Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Forever Interruptions

I’m running out of ways to relate that, with cancer, nothing stays the same. Every stretch of routine and expectation is interrupted by varying degrees of change and difficulty. Sometimes it’s a new surgery plan. Sometimes it’s tumor growth or regression. Sometimes it’s a new pain that came from nowhere with no warning. Whatever tends to happen, it’s hard to see any of it coming, and your plans for the future, any future, whether that is years or months, is jeopardized.

This shit gets old.

My latest interruption happened Sunday…actually, IS happening. I had successfully strung together a handful of days of running, gently and calculatedly increasing mileage in relation to my body’s responses. I managed to put together my longest streak of running consistency since surgery and was looking forward to putting in a couple 6 milers over the weekend. Saturday went as planned as I navigated through an increasingly difficult 6 miles in 7:00 / pace, which was a considerable milestone for me since I’m not even 2 months away from surgery. I had no idea I could be back to this effort so quick. Admittedly, the effort left me seriously strained when it was over, but I knew that was part of my progression, the necessity to get stronger, and the recovery would leave me a better runner than before even. I followed that run by another 6 miler, this time easier, Sunday morning, and I was ready to go into the next week with a new determination and effort to go further when the time was right.

Laura and I celebrated our weekend runs with some donuts, errands, and relaxing time reading at the local coffee shop. All was going well as ever. We went home and had dinner, then some snacks, and then…something changed.

A sense of discomfort started to fill my abdomen. It felt like gas, but really bad gas, trapped in my stomach as if in a perpetual state of swelling. I had felt something like this before, but it involved a noticeable food blockage high in my abdomen, coupled with a crippling nausea that left me reeling in pain and vomiting through the night. This seemed to be a little different. I wasn’t nauseas, but I certainly wasn’t without pain. I knew the night was going to be a problem.

I left Laura to sleep alone as I went into my son’s room and slept in his bed, except I didn’t sleep. At all. Not for one hour. I took various laxative medications to no effect and the same held for the ibuprofen. Hour after hour passed as I rolled back and forth in pain, trying to find a comfortable position, hoping this blockage or whatever it was would resolve itself. At some point, however, the pain became overwhelming and I found myself throwing up into the toilet, my only solace knowing that the effort would probably relieve some of the pressure and pain in my abdomen. It did, mostly.

I spent the next day also in discomfort, but a little lessened from the night before. I thought maybe the vomiting relieved the situation, and although I didn’t eat anything all day, I decided to have some softened cauliflower in the evening, not wanting to let my body regress without nutrition as it does after surgeries.

At some point, however, I was breaking down again and complained to Laura in great frustration, “Damnit. I’m sleeping in August’s room again. I’m gonna fucking puke again. I know it. I fucking hate this.”

Maybe I was so incredibly exhausted from not sleeping the night before, but even with the pain in my abdomen, somehow I managed to not puke as I fell asleep soon after going to bed. Crisis averted, temporarily.

I spent the next day in bed, but called my oncologist to tell him something bad was going on, that I couldn’t eat, that I was in pain, that I think this is something more serious. The office confirmed my suspicions and brought me in that day for an X-ray and follow up the next day. I spent the night barely eating again, just trying to get some yogurt and fluids in me to keep from dehydrating.

The next day I met with the oncologist and he explained the x-rays showed that I have a partial blockage in my intestines. As he explained it,

“The best way I can described it is…you have a kink in the garden hose. It’s like when a garden hose gets pulled and folded and the water can barely get through the kinked section.”

Great. But what to do about it. The “kink” is caused by adhesions (scar tissue) that develop during the healing process from any sort of abdominal surgery. My doctor said he was surprised they don’t see them occur more often, but they do occur. Essentially, the space between organs can develop these almost stretchy bands of scar tissue that pull each other together, bending, twisting or kinking various parts of the intestines, which is what has happened to me. The good news is that mine is a partial blockage, so food and liquid can pass, if I’m careful what I eat and take it slowly. Full blockages can be life-threatening, of course. How we need to handle my issue, however, is being debated.

Right now I’m waiting it out. The hope is that the scar tissue breaks up or the blockage manages to open up and all the pain and pressure is alleviated. But, if it doesn’t, I need to go back into the hospital for more focused monitoring, waiting, and then potential corrective surgery. This can entail IV fluids, a GI tube (good god no), and medicines. The surgery, well, I’m not sure what they do and how invasive it is (I’m guessing not that much), but I’d rather avoid it if I can, obviously.

But, everything else has stopped. Most everything. I can’t run, at all. Walking can be problematic depending up on the pressure in my abdomen at any time. Eating has gotten better since Sunday, but I’m still relegated to really easy to digest foods (no fruit or vegetables) and I’m always on edge that what I eat is going to leave me hanging onto the toilet again. The pain comes and goes and gets in the way of the work I need to be getting done for my design clients and runners, and that’s where all this interruption builds into great frustration.

It’s the same story I keep trying to avoid, developing some normal life that I can count on for work and physical activity that gets halted without warning. I’m currently trying to establish solid work, build myself back up physically, while also managing a couple running goals and responsibilities I’ve committed too…but having all that put into jeopardy because I can’t predict what my body is going to do from one day to the next. That’s the worst of it. I find myself wanting to give up on everything, to stop trying, to stop planning, to just…wait, I guess. I know this isn’t how I usually handle these situations, but I’m getting tired, increasingly tired of all this, of these surgeries, these complications, these hopes for a more reliable future…that are met with consistent setbacks or absolute obstacles to achieving any of this. I keep feeling the need to drop everything, to scale back every bit of excess in my life, and just get through doing the minimum.

I know I say all this out of frustration and current dejection, but this gets old. These setbacks continue to build upon one another and maybe I do need to just keep everything as easy as possible. I don’t know. In part I know I need to wait this out, all of it, for now, and then see what happens. In regards to the physical, I have no choice. For everything else, I don’t know anymore.

Define Tough

I wrote a message of encouragement to my friend running the Olympic Trials Qualifier. She responded and asked about my current recovery, of which I conveyed was rough, but generally going in the right direction, and that I was running again.

Surprised at my ability to be back running again, to some degree, so soon, she said, “You’re just so tough!”

I get that a lot. Most often, I just assume it’s one of those common, unthinking, uncreative phrases people use to be polite, or in this case, express some acknowledgement of the physical difficulty I have to manage.

I don’t like to internalize these sayings, because I think they are more convenient than honest. I’m not tough. I don’t know any cancer patients that have the option to be tough really. You either deal with the difficulties of the treatment or you suffer and, sometimes, die. So, from the young to the elderly, if you are faced with cancer, you go through the treatment…and sometimes people think that’s tough. But really, it’s just a necessity.

It’s convenient for people to say something encouraging though, to acknowledge your discomfort and pains, and I respect that. But when my friend said it this time, I found myself dwelling on it for days. I was dwelling on it, because she doesn’t have to be convenient or polite with me. We’re friends and we’ve been through our own sort of shared difficult circumstances. We’re both competitive distance runners. So part of me was really taking her words more seriously, like, “Maybe I am tough? But how?”

And that’s the thing, she IS tough, as all my distance running friends are, because they willingly throw themselves into states of discomfort, and then don’t back down, on a continuous basis. To face physical and psychological adversity and go through it out of an unavoidable necessity is one thing, but to face it and go through it, when you have the option to take an easier route, well, THAT’S tough.

I understand that maybe my distance training prepared me to better emotionally manage the difficulty I face with treatments, surgeries and the unexpected nights of pain and vomiting, but there was still no avoiding it. And yet, maybe that’s the partial truth in internalizing the idea of being “tough”, of facing some sort of physical difficulty, and finding the best psychological and emotional way through it.

Fortunately, that doesn’t have to involve getting cancer to experience.

My friends and I used to train (well, still do) ourselves to run as far and as fast as we possibly could, day in and day out, through varying states of difficulty. To do this involved steeling ourselves against the physical suffering we knew we would willingly bring ourselves to, and then keep going. We didn’t just do this on race day. We did it nearly every day. When we had to kick out 6 x 1 mile repeats at 5:00 / mile or faster, we knew the increasing fatigue that would consume us through the last two. When we had to find new reserves of effort through 12 x 800’s at 2:20 pace, we knew what was coming and where we’d have to go inside ourselves to finish. When we had to exhaust ourselves through a 10 mile tempo at 5:18 pace, the effort was going to test our resolve to run when it felt like we had no strength, physical or emotional left.

And in all that, was an undeniable sense of being truly tough.

I don’t know how many people really understand what it is to not only push themselves through a mounting difficulty of effort, but to also know the discomfort that awaits before one even starts. There is a decent amount of psychological preparation, of overcoming a sense of fear and apprehension, to even start the effort. To me, that is the genuine sense of being tough.

So, when my friend, who genuinely, personally knows what it is to be tough tells me that I am just that, I take it more seriously, not because what I’m doing right now is something I can avoid, but don’t, but at the very least, because she knows what I’m capable of, and how I’ve undoubtedly pulled on that through this experience.

But I don’t know, I’m still just doing what needs to be done. Maybe, in those moments where others might have picked up the phone and called an ambulance, and I decided to just ride out the pain to see if it would go away, that was some degree of toughness (though probably more egotistical stupidity). Or maybe it was a lesson learned through the efforts of my training about my body’s ability to handle discomfort and find my way to some sense of relief. Maybe that genuine toughness informed my current approach to managing the difficulty of cancer.

I don’t know. I would still never tell anyone else I feel tough (or even seek that characteristic) just because I’m doing what needs to be done to stay alive, but I suppose if I have to internalize anything, it’s the lessons learned from understanding discomfort, anticipating it, and running right through it during all those miles of ceaseless training. That’s genuinely tough to me.

I hope, in the coming months, I can get back to building that toughness, willingly, on my own terms, and not just because cancer leaves me no choice.