“An exercise program was the best thing that could have happened to me”.
I was diagnosed with lung cancer thirteen years ago in 2002 – luckily I was young (55), diagnosed early, and otherwise in good health. The upper lobe of my right lung was removed surgically, taking out a stage 2a adenocarcinoma, and my lymph nodes were clear so I didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Perhaps this was just as well, because I was living in a rural town at the time, where GPs had such heavy patient loads that I had not been able to get onto anyone’s regular list in the two years that I had been there. Austin Hospital, where I had the surgery, was four hours’ drive away, and the nearest follow-up facilities were two hours away in Bendigo.
I decided to move back to Sydney, where I had a trusted GP and access to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for specialist care. After the surgery, my diaphragm did not heal in normal position, meaning that what was left of my right lung could not fully inflate, so my lung capacity was well below optimum. I was eventually referred to the respiratory rehabilitation program in the physiotherapy department gym – the best thing that could have happened to me.
I had managed to get pneumonia in the first winter after the operation, and was generally susceptible to infection in my scarred lung. The rehab program built up my strength and endurance but, best of all, one day while I was walking on the treadmill I felt my diaphragm suddenly loosen and my lung fill completely. I rushed over to the physiotherapist who confirmed that my lung capacity was now within normal range for my age and sex. Ever since then I have continued with a set of basic daily exercises I learned on the program, and have never had another bout of pneumonia. I also have pneumonia and flu shots of course.
Soon after that I celebrated eighteen months’ survival by climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I celebrated three years by travelling to Tibet, including a day at Everest base camp. At six years I spent a year in Laos as an overseas volunteer. Now I think I’ve tested my lungs enough, and I live a quiet life in the Blue Mountains with my beautiful dog for company.
There was a down-side. When I left hospital I was told I could go back to work in two weeks but that was definitely not the case. I was working as a psychologist, and was in the final stages of writing up a PhD thesis. I did try very hard to go back to normal life, but I had to close my practice when I went back to the city to care for my own health. I felt terrible about deserting clients, as mental health services in the bush are even scarcer than medical care.
As for the thesis – while I recovered well physically, the anxiety of regular monitoring, and the fear of recurrence had a deep impact on my ability to concentrate and apply myself. As a psychologist, I could recognise and understand what was happening, and even find good theoretical explanations, but I could not speed up the recovery process enough to pick up the PhD. Sadly, even among my colleagues, nobody seemed to really grasp the huge challenge it is, to face death, accept it (whether fully or not), and then turn around and learn to accept and engage with life again.
Nowadays my life is nothing like I would have predicted before cancer, but it has been much longer than I expected, and even useful from time to time.
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