Thursday, May 2, 2013

Strong

It’s not a big surprise that cancer saps your strength. Being short of breath is one of the symptoms of leukemia in particular since the effect of the disease is to produce fewer mature red blood cells, the carriers of oxygen to the body. For me, that really wasn’t a symptom until I began treatment when anemia became pretty severe and it was all I could do to go up a flight of stairs. That’s not a wonderful revelation when you’re used to taking the stairs out of principle. I made it to the top and felt as winded as if I’d been running the length of a city block. But aerobic fitness isn’t the only place where I’ve found that my strength had ebbed.
I wrote last week about a comical fall I had at the car dealership where I had dropped off my vehicle for a factory recall repair.  The strength I took for granted to keep me balanced just wasn’t enough and I took a bit of a spill on to my gym bag that held my sweats. And then adding insult to injury, I didn’t have the strength to stand up with the two bags I had been carrying, so I had to put them down and stand up and pick each of them up one at a time. Yesterday, I went to physical therapy to see what I could do to maintain some muscle tone during my illness. Other than walking around a few city blocks or in the tunnels of the VA complex, it was the first time I had really gotten some good physical activity, let alone visited a gym since that fateful night - the night I received my diagnosis - I was kept from going to the gym in lieu of inpatient testing. It was also the first time I could quantify just how much strength I’d lost in the past couple of months.
Based on what I used to lift, it’s fair to say that about 50-60% of my strength has gone.
I honestly didn’t know where I would fall out on the spectrum, but it was hard to try to lift a weight and then finding I didn’t yet have the strength for that, pull out the pin from the weight stack and move it up a plate or two until there was an amount I could actually lift and then find the right amount I could do three sets with the physical therapist. My legs were the biggest surprise.  While I could ride the bike at a comfortable pace for quite some time, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to dial in much resistance to simulate a hill.  The once tree-trunk thighs and carved calves are a bit thin and rather than 300 pounds, I was pushing 130. My biceps where a PICC line had pierced were the biggest drop – a mere 20 pounds pushed my limit. Sure, it’s to be expected, but the male ego is a powerful force, even for a 50 year-old! I think the encouraging part of this is that I can get some supervised physical activity to perhaps stop the atrophy and perhaps even reverse it before going to Seattle for the transplant. The doc did say to stay as physically active as possible and I’m just glad I have a way to do that now.
After my exercise in humility, I did my regular blood draw. Today, I got to see them pull a sum total of, count ‘em, eight tubes of blood. Two of them were my regular three-times-weekly draw to monitor my blood count and chemistry. The other six were being sent to Seattle to begin the HLA-typing for my transplant. The nurse I spoke to today estimated another two months before I would be showing up there, even with a rush (which there apparently is). I think it’s fair to say, I’ll be spending most of the summer here in Utah and the fall in Washington state. Of course, things could happen sooner and I’m hoping they do since there are a lot of people who are on stand-by for “the call.” Truly, the hurry-up-and-wait is in full force with the VA. I have to believe someone on the other end of this process is also being pushed along and waiting for me.
Of course, strength isn’t limited to the body.  The spirit strong / body week analogy works here.  I have had physically imposing men that I respect tell me that I’m strong or that they couldn’t do what I’m doing. On the one hand, it’s not like I volunteered to do this; on the other, the struggle I fight truly is in my mind, so not only am I being weakened physically, I duke it out in ways that just can’t be seen with the eyes. I think that’s why people who survive a crisis of some sort tend to be different or transformed on the other end of their ordeal.  Their minds got a major long-term work out and you just know it when you meet one of these people.  They have a presence about them that belies the personal hell they walked through. You know someone has been educated the same way. This is just the post-graduate level of the school of hard knocks.  Cancer is definitely the PhD level and I think it’s fair to say you’re reading my dissertation.
So, my mental biceps may be looking good even if my physical ones have scars from PICC insertion sites; and my emotional legs may be paradoxically the strongest part of me (though I cry more these days more than I care to admit) while my physical legs look a bit scrawny. That’s because I’m walking through some tough stuff where you might not see it. Despite my outward appearance and personal expectations, I am, yes, strong.
Music for the day is another oldie from when I was a kid:  Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters
When you're weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all

I'm on your side
Oh when times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
When you're down and out
When you're on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
, I'll take your part
Oh, when darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Sail on silver girl, sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine

Oh, if you need a friend
I'm sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind