20. The Path to Recovery is Paved with Platinum, Protein and Pons (hill climbed: Beinn a’Chrulaiste, Glencoe)

This is the 20th post of a series which is introduced here.

Friday 2 February 2018

Light reaches from the low winter sun and lifts us out of inky darkness into a bright, blue sky day – and the blue matches the colour of the air in Mel’s car.  The A82  (the main artery between Inverness and Fort William) is more crevassed than a Himalayan mountain, and her Renault Clio takes a hammering as it’s pitched into yet another cavernous void in the road.

‘Fuck sake man. This road is fucking ridiculous! There’s no way there isn’t any damage done to my car,’ Mel  shrieks.

I think she’s right; the tracking is bound to be knocked. Mel asks if I can hear her car making a funny noise. I listen, but don’t detect any change.

‘It just takes one thing to go wrong and then loads of other things go wrong too,’ she says.

Again I reckon she’s right. As I look out the windscreen trying to spot potholes before we’re in them I think about my cancer and how many other awful things have gone wrong with my body because of it.

I’ve found the last three months adjusting to life post hospital treatments more of a challenge than getting through the chemotherapy/surgery/radiotherapy. To prevent a return of breast cancer I have to take the oestrogen blocking drug Tamoxifen, it brought on early menopause and symptoms are far more severe than if I’d gone through the change naturally. I describe the hideous (and toe-curling) side-effects in the last blog, but what I didn’t mention is how much agony both feet caused me on the hillwalk up Meall Chuaich – because at that point I thought discomfort was temporary and not too big a deal (yeah, like it’s normal to crawl about on your hands and knees or use the furniture to support your weight because you’re a fucking cripple). It was mid-November before I saw a GP who told me, ‘Your heel pain is caused by Plantar Fasciitis. The condition can last up to a couple of years.’ A COUPLE OF FUCKING YEARS?! ‘So no running on hard surfaces and no excessive walking.’ (At this juncture I envisage my hand reaching for my largest kitchen knife to slit my wrists.)

I’ve cracked, but come on! There was no way I was ever going to last two years without setting foot on a hill.

So. Today is the first outing I’ve had on a mountain since Meall Chuaich, and it’s very much a tester to see how I go. Mel has been reticent about coming out with me – she didn’t want me to set myself back – but she has given in to my nagging and we are heading to Glencoe.

Beinn a’ Chrulaiste, a few km east of Glencoe village, is a straightforward Corbett (a mountain over 2500ft). A perfect choice for a winter walk and sore feet – only 7 miles with 652m of ascent. We park at Altnafeidh in an already crammed layby. It’s a short walk along the north side of the road till we reach a gate with open ground on our left.

There is no walk in; immediately you are on the mountain and heading up the hillside of Beinn a’Chrulaiste. The road winding through Glencoe is a grey thread.

Squelchy bog underfoot quickly becomes snow covered, extra slippery, squelchy bog as Mel and I climb uphill beside a fence line. We make our way without difficulty and gain the broad west ridge.

Prints in the snow are tell-tale signs of animal mountain dwellers. Mel reckons the tiny depressions belong to a mountain hare. We keep stopping to appreciate the impressive landscape as it opens up around us; looking north the mighty bulk of Ben Nevis, and the Mamores which resemble stiffened peaks of Christmas cake icing. Silver ribbons of light punctuate the lonely, dark expanse of Rannoch Moor, but it is the jaw dropping view of Buachaille Etive Mor that draws my gaze back to it.

Admiring le big Buachaille.

Traipsing over a rounded top we continue into a snow-filled depression where we are stopped in our tracks again – not by footprints, but by the actual mountain hare itself. He hops right across our path and comes to a halt as though oblivious to our presence. Happiness surges through my being: nature is good for my soul. I note how the sensation of intense joy I experience is the antithesis of how I’d been feeling up till a few weeks ago.

I had become increasingly depressed as weeks turned into months after the discouraging diagnosis on my foot pain. I’d done what I was told; I rested, I got orthotics for my shoes, I started wearing trainers in the house, I did the physio exercises. But no improvement and the unending period of inactivity was having a profound and detrimental effect on my mental mojo. In addition to dodgy feet and contending with menopause symptoms  regular life seeped in and troubles with my teenager would take turns dominating my thoughts. It was a bad combination. The sadder I felt the more Wild Turkey and bottles of wine I’d drink, and the more Monster Munch and Wotsits I’d eat. Then of course came the seasonal over-indulgence. Being a greedy bastard does me no favours. By January I weighed 12 stone and all my clothes felt tight and super uncomfortable. (I actually got completely stuck inside a sequinned dress and had to yell on my youngest son to help get it off. I’d managed to pull it up above my head but it got jammed at my chest. My arms were inextricably wedged upwards in the sparkly straight-jacket. I was on my knees on the floor fighting my blind battle and feeling grateful I’d put knickers on when Leon appeared in my room – I heard his sniggering. It was a total nightmare.) Once freed I realised I needed to regain some control – not just over my weight, but my whole outlook on this slow path to recovery…and in fact my life.

Being on mountains gives me the perspective, but to get to them I need to be able to use my feet. It was a real problem.

Sharing a moment on the mountain with the hare.

Mel and I experience foot troubles of a different kind on our hill. We only have 120 meters to go before we reach the summit of Beinn a’Chrulaiste and although the slope isn’t terribly steep, freezing temperatures have made the snow’s surface hard and icy. We put our crampons on. I settle into a seat I’ve hacked out of the ice with my axe. In moments my backside reacts to the intense sub-lethal cold and feels like it’s burning. I take off my gloves to hasten the process of attaching the pons to my boots, but my exposed fingers redden and numb making the job more fiddly. My brain freezes too. ‘Mel. How do I tie these fucking things on, does the strap go round the back of the heel or over the bridge of the foot?’ (Cannot believe I am asking.)

‘I wondered if I’d remember how to put them on too!’ Mel said cheerfully. ‘Put the strap over the front.’

Crunch! The crampon points bite into the ice. I am totally secure and am not going to go skittering off down the hill. Having been so engaged with my task I finally look up around me. Cloud has sneakily rolled in over the summit and is concealing all views.

I thought about the thick grey fog that had seemed to cloud my future only weeks before. I felt glad it was now just a memory, and I supposed that it took sinking into a fat pit of depression to galvanise me into action. Not long after the debacle of being stuck inside my dress I had a hairdresser appointment. Yup. Finally my hair was long enough to get a trim and, let me tell you, the significance of that first haircut cannot be underestimated.  I even had it dyed platinum blonde. It perked me up no end.

Equally anticipated was my appointment at the Menopause Clinic. I was desperate for facts and answers about Tamoxifen and the menopause. After spilling my guts to the doctor about painful sexy-time, stiff knee joints, fatigue, depression, hot flushes, weight gain and even my sore feet she gave me reassurance and reminded me that I was still in an acute phase of recovery. Tamoxifen and Menopause Facts:

  • Tamoxifen strips oestrogen from the body. This causes sexy-time dryness and pain – a gel with small amounts of oestrogen can be prescribed for internal use without risk.
  • Tamoxifen also strips the body of collagen making fluid build up common around joints, this complaint may or may not improve, but it is important to continue to exercise and resistance training will help build muscle to support joints.
  • Levels of fatigue (and depression) are also improved by maintaining a good exercise routine.
  • Hot flushes should settle.
  • Propensity of weight gain [for me] is increased because of the type of chemotherapy I had (FEC-T). Lack of oestrogen causes weight gain – the trend of the menopause is weight piled on around your middle. Lack of oestrogen makes fat more stubborn to shift – but not impossible.

The doctor also advised that I start to eat more protein because the body uses it to build and repair tissue, and because it’s an important building block for muscle and bones. It’s important to look after the bones because menopause also fucks them up too and you can end up with osteoporosis. ‘Sweet!’ – said absolutely no-one, ever.

I implement changes tout de suite, starting with nutrition. I download the My Fitness Pal ap and Mel helps me do all the macros shit. I am on the very first proper diet of my life. I  am given TWO free three month memberships – to the gym where I begin a weight lifting class, and to the James Smith Academy. And, determined to get back on the mountains, I start testing my foot by walking 4km along the beach to the Fort and back. Upping the ante I try running the distance. It doesn’t make the pain in my heels any worse. ‘Haw haw haw haw…en..chan…tay.’

Table for two at the top.

Mel and I reach the top of the mountain and take shelter from the wind behind the summit cairn. We dig ourselves a wee platform and waste no time smashing into our food. Hungrily we shovel my poached salmon, Mel’s pasta and some of her chicken into our mouths. We’re quite chuffed with ourselves; gone are the days of all manner of shite being in our lunch boxes, it’s all about the protein now. As I eat I feel glad that my friend is with me – we share the same interests and are moving forward in life together. I look up. Cloud thins briefly to reveal Blackwater reservoir far below. I glance over my shoulder; the sun is a watery disc veiled by grey and the concrete trig point is all else I see.

We finish eating. The cloud has rearranged and broken up. We get onto our feet to admire panoramic views. ‘OCH AYE THE NOO!’ I spontaneously yell at the top of my best Scottish voice. Mel bursts into laughter and so do I. Hill hysteria kicks in along with a raucous round of more och aye the noos with accompanying bicep curls.

Feeling the joy of life.

After two o’clock we tear ourselves away from the peak and tramp down, retracing our steps. Light soon dwindles. Mountains cloaked in steely hues are starkly outlined and in contrast to the soft edges of pinky-grey clouds and pockets of bright cornflower blue in the sky. I am alive and am in the moment. I feel wonderment.

Appreciating a minute’s silence, the changing light and a sense of history…‘With ‘er ‘ed toocked underneath ‘er arm she waaaaaalked the bloody tower. With ‘er ‘ed toocked underneath ‘er arm at the miiiiiiiiidniiiiiiight hour…’

We continue our descent. It’s way easier getting up snow than it is to come down. Every now and then one of us yelps like we’re doing Ceilidh dancing, but somehow, to our mutual disappointment, we manage to stay upright. ‘You can really feel the ole thighs burn,’ Mel says. I agree. We talk about weight training again.

‘How’ve your feet been?’ Mel asks as we reach the car. I don’t lie. I tell her they hurt a bit, but nothing in comparison to how they felt after our last walk. ‘Well that’s good. That’s progress,’ she says, smiling.

For the last time today I think to myself that Mel is right again. I also think, dare I say it, that perhaps it’s been not a bad thing to have had cancer. Changes it’s forced me into haven’t all been bad. I’m having fun with radical changes to my hair. I’m more mindful about nutrition and I’m really enjoying my JSA training program and weight lifting class at the gym. Plus I’m getting to see more of beautiful Scotland by climbing the Corbetts – and I wouldn’t be doing them if I hadn’t got ill.

By calorie counting, training and hills I’m determined to lose the pounds and win my life back. It’s a slow path to recovery, but I’m making progress.

In the words of my new fitness guru, James Smith, I know what you lot are like, there’s loads of you out there reading my stuff, don’t be stingy, if you haven’t hit like hit like already and share ze blog! A.a.a.a.a.nd follow me here or on my facebook page. 🙂

Today’s hill anthem: James, ‘Tomorrow’