So, what about uni?

Like a knee-jerk reflex, my education is in the forefront of most peoples’ minds when I have told them about my terminal cancer. The question often makes my throat scratch with stifled laughter at the meaninglessness of attaining my name on laminated cardboard when faced with the totality of an impending death sentence. I assume that people ask not to be rude, but family and friends are aware of the importance of my education and career in keeping me somewhat sane and stable. However, what others don’t understand (and rightfully so, I wouldn’t expect it), is that cancer is a dirty word that reprioritises your life. And more so, terminal cancer is the dirtiest term whereby people are faced with not only the mortality of me, but of themselves. Nobody will be here forever, yes; but in the meantime, we all try to find the things that keep us in a predictable routine that brings stability and sense of control. And if you’re shaking your head at the computer/iPad/iPhone screen thinking you’re Mr or Mrs Spontaneity, I ask you – what do you do before work, what’s your after-work routine, and what do your weekends look like? I assure you, it’s filled with small routines. Wake up, make coffee, shower, get changed, brush your teeth, go to work, wait for your lunch break, count down until home time, go home, have dinner, watch Netflix, go to bed… Whatever your routine might be, the activities are generally repeated the same and in the same order. It doesn’t make you boring, but it does make you human. We humans have lazy brains and routine is like the brain’s shortcut to getting through each day.

As a half-human, my usual routines have been shattered by my deteriorating health. Hence, I cling to the few that are important to me and that help keep me sane. I still get up between 5 and 6am everyday, go to the gym, walk the dogs, try to eat, shower and retire to bed early when my body has truly called it quits. Even in the past few days of getting poison pumped into my chest, I have maintained my low-resistance cycling as I hide my vomit bag under my gym towel. I have also started newer routines, such as lying down in the late afternoon in a hopeless effort to somewhat compensate for the sleepless nights. I have also removed old routines that were unhelpful such as, now, I avoid social media out of sheer jealousy over the bodies of my able-bodied peers (note: I have replaced this with scrolling more online shopping sites than I’d like to admit). The social media hiatus has recently expanded to include text messages. Unapologetically, I admit that I rarely reply messages of people wishing me luck, sending inspirational quotes or telling me to “keep fighting.” It’s not that I don’t recognise the well-wishes and love from you all, I find them impossible messages to respond to when luck is clearly not on my side and the “fight” is an unfair “battle.” As such, no reply is probably a more courteous method than replying with, “Thanks but I feel sick and I’m dying, how about you?” (unless, of course, you’re searching for some teenage-esque brooding).

Not spending hours jealous of the lives of others or trying to please everyone has freed up some mental space and time that I am better monopolising with trying not to vomit. While that task seems insignificant compared to the seemingly selfless act of delivering therapy to those who need it, my symptom management takes up more energy than I have to give to other people. As such, to answer your question in the most long-winded roundabout way, I am doing nothing about uni right now. With each new symptom and unresolved problem, my priorities have been tested and changed. Sure, this might change over the course of treatment (if it is effective and tolerable), but right now, I’m focusing on integrating small things into my routine that helps inject small meaning and purpose into the 20 hours of the day I am usually awake.

For all of you curious as to what that looks like now that I am an unemployed disability-pension-seeking 24-year-old who moved back in with her parents, here are some of my day-to-day necessities:

  • Going to the gym. Even if it’s a shit ‘workout’ and I don’t even take my jumper off, getting my blood flowing helps flush the poison out.
  • Spending time with people who bring me joy, or at least the most amount of joy I can fathom in my physical misery.
  • Organising my ‘end-of-life’ plan. I’m barely an adult, so any advice on this one would be appreciated.
  • Creating memories that my family and friends can hold onto to help them through the grief, provided they still love me after I finish my transition to a truly self-absorbed heinous bitch.
  • Walking my dog (and Boston). This is incredibly important in my daily routine, not just for my mental clarity, but for spending time with my most loyal pal and keeping him as fit and healthy as I can.
  • Trolling Spotify for the perfect funeral music (and after-party music, of course).

There are also less desirable aspects of my new routine, such as:

  • Being abrupt and rude when asked clearly normal questions like “how are you feeling?”
  • Complaining after waking up from afternoon naps when people “pop in” unannounced, even though I’ve barely spoken to anyone all day and could probably use some social interaction.
  • Spending an unnecessary amount of money on clothes I am not currently wearing because it’s too cold and I can’t take my puffer jacket off without developing pneumonia.
  • Forgetting to laugh because my brain is too slow for the comedy shows I’ve been binge-watching on Netflix.
  • Channeling all my ‘roid rage into criticising my parents, even when they are trying their best (sorry).
  • Feeding thoughts of euthanasia by fantasising about ways I can painlessly end the “fight” that is seemingly futile.

While it’s not perfect, I am trying each day to become a bit better at being kinder to myself and living in the moment. Not thinking about uni, or even what I’m having for dinner, but focusing on what my body/head feels like and rolling with it. With the exception of gym, of course. I’m not giving that up, as one day missed turns into two, turns into a week, turns into a month, turns into never going back and turns into rapid deterioration of head and body. And as my oncologist said, “deterioration happens quickly, but you are damn hard to kill.”

 

 

 

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When Life Gives You Lemons

I’ve had forty-nine days to construct a semi-sensical linguistic hodgepodge to summarise my recent experiences. Deducting the time lapse of nine days between my first bunch of bad news until my second, I have, however, only had 40 days. Forty days isn’t much, unless you’re Jesus starving himself in the wilderness before your traitor friend Judas dobs you in for a few coins or some cows. Or the forty days it supposedly rained during the floods if you follow Genesis in the first testament, which feels similar to the last month in South Australia. I digress. It’s been forty days since I sat in my oncologists’ office and decided that I needed to take a leaf from Jesus’ books and “break bread” (or lemon cakes) with my 12 friends before I make my ascent/descent to some cave where a hooker can come looking for me.

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Perhaps that’s not the best way to break the news, but I’m no Jesus and I don’t have a Judas to blame except for my own body. I would say that my cancer returned but, lets be honest, it went about as far as Yiayia would let me leave the house if I weren’t wearing a singlet in winter. The Judas parasite has taken his fair share of bread and fattened himself enough to multiply into my entire peritoneum, which has subsequently filled my abdomen with enough fluid to hydrate a small African village. The fluid compresses my major organs, including my bowel (goodbye, satisfying poos) and my kidney (hello, big metal uncomfortable stent). Fluid aside, my Judas has stabbed me in the back in another sense and gone into my spine and bones.

And now, it’s a matter of fighting fire with fire, or poison with poison; except that it is futile warfare where neither of us will prevail. So far, I’ve had two rounds of poisoning (a’la chemotherapy), had kidney stent placed, got Portia 2.0 inserted, developed oedema in my left leg and a blood clot in my right leg. It’s making it difficult to do mindless reflexes that babies have mastered, like pee, poo, digest, sleep… And while I complain about the physical side effects, they are overshadowed by the psychological implications of finding out you’re terminal (or, at least, more immediately terminal than those around you). But today, I am tired (give a dying girl a break) and will save my psychomelodrama and foul language for another day. Instead, I’ll summarise with the fine words I gently drew with edible glitter writing on yet another lemon cake:

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Altruism vs Boundaries

I haven’t posted since Joy’s death. I probably haven’t felt ‘right’ since then, either. I’m not going to lie – I’ve gone through phases of pain, pancreatitis, poo-pants and, in full disclosure, some pretty bad anxiety. Over the past few months (or maybe my whole life, I don’t know), I had been trying my best to live everyday as if it’s the last and grab life by the balls or ~enter other cliche here~, but I found myself putting pressure on everything and bitterly disappointed when things didn’t go to plan. Every interaction with friends had to be with the purpose of fulfilling some repressed selfish need to be someone’s best friend. Every conversation with a prospective boy-lover had to be with the purpose of starting a relationship with the one and only love of my life. Every interaction with clients had to be a life-changing psychological breakthrough to their inner turmoil. Every day had to full of structured, fulfilling, meaningful and awe-inspiring activities in vain attempts to become my best self that people would reflect upon at my funeral and cry a simple tear in mourning of the fact that I improved their life in some way.

However, the uninspired aren’t inspirational. And don’t misunderstand me – it’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve searched for inspiration in every place a millennial in the 21st century searches for inspiration: ebooks on happiness, podcasts and meditation apps. I found myself trapped in extreme states of intense exercise to going to bed at 7pm, abiding by a plant-based diet to eating half a packet of Oreos, mindful barefoot walking to developing blisters from wearing ‘feel-sexy-and-powerful’ shoes. I went back to the drawing board and did something a logical psychologist would do – look at the research. Happiness is usually correlated with altruistic acts. That is, making others feel happier is meant to improve one’s own mood. So I tried that. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and tested myself to push past my exhaustion to meet other peoples’ needs. I felt exhausted, and not any more gratified than a resentful doormat. Perhaps I was doing it wrong?
Or maybe my problem was that I didn’t set boundaries.

Since diagnosed, I haven’t respected my new body and its new limits. I haven’t invested time in the self-care that I need, that isn’t full of buzzwords like ‘mindfulness.’ I haven’t invested in myself as much as I have in professional development, personal relationships, and reputation-building. My career is centred solely around facilitating others in their own struggles for meaning and connection; meanwhile, I have not been a good role model in setting boundaries and respecting my emotional and physical limits. As a perfectionist with a statistically likely short life trajectory, I feel immense pressure to ignore my boundaries. I so want to be the daughter, sister, niece, cousin and friend who has a jam-packed funeral with people crying about how she did everything for everyone. She was selfless, kind, generous and kind-hearted. Before I die, I want the approval from my parents, admiration from my brother, adoration from a lover, and respect from my peers; but I also need to learn to come to terms with my imperfections. It’s time to practise what I preach – take care of yourself first, or become comfortable with having others’ having to care for you later. While there might not be a ‘later,’ I refuse to become a burden.

 

Oh, Joy

Stomach cancer ate the life of my online friend the other day. Have I processed it? No. How does one process loss and grief over someone that they never physically met? I don’t even know what to write about her, except that she was one person with a mutual understanding of the perils of gastric cancer. She was known for keeping it real; and her blog reflected as much. Joy kept an account of how she felt with the disease and, in part, her death came as a relief to what she described as a painful “journey.” To me, she was someone who reflected back brutal honesty about the psychological battle of a cancer patient, hospital stays and end of life care. Although it frequently came up in conversation, I didn’t feel like the end of life stuff was ~real~; like it wouldn’t happen to her because she was young and a beautiful person, she was funny and witty and –

she didn’t deserve it.

But no one really deserves cancer, or to die at the peak of their life when they have so much potential for living. Like she said, there is no battle in cancer: the opponent has always been far stronger than one’s own willpower to stay alive.

Her passing was a wake up call as to how I am actually considered to be one of the lucky ones. I was operable – even though I shouldn’t have been – as my surgeon wanted to extend my life for as long as possible. Joy was not so lucky, but that’s the way the oncology seems to work. You’re always just one tumour away from being at the end of your rope and having no options left. Each person’s body copies, reproduces and mutates cells at different rates, and for some, those mutations don’t respond to the domestos that is chemotherapy. The approach of oncology is to kill the garden in order to kill the weeds, and for some, it works – the garden thrives after the weeds die. For others, the garden dies and the weeds still tolerate the poison that’s meant to kill them. For even luckier ones, the garden not only lives, but the root of the weeds can be pulled out and provide more time to plant some other seeds in their place. I feel tremendously lucky and simultaneously guilty that my weeds were ripped out, and hers were left to take over.

Analogies and metaphor aside, Joy’s passing was a reminder of what I have now, which is time. Borrowed time. And I’ll do as she wanted, which is to “carry on the good fight.”

52494577_10213124967335046_5035130267228962816_n.jpgRest in peace, Joy; stentless, syringeless and symptomless.

 

A Tribute To My Best Friend

Yes, I know you hate birthdays, but I am celebrating the 8,913 days I have come to share with you on this earth so really, this milestone is one that I have taken it upon myself to selfishly celebrate. There are no words to genuinely convey the amount of respect, admiration and love I have for you, but like my masters degree, I’ll give it a shot and hope for the best.

There are many things that make you special and irreplaceable, for example:

  • No one else has my back 100%, even when I’m wrong or overreacting.
  • No one else will listen to me complain about the same thing repetitively, and join me in said complaining even after I’ve forgotten my original complaint.
  • No one else will drop everything or change their schedule around to drive me around like free Uber.
  • Not many (except maybe Zia) will let me smash out a Bernard Fanning solo or James Blunt instrumentals in the car.
  • With no one else do I share such a vast amount of inside jokes that we often forget about them (until reviewing birthday cards from years ago from the “bad boys 4 lyf”).
  • No one else will give me such a generous share of their lotto winnings, when you win the lotto, that is.
  • And not many know all my flaws, idiosyncrasies and shortcomings, yet still both a) love me and b) like me.

At the risk of this sounding like a wannabe-romantic cliche note from a spouse on Valentines Day, you are my rock. You’ve been there to celebrate the highs, empathise with me through the lows, massage my feet during the pain, fetched me flannels for the sweats, and restocked my chocolate supply without asking. If not for your unconditional support, I may not be here today (I may have faded away from the lack of dairy-free chocolate); and I definitely would not be the person that I am today. From a young age, I’ve come to strongly admire you and role modelled your personality and quirks, so much so that I now believe that 4pm is a reasonable dinner time (even late by my standards) and 2am is a reasonable time to empty the dishwasher. You have also taught me important life lessons, like choosing people who add to your life instead of detracting from it, even if it means you end up man-less (with statistically better life satisfaction, may I add). Your altruism isn’t just towards me, but extends to all your family and friends, and is one trait that is both rare and goes underappreciated.

Other traits I may not have picked up from you, like your ability to power nap, binge watch My Kitchen Rules, and your tendency for procrastination; but that’s what makes us Yin and Yang. You balance out my control freak, and I push you out of your comfort zone. So much so that I make you leave the country. According to astrology, we are a friendship match made in heaven: we have shared humanitarian values and both love a good chitchat. And boy do we talk. Five hours go by, and it’s like we haven’t even scraped the surface – from teaching you psychology, safe chicken-eating practices, renovation woes and good specials on at Kmart, we are possibly the best shit-talkers in Australia (way better than those Gogglebox losers). During these long conversations, we have been through so much together, like learning that Chinese restaurants do not open until 5pm (why so late?!) and that people on Gumtree are, in fact, the compost of Australian society. Our daily chats are more like life lessons than my masters degree, or at least more relevant (did you hear about the marble tables at Kmart?).

Selfishly, I wish I was there to witness you reading this post; but at very least, I hope it wasn’t too embarrassing. As you know, I will now beat myself up for how crap this post is, which you will later counsel me for because you know me so well.

I love you forever and always.

Funky Town (But Not The Good Kind)

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I didn’t want to get out bed this morning. Not because it is Sunday or because I had a particularly busy week, and I had slept okay the night before. I didn’t want to get out of bed because I didn’t want to face the day. I didn’t want to feel isolated and purposeless, passing time by performing benign monotonous tasks that further feeds the negative little devil in my head that tells me I’m worthless and that I’m wasting my life. I didn’t want to talk to my family and pretend that I’m doing well or feeling okay, because I’ll admit that this morning, I was not feeling okay. Yet I didn’t want to talk to no one and further isolate myself, because then I would let myself become overwhelmed with negative self-talk and let my stress manifest in unhealthy coping. I’m a psychologist (or close to one), I told myself, I can get through this. But unfortunately, one petty fight with a close friend was the straw that broke this camels back, and my facade fell to the wayside.

In attempt to find comfort and familiarity, I called my mother. Sure, we may not be BFF’s, but the sound of her voice on the phone almost reduced me in tears. I missed how I would talk and she would ignore me, so I could insult her without her noticing. I missed her annoying emails. And in that moment, I missed just having the presence of someone who ‘has to’ love me. I didn’t know how to respond when she asked me how I was; I haven’t for weeks. There’s a strong desire in me to lie and tell her everything is great and that I love my placement and I love my life, but my dad or aunty had probably already told her otherwise. I also didn’t want to tell her what was going on, as that would mean she would be winning (she so desperately wants me back in Adelaide, and anything against Brisbane is further supporting her case). But I was honest, and outright told her what was happening without giving her a chance to ask me the dreaded “how are you?”. Hearing myself finally talk through the recent events, I felt embarrassed. This is petty, I thought to myself, and my mum’s no-bullshit approach of “okay, now move on” confirmed my belief that I should, in fact, get over myself.

So, of course, as a natural rebellion against my mothers’ advice, I did the total opposite – I sat in complete silence, let my eyes tear up and let myself be completely and utterly useless.

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I journalled my petty dramas (something I hate doing, because things are always pettier when written down), ate a vegan Cornetto, and took a photo of myself eating my ice cream and put a filter on it because that’s what my generation is all about: put a filter on your face to hide your sad eyes and no one knows what you are going through…

…unless of course, you’re like me, and you blog about it. Then regret blogging about it, but still force yourself to post it because it’s exposure therapy for your social phobia (I’m really just self-diagnosing, here) and need to please everyone all. the. time. But stuff it, I will not delete it (unless my mum says otherwise; there’s only so much guiltless rebellion I can do).

Here’s to hoping that tomorrow, I can wake up out of this funk. And if not, I’m sure my bladder will wake me up, anyway; and life will go on.

 

Martin, You Made My Day

Honesty hour: it took me over two hours to write this post. It’s funny, as it’s not my longest post, nor my wittiest, my most depressing or most uplifting. Yet, it took me a lot longer than usual because the critic living inside my head told me that it was stupid; that was stupid. However, unlike what I’ve become accustomed to recently, I didn’t delete the whole thing instantly. After aimlessly pacing, mindlessly shopping, and arguing with my negative self-deprecating schemata, I decided to return to my writing. Re-reading what I had written this morning, I felt the drop of disappointment the pit of my ‘stomach’ (rhetorically, of course). You are not a writer, you’re a loser. Get on with your life, no one wants to read about your sad existence. You don’t even have the worse, most tragic cancer. Other people are dying. Talking myself out of posting yet again, I deleted it. Then in a state of cynical optimism, I bashed Crl+Z and my text reappeared. I was relieved the text revived, and I decided that it was a sign to post it. After all, the purpose of writing this post was to emphasis the utter fineness in imperfection and self-development. So here goes, perfect in all its imperfections, enjoy this (shitty) read…

~

Caught up in a spiral of self-obsessed stressors, I have lately caught myself in cycles of self-pity and exhaustion that are contrary to living a life harmonious with my values. For example, I value my family more than anything, but often push them away when they try to talk to me, or withhold certain information in order to save undue worry or stress.  I value my friendships yet often find myself withdrawn and tired at social events, and forget to follow-up on best-laid plans for regular catch-ups. I value helping others, but catch myself selfishly prioritising my own schedules and routines instead of sacrificing my time. I value psychology, but deny professional development opportunities due to cost, travel time and poor time management. I value my personal wellbeing but often push my body too far out of its comfort zone, resulting in pain and exhaustion. Despite knowing and understanding my values, I have two common excuses for acting against them, being (1) those lovely side effects of cancer/being stomachless, and (2) being lazy, unmotivated or just plain ass tired... In acknowledging and reflecting upon my slump in self-development, I still haven’t actively moved towards my values. Although, in my defence (and as excuse number 3), there have been a number of barriers and minimal opportunities for change. A slave to my university schedule, impoverished by being at university for almost 7 years, and the consistency of pain, nausea and difficulty eating/digesting proves to work against my favour. This morning, however, the world was testing me…

After a night of intense pain, I woke up at 4:30am and eventually decided to give up on sleeping and go to BodyPump. Half-asleep and groggy, I got dressed in the dark. Until a gecko fell from my ceiling onto my shoulder (yay for Brisbane humidity), which woke me up to almost-perfect concentration. I wrapped my ankle in a brace, laced my sneakers, and started walking my usual route to the gym. I ironically listened to a podcast about happiness, for which I wasn’t feeling much of recently. Although I had had a fulfilling week full of placement, catching up with the best company and having some decent gym sessions, I felt a sparsity of joy arising from these activities. Suddenly, I was distracted from my happiness podcast and my negative self-talk telling me what a shitty life I was living. I spotted a tan leather button-up wallet on a bus stop bench, and picked it up hesitantly. Opening the button, I noticed that the wallet was full of cards, including a drivers license, bank cards, bus card and student ID. There was money in the pockets of the wallet, and I suddenly felt embarrassed that I had picked it up. I closed the wallet, and continued my trek up the road. They will notice it’s gone and come back, I thought. Fifty metres later, I did a 180 and started walking back down the road. Heaps of people walk this way and could pick it up and steal everything, I thought, and picked up the wallet. I unbuttoned it for the second time and searched the name on the drivers license on Facebook. I took a photo of the license, and messaged it to the name and photo it matched in a Facebook profile: student at UQ, only one year younger than me, quite attractive male (if I may say so myself). I closed the wallet and put it in my bag, deciding that if it was not the right ‘Martin’ on Facebook as on the drivers license, that I would drop it at the police station later. Low and behold, two hours after my gym session, I received a call from Martin. He was incredibly grateful, and offered to pick up the wallet when it was convenient. I offered to drop it off as I walked the dog, which is exactly what I did. He thanked me again, and was pleasantly relieved that nothing was stolen; something that may not have happened if I hadn’t picked it up. I turned to walk home, and realised something different.

In that moment, I was happier than Martin. Sure, I could have fleeced his cash, PayWaved his bank card and potentially stolen his identity (my hair is about the same length as his), but I didn’t. Instead, I did something that aligned with what is important to me, and that was better for my mental health than alleviating any financial pressure or just ignoring the issue and always wondering if attractive young Martin had been robbed. Temporarily, I forgot about cancer and last nights’ bowel obstruction, and had a feeling more euphoric than any amount of morphine. I realised that, while I am not currently behaving in line with every value, I am a work in progress. Like a swipe right on Tinder, I had potential. Potential to grow into something better than I am right now, and make a small difference in my little bubble world where I am capable of making changes at a microlevel. Sure, I may not change the world while I am still here on this earth; but what I can control are the decisions I make that shape the memories for people I leave behind.

And that, my friends, is about as perfect as a wake up call from a gecko (honestly not great, but it sure keeps you on your toes).

~