Finding the Rhythm –
Chemotherapy, like the seasons, has a definite rhythm.
The window in the room in which I am currently writing overlooks a sea of trees in Olmstead Park. Their vibrant green leaves hang as healthy beneficiaries from a week of rain.
This one glance tells me it’s summer, which based on the date of the calendar is correct. But once I step outside on my terrace, my senses instantly gather more information that force me to rethink my assumption.
Despite the warm weekend Boston experienced only a few days ago, it’s now barely 60 degrees. The cool air has a permeance to it, unlike a month ago when the chill of an August morning would quickly pass to make way for an impatient heat wave that was aggressively pushing forward.
Now that I have a closer look at the trees, I notice something else is happening. Within the green landscape are small pockets of orange leaves. Proof that fall is coming.
I think about how my view will look and feel differently in the coming weeks.
The vibrant green leaves will metamorphize into a butterfly tapestry of oranges, reds and yellows. Despite their beauty, I know this change signifies that the leaves are close to dying and will shortly fall to the ground.
I envision leaving my balcony and crossing the street to walk in the park. I hear the “crunch” that the dead leaves make as they come into contact with my footsteps. As I walk through the park, no longer covered by the canopy of leaves, it feels both stark and unprotected.
I feel unprotected.
I stop in front of Leverett Pond, which was hidden from my view when the leaves were green and healthy. Now everything is gray. The pond, the sky and the ground beneath me. All the same color.
The air gets colder as I feel the wind come off the pond. Pretty soon there will be snow. At that point, I won’t be able to walk to the park anymore. I will only take in this view from my window as my balcony will be locked for the winter.
I come back to the present moment and return to my writing. Although I continue to enjoy being surrounded by dewy air and lush landscapes, I sense that I am unconsciously adapting to how my view will change over the coming weeks and months.
For very soon, the abundance of my current view will be replaced by a primal need to search for signs of green.
A leaf, a patch of grass, a small flower bud… any sign of spring.
Any sign of resilience.
Chemotherapy is all four seasons. Every treatment.
In the beginning, my first conscious connection between chemotherapy and the seasons was purely tactical. It was the middle of January 2014, and I was two weeks away from starting my first treatment. My Mom was visiting, and we took a long walk.
The discussion was mostly one-sided as I engaged in a rambling stream of consciousness in an effort to get my head around what was going to happen next.
As I wrote in Between No Longer and Not Yet, a cancer diagnosis is punctuated by epic, life-altering events like test results, surgery, biopsies, chemotherapy, etc., which are then followed by excruciating periods of waiting.
I was “in the meantime” of waiting to fully recover from surgery so I could begin my treatment plan. It was a time of healing and obsessive thoughts.
Sixteen weeks is what my oncologist told me. Six rounds of chemotherapy over sixteen weeks.
With Rain Man like intensity, I was playing the number sixteen over and over in my mind, when my Mom said, Do you see that tree? Once the leaves are back on that tree, you will be done with chemo.
I will be done with chemotherapy in the spring.
Now sixteen weeks felt manageable. I just needed to get from winter to spring.
I could do that.
On the day I started chemotherapy, I was very focused on the six total treatments I needed to complete. However, once I started, it was nearly impossible to divert my attention away from the treatment at hand.
I received treatment every three weeks. And while the side effects were cumulative, I found myself starting each treatment at a similar point— when I felt my strongest.
The beginning of chemotherapy starts in summer.
After I completed an infusion, it was followed by several days where I would slowly start to exhibit side effects.
This was Chemo Fall.
Short strands of hair from the cropped pixie cut my wigmaker gave me fell to my shoulders like leaves from a tree.
I was constantly reaching for moisturizer to sooth my dry skin.
Sensing my energy was starting to wane, I tried to get in as many walks as possible, since moving in the cool air was both pleasurable and provided a sense of normalcy.
Then Chemo Winter came.
The harsh side effects of treatment would roll in like a snow storm. There was no fighting it. My only option was to hunker down and ride out the storm.
I was tired. I wanted to sleep. A lot.
My friend Cait would bring me soup, which I would eat on the couch while binging on Netflix.
My body ached. A few days earlier I was taking brisk walks. Now I struggled to bend down to pick up something I had dropped on the floor.
Chemo Winter is the hardest season. Minutes can feel like hours. Days feel like weeks.
But as Robert Frost, a poet who wrote of winter on many occasions, once said:
The best way out is always through.
For me, this was the only way to finish chemotherapy. For it was in the moment that felt like an hour – when neuropathy was keeping me from sleeping, when I couldn’t summon enough concentration to read a book or I was completely fed up with having to put on a wig to face the world – it was that very moment when I knew the transition was happening.
Transitions are not easy. Even when welcomed, transitions can be filled with angst, energy shifts, clashes and backward steps that feel like progress lost.
The key is to find the rhythm and keep moving through them.
Less than two weeks after each chemo treatment, there would come a morning where I would wake up, still tired, but my extremities weren’t tingling. I didn’t ache. I realized my appetite was back when I started mentally preparing a breakfast menu more appropriate for the NY Giants offensive line.
These were the mornings when I reveled in having evidence that I had gotten “through.”
Spring was here.
It always comes back.
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