Surfing on Chemo

Posted on Thursday, June 16th, 2011 at 4:03 pm

I found myself staring at the ultra sound screen in disbelief. The screen was mainly grey, in the middle of it, however, was a bright red area that looked like the epicenter of a storm on a swell chart. What I was about to hear would change my life forever. I saw my doctor’s mouth moving but I was only taking in fragments. I had a lump in my right breast. My life as I knew it would be placed on hold, but I would get it back in six months, after operation, chemo and radiation . Yes, I’d lose my hair, but I wouldn’t lose my breast. They might have to take out lymph nodes and this might make my arm swell up. I interrupted: Will I survive? Will I be able to surf?

Surfer girl at chemo unit/UCT private

First chemo shot

I was back in the water ten days after my op. With a five centimetre cut under my arm and a really sore boob, followed by my close friends, I paddled through the head-high shorebreak in Table View, determined to make it work. Getting into my wetsuit was painful – getting out even more so. I realized after the first set that I shouldn’t be in the line up AT ALL. I wasn’t able to paddle or duck dive properly and I was lying on my poor breast that had just gone through major trauma. I realized I was in trouble. My best friend finally paddled a discouraged crying former version of me out to the beach. I had asked ask my oncologist if I was allowed to do water sports though.

Before my first chemo, four weeks after my op, I snuck out of my friend’s house where I was staying and went for a dawnie in muddy Muizenberg water. Like many times before the ocean washed my tears away and I was ready for what was about to happen.

Initially my chemo was every three weeks. Milestones became important. I had to schedule my life according to my chemo shots. During and straight after the shot I would be tired and sleeping from the happy pill that I insisted on every time I went. Then I would be awake the entire night due to the steroids to suppress

any allergic reaction from the Red Devil (Taxol, given to breast cancer patients is red and evil, hence the name.) Never before had I got more work done: I was able to work through the whole night. The first two weeks I experienced bone pain, nausea, diarrhea, hormonal roller-coaster and a general feeling of not-happy-in-own-body and body-gone-autopilot.

My surfer blond hair started falling out ten days after my first shot, as promised by my doctor. I needed to hold onto it at least for a couple more days, because I had been invited to a wedding and I wanted to look stunning in my very feminine Versace dress. A couple of days later my friends shaved it all off with the dog clippers!!!

Surfing on "Red Devil"

The name says it all - this type of chemo is called "Red Devil"

I stayed with friends during my chemo – for company and so that they could make sure I was eating properly. I would stay at home to work or watch the Simpsons and I looked forward to the times my best friend fetched me for water gymnastics. There we were, two 30 year-olds, giggling away and bobbing up and down amongst a bunch of grannies and people on rehab from serious motor cycle accidents. Surfing was not an option. I only had one weekend every three weeks where I would almost feel like the old me. The weekend just before my next shot, I used it to surf, looking forward to it like a dolphin to the sardine run.

Changing in the parking lot becomes a stunt. To hide my loss of hair I surfed with a hoody; thanks to the cold water, I got away with it. I wanted to surf and enjoy myself, not raise awareness for breast cancer. I was slow, suffered from “chemo brain” (chemo makes you a bit of a numb-brain) and I had lost a lot of weight, mainly muscles. Although my surfing was the crappiest it’s ever been, I enjoyed every minute out in the ocean and felt grateful to be feeling well enough to join my friends who showed endless patience and cushioned me wherever they could.

Bernie and I initially trained together at Sea Point pool, swimming lengths. We raced each other: breast stroke, doggie paddle, freestyle. She was recovering from bilateral hip replacements. I was recovering from breast cancer and lumpectomy of right breast. During those early morning summer swims we became close friends, sisters in crime. We had both been shaken and learned that we were in fact human. This experience had made us aware that the important people in our lives still love us or love us even more for being vulnerable.

Today almost a year later I feel happy and grateful for having made it. “Rocks are our friends,” an expression I heard a more seasoned surfer say years ago when I paddled out at Vic Bay for the first time, became my new motto. Although I can’t say I enjoyed the experience at the time, 2010 was the best motivational book I have ever read. I have been transforming since into what I call the new me. Sometimes it makes me smile because I don’t even recognize myself any more. I realize a lifetime is short, if you want to say something to someone say it, if you want to do something get on with it now. Your friends and family are the most important things you will ever have. They are the reason why you feel so contained, happy and loved. Look after them.

Sisters, here is my advise: Appreciate your boobs, show them off, tan topless, surf topless -check them at least once a month or for a even more enjoyable experience, train your partner to check them.

Here are some interesting facts about breast cancer:

  • Approximately one in almost every eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.
  • Asian women have some of the lowest breast cancer rates of any group in the world
  • If caught early, the breast cancer survival rate is 98 percent
  • If caught early enough doctors will be able to perform a lumpectomy (just the cancer cells are removed, any malignant cell that might still be there gets killed by the chemo) instead of taking of the whole breast including nipple (mastectomy)
  • The best time to check your boobs is 10 days after your period
  • Breast implants prevent women from feeling lumps early enough – for those of you with “boob jobs” regular checkups and mammograms become even more important

If you need any further information including a video explaining how to check your breast, check out the very well structured website of the Breast Health Foundation.

T.Y. Thank you to my loyal friends for your patience, letting me stay with you, feeding me, laughing about my jokes when I had lost my wits due to chemo brain, giving me my white blood cell injections, driving me to hospital and spending endless hours watching me sleep in my chemo chair, cheering me up and making me feel sexy when I wasn’t (pale, bald with no eyebrows or eyelashes is not sexy).

This is your life, not a dress rehearsal, live as if you mean it!

Breast cancer early detection check-list

Early detection saves lives - check yourself!

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “Surfing on Chemo”

  1. Jenny says:

    Ah, Michaela , what a girl ! What a surfsister ! Big up to you for sharing your story and still surfing throughout the ordeal. Thank you !

  2. Bridgette says:

    Michaela ~ Thank you so much for sharing your story. I have been out here on the web looking for anything for inspiration and you have definitely provided some. I have been diagnosed with TNBC just over two weeks ago now in my right breast with lymph node involvement. I am an athlete and cherish my runs – I start chemo next week and am SO petrified I will lose myself in all of this. I am 36 years old. I don’t want to be 37 going on 77 when I come out of all of this. Much love to you!!

    • Hi Bridgette,

      thank you for your comment and the positive feedback. I’m so happy it helped you.

      I wonder if you have started your chemo already. I’m thinking of you. The first one is a bit scary cause you kind of think why should I let them poison me I feel fine. Kicking, crying and throwing your toys is totally acceptable. However, you will bond with the peeps in the Chemo unit. We had so much fun…I know I sound insane. But we had picknicks, slept, watched TV and talked about detox for afterwards and where to get the juicyiest veggies from. Keep a journal with your thoughts. I haven’t done this and regret it a bit now.

      Chin up girl. You will loose some of yourself yes but you will also find new sides of you. Maybe even sides that you always thought were lacking. This will make you stronger and change you in a way that you would have never thought is possible. I promise you I like myself more now.

      Lets stay in touch…can you find me on Facebook please? I understand your fears. I promise you I had the same ones. Ive got my hair back now (its curly from the chemo) and look exactly the same as before. I can recommend quite a variety of detox to you that will make you look better than before the chemo for when you are finished.

      I am thinking of you.

      Lots of love,

Leave a Reply