Chemotherapy destroyed my body. It dripped from the bag, down the tube, into a port placed just below my skin, through a vein, and into my heart where it was powerfully pumped away from that terminus into all the connected pathways throughout my body, trying desperately to seek out the cancer cells in my abdomen, killing its intended target. Along the way it killed other good cells, disrupting the normal functioning of my body, from oxygen delivery, to nerve sensation, taste, touch, etc. The ravages are too many to list.
Initially, however, I felt very little. Once we got past that first night of vomiting, enabled by a break in communication where I was not given anti-nausea medications, I went about my days feeling little more than just a temporary feeling of fluid bloat. I rode my bike everywhere, ran outside, did half-marathons on the treadmill, and just tried to keep on unhindered. I was told about the effects of chemotherapy treatment, but felt tenuously fortunate that I seemed to be avoiding the worst of them.
Then came more infusions. And more. And more. And more. Coupled with the pills I took everyday for weeks, I began to experience small changes in my body. Dried, cracking skin. A mounting, consistent nausea always sitting just below the surface. Sensitivity to anything cold. Odd taste sensations. More. More. More. The infusions and the pills continued, repeating, seemingly ceaselessly, until my body’s ability to metabolize or flush the chemicals simply couldn’t keep up. Where I once hoped these treatment effects were episodic, I realized the repetition couldn’t be stopped and the accumulation of chemotherapy continued within. My body was being slowly eaten from the inside out…possibly along with the cancer.
Finally, it all came to breaking point, and my previous physical abilities were all but stopped. The slow, continuous, non-stop repetition of chemotherapy had created a new reality in my body, one of continuous degeneration. My fingers split and bled from the creases. I could barely turn on lamp lights without great effort and pain. Some mornings I couldn’t walk due to the abrasive hand and foot sensations. I couldn’t stay in a room under 72 degrees. Nothing below room temperature could be swallowed. Nausea continued to consume me. My feet went completely numb as the nerve damage mounted. And, undoubtedly, an unseen, unfelt deterioration was taking place inside me through red blood cell depletion…and who knows what else. I fear to consider the long-term effects.
All this I was warned about, but for as long as possible I held to the idea that I might be able to fight it back. I could run it out. Each treatment could be met with an attempt to help enable the drugs to get where they needed to go and then get the hell out of me. But I soon realized…it wasn’t the chemotherapy that was killing me…
It was the repetition.
Our bodies are amazing. We can consume and process so much thrown at us – nutrients, chemicals, medicines, etc., some valuable and some a little more problematic. I knew, through years of running, just how regenerative our bodies can be, from the process of breaking down and building back up our systems. Miles upon miles upon miles and yet the body continues to get stronger, faster, more efficient. So I wasn’t completely surprised by my body’s ability to fight off the effects of chemotherapy, as the nurses told me I was feeling the initial effects many months after most patients do, but I was beginning to feel them. Until that’s all I felt.
The repetition had become too much. I couldn’t expel enough of the chemo from the previous treatments before more was added. I wanted a break, badly, but that wasn’t an option. I put my head down and kept pushing through, trying to stay active at every opportunity, hoping to retain the strength and ability to push back against the ravages of chemo whenever possible, whenever I felt moments of respite from the repetition.
Then suddenly I had the option for surgery, again, and that break from repeated chemo came. I was given the go ahead for surgery months in advance and I instantly began marking the days until I could be done with my infusions, off my pills, and open wider that window of opportunity to get back to running, to reigniting that other manner of repetition that was my life before cancer.
Ultimately, I ended up with three weeks of not one more repeated chemo treatment before surgery, giving my body just a small moment to really let loose. And I took advantage of that…repeatedly…maybe TOO repeatedly.
There is a political idea known as The Reproduction Of Everyday Life, in that the actions, relationships, and engagement with the world around us, which we repeat most often, become the lives we lead, entrenching us within systems we may or may not agree with, but are continued through repetition.
I wanted to engage in this reproduction from my previous life, to repeat the running I once did before cancer, before chemo…to reproduce a life of running. With that 3 week chemo-free window of opportunity, I tried, ramping up my mileage, my intensity, despite the ravages of chemotherapy, until I started to reproduced something else. A pain, in my foot, that began spreading along the outside and into the heel, leaving me limping at the start of each morning run. I was able to get away with the unadvised mileage despite my repeating and increasing pain because I knew I was about to lose this repetition as soon as I went into surgery. I suspected for months. So I ran, poorly. I ran with a form that was compromised by my lingering hand and foot syndrome and mild, but noticeable, neuropathy, each mile building upon itself and slowly breaking down my foot strength, leaving me in greater and greater pain. But I didn’t care, again, because I knew this repetition was temporary.
Then came surgery. My only solace being THIS repetition is so far apart from the first surgery that recovery is inevitable.
And recover I did, leading into the present day, where I am trying to reproduce on my terms yet again, without chemotherapy for the time being.
I have a new window of opportunity…a much larger window this time. As explained in a previous post, we are in a “wait and see” moment, determining if chemo was keeping my cancer at bay during the past year and a half, or some other process entirely, which affords me the ability to live without the repetition of cancer infusions. I have an open road, so to speak, in front of me.
Two months ago I started down that road, repeating my previous life, tentatively putting in mile after mile, hoping to capitalize on this chemo-free moment and get back to, not just running, but training. I began building and building and building, feeling the benefits of the repetition as my endurance increased, my mile paces began dropping, and my strength allowed me to put in greater intensity…until I couldn’t.
The foot pain came back and I was momentarily crushed. I thought I might have become too ambitious, despite only hitting 30 mile weeks, and repeated myself right into injury. A stress fracture? A bruised bone? This repetition was supposed to be positive and regenerating, not destructive. I’ve had enough of that.
I found myself back at the St. Vincent’s Sports Performance center where the best Licensed Athletic Training in the country is there to help any struggling athlete like myself get back to doing what they love. Now, as much as I know I’ll get the best care possible through this institution, I also feared the recommendation all runners try to avoid.
Darrrell Barnes, the LAT who I trust the most to get me going again, knows this fear though and he gives only the best advice for both physical and psychological recovery. After a thorough examination, we determined what I suspected in the back of my head. It wasn’t that I was overdoing it…running too much, repeating too many miles, too quickly. It was that I was doing it WRONG. The lingering effects of neuropathy have trained me to avoid landing on my foot properly and put too much strain on one side, repeating an abuse that my body couldn’t recover from, just like chemo.
The best part about this realization is that Darrell didn’t need to tell me to stop running…I just had to run differently. It came down to repetition, but in a way that would retrain me to run properly, to slowly diminish the pain and get back to complete strength and fluid movement. I couldn’t have been happier if he told me my cancer was gone (ok, slight exaggeration…slight). The window of opportunity remained open.
So here we are….further and further away from the repetitive degeneration of chemotherapy, leading into the repetitive degeneration of poor form, and into the regenerative repetition of running properly…but still running, still reproducing the life I want to live despite it all, for as long as I can.
And yet, this hope is tempered. I want to continue with these 3 months of chemo-free living, leading into 6 months of chemo-free living, and onward toward the next surgery when we can try and get rid of cancer once and for all…but I know this is all so tenuous. I know the CT scans we are soon scheduling can come back with a different plan, that puts me right back on chemo and slams the window shut before I really get to let loose. I know my surgical oncologist can pull the plug on my plans, replacing the worry-free regenerative repetition of my running, with the increasingly degenerative repetition of chemo infusions and pills yet again. And somewhere..somewhere down the line…an estimated year, year and a half, is the third surgery. The other manner of repetition.
But for now…I just want this one extended moment, this one window of opportunity to make the most of my time away from chemo, despite the lingering side effects of it’s own repetition, to push back with mine, to put in mile after mile, rebuilding moment after rebuilding moment, winning psychological battle after psychological battle, creating red blood cell after red blood cell, forming muscle fiber after muscle fiber…until I can get as close as possible to the life I had pre-cancer. Even if just for this temporary moment.
We have opportunities every day to create the lives we want, to live to our own standards, despite obstacles, despite adversity…but they will always remain moments, entirely temporary if we don’t continue to repeat them. Ultimately, we must choose to repeat the lives we want to live, through our bodies, our relationships, our engagements with the world around us, so that the negative repetitions don’t break us down, don’t erase all we’ve chosen to build. I’ve tried to never stop this reproduction throughout cancer…there has been no reason to…but the bigger struggle has been to do so physically.
At some point, though, I can only hope this reproduction of cancer, this manner of repetition, ends, and this whole experience becomes only a footnote t0 my life. A moment. A process that ceased repeating. And I can say that, despite it all, I never stopped reproducing the daily life I always wanted for myself and those around me.
But, until we get there…I’ve got more to do…over and over again.