Tag Archives: Wellness

Running the Challenge

It is an easy excuse, but the winter months prove a challenge for my running and fitness endeavours. Up to the end of May I have been on the road and muddy tracks several times per week, taking the dogs with me to satisfy their feverish needs to explore the close-by vineyards and our local forest area. My fitness was on a positive upwards curve and I felt in good form. But June and July saw a white flag instead of running shoes. It had been tough in the cold and wet mornings and by the time I arrive home in the evenings, the sun had long gone to warmer climates.

At least there were a couple of runs, in the hope to hold on to some shape of good intention and a tad of fitness. Last Thursday, due to some misunderstanding of dates and days, I accidently had the day off. Loved it for having to do neglected odd bits on my own, but income-wise inconvenient timing. However, it provided me time to take the dog’s running harnesses off the shelf and to enjoy the flood of energy and excitement when they heard the little metal clips calling. To them this is a calling to an hedonistic hour, the pleasure of exploring the outside wilderness where grapes and pine trees grows, where smells and unexpected encounters of fellow canines are “like the best thing ever dude“. Off we went. They loved it. I suffered. The 7.4 km earthy tracks killed my enthusiasm and entered the disappointment of failing in my exercise aspirations.

Tiger Trail J-hoek 2013 II

Luckily there are second chances. Yesterday I took on the tarmac up Blaauklippen Road, past several vineyards and wineries. Running on my own is probably a bit selfish towards my usual running companions. But it allows me to focus on my pace, my posture and to focus on well known distant markers along the way. Crossing the Blaauklippen stream is at 1.4 km. The sign past a small restaurant is my 2.5km turning point when I do 5 km short run. But I had the strength to carry on. Pass the Blouklip turn-off (useful for my Strava challenge) and up the steep circle climb towards Dornier, Kleinnood and Waterford. A good run and knowing that heading back, long stretches of downhill awaits.

There are several things I take away from a good run, like yesterday’s. I completed 8 kilometres and ran it at a satisfying pace (recall of recent laziness). It provides a sense of achievement and knowing I can shake of those couple of extra annoying numbers the bathroom scale throws in my face. But more, it provides comfort. Knowing that I can run, despite past seizures and that bugger of a tumour. That there is always a way to get back up when you feel down and out, or when live gets too comfortable under the warm winter blankets. The challenge is to run and I have to run those challenges. Not against anyone, but for myself and for my family. To stay well and healthy.

Another run coming up in 23 minutes’ time. Not one for the running shoes or with our beautiful dogs. A MRI Brain Scan awaits. A different challenge, but one I can’t shy away from. So wish me luck as off I go.

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MRI Brain Scan: a crash-bang-bang course

It’s the 23rd. It is a positive start”, I think when the receptionist said the date. 23 is my lucky number. I completed most of the paperwork the previous week when I dropped off my oncologist’s referral letter. A few more dotted lines call for my signature. I don’t know how many MRI scans I have had; today’s might be 6th. However, the last one in March was the most important. The one labelled, “all clear”.

How do I approach a brain scan? Like everyone, I suppose I my own ways. Each person will bring specific fears, unique routine and mental preparation before facing the tunnel. Earlier today my rituals consisted of the things under my control. Having a shave, dressing in my favourite light orange and white shirt, wearing comfortable jeans, putting on my trial running shoes that make me feel grounded, a call to confirm the appointment time and leaving enough time to arrive early. Nothing out of the ordinary, but it is the ordinary and familiarity that bring comfort.

I arrive at the hospital 15 minutes early. I don’t carry anxious thoughts with me, never been a great advocate of worry. But I sense the tension in my back and shoulders. It’s not possible to ditch all the anxiety. It tends to sneak in when you are not looking. Anneén arrives before I reach the main entrance. I told her she did not have to come, but it is a great comfort to have her with me. Knowing she will wait in the reception area when it’s all done. It is oddly quiet when we slowly criss-cross through the hospital passages. Most of it was renovated recently and signs warning of wet paint still serve as decorations. “They could have done with a bit of colour” we agree. No one else waits in the reception area. The school and university holidays provide a nice change from the usual hustle and bustle.

When called, I know the drill. I leave my outer layers of safety behind and emerge from the change locker in a faded peach colour garment. A further breakdown of any aesthetic possibility comes in the form of my long black running socks sticking out from underneath. Comfort? Yes. Sexy? Definitely not! I wait for a few minutes underneath signs and arrows that directs towards different scan options. A cleaner slowly sweeps the floor area surrounding me. I feel a need to focus on something. Unfortunately the small Beavers and Butthead cartoon on the notice board is too small to make out the writing.

Luckily the bad joke requires little time as it is 8:45 and the MRI scanner waits. Lying down on the flat surface is the easy part and fairly comfortable. The radiographer knows about my previous scan experiences, so she shiftily hands me the earplugs (to reduce the noise) and place two sheets of white foamy stuff both sides of my face. She moves my head slightly to the left and gently pressed down on my chin to position my head correctly. The small rubber bubble is placed into my hand, in case I need to call for help. It provides some security, as I used it on a previous occasion when the claustrophobia got to me. Finally she covers me with a blanket for both physical and emotional warmth. All I need is music to relax, but it is not available as I am not allowed any metal (not the musical type) or earphones in the tunnel due to the strong magnetic fields.

You can open your eyes if you want to”, she says as I slide into the tunnel. “There is no way”, I replied louder in my head than in words. I made that mistake once before. I don’t like narrow spaces. I admit that I don’t like being out of control either – especially about my physical space. I can feel my elbows being slightly pushed inwards by the sides of the MRI’s tunnel. For a moment I am aware that the blanket is slightly pulled back on the sides due to inwards movement. “I am covered like corpse”. I don’t know where the thought came from, but I was ready for it. “I am here because I am alive”, I counter-argue. “I am here being I want to remain healthy and value life”. And so my process in my head starts to manage the crowded space and mechanical noise.

  • I start with thoughts. Focussing on being alive. The people who matters for me. I am doing this for them and me. What I know. For example, I had no symptoms or strange behaviour (as far as I know at least!). What is important (staying healthy)
  • Visualise memories and beautiful images. Seeing my daughters jump on the “bungee trampolines” the previous day. Looking out over the sun covered vineyards with snow covered mountain peaks behind.
  • Letting go of these images and thoughts and let them flow away like thick honey.
  • Slowing down my breathing. Being aware of my breath, rather than the lack of space around me.
  • Comparing the mechanical noises with sounds I know. I hear a large mechanical bee, a dentist drill, an electrical mosquito, a loud air-pressured drill. A hammer against a water pipe.
  • Physical sensation (such as an itch that I can scratch) indicates to me that I am alive.

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It does not feel like “about 25 minutes”, but after a short silence the radiographer returns and injects my arm with contrast dye. This makes certain tissues and blood vessels show up with greater detail on the scan. I move back inside with less tension for the last 15 minutes. I allow my senses more freedom to explore the experience. Mumford and Sons are still playing “After the Storm” in my mind when I exit the scanner’s tunnel. I am set free.

2013-09-23 12.11.21_resizedIt is 3 hours later and we are sitting at the neurosurgeon’s office. I am aware of the results CD in my hand. The CD is light, but the engraved information carries a different weight. Martin greets us as he walked passed. He needs to quickly go to the ward, but will be with us on time. On his return, Martin opens the scan result on his computer. There two brains, both mine, on display. One from the March scan. The other from this morning. They look similar. Martin shows the left frontal area where the operation took place. I dark area indicates where the tumour and some brain tissue were removed. Nothing else shows up. The scan is almost identical to that done in March. I am clean. No cancer growth or tumour cells are visible.

Once more I am set free.

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The Tough Going

I love those moments when creative thoughts awake in the cortex and streams like golden liquid down neuro-pathways onto the white screen. Words that splatter out ideas, experiences and events into a synchronised line of meaningful thought. Or when the artist’s imagination draws a vision that flows in charcoal and paint onto a canvass to bring beauty into life.

But occasionally dark skies cloud the psyche and dwarf the imagination into submission. Troubled times arrive in the form of external events and dries the magic and steals the funny bones. And no, not all of these shadow times relate to brain tumours or cancer treatment. At times it is just life. Waves of “it happens” that saps the juice and suck the marrow from my fruit. Not so much Carpé Diem, more crap and damn.

It has been a rough 4 weeks. In between my car breaking down (twice), a broken tooth and attempts to replace it with a temporary implant (3 times and still not right), a drawn out winter the soaks Spring into a foggy memory and aiming to take that big grown-up jump again into the dark (called house hunting), the good times have been sidelined. Over the same period work slowed downed, adding pressure on responsibilities such as paying the tax master. It felt like sinking, drowning in the smoky skies.

Wet Winter

While holding up this grim picture, I am not bursting into sing and dance. I am actually not a great believer in positive thinking, or when the dark cloud comes rolling over the hills that you should start searching for the silver lining. When the dark clouds appear, find shelter. The storm while pass, but while it sweeping down and pouring gallons of water on the earth, curl up under a warm blanket. Stay dry, stay warm. It’s OK to cuddle up.

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The last chemo tablet standing

And there it was. One out of the last 4 Temadol tablets to go. Even though my mind knew the relief to have reached this point, my body was not at the point where it felt it. The milestone can be celebrated on another day. But after the initial 30 days of chemo and radiotherapy and now, with one tablet to go, the past 6 months have been about picking myself up and then going into survival mode for 5 to 7 days, picking myself up again. Only one of today’s 4 left to go.

 

Thinking back, the running helped. In between the treatment stints, putting running shoes on and getting into running mode cleared my mind and my body felt stronger after been knocked down after every 5 day chemo round. I know that people respond differently to chemo. My experience was overwhelming fatigue. I felt the energy draining away and I had to work hard after each “day 4” to get going again. But I have been able to keep pushing myself. Going to work helped. Seeing my colleagues, meeting with clients and knowing when to take it slow helped. Grateful for the odd public holiday, like being able to stay at home yesterday on Worker’s Day to rest properly.

Most of all I am grateful to Anneén who took on so much more on her shoulders when I was down and almost out, when I could not be there for her and our girls. In those times when tiredness dragged me down, Anneén was strong for us. We celebrated when my last MRI scan came back clean and I celebrate her carrying us carrying us through tough and uncertain times. Thanks babes!

One last tablet.

Off you go.

Go do your dark magic.

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Stories in late summer

I see it as an honour. I know it is my profession, but I never take for granted that people share personal and intimate stories of their lives with me. It is often under the label or description of “depression” or “anxiety” or “loss”. But as with all labels, they reflect a limited part of the surface. And people’s lives, personalities and relationships have much more depth and texture.  The stories that are weaved between these areas are filled with even more detail, emotion, memories and unconscious material. To tell their stories bring them in touch with Imagewhat happens in their lives, but also with who they are. Often the telling of their stories is a liberating experience, to be able to unburden their load or to break a weighty secret that keeps pulling them down. As Leonard Cohen once sang, “I need to tell my story said one of them so bold. I need to tell my story before I turn into gold

Often the (conscious or unconscious) request that arrives with these stories is for pain or suffering to end. And who would not want that? Especially in our western culture where fantasies of health, wealth, wellness and youth are sold on magazine covers, labels of medicine bottles, pop culture and social media? Who wants to be forever young? Well, the advertisers and those behind the fat wallets are pushing hard to make the sell to us. And within that fantasy the enemies are pain, suffering and ageing. Even on cover of my monthly Runner’s World edition, those smiling with their white teeth and their bodies embraced by the latest running gear are all seemingly in their 20’s, white and healthy. But when I line up for a race or fun run, these front cover “athletes” appear to be in the minority. And still, on public display and in the hearts of people I see in therapy, there is a wish that all problems and those threats to a positive view of life and being human can be solved. Even in my own heart that fantasy does arise.

In part I agree. Pain in its physical form should be investigated and treated.

However, suffering is an intense discomfort that we all face on our life journeys and one without a quick fix or delete button. The death of a love one, the diagnosis of a brain tumour or a friend’s cancer, the unhappiness that crept into a marital relationship over the past 10 years or the awareness that you are not happier since you got that big promotion opens the door to internal turmoil and a collapse of the card-house of positive fantasies. This often happens after you established a family, a career and settled circle of friends. But that platform of ambition and dreams can become a distraction of the realities of life. We all grow older, we all suffer losses and we all drink at the well where the water became stagnant and bitter. It does not spare us. There is no cure for life. As Scott Fitzgerald once said, “In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning …” Tragedy is inevitability.

What then do we do with suffering when our distractions, cognitive strategies, helpful friends and intake of medication or alcohol do not bring relieve? How do we approach suffering that cannot be switched off? Maybe that is the point where you stop running, stop bargaining and stop self-medicating. The point where suffering is not the enemy, Wandererbut the door we need to pass through in order to learn about the life we are living and this person we are. Then suffering becomes more that just discomfort and an unwanted emotional experience (which it will remain). Then it might become about meaning, about purpose, about becoming the full complicated, eccentric, individual we are meant to be. This is something that several great leaders have embraced and through their suffering found ways of being that made them larger than life.

It is a relationship with suffering that can bring us to meaning. The knowledge that while suffering is real, so is my life and that whom we are can be expanded through this experience. When we find meaning, pleasure and connections in our hospital beds, while on medication and during the process of picking up the broken pieces. When it is possible to cry about the threat to our health and youth, while holding  onto new aspects of relationships with a partner and friends that open up. When the bereavement process reminds us of all the aspects that we loved about our grandparents, a friend or a brother. How precious are these moments in contrast to the fleeting moments of pop culture, the hard lines of fundamentalism or the fantasy that we can take away life’s pain and suffering.

February was a special month to me. I ran the Gino’s 10 km Night Race through the streets of Stellenbosch and survived! I wrote a piece called “Finding Sugarman” about the music and influence of Rodriquez in South Africa following the movie “Searching for Sugarman”, which appeared on the official Rodriquez website (http://sugarman.org/). My moment of international fame! But tomorrow a MRI Brain Scan is scheduled followed by appointments with my neurosurgeon and oncologist on Wednesday. I am grateful that I can have both, even though I wish the brain tumour never came into my life. But both aspects are part of where I am at present and through embracing both do I find parts of the essence of the journey that we call life.

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42/2012

I blame my teachers. Especially my maths teachers. Yes, the guilty should be named and charged. They have left me with a love for numbers for which I am eternally grateful. In a way, they saved me. Well not physically; that would have been weird. But their dedication and motivation opened a door to something I was good at. And at times I needed to be good at something.

We moved about quite a bit as a family when I was growing up. After 7 years in a small town called Harrismith in the Eastern Free State (South Africa), we moved about between towns for the next 6 years. I therefore attended 4 different primary schools. Needless to say, I often felt like an outsider as I had to make new friends, get use to a new school and teachers. In addition, I was not good at sport then – something that a young boy can usually fall back on. Then Mr Wright entered the scene when I was age 11. For the next 2 years he was my maths teacher at Willem Postma Primary School (Bloemfontein). With a patient and calm approach he made the world of numbers accessible. I can’t recall how good my marks were, but I found confidence in it. Mr Wright was an older teacher and he made time to teach us about life and history. I was mesmerised when he told us about Napoleon and wrote in chalk on the black board, “Able was I ere I saw Elba”.

And then we moved again. At least by age 13 I was of bigger build and as part of the next transformation I gave up a heavy burden I was carrying since age 2 and a 1/2. I stopped wearing glasses. Before, everywhere we moved, I was taunted. Often I was the only spectacled child in class. I  Harrismith 1970'sfelt like a kid in glass. As if everyone looked through me. Fragile. At that point I have broken so many pairs (all by accident, I promise!) our medical aid stopped paying for them. So, I stopped, I just quit. I t was a win-win situation. And it worked for me. No more outer burden that automatically uploaded silly nicknames. No more the outsider for looking different. No more looking from the outside through lenses to what everyone else saw.

I don’t know if this helped, but suddenly I was selected for the first rugby team. I was also picked as flank and no more hard labour position as prop. Freedom at last! Did I change so much over one summer holiday? Did I suddenly lost weight with the glasses and increased my running speed? Who knows, but I was in a better space and this continued when I went to Kroonstad High (or secondary) School. Here over the next 5 years I had teachers that I will always remember (for various reasons). Mrs van der Merwe who somehow moulded our Afrikaans cerebrals into an appreciation for the English language. Mr Rossouw who kept our Afrikaans roots solid with poetry and essays, while Mrs Rossouw created a melody from our voices in choir practice. My dad’s science laboratory often filled with smells and sparks (were they all intentional?) and Mrs “Krappie” de Villiers’ attempts to bring Biology alive to me. And Mr Fourie’s hotdog sales during break were as popular as his Technical Drawing classes. He also coached our rugby team at the start of high school and we were a pretty decent outfit despite the hotdogs!

And then Mrs Gerber, later Mrs Sim, who shaped our mathematical skills. Looking back at all my schooling, she must win the price for giving the most homework. And that is apart from her extra classes prior to major exams. In retrospect I am grateful to her. Not only did it provide me with something that I could be good at and motivated a dedication to what is important. I believe that it shaped my mind in a way of thinking that is interested in patterns, in what is sensible and meaningful. At the time it influenced the suggestion that I should go into engineering, but I could never exclude the humanities and working with people. It must be great to design a bridge, but building relationships between people is much more satisfying. Working with people who suffered head injuries, might have difficulty with memory and translating the numbers from neuropsychology into meaningful constructs for their daily lives tick my own meaning box.

I do acknowledge the limitations of numbers and don’t regard myself as a numerologist of some sorts. I did not believe the Mayan prophecy that the world would end on the 21st of December 2012, although my world dramatically changed in 2012. Still, there is something interesting about specific numbers in one’s history and possible numerical intervals. But should I read more into it? Someone said that the average age for a diagnosis of a glioma for a male is 42 (or between late 30’s and mid 40’s). I had my first seizure a month prior to my 42nd birthday. Half this number and it takes my back to my age of 21 when my brother died. My grandfather, whom I am named after, passed away at age 85 (21 times 4 plus 1). Should I read something into these numbers and the possible repetition of 21? Should I be weary of age 63 when the next 21 year cycle comes to an end?

I don’t think so.

For now, I am with Douglas Adams. Maybe the amazingly accurate answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is 42. Nothing more. Just that. Where I am at.

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And so the Mayan cookie crumbled

After a moment of uncertainty, my girls were in the safety of my arms.
“Again! Again!” they shouted.

Hartenbos Waterworld

Hartenbos Waterworld

Earlier this year, prior to my brain tumour issues, they sat on my lap when we went down the “big supertube” slide. However at the time they were not so keen on it and prefer to enjoy the smaller tube and more “subdued” waterslides.

Now, 9 months on, we were back for our summer holidays in Hartenbos. After plenty of rides on the “Junior Supertube” and with the new confidence they found playing in the waves, I thought we may try the bigger ride again. However this time, with life jackets on and daddy going first. I left them at the top with a bit of uncertainty and some anxiety to take on the new challenge. My 7 year old (nearly 8) came flying out from the tunnel first, unable to hide her anxiety, her eyes trying to find me in the pool and tears swelling up. My five year old found a moment to grab her nose before been flung into the white stream of water. Both of them were in my arms within seconds given the strength of the water pushing them towards me. The tears quickly vanished and screams of pleasure replaced all signs of fear and apprehension. “Again! Again!” rang out as a war cry against those feelings of uncertainty, as a spontaneous team credo to take them to similar heights of excitement.

It is moments like this that all the uncertainty, fears and times of darkness get washed away and their young voices conquer and replace the voice of anxiety that occasionally haunts my mind. The past year’s memories were recycled. It is the pure joy and excitement in their eyes. Not only from the adrenaline rush from the water and speed sliding down, but from conquering a challenge they didn’t know they were able to do in March of this year. It adds to my life.

Vigo and I enjoying the waves

Vigo and I enjoying the waves

It is similar to the joy and exuberance I get from facing the challenges that the ocean roles towards me. To dive underneath or through a white rolling wave. To jump over a crumbling triangle of water moving towards you. On the lookout for the one that will grab hold of you, embrace you and run you towards the white sand.Those experiences fill my senses and consume mind to the extent that no other thoughts can enter.

Life is present in these moments. In the water’s power, the saltiness in your mouth and nose, the moment of lifting your head for air gasping for air and the moment of pure happiness in my daughters’ eyes. Again! Again! I shout.In between these life affirming events and today (23rd of December), the Mayan’s prophecy about the proposed “End of the World” came and went. With all respect to the Mayans and all that they have achieved, it was not very apocalyptic or a very unusual day. Apart off course from us folk in the Southern hemisphere experiencing the shortest night, as we do ever year with the summer solace.

As a teenager the final chapter of history of mankind and the signs of the last days (eschatology) as well as the “uncovering of knowledge” about the final days (apocalypse) held me captive. I have however since shifted in my thinking and beliefs about this and cannot find any other word to describe my position about these things, be it Mayan, Nostradamus or from any fundamentalist position, as “vaguely amusing”. [I could write more on this, but in order to not venture too far away from my original script, not today!]. I find comfort in the concept that we may see the end of an era or the end of a rule (of say an empire), but that this world will only come to an end when the sun finally gives up the ghost.

Thus, the moments that we have with each other, the times that we capture with our senses, the wave that we ride onto the sand, the Eureka moment, when we conquer our fear, the first time we go down the big one. That moment that is present. Don’t I care about the future? Of course I do. My biggest anxieties (especially post diagnosis) relate to future. As do my dreams. I firmly believe in the power of our dreams, in becoming and growing into who we are meant to be. All of that relate to the future. But I don’t believe that all of a sudden the world will be without electricity or mobile phone signals. That we will be hurled into darkness and mankind be wiped off the planet. Not this week anyway.

The future is import, but it’s not under our control. The past is precious, but it does not pre-determine who we are or our future. We have the present moment that the past has given us and of which the future is expecting a response. We have moments that take us on an exciting water ride and moments like yesterday when I was attacked by bees while mowing the lawn (I am typing this with one swollen eye!) and then putting up the Christmas tree as a family. We have this and we can choose what to make of it. Even with one eye half closed, I will shout out, “Again! Again!”

So the end of the world passed us by and everyone that I love are accounted for. I don’t know what tomorrow will hold, but I am planning to give Christmas gifts to my wife, my daughters and my parents who are visiting. I am hoping to hear their laughter and to see the surprise in their eyes when opening their presents. I am hoping on and planning for a healthier 2013, but before then to enjoy the remaining moments of 2012. May you enjoy and be blessed with the same!

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