Peggy Cumming, is a wife, mother, grandmother of 6, sister, niece, cousin and friend, as well as a teacher – retired after 34 years in the classroom – and an athlete. She is now recovering from thoracic surgery and undergoing chemotherapy.
In the decade of my 60s I had fantastic opportunities for adventurous challenges. I climbed mountains, bicycled in Europe, swam lakes and seas, and enjoyed week-long hikes. Doors also opened for Masters’ competitions: local summer and winter triathlons, 10 k road races, National Swim Meets and International Dragon Boat races.
All of these challenges demanded physical training and power from my body. During that decade, my athletic participation, and hours in the gym, enabled me to increase my strength and stamina. Through determination and dedication to improve my fitness, my body never let me down. Every year I was curious to see how far I could push my coaches’ training demands, and every year I was thrilled to feel increased strength and to be injury-free. My fitness enhanced my sense of well-being and empowerment.
As a Master’s Athlete, I learned about driving my exhausted body to the finish line of races, digging deep to reach the day’s cycling or hiking destination, and pushing through fatigue to finish the required gym workout. I learned that my mind could guide my body’s responses, and that I was capable of setting the goals for my body, being mentally in charge. I had no doubt that this experience would assist me in getting through chemotherapy. I would lead my normal life, doing my usual activities. I knew all about pushing through fatigue, over-riding low energy, dictating what my body could do. I was totally prepared to sail through chemo.
Totally, completely, absolutely, 100% wrong!!!
Chemo has brought me to my knees.
I have been humbled.
The side effect of Chemo Fatigue can only be known by experience. My chemo is delivered on a 21 day cycle, with treatment on day 1 and day 8. I’ve experienced the first week of the cycle as a week of Extreme Fatigue, in which I often find myself sleeping or dozing for 20 out of 24 hours.
Chemo fatigue arrived with the power and stealth of a tsunami, snatching me from my active life, and dumping me unceremoniously on the couch, where I would spend the better part of three months. I had to acknowledge that my body was now in the driver’s seat, and my mind was only a passenger, amazed at the sudden role reversal and loss of well-being.
After breakfast I would lie on the couch and start to negotiate with myself.
‘At 10:00 you will get up and make a smoothie.’
10:00 arrived. Time to renegotiate.
‘OK, at 11:00 you will make the smoothie.’
11:00. Make new deal.
‘Well then at noon you have to have lunch.’
12:00. OK, I’ll get up. But the lunch deal’s off. I only need to pee.
Towards the end of the Fatigue Week, before perking up a bit during weeks 2 and 3, I’d begin to feel a smidgen of morning energy. On days when the temperature was ‘warmer’ than -20 C, I could manage to get myself to the Rideau Canal Skateway, and, because I have long-blade skates, I could skate effortlessly for half an hour. That half hour brought me fresh air, sunshine, a feeling of normality, and often the company of a planned or spontaneous skating friend. For the rest of the day, I was back to the couch, recuperating and glowing with the enormous emotional benefits. How I appreciated the canal’s record breaking 59 days of consecutive skating!
I thought that my ‘been-there, done-that’ chemo friends had prepared me well for chemo. Fortunately, I did not experience some of their other predicted nasty side effects. When I was talking to a friend recently, I asked why no one had told me about the fatigue?! She paused and reflected, ‘Maybe we don’t want to remember that. Like childbirth, our brains choose to forget the really difficult parts.’
As March turns the corner into April, I will finish my treatments. The melting snow will reveal delicate sapphire blue snowdrops opening into bloom, and daffodils poking their heads through the warming soil. I anticipate that my body will feel a spring-like rejuvenation, with increasing stamina and strength, my mind returning to the driver’s seat on the road back to well-being and empowerment. With any luck, my Chemo Fatigue, like the winter’s snow, will be forgotten.
Peggy has her own photoblog, the F-stops here, where she posts a photograph every day.