Woman

Happy Woman’s Day everyone. It does seem rather odd that South Africa has a different National Woman’s Day to International Woman’s Day which is the 8th of March, but there’s a very good reason for this. On the 9th of August 1956, about 20 000 women of all ethnic groups marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against South African legislation that tightened the apartheid government’s control over the movement of black people in urban areas. Rules such as ‘pass laws’, which required all black men over the age of 16 to carry their pass books at all times, as well as the Group Areas act which restricted where people could stay. The women sang a protest song “Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo!” (You strike a woman, you strike a rock) that was composed in honour of the occasion.

These brave women banded together in a display of indignance towards the unjust legislation. Their goal was to hand over bundles of petitions against the laws, signed by more than 100 000 women, to the then South African prime minister, J.G. Strijdom – who incidentally had arranged to be elsewhere. The petitions were however eventually accepted by his secretary. Although the prime minister was not there to receive the petitions, the message was sent loud and clear.

The protest group was led by Lilian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa, Helen Joseph and Sophia Williams De-Bruyn seen in the image above. Photo Source: UCT NewsRoom. 07 AUGUST 2015. Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo. Photo by Jurgen Schadeberg

So this was 66 years ago, but the impact of the day continues. Commemorating Woman’s Day is a way to raise awareness around ongoing issues affecting women worldwide and highlights initiatives and campaigns focused on improving women’s lives and increasing gender parity. Or is it possibly merely only an idealistic step toward addressing important issues such as domestic violence, discrimination and harassment in the workplace, equal pay, education for girls and more? 

I say idealistic because I’ve started thinking that there is something more basic and horribly overlooked that has the power to derail our noble endeavours towards an equal society. That is, ‘identity’. Is it plausible that one’s agency* is threatened if identity is threatened? So of course, my next question is “what is it to be a woman?”, “who is a woman?”, “what is not a woman?” – All rhetorical questions – I don’t have the answers…

I can share that having to shave my hair recently certainly got me thinking about what is to be a woman. It was traumatic losing my hair! I felt like I lost an important part that identified me as a woman. Admittedly, I felt really ugly and ashamed. Thanks to the love and support of family and friends (and Mr Bump who reminded me the best of us are bald), I was able to navigate that dark space – but it made me realise that I need to challenge my preconceptions of what beautiful is, and what encompasses beauty. What being a woman is, and what being feminine is. In the part of society where I live, more women have long hair than short hair, and it’s extremely, very highly unusual to see a woman with a bald head.

By western cultural standards, seeing a bald-headed woman generally indicates that something went wrong – it’s considered taboo, threatening, or ugly. Somehow flowing hair is tied up with the notion of female beauty, a potent symbol of feminity. I am not suggesting that it should not be. However, I have been wondering why ‘no hair’ seems equivalent to being hyper-masculine? Why shouldn’t ‘no hair’ be beautiful or feminine? Is womanhood defined by my body parts, having children, my relationships, my jobs or something else? Is it my strength, my resilience, my vulnerability or my tenderness? Or all of the above…. none of the above?

What makes me worthy of being a woman? Why do I feel like I need to be a certain way or look a certain way to be a woman? And where do the societal expectations of what ‘I need to look like, be like, and sound like to be a woman’ come from? Does it even matter? And why do I care? Again, I don’t have the answers – and I don’t need the answers. But, I do have a bleskop (colloquial word for bald head). And somehow it feels right to own this look now. So I’m gonna rock this bleskop damn it!

*Agency = activity, intention or business

Daddy and daughter

Round 1: The red devil vs Bronwyn

So it started on a Friday just over two weeks ago

Hello Beautiful Peoples. This has been an education for me.

Doxorubicin (Adriamycin) – also known as the red devil because of its colour – is one of the most powerful chemotherapy drugs ever invented. It can kill cancer cells at every point in their life cycle. Great news for cancer patients like me – however sadly, a characteristic feature of cancer cells is they are rapidly reproducing cells… and unfortunately Doxorubicin (Adriamycin) is not able to discriminate between cancer cells and other normal naturally rapidly reproducing cells in our bodies such as hair follicles, skin cells, bone marrow cells.

So my hair started falling out. I’ve cut it short like a bob cut, and I’ll be shaving it soon. Tomorrow I think, as I’m shedding hair like crazy. The hair follicles are dead. Once it diminishes there’s nothing to hold my hair in my head and that’s why I’m shedding. Oh well.

Pink hair bob cut

There’s no preparing for what’s going to happen next because for everyone it’s different. There are some common symptoms such as tiredness, however, there are subtle variations in how each person experiences it. I felt tired almost immediately after they started administering the chemo – I could not keep my eyes open, during the administration, nor in the car on my way home. My two friends who had chemo a few days later were both tired too but only a few hours later.

I was also famished. I really wasn’t expecting to be hungry as I pretty much lost my appetite over the past few weeks – even losing weight. But while chemo was being administered, I was so grateful that I had a few snacks in my bag and I also finished a 1 litre flask of tea! When I got home, I ate two plates of stew before going to bed and then I virtually stayed in bed for the next three days.

Now everyone says that the chemo makes one nauseas and I believe this is true…. however, because my oncologist ensured that I started taking three different anti-nausea meds before I started the chemo, I didn’t experience hardcore nausea. And on the fourth day after my chemo session, I was tired of being tired, so I stopped taking the anti-nausea meds just so that I could stay awake a while. The rest of the week was low-level nausea and fatigue. It’s a tired that I can’t explain. I just felt weak. But happily, as the days passed I felt stronger and stronger. One week after chemo I started feeling human again. Two weeks after chemo I’m feeling normal again.

And now just as I feel normal again, I’m about to start that all over again. My next chemo session is this Wednesday…. But the only way to get over this is to go through this. It’s just the way it is.

PS: In a weird way having cancer has increased my happiness levels in general in the past week. On the days that I woke up without feeling any pain, fatigue or nausea I can’t explain how happy I was. Deliriously happy. It’s happiness I haven’t felt in years.

PPS: I don’t know about my happiness in the next few days, though, knowing that I’m going to lose my hair. I’ve tried to be really brave but I’m starting to feel that nothing can really prepare one. I’ll let you all know on the flip side.

Preparing for battle

At the moment life feels like a movie. I’m sitting on the sideline eating popcorn and watching all of this happen. Me thinks it’s much better being a watcher than an actor in any case.

It doesn’t mean that I’m not engaged or invested in my life, but it does mean that that I’ve decided not to take much of what is happening personal.

See, last week I got the news that I need to go for chemotherapy. For a while, I thought that I’d dodged that bullet but alas, turns out that the cancer that was in my body is sensitive to progesterone, estrogen and something else…. Something unknown. So the best way to prevent it from recurring is chemo.

So here we are – two days ago I went back to hospital for the surgical insertion of a chemo port. It was a proper operation under anaesthetic but I came back home the same evening.

While waiting for my turn for surgery in the hospital ward I met a fellow cancer warrior, older lady called Mari. We became friends. She also has breast cancer and has the same oncologist and surgeon as I have. Aside from Mari, there are three other ladies that I know of who were also diagnosed with breast cancer about the same time as I was. People that were previously only in the peripheral circles of my life (my partner’s colleague, my best friend’s ex-girlfriend and my friend’s cousin) are now my close allies. We have all had surgery, and all need chemo and radiation. They’ve all said things to comfort me, to make me laugh or inspired me with their kindness and given me hope. I feel their support, care and concern. Now I feel like I’m part of a tribe. A tribe of cancer warriors.

Ready or not, there’s a battle lying ahead. I always have the option to be frightened but in this situation being frightened has no value and serves no purpose. So I choose to, as far as possible, just to go through the motions without thinking too much about any of it (like the moviegoer watching my movie unfold).

I’ve decided to take action to get ready for what’s lying ahead. I’m going to lose my hair in any case so I figured now is the time for me to have some fun with it. I’ve dyed it pink (something I would have never had the courage to do otherwise). In about a week’s time, I’m going to chop it off into a funky weird style before cropping it short on day 18 after chemo when my hair is expected to fall off.

Then I bought a few lovely scarves – colours that I like. I’m more of a scarf person than a beanie person. I love beanies but only when my curls are able to fall out of the sides. Since I won’t have curls, I started teaching myself different ways to tie a scarf – I found one really useful YouTube video that even teaches how to make a faux bun among other ways to wrap scarves. So I’m ready for that.

I got my anti-nausea meds and my anti-constipation meds at the pharmacy yesterday. I have a blankie picked out and a few snacks and my bag is now almost packed for the war room. I just need to add my MacBook and a flask of tea and I’ll be good to go.

In the past week I’ve also cooked ahead (with Tony’s help) and we have some frozen meals in the freezer and enough cooked food in the fridge to get us through the weekend. So this is it beautiful peoples… I don’t know what the next few days will be like but I’m ready. I am not sure if I’m going to be fine or if I’m going to be wiped out, but I do know that I’m going to come out on the other side. And I’ll also know a little bit more about this aspect of life, than what I did before. At least that’s pretty cool 😎

A room with a view

Beautiful Table Mountain

Not exactly a hotel room – which I would have preferred, but I recently had the experience of “checking in” to this room with a view. It was the day that I had my lumpectomy.

That was just almost three weeks ago and my recovery is going well. Although I unfortunately developed a painful post surgery complication (cording), thankfully my body is responding well to physical therapy to treat it. The point of this blog post is I would like to share my experience and tell about how marvelous I think modern medicine is.

There were two things that needed to be removed from my body on the day of surgery – the cancerous tumour as well as sentinel lymph nodes.

Thus, on the morning of the op, after being admitted I was taken to the radiology department where they performed an ultrasound. Using the ultrasound they inserted a guide wire to the site of the tumor where they ‘hooked it’. The purpose of this was to quickly direct the surgeon during surgery, to the piece of tissue that needed to be excised.

Notably, the day before surgery, I had gone to a different radiologist who injected some mild radioactive substance into my breast so that they could trace the sentinel lymph node using an apparatus that measures radioactivity.

Thus, when the surgeon started my surgery, it was a matter of “following the bread crumbs”. First, he followed the guide wire to remove the cancerous lump and small margin of tissue around it. Then, they used the radioactivity detector apparatus to locate the two lymph nodes, for him to remove. It was all done and dusted in under two hours.

Insertion of the guide wire
The ultrasound image used to find the cancerous tumour
Soft mammogram to confirm all in place
Taped up… ready for surgery

So surgery went very well, and I was feeling quite good considering circumstances – well enough to go home. I was discharged without spending even one night in hospital. Feeling so good in fact, that I even went for walks for two days after surgery.

However, I started feeling pain in and under my right arm and breast area from about three days after surgery. Significant pain from four days. I thought that I was possibly overdoing it, in the sense of using my arm too much. So I tried to minimize using my arm and started using more painkillers. Little did I know that that was the wrong thing to do.

What started happening was a condition called “cording”. My body’s response to the removal of lymph nodes was the nerve tissue in that area started to contract and sort of go into spasm – ultimately forming a tight cord running from the side of my breast, through my armpit and into my upper arm. Instead of trying not to move the arm, I should have been moving it as much as possible to prevent cording – but at the time I did not know that.

Hellishly painful is an understatement. I also had a little bit of swelling and inflammation around the surgical site (called seroma). Fortunately, I had a follow up doctor’s appointment booked one week after surgery and the diagnosed the problems and referred me to an occupational therapist for treatment.

Treatment was very painful but thankfully also very effective. The swelling in my breast area is gone now. The cord is still there, but it is much better. Still painful, but I think only one tenth of what it was.

And so we go on. I have my next appointment on the 8th July when I’ll finally get confirmation of whether I need chemo or not. The cancerous tissue that was removed during surgery was sent to the Netherlands for special testing to determine if I have Luminal A or Luminal B cancer. Luminal A means I only need hormone treatment and radiation. Luminal B means I need the whole package – hormone therapy, chemo and radiation.

If I don’t need chemo then I start radiation soon after the 8th July – 15 session from Monday to Friday over three weeks. If I need chemo, then I will have chemo first before radiation.

I really hope that I don’t need chemo because last week I was seconded to be the Engineering Faculty Teaching and Learning coordinator for the next six months! of course I’ve said yes already because was at opportunity this is! At present I would say that would be my next dream job…. A step up from my current post as senior lecturer and postgraduate coordinator in my department, to academic staff developer and coordinator, sort of a lecturer and facilitator for the all the lecturers in the Engineering Faculty at my university. However, if I have to have chemo then I need to reconsider.

Yes – life is full of surprises indeed. The good with the bad. And the only thing that makes sense to me is just to take everything day by day.

My room with a view

The body keeps the score

Up until a year ago I thought of myself as pretty darn (physically) strong. Fit as a fiddle and strong as an ox – and then it seemed like suddenly things changed overnight.

In the past year (it was actually ten months), I had a miscarriage, picked up COVID19, been diagnosed with pubic symphysis dysfunction and now most recently was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Also, all these diagnoses seem unrelated but I believe that they actually are related. The common denominator is my body. The body keeps the score.

Years of working hard and playing, even partying hard without resting hard perhaps? It doesn’t matter ‘why’ as much as it matters what now…

Of all that has happened, the miscarriage was, (is still at times) the most difficult one to process. I wasn’t expecting to fall pregnant in the first place. It was such a surprise considering my age and the newness of my and Tony’s relationship – yet it happened. After long deliberations like proper academics, we accepted it and we were looking forward to having a baby in January 2022.

Sadly that was not to be our reality. In early June I started spotting and on the 8th June 2021 it was confirmed that our baby no longer had a heartbeat. I cannot describe the overwhelming grief and the sense of loss I felt. The word ‘devastating’ comes close, but it feels like an understatement. Be that as it may, I understood that if healing was my objective, I had to work through it.

Another consequence of the pregnancy was a running injury – however, it was only officially diagnosed about seven months after the miscarriage when I just could not ‘shake’ the discomfort and pain I was feeling when I ran anything over 5km. There is a part of me that wants to kick myself for not recognizing that something was wrong sooner. I teach students how to do hypothesis testing, root cause analysis and risk analysis to work out when something is going wrong but I could not read – was not listening to – the signs of my own body

In hindsight I now know that I wasn’t doing enough strength training to support the mileage I was running – training for a marathon while I was pregnant and I injured myself. The pregnancy hormones softened my ligaments and joints and I developed pubic symphysis dysfunction – a condition where the cartilage joining my two pelvic bones is damaged.

It started to hurt like hell every time I went for a run after about 15/16km, but that didn’t stop me from finishing the Cape Town Marathon last year despite the pain. That wasn’t very responsible of me or respectful to my body.

Eventually, I consulted with a sports scientist early this year and started a rehab program. The most important thing now is knowing that I must just be patient and rehab diligently – a mixture of cardio, strength and flexibility. It still hurts when I run, but my aim is to complete my rehab and start running at least half marathons again one day in the future.

And then in the midst of my running injury rehab, I went for a random mammogram on the 29th March this year. It was discovered that I have breast cancer – on 11 April the results of a biopsy confirmed that I have grade 2 invasive carcinoma with an in-situ ductal carcinoma as well at 12 o’clock in my right breast.

The process of deciding on a treatment plan commenced with blood being sent away for genetic testing, then a CT scan, some more blood tests, an MRI, and two ultrasounds. I am very relieved to be able to report that my cancer is not genetic. Since I’m not genetically predisposed this means that I do not need a double mastectomy.

Test results showed that the cancer is responsive to progesterone and estrogen, and is not very aggressive. The scans also could not pick up any evidence of cancer in the lymph nodes despite my lymph nodes being enlarged.

Based on that the treatment team feel that it will be ok to just remove the cancerous lump, a small margin of tissue around it as well as just the sentinel lymph nodes (I’m not a medical doctor but my understanding is that those are the first four or five primary lymph nodes connected to the tumour). The plan is for me to only have two smallish incisions.

Ultimately they concluded that I don’t need a mastectomy – what I’ll be having is ‘breast conservation surgery’ (BCS). This is much less complicated than the former and I’m really grateful. My recovery time should also be a whole lot less.

I will need radiation about a month after the surgery. My surgeon explained that radiation therapy and surgery are a package deal.

Since the cancer has not spread to lymph nodes, at this stage, it is believed that I do not need chemotherapy. This will be confirmed after the operation, when they send the tissue they will be removing for histological testing to confirm that the type of cancer is not worse than what they think it is.

I will also need hormone treatment for at least 5 years and my surgery date is next Friday – 10 June. Almost a year to the date after my miscarriage.

As I reflect on what a year it has been, I see that each of these conditions has physical symptoms, as well as a physiological impact. My perception is the severity of the physiological impact is mild when compared to the mental and psychological impact. I took my body for granted. Took my strength for granted. I was not kind to my body when I pushed it so hard, working long hours and not resting properly for so many years. It’s come back to haunt me, physically and mentally. I have to own this.

Looking back as a witness, I experienced the full range of emotions, joy, fear, anxiety, disappointment, anger, heartbreak and depression. I want to be at peace with all that has transpired. Acceptance. Sometimes I feel at peace but sometimes I recognize that I am not totally at peace, even though I know that all that will happen, will happen and I do not have any control over anything – aside from my own responses.

It won’t make a difference to anyone but me if I lament or resist. The earth will continue to rotate around the sun. Life will continue regardless of what is happening to me. All that is left now is for me to be kind. It is time for me to be kind to my body… it’s talking to me. The body keeps score.

Nine more days

Nine more days of Netflix, board games, cooking, home gym, beading, WordPress and cough cough… drinking wine…. all the good stuff we did when we first went into Lockdown.

And just two days ago, on Tuesday I had a conversation with colleagues about how none of us have had COVID19 yet. Lucky us, yay….. uhmmm

Well, I am not part of that club any longer.

Technically, I have not been tested for COVID19 but I probably have COVID19. My daughter was tested early this morning and her test result came positive this evening. Now, the whole family is in quarantine – with 9 more days to go. We most likely all have COVID. Only my partner and daughter are symptomatic. My son and I are asymptomatic. This is what transpired…

My partner (fully vaccinated) seemed to have a bit of the sniffles on Saturday, but we did not think much of it. There were some workmen at the house doing a job at home, fitting new cupboard and we speculated it was perhaps the sawdust in the air. The sniffles later became a headache and we thought it’s that time of the year again, spring time and all you know – always happens in the spring time with all the pollen abound.

Then, exactly four days later, on Tuesday my daughter (unvaccinated) started complaining of a headache too. And a body ache… and a fever….. and a slight cough. It wasn’t too bad, I thought. Just a cold probably I thought, maybe the flu – she did not seem particularly weak but she was writing exams and I did not want her going to school. So off we trotted to the GP, who promptly referred us for for COVID test, hence here we are.

In general, we are in rather good spirits – we know how bad and just how devastating COVID has been to so many people. Thus, we are feeling grateful that it’s not worse. We are able to treat the symptoms at home. We have a stocked up freezer and good friends and family that we can call on to help if we need anything. We are also all able to work from home.

I guess we could complain, or moan or be irritable. But why complain? I see no point of doing that. We have nine days in close proximity together again, whether we like it or not. And quite frankly, before this happened I had been feeling like I’m on the hamster wheel again, with so many conflicting priorities. Life just said “slow down” 🙂

So yeah, let’s slow it down

Quarantined!!!!

Adieu 2020, the year of plenty

It’s been an indescribably difficult year for many and my heart goes out to all people who suffered as a result of the pandemic this year, in addition to having to deal with already challenging situations. Most will concur, in 2020, life was tough.

However on the eve of 2021, my heart is brimming with gratitude. I’m deeply thankful for all the challenges, the rejections and disappointment and anxiety that led to self-discovery. Personally 2020 gave me that gift… ‘self-discovery’, a gift that no money can buy.

Thank you world. Thank you all the people in the world – each and every interaction I have had with every person this year, whether at the time it seemed good or bad. Deepening existing relations with my family, friends (online and in-person friends), and colleagues, acquaintances and colleagues who became really good friends this year, strangers who became new even good friends and even saying goodbye and letting go of some. Today I sincerely thank you all for how I feel now…. grateful. All I experienced gave me a sense of what really matters to me. And in the end, it’s only kindness that matters.

Sending you all love. Happy New Year… Happy 2021. May it bring you good health, great joy and may your wishes come true ❤️