This is the last post in a series which is introduced here.
Friday 9 June – 9 July 2017
I sat on the chair in the Macmillan suite at hospital for the last time.
The veins in my left arm were now all but collapsed. I was dreading the rigmarole of the cannula going into my vein, but I told myself to man up, silently acknowledging that I had much to be grateful for. Results of my blood tests throughout had shown that my liver and kidneys were processing the chemotherapy well; I’d avoided infections, colds and complicated side effects; neither my finger nor toe nails had turned black and dropped off…I hadn’t lost all my eyebrow hairs or eyelashes; the hair on my skull had started to make a fluffy, baby vulture style comeback and I hadn’t grown two heads. ‘I am lucky and I can get through this,’ I said to myself.
Wakeful nights, general achiness and a humungus appetite were par for the course during the first week after treatment. My teeth continued to feel sensitive and I was clumsy too as plates, glasses and bottles slipped out of my hands. But, more aggravating than all of these things put together, was my unending headache.
At the end of the first week I had a horrible night of disorientation, diarrhoea and a feeling of deep nausea which was followed the next morning by an emotional low. I checked back through my diary and saw that these symptoms always occurred on the seventh or eighth day of the cycle – the point when my immune system was at its lowest.
Concentration remained poor and I felt so much more tired. It was an effort to lift my arm to scratch an itch on my face let alone lift bloody weights, but out of sheer willfulness I stuck to my exercise routine. It wasn’t easy, and at the end of week two the catchy-throat thing and breathlessness made it all the harder. I decided instead to go on longer walks around the back of the village where I live – that made better sense since I still hoped to do the West Highland Way at the end of the third week of this last chemotherapy cycle.
But week three was not good. Marcus and Leon’s Papa died and we had the funeral to attend; it was an emotional time for many reasons. And then the weather turned rotten. It rained and it rained and I was stuck indoors. I felt depressed and obsessively checked the forecast for the WHW route. Day after day there was no improvement. Cloud and rain symbols filled the weather chart and my mood sunk lower still. I had no choice but to sack off my plans. The West Highland Way, from Milnagavie to Fort William, was too long a route to travel in wet conditions (154.5km over several days) and I couldn’t risk getting sick and compromising surgery. I phoned my boyfriend Paul to let him know since he’d organised time off work to come with me to do the walk. He sounded relieved when I told him I’d changed my mind because of the weather, but I wasn’t happy. Surgery was only eleven days away and after it I’d be too sore to carry a pack on my back. There had to be a way.
Typically, after cancelling my plans, the following week’s forecast changed for the better overnight. But when I called Paul to say the walk could go ahead after all he told me he had already arranged work and wouldn’t be going; so the WHW was still off, unlike the rain that still thumped down outside my windows. What misery I felt.
Saturday was terrible. My mood was black. I didn’t care to leave my bed. And the upset was so strong I felt no hunger all day. I just wanted to be normal again. God damn cancer. I didn’t want to have to think about it or the surgery. God damn menopausal hot flushes and chaotic hormones – God damn everything!
An entire day had almost disappeared when I had my brainwave. If I couldn’t do the West Highland Way I’d do the Great Glen Way instead! Earlier misery and anger were replaced with excitement and I felt like a little bird about to be released from its cage.
The Great Glen Way had a lot going for it; at 117km it was 37.5km less than the West Highland Way; it was closer to home making it more easily accessible, and good public transport links meant I could bail out if anything went wrong. Starting at Fort William the first 53km was on the flat and I could happily do it on my own. As it turned out my eldest son, Marcus, decided he’d join me. On Monday 3 July at 11.30am we started out on our walk back toward home.
It was a scenic and peaceful route along the canal tow path from Fort William to Gairlochy. The first day’s walk was 17km, but in all we ended up doing 25km.
There was a 1.5km detour due to work being carried out on Soldier’s Bridge and then we had to walk an extra 1.5km off the trail at Gairlochy to reach our campsite. The only other tent pitched there belonged to a friendly older dude called Steve who insisted I use his hammer when he witnessed me stamping on my tent pegs to get them into the ground. He told us he was walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats. After we’d got the tents up Marcus and I walked another 5km into Spean Bridge for dinner.
By the end of the day my feet were very, very sore and during the night my legs felt terribly heavy. However, in his tent it sounded like Marcus was doing battle with possibly the entire contingent of Gairlochy midge. His kill updates kept me amused and took my mind off my aches.
Early the next morning we packed up and hoisted on our rucksacks, it felt as if the force of gravity had been quadrupled, but there was no time for grumbling. We had to get on the move to avoid being attacked by the pesky midge.
We met a few folk on the trail; a man in a fancy hat who was walking with his son; twenty-something, female twins from Germany and Mark and Shelly, a lovely couple from southern California who were impressed at how quickly Marcus and I were walking with such big packs.
There were a few more uphill sections that passed beneath the Loch Lochy Munros, Sron a Choire Ghairbh and Meall na Teanga. The incline was nothing dramatic, but the effort of it was enough to cause us both to give in to groaning. Marcus complained about his back…me about my sore feet…and we both moaned about our thighs.
It was a relief to get to Laggan Locks and as we sat on our bags and rested our bones my uncle David texted.
Uncle David: how’s the trek
Me: Hard! How did you manage it in three days? We just did four n half hours with the tents, sleep bags, mats, food n water etc and are well aching. Feet are murder! 😀
Uncle David: Sounds familiar. Two days by the way, with full camping gear. Tee hee
Me: You’re totally lying
Phone rings. It’s Uncle David. He tells me he got dropped off in Fort William at five in the morning and walked till he reached Invermoriston at eight o’clock in the evening where he set up camp with his Tesco three man tent. He set out again early the next day and arrived at Inverness Castle at ten o’clock that night. I felt both impressed and annoyed. (Stupid chemotherapy feet and stupid slow legs).
Marcus had had enough and declared that long distance walking wasn’t for him. So he was going home and staying there and I would continue the rest of the way alone. I quite looked forward to being on my own.
On the third day my legs felt stiff, but once they warmed up I managed a reasonable pace. All the same I was glad this section between Laggan and Fort Augustus was flat and only 17km. I ate my lunch on a bench by Loch Oich and boy did it hurt to get back onto my feet again, and by the time I reached Fort Augustus I had abandoned any thoughts about continuing on to Invermoriston. Instead I caught the bus home for a night in my own bed!
On day four I walked from Fort Augustus to Invermoriston by the high route and LOVED every bit of those 12km. It was fantastic to zig-zag upwards and get above the treeline.
The best part about the day was having the trail all to myself. Not a single soul did I meet – that’s quite rare. I was in the middle of loving being up high, loving walking and enjoying my own company when I saw a peregrine falcon – super cool!
Paul drove down to meet me after his work and took me for dinner to the Loch Ness Inn at Lewiston. What a treat.
Friday was the fifth day. It had lashed rain during the night and it was still throwing down in the morning. I got up, packed up the tent and by the time I got on the trail the rain had dried up. I was taking the 22km high route from Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit and feeling monstrously happy because this was the section I’d been most looking forward to.
There were a lot of steep ups, but they were satisfying. And quickly after leaving Invermoriston my Christmas pudding hill, Meall Fuar-mhonaidh, suddenly came into view. I’d been looking forward to seeing it from this new perspective. I checked my map to see if I could go to its top from this side…not today, but one day I will.
I overtook four Americans and a couple of Germans as I climbed high up the hillside through the trees. The path then zig-zagged down and I came upon a curved stone seat shelter. The high path offered memorable views over Loch Ness and the Monadhliath Mountains to the south. A patchwork of light rain showers were falling over the hills on the other side of the water and, though I was in sunshine, I was walking towards a bigger, darker bank of cloud that touched the waters of the loch.
I wanted to eat my lunch before I met the rain, but I couldn’t stop because as soon as I did the midge surrounded me. I didn’t even get a chance to empty my boot of little stones. Several walkers passed me from the opposite direction looking like drowned rats. I looked toward the dark sky ahead, but good fortune stayed on my side and the cloud rained itself out before I got near.
Walking along the familiar minor road (having driven it so many times to Meall Fuar-mhonaidh) I passed a trio of young Swiss Great Glen Wayers. When I stopped to take pictures they leap-frogged by me. And then, as I walked the trail that descended through forestry, singing an Amy Winehouse song (badly), I overtook them again as they sat under a tree checking the map and eating a snack.
It was a relief to reach Drumnadrochit and after stretching I took off my boots to give my poor feet a rub. Two toenails, one on each foot, that had felt tender all week were now black…could have been worse, I could have had ten black toenails and ten black fingernails.
As I lay down to sleep that night my body felt super tired and ached heavily.
Saturday was the last and biggest day, covering a distance of 29km from Drumnadrochit to the castle in Inverness. Paul, with his fresh legs and feet, joined me for this last stretch of the Way. It would take about seven hours to walk and I knew it was going to hurt.
We’d not long left the pavement to join the woodland trail when we were passed by a runner who asked if we’d seen a guy ahead of him. I told him no. He cursed and announced that that was the bronze. Of course! I’d forgotten that the Great Glen Way Ultra Marathon was on today. Eighty runners had set off from Fort William at one in the morning, it was now just after quarter past ten and I was impressed that four had already made it this far so soon.
Two hours into the walk, and marked by a signpost, we’d reached the highest point on the Great Glen Way. Only 18km more to go!
The scenery wasn’t as inspiring on this last section however I was entertained by counting the ultra marathon runners that passed us by. There was a cool cafe in the middle of the woods on the hillside at Abriachan where we exchanged brief greetings with another walker who told us he is walking from John O’Groats to Land’s End.
We passed the Swiss trio again today, it was nice to see them. They huddled together, up against a wooden gate, to shelter from the wind and snack. I was hungry too.
At two o’clock my feet could take no more. We were already more than halfway to Inverness so Paul and I stopped dead on the trail; I took off my boots, wriggled my feet then savaged my lunch…who knew a simple tuna mayo sandwich could taste so good, and my apple pastry was in a league of its own. ‘Enjoying lunch!’ the lad from the Swiss group grinned. My cheeks were stuffed with pie and I could only wave as they walked by.
Further along the trail, when Paul had disappeared into the bush for a poo, I saw three figures approaching – it was only Land’s End to John O’Groats Steve, and hat man with his son who I’d first encountered at Gairlochy. After Paul’s re-emergence from the bush, we all walked together for a bit. I told John O’Groats Steve that Land’s End Christopher said the coastal path up north was horrendous: that information helped Steve decide he’d stick to the A9 to reach the top of Scotland. Always glad to help…
The company had been a welcome distraction, but Paul and I went ahead and again I became aware of my little mermaid feet. Every step was a major trauma, but I didn’t care how much pain I was in, I ignored it best I could, determined to press on to the end.
I was really pleased that I’d managed to complete the Great Glen Way. The harder the fight the greater the sense of achievement. It had been a good kiss off to chemotherapy and I still had two days to spare before going in to hospital for breast surgery.
It had been a crappy start to my final chemotherapy session; the accumulative effect of the drugs had taken their toll and I had been emotionally spun out. I had also been disappointed to abandon plans for the West Highland Way, but I’m glad it didn’t work out because I’ve an idea of what I can expect from myself and will be better prepared when I do get on that trail (which I fully intend to try for between surgery and radiotherapy, LOL). Everything worked out well in the end…and I can only hope that this will also be the case at the end of my 2017 medical triathlon.
Thank you to everyone who has followed my chemotherapy blog. I hope that you feel a little bit enlightened, and a little bit inspired to get out and do the stuff that makes living worthwhile.
The future is uncertain. None of us can know how or when we are going to die, but up to that point we do have the power to choose how we live.
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