18. Walk to Freedom: Radiotherapy and Cul Mor

This is the eighteenth post of a series which starts here.

29 September 2017

Eyeing up the shapely Corbett I feel a surge of joy lift me from the unending tiredness.  Sitting in my car I pull on my walking boots and lace them tight enough so they support my ankles, but are loose enough not to hurt, what I call, my grandad toes. It was windy, not nearly the 50mph winds that had been forecast, but anyway I follow the old rule of starting out cool. It goes against the grain of what I really want to do – to throw as many layers on and get cosy – but I know that as soon as I get walking the blood will circulate faster and I’ll be very warm.

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Cul Mor and its southern top.

The hill I’m walking is Cul Mor. It lies twelve miles north of Ullapool in the northwest Highlands. This area cast a spell over me a long time ago. I’ll never bore of its rugged beauty and wildness, changing seasons will help see to that. Today there is a distinctly autumnal feel to the air which is matched by the steely blue lochans that punctuate the rusty coloured landscape. I feel happy to be here in my own company.

Taking in a deep breath I strike out along the stalker’s path. My legs feel good. This pleases me, but I know I’ll pay for it in spades later and will be crawling up my stairs. I don’t care. It’s worth it. I don’t think. As I climb higher and am breathing harder I notice that I haven’t noticed the hot pain in my right breast and armpit. It amazes me and compounds what I already know – that the outdoors frees me in so many ways and is a tonic way better than any pill dispensed from a pharmacy counter.

Every day, except Saturday and Sunday, for the last four weeks I’ve had to attend hospital – a total bind. The first appointment at the radiology department was longest. I had to lie half naked and completely still while the machine was aligned to my body.  A nurse gave me three tattoos. I was told they’d be no bigger than a freckle. A freckle was putting it kindly, the marks look more like blackheads. I didn’t like those ugly little dots. It was what they represented; they were a permanent reminder; they made me feel unclean…cancer in my body makes me feel tainted and unclean.

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What the machine looks like. It tilts and moves, clicks and buzzes. I had to lie with my arms resting in stirrups above my head.

Radiotherapy doesn’t hurt and each session is only a few minutes long. At my fourth appointment I was asked if it was okay that they give me another tattoo. Well that was stupid to make it a question! If they’d told me I had to have the fourth tattoo then I’d now have four little dots, but because they’d made it a question I told them, no, it’s not okay. I wasn’t expecting them to accept my answer, but they did and instead of the tattoo they marked my skin with pen and covered the cross with a very, very sticky clear circle of plastic that stayed on me for the next three weeks.

By comparison to chemotherapy the radiotherapy was a walk in the park, but there were side effects. I experienced nausea in the first couple of weeks, but used Sea Bands on my wrists and they helped, placebo effect or not what does it matter as long as it works, right?

Suffering tiredness is classic radiotherapy. At first I admit I was a bit of a martyr to it, especially since I had continuing horrible aches in my feet, knees and hip joints, making every day a battle. But then I decided to tell my mind, so what if I feel fucked just get out and do what you can and don’t give in to it. And so that’s what I did. I started by walking my old 10km running route. Each day after that I would jog a bit then walk and so on until I was managing to cover more distance by jogging than walking. I’m not going to lie, it was bloody hard going, but that made completing the route feel more of an achievement. I don’t go out to prove a point or to be a smug bitch, I go out because it is my coping mechanism. I need it as much as I need the air I breathe. The longer I’m out the better I feel. It’s why I love the mountains.

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Suilven.

Suilven and Canisp are now in full view as I contour the mountain, heading toward its southeast shoulder. The winds are strengthening and I pull on my jacket.

There’s a boulder field to ascend and as I balance my way up I wonder how tricky I’d find this as a winter walk. I think to myself that it’d be an easier prospect than its neighbour, Cul Beag. But then I wonder if I found Cul Beag more challenging because I was full of chemotherapy when I did it. The up had certainly felt more vertiginous. On the whole this mountain is definitely more straightforward. These thoughts I have are fleeting because I’m too busy getting up the boulders.

In no time at all I’m walking on the summit plateau toward the trig and shelter cairn. I check the time as I arrive. It’s 12.10pm. ‘Nice one,’ I say, congratulating myself (I’ve worked out that it has only taken me an hour and fifty minutes to reach the top. This is good news. It means I’m definitely recovering. And my legs still feel strong beneath me which is handy because I’ve still got to get myself down). I take in the sickeningly stunning views and wish these mountains were properly on my doorstep because I’d be up here all the time. The wind is battering me. I crouch by the trig and open my bag. Though it’s almost lunch time I don’t feel hungry, but I know I have to eat. My lunchbox is packed with all manner of shite – a soggy salad, ham and cheese sandwich on seeded bread (my main sustenance), crisps (salt), chocolate (sugar energy), an oat bar (slow release energy) and a yoghurt.  I don’t often feel hunger when I’m active, but this is when I know I should be giving my body fuel. Other than half of my ‘sarny’ (as my friend Mel  would call it) I eat none of my wares. As cheese, ham and bread is being mashed by my teeth I think about how much more I eat when I’m at home. Why is that? Distraction? Probably.

At the beginning of radiotherapy I’d read in the advice booklet that patients can experience loss of appetite. This was one side effect I had been positively excited and pleased about, however I can now categorically say I am obviously an exception to the rule. What a flaming bummer. And it is. I’ve stacked on the timbers this year.

 

I put on my fleecy gloves and leave the summit to embrace the wind’s pummeling force. It’s still early so I decide to explore the mountain’s northwest spur where I enjoy views of Stac Pollaidh and its broken stacks and spires, and of lochans that sparkle like silver and blue ribbons. Greedy for the splendour of the same views from a different perspective I climb up Cul Mor’s southern peak. I soak it all in. Shafts of fragile, glittering light filter through the cloud layers defining edges and lifting colours in the landscape, and I sense the lightness of my being.

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Glittering light.

Two days earlier it had been the fluorescent strip lighting in the hospital that had dazzled my eyes. I could only hear the sound of my own footsteps squeaking over the shiny, polished floor, and had almost reached halfway down the long, narrow corridor when I realised this was the last time I’d walk away from the radiotherapy department. No more treatments. It was over.  I had the notion then that I was walking to freedom and, overcome with emotion, I wept a little.

I remember the emotion as I descend the easterly ridge of the southern top. I acknowledge the sense of freedom I felt then and I feel it now.

I tread over boggy, trackless ground.

I’m moving forward.

 

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For anyone living in the Scottish Highlands who wants rid of their breast cancer tattoos for free click here. This will take you to relevant website.