles that have been thrown my way due to health issues, my family and I still have so much to be grateful for. In February of next year, I have to undergo my six monthly re-evaluation. I won’t lie to you when I say that I’m afraid of the possible outcome. I have so much planned for this year. I have an audience to build in order to promote my book and increase my sales. I have to add though that for me in this instance, my book is not about making money (although that would be nice considering all the work and research I put into it), but it is more about helping other people. My daughter and I are going to Hollywood in July to pursue a possible acting career for her since being spotted by talent scouts. We have a long overdue holiday back in our home country that we’ve already committed to in August. If my body has other plans, then all of that goes flying out the window. These tests in February have to come out clean.

Xmas B

Christmas! My favorite time of year.

In the meantime, good fortune fell very unexpectedly into my lap two weeks ago when I was commissioned by an airline to write an article for their in-flight magazine. This may seem small to some, but for me it’s an important stepping stone in building a writing career for myself, especially when the long term is not guaranteed for me.

While the ride lasts I have promised myself to make the most of every single day and moment that I am given. I will be forcing myself to step out of my comfort zone and grab opportunities that I would normally be too scared to reach out and seize. Less technology and more books, more nutritious food and less junk, regular gym sessions, more water, more acceptance of myself, more candlelit foam baths with a delicious glass of wine, more fun times with my family, more getting out there and having exciting adventures but most of all, less fear and more faith…more faith that no matter what happens in the future it is all going to be okay.

I hope that you all had a blessed Christmas and I wish you all the best that 2016 could possible bring you and more than you could ever hope for. Light, love, joy and faith that bring lots of adventures and opportunities which provide you with beautiful, lasting memories.

 

This entry was posted on December 30, 2015.

New cutting edge treatments.

Although October being breast cancer awareness month has come and gone, I still feel that it is essential to raise awareness for this disease every month and not restrict it to just 30 days of the year.

That said, I’d like to draw you attention to a company called Cure Forward. They seek to connect patients who are keen to try new cutting edge treatments. They specialize in precision medicine which is developing a growing presence in the medical field, and part of their mission is to assist patients to learn as much about their treatment options as possible whilst helping them to gain access to various precision medicine options that are not available in normal mainstream medicine.

After reading about the work that they do, I really feel that they have a valuable contribution to make with regards to getting us one step closer to a possible cure for this insidious disease. Scientists all over the world are working hard to get us one step closer to this goal, but cancer is like a Chameleon…it is a master of disguise and our cure remains ever elusive. Companies like Cure Forward are reaching for the fast forward button that can assist us in achieving the ultimate prize. To find out more you can visit: http://www.cureforward.com/#/

Syringes

Being a three-time breast cancer survivor myself who is facing a triple negative stage IV prognosis, these cutting edge treatments are a very exciting prospect, because all that mainstream medicine is providing at the moment are the conventional treatments of harsh chemotherapy and other medicines that don’t necessarily work and that definitely don’t have a 100 percent foolproof track record.

My journey with breast cancer which began in 2003, is a long one filled with many ups and downs. It’s a rollercoaster ride which I haven’t been on alone. I have been forced to take my family and friends along for the ride. The highs have been indescribably exhilarating, while the lows have resembled being thrown into a very deep dark hole, with very slippery vertical walls. It takes every ounce of your will power and strength to try and claw your way out of the hole. Just as you have almost reached the top where you’re hanging on by your fingernails, and you feel like you can’t hold on any longer and are in serious danger of falling back in again, a friend or family member reaches down and takes your hand, pulling you out the rest of the way. Fighting cancer is not something that anybody can do alone. There always comes a point where you need a helping hand in some form or another, no matter how strong you think you are.

When I was first diagnosed in 2003, I was fortunate enough that it had been caught in the early stages and after a mastectomy and 6 months of chemotherapy, I was lucky enough to be in full remission for 5 years. When in 2009, it was discovered that my cancer had returned and much to my mind dumbing horror had progressed to stage IV, I felt as though I was freefalling straight back into that dark hole. There was no way that anybody could grab my hand fast enough to prevent me from falling back inside again and this time, the hole was much deeper than before. This stage of the journey was going to test my faith, strength and fortitude in every imaginable way. The closest I’ve ever come to knocking on deaths door came, when 9 months later on the day of my very last chemotherapy treatment, I was rushed into emergency surgery to have 5 litres of fluid drained from my pleural cavity that had been building up around my lungs during the arduous months of treatment. Although my religious faith had been tested to it’s limits and was indeed faltering badly, I prayed harder than I’ve ever done in my life. I wasn’t ready yet to leave my best friend and three little girls who all still needed me. It was at this stage that I threw down the gauntlet and decided that I was not going down without a fight, and so began a year and a half of slow, painful recovery.

The turning point came when in December 2012, I became part of the very first group of 12 breast cancer survivors to undertake an expedition into Antarctica to raise awareness. It was in the build up to this trip and  during it,  that through training and very hard work much of my faith in my body and in life in general, was restored. I had also automatically expanded on my support network, and it served me well when in 2013, I relapsed once again. I was being forced once more, kicking and screaming to embark on a  trip down the same nightmare road. With 6 more months of chemotherapy behind me, I was thrilled to hear that the treatments had been effective and that I was once again in the safe zone. It’s been nearly 2 years now (touch wood) that I have been in partial remission and I’m doing well.

If I could give any woman advice when it comes to such a devastating diagnosis, it would be to do your research. The more you know about your type of breast cancer the better because it will help you to make more informed choices and avoid any regrets further down the road. Knowing more also helps to control the fear factor. Although it is very tempting, it is important to avoid playing the victim card. You have to be your own advocate and remember that no nurse or doctor can ever tell you what to do. Listen to and trust your instincts. It is your body and your life, not theirs.

Remember that breast cancer is not a death sentence. Do your research, look after your body and keep your family and friends close and soak up their love. Take some time out to have fun and relax and surround yourself  with people that make you laugh and feel good about yourself. Once your treatments are over and it’s time to move forward with your life, try to do something every now and again that scares you. Step out of your comfort zone, try new things, learn new skills and push your limits every now and then. Pack as much into everyday as you can, and really live in the moment. You can never be truly happy if you’re constantly harping on about the past or fretting about the future. Don’t let your breast cancer diagnosis define who you are or how you live your life…you are so much more than that. Don’t let the fear of a recurrence hang over your head; you have no control over that anyway, and it doesn’t help to worry about something that might not even happen. Just live your life to the fullest, love to the fullest and treasure every moment.

 

 

This entry was posted on November 22, 2015.

Another alternative/holistic cure…Baking Soda!?

On the subject of alternative cures, I have come across yet another holistic/natural treatment that is said to be a more effective and safer treatment than chemotherapy for not just breast cancer, but any form of cancer for that matter. The unlikely candidate is baking soda, otherwise known as bicarbonate of soda. Even the most aggressive cancers and cancer that has metastasized has been shown to be reversed or halted in it’s tracks by baking soda treatments.

A few years ago, Dr. Mark Pagel from the University of Arizona received a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Health to study the true effectiveness of baking soda on cancer cells. The result of those studies showed that dietary measures that boost bicarbonate levels in the body can increase the pH of acidic tumors without upsetting the pH of the blood and healthy tissues. Animal models of human breast cancer show that oral sodium bicarbonate  does indeed make tumors more alkaline and inhibits metastasis.  Based on these studies, plus the fact that baking soda is safe and well tolerated, world renowned doctors such as Dr. Julian Whitaker have adopted successful cancer treatment protocols as part of an overall nutritional and immune program for patients who are dealing with the disease. This consists of 12g (about 2 rounded teaspoons) of baking soda mixed in 2 cups of water, along with a low-calorie sweetener of your choice. This can be sipped slowly over an hour or two and should be repeated at least three times a day.

One man claims he has found a cure for, and successfully treated his own cancer by combining baking soda with molasses.

When taken orally with water, especially water that is high in magnesium, and also taken transdermally by bathing in it, baking soda can become a first-line treatment in cancer; it can even be used to treat the common cold.

Dr. Robert J. Gillies and his colleagues have already demonstrated that pre-treatment of mice with baking soda  results in the alkalinisation of the area around tumors. The same researchers reported  that bicarbonate increases tumor pH and also inhibits spontaneous metastasis in mice with breast cancer.Baking soda image

After doing much research for my own breast cancer books, one of the most important aspects that stood out for me was the fact that the inner pH and hormonal balance of our bodies is vitally important, and that if one of those systems’ balance is compromised, immunity is directly affected and in turn, puts us more at risk of developing chronic diseases as well as cancer over the long term.

Hydrogen ions are known to tie up oxygen molecules. This means that the more acid a liquid is, the less available the oxygen in it. Every cell in our bodies requires oxygen for life and to maintain optimal health. Cancer cells have been shown to thrive in cells that have low oxygen levels. The higher our oxygen levels, the greater difficulty the cancer cells have of thriving and spreading. All of this depends on getting the pH balance in our bodies right. The theory is akin to a lake full of fish. If acid rain had to hit the lake, all the fish would die, because highly acidic molecules bind up all the available oxygen. When malignant cells develop, they generate a compound called lactic acid as well as pyruvic acid. Under normal circumstances the body would be able to metabolize these acids quite efficiently, however if the balance is tipped and cancer does develop, these acid compounds gather in the immediate surroundings of the tumor/s due the tumor’s high metabolic rate.

So there we have it.  Another interesting theory to ponder on and if you ask me, trying this one out in moderation can’t hurt…it can only benefit. On that note, I think I’ll go and raid the kitchen cupboards now.

Published on July 9 2015 – in overall Health – by Get Holistic Health.

This entry was posted on October 27, 2015.

The Cannabis debate

I came across a very interesting article posted on Facebook last night, claiming that Cannabis in pure oil form can cure cancer. Yes, cure. I know you’re probably casting your eyes to the ceiling, after all there are so many articles out there claiming to cure cancer, and lets face it, most of them are total scams that take vulnerable people who are so desperate to try anything, for a complete ride whilst raising their hopes sky high, only to be cruelly devastated in the end.

This article however is interesting for the simple fact that there are many links at the end of it, inviting you to do your own research into the topic and not just to take the authors word for it. The literature claims that the US government has known since 1974 that cannabis cures cancer. In 72′ Richard Nixon wanted a larger budget for his war on drugs, and thought that if he could prove that Cannabis caused lung cancer like normal cigarettes do, then he would get the support he needed. He gave the Medical College of Virginia 2 years to do a study on the effects of THC on the body. In 74′ the study was completed and it turns out that THC, when ingested in highly concentrated forms such as eating Cannabis oil, will attack any mutated cells in your body while strengthening and rejuvenating the healthy cells. Not only that, it had no side effects whatsoever. Really does sound too good to be true doesn’t it? It was even shown to combat super bugs like MRSA. Apparently when Nixon saw the report he was furious and threw the entire report in the trash, deeming the study highly classified information. In 1976 President Gerald Ford put an end to all public cannabis research and granted exclusive rights to major pharmaceutical companies, who then set out to try and develop synthetic versions, but never successfully achieved that.

I think it’s worth mentioning that smoking cannabis has been shown to harm the lungs, but drinking it in concentrated oil form is a completely different story.

The only reason why we found out about the study a few years ago was thanks to dedicated medical and law professionals who filed Freedom of Information requests. The government of course lied about these studies for various reasons, and probably one of the biggest and first reasons that springs to mind is of course Pharmaceutical companies.  They spend billions every year lobbying to keep the use of Cannabis illegal because they make trillions out of unsuspecting people like you and I, who would sacrifice their life savings if it came to it, just to have very expensive cancer treatments in order to stay alive, and all the while they’re happily pocketing the money.Cannebis image

Now, I have to stress once again that I’m not saying this is all true beyond a shadow of a doubt. I think however that it is worth looking into further. I know too, that one can do all the research in the world on the internet, but those are just articles. How do we ascertain beyond a shadow of a doubt that these radical accusations and claims are true? Make a couple of calls to high places? Beats me, but I will leave you with the following websites to visit. Read the articles and decide for yourselves. Me?   If my doctor had to tell me tomorrow that my cancer had become terminal and that I no options left for treatment, I would be open to trying anything, and as long as I was certain that cannabis wouldn’t do me any harm if I did try it, I’d definitely give it a try. Hell, what more would I have to lose at that point. Nothing…that’s what.

http://themindunleashed.org/2013/07/cannabis-cures-cancer-and-government.html

http://themindunleashed.org/2013/12/34-medical-studies-proving-cannabis-cures-cancer.html

http://themindunleashed.org/2014/04/molecular-biologist-explains-thc-completely-kills-cancer.html

http://themindunleashed.org/2014/05/recipe-make-cannabis-oil-chemo-alternative.html

This entry was posted on August 20, 2015.

Retrospection

All breast cancer survivors have one thing in common, and that is the ever evading mystery of what caused our breast cancer in the first place. Anger follows very close on the heals of shock and fear, but not long after that comes retrospection. This often hits you when you are incapacitated by your cancer surgeries or treatments, leaving you no choice but to slow down. If you were anything like I was when I had chemotherapy for the first time, you were most probably sleeping for the good part of two or three days after your sessions, giving you plenty of time to contemplate things and hold your own private little pity party.

Twelve years later and having written my own book on breast cancer to try and help as many people out there as possible, I have come to what I’m pretty sure is a universal conclusion. Unless breast cancer is hereditary and runs in our families and we have tested positive for the BRCA 1&2 gene, there is simply no way of knowing for sure. Only 10% of all breast cancers diagnosed are indeed due to genetic factors. All the rest are due to environmental influences. This is a very unsettling notion indeed, because although we do have a certain amount of control over what we intentionally expose ourselves to, the sobering fact is that a lot of what we unwittingly come into contact with, we can do nothing about. These things include the air we breathe, the water we drink and bathe in and everything else that we’re exposed to when we are out in public including the workplace.

Fortunately there are some things we do have control over and that is our own personal home environments as well as what we put into and onto our bodies. Doing research for my book, I was shocked as to how much blatant disregard there is in the manufacturing, cultivation, and animal farming businesses for human health and safety. It is rife in the cattle farming industry to inject their cows with hormones so that they produce more milk for longer. These hormones also encourage the animals to eat more and therefore produce more meat to increase sales and overall profits. These practices in the meat industry also has some far reaching ramifications, because these hormones get into many other products that come from the same animals like milk, cheese, margarine, yoghurt, cream and butter to name just a few. These hormones have been proven by scientists to have carcinogenic effects on humans, thereby causing various cancers, breast cancer being one of them.

Then there are also the herbicides and pesticides that are sprayed liberally over crops and food that we have to consume. Granted I do understand that farmers have to deal with the plight of insects and other pests that can ruin their crops and eat away at their profits and livelihoods, but the controversial question is this…should they be doing this just so that they can make a buck whilst putting everybody else’s health at risk? I think not! I could go on about this till next week, but the fact still remains that we as the consumers can do very little about what has become purely a money making business, regardless of the consequences.

Luckily there are people out there who do still have their ethics intact and who do care about the health and welfare of others, and these are the organic farmers. I see an exciting trend happening in supermarkets, with more and more organic products emerging on the shelves at more reasonable retail prices. What has always put me off going totally organic is the prices. If you go to an exclusively organic shop, you’re going to pay twice if not three times the price of normal produce, but buying from your normal supermarket chain can bring the prices of organic products down somewhat,making them just a little more affordable.

This entry was posted on July 6, 2015.

Running in circles.

For me, the last few months have meant running around like a crazed chicken with it’s had cut off! I still clearly remember when I was a little girl, wishing that I could grow up faster. That growing up would be easier because then I could make my own decisions and do exactly what I wanted to. Little did I know in all my naivety however that the older you get, the more complicated and difficult life becomes. Now that I am a married mother with three demanding teenagers, I wish that I could’ve remained 5 years old…for another 10 years!

My eldest daughter Rochelle, who is now 17 undertook ‘The World Challenge’ at school which has meant raising funds on her with the group that she is travelling to Mongolia and China with own for expenditure purposes. Once there, they will travel around the country on foot and horseback, and even assist in building a school. In the meantime, a ludicrous amount of money has been spent on air tickets, equipment and clothing. To add to the mayhem, there has been a last minute stressful scramble to get Chinese and Mongolian visa’s sorted which has involved a mind numbing amount of red tape to slash out way through. Then there has been the vaccinations. The list of them that she’s had to get is as long as my forearm and I haven’t been able to get them all in the town we live in. This forced me to call in a favor with my husband in the middle of a stressful working day, sending him bad tempered and muttering under his breath into Dubai of all places. It is absolutely no use having a GPS in Dubai or anywhere in the UAE for that matter. Not much forethought goes into building the roads here, with future development in mind. The result is never ending, with very chaotic and confusing roadwork’s constantly on the go as they scramble to correct what was in the first place, obviously a very bad idea! The result is that GPS’s simply don’t work. Instead of hearing ‘keep right and take the next exit in 400m’, you hear ‘recalculating, recalculating, recalculating’ until all you want to do is rip the GPS off the windscreen in front of you and toss it out onto the highway, where hopefully it’ll be crushed by a 20 ton truck. If you don’t know where you’re going, you begin to feel like a mouse stuck in an endless maze after a while. My husband absolutely hates the place and only goes into the city if he really has to. After making countless phone calls, I was now sending him in to find some obscure pharmacy that held the only diphtheria and rabies vaccines to be had for miles around.

Luckily for me however, Rochelle is made of tough stuff and didn’t even flinch while receiving any of her previous injections which is very unlike her younger sister Clarice. Where my youngest got her paralyzing fear of needles from I’m still grappling to comprehend. She has had to have blood drawn once every two months, for very strong anti-acne medication that she’s on. It starts in the early morning already, where she will sink down in the middle of the stairs and give me a very forlorn look and say, ‘Mommy I don’t want to do this…I know it’s going to hurt.’

Telling her it’s not going to hurt and that it’s all in her head doesn’t help. Every single time that needle goes in, she passes out. After having to pick her up off the floor several times with my bad back, I insisted that she lie down while it’s done. Doesn’t help. Her eyes still roll back and her head flops to the side while her traumatized brain struggles to process what is happening. I do sympathize with her, I mean nobody likes the feeling of fainting. It really doesn’t feel good, but no wonder she loves to act…she’s such a drama queen. She’s the first person I’ve ever known that faints at the notion of a needle. Yes, I kid you not…on one occasion she fainted before the needle was even inserted.

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My needle phobic child.

The joys of motherhood!!!

This entry was posted on June 17, 2015.

Welcome distractions

Having battled this disease for 11 going on 12 years now, I have become an expert in busying myself or finding distractions in order to quiet my mind and keep my sanity. Anybody who has been diagnosed with cancer knows that it’s only too easy for your mind to start running away with you. You have days when you feel like there is a black cloud that is hanging over your head, and then others when you are so manically busy that you hardly have the energy to think about it. When you’re having your bad days, you tend to think about the maddening details like how your family members would react if you had to die tomorrow. What they would do with your personal belongings. You picture your children going through everything…rifling through your wardrobe until the inevitable happens and one of them buries their nose into a jersey you wore just a few days ago and having a total melt down on the spot at the remaining yet fleeting smell of you. It’s all they have left of you and they cling to it for all they’re worth. What would your funeral be like and who would make the effort to be there? What would your friends and your nearest and dearest say about what you were like as a person and how you lived your life as well as all your achievements. I know this all sounds morbidly depressing, which of course, it is but as a cancer survivor, particularly if you’re a two or three-time survivor, this is what goes through your head on a regular basis. You find yourself crying at what is just your fears manifesting themselves in an overactive imagination. Your mind is spinning so out of control that you literally start to feel dizzy and experience heart palpitations. Some people would call these panic attacks, which I’ve had many of. I’ve had occasions when I’ve had to put both my hands over my mouth to prevent myself from hyperventilating and passing out.

Once those pass however, I’ve found that it’s good to get out of the house, phone a friend and meet them for coffee or engage in some good old retail therapy at your favorite mall. I have a bathroom with no windows, and so it never gets to see natural daylight, but that’s perfect if you want to have a long candlelit bubble bath, while your favorite relaxing music plays away. Even better, you can throw a good book into the mix…as long as you’re not like me and exercise your biblical clumsiness by dropping it into the bath water. Luckily it wasn’t a library book. Surrounding yourself with the people you love and who make you laugh till your sides ache also helps.

When I was going through a particularly bad patch, a welcome distraction arrived in my household in the form of my parents in law. Luckily for me, lovely people who have always been very supportive to me through all of my trials and tribulations. While they were visiting, we decided to go away for a weekend to a lovely beach resort not far from us and spent a glorious time in the sun and surf. I vegetated on the beach and read my book, went for relaxing walks and enjoyed cocktails on the balcony of our hotel room overlooking the ocean. Just what the doctor ordered.

I have always been scared of heights and even going on a rollercoaster is enough for me to need a change of underwear and make me scream myself absolutely hoarse. I make a total spectacle of myself in situations like that, but while we were enjoying the sunshine and fresh air my husband came up with the suggestion of going parasailing. I was initially horrified at the idea and was quick to voice my fears and doubts, but then after thinking about it for a while I realized that I had been given two second chances at life…the perfect opportunity to do things I wouldn’t have dared do before. If I could survive cancer three times and go on an expedition to Antarctica in between all that insanity, then I could do this. I knew in that moment that I had to start saying ‘yes’ to life, even if it meant stepping out of my comfort zone and doing something that scared me rigid. Standing on the back of the boat, my daughter and I strapped ourselves to the ropes that would tether us to the boat as we went up into the air. My hands shook as I momentarily battled to fasten the clasps. Sitting down with our backs to the rear of the boat, it sped up and then the rope started to loosen as we started to rise up into the air. To my amazement I wasn’t half as scared as I thought I’d be. I embraced the moment and decided to throw all fear aside; it had stood in my way for far too long and now was the time to let go. What a liberating experience and a good lesson in just learning to force yourself toward the edge, close your eyes and just let yourself go with the surefire knowledge that all will fall into place and that you will be a stronger person for it at the end of the day.

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Strapping ourselves in for the ride.

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Flying high!

 

This entry was posted on June 9, 2015.

The protocol

the fam

My precious family.

My doctor had decided on the next course of action, and it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. First of all, the catheter that I’d had inserted into my chest to administer my chemo treatments would have to stay in indefinitely. I was so looking forward to having that removed. I always had to be careful that I didn’t hug someone too tightly and always be careful not to bump myself accidently in the chest area in general, because if I did knock the port by accident, it was painful and radiated outwards like a ring of fire. Not pleasant. It would’ve been really good to be free of that, but it wasn’t to be. Triple negative breast cancer patients don’t have the option of being able to take low grade chemo in tablet form at home. Like before, I would have to go into the hospital once a month and have my treatments there, which would take up an entire day. My doc wasn’t prepared to remove the port just yet, because he also wanted to make sure that I would remain stable for long enough to warrant taking it out. Low grade chemo given intravenously, together with Avastin and Xgeva injections would be my monthly routine from there on out.

So, this leads me up to the present day where a year and two months later, I am lucky enough to still be stable and in partial remission. I think I made the mistake of diving onto the internet as soon as I got home once the doctor had decided what protocol he wanted to follow, to look up what side effects and possible risk factors were associated with taking Avastin. As far as I know, it was removed from pharmacy shelves at one point due to the high risk factors involved, and I’m not sure whether it was or has since been reinstated, but one of the risks that scare me the most is internal bleeding. I blow my nose like it’s made of porcelain, and every time I go to the toilet, I have the undignified and in my mind, revolting task of constantly checking the toilet bowl for any signs of bleeding. I’ve got used to it now, and there have been a few times when my nose has started to bleed and luckily stopped after a few minutes. There have even been times when I’ve had some bleeding on my underwear that has concerned me, but that has very luckily stopped on it’s own too. It’s a psychological game between me and Avastin. It’s constantly trying to break me, and I won’t lie when I say that I do have my days where I am paralyzed by fear and uncertainty for the future. On those days I struggle to get out of bed and am barely able to function. I mostly lie about listlessly and aimlessly, unable to do anything constructive and suffer from debilitating fatigue. However, the next day I luckily seem to bounce back with my natural optimism kicking in again and my energy levels recovering. I am able to rush around, squeezing as much into 24 hours as is humanly possible. I suppose that one could call this bouts of depression, but you know what? I think after everything that has been thrown in my direction, I’m perfectly entitled to them!

This entry was posted on May 21, 2015.

Utter relief.

Although I had already had a scan half way through my treatments, they were no indicator as to how things would turn out in the end. One of the hardest aspects of having cancer and the brutal treatments that go along with it, is that there is no guarantee that any of it will work. The stakes were high and I had a lot to lose if my cancer did not respond. The day after my last chemo session I went for another CT scan. I remember sitting in the changing room after donning one of those hideous and very unflattering hospital gowns that refuse to close at the back, and sitting in the chair with my head in my hands, praying. My palms were sweaty, my mouth and throat were dry and I shivered because of the freezing aircons that had been cranked up because of the 45 degree heat outside. I was barely holding it together.

There is now a new kind of testing called Genomic Profiling, where a piece of your tumor is tested to see which treatments will be most effective in treating your type of cancer. To start with my doctor had not yet decided which protocol of treatment to follow now that my chemotherapy was over, to keep me stable and in partial remission for as long as possible…if the chemotherapy had even been effective in the first place. He was thinking about sending my tumor in for Genomic Profiling due to the complexity of my case, but wanted to hold off for a while longer. These tests are very expensive and he wanted to look into alternative treatments for the time being in order to keep as many options open to me as possible.Flowers

After going for a preliminary scan, drinking a nauseating amount of contrast fluids and waiting for an hour for my body to process it all, I lay on the table for the final scan. As the table moved back and forth I prayed harder than I ever have before.

I’ve never wanted to bring religion into breast cancer…the two definitely don’t gel and one has nothing to do with the other, but lying on that table I wasn’t praying to God. My faith by this time had been shaken to the core and I was still clawing to try and get it back. I have to be honest at this point and tell you that I have never been a particularly religious person.  I do believe that there is a good force out there and maybe that is my God. I suppose I conceive God to be different to how a lot people see it. Like my mother I am more spiritual. One of my beliefs is that according to the natural law of the universe, whatever you put out comes back to you. If you are a positive person and do good for others, you will receive good and positive things back. I think that I was lucky enough to inherit my mothers natural optimism and love for life and so when I was diagnosed, I was shattered. I was never a bad or negative person, so how on earth could breast cancer happen to me? I mean you get murderers, rapists and others who do despicable things, but do any of them ever get cancer of any kind? I think not! It was all so confusing and my belief system started to dissipate. After trying to live my life the right way, how could the universe be so random and cruel? How could my life be reduced to hanging from a cliff’s edge by me fingernails?

None of it made any sense…and then with time it slowly dawned on me that not everything that happens in life holds mystic meaning behind it. It is a lot more comforting to hold onto the belief that things in life happen for a reason, and often they do, but sometimes things in life do just happen full stop. No meaning to hold onto, to keep your sanity intact. Just this terribly difficult pill that you have no choice but to swallow.

A week later my doctor delivered the news that I’d been waiting for a long time to hear. The treatment had worked. My scan was almost clean and I could breathe again. My family and I were absolutely elated and I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I had a new lease of life again. I planned to return to the gym as soon as my energy levels allowed and most of the immediate side effects from the chemo had abated.

The worst was over and just that knowledge was an immense relief, however my treatment would need to continue in order to keep me stable…and we still had no idea what that was going to be.

This entry was posted on May 7, 2015.

Light at the end of the tunnel

While I had to endure another six months of chemotherapy, I did at least have piece of mind where my medical aid was concerned which was a much better one than I’d previously had. They had agreed to pay for all my treatment, and whilst on the phone to one of the consultants, I became uncharacteristically emotional. All the lady at the other end of the phone said to me was, ‘Don’t worry, all the finances are taken care of…all you need to do is concentrate on getting well again.’

That is all a cancer patient wants to hear. Going through cancer treatments is stressful enough without having to worry about finances, and I was especially on edge given what had happened three years prior.

during chemo

Nearing the end of chemo treatments (Late 2013). You can see it’s taken it’s toll on other family members too.

Half way through my treatments, my sister flew over from South Africa to lend moral support and help out wherever she could. As always, it was wonderful to have her. We drove into the mountains and explored, we played card games, went to the top of skyscrapers and much more. She accompanied me to one of my treatments. We talked and played cards to pass the time. Card games in our family are not exactly a quiet affair. They are always loud and excitable events and soon some of the nurses on the ward, including the nurse manager were peeping in to get a piece of the party. It’s always amazing how time flies when you’re distracted and having fun. To date that was the best chemo session I’ve ever had. About a week later, and she had to return to her family back home. I always treasure my time with her, but it  always goes so fast, and after she had gone I was left with the feeling that I didn’t quite make the most of the time that she was here. The thing about having chemo is that things tend to pass by in a bit of a haze. You can splash your face with cold water or pinch yourself as much as you like, but it won’t make any difference. You still feel as if you are moving around in some sort of slow motion dream and you desperately want to be more present in the moment. Somehow if you can do that, then you’re under the false illusion that the time will pass more slowly and with more lucidity. That time will slow down and you be able to savor the moment for much longer.

During chemo I’ve always felt like I’ve been walking around with a very heavy rope around my waist that was connected to a tractor tyre behind me, and wherever I went I had to drag this tyre around with me. After a while, the fatigue, pain and queasiness made me zone out and become completely numb. Call it self preservation if you will.

Needless to say, the rest of my chemo sessions after having her there with me dragged and were boring beyond endurance. Inevitably when you are in a ward where other people are receiving treatment as well, there are always some nasty sound effects of others being sick to the stomach. For my remaining treatments, I adopted my daughters Ipod and took it to the hospital with me. Listening to relaxing music and reading my favorite book if energy levels allowed, I shut the rest of the world out for the remaining two months of the slog.

Even though this was my third time of completing chemotherapy with the possibility that I may have to do it yet again in the future, I was still so excited when my last day of treatment arrived. Soon my energy levels would rise, my hair would start to grow back and I would slowly but surely get some sense of normalcy back into my life again. I was ecstatic…but before getting carried away, there was still a CT scan to be done to see if the treatments had in fact been effective.

When you’re a cancer patient, you become very good at holding your breath.

This entry was posted on April 14, 2015.

To the present

So sorry everybody for not putting posts up as often as I undoubtedly should. You see as it stands right now, I am busy running around in circles like the proverbial chicken with it’s head cut off.

my three girls

Three very different characters. Clarice (left), Rochelle (center) and Arlise (right)

Mother nature saw fit to bless me with three gorgeous little girls. Those little girls are now growing up and two of them turned 15 yesterday. Rather disconcertingly, but much to my bank accounts relief, neither of them wanted a huge party or to make a big deal of the fact that it was their birthday in the first place. In the beginning I didn’t know whether to be a little sad or to be glad by how events were playing out. As parent’s, we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that huge birthday parties are a big and daunting undertaking at the best of times and let’s face it, a huge relief when you see the back of the last child walking away with their mum or dad that’s just collected them. As with all things in life, as they grow older this just gets more and more complicated. The sleep overs begin. Just as you’ve finished making what you hope is a healthy dinner for 20+ people, you flop into bed exhausted…listening to hormonally overactive screeching and giggling teenagers in the bedroom next door. This chatting and laughing doesn’t cease until 3:00am, sometimes later and only then are you allowed to fall into a shallow, fitful slumber only to have to get up a few short hours later to cook breakfast with eyes that can barely open and that feel like sandpaper has taken residence in them overnight. As tiring as all of this is, I love it. When every birthday roles around, I am left feeling so grateful and privileged to still be in my children’s lives to celebrate yet another joyful milestone.

You would never guess that my three girls are from the same gene pool. My eldest Rochelle, is a loud and gregarious yet very loving and responsible tomboy, who wants to go into wildlife conservation which terrifyingly enough, is just 2 short years away from happening. She’s passionate about animals. I guess you can take the girl out of Africa, but you can’t take Africa out of the girl. She’s physically and mentally made of tough stuff. She fell off a horse once, where the animal decided to step on her inner thigh while he was at it. She got back on her feet straight away and climbed back on, perfecting what she did wrong by the end of the lesson. My second Arlise, is a real girly girl who is thoughtful, compassionate and empathetic way beyond her years. She loves music and spends most of her time at home dedicated to improving on her flute playing skills which is her latest passion, and which by the way she is very good at. There’s talent there somewhere for sure. She can read notes, but often plays without them, instinctively knowing where to correct herself and plays just the right note at the right pitch. She has a brilliant ear.  She is also going through a sixties, flower power, peace loving stage and dresses the part too. My youngest Clarice, is precociously talented at acting. She has been taking lessons for the last two years and after attending an acting workshop run by a school based in Los Angeles who came out to Dubai a year ago, my husband and I have decided to send her over there at the recommendation of the director of the school. She knew from the age of 10 that this is what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She eats, sleeps and breathes acting and we are preparing to send her over to LA for three weeks in July.

In addition to that, in June my eldest Rochelle is also going to Mongolia as part of the World Challenge that she has taken on through her school. They help orphanages while they’re over there, build schools…do whatever the aspiring philanthropist does. This will also run into three weeks, hence my chicken syndrome. The last few weeks have been a blur of applying for visa’s, filling out paper work, taking care of the necessary immunizations and getting kit lists sorted out. Whew!!  No rest for the wicked!

This entry was posted on March 28, 2015.

Chemotherapy…yet again!

So, my predictions were 100% correct. Things were getting more and more complicated and messy as events unfolded. My doctor was so flummoxed by what my test results had revealed that he’d had to resort to consulting other specialists abroad in order to decide what the best protocol was to follow. I was sitting at home…my family and I still reeling from the shock. I didn’t reveal to my girls how serious the situation really was. I didn’t want to traumatize and worry them. I also wasn’t sure whether they would grasp the full gravity of what I was up against and that would also just add confusion to the mix which I saw as a recipe for disaster. As it was I felt so sad that not only did they have to spend their summer vacation in the car going backwards and forwards to a cancer center, but for their entire lives so far they had never known a mother without health problems. There has never been a moment in their lives where they have seen me as a normal, healthy mum. They’ve had to grow up with extra worries and burdens that other normal children have never had to think twice about. I was sure as hell not going to add to those burdens and worries now.

As the days passed after the doctor dropped this bombshell on me, my anger and frustration mounted. I had this monster inside me…a highly stealthy enemy that I knew from the beginning was capable of dodging surgery and chemotherapy. Now however, the stakes were even higher because I had no idea until now that this disease was capable of mutating and morphing it’s chemistry to avoid being terminated by medical intervention. One minute I would be crying and beating my fists against anything that was nearest to me, and the next I would be huddling in a corner,my legs drawn up with my arms wrapped around them rocking back and forth…absolutely paralyzed with fear. I had just had the only safety net that was left available to me ripped out from underneath my feet. I felt as though I’d been thrown into the air by the quick and violent rip of the carpet being removed, and I was sailing through the air. Beneath me was a black hole that I was falling towards and I had absolutely no way of preventing my terrifying descent into it. I knew too, that this black hole had vertical and very slippery sides and that it would take me a very long time to slowly and agonizingly crawl my way out of it…if at all.

A week later, my doctor called me back to his office with a plan of action in place. I would have to do 6 more months of intensive chemotherapy once a week for three weeks with a weeks break in between. He provided me with one small spark of hope, and that was the fact that triple negative breast cancer responds very well to chemotherapy…more so than most other types of the disease.

I grabbed onto what I saw at the time was my last microscopic shred of hope and bit into it for all I was worth. It was all I had for now and I wasn’t going to let go. 6 months of chemotherapy lay ahead of me in the form of two different types of chemotherapies. Avastin is a high risk medication to take because it can cause serious internal bleeding amongst other things but my doc added it to the mix because it is a targeted treatment and assists with the effectiveness of the chemotherapy. Despite the risks, we had to take the chance…it was all I had left. Each chemotherapy session would take at least 6 hours. I settled in at the daycare ward to start the long slog once again. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. I remember thinking to myself how nice it would be to just sleep for these 6 months and not wake up till it was all over. In my mind I pictured my girls when they were still small. It would give me the incentive to keep fighting.girls at the zoo

This entry was posted on March 13, 2015.

A bombshell

On the morning that I received a call from my doctor telling me that the results of the fish testing were back, and that I should come in to see him to discuss the results, I had no conception of the shock that I was in for. From the beginning of my relapse until now, the doc had told me to continue with the hormone therapy that I was on until we got more definitive results from the testing. I honestly thought that all that could possibly happen was that he would tell me that we would have to change my hormone therapy to a stronger one perhaps, as the cancer was obviously becoming immune to the present medication that I was on.

When I walked into his office, he was sitting with my rather substantial file in front of him on his desk. One look at his face confirmed the fact that, as I had just known in my gut from the beginning, that this was going to turn out to be far more serious and complicated than originally anticipated. His exact words were, ‘I’m so sorry Sarah, I have no idea how this happened but it does occasionally occur in some patients…your cancer is now testing triple negative. Negative for estrogen, progesterone and Herceptin.’

My immediate response was total denial. I said, ‘No, this can’t be, it’s not possible…does this happen?’

To my utter dismay, he nodded ‘yes.’ ‘Breast cancer has been known to change receptor status like this as it adapts and becomes immune to treatment.’

I could barely talk…I battled to find the words to articulate myself as my blood ran cold. My next immediate thought was that as scared as I was, this was it. This was the end of the road for me. I sat there fully expecting the doctor to say to me, ‘It’s time to go home, be with your family and get your affairs in order.’

He continued to tell me that he couldn’t be totally sure that some of the cancer sites had remained hormone receptor positive whilst other areas had changed. He said that my case was an exceptionally complicated one, and that he had consulted specialists around the globe about it. With that, the only piece of remotely good news that he had for me was that after putting their heads together, they had come up with a treatment plan for me. This however, would include 6 more grueling months of chemotherapy…something that I wanted to avoid at all costs. I was angry and frustrated at this prospect and started arguing with the doctor. I still contend to this day that the lesion that appeared on my sternum wasn’t new at all. I distinctly remember having a lesion on my sternum from the beginning, but the doc said I was mistaken. He also asked me how I thought it got there in the first place. It could only have travelled through my blood stream, therefore it was systemic hence the need for chemotherapy.

At that point I was so exhausted and mentally defeated that I decided to choose my battles and just go along with the treatment plan, after all, the reason why I was with the doctor I was with, was because I trusted him and this was no exception. Feeling like I literally needed to bend over and pick my heart up off the floor, I started crying. Sitting there all teary eyed, the doc was brutally honest with me, telling me that although triple negative breast cancer does respond very well to treatment with chemotherapy, that there was still no guarantee that is was going to work. I had a very long road ahead of me and he said that I had enough to cope with psychologically and wasn’t going to overwhelm me right away with what treatment protocol we were going to follow after chemotherapy, but that I should rest assured that he and the rest of my health care team would find a way to get me through it. My chemotherapy would be starting in three days and as I left his rooms to walk through the hospital to the parking lot where my car was, I cried openly. All heads in the hallways turned to stare at me, but I didn’t care. When I got into the car, I sat behind the wheel for about half an hour trying to compose myself before driving back home again. At one point I started to hyperventilate slightly. I put my cupped hands over my mouth and nose and waited it out.

me on table mountain

Me on Table Mountain in Cape Town, 6 months before my 2nd relapse. Late December 2012.

Driving home the tears continued. I stopped on the side of the highway several times because I couldn’t see where I was going. Screaming and crying, I beat the steering wheel with both my fists repeatedly. I didn’t care that the next day they would be swollen and black and blue. I didn’t care about anything at that point…not even about my husband and children. All that I could focus on was the fact that if I thought I was in a bad position when I’d first been diagnosed in 2003, it was nothing compared to what I faced now. I was looking down the barrel of a gun, and as much as I wanted to run away and preserve my fragile existence, I couldn’t. I was being forced to play Russian roulette. The trigger had already been pulled twice. Would the third pull produce a bullet? The terrible part was that I had no idea…no idea what was to come next.

This entry was posted on March 2, 2015.

The start of yet another battle

Sitting outside the doctors rooms I thought my heart was going to beat right out of my chest. My mouth and throat were so dry, I battled to swallow. My palms were sweaty and I’m pretty sure my pulse rate was through the roof. If there was ever somebody that was in the throes of a flight or fight response, it was me. Except that flight was not an option for me…I had no choice but to remain and stay the course no matter how ugly it turned out to be.

Eventually sitting opposite the doctor at his desk, my head and body had become ice cold, my ears were ringing and everything just seemed to be happening in slow motion. Getting up to go and look at the scan on screen, I thought my legs were going to buckle underneath me. There is was…the hot spot clear as day…the little blighter that was causing so much trouble and angst.

Much to my relief, my doctor said that he didn’t think that chemotherapy would be necessary this time around, but that he was definitely going to suggest radiation. That I could do. Just the thought of having to do chemotherapy yet again was enough to send me into the depths of despair. Since the cancer was so close to the surface, my doc wanted to send me to another private hospital where there was an excellent surgeon that could remove some of the cells from this tumor, whilst doing the minimum amount to damage to the surrounding tissue and prevent any scaring. This was our chance to see if I would perhaps test positive for treatment with Herceptin. I had tested negative for it in the past, but I’d been told this could always change. This testing would be very important for me, because I knew without even having to be told, that it was my best chance at a cure. In general we also just wanted to see how the cancer was behaving. My doc was very puzzled that the hormone therapy had stopped working for me so abruptly. I think he knew even then what was really happening, but saw how frightened I already was and didn’t want to send me into outright panic mode.  He also knew how I felt about my already existing porto-cath scar on my chest that was a real eye sore, and assured me that this doctor would be very careful to prevent further damage. Upon meeting this other surgeon when the day arrived for my procedure, my mind was set at rest. He had a wonderful bedside manner and although I was only sedated and not under anesthetic while he set about retrieving the cells, I hardly felt anything and today you cannot even see where he went in. After resting for a couple of hours  after the procedure, I was able to go home.

It was then time to start the radiation. Since it was in the middle of the girls summer vacation and we couldn’t go back home to South Africa for obvious reasons, they wanted to travel in the car with me everyday when I went for my sessions. Unfortunately the best facility with the most precise and advanced equipment was 250km away in another town, but what choice did I have? I was determined that I was going to fight this and my girls were determined that they would be by my side every step of the way too. For two weeks everyday, they made the most wonderful company and distraction in the car, as we laughed and chatted the whole way to sessions and back again. I was relieved beyond measure when the sessions at last came to a close. Driving for nearly 3 hours only to lie on a table for 10 minutes and then having to drive back the same distance again with just about no rest in between caught up with me thick and fast. Lying in bed the night after the last session, I cried and cried into the early hours of the morning. My poor little girls. They should have been enjoying a lovely holiday in their home country, playing outside in the fresh crisp air with the dogs at their grandparents house, or frolicking around without a care in the world whilst jumping through the waves in the sea. Instead they’d chosen to endure these arduous daily journeys with me in the cramped car, with nothing but desert sand and the occasional camel as passing scenery and not once did they moan.  Having barely made it into teenage hood, they made a pact between the three of them to help me get through this no matter what it took.

the girls 2012

My three angels.

I realized at that moment more acutely than ever before in my life, that things really do happen for a reason and that I had been gifted three very understanding, loving and giving little souls for a reason. My precious girls…words can never in a million years describe how much I love and admire them!

This entry was posted on February 25, 2015.

Back to square one.

on the wine farm

Enjoying our holiday in Cape Town, December 2012.

my family

My precious family.

It was June of 2013, and I had been stable for 3 years and hoped to remain so for as long as I could. It had been 4 days since having a routine CT scan to check that all was well. Reaching this stage in your journey with breast cancer is an achievement in itself, but anybody in my position also knows that there is a price that comes with that. You are permanently teetering on a knifes edge and it takes all your energy and resources to keep your emotions in check…to not let your imagination run away with you and constantly imagine the worst. It is so easy to sink into a black hole that has very slippery walls, making it very difficult to crawl out of. It’s a daily challenge beating back the anxiety and depression whilst looking forward and focusing on the positive light that is in front of you. Once you have been diagnosed with cancer your body is no longer a friend, it becomes the enemy within…you lose all your faith in it’s ability to protect you from the outside world and to keep you safe and alive. Excuse the cliché, but you really do hold your breath and wait for the other shoe to drop.

It’s only after many years of practice if you’ve been lucky enough to stay in remission or be cancer free for long enough, that you start to breathe again and your faith begins to be restored. I was finally reaching this point in 2013. I was sure that after this routine scan all would be well. I had just got out of the shower when my phone rang. It was my doctor. I have to take my hat off to these guys…okay there are some doctors out there that have the bedside manner of a retarded baffoon, but my doctor is not one of those. He broke this to me so smoothly, saying that there had been a small change on the scan and that he wanted me to go in and see him, adding that I mustn’t panic…that it was just small. After the conversation had ended and he’d put the phone down, I remained on the spot with my phone still glued to my ear…staring into space. My heart was beating out of my chest and I’d broken into a sweat. Eventually putting my phone down and getting dressed to go and collect the girls from school, I knew I had to keep it together. I spent the whole journey to the school giving myself a pep talk. It was taking every ounce of my energy to keep my head on my shoulders and my sanity intact. Waiting outside the school, there was a part of me that knew I shouldn’t alarm the family…after all it was just ‘small’, but at the same time I wanted to scream and beat my fists against the steering wheel in panic, anger and frustration.

Just my typical run of the mill luck. I have to be honest I had remained realistic through it all. I knew that it was just a matter of time before I would relapse again, but I didn’t bargain on it happening so soon. I was hoping against all hope that I would remain in remission for at least 5-10 years and now it seemed I had fallen hopelessly short at just 3.

My appointment with the doctor was the next day and until then, I could not lose it in front of the girls. I made the executive decision that I wouldn’t tell anybody about this…even my husband. They had all been through enough and I still had no idea how serious this would be. I didn’t want to stress any of them out unnecessarily.

That night, sleep evaded me. I tossed and turned. The hours dragged by and the shadows seemed much longer and larger…way more menacing than reality conveyed. Just before my husband left for work, he asked me what I had planned for the day. Every brain cell was just screaming to tell him. My eyes started to burn as the tears threatened to show themselves, but I swallowed it and giving him a kiss and a hug I said, ‘Oh, probably just a couple of errands.’

I watched him and the girls walk down the hallway, waving goodbye and blowing kisses to them with a forced smile on my face. After they’d disappeared around the corner I closed the front door, sank to the floor and started sobbing.

This entry was posted on February 18, 2015.

Adjusting to life after Antarctica

Saying that after all the excitement of Antarctica had died down it was hard to re-adjust to living our lives normally again, does sound a little drama queenish I know, but it doesn’t change the fact that some of us did have a little trouble coming down from all the hype of it. I was one of them.

In our campaign to raise as much awareness to our cause as possible, we had attracted a lot of media attention along with it. It all came hand in hand with making all of us acutely aware of how privileged we were as individuals to be part of such a group. It took me a long time to come down from it all, primarily because I went from being a desperately bored housewife just managing to keep her head above water in every sense of the word, to being on the front page of newspapers and magazines. I would lie in bed at night replaying events in my head over and over again until eventually I was not able to sleep at all. There were not just moments of triumph on the trip, but there were also moments when familiarity started to breed contempt amongst us. We were all thrown into a very unique situation and within very close quarters of each other for long periods of time. Unnecessary small minded bickering resulted, much of which I bared the brunt of and which almost ruined the whole expedition for me. I was determined to rise above it though, which I did during the trip. I was determined I was not going to shed a tear over certain situations as the individual/s involved were just not worth it. However for months after it all, I kept on wishing that I had said this or that at certain points. I knew at the same time that it was a fruitless exercise and that I was just wasting valuable energy that I could be focusing elsewhere, but that is always easier said than done as we all know.

Making it harder to let go and continue with my life as normal were the ensuing interviews and get together’s to commemorate our efforts and what the whole expedition stood for. It was fun, and I so enjoyed seeing members of the group afterwards and catching up with them, and I am still very close friends with many of them, but all I wanted to do was put it behind me and get on with my life. It just seemed to be dragging on unnecessarily.

What I can say with great clarity is that I walked away from the expedition a stronger and wiser person for it.

What saved my sanity at the end of the day was the fact that the Antarctica expedition ran into a 4 week family holiday in South Africa. It was a 360 degree turn for me weather wise. I went from -10 to +30 degrees in the shade but I loved every minute of it. We went on safari’s, visited many wine farms, caught up with family and friends and just packed as much into those 4 weeks as we could. I mostly enjoyed just being with my hubby and daughters again. It was great to be home.

Wine tasting

Wine tasting with friends in the glorious vineyards of Cape Town.

Me and the girls

My girls and I getting ready to board a cable car…destination? The top of Table Mountain.

I am really glad that we had such a wonderful, relaxing holiday because what 2013 was going to throw at us would be unexpected to say the least and very, very shocking.

This entry was posted on February 8, 2015.

Returning to civilization

crew on board

Some of the crew on board the M/V Plancius that made the expedition an unforgettable experience for us all.

After 10 exhausting days of frenzied activity kayaking, sleeping out in freezing conditions and conquering a mountain we were on our way home. That meant however, that we would have to cross the dreaded Drakes Passage…now dubbed ‘Vomits Passage’. This time though we were determined to stay one step ahead of mother nature. The poor doctor onboard was inundated with passengers beating down her door demanding their sea sickness patches. The journey back was a much more relaxing and nausea free one for most of us. A few unlucky passengers still succumbed to sea sickness despite the patches. Luckily I wasn’t one of them. The trip back was a chance to reflect on everything that we had been through to get to Antarctica and the opportunity that this whole expedition had given us to grow as individuals, and to push ourselves physically and mentally way beyond our comfort zones.

I stood outside on the deck of the ship all on my own at one point. The crystal clean air and the gentle wind stirring past my ears gave me the clarity of thought and perspective that I hadn’t been able to achieve in a very long time. My spirit had at last been stilled. I no longer felt the restlessness that had plagued me for so long. I hadn’t spoken to any of my family members for almost two weeks by that time. All we did was correspond through brief emails that everybody else could read if they wanted to, since it was cheaper for 3-4 of us to share an account onboard the ship, therefore it was kept basic and impersonal. I had never been away from my girls for so long, and now that we were heading back home again I was missing them desperately. I have to confess that I didn’t miss them en route to Antarctica and while we were there. It wasn’t of course because I no longer cared, but I think it was just a method of self preservation and the fact that we had been kept so relentlessly busy for those 10 days. I was in complete survival mode…nothing else mattered to me but living in the moment and just making it to the top of that mountain and not falling out of the kayak into those frigid waters. I didn’t allow myself to lie in bed at night and think about them at all, because I was afraid that if I did I wouldn’t be able to stop crying. There was a part of me that was missing them beyond all description, but I mastered the art of compartmentalizing while I was on this trip… separating thought from emotions and keeping any emotions that might interfere with my survival in the deep, dark recesses of my mind.

me, Linda and lara

Me with two of my team members Linda and Lara.

Now that we were on our way back, a new excitement started to brew in the pit of my stomach as this trip was running straight into a 4 week family holiday in South Africa. I had just embarked on a 3 day journey back to civilization and into the arms of my loving family that I now realized I was missing desperately. Two nights passed and after passing successfully through the Drakes Passage, we had to dock overnight just outside the port of Ushuaia. The entrance back into port was a tricky one and we would have to wait for one of the captains from port to come out and bring us in. That would only be the next morning and till then, it was party time! We turned the music up loud and, after popping a few corks we danced the night away.

Disembarking from the ship early the next morning (with a slight headache), we were all happy to be back but sad at the same time. We had met many lovely people on board from all walks of life and that’s not mentioning the crew members who had bent over backwards to show us a good time and really make our expedition worth while. We had become known onboard as “The pink ladies’ and got to know and like many of the crew members. It was sad to walk away, knowing that we would probably never see any of them again, but at the same time I think we all felt an incredible sense of accomplishment. We had achieved what we had set out to do and had traveled to the ends of the earth to raise awareness. If our message got to just one woman out there in the world somewhere and afforded her some comfort and inspiration, then it was all worth it for every single one of us.

This entry was posted on February 1, 2015.

Port Charcot, Petermann Island and Mikkelsen Harbour

After boarding the ship again early that morning from sleeping out Al Fresco, we all went and had a much welcomed warm shower, hot cup of coffee and nourishing breakfast. The ship pulled up anchors once again and we set off through the scenic Lemaire Channel which is also known as ‘Kodak Gap’ because it is such a well photographed location, forming the passage between the mainland and Booth Island.

We arrived at Pleneau Island at Port Charcot. We were nearing the end of our journey south into Antarctica before we would have to turn around and head back north again, so even though we were exhausted from the lack of sleep, we knew we should take the opportunity to go ashore once again. Donning the snowshoes, we put ourselves through our paces and embarked on yet another fairly steep slope whilst exploring the surroundings. As usual we were greeted by a group of Gentoo and Adelie penguins.

me and the flag

Petermann Island, the most southerly point of our journey.

After returning to the ship and whilst eating lunch, we sailed on to Petermann Island. This was a significant day for us because it marked the most southerly point of our journey. We went ashore and stood united as the first team of breast cancer survivors in the UAE and possibly the world to go to the ends of the earth. This was our second last day. Tomorrow would mark our last day of activities before we would have to head back to civilization. The ship turned around and we sailed through the night back through the Lemaire Channel in a northerly direction, slowly heading back home again.

sitting on an iceberg

Mikkelsen Harbour!

We rose early the next morning ready to take on the day and all that it had to offer us since this was our last opportunity to go on land. Some team members chose to go kayaking again since our last attempt was cut short. I chose to go ashore with the zodiac again and spend more time with the penguins on D’Hainaut Island in Mikkelsen Harbour on the southern side of Trinity Island. The sightseeing was breathtaking and along the way we were graced with the presence of a Minke whale and her calf. The other part of our group who was on another zodiac had a close encounter with a Leopard seal that kept on swimming underneath and around their boat, sticking it’s head out and looking as though it wanted to jump into the zodiac at any moment.  We all saw a large group of Weddell seals languishing on an iceberg and took the opportunity to stop and study them more closely while everybody took full advantage of the photo op.

an iceberg

Yet more gorgeous scenery.

That afternoon we set sail up through the Gerlache Strait and through the Southern Bransfield Strait. It was a very cold but lovely sunny afternoon and we joined the crew on the top deck with a cup of hot chocolate. While we were there we were visited by a another group of humpback whales. Once they’d decided to move on, I decided to beat a hasty retreat inside, as I was really feeling the cold by that time, which no amount of hot chocolate could even remotely touch.

 

This entry was posted on January 27, 2015.

Port Lockroy and camping out El fresco!

After pulling up anchors again and sailing through the night, we awoke to another spectacular day and passed through the beautiful Neumayer Channel,  where we reached Dorian Bay with a planned landing on Damoy Point.

Strapping on the snowshoes again, we went for a long morning hike, led by one of the guides. We hiked up to the ‘ski way’ where the British Antarctic survey teams used to land their planes when transporting staff and freight. At the same time we enjoyed breathtaking views from the ridge while we were up there.

In the afternoon after returning to the ship and freshening and resting up, we all split up to enjoy various activities of our choice. I chose to visit a large colony of Gentoo penguins on Jougla Point, followed by a stop at the British Base at Port Lockroy, which was complete with a souvenir shop and a post office. Some of us decided to send a post card back home to our loved ones. It’s not everyday that you get to send a post card from the most southerly and probably one of the most remote post offices in the world. Other passengers took the opportunity to go back out on the kayaks again. I chose to stay on board the ship after our outing to spare my energy. I was still feeling somewhat worn out by the mountaineering the day before and besides, I didn’t enjoy the kayaking as much as others due to the fact that I was constantly afraid we’d fall into the water. There I was letting fear stand in the way of having a good time. That however was one of the lessons I walked away from this expedition with…to not let fear stand in the way of achieving your goals and experiencing and living life to the fullest. Back then however, I sat in the observation lounge in the sun, sipping on a cup of Earl Grey tea, enjoying the gorgeous scenery and nibbling on ginger biscuits. Compared to yesterday…bliss!!

Later that afternoon we were offered the opportunity to really take in the lovely surroundings, by going zodiac cruising around the area  with a brief landing on a think layer of sea ice.

camping out

Our beds for the night on the iceberg.

Later that evening, we enjoyed a lovely barbeque on the deck of the ship. We were joined by guests from Port Lockroy who were from the HMS Protector. Our group however, didn’t have time to socialize much, as we hurried back to our cabins to get ready for camping out El fresco on Lefevre Point, Doumer Island. With backpacks crammed to the hilt, we set off on the zodiacs. After landing, we huddled around our guide, Andrew who was to stay the night with us on the iceberg. We all had to create a shallow cradle for ourselves in the snow that we would be sleeping in. All that would be protecting us from the elements was two thermal mats and two thermal sleeping bags.

Whilst following specific instructions on how to lay the mats down and put one sleeping bag inside the other, I was particularly grateful for the fact that I had decided not to eat or drink too much before leaving for our camp out. Our guide informed us that there would be a toilet available, but it would be a simple and rustic set up to say the least, not to mention that fact that in order to relieve yourself you had to pull your pants down! In that cold…no sireee, I wouldn’t be using that loo. Even if I needed it, I decided that I would somehow hold it in until we got back to the ship the next morning. We all slept in pairs and I slept with a fellow South African. One of our team mates had brought along a small Christmas tree and we had a little ceremony where we all hung a bauble with a persons name on it that we knew, that had lost their battle to breast cancer. It was a somber and somewhat emotional experience, but at the same time it was cathartic and comforting, knowing that we were honoring those who no longer had a voice.

camping out 2

A quick photo before hunkering down for a very cold night!

While setting up camp, we were also paid an unexpected visit by a Gentoo penguin who boldly enough proceeded to waddle through our campsite as if to exercise quality control. We then settled down to go to sleep. Before climbing into our sleeping bags, we had to strip off our top layers that were protecting us from the elements because we were warned that we would become too hot inside the sleeping bags if we didn’t shed some clothing. To say it was cold was the understatement of the century. I quickly ripped off my Gortex jacket and pants and, gasping for breath from the cold leapt into my sleeping bags, only to discover that they were somewhat more tricky to zip up than expected. I cursed under my breath as I grappled with the zips until I finally got them closed. I then proceeded to shake and shiver inside the sleeping bags that to me, just didn’t seem to be warming up what was now my frozen, jangly bones. Eventually I pulled my thermal and Gortex jackets into my sleeping bags with me and covered myself with them as best I could. I then started to warm up and surprisingly, went to sleep. Others didn’t have quite such a peaceful night and some even had to get up to use the toilet. Thank heaven I didn’t have to. The next morning after packing up camp again, we were all somewhat relieved and happy to be returning to the ship.

One thing I was really looking forward to, being in Antarctica was seeing all the beautiful stars. I think in the winter despite the brutal cold and snow, the views of the heavens must be spectacular. Being there in the summer however, it never got dark. It was perpetual daylight and none of us ever got to see one solitary star.

This entry was posted on January 22, 2015.

Mountaineering!

The moment of truth had finally arrived and we were getting ready to go mountaineering. Putting my protective gear on, I wondered whether I had perhaps bitten off more than I could chew. We had been warned that once we were out there and tethered to the rope and busy climbing, there was no turning back.

Leaving the ship and boarding the zodiac, my emotions were swinging like a pendulum between excitement and nervousness. When we finally arrived and got off the zodiac to go ashore, my heart was beating out of my chest. It was a steep mountain. One that we would have to climb in a zigzag pattern in order to prevent falling down the slope. We were all briefed on the do’s and don’ts, like keeping the rope rigid between you and the person in front of you. The group that made it to the top first would be given naming rights to the mountain. This just added extra pressure which didn’t go down well with me.

We were then issued with ice-axes and various other equipment all fastened to a belt that we tied around our waists. We were then split into two groups, so there were 7-8 of us tethered to a rope. I took some deep breathes and prayed to God, asking him to help me to the top. Keeping our ice axes in hand and with our snowshoes on, we set off.

The first part of the mountain was a gentle gradient and so we had no problem scaling it. The tricky bit came right after that, as the slope became progressively steeper and steeper. Once we were on the steepest incline, it was about 400m in that I just couldn’t seem to catch my breath and get on top of it, My muscles were burning and my lungs felt like they were on fire. I could taste blood. I realized that I would have to stop if I had any hope or prayer of making it to the top. I felt bad and embarrassed as I shouted stop. Three of my team mates who were in front of me passed the message on to each other which reached our lead climber in the front. They stopped pretty much straight away, much to my relief. Being very patient with me, I felt bad as I realized that I was holding them all back and at the same time putting our naming rights at risk. Half way up, and I shouted for everybody to stop again. By this time team members were asking me if I was okay. I knew at that point that they had over estimated how fit and strong I was. I had too! If I wasn’t tethered to that rope with them, I would have opted out and not continued to the top, but there was no way I could do that now. I had to dig deeper than I ever had done before and make this work…make it to the top. I had to use my ice axe several times as I nearly toppled down from sheer exhaustion. I stumbled and panted on, stopping several more times. As we were approaching the summit and we had stopped once again, the other group passed us. The team leader of the other group shouted, ‘It’s better not to keep stopping the whole time…it only makes it worse. Just keep it going and find a rhythm!’

I felt like shouting back at him, ‘You try going through what I’ve been through and see if you can do this you clueless @#$$!’

I held my tongue however, because at this point I knew that I had no room to talk. I had just sacrificed our naming rights to the mountain and probably ruined the experience for my entire team. At that point, the tears started streaming down my cheeks. I quickly wiped them away as I didn’t want anybody to see me as a weakling. It was most likely way too late for that, but I still had my pride. I dug into my pocket and took out two small photo’s that I had put in my pocket before leaving the ship. One was of my mum and the other, my three girls. After staring at them for a few seconds I looked to the top of the mountain that was so near, and yet seemed so far and I saw them at the top. My mum was shouting, ‘Come on angel, you can do this.’  My girls did what they always did when I was training at home. They shouted ‘Come on mom you can do this…you’ve come so far, don’t stop now!’

Mountaineering

Proudly displaying my countries flag after reaching the summit.

Putting the photo’s back in my pocket, we set off again. Despite the fact that at any moment I might collapse, I kept on putting one foot in front of the other. I was determined that I would make it to the top for my loved ones, if not for myself. Upon finally arriving at the top, a huge sense of relief and accomplishment flooded me. I may not have made it to the top first, but in hindsight the most important thing is that I tried and achieved my goal in the end.

mountaineering 2

Taking a moment to reflect before heading back down again.

It was then time for photo’s as well as a few minutes of silence, just to savor the moment and pay tribute to why we had undertaken to do this in the first place. At the end of the day, we all had our own reasons for being there and we paid homage to that. After gathering ourselves, we embarked on the journey back down again. I walked down with a huge grin on my face. I had done it…I had achieved what I’d set out to do from the very beginning. I had climbed that mountain…pushed through all the struggles and made it to the top.

The mountain was subsequently named ‘Pink Ribbon Peak’.

Perfect.

 

 

This entry was posted on January 18, 2015.

Snowshoeing!

After sailing through the night, we woke up to yet another beautiful sunny day. In between all the frenzy of activities on land, we had been learning a lot about the wildlife and geology of Antarctica. Since setting sail, we had already seen many bird species and had even been visited by a group of dolphins as well as Humpback whales. We had also been told by staff members that we were very lucky indeed to have experienced the good weather that we had so far. They explained that there had been expeditions in the past where passengers had not been able to get off the ship for days at a time once reaching Antarctica due to awful and challenging weather conditions.

Me and Frida

Travelling through the Errera Channel.

After breakfast, we were just on time to reach the outside deck again as we sailed through the breathtaking Errera Channel. Everywhere we looked on all sides, we were surrounded by large, imposing and majestically beautiful snow capped mountains. Shortly after passing through the channel, we arrived at Water Boat Point. After lathering on sunscreen and throwing on all the protective layers necessary, we excitedly boarded the zodiacs to go on land for snowshoeing. Once on land, we put our snowshoes on over our wellington boots and set off on a moderately steep but very pleasant climb. Once we reached the top of the hill, we turned around to look down at the M/V Plancius docked far down below on the water, that was mirror-like in it’s calm and serene state. Absolutely stunning…it gave me the opportunity to stop and catch my breath and savor the moment, realizing how lucky and privileged I was to be there, and just to observe the heart stopping scenery. One of my team mates described it as such breathtaking beauty that is was impossible to capture on camera.

After making our way down again, we boarded the zodiacs again for a brief journey to the Presidente Gabriel Gonzalez Videla Chilean base, which is a research station today that amongst other things, monitors the ice cap movements, water and weather conditions. Right after struggling off the zodiacs and balancing perilously on sharp rocks to arrive on land, we were greeted once again by a huge colony of Gentoo penguins and together with that, a pungent whiff of their excrement. Mmm, that one I couldn’t get over it was so strong and after taking a few photo’s, I was relieved to go inside the research station itself to meet the personnel that worked there, who were men from both the Navy and Air Force. One of the men working there soon revealed to us that his mother was also fighting breast cancer. After talking to him, he expressed his gratitude at our words of encouragement, hope and support. While exploring the base, we came across a section of it that had been turned into a museum which was quite an eye opener for all of us. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, researchers and explorers had to endure great hardship for the cause with no heating or everyday luxuries that we are all used to today. They lived in cold and very austere conditions which was more than enough for me personally to really appreciate the sacrifice that these men made, and how grateful we should all be for what we have.

Me on chilean base

At the Videla Gonzalez Chilean base and research station.

On the base was a small souvenir shop where we all obtained a certificate  for achieving a landing on the continent of Antarctica. Today it has it’s pride of place on the wall above my desk.

After saying goodbye, we returned to the ship to rest and enjoy the amazing views that Paradise Bay was boasting. Soon it was time for lunch. We were due to go mountaineering in the afternoon. The big moment was finally on top of us. This is what many of us had trained for many months and travelled thousands of miles to achieve…the crowning glory of all our efforts and what our hearts most desired. Just to make it to the top of the mountain. At lunch I had an extra helping of carbohydrates in a last ditch effort to try and give my body the fuel it needed. This was it…in a few hours it was crunch time.

This entry was posted on January 14, 2015.

Traveling further into the pristine wilderness

Not long after lunch, we passed through Neptune’s Bellow’s as we arrived at Deception Island where the ship threw down it’s anchors. This was an especially exciting day for us. Although we had already been off the ship to kayak, this was to be memorable because we were about to set foot on the Antarctic continent for the very first time.

Ship

Photo taken from the outside deck on the front of the M/V Plancius.

The ship had issued us all with Wellington (gum) boots and as part of respecting the Antarctic treaty, we had to dip the soles of our shoes in large shallow tubs that had a special solution in them, located at the entrance/exit where we left to go ashore and return to ship. This was also part of the effort to prevent cross contamination.

After putting all our warm protective layers on we donned our life jackets, clocked out, dipped out boots and boarded the zodiacs to go and explore Deception Island. This is an Island that was once an active volcano and so is made up in large part of volcanic ash. Climbing off the zodiac was a very special moment for all of us. We were all acutely aware of the fact that we had just made modern day history by being the first group of breast cancer survivors to set foot on the Antarctic continent. It was a thrilling prospect. The sand on the beach was charcoal grey. Exploring the Island we were quickly greeted by a group of Chinstrap penguins. It was too cute for words to witness how really adorable they were waddling around and fussing over each other. They are real busy bodies and some of them stopped and looked at us as if to size us up in microscopic detail. Others couldn’t have cared less and just carried on with their daily activities. We were told not to approach them and try to touch them because as cute as they appear, they have also been known to be rather unpredictable and snap at people. They have very sharp beaks and can do some real damage. What we also very quickly realized is that penguin droppings absolutely reek. It’s an almost overwhelming smell and takes some getting used to, but that is rapidly overshadowed by how much character they exhibit.

The snow in Antarctica is not very compact and as a result, one tends to fall through it leaving a bid gaping hole. We were told that it was very important to cover the hole back up again because the penguins can fall into the hole and are not able to get out again. They can die of starvation, trapped and helpless.

Our day on Deception Island just happened to coincide with International Mountain day and so to honor that, we took a hike up Neptune’s Window to take some photo’s with the official banner that we had, recognizing the occasion. On the way up it started to snow. I got so excited as this was the first active snow fall I had ever experienced in my life. After reaching the top of the mountain and taking photo’s, it was time to descend again. On our way back across the beach, some of the team members took complete leave of their senses and decided to take a polar dip. They had put their bathing costumes on underneath all their layers, so stripping all their layers off, six of them made a mad dash into the shallow waters of the sea. The rest of us all stood there and cheered them on as they ran straight back out again…their eyes wide from the shock of the cold water looking like deer caught in head lights. We all waited with towels to throw around their now very shivery bodies. I was not going to participate in that. I’m not one for swimming much in the first place, never mind taking a dip in absolutely freezing waters.

Me onboard

Me onboard the ship.

Once everyone was dressed again we all climbed back into the zodiacs and, saying goodbye to Deception Island made our way back to the ship to gear ourselves up for the next chapter of our expedition.

 

This entry was posted on January 11, 2015.

Our 1st day in Antarctica!

On the morning of our first official day in Antarctica, we awoke to the usual announcement by one of the staff members over the intercom system that it was time to rise and shine and that breakfast would be served in half an hour. Looking out of our port hole we were relieved to see that it was a spectacularly sunny day outside, and gathering in the restaurant for a healthy breakfast we excitedly discussed the days events ahead.

Before any landings on shore were allowed to take place, all passengers were taken down to where we were all allocated a clock card that we had to swipe through the electronic system each time we exited and entered the ship again. Due to the fact that we would be making many stops and landings, this was just to make sure that no passenger ever got left behind somewhere.

Back in the observation lounge we found out that our group would be the first to go kayaking that morning, whilst other groups would go snow shoeing. The staff onboard had to ensure that everybody got a chance to do all activities in the week that we would be out there. I was glad that I was a guest and not a member of staff at that point because boy oh boy, they had a mean juggling act to perform throughout the entire expedition. We were told that because the continent of Antarctica was still considered a pristine environment, that there was a strict rule about cross contamination. We were all instructed to fetch all our clothes, boots and any other kit that we had brought along with us from our cabins and bring them up to the observation lounge. We then all had to use vacuum cleaners and attempt to get our clothes, hiking boots and other kit free from potential contaminants such as pollen etc.

It was then down to the kit room in the ship which is a massive room where they keep all the equipment which we obtained for our kayaking excursion. We put on thermal underwear and any other warm clothes possible, and then proceeded to squeeze into the neoprene suits (dry suits), spray skirt, waterproof booties and life jackets. Not one of my most flattering fashion moments but hey, it was safety above everything else. I soon realized that from the time anybody boards the ship to the time that they disembark at the end of the expedition, their vanity has to take a back seat. There’s no room for trying to look pretty. This was not like any other cruise…it was truly down to business on this ship.

Kayaking

My rowing partner and I getting ready to hit the water.

Kayaking 2

Other team members preparing themselves.

Once we were all kitted up, we went onto the outside deck towards the back of the ship where we were instructed on how to row and steer the kayaks. We all soon realized that these kayaks were nothing like what we’d trained in and it took a while for us to get the hang of them. The arduous task of lowering the kayaks into the water then began. With the help of our instructor Louise, we all worked as a team, lowering the kayaks using ropes down the side of the ship and into the water, where another staff member in a zodiac was already waiting on the water to receive them. The man on the zodiac would them use the ropes to tie the kayaks together until there was a long row of kayaks behind him. It was a back breaking task and used half our energy reserves before we’d even started, but once that was done we could board the zodiac, where we rode out onto the water about 50 meters away from the ship to start our activities. I was nervous. My main fear was falling into the water. We had the dry suits on but even with that, you would for sure feel it if you fell into that sub zero temperature water. Slithering slowly and awkwardly, we all eventually made it onto our tandem kayaks. I felt relieved to be rowing with a team mate and not on my own, but she absolutely finished off my nerves because she seemed to think she was invincible and was whipping around taking photo’s, rocking the kayak from side to side while doing so. After telling her to settle down, we both started to row. I was in front and so had the job of steering. Just as we really started to enjoy ourselves and get the hang of things, we all noticed that it had started to snow, the wind had picked up and the water was becoming choppy. The instructor Louise radioed in for a weather update and with that, found out that we had to head back to the ship. With our tails between our legs we headed back and once again, began the tedious process of getting all the kayaks back on board the ship again, pulling on the ropes with all our might.

Feeling like an exhausted beached whale, I struggled out of my dry suit and after a shower, was relieved to be feeling human again. We enjoyed a much needed lunch while we set sail once again for Deception Island and onto yet another adventure.

This entry was posted on January 8, 2015.

Calmer waters

A day and a half after leaving Ushuaia, it at last started to become smoother sailing. Sea sickness patches had kicked in, nausea abated while most passengers had finally made it up to the observation deck. With that, the Drakes Passage was renamed ‘Vomits Passage’. There were still sea sickness bags hanging from all the railings throughout the ship, just in case somebody experienced an unfortunate relapse and couldn’t make it to the bathroom on time. To be honest, that made me feel even worse. It was a constant reminder of the nauseating journey that we had only just emerged from. We quickly discovered that the food on board was very good, much like in a restaurant or on board any other cruise ship. It turned out that a few of our team members were vegetarian and weren’t too impressed with the cuisine, but vegetarianism aside, it was delicious. Once we all had one or two proper meals down the hatchet, we were feeling much better and had at last found our sea legs.

Until such time that we arrived in Antarctica, it was just a matter of keeping ourselves busy. We soon learnt that all the staff members on board were also experts in their respective fields, from geology right through to bird life, and they kept us occupied by imparting their invaluable knowledge to us. It was incredibly interesting to learn about the animal and bird wildlife in Antarctica as well as the land and movement of the ice bergs and sheets, and that’s not forgetting the incredible history of Antarctica together with it’s explorers.

On the late afternoon of our second day of sailing, a very exciting announcement was made from the captain on the bridge. He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, if you go out onto the deck of the ship and look into the distance, you will see the very first iceberg appearing on the horizon…welcome to Antarctica everybody!’

1st iceberg

One of the first icebergs we saw on our entry to Antarctica.

With that, everybody leapt to their feet. People were frantically grabbing for their jackets, hats and gloves and while throwing them on, made a mad dash for the door leading to the front outside deck. This was my first time actually being outside in the open in Antarctica and it was frigidly cold. What I noticed immediately afterwards was how crystal clean the air was. It was like lung nectar or breathing in the best champagne in the world. Taking some deep breaths, I savored my surroundings while jostling with everybody else for a front row seat to catch site of that much coveted iceberg. It was a beautiful day with very clear and bright blue skies. The air was so clean and without any pollution that even though the iceberg was still quite a way away, we could see it clearly as small as it was in the beginning. We all stood out there and from the start there was so much elation and excitement at the prospect of the first iceberg, that there was much chatting and laughing between everyone, but about 45 minutes later as we drew closer and closer to it, there was profound silence. All that could be heard was the constant clicking from the shutters of everybody’s cameras as a record amount of photo’s were being taken. Drawing up to it and sailing past it, you could’ve heard a pin drop. Shivers went down my spine as I stood there and admired this incredible sculpture that mother nature had created. With it’s unique shape and stunning array of shades of blue, it sparkled as though there were millions of diamonds on the surface of it as the suns rays hit it from all angles. I was so in awe of the beauty before me that I felt like I could never open my eyes wide enough…be present enough to truly appreciate the majesty of it all.

After all the excitement had subsided and we had passed yet a few more icebergs, we all gathered in the dining room for a hearty supper and then retired to get a good nights sleep. Dream land proved elusive for me however as I was so excited for the next day and the great surprises that it would undoubtedly bring along with it.

This entry was posted on January 6, 2015.

The dreaded Drakes Passage

team mates

The whole team in Tierra del Fuego National Park. Little did we know what was ahead of us!

By the time 3:00am rolled around, I was also rolling around in my bunk bed. The ship was pitching and rolling so much that looking out of our porthole, the waves were completely submerging it at times. I would slide down my bed till my feet hit the foot of the bed, and then slide back up again till my head hit the headboard. Some of my room mates found it soothing, almost like being massaged to sleep. Most of us didn’t however. By the time morning arrived and it was time to get up for breakfast, one of my room mates was well on her way to being sea sick. I was still okay and feeling a little dizzy, I went to the bathroom as I thought that having a shower would perhaps make me feel a bit better. I got no further than having a pee. As I was getting ready to turn the shower tap on, a wave of nausea suddenly hit me. Turning the tap off again, I quickly finished up in the bathroom and made a bee line for my bunk bed, picking up a sea sickness bag along the way. Lying down and breathing deeply didn’t help…I would have to use the bag. So I joined ranks with my fellow team mate and was out of commission, confined to my bed with a knot in my stomach…my own sea sickness bags lined up on my bed next to me. Lying there on the bed between dry heaving and desperate gulps of water including a sea sickness tablet that didn’t stay down for very long, I wondered if we were the only one’s that were so sick. Did it so happen that we were amongst the weak? Not possible surely. One thing I did know for sure is that all of the women that had taken on this expedition were very strong and determined people. I lay there feeling like I was in the throes of chemotherapy all over again. I remember I kept on repeating to myself, ‘I so didn’t sign up for this.’

My two other room mates and fellow team members decided that the best plan of action was to go upstairs to the observation lounge to try and prevent themselves from falling into the same sea sickness pit. I would’ve done exactly the same thing, but one of them came back down again and took on the role of Florence Nightingale. She went around to all the team members cabins, handing out sea sickness bags and working with the onboard doctor, eventually handing out medicated sea sickness patches which were like small round plasters that were placed on the skin just behind the ear. What a life saver this plaster was and what a life saver my team mate was! She really came through for us.

As the medication started to kick in and I began to feel better which was about 2 hours afterwards, I decided that I would attempt to get up, pull myself together and try to make it upstairs to the observation lounge. The first couple of times, I made it to the base of the first of three flights of stairs I’d have to negotiate to get there and then turned back around and headed back to my bunk bed with my tail between my legs realizing that I wasn’t ready yet. Eventually 4 hours later, I got to the base of the 1st flight and felt I could make it. I started up, but the ship was still being thrown about by the waves and that was when I very quickly realized what the banisters on all the staircases were for. These staircases were very steep… steeper than fire escapes and I clung onto those banisters for dear life, nearly losing my grip at one point. If I had lost it I wouldn’t be lying to you if I said I could’ve broken something…if not my neck on the way back down again.

At last I made it up to the observation deck ahead of my other very sick room mate who was still in our cabin down below nursing serious nausea. It felt so good to be back in circulation again and it was light and open up there. After saying hello to a few fellow passengers, I made straight for the coffee bar where I made myself a cup of black tea and made a bee line for the ginger biscuits. After eating and drinking something I felt much better and was officially back on my feet again and rearing to go.

It turned out that my room mate and I weren’t so weak after all. 90% of the passengers, including our team leader had fallen victim to the dreaded Drakes Passage.

This entry was posted on January 2, 2015.

Setting sail

plancius

All of us on board the M/V Plancius at last

Back to our journey into Antarctica! We had flown to Tierra del Fuego and booked into a small hotel in Ushuaia which is the southern most town in the world, the gateway to Antarctica and the last outpost of civilization. We had just arrived back from the Tierra del Fuego National Park and were preparing to carry our bags down to the harbor to board the ship. Only problem was, our bags were by that time way too heavy for any one person to carry and so two of us would carry one bag, each one grabbing a handle on either side. Luckily the hotel that we stayed at was just across the road from the harbor. That was a good thing because all of us made no fewer than at least three trips back and forth with pretty heavy bags. Entering the baggage area where our passports were to be processed, we were all bursting with excitement. Finally after two days of travelling thousands of miles, we had finally arrived at the ship. After processing our passports and luggage through the system, we stepped through the offices and onto the dock of the harbor.

 

room mates

Me and my three room mates and fellow team members.

There she was, the M/V Plancius which was the purpose built ice vessel that was going to take us even further away from civilization and into the heart of Antarctica. With our bags taken care of we took dozens of photo’s standing on the dock in front of the ship. Walking up the gang plank, we boarded the ship at last. The ship was more luxurious inside than I thought it would be, with polished stainless steel banisters on the stairwells, and carpets everywhere. I was prepared to really have to rough it all with cold stainless steel floors half rusted through from salty sea water. I was obviously way off base and pleasantly surprised. The stairwells were long and very steep. A bit further into our journey it would turn out that we’d have to cling to those banisters for dear life, but for now we were shown to our cabins which were…let’s just say somewhat pokey and a little claustrophobic. Some of the team members were sleeping two to a room, some three, but I had chosen a four sleeper for monetary reasons. It was pretty cozy, with two bunk beds side by side with about half a meter of space between them. I opted to sleep in one of the bottom bunks. Underneath the bottom bunks were drawers. We had two cupboards and a desk with a lamp. Space would definitely be at a premium for the next two weeks. There was also a thermostat on the wall to control the temperature of our cabin. The bathroom was surprisingly roomy and nice. Perfectly clean and pleasant with a toilet, basin and shower it was everything that we would need. We would have the equivalent of room service on board the ship where our beds would be made up for us daily and the bathroom would be cleaned. Inside the bathroom there were handles everywhere on the walls and in the cabin itself, we noticed that all cupboards and drawers had bolts on them so that one could fasten them shut. We would very soon find out what those were for!

All passengers were asked to gather in the observation lounge which was on the top deck of the ship. It was a very large standing and seating area that had a bar on one end where you could sit and order drinks. It had very large picture windows that afforded passengers with a 360 degree view of the passing scenery. In another corner was a tea and coffee bar that was fully stocked with tea of every flavor you could think of, with plenty of biscuits of various kinds. We did what every ship does and had a health and safety drill where we had to don life jackets and go out onto a certain area of the deck where the life boats were kept in the event of an emergency where the crew of the ship could no longer guarantee our safety. After that we returned to the observation lounge where we got to meet the rest of the crew onboard and soon realized that we would be travelling with 110 other people from all different walks of life. We had our first lecture delivered by some of the staff members and before retiring to bed that night, we were told that during the night we would be crossing the Drake’s passage. We went to bed that night obliviously unaware of what brutally rough waters lay ahead of us. We were instructed to bolt all cupboards and drawers in our cabins shut and thought it a bit of an overkill. At 2:00am the next morning, I gently and gradually started rocking back and forth in my bed…but that was just the start of what was to come.

This entry was posted on December 31, 2014.

The 2nd day of Christmas

Merry Christmas everybody! I hope that you all had a wonderful, joyful and peaceful day yesterday and that it fulfilled all your hopes and wishes. It never ceases to amaze me how we spend so many weeks preparing for Christmas…deciding what you’re going to eat for dinner and then the endless planning and hours of execution that go into it all. That’s not mentioning the frantic last minute rushing around in the shopping center in order to get the last minute gift shopping done, and then there’s the wrapping of presents at 3:00am all in a bid to protect our children for as long as possible from the horrifying realization that Santa doesn’t exist after all. When my girls were still small, that was the case more often than not, but now that they don’t believe in Santa or the tooth fairy anymore, we don’t wait till Christmas eve after they are all asleep to put all the presents under the tree. With us it’s now a gradual process that happens in the last two weeks running up to the big day. My girls still find it incredibly exciting when they see a new present under the tree everyday. They also made the decision that they wanted to stay up as late as they could on Christmas Eve and I was lying in bed feeling very smug, thinking to myself that it was quite all right with me. I love my sleep you see, and the longer they stayed up for, the later they would sleep the next morning, giving me the chance to sleep in too. Mmmm, that plan soon fell through when at 7:30am I felt somebody pulling on my toes saying, ‘Mom, come on wake up…it’s time to open the gifts.’

Needless to say, things haven’t changed one bit in my house over the years. It’s exactly the same when they were little toddlers. I would here the excited pitter patter of three little sets of feet running up the passage. It would be 6:00am and I’d be half awake by the time they were at my bedside…their ecstatic squeals hard to ignore. My eyes would still be closed however, but that didn’t stop them. I remember Rochelle lifting one of my eyelids up with her little finger saying, ‘Wake up mommy.’

Xmas tree

Our Christmas tree.

It’s hard to ignore that one and go back to sleep!

My long winded point is this… there is so much almost unbearable excitement, but then the day seems to absolutely fly by and before you know it, you’re left sighing and staring at the bottom of your Christmas tree which now looks dismally bare without all the presents underneath it. Luckily tradition dictates that we can keep the tree up and all the decorations twinkling until just after New Year right before it’s time to get back to the grindstone.

I made the most of Christmas day this year by getting the fire on the go, burning some cinnamon scented oil, lighting the candles and listening to some Christmas carols while drinking eggnog and basting the turkey.

Today with Christmas now behind us, it was down to celebrating my husbands 46th birthday. For 5 days of the year he and I are precisely the same age, until the 26th December. In a nut shell, he’s only 360 days older than I am. Aside from that though, he is my rock and the wind beneath my wings…honestly. I don’t know how I would’ve come though everything that has been thrown at me for the last 13 years without him. He has truly carried me in the palm of his hands and has always managed to keep a cool head when the tornado has struck, always saying the right things or just keeping quiet and letting me vent when I needed to. He seems to always have the uncanny ability to remain strong and not crumble under the pressure when I need him the most. He is truly my knight in shining armor and the birthday boy!

 

 

 

 

This entry was posted on December 26, 2014.

My 45th birthday!

On the 20th (two days ago) I wanted to put a new post up on my blog, but got sidetracked due to the fact that it was my birthday. Now I don’t normally make such a big deal out of it. I’m certainly not one of those people that like too much of a fuss being made, in fact I shy away from that. It’s just that nowadays I see every birthday that I reach as a big achievement. When I was diagnosed with my breast cancer at age 33, I wasn’t too sure whether I would make 35. Then when I reached 35, it was a challenge to reach 40. Now that I’m 45, reaching 50 is my next goal.

my birthday

My 45th birthday celebrations!

On Thursday celebrations began already as I unsuspectingly met with my friends at a new Chinese restaurant that has just opened in our rustic little town where we’re not exactly spoilt for choice on that front. One of my friends only told me that we were meeting there for the last time before the Christmas holidays began. We don’t meet over the festive season or school holidays because too many other arrangements get in the way. Instead if there is a birthday amongst one of us or just because we miss each other and feel like it, we get together. So on Thursday I arrived at the restaurant and only one of my friends had arrived. The others showed up soon afterwards and we ordered food and got stuck into what just happens to be my favorite cuisine. Funny, my friends knew that and I should’ve cottoned on, but didn’t. Towards the end of our meal, two of my pals disappeared from the table and reappeared moments later with a cake, flowers and a gift voucher at a beauty salon. They made me feel so special that day and I’m very lucky that I have the circle of friends I do have.

On Saturday being my actual birthday, I was served breakfast in bed by Jaco and the girls in the form of bacon and eggs. I received some lovely gifts and cards plus another bouquet of flowers. For many women I know, it’s not a good feeling to turn 45 let alone 50, because that comes with age and along with it the beginnings of those dreaded wrinkles. I know this is going to sound sickeningly clichéd, but it really is the truth when I tell you that for me, those wrinkles are very hard earned, and every new one that I might see in the future is a sign that I have made yet another year…that I have managed to beat the grim reaper at his own sick game once again.

Now we can all look forward to Christmas, which like many people is my very favorite time of the year. It’s the time for ginger bread cookies, the smell of cinnamon permeating the house, twinkling Christmas trees, gifts, huddling together in front of the fireplace, delicious turkey and gravy plus all the trimmings. Oh and lets not forget the eggnog and that sinful extra helping of Christmas cake with an extra dollop of decadent brandy sauce.

This year I decided to put the tree and decorations up a week earlier. I thought what the hell. I have the wreath hanging outside on the front door and the Christmas carols are blasting away.

It is the time of year to do a lot of reflection and make New Years resolutions. That said, it makes me wonder why it is that many people have to bump their heads really hard against the wall or have to face their mortality before they really appreciate what they have and all the wonderful occasions that go hand in hand with it, like Easter and Christmas. I’m one of those. If I look back to when I was 30 for example, I took so much for granted and certainly didn’t appreciate the holidays like I do now. As traumatic and horrifying a breast cancer diagnosis is, it also has this uncanny ability to gift you with a clarity of mind and a view on life you might not have otherwise had. It’s almost like a very distorted form of  a blessing in disguise if one could [possibly call it that.

Tomorrow it’s time to transport the turkey from the freezer to the fridge in preparation for our feast on Thursday. So excited!!! I suspect with all the business of preparations and doing all the last minute shopping, I may not get a chance to put another post up until after Christmas. If that is the case, a very blessed Merry Christmas to you all. Peace, joy, happiness and love to you and your families!

This entry was posted on December 22, 2014.

It’s a long, long way to Antarctica

Settling in and strapping myself into my seat on the airplane, it was hard to get my mind around the fact that we were finally on our way.

Had I done enough? Had I prepared myself well enough physically to meet the challenges of what was about to happen? I was soon to find out. We had been warned that once we were out on the snow and ice, there was no turning back. It was float or sink simple as that.

Our flight to Buenos Aires would take 19 hours, which would include a stopover in Rio . More of the journey was spent out of my seat than in it, either to go to the microscopically small toilet, or to chat with fellow team mates. We all eventually ended up in the staff galley at the back of the plane chatting and laughing with the flight attendants whilst  getting a sneak preview as to what was for lunch and supper. 15 hours later, and we were making our descent into Rio. We wouldn’t be able to take a tour of the city, but would instead be confined to a airport, waiting for our connecting flight to Buenos Aires. We passed the time by visiting some of the duty free shops and having a snack and a much needed Latte at one of the cafes. After catching our connecting flight, we landed in Buenos Aires and, one bus ride later we arrived at the hotel where we would be spending the night. Then next morning, we all met up in reception to return to the airport to catch the next flight that would really be taking us into the unknown. We were starting the leg of our journey that would begin to take us further and further away from civilization. Heading back to the airport, we were embarking on the last part of our trip before boarding the ship that would take us into the wilderness.

Ushuaia

Just after arriving in Ushuaia.

We began yet another 4 hour flight that would be taking us to the most southerly town in the world, Ushuaia. Coming from a part of the world that can reach 50 degrees in the summer and that’s not even factoring in the humidity, we were told that once we’d landed in Ushuaia, that we would definitely feel the difference in temperature, but I don’t think any of us really had any idea. Climbing off the plane when we arrived, we entered into the baggage collection area where I started to get a vague idea…the goose bumps starting to show themselves on my skin. Looking through a glass door to the side that led to the outside, I caught a scene that took my breath away. Jaw dropping beauty met my eyes in the form of huge, snow capped mountains with green, lush valleys at its feet. Steeping outside with our bags however, we very quickly forgot about the scenery for just a second as we all scrambled for our jackets to throw on as quickly as we could. The air was icy cold and without protective clothing of some sort to wear, the elements would just cut right through whatever ineffectual garb you decided to don that day. After oohing and aahing about our surroundings, we boarded another bus to the hotel near the harbor where we would be spending another night. Tomorrow we would be boarding the ship, but for now we were looking forward to dropping our bags off at our hotel and going about exploring our surroundings while trying out some of the local cuisine. We were greeted by a characterful log cabin style town boasting the backdrop of these gorgeous snow capped mountains. After booking into the hotel and spending the afternoon walking around and even doing some shopping, we settled down in the hotel for the night.

Tierra del Fuego

At the Tierra del Fuego National Park.

The next morning early we rose bright and early to meet in the restaurant for breakfast. At 8:30 we boarded yet another bus that would be taking us into the Tierra del Fuego  National Park, which spans 63,000 hectares that covers the southern tip of the Andes. Driving into the park, one is at a loss for words to describe the incredible beauty of the mountains and the lush greenery surrounding you on all sides. After spending the morning walking our boots in that we would be using in Antarctica and taking dozens of photo’s, we made our way back to the hotel to collect our bags. We were due to board the ship at 3:30 that afternoon and we all couldn’t wait!

This entry was posted on December 19, 2014.

Beginning our epic journey

I barely slept the night before we left. Excitement had reached fever pitch and I couldn’t wait to embark on this adventure. This is what I had been craving for months…my restless spirit finally being appeased. Staring up at the ceiling in the dark, Jaco was fast asleep next to me, his steady breathing and presence a great comfort to me. I started casting my mind back to very early on in our marriage, when he was part of a mobile radar unit while we were still living in South Africa. As a result, he was away for sometimes months at a time, leaving me at home alone. Eventually he was leaving me with a tiny baby, and then suddenly there were five of us. The times when he went away leaving me with three small children to take care of was never easy. In South Africa we lived in a big house on half an acre which was a corner plot, and part of the reason for us uprooting ourselves and leaving our beautiful country was a very sad one actually. On one occasion when luckily Jaco was at home, we were all asleep one night when our house was broken into. We didn’t hear a thing…absolutely nothing. At 3:00am we woke up to the twins crying, and while I started changing their diapers Jaco went to the kitchen to warm up some milk to feed them. That was when he heard a sound in the sitting room, only to discover that the burglar bars covering one of the windows had been severed at the bottom and bent right up, giving the burglars access to the house. They had stolen a whole lot of electronic equipment plus my handbag. A woman’s handbag is a very personal thing. Some people believe that the ultimate insult and gesture of disrespect is when someone throws your handbag around or at you. Now mine had been stolen and my whole life was basically in it. I felt so violated. Jaco had obviously interrupted them, but given half a chance they probably would’ve stolen a whole lot more. We had previously had two cars stolen from us too, and now this had to go and happen. I shudder to think what would have happened if these robbers had possessed other intentions. They could have crept up on us in the dark and slit our throats without any warning. My tiny children were sitting ducks. Although at that stage we didn’t have an alarm system installed we weren’t exactly exposed either, with a six foot wall around our property that had barbed wire on top of it, plus an electric gate. Like they say however if burglars really want to get in, they’ll find a way.  That was one of the last straws and after that incident, we weren’t sure whether we wanted to raise our children in such an environment. It was not long after that when Jaco got the job offer in Abu Dhabi, and so we saw that as a sign and took the leap of faith. Now, lying in that hotel bed all those years later with so much water that had gone under the bridge, I was waiting to go on the trip of a lifetime…one that would change me in ways I could never have imagined. Our lives were so different now. When morning finally arrived, I had butterflies in my stomach as I took a shower and prepared my bags to go downstairs to meet the rest of my teammates in the lobby. Arriving downstairs, everybody was in very high spirits and very excited. It was time for more photo’s and then all that remained was to say goodbye to our loved ones. After hugging Jaco, he took me by my shoulders and said to me, ‘Remember, don’t drown.’

1st day of Antarctica

Jaco and I just before leaving for the airport. Do you see the look of skepticism on his face? I do.

When the bus started moving off on it’s way to take us to the airport, I winked at him and blew him a kiss hoping that I’d reassure him to a certain extent. We were finally off on what was going to be a very long journey indeed.

This entry was posted on December 13, 2014.

Antarctica here we come!

It was two days before we were due to depart for Antarctica. All the team members were frantically calling each other to exchange excited words and make sure that everybody had everything. Once we were out there in the wilderness it would be much to late to peer into our bags and discover to our horror that we’d left a crucial article of clothing or equipment at home.

I had managed over the last month to keep it together and not injure myself whilst working out. I had spent many nights lying awake wondering whether I would be ready for the mountaineering or not. In the end, I decided that I would find out soon enough and that one way or the other I would just have to dig deep and find the strength to get to the top. Either way, I was going to do it come hell or high water. I had by this time lost 15kgs all in all and was happy with the results. My hard work was finally starting to pay off.

Adding to all the mayhem was the fact that my Antarctica trip was going to run right into a 4 week holiday in South Africa. I would be flying from Buenos Aires to Johannesburg to reunite with my family after not seeing them for 2 weeks. I was incredibly excited for this expedition, but I had also never been away from my children for so long and was not sure how I was going to handle it. I had started a blog about my experience with taking on this challenge and everything that it had involved in the build up to this momentous day. As a result I had been appointed chief blogger by our team leader. My job was to type up a blog which would be sent in to the Gulf News at the end of everyday, documenting our activities so that everybody including our own families, could stay abreast with our progress in real time. I was so psyched up for it and up to the challenge and responsibility. For the first time in my life I would get a small taste of what it would be like to be a travel writer and I couldn’t wait. My cat Goemal (remember the son I never had?) would be booked into the pet shelter where I knew he would be taken good care of.

Standing in front of my bed, it looked as those a suitcase and clothing factory had exploded on it. I had my expedition bag to repack in order to make sure I had everything, and then my normal suitcase to pack for the holiday that was to follow. Finally at 11:00pm I was finished. I looked at my expedition bag now sitting on the floor. For the last few months every time I looked at it I would get a small twinge of excitement in the pit of my stomach as it called out at me. Now excitement had reached fever pitch and my bag was screaming at me saying, ‘Come on, let’s go, go, go’!

I slept fitfully that night, hoping that I had remembered everything and ticked everything on the list off correctly. The next day, Jaco and I would be driving into Dubai to spend the night in a hotel before we finally set off for the airport the following day. After all the months of hard work and anticipation, I could hardly believe that the day had almost finally arrived.

The next morning despite how exhausted I was due to lack of sleep, my eyes shot open and I leapt out of bed. After a good breakfast I did my last minute checks and while Jaco was loading my bags into the trunk of the car, I said goodbye to the girls. Luckily nobody shed any tears. There was too much anticipation and the girls were very excited for me, saying they would follow the blog religiously everyday and that they were looking forward to seeing me in a fortnight’s time. Waving goodbye to them they all shouted, ‘Mommy remember, don’t drown’!

night before aNTARCTICA

The night before embarking on our epic journey into Antarctica. I am on the very right with a brown top on.

I was still laughing and waving to them as we turned the corner and they disappeared from my sight. Suddenly my heart was pulling in two different directions and excitement turned to sadness at the thought of not seeing them for two weeks. The tears started flowing and didn’t stop until we got out of town and were on the highway. When we reached the hotel, despair was quickly replaced by the happiness and joy of seeing my other team members. That evening we all gathered in the bar downstairs where we got the opportunity to meet each other’s family members and have a last meeting before embarking on our journey the next day.

This entry was posted on December 9, 2014.

Almost there.

The day after our camp out on the indoor slope, we had to attend the Pink Polo match to raise funds and awareness for breast cancer. That day also happened to be my eldest daughter Rochelle’s 14th birthday, and so with that she attended the polo match with me. It was a real treat for her as she loves horses and was in her element. We were on the guest of honors list and had a birds eye view of everything from the 1st floor pavilion.

With another exhausting weekend behind us, it was back to focusing on training and getting my stamina back. The last few months of training had proved difficult and I was still fighting stiff and painful joints from the hormone therapy I was on. In the last few weeks running up to the expedition I decided that it was time to start running slowly. I only had a month left to get as fit as possible and there was no time to waste. Whether I was ready for it or not wasn’t the issue, I didn’t have a choice. Upon beginning to run slowly, my legs felt like lead and my knees hurt. My girls were amazing though. They would stand next to the treadmill especially when I was attempting the running. They would say, ‘Come on mom, you’ve come so far…you can do it’!

photo shoot 2

Yet another photo shoot.

Jaco was supporting me too, but I don’t think he wanted to encourage me too much at that point. I think there was a part of him that was hoping and praying that I would decide that I wasn’t ready for the trip and cancel. Not to be vindictive I know, but he was very concerned for my wellbeing and was questioning whether I would be ready.

Running slowly, I felt like at any moment I was going to grow wings and fly. It felt so good to be able to run again and I really didn’t think it was going to happen so soon, if at all. I was an avid runner in high school and the best at what I did in my age group, and what I loved to do which was Athletics and Cross Country. The girls grew concerned as tears started to stream down my face. I was also crying because I was so touched by my three angels who were encouraging me every step of the way and being my biggest supporters. For this running however I would pay a price. Waking up the next morning, I could barely get out of bed let alone walk around and down the stairs. My muscles had locked up and were flooded with lactic acid. I had stretched after my run the day before, but I realized that it was just too much too soon. I would have to accept that and make do with very fast walking on an incline…and hope and pray at the same time that it would be enough. After some training sessions on the indoor slope, a few of the women had opted out of the mountaineering, but I desperately wanted to do it. I hadn’t worked so hard and I wasn’t going to travel thousands of miles over land and sea and not climb that mountain. I was going to get to the summit one way or the other…I had to. For now though, all I had to do was just stay focused and avoid injuring myself.

This entry was posted on December 7, 2014.

Getting geared up

In raising awareness for our cause, we were very fortunate to acquire a few sponsors along the way. This expedition of ours wasn’t going to be cheap and we needed all the help we could get. At that stage I wasn’t  too sure about the other team members, but I was concerned about the costs involved. After quite a few meetings and lengthy discussions, I realized I wasn’t the only one with worries. It was all very exciting nevertheless, and talking about all the right equipment and clothing that we’d need was just half the fun. We had been sponsored Australian Emu boots which are probably the warmest shoes and most comfortable boots I’ll ever own, Gortex jackets and pants from The North Face and sunglasses from Oakley. We were all now experiencing a great sense of camaraderie in our training sessions together plus going out and hitting the shops together to make sure that we were buying the right thermal underwear, hiking boots and other equipment.

In our training sessions on the indoor ski slope, we had to learn how to walk tethered to a rope together and how to use snow shoes and ice axes. It was going very well and I could feel my training sessions starting to pay off. Since we were going to be kayaking in Antarctica, we had to brush up on our skills in that area too. We were going in December, and therefore wouldn’t be encountering extreme weather like one often sees on documentaries, but it would still be dipping to temperatures of between -5 and -10 degrees. Still pretty nippy and what called for the right protective gear. My main concern was falling into the water whilst kayaking. After falling into frigid waters like that, it doesn’t even take 1 minute before one starts going into hyperthermia. Then there was also the issue of sleeping alfresco on an iceberg. I was really looking forward to that, but we had to get a taste of what it would be like. That meant sleeping overnight in the park of the indoor ski slope.

Ski Dubai

Getting geared up for the trip of a lifetime.

That afternoon we arrived at the slope with all our gear. We would be sleeping in tents on yoga mats inside special thermal sleeping bags. I had decided in all my wisdom to double up and bring an extra yoga mat for myself. With my weak back, I didn’t want to know how I would feel the next morning after sleeping on the rock hard ground of the ski park. With all my other gear plus the weight of my extra yoga mat, I had my work cut out for me in terms of weight. We had all been issued with our own big blue kit bags which resembled these big military tog bags that they issue. We were now known as the Jewels of Antarctica and our logo was on everything. So we all struggled into the park, lugging our baggage behind us. The indoor ski slope has huge floor to ceiling windows on one side, making it visible to the public and shop goers. While we were setting up our camping sight for the night, we attracted attention in the form of people who were taking photo’s, plus a newspaper arrived to witness our activities and interview one of our team members.

We had a hectic schedule ahead of us, as the next morning we were due to attend the Pink Polo which was being held in honor of breast cancer to raise awareness and funds. None of us were expecting to get much sleep, and I knew that I was going to find it challenging, but pushing ahead was now the name of the game. After camp had been set up, we had a photo shoot and then went about settling down for the night to try and get some sleep. We all slept two in a tent and in the end it felt to me like some sort of freak sensory overload experiment. I literally felt like a guinea pig in a big glass cage while scientists were peering in to gauge my reactions. There was a snow machine that was on 24/7 to generate snow. This blasted along all night long and was loud. The lights were not switched off either and I lay there with my back aching and shivered from the cold. Half way through the night we managed to drift off and when I woke up in the early hours, the roof of the tent had started to cave in from the weight of the snow. I had to do something and so, raising my legs I kicked up at the roof to dislodge some of it. 6:30am was wake up time, and we all stumbled exhausted and ill rested out of our tents. It was time to take a hike up the slope and then come down again and pack up the camp sight. Oh boy!

This entry was posted on December 3, 2014.

Pushing ahead

I woke up the next morning with bruised and swollen hands and wrists from beating them on the floor in frustration the day before. On top of that, making my woes on the treadmill even worse were my stiff, achy joints. The hormone therapy (Arimidex) that I was on was making movement challenging. After sitting for 10 minutes, it proved a monumental task to get up and just move around the house normally, never mind exercising on the treadmill. I felt like a 41 year old stuck in an 81 year olds body. Whenever I started to stride it out, it would take 15 painful and awkward minutes to get into my stride and finally start to loosen up. Also stacked against me was the scar tissue that I now had on my lungs from the pleurisies that had partially crushed them. The only thing I did have on my side was the fact that I had by that time managed to lose 10kg’s in total, loosening up the strain on my joints somewhat, but my knees were still hurting. I realized that I needed to be even more proactive and address these issues.

I decided to consult a physiotherapist at the hospital where I was receiving my treatments, and luckily I could coordinate my treatments with visits to her rooms. She was also a South African, and after explaining my troubles to her and my training for the upcoming expedition, she quickly went to task on working out how best to help me in the form of stretching and strengthening exercises whilst targeting my weakest areas, that being my knees and back. I increased my protein intake and my focus for the weeks to come would be to develop more lean muscle tissue while shedding the extra pounds that would make everything easier for me. My physiotherapist and dietician met up and putting their heads together, worked out an optimal diet and nutrition program for me to best prepare me for the trip.

2nd magazine

Another interview and photo shoot with Health and Fitness magazine.

I had developed a limp in my right leg from the radiation that I had to have to my pelvis in that area 2 years earlier. The muscle was hard and inflexible as a result and I had to stretch that muscle everyday to get the flexibility back. Without it being able to stretch, there was no way I’d be able to strengthen it. I had to work on my weak and sore knees by spending hours with an elastic strengthening band given to me by the physiotherapist. I would tie it to one of the banisters on the staircase and then tie it behind my knee. I would bend and flex, bend and flex till my muscles burned and they were shaky with exhaustion. I did exercises for my back that are practiced in Hatha yoga in order to gain the strength and stability that I so badly needed. I borrowed my daughters ipod and put music on it that would inspire and motivate me and then I got to work.

On my first week back on the treadmill I managed to put in 40 minutes. Three weeks later it became 45 minutes. I had shed another 1,5kg’s and was starting to see light at the end of the tunnel. For the first time since I’d signed up for the expedition, I was starting to feel like I was making progress and was maybe in for a chance. In the meantime, I attended an interview with another magazine and put in yet more work on the indoor ski slope with my team mates. It was on the second training session with them that I became very encouraged when I could at last start to feel that my hard work was starting to pay off.

This entry was posted on November 29, 2014.

Training in earnest

photo shoot

Posing for the Shape Magazine photo shoot.

Once our team leader had announced to the public that we were going to Antarctica, our lives changed somewhat. The media here in the UAE took great interest in our cause and what followed was a frenzy of requests from different newspapers, magazines and even TV and radio stations. It all felt so surreal to me. My life had gone practically overnight from carving out a simple existence and just managing to keep my head above water, to being in the limelight and on the pages of magazines and newspapers nationwide. The first time I got to meet the full team of ladies, short of just two members who lived in America and Switzerland, was at a magazine photo shoot. It was held at the main offices where the magazine was based in the heart of Dubai and it was total organized chaos. All the makeup artists and photographers involved went about their business in the midst of all the madness in a focused and calm way. Us ladies had an absolute ball. In between getting to know one another and whilst having our makeup done in preparation for the shoot, we were interviewed by journalists. We were all made to feel like celebrities, and for the first time in a very long time, I felt as if I truly belonged and was surrounded by a group of women who really understood what I’d been through and who I could talk to, knowing that they would  be able to relate to it all. It was so interesting to hear all the different stories of what all the women had been through and it made me realize that breast cancer is a very individual and complex disease, and no two women’s journey is the same.

We were lucky to be able to benefit from an indoor skiing slope in Dubai where we would hold many training sessions, but the first training session and hearing all the different stories was a wake up call for me. I realized that not only did I have a lot of hard work ahead of me in terms of increasing my fitness and stamina levels, but that I also had more physical obstacles to overcome than the rest of the team. I was still struggling with a residual amount of muscle atrophy and I knew that if I was to be fit and strong enough for this trip, I had to pull out all the stops and really put my nose to the grindstone. I felt really privileged and lucky to be part of this team and given the fact that this was an opportunity of a lifetime, I was determined that I was not going to blow this one.

With that, my life became a whirlwind of travelling far distances to attend training sessions and interviews. It suddenly became a juggling act of trying to fit in training sessions with the group and at home, as well as being a wife and mother and keeping the domestic front going. My training sessions went smoothly on the ski slopes with the rest of the team, but I struggled at home in the beginning. We had been told that the trip would entail camping el fresco overnight on an iceberg, snowshoeing, kayaking and mountaineering. In order to meet the fitness levels required for all of this, we had to be able to put in a 2 hour workout everyday at least. 4 months away from the trip and I was only managing 30 minutes a day. I couldn’t afford a gym membership at the time and so the only fitness tools available for me was a fast aging treadmill and my own ingenuity. Running at that point was out of the question for me but I was determined that I would build up to that. For starters, I would push my walk to a brisk 45 minutes and day and then go from there, building up on gradients as I went along. My first attempt was hopeless. I only managed 35 minutes and had to stop. Gasping for breath and with shaky legs, I climbed off the treadmill and sank to the floor in a sobbing mess. What the hell had I got myself in for?  Who on earth was I kidding? At this rate I would never be ready. I banged my fists on the floor and wailed in frustration at the situation.

I was done for the day and I knew full well that from tomorrow on, I’d have to start pulling a miracle out of the bag.

This entry was posted on November 27, 2014.

The beginning of team Antarctica

The normal approach to something as big as this would be to discuss it with family members first. That’s not how it went with me. After being married to me for 16 years Jaco knew full well that once I had set my mind on something, there was no changing course. I was like a runaway, unstoppable steam train rapidly chugging along at record speeds. If anybody got in the way it wouldn’t be pretty. Before signing up for the trip, I of course did talk to him about it and we discussed all that it would entail, but for me it was more from an already confirmed state of mind than a enquiring and requesting one. He already knew that I had made up my mind that I was going to do this, and that it was now just a matter of working out the logistics and of course, the financial implications.

By that time I had been exercising and working on increasing my strength and stamina for about a year and a half, and I was doing well. After signing up for the trip and finding out the basics of what the expedition would require, I was so glad and grateful to myself for pushing myself forward on the treadmill the way that I had. By this time I was walking at a very brisk pace for 30 minutes and my back had become much stronger. I had done away with the back brace long ago which was now gathering dust in the back of the cupboard. I was about to embark on an exciting new chapter in my life that would bring me all the challenges and excitement that I’d been craving for so long, and at the same time meet a whole lot of new people…women who had been through exactly the same thing that I had and could really understand what I had been through and where I was coming from.

We all met for the first time in late June. We laughed and talked and for the first time ever, I felt like I was part of a sisterhood. It’s not exactly a sisterhood one really wants to be a member of, but there wasn’t much any of us could do about it. We were in it for the long haul and we all embraced it with open arms. It was so exciting to sit and start making plans for our trip, discussing everything from the journey there and back that we would take, clothing that we would need to get to protect ourselves from the elements, right through to the level of fitness that would be required for the trip. The whole aim of this Antarctica expedition would be to raise awareness of breast cancer in the Middle East and hopefully beyond borders. I felt very strongly from the beginning that it was important especially in the Middle East, since believe it or not there is still a stigma attached to getting breast cancer there. Women are still, for cultural and religious reasons very modest and wouldn’t dream of stripping down for a strange person, even if it is a doctor, to let them examine their breasts if they suspect that something is wrong. The result is that when they do eventually seek medical attention because they are so sick that they don’t have a choice, it is often by that time too late and their disease is too advanced for any medical treatment to be effective. That would be one of my many messages that I would drive home to the public throughout this journey whenever I got the chance.

Before long the team was set, and we were a group of 12 women prepared to work hard and take on this challenge, whilst creating as much awareness as possible. A videographer had been hired who would film all of us on every step of this journey, from training right through to summiting a mountain in Antarctica. It didn’t stop there however, because to raise awareness would mean that we would have to attract as much media attention as possible… television, radio, magazines and newspapers.

Start of Antarctica

Team Antarctica started here, the evening of our first meeting. I am second from the left.

Things were about to get very interesting indeed.

This entry was posted on November 24, 2014.

A new chapter

Four weeks later, I had the bandage removed from my hand and quickly regained use of my thumb. The doctor later said that if the cut had been any deeper, I may have suffered damage to the nerve endings and battled a little to get use of my thumb back. For a change I got lucky. There was no time to dwell on it however, as we were preparing to move house yet again. This would be for the third time in just 5 years. Being expats, life is very transient especially in the Middle East where people come and go all the time. As a family we were pretty much the same, just with accommodation. Every place that we had stayed in had something wrong with it that proved intolerable in the end, resulting in mounds of cardboard boxes, bubble wrap and mile upon mile of duct tape. In this place, it was the utilities bills that we would have to pay every month that was in the thousands. Nobody had stayed in this particular villa for longer than 2 years at a stretch, but we couldn’t know that when we chose to move into it.  I had spent the last two moves in agonizing pain with a pinched nerve in my back and I would be damned if I was going to make the same stupid mistake this time around. With that, we got a moving company to help us

The move went off smoothly with no injuries and once we’d settled into our new abode, life continued as usual.

Me and Goemal

Taking some time out, with my ever faithful boy by my side.

I had been sticking to my exercise and diet plan and had by that time lost about 8kg’s and was feeling much more comfortable and stronger. The winter months had just rolled around and we all enjoyed barbeques outside during the day, and gazing up at the stars at night. As the months passed and my health remained stable, I slowly but surely started settling down into a routine and could finally breathe and relax. I didn’t feel as though I had a sword constantly hanging above my head anymore. With that however, an inner restlessness began to develop within me. I would sit outside in the evenings and wonder what it would be like to have no family or obligations and to just be able to drop everything, pack my bags and jump on a airplane and go anywhere in the world that my heart desired. It was probably a combination of the fact that we hadn’t been on holiday back in our home country for close on two years by that time, because of my health issues and added to that was the sense that I was acutely aware of how short life could be, and now suddenly I had this yearning to travel and see the world. To meet different people and immerse myself in their cultures. I suddenly felt as though I was missing out and that life had started to pass me by while I was lying in a hospital bed, and that it was still continuing to do so. I would look up at the heavens and hoping that somehow my mum was up there somewhere listening to me, I prayed for her to please bring me something…anything that would calm and satisfy what had now become my restless spirit.

Months later in June 2012 on one quiet evening I was going through my emails and like most people, I receive my fair share of junk mail which I delete without a second thought. As I was scrolling down, my finger was hovering above the delete button. I was about to hit it again, when one line caught my eye. It said, ‘Seeking breast cancer survivors to venture into Antarctica to raise awareness.’

My finger moved away from the button as my hand settled down into my lap. Opening the email and reading it, my eyes widened and my heart rate quickly increased. I immediately realized that this was an opportunity of a lifetime and that my prayers had been answered.

This entry was posted on November 21, 2014.

Making progress

By the time I’d decided to consult with a dietician, I was firm in my resolve to lose weight. Although I was acutely aware of the fact that my health and nutrition came first, I was also sick and tired of having a cupboard full of clothes that no longer fitted me. In addition to that, after doing some research I realized that losing weight would in itself be beneficial for my health, since fat in the body can store additional amounts of estrogen. For me having hormone receptor positive breast cancer losing weight was not just a matter of feeling more comfortable in my own skin, my health depended on it. All these factors made it easier for me to stick to my diet and exercise regiment. With the help of my back brace I was slowly but surely gaining strength, being able to walk more and more upright as the weeks passed. By the time a month had passed, I was walking quite briskly for 30 minutes at a time. When I went to the hospital for my medication and to see the dietician again, I discovered to my absolute delight that I had managed to lose 3.2kg’s in 4 weeks. Although in the months to come that weight lose would slow down somewhat, I stuck to my guns and continued with my walking and diet plan, steadily gaining strength and shedding the pounds as the months went by.

One evening whilst washing dishes, I picked up a glass and while absent mindedly talking to Jaco I didn’t notice that the glass had quite a sizable chip in the rim of it. With the washing up sponge in my hand I plunged my hand into the glass and in doing so, caught the top of my thumb where the thumb joint meets the hand, on the chip which ripped the skin and flesh open in a c like formation. I remember seeing the skin flapping about and blood spurting all over the place. Jaco immediately started to panic. I was rather surprised by this reaction because he was historically very calm. Not this time however. I was the one that remained calm and asked him to bring me a bunch of paper towels so that I could try to stop the bleeding. No matter what I did the bleeding wouldn’t stop and I knew that it was time to go to the hospital. For me this would be the last resort. I certainly didn’t want to go back to a hospital once again for something as stupid as this. Like I hadn’t spent enough time in them already! Very reluctantly I suggested Jaco go and get the car keys so that he could drive me. Thank goodness he was there otherwise I may have had to go to a next door neighbor and ask them for help because the moment I let up on the pressure, blood would come pouring out again. I already knew at that point that I would for sure need stitches.

In his blind panic, Jaco lost his car keys which meant we had to switch cars and he had to run back inside the house again to get my keys, which he couldn’t find. Shouting and kicking things around, he started to scare the girls who started crying. He eventually saw them hanging in their usual place and, locking the girls in the house ran for the car. By this time the paper towels that I’d been holding against my hand were close to saturated with blood and it was still coming. We screeched off! Luckily the hospital was only a 5 minute drive from where we were. The staff at A&E responded very quickly as soon as they saw us walk through the door and immediately determined that I would indeed need stitches. While waiting for the plastic surgeon to attend to me, I phoned the girls at home to calm them down and reassure them that I was okay. I lay there feeling so foolish…almost like I was wasting everybody’s time. I had done a really stupid and careless thing which was clearly avoidable, yet happened so fast. In the meantime the nurses went about the business of cleaning my would. They doused it with saline solution and disinfectant and proceeded to pull the flap of skin back so that they could clean the inside of the would. I winced and cried out as I clutched onto Jaco’s hand. When the doctor arrived, he gave me a series of injections to numb the area before he started stitching my hand up, which took another 20 minutes. While he was busy I kept on apologizing to Jaco and kept on thinking how unnecessary this all was. As if I haven’t been through enough pain already and to make matters worse, it was my right hand.

We returned home with 15 stitches and a heavy bandage later, wondering how I was going to get things done with a gammy left hand. I was told to return to the hospital regularly to have my wound cleaned and the bandage changed. The stitches would be removed in about 4 weeks time depending on the healing process. We later found Jaco’s car keys between the driver and passenger seat in front.  In the meantime I would have to find a way to get by with one and a half hands.

This entry was posted on November 17, 2014.

Regaining strength

I never realized the degree of my muscle weakness  until I got onto the treadmill and started walking. My back muscles had become so weak that I was walking hunched over like an old lady. I had to quickly grab onto the support handles of the treadmill to prevent myself from falling off and possibly hurting myself. I had to stop after a couple of seconds. I got off and sitting down on the side of the bed, I started crying out of shock at the deterioration of my overall physical condition, and frustration at the whole situation. I think I reached my lowest point at that moment in terms of physical self loathing. I hated my body and was intensely angry with it for doing what it had done to me, and now on top of everything else,  I had these physical challenges to deal with and enormous obstacles to overcome.

The girls & Goemal

My son and three daughters. This was in mid 2011.

Much to my families dismay, I stomped downstairs and threw a hissy fit in front of everybody, telling them that I was done. I couldn’t do it, it was just too hard. How was I supposed to walk on the treadmill when I couldn’t even keep my body upright. It seemed hopeless. It was an eye opener however and an essential one at that, because for the next few days I found myself wondering what I could do to get myself started again and keep going. There had to be something. I read up on the internet and came across an article about an Indian herb called Ashwaghanda, and how brilliant it was at restoring physical strength and stamina. The way I saw it, I didn’t have anything to lose by giving it a try. That weekend Jaco and I jumped into the car and went in search of the herb. After two hours of searching around town to no avail we were ready to give up and return home with our tails between out legs. That’s when we drove past a very non-descript looking shop. Something told me that we should stop and have a look, so I told Jaco to stop so that I could quickly run in. Good thing I did because there sitting on the shelf were plenty of containers of Ashwaghanda powder . We bought two of them and headed home feeling very proud of ourselves. Little did I know what an acquired taste it was going to be. For the first few weeks or so until I got used to the taste of it, I would quickly throw it back whilst blocking my nose. After getting used to it however, I was fine and could drink it normally. Fast, but without having to numb the senses at least.

A year prior to my relapse, I had been going for horse riding lessons that I was enjoying very much. Cantering along one day, my horse spooked for something in the grass and I was thrown off. This horse and I had actually formed a bond over the months that I had been riding him. He was a tall, lean white speckled horse and so I had further to fall. As I hit the ground I heard and felt a click but didn’t feel the pain straight away. I only felt it when I pinched a nerve in my back and had to go for a scan to see what the problem was. Not only was it a pinched nerve, but I now also had a prolapsed disk in my lower back as well as a cracked rib, which had already healed on it’s own. Since all of this, the doctor had given me a back brace to wear which helped a lot if I was doing tasks around the house such as bending to pick things up or shuffle things around, although the doctor had advised against me overexerting myself in any way. Suddenly it hit me! I would put the back brace on and then start slowly walking on the treadmill and see how it went. It worked! I could only walk for about 15 minutes to start with before I had to get off huffing and puffing, but I was thrilled that it had made the world of difference and that I had finally made a start. I was also getting into a good routine with my diet plan, although it was torturously strict. I could only eat grilled, steamed or roasted foods, no sweets, chocolates or sodium. Everything had to be skimmed or low fat and I wasn’t allowed to touch sauces in any shape or form with a 10 foot barge pole. I could only eat two slices of whole wheat toast a day for breakfast with two egg whites on them (no egg yolk) and no butter or margarine. Carbohydrates were to be kept to a minimum and I had to watch my portion sizes like a hawk.  My food was plain and simple goodness. I was really going back to my roots and after a while, I started to enjoy the wholesome and natural tastes of the food. I was resetting my taste buds and metabolism completely.

Amazingly enough as the weeks passed, I realized that I had more energy and was getting more out of each day, being able to achieve more. I realized that the Ashwaghanda was making a difference. It could also have been due to my exercise routine and healthier eating, but this improvement was quite dramatic. Way beyond what simple walking and nutrition was capable of.

This entry was posted on November 15, 2014.

Renewed hope

Once I had recovered completely from my surgery, I returned to the private hospital that I was originally at to begin treatment that would keep me stable. This consisted of hormone therapy in the form of Arimidex as well as Zoladex and Zometa injections. At first I didn’t feel the side effects of the medication but as the doctors so often say, these medications have a cumulative effect. Two months into my new treatment and I was hobbling around like a 90 year old woman. The Arimidex had started to make it’s presence felt. Getting up in the mornings and just moving around was enormously challenging, with my joints becoming more and more stiff and painful as time marched on. There were days when the pain was so severe that I would have to take an anti-inflammatory or paracetamol  just to get through the day. There was nothing that the doctor could really give me to combat the pain except what I was already doing for myself. I would just have to learn to live with it. I knew that there were other options available to me, but I didn’t want to go fiddling around too much with other medications for the fear of upsetting the balance that I had worked so hard on to achieve. It felt to me like I would be tempting fate and perhaps even making the cancer even more resistant, so I learnt to become more proactive in dealing with the pain and discomfort.

Me & Jaco 2010

This photo of Jaco and I was taken in early 2011, around the time I started with my diet and exercise plan.

I was excited to stop the chemotherapy because all the pre-medications that came with it, like the cortisone had taken it’s toll on me. My body had swollen up and my face had become puffy and pasty. I just wanted to go back to the size 10 that I used to be…just feel normal again. To my intense frustration and utter dismay however, losing the weight would prove to take a lot longer than expected and be an uphill battle all the way. I tried for weeks to eat more nutritious meals and cut down, but nothing happened. After months of failed attempts I started telling myself that it was far more important to be healthy and feel good again than to lose weight, after all I had much bigger issues to worry about. This approach didn’t work however. I didn’t want to look like a cancer patient anymore. I wanted my old self back again and that entailed losing the weight no matter what it took (within reason of course). After asking the doctor why he thought I was having so much trouble slimming down, he explained it all to me and it made sense. Arimidex plus the additional medication that I was now getting was raising the fat lipids in my blood, making it very difficult if not almost impossible to lose weight. I went home after that consultation feeling very defeated and downhearted, but no for long. As history has proved over and over again in the past, this was no different. By the doctor telling me that I wouldn’t be able to lose the weight, it in turn made me even more determined to prove him wrong. As usual the slightly rebellious side of me came out and so my mission began.

I phoned the hospital and made an appointment with the dietician and scheduled my appointment with her when my next consultation with my doctor would be. I am so glad to this day that I did this. She took one look at my file and knew exactly what to do. The diet plan that she put me on made me realize that I wasn’t eating in the healthiest way possible for example, not eating any fried foods and only grilled or roasted. Avoiding sauces and sodium of all kinds and eating 5 small meals throughout the day to prevent my blood sugar from falling, causing cravings. She also told me that I had to start exercising. We had a treadmill at home, but I hadn’t used it in ages, and I was suffering from a significant amount of muscle weakness and atrophy from spending so much time in bed recovering from operations and treatments. I knew in my heart of hearts though, that exercise was the only way I was going to get my strength back and shed the pounds in the process. There was only one place to start. Little did I know the monumental challenge that still lay ahead of me.

This entry was posted on November 12, 2014.

My birthday girl

17 years ago today, a tiny little new born baby entered the world. She was named Rochelle and from that moment on became my pride and joy. It’s been about three days of festivities since she had her birthday party at the beach club on Friday with a bunch of her friends, but today was obviously of the most significance. When I was diagnosed with my breast cancer, she was only 6 years old. I thought at the time that she wouldn’t be affected by my illness due to the fact that she was still so young, but I was soon to learn that you can never underestimate a child’s perceptiveness. I found out about my breast cancer a month after my 7th wedding anniversary and three months before Rochelle was due to start school. By the time she entered grade1 is wasn’t long before I got a call from her teacher asking me to come in. As I mentioned in one of my previous entries, she had completely shut down and would not communicate with anybody and had to start regular sessions with the school counsellor.

Roch 02

Rochelle today, at her 17th birthday party.

Since then, she has gone from strength to strength and has learnt not to internalize her feelings and emotions. Needless to say, the journey since then has not been an easy one. Since my initial diagnosis our family life has swung like a pendulum between years of stability coupled with a sense of happiness and normality to a blur of utter shock, despair and endless hospital visits. This is basically how all three of my girls have been raised.

This has been an endless source of inner conflict for me. My husband and I have always had a rock solid marriage and the girls have been raised in a peaceful, loving environment and there is the logical part of me that of course knows that all of this is not my fault and all completely beyond my control. Yet there is still the sense of frustration, anger and injustice that engulfs you on some days and then the sadness and heartbreaking pity that you feel for your children the next. Everybody has always told me how strong I am and how well I’ve handled it and been able to juggle cancer treatments along with raising my children, but it’s been anything but easy. Rochelle and Arlise are now fine, but I now worry about my youngest Clarice who ironically enough being the strongest of the three personalities, is actually the most emotionally unstable. I have to watch her like a hawk and even at the age of 14, when she starts to have nightmares and I see lots of tissues lying on the floor around her bed in the mornings, then I know that the depression has hit her again and that it’s time for another heart to heart.

But for now…today, I just feel so lucky and privileged to have made it to yet another one of my children’s birthday parties. Yes, there have been several moments when I have been paralyzed with fear, wondering if this is it. Today I went and bought a bouquet of flowers for Rochelle and presented them to her in the parking lot at school. We also took her out to dinner tonight. I tell her everyday how much I love her, but today I made her feel extra special. You never know what tomorrow may bring.

Like they say, cancer of any sort is not just the individual patients disease, it is the entire family’s. That said, my girls have not had an easy time of it, but one thing I do know for sure is that they are growing up to have an extra insight into how meaningful and precious life really is, which lets face it, is a rarity in young children and teenagers. Despite everything I am pretty sure that they will grow up to be strong, wise and independent young women, treasuring and making the most of every day that lies ahead of them.

This entry was posted on November 10, 2014.

Yet another blast from the past

Returning to our holidays by the seaside, we returned to our cottage one December and walked right into disaster. To begin with, the cottage would stand empty 315 days of the year. For the other 50 days, we would be there. We would often travel the 1500km in convoy with my Aunty Sally and Uncle Clive…but that didn’t mean we would always arrive together. There were times…many in fact, that we would arrive ahead of everybody else only to arrive to a flea, cockroach and spider infested abode. I have to tell you that I would rather ride on a bike with absolutely no saddle on it than confront a spider. Yes, I’m not afraid to admit that I have arachnophobia. I remember us arriving one year and not only had the roof caved in completely leaving the living and dining room absolutely uninhabitable, but the flea and who knows what else infestation had reached new heights. I held a can of insecticide in my hand and as I started spraying the carpet to rid it of fleas, I felt a tingling sensation on my hand. It rapidly grew black as the fleas saw the extension of my arm as an escape route. Being no older than 10 I dropped the can and shaking my arm in all directions whilst screaming, made a beeline for the front door. Later that day as things had settled down somewhat,  my sister was to get a nasty surprise as she reached into one of the kitchen cupboards to retrieve a plate. Nestling nicely in the middle of it was a spider of note that had reached new proportions in terms of size. It ran from the plate onto her hand and up her arm. Of course the plate didn’t stay in tact for long, as she threw it across the kitchen where it promptly smashed to smithereens against the wall. All these creepy crawlies…I don’t remember this as I was a baby at the time, but Karen told me much later that when she was about 4 years old and the tides would turn, huge crabs would come crawling through the front door and into the cottage. They would creep under chairs, beds, everything. I’m grateful I can’t remember this because although I know that crabs can’t really hurt you, they still resemble spiders too much. They totally creep me out. Not a big fan!

So for the rest of the holiday apart from obtaining our Christmas tree, we dodged and crawled in between scaffolding that my father and uncle were balancing precariously on in order to fix the ceiling. My mum was not impressed with this whole situation. She of course realized that it was very much beyond anybody’s control, but she continued to whine and moan the whole holiday through. What replaced the ceiling however was very much worth it in the end as a beautiful pine ceiling replaced the old mold ridden gypsum one.

I spent most of my time on the beach in a desperate attempt to get a tan, which would inevitably end up in a burn quickly followed by peeling a few days later.

Our cottage was not far from the beach. About a 5-10 minute walk depending on how desperate for the toilet you were. This leads me to the next inconvenience that we had to experience on those holidays…the outhouse at the back, or bucket toilet  as we used to call it. Not only did it stink to high heaven, it was like a moth to a flame for spiders. Given my fear, I would have to stand outside this rustic sad excuse of a toilet stall and try to pluck up the courage to go in, pee and do whatever else in record time and get out again as fast as possible. It was just easier in the end to just plan ahead, put your sneakers on and run to the beach toilets that were much better.

Kidds beach

My fun loving mum outside our seaside cottage.

The best was on Christmas or New Years eve. Because we had a bucket toilet, someone would have to replace the bucket as it got too full with a new empty one. There was a service for this in our village and we nicknamed it the ‘Honey truck’. Need I say more? The crew consisted of black men who would replace the bucket with a new empty one. Most of the time we turned a blind eye to this as we didn’t want to know or see the gory disgusting details, but as we all congregated one year on the veranda to begin our New Years celebrations, the guys arrived to change the bucket as the sun was about to set…however there was one small problem. They too had engaged in their own premature New Years celebrations and were as a result…well let’s put it this way, not exactly sober. They would normally go around to the back with the empty bucket, replace it and put the full bucket on their heads and carry it like that without any hands assisting back around to the front and load it onto the truck. This time around, we all stood on the veranda as we watched with bated breath while one of the black guys walked in a drunken zigzag style with a full bucket on his head, towards the truck. Miraculously he didn’t spill a drop as he loaded it on and the truck and disappeared around the corner in a smelly haze. With that we all stopped holding our breath and you can just imagine the conversation and laughter that followed.

This entry was posted on November 8, 2014.

Turning the corner

On my forth day in hospital after my second and mercifully my last operation, I was still coughing and hacking away. The tubes they’d used to intubate me during my surgeries had taken it’s toll on my throat and lungs. They had issued me with a little machine that had a transparent tube that had markings on it from 100 – 1000, and had a small ball in it. I had to breathe in as deeply as I could and get the ball to rise as much as I could. Using it for the first time was an eye opener not only for me but also for the medical staff, as everyone realized that I only had 30% of my lung capacity at that point. They way I saw it was that if I could survive both these surgeries and come out on the other side, there was no way in hell I was going to give up now. That is when my will to live really kicked in, and I saw it as a challenge to see how far I could get that little ball to go up as the days slowly crawled by. By this time my doctor and the nurses were forcing me to become mobile again. Going to the toilet was a monumental undertaking as I had to lug two hard plastic drains along to the bathroom with me, each of which were about half the size of a briefcase and that handles at the top so one could carry them…very handy, and a royal pain in the ass! On the fifth day, when the doctor came to visit me, he gave me the amazing news that he could remove the drain on my right side. I was elated and then suddenly it hit me…they still had to remove it. What was that going to feel like…would it hurt? I found out soon enough.

As the nurse loosened the bandages around the tube going into my ribs, my heart was almost pounding out of my chest. Although I still had to keep the left one in for another day or two, I couldn’t wait to get the right one out…this monster that had caused me so much agony and discomfort. The bandages were off and looking at me she said, ‘Okay, take a nice deep breath for me and try to relax.’

We were both in stitches of laughter when I asked her, ‘What if I don’t have any breathe?’

She was such a pro at what she was doing that as I was laughing, she pulled it out. It took three seconds and that was that. I felt a slight suction sensation, but didn’t feel much pain at all…a little stinging at best and it was all over. The relief was incredible. It was almost like when you’ve been on your feet all day in six inch stiletto’s and they’re now so sore and tired that they’re burning. You finally get a chance to sit down and take these shoes that you now feel like throwing in the dustbin off, and you immerse your feet in a soothing warm, bubbling foot bath. That was the relief I felt. I closed my eyes and rested my head back down on the pillow again as the nurse patched me up and before leaving me to rest, she stroked my head and said, ‘Well done.’

For the next few days they had to keep a close eye on me to make sure that there were no air bubbles or embolisms developing and every few hours they would bring in a mobile scanning machine and take images and study them. With the all clear, two days later the left hand side tube finally came out as well. The relief I felt when the first tube came out was doubled this time around. As soon as I was patched up, I got out of the bed and shouted, ‘I’m free!’

Two days later after careful monitoring and scanning, the doctor gave me the news I’d been longing to hear for an eternity. I could go home. I picked up my mobile to phone Jaco to tell him he could come and get me. The hospital hadn’t even phoned him yet when he was already half way there. It was a joy for me to pack my belongings into my bag, knowing I was going home. As soon as Jaco and the girls walking through the door, I burst into tears. This is going to sound very drama queenish, but for a few moments there I wasn’t sure myself whether I was going to make it out of that hospital. The girls also started crying as all three of us embraced at once, and when I got to finally hug Jaco I completely dissolved. It took me a good 30 minutes to compose myself before we could leave, which was still in a wheelchair. I was still weak and would get breathless very easily. I still had a long way to go in terms of getting my full lung capacity back, but I’d made sufficient progress that the doctor was willing to let me complete my recovery in the comfort of my own home.

New Year

Celebrating life!

I only found out later that my sister and her family were not sure whether I’d make it out of the hospital at all. After getting home that evening and once the girls were in bed, Jaco and I had a chance to talk and after telling him everything that had happened, he wept. This time it was me handing out the tissues…this time I was the strong one and I was determined it wasn’t going to stop there.

This entry was posted on November 4, 2014.

More surgery

Going in for my second surgery was like balancing precariously on a double edged sword. I was so looking forward to just going in and getting it over and done with, but what would come hand in hand with that was pain…lots of it. Then there was the fear of not making it through at all. Just before being put under anesthetic again I didn’t pray, I completely surrendered. I came to terms with the fact that if it was my time, it was my time and that there was nothing I could do about it. It was in Gods hands. To tell you that I pictured my loved one’s faces in my minds eye as I was falling asleep would not only sound sickeningly clichéd, it wouldn’t be the truth. I was so exhausted and worn out by that time, I couldn’t think anything. I was blank and numb…I had nothing left to give.

Waking up after surgery the pain wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be…at first. I was just so happy and found it miraculous that I had woken up again. Once the post op medications wore off the searing pain returned. This time they gave me another Tramal injection for the pain as the totally ineffectual Panadol was of course not enough. I was weary of the side effects I’d been warned of and it hit me like a steam train. As the nurse started to inject the Tramal my lungs seized up. I felt like a fish out of water as I struggled to get air…as hard as I tried I couldn’t breathe in. It was as if there was a stopper in my throat preventing oxygen from passing through. Before she could inject any more of it into my IV, I grabbed the syringe out of the nurses hand and threw it across the room. She lunged for the oxygen mask and put it over my face. That was to no avail however because I suddenly felt my stomach lurch as this incredibly overpowering wave of nausea hit me. I dry heaved for what seemed like an eternity, desperately trying to get air into my lungs at the same time. By this time my private ward was filled with nurses pressing buttons, picking up phones to the ICU, sitting me up more and massaging my back in upward movements to try and get me to relax. As they were on the verge of rushing me through to intervention, the nausea abated and my breathing slowly started to return to normal. I spent the next two days on oxygen.

Me and Michele

Me and Michele in her home city of Cape Town.

My mobile was next to me and family members were phoning constantly to find out how I was. Jaco and the girls were not able to visit me in the hospital at all during that whole time, because it was so far from home and Jaco had to work. He had exhausted his leave and was the only bread winner, besides I did not want to put the girls through anymore than they had already been through. I was already seeing signs of stress in them and I wasn’t going to be responsible for making it worse. As much as I appreciated everybody phoning me, it was such a struggle to talk to them and breathe at the same time. I would have to take a deep breath every second or third word and was wondering what they thought as they heard me battling on the other end of the line. A very dear friend of mine MIchele paid me a visit about two days after my second operation when things had settled down and were more or less under control. She brought her husband Gregg along. They are still good family friends of ours, and he later told me that when they walked into my room, he knew my voice when he heard it, but didn’t recognize the person lying in the hospital bed. He sat with me for a while and then excused himself to go and wait in the car. I wasn’t hurt or offended, I understood. Michele bravely sat with me for hours talking to me, soothing me and trying to take my mind off everything. She brought magazines along for me to read knowing that I’m a huge mag and book addict. I also only found out afterwards that when she left me to go to the car, she got in and completely dissolved. I don’t know if she realizes today how much of a lifesaver her visit was on that day. She made me feel like I wasn’t so isolated from the outside world after all. That I was still a member of the human race and not just a patient perhaps on the verge of becoming a statistic. She helped me to see the light at the end of the tunnel and showed me that day what a real friend really is. She’s still my dearest friend to this day.

That evening I also found out from the medical staff that all in all, they had drained 5 liters of fluid.

This entry was posted on November 1, 2014.

Hanging on by my fingernails

The following morning early, the cardiothoracic surgeon came to see me. The plan was to drain the right side of my chest cavity first since that side had the most fluid build up. They wouldn’t be able to drain both sides at once because that would put me at too high a risk of having a pulmonary embolism. The nurses put embolism stockings on my legs and I was then given a sedative before being taken in for surgery. Lying and waiting for my turn in the pre-op area, I prayed harder than I’d ever done before…or have ever done since. I remember repeating over and over again in my head, ‘Please God have mercy on me, don’t let me die…I’m not ready to go anywhere yet. You know my girls still need me too much…don’t do this to them.’

Finally in surgery and on the table, there was an incredible amount of activity going on around me. Instruments being prepared, doctors scrubbing in and donning surgical gowns. I wished at that point that the sedative that they’d given me before hand was stronger so that I wasn’t so acutely aware of all the fuss. Then I realized that I was in complete survival mode. There was nothing any sedative could do to put me at ease. I closed my eyes and thought of two things. The letters that I had written to my girls the night before my admission. I’d told them that it had been an honor and a privilege to be their mother if it was only for this brief period of time, and that I could never express how sorry I was that it had to end so soon and especially like this. Then my mind drifted to the promise I had made Jaco on the same night…that I would keep the promise we made to each other on our honeymoon of going back to Malaysia for our 20th wedding anniversary, which was still 6 years away. I knew that those two things alone would give me the incentive to fight to stay alive.

When I came around again afterwards, I was in recovery. I was so hoping that the first procedure would make a difference to my breathing, making it easier. It didn’t. When I was back in my ward, they took my blood pressure and blood oxygen saturation levels. Realizing that my oxygen levels were critically low, they propped my bed up so that I was in more of a seated position and then put an oxygen mask over my mouth and nose. It was not long after, that the pain started rapidly catching up with me. I had a tube coming out of the right side of my ribs for drainage purposes. The pain was of a sharp, burning and searing sort and no amount of painkillers that they gave me would even remotely touch it. I lay and gripped the sides of the bed till my knuckles turned white and my toes were curling with the tears just streaming. This hospital with it’s archaic pain control system didn’t allow for a mild dose of morphine. The most they could offer me was Panadol and another pain relief injection called Tramal, which was slightly stronger. I was warned however that Tramal could cause nausea and vomiting. I was desperate and told the nurse to give me the injection anyway. Luckily it had no effect on me, but it also had very little effect on my pain. The intubation from surgery started to irritate my throat, and so the coughing started. I coughed and hacked morning and night, getting absolutely no sleep. I would doze off briefly through sheer exhaustion and then would cough myself awake again. The oxygen mask resting on my pillow and running constantly was my only solace. I was being served copious amounts of Arabic food that I had absolutely no interest in. All I felt like doing was swiping the tray across the room. I didn’t need food, I needed air. I would have to go through this same operation again the next day, with yet another tube coming out of my left ribs and I had no idea how on earth I was going to handle the pain.

This entry was posted on October 28, 2014.

Completely broken

Going home and having to tell the girls that I had to be admitted to hospital the next day was very emotional and traumatic. Their eyes widened as I delivered the news and the whole family engaged in a group hug, as we clung to each other and cried. This time I couldn’t be stoic about it…I couldn’t be strong for the girls. I was completely broken as I sobbed along with everybody else. I packed my bags and made it through the night, even though I had to sleep sitting up. Lying down wasn’t an option since I couldn’t breathe at all in a supine position. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep at all that night. I was waiting for something to happen. Before we switched the lights off that night, I spent an extra amount of time tucking the girls in. Sitting in my bed that night, I wrote each of the girls a special letter telling them how much I loved them and that if anything happened to me, that they should know that I would always be with them. That I would somehow find a way to always be by their side if I didn’t come home. These are letters that I ended up throwing away months later but at the time, I was hoping and praying with all my heart that they would never have to open them and read what was inside. Before switching off the lights, Jaco and I held on tightly to each other.

The next morning at 5:30 we left for the hospital. Luckily it was during school holidays so we didn’t have to worry about how to get the girls to school and back, but saying goodbye to them broke my heart in two. Hugging them and crying, I didn’t want to let them go. Walking away, I saw three little faces at the front door waving to me and crying. I remember my eldest Rochelle saying to me, ‘Mommy, please fight to come home…please, we need you!’

The girls

This photo was taken a few days before I was admitted into hospital.

Getting into the car, I buried my face in a tissue and wailed. The emotional pain was so acute that I could feel it physically. Crying also took up vital oxygen that I was by that time fighting for. Crying would force me to stop mid way to catch my breath, and then the pain was so intense that I would sacrifice the air and start crying again.

I was initially booked in at the hospital into a ward with 6 other beds in it. The TV was blaring on some Arabic channel and I could barely see the screen from my bed. There was a small pokey window next to my bed which looked out onto a very small cement courtyard filled with bird droppings. It was the most depressing, dismal sight. I drew the curtains around my bed and lay there sobbing. Instead of looking out at that utterly desolate sight outside the window, I closed my eyes and imagined my holidays down by the seaside to try and hold onto my sanity. A few hours later, two nurses drew my curtains back and coming up to my bed, they told me that there had been a mistake, and with that apologized and wheeled my bed into a private room where I had a TV that I could at least see. The channels were very limited and the picture was as grainy as a 1960″s antique, but I could at least listen to English. Something that I could grasp onto that at least made a smidgen of sense in the midst of all the incomprehensible insanity. My spirits started to lift as my mood improved somewhat.

As a little girl I always wished that I could see into the future. How awesome and insightful that would be. It’s a good thing in this case that I couldn’t. I had absolutely no idea what the next 7 days would hold for me…the hell that was to follow. I’m so glad I couldn’t see what was to come. The future is truly not ours to see.

 

This entry was posted on October 25, 2014.

System failure

In my breast cancer book that I have written, one of the things that I emphasize way beyond all doubt is the importance of having a doctor who will have the respect to take your requests and concerns seriously. Unfortunately as I have mentioned before here, I had no choice but to move to a government hospital after my medical aid funds ran out. What never seized to amaze me was how the doctor would sometimes be so busy typing up on his computer, that he couldn’t have been bothered to turn around and acknowledge our presence by making eye contact with us. Instead we would be talking to his turned back and would get cryptic sentences and murmurs from him at best.

It was June 2010 and I was nearing the end of my nine months of chemotherapy, I began to experience dizziness, breathlessness and weakness. I could say that in the doctors defense chemotherapy does produce similar symptoms, but in this case he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt, because for consultation after consultation I had tried to voice my concerns about this. My symptoms were much more exaggerated than just plain side effects. The saying that goes, ‘You allow people to treat you the way they do…good or bad.’ was in a way the case here. It was time for us to take control of the situation.

When my last chemotherapy session arrived, I had to be wheeled into the hospital in a wheel chair. When we entered the doctors rooms, Jaco physically turned the doctors chair around and said to him, ‘You will send my wife today for a chest scan to see what the hell is going on.’

At last, looking at me and noticing the fact that I was in a wheel chair got the doctors attention and they at last sent me for a chest x-ray. Right after the x-ray, I went for my last chemotherapy session and was so looking forward to finally completing my treatment. My medical aid was about to renew my funds.  I would be able to return to the private hospital and to a doctor that I trusted. I was so relieved to be almost done with the hell hole that I was in. When my session had finished and we were making our way out of the hospital, we were stopped in the hallway by the doctor and his nurse. Jaco and I could immediately see that they had panic written all over their faces. They told me that I had to stay at the hospital and be admitted immediately. A cardiothoracic surgeon had already been summoned to come and consult with me. We were told that I had pleural effusion. When the doctor explained that it was fluid that had been building up in my chest cavity, it all fell into place and I now understood why I’d been feeling the way I had. The next question was why. The doctor explained that chemotherapy does sometimes have this effect on patients. The combination of that and the still active cancer in my body was the explanation that was offered. I wasn’t buying it. This had sheer neglect written all over it.

They wanted to admit me immediately but I refused. I wanted to go home and prepare first. I had to explain to the girls what was going to happen. They would go into sheer panic mode if their father came home on his own and told them that I had to be admitted on an emergency basis. I wasn’t going to do that to them, besides I had to pack my bags and prepare myself psychologically for this. I needed two major operations to drain the fluid before it was too late. The doctors could not believe my decision and implored with me to stay. Jaco remained stoic and respected my decision. He knows that once I make a decision about something, there’s no turning back…ever. The medical staff had explained to us that my pleural sack was under great pressure from all the fluid and that if it tore open, I would without a doubt drown in my own fluids. I had to take the risk of going home first. I was done with relinquishing control to incompetent doctors, and was now going to do things on my own terms…be it on my own head.

 

This entry was posted on October 22, 2014.

Some much needed time out.

I was grateful for the fact that throughout my relapse, it didn’t seem to have affected the girls too much. I think it had something to do with the fact that we went to great lengths to keep their routine as normal as possible, keeping them in school and allowing them to do after school activities and everything else just like they normally would. I was lucky enough by that time, to have formed a fantastic group of friends who really banded together and helped us out wherever possible whether it was fetching the girls from school or taking them home with them until we got back from the hospital.

Hospital visits took up an entire day with a long drive there and back. We would leave at about 7:00am and only return at about 7:00pm. In the midst of all the chaos, Karen arrived to lend moral support and help out wherever she could. Her visits were in part, my lifeline because throughout my treatments I kept on thinking what it would be like if my mum and dad were still alive and able to visit me. I no longer had them however, and I needed a sense that there was still family out there that cared enough to travel 8000km to come and see me. Karen knew this without me having to say a word, and so dropped what she was doing to fly out. The girls also looked forward to their Aunts visits with great excitement. This time it was in December over New Year. Karen had it all worked out. Recipes, the lot. After visiting the supermarket, she went about in the kitchen with military precision cooking countless meals for us and freezing them so that on the days when I was feeling really under the weather, Jaco could just pop it into the oven and presto…there was a cooked meal for everybody to enjoy. I was incredibly grateful for what she did, as there were indeed days when those frozen meals were a lifesaver and there were so many of them. They lasted for weeks!

Fun in the sun

At the water park together in the beginning…until we decided to split up and all hell broke loose!

It wasn’t all work and no play during that time. December in the UAE is a lovely time of year and very pleasant outdoors and so on a day when I was feeling up to it, we went and visited a water park in Dubai. I’m not one for steep, fast rides. They make me very uncomfortable and overall, it’s just complete sensory overload. There were plenty of those where we were. After a while my second youngest daughter Arlise and I, decided to band together and went on a double tube on all rides. That way the two of us could stick with all the rides that we were comfortable with, while the other thrill seekers could go off and do their own thing. Thing is, my husband took Arlise and I for a ride…in more ways than one. As we were standing in the queue for one ride, he came over to us and directed us to a different one, assuring us that it wasn’t too steep and that we would enjoy it. This was our first time there so we had no idea! Anyhow we got into our tube very excited to see what this was all about. When the lady in front of us was pushed off, I just remember her suddenly disappearing and screaming. Arlise looked back at me looking like a deer caught in headlights and asked, ‘Mommy why did she make such a performance?’

A red warning light went on in my head straight away as I realized that Jaco had just been up to his old tricks again…at our expense. Problem was it was too late for us to back out. When it was our turn to go and we were sent off, we immediately realized why the damsel before us had made such a fuss. The ride began with an almost sheer drop. For the first 5-10 meters the tube didn’t even touch the slide. My stomach immediately launched into my mouth, as a blood curdling scream involuntarily escaped my throat. Arlise’s scream was even louder than mine, so together we were making total spectacles of ourselves. Getting to the bottom of the steep slope, we were thrown into pitch darkness. Whether we were going up hill or down at that point still beats me to this day as disorientation reigned supreme, with arms and legs going in all directions. From there the ride was tossing us from side to side as it guided us around sharp bends that were whiplash worthy. By this time I was begging for the ride to end and was already planning in my head what I was going to do to Jaco as soon as I got off. I could sense that we were quite high up as the ride slowed down to a nice even keel and the sun shone on our faces. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, but not for long. To my horror and utter dismay we were then thrown into yet another sheer drop even longer than the first! The ride couldn’t end soon enough, and when it did and we emerged at the bottom, we were greeted by Jaco standing there with an irritatingly evil grin on his face. Wisely, he ran off as soon as I got out of the water. If I got my hands on him…!!!

This entry was posted on October 19, 2014.

A long and arduous journey

Having to phone your family and friends the first time around to tell them about your diagnosis is hard. Having to phone them again 5 years later just when everybody has let their guard down and relaxed, thinking that your breast cancer was at last a thing of the past is heart wrenching. The knowledge that they have been behind you every step of the way and really vouching for you makes it even more so. When I told Karen I heard an intake of breath and silence. The shock was palpable even 8000km away over a telephone line. True to form though, she soon adopted her nurturing take charge attitude and started to make arrangements to come out and support me. My parents in law were also making arrangements to come and visit, willing to help out wherever they could. One of the few things, besides my immediate family of course that was keeping me together, was the love and concern I was feeling  from other family members across the miles.

Happier times

Happier times.

Meanwhile back at the hospital the protocol of my treatment had taken a 360 degree turn. It didn’t resemble in any shape or form, the treatment that I’d been receiving at the private hospital and it was worrying me no end. Instead of having a steady flow of treatment once a week for three weeks, I was forced to opt for a heavy dose of chemo once every three weeks, because of the long distance we had to travel just to get there. This meant an increased chance of nausea as well as other worsening side effects. Each visit to the hospital was a waiting game…waiting to go in and see the doctor whilst being surrounded by masses of sick people sitting around also waiting their turn. To tell you that this was a depressing scenario would be the understatement of the century. I was in utter despair. With every single visit I would find myself asking exactly the same question, ‘How on earth did it all come to this?’

I was busy drowning in the system…I had forgotten who I was, where I came from and what I stood for. I wasn’t Sarah anymore, I was a stage 4 breast cancer patient fighting for her life. Luckily to my great relief, I was tolerating the treatments much better than I thought I would, but I was blowing up like a balloon from all the cortisone that they were assaulting me with. Copious amounts of it and to my dismay I would be fitting into a piece of clothing one day and then finding it was too small for me the next. My self image and self esteem plummeted to nothing. It was in a very deep, dark ditch somewhere and was impossible to retrieve. I would move about the hospital robotically…Jaco guiding me along down the hallways to wherever I had to go. This time around I was much sicker than before. I had dark rings under my eyes and they were sunken. I remained stoic as I was lead each time to the chemotherapy suites. They might as well have been taking me to the gallows. At that point to be perfectly honest, it wouldn’t have made any difference to me. In the end I chose to detach myself from the situation and became totally numb and emotionless. It was a matter of self preservation on every possible level and it was just my way of getting through the arduous and exhausting weeks and months that followed. This time around, I had refused to have another porto-cath inserted after the hideous scar that they had left me with the previous time, and so I endured a cannula being inserted at each treatment. It was a small price to pay after all, I had much bigger things to worry about.

This entry was posted on October 16, 2014.

Another blast from the past

During our holidays by the seaside each December, we didn’t spend the entire time trying to nick a tree…rather we spent our energy doing slightly more constructive things like playing games. I’m not talking about hide and seek. These were a little more sophisticated that children and adults alike had great fun participating in. They were conducted mostly at night when the pitch dark was an essential element. Friends from around the village soon heard about the fun we were having and flocked to come and join in. The more people that were involved the better and the more exciting it was as a result. My Aunty Sally and Uncle Clive being the fun loving people that they were, were responsible for bringing these games to our family and making them a tradition.  It’s one that my sister Karen and I still treasure and keep alive within our own families.

Swart Piet

After a game of Swart Piet. I am front center and was about 10 at the time. My Aunty Sally is to the left of me and my sister Karen stands behind me.

One of the games was called Smee, short for ‘it’s me’. This is similar to hide and seek with the difference being that it’s played only in the dark, and the person that is hiding has to be touched to be found. Once the person has found the hider, they have to sit in dead silence with him/her. The objective is to not let the rest of the people still searching know that you have found the hider and disappeared. Thing is, the others always quickly realized when there was someone missing and then the frantic search would accelerate ten fold. Eventually there would be 20 people piled up on a bed or in the fireplace with a lot of muffled giggling taking place. The last person to arrive would be the one that had to go and hide on their own in the pitch dark next. Many times this would inevitably be yours truly. I couldn’t have been older than 5 and was not a very good hider. I would choose simple places to hide like behind the door, which was obviously the first place people would look. On one particular occasion while I was hiding, my good old reliable bladder decided that it urgently needed emptying. At this point I could make excuses and tell you that it was probably down to all the excitement, which it probably was of course, but I know other family members don’t agree. This is another one that I’ve never been able to live down by the way, as I stood behind the door and wet my pants. I could’ve drifted casually undetected from my hiding place to my room and quickly got changed, but I wasn’t that good. Instead, when the lights were eventually switched on again, I became the laugh of the century, as my mum quickly shuffled me into my room so that I could put an end to my embarrassment. Not that anyone would leave it there!

Another game was Murders in the dark. This involved a card being dealt to everyone. If you got the queen of hearts you kept your mouth shut because that meant you were the murderer. If you got the jack of spades you were the detective and had to exit the room for the time being. That’s when all the lights were switched off again and everybody had to move about in the room in complete darkness. The murderer was in the room somewhere and could choose his/her moment to strike, by putting their hands around any persons neck. If you felt hands on your neck it was your cue to make as much of a performance as you wished, gracefully draping yourself over the back of the sofa if you so wished. That is when the detective would come in, switching on all the lights to interrogate everybody. The aim was for the detective to find out who did it. Ummm…it was here that I had yet another accident which in my defense was due to the fact that I got such an enormous fright from my mum screaming her head off in my ear. I didn’t climb onto the sofa, I flew onto it when this blood curdling scream that I didn’t recognize filled the darkness. I don’t need to tell you what happened next…use your imagination.

Swart Piet was a game that was played sitting around the dining room table. Everyone would receive a set of cards and the objective was to get a full set of the same type of card. Everyone passes a card face down, to the person next to them and so it goes on until someone achieves a full set and then, as inconspicuously as possible puts their cards down on the table. The last person to catch on and put their cards down would be the one that got a black mark on their face. This was done by taking a cork from a bottle and burning one end with a cigarette lighter, until it was black and soot filled which would then cool off and be plastered onto the losers face. We all had out turn in having to face the black cork. Those were the days!

 

This entry was posted on October 13, 2014.

My continuing treatment

It was October 2009 and close to my favorite time of the year… my eldest daughter Rochelle’s birthday in November and Christmas! Although I should’ve been relieved and looking forward to the festivities, I wasn’t particularly excited when my radiation finally came to an end, given the very long road that was still ahead of me. One good development that had taken place was the fact that the oncologist who had with great ineptitude announced my relapse, had left the hospital where I was based and had been replaced by, who turned out to be a much more competent doctor who had his finger very much on the pulse when it came to following the protocol that was right for the individual patients needs. After consulting with him once my radiation therapy was complete, he prescribed 6 more months of chemotherapy. In a way, knowing what lay ahead of me in terms of what to expect made it somewhat easier, but this is a double edged sword because at the same time you know how long and arduous it’s going to be…the fact that your hair is going to fall out, that you may experience nausea, that everything is going to taste like cardboard once again, that you’re going to feel weak and tired…that it’s going to take double the length of your chemotherapy to reclaim all of it again.

We had just moved house and there were still mountains of unopened boxes to be seen to, but I had much bigger things to worry about. My chemo started in early November and I was to go once a week for three weeks, with one weeks break in between. It was more gentle chemo and not so hard on my system, but this time I had a much harder battle to fight, because it wasn’t just adjuvant chemotherapy, but more of the hard core type. This was the reason for giving smaller amounts on a weekly basis with a week’s break in between so that I didn’t suffer from debilitating nausea and be at risk of septicemia ( a potentially deadly systemic infection brought on by low white blood cell counts). Every time I went for a session I would practice visualization, almost in the form of a Pac-man game. The Pac-man represented the chemotherapy and was the little mouth that was eating up all the cancer cells as it went along. By this time I had stopped praying to God…I wasn’t sure I could still rely on him. Instead I was praying to my late mum, begging her to help me through this.

Al Ain

Receiving chemotherapy after my relapse.

Then disaster struck in the form of my hopeless medical aid. I got a phone call from my oncologist telling me that the medical aid was refusing to approve my next chemo session for the simple fact that I had exhausted my funds. Instantly I knew that this meant I had no choice but to return to the government hospital that I was at before…the one that makes you feel like a file number and a statistic, not a person…the one where you felt like the member of a herd of cattle. After many tears as well as phoning the medical aid to grovel without any success, I had to scrape my heart off the floor. Knowing that if I was to survive this time round, I had no choice but to go back to the said government hospital to complete my treatments. Every cell and nerve ending in my body was screaming…telling me to run the other way, but I couldn’t. To my utter astonishment, disbelief and dismay I found myself sitting in the consulting rooms of the very same doctor that had treated me there the last time. My trust in this oncologist was hanging by a thread and not once did he turn around to face Jaco or I during that consultation. Not once did he make eye contact. He was too busy typing in details for the last patient he’d just seen, as well as to catch up with my unwanted presence in the room. On arriving at the chemotherapy suites after leaving his rooms and being plugged in for my next session, I sobbed. The attending nurses all approached me to ask me what was wrong, but I naturally couldn’t confide in them. They were all part of the same team. The only thing that kept me from falling to pieces completely was Jaco’s presence and the fact that I knew without a shadow of a doubt that he would see me through all of this.

This entry was posted on October 10, 2014.

Radiation therapy

All the mixed emotions that I’d been experiencing had left me totally drained and numb. I also had absolutely no idea how to tell my girls that my cancer had returned. They say that if you relapse again that it’s easier from the perspective that you at least know what to expect…well sort of.  I was being forced, kicking and screaming against my will to embark on this dark and perilous road again that is pock marked with pot holes that are actually much deeper and darker than they look on the surface. You know without a shadow of a doubt that if you fall into one of them, you’re going to have a great deal of trouble getting out again. I knew without anybody having to tell me that I was now up against a completely different ball game and that the stakes had never been higher. I could still not get my mind around the fact that this was actually happening to me. That this was my life. What on earth was it coming to?  I felt like God and the rest of the universe had turned against me the last time; this time I was picturing nasty, demonic looking effigies racing towards me with their pitchforks raised in the air ready to sink them into me. I could not believe that my life had come to this. I actually felt like asking someone to pinch me so that I could wake up from this inconceivable nightmare.

After getting home from the hospital that day, we never said anything to the girls. We first had so sleep on it all and process what had just gone down. The next day happened to be a weekend and we called a family meeting. As most of us know there is no easy way to break news like this to family members and you’re so tempted to use euphemism’s, but the only way is just to put it out there. Three totally dismayed little faces looked back at me. They looked like deer caught in headlights. Without a sound my second eldest, Arlise’s eyes filled with tears as they just started to stream down her cheeks. She stood up and came over to me, sat on my lap and buried her head in my shoulder as she started sobbing. All color had drained from the remaining two faces that looked at me, frozen to the spot. One could see that one and the same question was on the tip of their tongues, ‘What now?’

There was of course also the task of letting other family members know about it. Jaco phoned his parents to inform them, and after a very tearful conversation with my sister Karen, she yet again was going to book a flight out to come and see us over the New Year. That was at least one beacon of light, and something that I had to look forward to. Seeing my sister again!

I was told by my doctor that the first plan of action was to go for radiation. The best place to go at the time was a cancer center that was 250km away which was chosen for it’s state of the art equipment. There I would be placed under the care of a radiation oncologist who would take care of me through all the treatments. The only issue was all the driving. It would mean driving 500km every second day just to lie on a table for 10 minutes. Jaco was fairly new at a company that he’d just joined and for him to take every second day off so early on in the race for a month seemed like a tall order at the time. That was when an angel was sent to us in the form of a small and wealthy Chinese man, who offered up his chauffeur to drive me to and fro to my appointments. Jaco and I were both so grateful and relieved and so for the next three weeks, I was driven back and forth to the cancer center in the back of a limousine.

In the midst of all of this and much to my relief actually, my oncologist left the hospital that I was at. Although that in itself turned out in the end to be a blessing in disguise since I no longer trusted him, he was being replaced by a doctor I didn’t know. This meant that I had little choice but to learn to trust and put my life in the hands of a new doctor I knew nothing about.

About a week into the radiation, I started to find eating very difficult. Every tiny mouthful that I swallowed made my esophagus and stomach feel as though they were on fire. I had to resort to eating very soft foods in very small amounts at a time throughout the day and as the treatments progressed, it became worse. The only good thing that came out of it was the fact that I lost some weight. This was a very small consolation, given what was to come.

This entry was posted on October 8, 2014.

Unanswered questions

Before I knew it, it was time for me to go and collect the girls from school. I don’t remember doing it that day. I was just robotically going through the motions. When we got home, my eldest daughter Rochelle asked me what was wrong and enquired as to how I got the big blue and purple laceration on my forehead. I just told her that I bumped my head by accident, which she accepted on the surface, but I could see in her face that she sensed something else was wrong. When my husband arrived home later that day he found me sitting in the living room staring straight ahead. I only realized that he’d walked through the door when he sat down next to me and put his hand on my shoulder. All I needed to do was just look at him and he said, ‘You looked at the scans didn’t you?’

 

At that point I didn’t know how to feel…it was just this overwhelming state of complete shock. How could this be happening? The following day when we walked into the doctors room, I was the first one to speak . ‘How can this be…my tumor marker blood tests have been putting me in the clear this whole time!’

Rak photo

The girls and I shortly before my first relapse.

My husband and I were waiting for a response. I could see the doctors mind racing to come up with some sort of explanation. He was on the hot coals now and he had no idea what to do…and so the back peddling began.  ‘Well, this can happen in rare instances with primitive forms of breast cancer.’

Primitive!? What is that…I don’t know about anybody else out there, but I’ve never heard of primitive breast cancer. I never said this out loud but I was screaming it in my head. What a cop out! It was just his way of telling me that scientists have been so embroiled in finding better treatments and a cure for breast cancer, that they’re overlooking something vital…making tumor marker blood tests more sensitive. How many women have fallen through the net and died of breast cancer because this blood test and the entire system let them down? I went from one day thinking that I was completely healthy and fine, to fighting for my life the next. After taking a closer look at the scans my doctor confirmed that I had progressed to stage 4. The cancer had spread to the back of my skull but luckily hadn’t penetrated my brain, my spine, the back of my ribs, the top of my kidneys, my lungs, the sternum, the right pelvis and hip and my thigh bone. I obviously have no idea what protocol other doctors follow, but being in this truly unbelievable situation questions started flying through my head. I hadn’t been for a scan for 3 long years. Do other oncologists fail to send their patients for regular CT scans or was it just my doctor? Then I remembered that I hadn’t taken my Tamoxifen for the full 5 years like I was supposed to, cutting off at 3 years. I had consulted my oncologist about it however and he’d agreed that it was safe to stop it. If I had taken it for longer it clearly would’ve been putting off the inevitable and I was willing to take the risk. This risk clearly hadn’t paid off, but it still didn’t explain how the tumor marker blood test results had let me down so catastrophically, and then there was the absence of CT scans. If I had been sent for regular scans, I would clearly not have been in that situation!

People can so easily sit and preach that things in life happen for a reason, but when you feel like you’re in a fragile boat that’s perilously being thrown about in rough waters threatening to snap in half like a twig, then it’s very hard to believe. I was utterly consumed with paralyzing fear and anger that was almost too much to bear. I was angry at God for allowing this to happen to me, angry at my body for letting me down and determined that one way or another, I was going to get myself another doctor. I was no longer going to put my life in the hands of someone I could no longer trust. That was the least of my problems however…how on earth was I going to deliver this heartbreaking news to the girls?

This entry was posted on October 5, 2014.

My worst fears realised

After arriving home from our holiday I wasn’t due to see my oncologist for at least another 4 months, so I made an appointment with an orthopedist at a hospital closer to me. He sent me for an MRI on the areas where I was experiencing the most pain. An hour later the results were back. When the doctor mounted the images of my scan onto the light box, nothing really showed up. Upon looking at it a little more closely however, he pointed something out to me…a little shadow about half way up my spine that he couldn’t explain. I had informed him of my medical history and it was at that point that he asked me when I’d last been for a proper CT scan. I couldn’t remember…maybe three years prior? He suggested that I take this scan to my oncologist and investigate a little further. I remember him handling the situation so well being really reassuring at the same time, not wanting to alarm me by telling me that he was certain it wasn’t anything to worry too much about, but that given my history it was better to make sure. This doctor in a small town at Ras Al Khaimah Hospital saved my life. In a hospital that doesn’t yet have the technology to treat cancer patients, this doctor had the sense to perform a scan and using his great instincts, pushed me to take it further. Unfortunately I cannot remember what this doctors name was and he has since left, but to this day I am still eternally grateful to that physician.

With my heart just about beating out of my chest, I phoned my oncologist later that day and made an appointment to see him. A few days later upon looking at the scan he shook his head and said, ‘You need to go for a CT and bone scan right away.’

Another 4 agonizing days passed as I waited for the results of both. Although the hospital where my doctor was based was able to do the CT scan, they weren’t able to perform a bone scan as they didn’t have a nuclear medicine department. For that I had to go to a hospital in another region to have that done. In a very unorthodox and unethical gesture, this hospital asked me to come back to them 4 days later to collect my scans to take them to my doctor. They could’ve used their own transport or used the courier services to have the bone scan results delivered to my doctor after all, the hospitals in question weren’t even 20km’s apart, but they couldn’t have been bothered.

My husband and I sat in the car right after going in to collect the scans. We didn’t even have to say anything to one another as I neatly put the big brown envelope down on the floor of the car. I was not going to open it and torture myself with the results if they were bad. We drove home in utter silence…you could’ve heard a pin drop. The next day however I had the same envelope on my desk in front of me just itching to open it. The follow up appointment with my oncologist was only the next day, but this large brown envelope was torturing me. I had to know right there and then what the results were, I just couldn’t wait any longer. I lunged at it and tore it open. I didn’t even look at the images…the report would explain everything. Instinctively my eyes darted to the bottom of the page to where the summary would be. My blood turned to ice as I turned cold and broke into a sweat from head to foot. There at the bottom of the page it said, ‘Indicative of wide spread bone metastasis’.’

I don’t remember letting the page fall to the floor. Jaco found it hours later after scrounging around on the floor under my desk. I really wished that somebody was at home with me at the time to put their arms around me and tell me that everything was going to be okay, but there wasn’t. In a way it was probably a good thing because I walked around the house aimlessly, wailing like a small child. I didn’t recognize the sounds that were escaping my mouth. My cat Goemal was walking around me in frantic circles, in the sound knowledge that something was desperately wrong. I started to bang my forehead against the walls, against the door frames. I would pay a small price for that later in the form of cuts and bruises as well as a splitting headache, but in that moment any physical pain was better than the utter confusion, mind numbing shock, terror and uncertainty for the future that was actively consuming me right there and then.

This entry was posted on October 1, 2014.

In denial

It was the beginning of 2009 and apart from having established a good routine for myself in terms of exercise and work habits, I had stepped up the intensity of my exercise somewhat in an earnest attempt to lose some weight in preparation for the holidays. I would alternate daily between Hatha yoga and running on the treadmill and it was going well until I was doing yoga one day and went into Bow pose. For those not entirely familiar with yoga, this pose is when you lie on your stomach and, holding your feet with your hands, you slowly and gently push your feet away from you. This provides the action of enabling the muscles of the spine and lifts both ends of your body off the floor, creating a bow like action. It is a strong pose that takes a lot of practice and strength. Lets just say that on this particular occasion I went into bow pose and had some trouble coming out of it. To put it bluntly, I pinched a nerve in my lower back. That in itself sounds benign enough but it was excruciatingly painful. To make matters worse, not long before that I had taken two falls off the horse and herniated a disk. This was where I’d pinched the nerve and where my pain was radiating from. Luckily my mobile phone wasn’t far away. Lowering my body very, very slowly I eventually got my legs to the floor again and in short,  leopard crawled over to my phone where I made two phone calls. One to my friend asking her to collect the girls from school for me and the other to my husband, pleading with him in tears to come home and help me.

That was me flat on my back in agony for a week, my days consisting of warm packs, Radian massage gel and copious amounts of painkillers. About two weeks later however, I had fully recovered and was back into my exercise routine again, this time without Bow pose in the mix. This was when the pain slowly but surely started to creep up on me over the weeks and months. By May, I had to stop exercising altogether. The pain in my lower back and hips had become crushing. I had pushed my body too hard and was paying the price for it dearly, having to bum walk down the stairs just to get the car keys to go and fetch the girls from school. I was literally crawling around the house, the family looking on with great concern.

I was not concerned about my growing pain. It never once crossed my mind that it could be something sinister because of the simple fact that I was still seeing my physician every 6 months, who was examining me and conducting tumor marker blood tests. These are tests that measure your white blood cell activity and if your white blood cell count spikes, then it is an indication of some sort of infection or if you’re a cancer patient, unfortunately something potentially a lot more serious than that. My white blood cell count results were consistently normal indicating on the face of things that all was fine, so what did I have to worry about? I put it down to pushing myself too hard and I started taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement while I was at it. It wasn’t long after that and we were off on holiday. We were so relieved to be escaping the summer heat to cooler climes and the excitement was palpable.

Holiday pic

On holiday in South Africa in 2009

I spent the entire holiday hobbling around, wrapped up in the warmest blanket I could get my hands on while warm packs and painkillers were my staple diet. I was miserable and couldn’t participate in many of the activities that my family and extended members were enjoying so much. I kept on wondering what was causing me so much pain the whole time. The really troubling thing was that there was no logical explanation for any of it. Looking at everybody running around like agile fleas and having great fun, I knew that the right thing to do would be to make an appointment with the doctor when I got back home to get to the bottom of it all. I think I knew even then that I wasn’t going to like what I would hear, but it looked like I didn’t have much of a choice anymore. I tried to forget about if for the rest of the holiday, determined to enjoy what was left of it as much as I could under the circumstances. I would deal with the problem when I got back home again.

This entry was posted on September 29, 2014.

Back in time- continued

I could not believe what I was seeing. Everybody in the 4×4 was absolutely frozen in total disbelief of the situation unfolding. Looking through the little glass window into the front cabin, I saw my moms face…her huge brown eyes looking like a deer caught in headlights. Her friend Marion seated next to her spontaneously burst into tears. Our next door neighbor Andy who had so enthusiastically volunteered to help us that day, leaped off the back of the 4×4 and ran headlong into the bushes as fast as his cowardly legs could carry him. I think I was around 8 years old at the time and despite my age I have to embarrassingly enough admit that due to the gravity of what was taking place, my bladder decided to give in on me as I soaked myself completely. Someone started screaming although I don’t recall who it was, while one of our friends who was on the back of the 4×4 with us conspicuously threw himself on top of the tree to try and cover up our crime. Thinking about it afterwards, I couldn’t stop laughing about that one small action taken in desperation because as he landed on the tree you could clearly hear some of the branches snapping and rustling. It would’ve taken a totally deaf person to not hear that. My aunt reluctantly rolled down the window as the policeman arrived at our vehicle and proceeded with his interrogation.

As the situation was unfolding, there was a tone in this policeman’s voice that was vaguely familiar to me although I just couldn’t put my finger on it. As far as I’m concerned there is a discrepancy to this day between who realized first what was actually going on here. My sister Karen claims the prize while my aunt says she recognized his hands first before anybody else. My aunt leaped out of the 4×4 as she suddenly recognized that it was in fact my uncle who was playing a practical joke on us. At first she was not impressed…standing in the middle of the main road really letting him have it for all she was worth, while he hysterically laughed like a Hyena. Once everybody had calmed down, we then had the task if having to track Andy down. After a few minutes he sheepishly appeared through the bushes and upon hearing that it was all just a joke, was seriously hanging his head in shame. With his tail between his legs, he climbed back onto the 4×4.

Now it all made sense to us as to why he had so slyly bowed out of helping us that year. He had been plotting against us for several days, arranging a policeman’s uniform through a friend of his at the police department, saying that he needed it for a fancy dress that they were attending.

Arriving home, unloading the tree and hauling it into the sitting room I was never so glad to be back on home turf. After my change of underwear and much teasing from everybody else, we continued the task of decorating it. Adorning the tree with baubles and tinsel that year somehow seemed a much more special occasion.

I’m not sure how the whole tradition of getting a Christmas tree like this started in our family. Karen would probably be more clear on that and I’ll let you know, but the stunt my uncle pulled on us that year didn’t stop us. We continued for many years after that to enjoy the excitement and camaraderie that came with banding together against the rest of the world in getting our grubby little paws on our tree, which always stood proudly in our sitting room bursting with character. It was always a tree that was so much more appreciated than anybody else’s because of the effort we’d gone to, to get it in the first place. And just in case you’re wondering, I have never been able to live down the fact that I wet my pants that day!

This entry was posted on September 26, 2014.

Back in time

When I started this blog, it was with the intention of mixing it up a little. Although it is about my experiences with breast cancer I don’t want it to be all about that.

On that note I’d like to tell you a story or two about my childhood. Obviously I can’t tell all in one blog, so I’ll be spreading the tales out in the weeks and months to come. Some of them will be hilarious, some not so much I’m afraid. I spent my happiest days down by the seaside where we went for our long summer vacations every December. We always went with my aunt and uncle who were like a second mother and father to my sister and I. They both had a cracking sense of humor and were very sociable and popular people. They were very well known in the small seaside village where we used to spend 5 glorious, sunny weeks each year. As a result, the small and should I say ‘rustic’ cottage which served as our humble abode was often over crowded with visitors constantly coming and going. It pretty much felt like Park station most of the time. I thrived on the hive of activity to be honest.

Xmas photo

Not a terribly good photo, but the tree stands center stage. I am sitting to the left and my sister Karen on the right. One of our domestic workers was rather pleased with the bottle of wine she received for Christmas! I am about 12 years old here.

I’m not by any means advocating stealing in any shape or form and very importantly neither did any of my family members, but we had a family tradition in the form of acquiring a Christmas tree. For as long as I can remember we always had a real, not artificial tree that would stand in the living room and as long as the adults had anything to do with it that wasn’t going to change any time soon. So, a few weeks before Christmas we would launch a plan of epic proportions to go to one of the nearby farms and kind of like umm…take a tree. A concrete plan would be put in place and everybody had a specific duty and role to play in all of it. Even the next door neighbor…a young lad by the name of Andy was in on the action. A day and time would be chosen. The time was more important than the day, simply because of the fact that the operation was always carried out in the late afternoon, when everybody was at home having a lazy siesta or when, more importantly, the police were hopefully least expecting it. To add to the fever pitch excitement and apprehension, we were told as children that if we were caught stealing this tree, that we would be thrown in jail and spend Christmas behind bars. This was of course total nonsense, but we were too young at one stage to realize that. The adults just told us this to keep us on our toes as well as to add to the excitement of it all.

On one particular year and very uncharacteristically, my uncle made an excuse to get out of accompanying us to get the tree. I can’t remember the excuse he made but we weren’t fazed. We carried on as usual and one afternoon with a whole bunch of towels, we all leapt enthusiastically onto the back of the 4×4, and with my aunt driving and my mum and another friend in the front cab, we set off. Sitting on the back for all to see, we tried to look as casual as possible . Ironically enough, we had a heap of brightly colored beach towels to throw over the tree once it had made it onto the back of the 4×4 to disguise it. Like that wasn’t going to look conspicuous enough! Never mind, we had an extra set of hands to help us that year and after we had found the ideal spot to pull over onto the side of the road two people leapt out, ran across the road and jumped over the fence with an axe. The 4×4 then drove on so as not to attract unwanted attention, to return 10 minutes later.  The two able bodied adults responsible for getting their hands on a decent specimen had to be ready to pass it over the fence to yet two more people (which on a few occasions was me) so that it could be thrown as quickly as possible onto the 4×4 to make a break for it. This particular year was no exception and we were all back in the 4×4 and on our way home, proud of ourselves that we’d pulled it off once again. We were in high spirits with the adrenalin racing through our veins. At one point we had to stop at an intersection to turn right onto the main road back into the village. We were waiting for a car to pass before we could move again when suddenly, we all saw movement out of the corner of our eyes. We looked on in horror as a policemen stepped out from behind the bushes and came striding purposefully across the road towards us. Never had our adrenalin levels plummeted so fast.

This entry was posted on September 23, 2014.

A double edged sword

Soon after I had finally completed my treatments, I visited every book store imaginable in my quest to get my hands on as many books on breast cancer as I possibly could. I would absorb them like the proverbial sponge and then go out for more. Some people including my own husband asked me if I didn’t perhaps think I was getting a little carried away or perhaps even becoming a bit obsessive. My answer was a big NO! I would say that if I was going onto the internet all the time and scaring the life out of myself reading up on statistics, then yes. You see the thing about statistics is that they are highly over rated and that is all they are, just statistics not facts. Scientists and doctors have seen fit to automatically slap a life span onto every cancer survivor based on how previous sufferers have responded to treatment. They then go and put it out there for everybody to read, including people who have just been diagnosed and are traumatized. Your initial instincts and yes I had those too in the beginning, is to drown yourself in those statistics. It is terrifying not knowing what is going to happen next when you are hanging from a sheer cliff face by your fingernails. I personally wish that I could banish those ridiculous internet sites altogether once and for all.  The reality is that everybody’s journey with breast cancer is vastly different. No two people share the same DNA or chemistry, therefore cancer cells and how they react and metastasize also can vary greatly. How people respond to treatments also differ just as much therefore nobody can really know for sure what the outcome is going to be. I don’t care if the scientists surname is Einstein, no one has the right to play God and predict how long a person is going to live for. That is like saying that we are the only existing life forms in the universe. Not only is it arrogant beyond measure, but it is also being plain narrow minded.Horse riding

The much more sensible thing to do in my mind is to get the facts and arm yourself with as much knowledge about your specific type of cancer as possible. First of all it helps to control the fear factor as well as helping you to make far more informed decisions regarding surgery and treatments further down the line, thereby avoiding any regrets later. If reading book after book is your way of holding onto your sanity, then so be it, but whatever you do, stay away from statistics.

Apart from reading book after book though, my time after treatment was also a real learning curve. Obviously it taught me how fragile life was and how quickly it could be ripped out from underneath you, but for the first time in my life I learnt to slow down and really appreciate every day for the special occasion it was. My personal relationships with both family and friends became far more meaningful and precious to me as I never took a single moment from there on out that I spent with them for granted ever again. Breast cancer is no doubt a life changing experience, but I got to the point where I was determined to take the good out of the bad and run with it. I still had three little girls to raise and I was sure as hell not going down without a fight.

Between writing assignments for a course that I had embarked on, I started taking horse riding lessons which is what I’d longed to do for many years. The girls did it with me and we used this valuable girl time to have fun together and cement our bonds. I also took up Hatha yoga which I found helped me to relax and taught me to remain more focused on the present.

Once you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and your treatments are behind you, one tends to fall into a rather unnerving lull right afterwards. All the fuss and attention that you received from the doctors and nurses during your treatments are now gone and it can easily feel like your safety net has been cut. That in itself is easy enough to get through by staying busy, but what follows afterwards is a little more challenging. It becomes a double edged sword that hangs over your head and you wonder whether your cancer might ever come back in the future. With time this idea or fear if you will, fades the further away you get from your initial diagnosis. This leads me to yet another dead line that doctors have set…you know, the one where if you don’t relapse for 5 years after you’ve been diagnosed, then you have the same chance of getting breast cancer again as any other normal person on the street. Sadly this isn’t always the case, as I found out the hard way.

This entry was posted on September 21, 2014.

Lessons learnt

I think everyone can agree that once you’ve had to face your mortality and you survive to tell the tale, you are not the same person afterwards. This is of course going to sound very clichéd but people mention this over and over again because it is simply the truth and undeniable. The sun really does shine more brightly, the sky appears bluer than ever, a birds song more lovely than you had ever realized before. Your senses are heightened and when you open your eyes upon waking in the mornings, you celebrate the fact that you get to spend another day with your family and friends. Every day that dawns is considered a special gift not to be taken for granted, but to be lived to the fullest. I would like to share a short story with you. It is one that I wrote based on a dream that I had one night not long after my treatment had finished, and that has repeated itself many times since. I hope you enjoy it.

What a wonderful life

Getting out of bed I notice that my knees are not hurting like they normally do. What a refreshing change. Upon opening the curtains my suspicions are confirmed. It is a lovely sunny day, and outside my bedroom window is a majestic looking oak tree. This time of year the leaves are green and lush. On one of the branches I see a row of little grey birds sitting there and chirping to each other. They are normally very ordinary looking birds, but today they somehow yield a beauty I’ve never acknowledged before. I also notice a little squirrel nervously scuttling around at lightning speed on one of the lower branches. It holds a small acorn between its paws and holds its fluffy tail high in the air. Two beautiful white stripes flow down the centre of its back, starting from the top of the head and following through to the tip of the tail. The squirrel stops and whips its head from side to side, sensing danger. Perhaps it can feel me looking at it. Turning around and walking to the bathroom, I realize that my back and hips don’t hurt that much either. I turn on the shower and start to strip out of my pajamas, while I stare at my face in the mirror. Not bad for forty. I climb into the shower and close my eyes, feeling the gooseflesh appearing on my skin as the warmth of the water soothes me down to my bones. Opening my exfoliating body wash, I revel like never before in the delicious smell of the raspberries, while buffing my body to perfection. Getting out, I dry myself and throw my luxurious, thick white towel on the floor, not caring to hang it up as normal. I do not pay much attention to my appearance today, just throwing on a pair of light blue denims with a figure hugging white T-shirt. My favorite since it shows off my slim silhouette that I take great pride in, especially after becoming a mother. I leave my hair soaking wet and un-brushed.

I bound down the stairs almost like a sixteen year- old. I haven’t been able to do that for many years. Breezing through the dining room and opening the sliding door that leads out into the garden, I am very intent on going outside into nature this morning. Normally I prefer to just stay in bed and read a book or watch some television. My husband and I like to lie in like that over the weekends. Just after we got married we would wake up, put our sneakers on and pound the pavements, while watching the sun make its first timid appearance on the horizon, surrounded by the scattered, rich hues of orange and red adorning it. Fifteen years, a child and illness have put a stop to what now seems like a distant and dismal attempt at a healthy lifestyle. Walking towards the deck chair, I look over at the swimming pool. The dark blue and crisp looking water looks so refreshing and inviting. Without hesitation I run and dive into the water. The sudden coldness almost sucks all the air out of my lungs and stings the surface of my body like sharp pin pricks, but somehow it does not seem to matter. I am so in the moment as I fully embrace the shock of the icy water, feeling the bubbles tickling my skin. I swim under the water, reaching out to touch the floor of the pool and brush the smooth tiles with the tips of my fingers, while I make my way to the other side and get out. Making for the deck chair I lie down and quite enjoy the contrast of the cold, wet clothes on my skin against the intense warmth of the cushion. I lie back and sigh, as the comforting heat from the mid-morning sun settles onto my face. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a flower bed filled with sweet-peas that I planted at the beginning of the summer. I get up and go over to them, bending over to smell them. The intoxicatingly sweet smell floods my nostrils, as I take a deep breath in an attempt to take in as much of it as possible. These have forever been my favorite, and I always make a point of putting lots of them in vases around the house when we are expecting guests. There is simply no better fragrance.

I decide to go and get changed out of my wet clothes. Walking through the sliding doors, I hear screaming and crying coming from up stairs. In a sudden panic I bound up the stairs, taking two at a time with my new found strength and agility. As I am halfway up the top flight of stairs and look up to the landing, a horrifying scene greets me. My husband has his back to me and is kneeling over someone lying sprawled on the floor, totally limp and not moving at all. My eldest daughter is kneeling on the other side of the person, grasping a hand with both of hers. Frozen to the spot by paralyzing fear, I cannot bring myself to walk further up to see who it is. I am too afraid to know. My husband has the phone in his hand and he shouts into it.

“When is the ambulance going to get here…I don’t think she’s breathing and I’ve tried everything. I’ve done exactly what you asked me to do and it isn’t working. Please hurry, I beg of you!”

Without thinking, in utter frustration and desperation, he throws the phone against the wall. Pieces of black plastic and small electronic parts shoot in all directions, as it smashes into a million pieces. He is now sobbing out loud as he lowers his head onto the person’s chest and says, “Please breathe…don’t leave me now just breathe, please hang on, they’ll be here soon I promise you, oh God NO!”

My daughter is now wailing. Pain, agony and helplessness are clearly audible in her cries. She is tugging at the person’s arm screaming, “Wake up, you can’t go anywhere now I need you… come on!” What a wonderful life Page 4

I hear men coming up the stairs behind me, and instinctively move out of the way so that they can pass through. My husband jumps up so that they have space to do their job. He takes my daughter by her arm, and tries to help her up to get her out of the way, but she won’t let go of the person’s arm. She is now hysterical and screaming. One of the paramedics helps him to heave her up with force under her arms, and swiftly moves her aside. They stand aside and wrap their arms tightly around each other and sob, their eyes large and wild with fear and disbelief at the situation. Their faces are ashen from shock and horror. There are too many people hovering around and I cannot see who it is. It seems like an eternity that the paramedics spend, trying to help whoever it is that is in such a desperate situation, but when one of them leans back with a look of despair on his face, and lets the paddles drop from his hands to the floor, I realize it is all over.

One of them looks up at my husband and daughter and shakes his head.

“I’m so sorry, there’s nothing more we can do.”

My daughter drops to her knees and crawls over to the lifeless body, and putting her head down on its chest, she emits a guttural cry as if she has been mortally wounded. My husband just stands there, looking down with a look of utter devastation and defeat consuming his face, his mouth agape. The tears fall silently down his cheeks. He backs against the wall and slides down onto his haunches, resting his head on his knees while wrapping his arms around his legs. His shoulders shake as he sobs.

It is at that point that I get to see who is lying on the floor. I see all of her scars that she accumulated along the way, as she bravely fought her own private battle with cancer. I realize that my husband and daughter are crying about me. It’s me lying there. My gaunt and wasted body is whitish-grey. My finger and toenails have become blue from lack of oxygen. My eye sockets are framed with purplish-black rings, a testament to how exhausted and sick I was.

I suddenly jerk awake and sit bolt upright, gasping for breath. I realize I’ve been crying in my sleep, and that the same awful nightmare has played itself out again. I have been plagued with this dream for weeks now. Wiping the tears from my cheeks with my fingers I hear the heartwarming chirping of the birds outside, and realize that it is morning. Getting out of bed and wandering to the window, I feel the familiar pain and stiffness in my joints. I open the curtains and sit down on the chaise longue, appreciating the size and grace of the oak tree outside my window as well as the fretful activity of the birds on the branches.

I am still alive and living with cancer. I have been battling with a dark cloud that has been hanging over my head, ever since I discovered that the cancer had come back two years ago, living in fear as to what will happen next and wondering when the end will come. No matter how many times in the past my doctor has told me that everything will be alright, this dark frame of mind has still relentlessly prevailed, like a double edged sword hanging over my head.

I think more about this awful dream, and realize that I am being pushed to breaking point. Either I can relent and take the easy way out, or I can try to figure out what this dream is trying to tell me. I know that if I choose the easy way out, it will torture my husband and child for the rest of their lives. I have fought so hard thus far just to stay alive, and it can’t be all for nothing. I realize I have to change my mind set. I cannot go on torturing myself this way.

I know that if I am to go on to be a loving and successful wife and mother, then I need to change from pessimism and despair to optimism and hope.

They say that your attitude can make all the difference to how long you live after your diagnosis, but it is much easier to make a statement like that when you aren’t the one living with the cancer inside your own body.

I remember something my late mother always used to tell me when I was inconsolable about something trivial that had happened to me when I was a child.

“What is the point in worrying about something, when you can’t do anything about it right now? All you are doing is wasting precious energy, energy that you could be using doing other much more meaningful things. You are not meant to know what the future will bring, only to take it one day at a time; one moment at a time.”

It suddenly hits me that living in the moment is what I’m supposed to be doing, not harping on about the past or fretting about the future. Living in the moment is the only way I can be truly happy, and give the love to my family that they truly deserve.

I make a promise to myself to move forward, and to treasure every moment of every day that I have left. Doing anything less than that is not honoring what remains of my life. That way, when my end eventually does arrive, I can look to the heavens without any recriminations and know that l have also taught my daughter to live her life to the fullest, and to have the courage to stand up to whatever obstacles she comes up against. When this is all over, she will know better than anybody else how fragile life is. That it is never to be taken for granted, and is to be treasured. That every morning when you wake up and realize you are still alive, it is a gift and a reason to celebrate.

The bedroom door opens ever so slightly, and I hear the little tinkling bell hanging from the collar around my beloved cat’s neck. He wonders in nonchalantly and rubs himself against my leg. I pick him up and flipping him onto his back, I bury my face in his soft and furry white belly, giving him a few kisses. He starts to purr loudly and I hoist him onto my shoulder and close my eyes, focusing on the blissful sound. The wonderful aroma of brewing coffee with toast, bacon and eggs reaches my nose which explains why my husband is nowhere to be seen. I hear my daughter’s laughter coming from down the passage way.

I get up and putting my dressing gown and slippers on, I take one last look at the oak tree and smile. Four weeks to go till Christmas. It is time to hang up the decorations. I think I will put them up a bit earlier each year from now on. I turn to head downstairs to the kitchen. Today is the first day of the rest of my life, and what a wonderful life it is!

This entry was posted on September 19, 2014.

Heeding the warning signs

I still find it amazing how so many people approaching the end of their high school careers just know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. They then go off to college and are so admirably focused on their goals and direction. I’m afraid I wasn’t one of those. I fell into the category of people who have to either bang their heads against the wall repeatedly or are forced to face their mortality head on to wake up and realize what they’re meant to do with the rest of their lives. This begs the next million dollar question. Are we really put on this earth to fulfill a certain role? Are our paths and destinies predetermined? Yes, we are all certainly born with talents…gifts that the vast majority of us feel obliged to share with the rest of the world and hopefully help someone along the way or at the very least, make a valuable contribution to society. I have to be completely honest with you all on this note and tell you that when I was diagnosed with my breast cancer, my faith in the higher powers that be were shaken to the core and tested to the limit. I’m still working on restoring that and I don’t know for sure if I’ll ever get all of it back. I’m not going to tread the very delicate ground of religion here and I’ve always prided myself in being able to respect others religious beliefs and cultures, but is there not a remote possibility that sometimes some things just happen at random. That sometimes the universe sees fit to mercilessly throw us a serious curve ball?

Whatever the answer to all these questions, in the midst of picking up the pieces after my treatment was over, I realized that I should’ve listened to my father all those years ago and gone to study Journalism. As usual however, I thought I knew better and proceeded to waste a year of my life studying Beauty Technology which I decided in the end wasn’t my forte. I then wanted to start earning my own money and entered the banking industry where I remained for 10 years until we left South Africa for the UAE. Once I’d achieved some sense of normalcy in my life I decided to give a writing course a go and realized that my father was indeed right. I’d finally found my niche. Pity it took me 35 long years to realize what I was supposed to do. Talk about slow!

Rochelle at school

A very sad Rochelle on her first day in grade 1.

In the midst of all this frenetic activity, my eldest daughter Rochelle began grade 1 while her twin sisters went into kindergarten. I failed to see the warning signs. Rochelle’s teacher phoned me about a month into the school year and asked me to go in and see her. I immediately knew something was up. Right before my treatments were due to start, I had told Rochelle very briefly what would happen to me when I took the medicine. I didn’t want to give her too much information at the time as I didn’t want to scare her. I had made it clear to her that if she was ever worried or had any questions that she could always come and talk to me. I firmly believe that most of the time a child asks questions when they’re ready to hear the answers. However, I underestimated my child’s astuteness and I don’t think she was capable of articulating herself well enough at 5 going on 6 years old. After the meeting with her teacher, I realized that Rochelle was completely traumatized. She wasn’t participating in class activities and wasn’t talking in lessons either. She would go to school and not say one word the whole day. On the day that the teacher had asked me to come in and see her, she had sat Rochelle down and asked her what was wrong. Her eyes just welled up with tears as she started crying saying she wanted to go home to be with her mummy because she was afraid that mummy was going to leave forever. It became a very emotionally charged meeting as I also started crying upon hearing that. It broke my heart.

I was so grateful for the teachers swift action in contacting me and getting Rochelle in with the school counsellor. I beat myself up for weeks after that, but in my defense it would have been very difficult for me to pick up on the signs, as she was a completely different little girl upon arriving home. Her teacher wouldn’t have recognized her at home in all her rambunctiousness. After starting with counselling, Rochelle slowly but surely improved and a year later she was functioning normally in her school environment and interacting with her teacher and friends on a normal, healthy level again. Since then, she has gone from strength to strength. In hindsight I had originally done the right thing in telling all the girls teachers about my situation, and in asking them to report any signs of stress in the girls. I think it was that proactivity that paid off in the end.

This entry was posted on September 17, 2014.

Reconstructive surgery

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Me and the girls about 2 years after my reconstructive surgery.

About a year after I’d completed my treatments and was achieving a new sense of normalcy in my life again, I was getting rather tired of wearing a prosthesis the whole time. I was ready to address the possibility of reconstructive surgery. We were referred to and consulted with an American plastic surgeon who had a sterling reputation and was practicing between Abu Dhabi and Washington DC at the time. After a long discussion we were given all the options and sent home to process it all and come to a decision. At the time I was very rigid in my way of thinking and therefore there was no way that I was going to have any sort of foreign or unnatural object in my body, so after much thought and debate between Jaco and I, I decided to go for the Gold Standard Tram flap. This decision wasn’t taken lightly as it is a highly invasive procedure with many risks that go along with it, possible rejection being one of them. It involves taking the upper stomach muscles that are situated just below the breasts, severing the blood supply between them and the lower stomach muscles and physically bringing them up to your chest wall to form breasts. I also made an even more radical decision at this point, choosing to have a mastectomy on the right side as well so that the stomach muscles could be brought up on both sides. This would also apparently reduce my risk of a recurrence later on.

My plastic surgeon had informed me of all the risks and told me that because it was such a complicated and long procedure fraught with risks, there were going to be no less than 15 other doctors in surgery with me. Amongst them was the anesthetist, general surgeons to assist as well as an interventionist in case I stopped breathing. I had the utmost faith in this doctor and although I was afraid, I was sure that I wanted to go ahead with it.

Being wheeled into surgery, my stomach was doing somersaults as I clutched onto Jaco’s hand for dear life. I kept on telling him how afraid I was. My mouth was dry and it felt like my heart was beating out of my chest. I closed my eyes and prayed to God and to my mother to get me through this. As we approached the doors to the theatre a doctor approached me and said, ‘You’ll just feel a small prick as I give you this sedative…nothing to worry about.’

The last thing I remember was looking up at Jaco’s face as it suddenly began to fade into darkness. It was a powerful sedative that put me to sleep immediately. The operation took 7 hours and when I came around after it was all over, I wished that I was still asleep…that I could remain asleep until the healing was done. The pain on a scale of 1-10 was an 11. It was excruciating. I literally felt like I’d been hit by a bus. I was cold and shivering uncontrollably and the more I tensed up from that, the more I’d feel the searing pain emanating from my abdomen. I started crying and begging for something to take the pain away. As I battled to breathe, all I remember yet again was the oxygen mask being put on my face and yet another sedative knocking me out. I was never so glad to be going to sleep. A few hours later I came around and this time there was morphine in the mix which allowed me to breathe more easily and get my bearings. I had 4 drainage tubes, two coming out of each breast and two more coming out of my stomach. Not a pretty sight. To add to it all, I developed an uncontrollable cough from the intubation tube that they had put down my throat allowing me to breathe during surgery, which had caused irritation. Each cough was agonizing as I clutched a pillow to my stomach which didn’t help at all really. As the days passed however the pain became more tolerable and the swelling went down.

I left the hospital and went home just 6 days later. In the end the results were very good. The plastic surgeon definitely knew what he was doing, but in order to achieve perfect symmetry, he had to resort to putting in a small saline implant on the left side anyway, which meant going under anesthetic and the knife twice putting my body under even  more strain. In hindsight if I could’ve foreseen that happening and taking everything else into consideration, I think the option of just having implants put in to start with would have been the wiser and definitely less painful route to go. The good news is that there was no rejection and I have since never had any complications. All’s well that end’s well.

 

This entry was posted on September 15, 2014.

Moving forward

I was so excited for my last session of chemotherapy. Finishing chemo meant moving forward with my life and not being a cancer patient anymore, but for a change just being good old me. I gradually went from seeing my doctor for screening every 3 months to every 6 months. At each screening session I would be examined and would have a tumor marker blood test done, which would measure my white blood cell activity. After each test I would hold my breath for the next 2 days or so until I got the results, and each time I was lucky enough to be able to breathe a huge sigh of relief and move on, knowing that I was still cancer free or in remission if you will.

I got even more excited when I started seeing hints of hair starting to push through my scalp again. I would stand in front of the mirror each morning just waiting to see the signs. As far as I was concerned it couldn’t grow back fast enough. The longer it grew, the more Jaco and I would celebrate it. It grew back a shade or two darker than it was before, but not much thicker I’m afraid. I thought this would be my ticket to ticker hair and I was bitterly disappointed. I quickly got over it though as I was so glad to still be alive and just be granted a second chance at life. I’ve always had impossibly straight hair, but was amazed when I realized that it was becoming curlier the longer it got. This of course gave the impression that I had thicker hair than I actually did have and of course I reveled in that. For the first time in my life I had hair that I could celebrate and grew it to almost half way down my back. That’s until I cut it! I looked at myself in the mirror and down at the floor in absolute dismay as I saw all my curls disappear and saw the usual straight hair reappear once again. In one cut, I lost my crowning glory and I was positively disgusted!

In the meantime I had no time to waste as I was planning birthday parties for the girls and life had to go on. At one point I decided to take some time out and went and visited my sister Karen in the UK. For the first time since being diagnosed and treated, this was finally my chance to take time out and be Sarah, not the cancer patient and breast cancer survivor. As usual I was received with open, loving arms and shown a wonderful time.

One very good thing that came from my mothers death was the fact that it brought Karen and I closer together again. We were always close growing up, but life happened and for a time we grew apart somewhat. As it was in those years I was almost too much for any of my family members to contend with, but now we had mended all the rifts and had a chance to bond and reconnect again. I think my mom was and still is smiling down from the heavens because she and her sister were always close, and she always wanted the same for Karen and I. As far back as I can remember, my mum always did her utmost to instill love and respect between Karen and I and her efforts paid off in kind in the end. I would like to think that she is taking great comfort in knowing that her death helped in healing relationships and cementing them forever.

While I was visiting in the UK, and talked, laughed and cried. We squeezed in as many of the sights and sounds of London that we could while I was there, and it was an incredibly therapeutic time for me.

For a time there, I got completely lost in being a breast cancer patient, but sometimes all one needs is to take a deep breath and a big step back to reevaluate your life and everything that it stands for. I lost myself and I went to the UK and spent time with my past…my sister, and found myself again.

S&K 1

Taking in the sights of London Town

When I returned home I truly hit the ground running as I practically threw clothes from one suitcase into another and without spending even 4 hours back at home again, made for the airport to board yet another airplane bound for South Africa. I thrived on that excitement. I felt alive again, like I was finally starting to live my life to the fullest again.

This entry was posted on September 13, 2014.

A haunting adventure

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Outside Alanglade House in Pilgrims Rest. Little did I know what I was getting myself in for!

Just quickly going back to my recent holiday in South Africa, I’d like to tell you about a very interesting experience we had. Right after our wild antics with the baboons, we pushed on to Pilgrims Rest which is a very old mining town that was once one of the centers for the gold rush dating back to 1873. As a result this place is steeped in history. Upon arriving and visiting the information center, we soon caught wind of a Ghost tour that was heading out the next evening, and so we made our booking and waited in anticipation. The following afternoon, we set out with the tour guide and headed for a mansion called The Alanglade House. It was built in 1915 by a mine manager called Mr Barry, that stands in huge contrast with the rest of the town that in those days had houses built out of corrugated iron. Mr and Mrs Barry had just arrived from Britain. Both of them came from wealthy families and Mr Barry took one look at the corrugated iron houses and proclaimed that his wife was not going to live on one of those. Made out of brick and cement like many of todays houses, it took just 8 months to complete and was way ahead of it’s time in terms of technology and design. The mansion housed all the mining managers and their families until the last mine finally closed in 1972. It now stands as a museum and tourist attraction.

Upon entering the house, the tour guide informed us that three different families had occupied the house, but the first of course were the Barry’s. They were repeatedly struck with tragedy as their teenage daughter died of meningitis in the house. The ghostly presence and apparition of this girl has been encountered several times by visitors. Three of their sons also never reached old age, dying prematurely. The youngest son in particular was killed in the First World war. Certain objects have also been known to be manipulated or moved around. This house is like a maze, with 32 rooms all in all. We were told we could take as many photos as we pleased. Perhaps we’d even see something in one of them. Many people had! We started out downstairs which was uneventful, eventually making our way upstairs.  We entered a sun room which was one of Mrs Barry’s favorite places to sit and entertain her friends with afternoon tea. I was walking behind everyone else and upon making my way past the small round table, it felt as though a fridge had been opened up all around me. Walking a few steps further the temperature became normal again. Perhaps I watch too much television, but I have always been fascinated with the paranormal. It is believed by some that when a spirit tries to manifest itself, the air around it becomes very cold. However I try to remain neutral as I pride myself in not being a drama queen (well mostly) and to be honest, I’ve never had any personal experiences myself. I stopped dead in my tracks and to make sure that it wasn’t just my over active imagination, I looped around again and walked back through that spot. It was still freezing cold. I couldn’t move as it felt like my heart was beating out of my chest. I scampered out of the room so quickly and said nothing. I didn’t want to scare the girls. I’d tell them about it later.

After completing our tour of the upstairs room, we started down the stairs to prepare to leave. About four stairs down I was hit by a sudden, sharp smell of lavender. I didn’t mention to Sherry what I was smelling, but I asked her to come back up the stairs again. Arriving in the same spot as me, her eyes widened as she said that she’d never smelt this before but that other visitors had. We were standing level with one of the upstairs doorways entering into the room where the last Governess always slept. Sherry looked at me and said, ‘She loved all things lavender and never used any other scent.’

That was it…I was outta there!!

Sherry later told us that upon being absolutely sure that the house was empty and then locking up and walking away after tours, she’d hear the piano playing on it’s own and at other times hear children’s laughter coming from upstairs. Apparently the sounds of children laughing occurs mostly in the months of November and December, when the children attending boarding school would come home for the holidays.

Yes, a very interesting and unnerving experience indeed.

 

This entry was posted on September 11, 2014.

A bad hair day

My hair didn’t fall out as soon as I thought it would. I was into my 6th week of chemotherapy when the tell tale signs began. My scalp gradually started to itch more and more, and it actually became a bit sore to the touch at one point. Then I woke up one morning with lots of shoulder length, auburn colored hair lying on my pillow. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I was as devastated to lose my hair as many women are. My hair has never been my crowning glory. I had enough of it, but only just. It was very fine and fairly thin. My natural hair color was a sort of dead pan mousy brown, and once I reached late teenage hood a pattern started to gradually repeat itself. It was growing my hair to just past shoulder length until it started looking ratty and then cutting it into a bob and dying it some exotic form of dark reddish auburn. Anything to get rid of the mousy brown. I’ve always been a slightly restless spirit and change every now and again is part of who I am. Growing up, my bedroom was never the same for 2 months in a row. My mum would walk in and stop dead in her tracks, amazed at the transformation. Furniture would be shuffled around and new posters would be on the walls. I used to drive her crazy. I used up all my pocket money just on making changes to my immediate surroundings. I have calmed down somewhat since then but it still happens to a certain extent, just on a slightly smaller scale. Now its my husband that is often left scratching his head and wondering what the heck just happened.

It still wasn’t easy for me to see myself become totally bald though. It did catch up with me to a certain extent when, one day I decided to just go for broke. I cried as I stood in front of the mirror pulling my hair out in huge clumps as I threw it in the dustbin right before taking the electric shaver to my head to seal the deal. One always watches these tear jerking movies where you see the bald person who is the cancer patient going through treatment. It was just so surreal seeing myself that way too. I almost felt like I was the one in the movie and I was asking myself, ‘How the hell can this be happening to me?’

Wig

My wig.

Luckily a few weeks before I knew for sure that something was brewing up stairs, I decided that I wanted a wig. Finally, I’d have a head of hair to talk about! I went to a hair shop that specialized in wigs and I selected one that was auburn (as usual) and was made of real human hair. It was fairly long and definitely a lot thicker than I was used to. As a result the whole wig episode turned out to be a mistake. With the summers being extremely hot and humid here in the UAE, I sweated profusely under the wig and the tape that was supposed to hold everything in place didn’t exactly work as advertised. It would gradually slide further and further back on my head until I would have to do something about it, and if I was in public that wasn’t always so easy. Jaco was of the opinion that I’d made a ridiculous decision to buy the wig in the first place, and of course he was right. In the end I ditched the wig towards the end of my chemotherapy treatments and until my hair grew back, I used bandanas. I have nothing against wigs. I’ve seen many much more beautiful ones since, wishing that I’d gone for something a little more conservative, but in our climate it just wasn’t practical. I wasn’t worried however, because I was sure that when my hair grew back again once it was all over, that it would be quite a bit thicker than it was before. I’d heard stories of women who’d had thin totally nondescript heads of hair and after their chemotherapy was done, they grew back this gorgeous thick head of hair. Mmm…it didn’t quite turn out that way for me in the end.

This entry was posted on September 9, 2014.

Chemotherapy

Before starting chemotherapy, my doctor at the time insisted that I have a portocath inserted. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s basically a metal ring with a tube that is attached to it that is inserted into your chest by making a small pocket just under the skin. The tube is then threaded to a major vein in the neck or other area. This makes it much easier for nurses to administer chemotherapy instead of having to battle to find a vein in the conventional manner each time. As a patient progresses through their chemo sessions, the harsh chemicals tend to damage the veins where they either shrink beyond use, or collapse or roll over. Once I was in theatre lying on the operating table, I realized to my horror that they weren’t going to put me out completely but just sedate me. I was lying there practically begging them to anesthetize me completely. I didn’t want to be even slightly aware that an incision was being made in my chest and a metal ring being inserted with a tube going who knows where. They eventually agreed to put me out and before I knew it, I was in recovery and was even strong enough after that to go for chemotherapy right away. With every tiny movement that I made with my arms and shoulders making me acutely aware that there was now a foreign object on board, we made our way to the chemotherapy suites.

On my way to chemo, I was very focused on walking in with a clear head. I didn’t want to talk myself into becoming nauseous, or assume that the medication was going to make me ill. So many patients suffer from anticipatory nausea because of the preconceived idea that chemotherapy makes everyone sick to the stomach full stop. I was determined to not fall into that trap. After being hooked up, Jaco and I watched as the red fluid inched it’s way down the tube. We held hands tightly as I closed my eyes and waited for it to be all over. Almost immediately I developed a metallic taste in my mouth, but three hours later the chemo was over and I was fine. I was dazed and tired from the anti-nausea medication, but wasn’t nauseous at all…just very eager to go home. I would have to repeat this process once a week for three weeks with a week break in between, for 6 months.

Goem in pram

The son I never had!

A few months after my mum passed away, I adopted a gorgeous male kitten through feline friends in Abu Dhabi. My husband named him Goemal. By the time I was diagnosed he was already just over a year old. After a while I ended up rechristening him chemo cat. There is definitive proof that animals can sense when a person is sick and in need of comfort. Perhaps they can smell the chemical changes that a persons body goes through when they’re not well. After each chemotherapy session, although I didn’t suffer from nausea (queasiness at the most) I was still flat on my back for a day or so afterwards. I would lie in bed and sleep the next day away, but I was never alone or lonely for a second. Jaco would lie vigil on the bed next to me keeping himself busy with something or other, and then there was chemo cat. He never left my side either. He would lie curled up next to me the entire time and would only move away to go and eat or drink and to relieve himself. He would then come straight back to me and at times he would lick my feet and pat my face gently with his paw. He was never a big purrer, but he must’ve instinctively known that I found purring very comforting and boy did he pack it out just for me. Neither one of my boys ever faltered for even a second in being there for me. This cat of mine has become like the son I never had. I adore him and he still 10 years later follows me everywhere and remains by my side. Right now as I type this, he’s sitting on the table in front of me next to my laptop. I’m truly blessed to have such a wonderful husband, children and feline!

This entry was posted on September 7, 2014.

The long road ahead

It was 5:00am and we were driving to what was at that stage, the only government hospital in the United Arab Emirates that was sophisticated enough to have a fully fledged Oncological department with chemotherapy suites attached, which meant driving 120km to and from treatments each time. For this first session, Jaco was driving us there as we had no idea how I’d react to the medication. We’d left the girls with friends who’d kindly volunteered to babysit them. There was no question in my mind that, that was the right thing to do. What was happening to me was bad enough, and I didn’t want to drag the girls through it with me. I wanted to protect them from all of this as much as possible. In the car on the way I also had a chance to really reflect which led me to the next age old question. Did this breast cancer just happen to me or did I do something to cause it? An Aunt who I was very close to once wisely said, ‘The sins of your youth catch up with you when you’re older.’

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My beloved mum…who was right about everything in the end whether I liked it or not!

Upon hearing that for the first time I did what many naïve young adults do, and that was roll my eyes to the ceiling. Now however it was all starting to make sense to me. I went somewhat off the rails in my late teens and early twenties, which were spent in reckless abandon. I got involved in a toxic relationship that went nuclear in the end, and in between all that I developed a taste for alcohol and cigarettes. I’m not sure if I could say even now whether the alcohol was an addiction…maybe a brief one, but I developed in to what many people call a dedicated smoker. Throughout my twenties and early thirties I’d tried countless times to quit, but I just couldn’t. It took being diagnosed with breast cancer to get me to finally kick the habit. Why is it that some of us humans always wait for the other shoe to drop before we finally learn our lessons? My mother always used to ask me why I chose to do things the difficult way and make my life so hard. I still cannot answer that question. The good news is that I have learnt through the years and bitter experience to simplify my life and not to complicate or clutter it. I think my mom’s shouting ‘Halleluiah’ from the heavens now!

There was also the other issue of fertility treatment that I had undergone years before together with the excess estrogen that came along with it. Just after Jaco and I got married we decided we wanted to start a family pretty much right away. Almost a year later when nothing had happened, we visited a doctor to see if there was a problem somewhere. The problem of course lay with me and the fact that I had polycystic ovarian syndrome and was not ovulating properly. This meant treating it first with medication and then waiting again for a while to see if I couldn’t fall pregnant on my own. I didn’t and so it was fertility treatment that was on the menu. I proved luckier than most when I fell pregnant with Rochelle on only the second cycle of treatment. After doing so much research for my breast cancer book, I have consequently learnt that fertility treatment can play a role in developing breast cancer, as hormone receptor positive breast cancer like mine feeds off excess estrogen. Like many cancers, breast cancer doesn’t happen over night. It can take up to a decade to develop the disease with all these carcinogens that one comes into contact with, and that can have a residual effect on the body.

Then there was the time when I decided to take on the project of housepainter. Yes, I took it upon myself to tackle the exterior appearance of our abode. It didn’t involve painting the actual house, just the trimmings like the gutters, window frames, security gates and what have you. This meant coming into contact with lead laden paint and thinners to clean my hands with day in and day out for weeks on end. I should’ve worn gloves of course, but I just couldn’t have been bothered at the time. Stupid and thoughtless you say? Yes it was!  All those things may have added up to create just the right recipe for things to go wrong and for genetic damage to take place, but I will never know for sure. I cannot beat myself up for something that I have no definitive proof of. All I could do was take it all and use it to serve as lessons for my own daughters.

Upon arriving at the hospital I had to consult with my doctor first where blood had to be taken to check my white blood cell counts, and before chemotherapy could even start, my doc had insisted that they insert a portocath!? I was blindsided by that. I thought they were just going to use my veins, and now they want to go and shove a metal ring in my chest? What next!

 

This entry was posted on September 5, 2014.

Good news for a change

blog03When the phone rang I just knew that it was the doctor. My stomach started doing somersaults, I could barely swallow because my mouth and throat were so dry while my hand shook as it hovered over the phone. I was terrified to pick it up…terrified of what I might hear. Picking up I couldn’t breathe…until the doc said ‘All lymph nodes have tested negative…your prognosis is very good.’

Jaco could tell by the look on my face that the news was of the best kind. When I put the phone down I was crying and laughing at the same time. I finally felt the black cloud that had been hovering over my head for the past two weeks lift and move away. The heaviness on my chest disappeared and I felt a relief and elation that I still today cannot put words to. The girls came running over to me to ask what was wrong because of my tears. I crouched down and for the first time in a week I took all three of them in my arms and hugged them for all I was worth despite how sore it was saying, ‘It’s okay girls, mommy’s just crying because she’s so happy.’

Of course as so often happens in situations like this, the relief and happiness that I felt was somewhat overshadowed because in the recesses of my mind was lurking the fact that my treatment was far from over. I still had to be referred to an Oncologist who was yet to review my case and determine what sort of treatment I would have to follow next, if any.

The following week sitting in the Oncologists office, I was not a happy girl to find out that I would have to do 6 months of adjuvant chemotherapy. To top that off, because my breast cancer had tested hormone receptor positive I’d also have to start taking Tamoxifen and remain on it indefinitely after the chemotherapy had finished.

I was very happy when my sister, Karen arrived the following day. I was somewhat apprehensive about how she’d react to seeing her sister with a lob sided chest, but she didn’t react at all, she just embraced me. The next day I was due to have my stitches removed and I was very excited about that. Although the hospital had bandaged me up in a clever way that made me look as though I still had a breast on the left side, I still couldn’t help feeling a little self conscious and vulnerable in public. I was no longer feeling so tender and sore at the op site anymore and was ready to go and look at prosthesis’.  We visited a shop which had an amazing variety of not just prosthesis’ but also bras and swimwear. Still feeling quite a bit of stiffness in my arm and shoulder, Karen was an amazing help. She never batted an eyelid when she saw my scar for the first time, but was just the most incredible help and support, and assisted me in ensuring that I decided on the correct size. I also bought a swimming costume that is still one of my favorites today. Wearing the prosthesis made such a huge difference as all my self confidence returned almost immediately. Having Karen there was a life saver to me. Living in a foreign country with no immediate support system is very hard, and she intrinsically knew that and dropped everything that she was busy with 8000km away just to be with me. I would’ve done exactly the same for her, but I still found it really touching. The photo that you see on this particular page was taken while she was here that time, not long after my surgery. Seeing her leave 10 days later was very difficult as I cried in the car all the way home from the airport, but I of course knew that she had her family and responsibilities to get back to. I was just so grateful that she’d been to see me.

I didn’t have much time to dwell on the fact that she was gone and that the house felt so empty, as my chemotherapy was due to start just 2 days later.

This entry was posted on September 3, 2014.

Post surgery

 

6 hours later I had just emerged from the anesthetic in recovery when I heard the doctors voice saying to me, ‘I’m so sorry but we had to take the whole breast, a lumpectomy wasn’t an option.’

There is nothing in the world that can possibly prepare a woman for hearing those words. I was absolutely devastated and coupled with the anesthetic that made me even more emotional I started sobbing like a baby, and the tears kept on coming as they were wheeling me back to my room. Not long after that the surgeon came to see me and explained that when they went in, they had discovered two additional lumps. Although they were smaller than the one they had detected originally, in order to get clear margins they had to remove most of the breast tissue including a thin layer of muscle off my chest wall. They had also removed 15 lymph nodes which had been sent off to the lab for testing. Waiting a week for those results would be unbearable.

Once the doctor had left I finally had the chance to really process what was happening to me, and of course the first question I asked myself was the age old one, ‘Why me?’ Was there a reason for me to get this disease or was it just a brutal and random blow from a cruel universe that seemed to be turning against me. I felt this overwhelming anger towards my body for doing this to me. It felt almost like an out of body experience where I no longer knew and trusted my body. It had become a stranger to me and I no longer trusted it to look after me anymore. I was becoming profoundly depressed and was sinking into a deep dark pit of despair that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to claw my way out of.

Not long after, a nurse who also happened to be South African came into my room, and sitting on the side of my bed and taking my hand in hers, she told me her story. It was a story that would transform my despair into hope…hope that I still have today. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and the doctors had given her 6 months to live. The cancer had metastasized to most of her major organs including many of her bones. When she got home, she shut herself up in her room, closed the curtains, curled up in bed and stayed there for days- close to a week. No matter how much family and friends knocked on the door, she wouldn’t respond. She started to lose weight and all she did was cry until she fell asleep. Upon waking the process would repeat itself again. Then one morning she woke up and it was as if she had experienced a mind shift in the middle of the night…as if a light switch had been flipped on. She got up, opened the curtains and windows wide and, staring out the window decided that she wasn’t going to give in to this disease. She was prepared to give everything and do anything it took to defeat it. She sat down at her desk and made a bucket list of all the things she was determined she was going to get done before her life was even close to ending. Then it was what she said to me next that really got my attention, which was ‘That was 11 years ago.’blog01

When she left my room my usual optimism started to kick in again and drying the tears, I had a smile on my face. 4 days later I returned home only to face yet more emotional and psychological obstacles. We had still not received the results for the lymph node testing and had absolutely no idea what my long term prognosis was going to be. What if my prognosis was poor? What if I never got to see my three little girls grow up, build careers for themselves, get married and have children? I would’ve given absolutely anything at that point to have some sort of guarantee that I would eventually have the privilege of holding my first grandchild in my arms. It was another 4 days until we heard what the results of the tests were and although the nurse that had visited me had by and large put me back on track again emotionally, I was still swinging like a wild pendulum between optimism and despair born of outright fear. In those 4 days before we got the phone call, I also couldn’t bear to hug my children or even go near them. I couldn’t stand the prospect that I may not get to spend much longer with them. They were still so small. What were they going to do without their mommy? Jaco had to take leave from work and look after them while I lay in bed day and night, holding my own private pity party.

This entry was posted on September 1, 2014.

A break from the doom & gloom

 

Before getting back to my ordeal in the hospital, I’d like to take a small break from the doom and gloom and tell you a little bit about my recent holiday in South Africa during the month of July. It was a most welcome vacation since we hadn’t had a break for the last year and a half due to my 2nd relapse and consequent treatments. Anyhow while we were visiting family there we decided to break away for about 8 days, so that it would be just the 5 of us having some quality time together. We decided to travel to the Eastern Transvaal which is one of the most beautiful parts of the country, and on our way there, we travelled through the Kruger National Park. We first visited a place called Blyde River Canyon where we stayed at a lovely resort in a 4 star self catering cabin. We had barbeques at night under the stars and it was just stunning. On our second day there, we decided we wanted to go on a walking trail. Upon enquiring at the reception about this, we were informed by the lady behind the counter that the Guinea Fowl Trail was the nicest to go on as it wasn’t too challenging and was suitable for the whole family. We were told that it was 2 hours long. Upon setting off we were in high spirits. The scenery down into the canyon was breathtaking and the weather was perfect. Although we were crossing over at certain points into the Leopard trail where there had been some recent sightings of them which made us a little uneasy, we kept the faith and pushed on.

I don’t know to this day what the lady at the reception desks definition of not too challenging was, but 3 hours later when we found ourselves crawling on our hands and knees up steep, big rocks, treading perilously on very slippery mud and wading through freezing cold rivers, I started seriously questioning her credibility! 4 hours later and I had never been so happy to see two things; one the sign that said ‘End of trail’ and two, the tarmac road! By that time we were hot, tired, thirsty and biting each others heads off. If we’d known it was going to be so damn long, we’d certainly have taken a backpack along with extra water in it, not just one small bottle each!)  Upon arriving back at the cabin, I retired to the bathroom with a glass of sherry and a long, relaxing foam bath. It was there that I had time to reflect on the day, and realized that despite everything it had been totally spectacular. You see, I like being challenged every now and then and stepping out of my comfort zone and this particular experience was the epitome of that. I was also deeply touched by how my whole family reacted while we were on this hike. All four of them became very protective of me. I was ordered to the middle of the pack, where the one in front could lead the way (that being my eldest daughter Rochelle) and where the person at the back was the most vulnerable to attack by wild animals (that being my husband). As much as I protested and wanted to swap places, no one would allow me. Everybody drank just half of their water because they knew that towards the end, I would end up needing it more than anybody else. When I was finished in the bathroom, I went and gave them all a long hug, telling them how much I loved them and appreciated what they did for me. My awesome family!!!DSC00693

A few days later and we were ready to move on and were busy packing up the car early one morning. The girls had gone down to the trampolines to get a last jump in. I wasn’t fully aware of where Jaco was, but while I was packing up the last of the groceries in the kitchen I suddenly heard a violent rustling of a plastic packet and a few stray things falling to the floor. At first I assumed it was Jaco taking some things to pack into the car, but alas we had made the classic mistake of leaving the sliding door open to allow wildlife in. Looking out the kitchen window, I saw to my utter dismay a baboon making off with one of our grocery packets clutched in its grubby little paws. At that precise moment I wasn’t aware of the fact that Jaco was innocently trying to take a pee. Judging by his reaction, he must’ve thought I was being raped or murdered because I immediately started hollering like a mad person. I screamed ‘Jaco a baboon has one of our packets…help’! He said afterwards that he didn’t hear that, he just heard the major performance I was making. He came running down the passage with just his underpants on. On seeing him I shouted, ‘Go and put your pants on’! With that I raced outside in pursuit of the little blighter. At the edge of the dense bushes the baboon stopped and proceeded to tear open the packet and, dropping the packet in disgust it strolled away arrogantly, upon discovering that the packet only contained clothes washing powder and fabric softener. I arrived not long after that to retrieve the packet and Jaco was not far behind me, this time with his pants on and a pole in his hand, which he said afterwards he would gladly have shoved up the baboons rear end if he’d had even the slightest chance to do so.

Another installment from our holiday to follow soon!

 

This entry was posted on August 30, 2014.

The continuing nightmare

Right after receiving the devastating news, the nurse working with the doctor handed me a book on breast cancer which would provide me with the information that I needed to make more informed choices. I don’t remember walking to the car in the parking lot of the hospital. What I do remember however is that I immediately started to pour over this book. I felt this overwhelming sense of panic utterly consume me and I wanted as much information as I could lay my hands on as quickly as possible. I just wanted the cancer out…it didn’t matter to me at the time what it took. The only problem was that through all my sobbing and tears I couldn’t see the pages of the book properly. I looked over at Jaco who was driving us home. He was crying too. What really struck me at that moment was the girls who were laughing and playing in the back seat. At 6 and 4 years old, they had absolutely no idea of the fight that their mother was up against and the paralyzing fear that came hand in hand with it. After putting the girls to bed that evening, Jaco and I went to bed ourselves. Clinging to each other, we sobbed.

The next task at hand was to break the news to family and friends. It was at this point where I was actually grateful that I would never have to tell my mother about my diagnosis. She would not have handled it very well at all and I’m pretty sure to this day that I may very well have given her a heart attack given that, that is what she died of. I would never have been able to live with myself if I’d been responsible for her death. I wasn’t able to phone my father and tell him either, as he’d had a stroke about 10 years earlier and had lost most of his faculties. At the time he was in an old age home where he could obtain the best care. The most difficult phone call I’ve ever had to make was the one I made to my older sister Karen, who at the time was living in the UK. We both started crying over the phone, but then not long after that quite a remarkable thing happen. I can only describe it as a gradual calm coming over me as I spoke to her and explained what was happening. The tears stopped and in a strange reversal I found myself comforting and reassuring her. The same process repeated itself again as I explained over and over to others what was happening and what the future held, while my sister was making arrangements to fly out and see us. Being in a foreign country with no real support system at hand, I was so grateful and looking forward to seeing Karen. In fact I desperately needed the comfort and reassurance of her presence.

Sarah & Karen

In the mean time surgery had been scheduled for 4 days time. I had been given two choices by the doctor. If they went in during surgery and found that the lump was small enough to remove it without causing much outward distortion to my breast, then they would perform a lumpectomy. If it was too large however, then they would have to perform a mastectomy. At the same time he did mention that my lump didn’t appear to be large enough to warrant a mastectomy, so I wasn’t too worried in the days building up to surgery which were taking agonizingly long.

Finally the morning of my surgery arrived. Although there was an tangible sense of dread and apprehension in the house, I was so glad that I was finally going to be getting rid of this cancer. There was of course also that sense of fear that always comes with surgery and the associated risks attached to it. The girls must have picked up on my anxiety because they became impossible in the car on the way to the hospital. As the crying and fighting amongst themselves escalated in the back seat, so did my agonizing headache. On driving through the gates of the hospital, I threw the very last cigarette that I would ever smoke out of the window. Once I’d been shown to my room, Jaco helped me to get settled in and comfortable in bed, but the anxiety had become too much for me. I was suddenly overwhelmed with nausea and ran back and forth to the bathroom several times. Jaco alerted the nurses to what was going on and they and the doctor decided to give me a sedative to calm me down. I remember Jaco sitting on the bed and stroking my forehead while holding my hand…and then nothing. I don’t remember him and the girls leaving and I wasn’t aware of being wheeled into surgery.

 

 

This entry was posted on August 28, 2014.

How my journey began

It was April 2003 and we had been living in the UAE for just over a year. I was still reeling from my mothers death and struggling to come to terms with living without her, whilst smoking one cigarette after the other without giving it a second thought. I, or rather Jaco (to be really out there and honest with you all) detected the lump in my left breast at the 3 o’ clock position.  He later told me that the lump had been coming and going…expanding and contracting for several months before that. What that ultimately implies I’ll probably never know, but he advised me this time to go and have it checked out as it had increased in size quite dramatically in the month leading up to this. For the next few weeks however, I didn’t do anything about it. I kept on thinking that maybe it was just a cyst and that it would go away on it’s own eventually. I wasn’t even considering the fact that it could potentially be something way more sinister than that, after all breast cancer didn’t run in my family and it only happened to other women not me…in hindsight I was too terrified to find out either way.

When I did eventually bring myself to get advice I visited my general practitioner first. She did a sonar on my breast and told me that her opinion was that it was nothing serious, and that it appeared to be just a benign cyst. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, but she did advise me to get it checked out further just to be sure. She was wise enough to know that sonar was not an adequate diagnostic tool in this case. I was referred to a breast surgeon at the American Hospital in Dubai. After examining me, he told me that it didn’t feel like a cancerous lump to him but that the only way to know for sure was to do a fine needle biopsy. I gripped the sides of the bed until my knuckles were white, while the technician performed the procedure. I started feeling like a pin cushion as the needle went in for the 4th time. Bleeding and bruised I left the hospital hoping and praying for the best.

A week later as I was driving to the school to collect the girls, my mobile rang. In those last few minutes before I got the call I should have cherished the normalcy, the feeling that I was invincible, the naïve misconception that I would live forever. Non of us forget those first few words that come out of the doctor’s mouth do we? The words that I heard were “You need to come back in for further testing as the results are inconclusive.”

kids small

I knew in my heart of hearts what ‘inconclusive’ meant. Doctors are loathe to deliver such life changing and devastating news over the phone. That was the day my life changed forever…where nothing would ever be the same again. Sitting in the doctors office, he slowly turned in is chair and handed me the dreaded piece of paper with the words that make everything crash down around you and make you feel like your world is coming to an end. “I’m so sorry but it is cancer” are words that nobody ever wants to hear. Having to face your mortality is without a doubt the scariest thing that anyone has to do. Nothing trumps that. A feeling of ice cold consumed me from head to foot. Everything appeared to be moving in slow motion as I came very close to passing out. Breaking into a cold sweat I looked over at Jaco. He’d turned pale and had a look of terror in his eyes I’d never seen before; one I hoped I’d never get to see. I turned and looked down at the carpet where my three little girls were sitting and playing, oblivious of the horror that was playing out around them. I shouldn’t have turned around to look at them because that is when I completely dissolved. To this day I don’t really remember what was said or what instructions were given. Luckily my husband had the wherewithal to listen and take everything in, understanding what was going to happen next.

This entry was posted on August 25, 2014 and tagged .