Cycle 5 Day 11: Tell Me What Is Love

All the talk of blood and hearts this week reminded me of an excercise I participated in at Gawler. It was called Reflections.

We had learnt how to feel our ‘centre line’ during meditation, what they call Mindfulness of Emotion. (A step that I conveniently skipped when I taught myself at home). The reflections exercise used this process but we were to use it to answer four questions. 

So we partnered up and one person would ask the other the 4 questions. The person responding needed to feel their throat, heart, solar plexus and lower stomach and describe what they felt in response to the questions. The words didn’t need to make sense, you just needed to say what came to mind when focused in on the sensation.

The questions were hidden behind a board. When they were revealed I got nervous. 

Tell me what is love

Tell me how you’ve missed love 

Tell me how you’ve withheld love

Tell me how you can be more loving 

I could hear people around me giving long winded answers. Lots of explanations. Mine were short and sharp. Often just one word. I’d done a lot of these types of exercises with Zoe in the energy course, but never with specific questions. 

The words I spoke came from within, from a deeper place. It was lovely. Comforting. Eye-opening. I realised how simple love is. How abundant it is. How easily accessible it is within me. It is warm, light and everywhere. I realised how I shut it off (well I felt what it was like) and how I can allow it to flow into my life more freely. 

If I was nervous about the first step of the exercise, the second step took me WAY out of my comfort zone. 

We had to stare into our partners eyes. Not avert our gaze or pull a face. Just sit with it. For an extended period of time. Umm AWKWARD much!!! 

So I sat and stared into the eyes of man….that wasn’t my husband.

My extremities twitched in protest. My arms tried to turn inwards and I felt pins and needles in my legs and feet. I imagined a black swirling mist moving all around them. I fought it off. I focus on my centre-line. Focused on my partner’s eyes. I felt a tingle in my chest and this warmth broke out across the top of my body. It was vulnerable but beautiful. At that moment everything went a little blurry. I could only see his pupils. It was not about him, it was what was inside of me. How to give love to myself. I didn’t want the feeling to stop. I decided then and there to go back into the ‘real’ world with an open heart. (Something that I forgot about for most of last week, but writing this has been a nice reminder). I am ok with not ‘bracing’ myself when I go outside. I can take off the armour. I am safe. This is how I want to live. 

I did forget to mention one thing…. My partner, who I spoke of above, had a colostomy bag and as a result of its location he had no control over the noises that his bowels made. For those who have read my Vipassana posts will know about my love of farting in meditation halls (not me personally 😉 ). Well, my partner was wonderful at it throughout the entire retreat. He always managed to time his musical notes for just the right moment, when things were too serious or too sad. It would always lighten the mood, always bring a smile and a laugh. At the beginning of the first exercise he let a ripper go. He actually shook his body to get more out. We had a giggle and then for whatever reason I felt like my focus fortify. It allowed me to go deeper, feel more. It’s like he broke the ice in order to prepare us for the second exercise. To him I am grateful! 


Cycle 5 Day 10: Vampire Diaries

What a difference a day (and 300mls of blood) can make!

The colour has returned to my cheeks and the conversations to my lips. I didn’t realise how irritable and foggy I had become in the last week. Now I know what it’s like to be a vampire. 

Turns out my iron is ridulicously low also, so I’m supplementing but also might eat a small piece of lean red meat tonight just to get my baseline levels back to where they need to be. 

Today I am grateful. Grateful for the many well wishes I received yesterday. And grateful that I live in an age where you can take the blood from a stranger, be it male or female, and I can receive it into my body with next to no complications. That blows my mind a little. How on earth did we work that one out!?? Probably through trial and error….

Cycle 5 Day 8: Life Blood and an Angophora Tree

I started writing this post on the weekend unsure where it was going. I felt like I needed to write it, there was an urge to get something out. But I didn’t finish it. It was almost there, just like another two posts I have in draft waiting for me to hit ‘publish’. 

Today I feel like I’ll be able to finish it and here’s why….. I am having a blood transfusion.

Over the weekend I asked Alex if I was a tree, what type of tree I’d be. 

I’ve asked him similar types of tree questions before, like what my SULE (safe useful life expectancy) would be. It’s a measure used in the arboricultural world to categorise a tree’s health, well being and as the name suggests life expectancy. He always say 1A. There is no problem on visual inspection from the outside. You show no signs or symptoms of disease.

Would I be deciduous? No….. Would I be flowering shrub? No….. Or more like a eucalyptus? You’d have terminal flowers. Meaning from your crown (he points to my head) not your arse. You wouldn’t have rough bark. But you would drop stuff you didn’t need every now and then. And you’d shed bark. 

*quiet reflection*

You’d be an Angophora

I smiled. Yes! I love angophora’s. They are one of my favourite trees. They have this amazing bark. It turns a grey colour, hardens and then peals off to reveal this smooth but mottled surface. It has a magical deep orangey pink hue. When the afternoon sun hits it, it can take your breath away. 

Alex’s comments lifted my spirits for a short while. I had a bit of a rough week. I haven’t been riding as high as in the days following the retreat. Zoe warned me this would happen. As did the facilitators at the Gawler. It’s a cycle. 

I also didn’t breeze through chemo last week. I thought it was due to lack of sleep and perhaps some anxiety over the results of a scan on my heart I had to have done on Thursday. 

I’ve had four nights of hot sweats. I soaked the sheets through, so slept on a towel like a menopausal lady (which might also explain the cranky and irritable attitude). I soaked the towel through too. Ewww. I’d shower, change clothes then get back in beds . It meant interrupted sleep and that’s never good for me. I talked with the doc and it could be a number of things. My disease, my hormone levels, the drugs. Alex says the moon. It wasn’t a full moon, but there was a new moon, the eqiunox and a solar eclipse all on the same. He also says the ocean reflects my mood, that’s why he checks it so often (not just to assess the waves for a surf or the gutters for beach fishing)….

I also had a heart scan this week. They picked up fluid around my heart on my last CT. Again it could be my disease, the drugs, or all the work I’ve been doing to open my heart, connect with this centre, become more loving. It’s watch and wait for the time being. 

Both have slowed me down a bit. Physically and mentally. And I haven’t felt myself, not sick but just weird. Even with the inspiring visitors and catch ups we have had this week, I haven’t been able to maintain an energy that I normally find within. I wondered what was going on with me.

Yesterday was a chemo day. I cried on the way to the clinic, in the waiting room, in the bathroom, while my pre bloods were being taken, when I talked to Vas. What was wrong with me???!!

My bloods came back and few more pieces of the puzzle slotted into place. My haemoglobin was pretty low so I was told I needed to have a blood transfusion. I totally freaked out. I cried more. I said I didn’t want to have someone’s blood in me. I said I wanted to wait. To see if it would improved by itself. To see if I could get it back up myself. 

I was surprised at my reaction. I wondered if it is because I associate blood transfusions with the sick and dying. I had felt ‘off’ but I have never really felt like a sick person. I don’t believe I am sick most of the time. This was a slap in the face. This was me having to receive something from someone else because my body couldn’t do it on it’s own. This was me having to ask for someelse’s help. Was this me failing? Is this why I’m so resistant? 

I took a moment to breathe. I spoke to Zoe. I felt my centre-line. I was calm when I made a decision to go ahead with chemo. I would have the transfusion a day later. 

I went through a range of emotions over night. I was scared, fearful. It was the first time I thought about really dying from my disease. I think I was angry too. And I took it out on Alex on the way home. Luckily he loves me unconditionally. 

So I returned to the clinic and today I am here, receiving someone else blood. Someone’s life force. I am recieving it with gratitude. Trying to be accepting. It still feels weird though. 

I have left behind those pre-conceived ideas of what type of person receives a blood transfusion. I was a donor in my twenties. I didn’t really think of the end product. I’d like to think whoever’s blood I am recieving did so with good intentions. And those intentions are being delivered straight into my veins. 

And so once again my beliefs have been flipped on their head. Yet another notion I am forced to rethink. That was my perceived truth. A truth from the other side of the fence. Now that I am a blood recipient my truth is different. But maybe a little more accurate now that I have experienced it first hand. 

I think about that beautiful Angophora. My skin was looking a little pale. A little ‘grey’. I’m leaving here with a new hue. Ready for the old layer to start to break off and reveal that glowing pink bark beneath. 

Cycle 5 Day 2: Food for Thought

Caroline asked me yesterday what nutritional tips I learnt while away. “Give me specifics” she said.

The Gawler Foundation follow an organic plant-based, whole foods diet. Dairy is out. So are eggs. I think it is safe to say it’s vegan. But I could be wrong??? They also don’t cook with oil, sugar or salt. 

Eeek I hear you say! But for me the food was amazing….. Even without the salt.

Learning to cook without oil, I thought would have been my biggest challenge. I come from Greek heritage, my Dad has an olive grove with close to 400 trees (which may or may not produce fruit depending on who you speak too). 

How can you cook without olive oil?! 

It is surprisingly simple. Using water as a substitute or lining a baking tray with sheets of zucchini can do the trick. And the oil (olive or flaxseed) can always be added after the cooking process so you don’t necessarily miss out 🙂 

Although I had a sweet tooth, the ‘no sugar’ rule I was ok with. I stopped that even before I left hospital. Before I knew what type of cancer and it’s location. I remember ordering food from the hospital menu, just to see what turned up. Vas would take a picture and send it to his gf and tell her to ‘Instagram it’. She works in PR and promotes new venues and restaurants. She’s always photographing plates of foods and hashtagging it. He wanted her to put her PR spin on the slop that I was being served. 

I would also read the content of the packaged food I was served. The articifcal orange juice, apple custard, jelly with ‘real’ fruit. I was shocked at what was being served in the hospital to the pregnant cancer patient. Shocked! Now I am a fussy eater but this was ridiculous. Needless to say, we had a lot of take away meals during that week in hospital. 

But what bought it home to me was when I was sent for a PET scan. There was much debate at the time as to whether or not I should have the scan as they to tried to determine the extent of my disease. It was cancelled and rescheduled many times. When I was finally being prep-ed I was given the risks. I asked about the amount of radiation me and my baby would receive. I asked about the scan itself. I asked how it all worked. I was to be injected with radioactive glucose. Cancer eats up glucose more quickly than normal cells and therefore glows on the screen. Hmm….no more glucose for me then I thought. I am not going to feed this thing. I decided early on to starve it and restricted all sorts of sugar from my diet. No desserts, no chocolate, no alcohol, limited fruit. It’s actually been easy. Now, carrot juice tastes incredibly sweet to me. 

Where as I stopped sugar early on. My salt habit has remained, maybe even got a little stronger. Especially, when I had my first rounds of chemo and my tastebuds dried up and my sense of taste slowly disappeared. I upped the salt content so that I could taste something, anything. Not so good for a cancer patient as apparently these cells like a high salt, low potassium environment.

I was a salt addict, Caroline can testify to that fact.  I’m not sure if I’ve written about this before, but Caroline, her sister and I spent a summer in Italy about 8 years ago. We called it the ‘no carbs left behind’ tour. We had bread and olive oil with every meal. It became a drug. When our bikini bottoms started getting tighter and tighter we each agreed that before going into a restaurant, we’d say “No bread on the side”. But inevitably we’d sit down and when the complimentary bread didn’t arrive with the first 5 mins one of us would cave and demand bread with oil. Where is this story going I hear you say, well I am pretty sure this is where I taught Caroline to add salt to the oil and how delicious this combination was. She became a salt addict too. I think she’d agree that bread, oil and salt was a complete meal. 

So I love(d) salt! But I coped without it whilst away. People were quite liberal with their miso on toast consumption or adding yeast flakes to meals. Me…. I went cold turkey. Hard core. Although we did have olives in a salad one night. I definately behaved like an addict that evening picking them all out. Taking more than my fair share on the table. 

Things still taste a little bland, but I am sure, just like the sugar, my tastebuds will readjust and I’ll detesting foods with added salt soon enough. 

One other major thing I learnt and bought back with me (and have become a little obsessed about) is the soaking of legumes, nuts and grains. 

I remember as a kid my mum soaking chickpeas overnight. It meant she was getting ready to prepare revethopitas (a type of greek chickpea fritter) for dinner the following evening. It was one of my favourite meals growing up……yum, I am salivating as I type. I also knew that if there were other types of beans soaking (lima, black eye, canellini), my Dad was cooking. And that meant we could be going hungry because we never knew what kind of concoction he was creating. Some times it was a hit, but more often than not it was a miss. (Sorry Dad….) My tastebuds did develop over time and the hit/miss ratio shifted as I got older. 

Any way, I am familiar with soaking legumes, but grains and nuts this was news to me (I may be behind the times…..) so I did a bit of research and looked in Alex’s tree textbooks.

Nuts and grains are cleverly designed to only germinate when just the right amount of water is available. They are able to lie domant for months, years before sprouting. They are able to do so because of a coating on their surface which prevents the release of stored nutrients until the conditions are just right. Rain allows for the break down of this protective coating, including enzyme inhibitors, which are difficult for the human gut to digest. Therefore soaking your nuts and grains prior to eating mimics the rain, removes the coating, releases the minerals all leading to easier digestion and more nutrients for us! 

So I’ve taken to soaking my porridge overnight in a bit of water. And maybe it’s psychosomatic but it tastes delicious and is gentle on my stomach. 

We have started soaking rice, quinoa and buckwheat too. It’s simple, you just need to add it into your cooking time. 

As a cancer patient, it is recommended that the only nuts I eat are almonds. I have started soaking them too. This has interested me a lot. I took a before and after photo. 

Eww to the gunk that comes off. 

Apparently the soaking also breaks down phytic acid (which can bind to iron, zinc and other minerals rendering them insoluable in our gut). This is not so important for non-vegetarians and healthy individuals, but for me on this diet and a year of chemo and other types of drugs I need all the help I can get! 

Well that was certainly a little different to my other more emotional posts from the retreat! We covered so much ground in those ten days. The topics were so varied but each critical to healing as a whole. I can’t get enough of it! Mind-body medicine – it speaks to me, it sings to me, I feel it within. I love it! 

Cycle 4 Day 16: Give up the Ghost? 

While I was waiting for my prescriptions in the Pharmacy yesterday, I heard a song that transported me back to the Forgiveness session I participated in at the Gawler retreat. It was in the second week so was emotional (avert your eyes if you need too….) 

The song I heard was Ella Henderson’s ‘Ghost’. Its a break-up song, I know, but I hear the chorus and I am swept up in my own life, in particular my thoughts turn to Moses….

I keep going to the river to pray,

Cause I need something that can wash away the pain
And at most, I sleeping all these demons away

But your ghost,
the ghost of you, it keeps me awake

During the Forgiveness session we were ask to complete two templates. One for something we wanted to forgive ourselves for. The other for something someone else had done to us. I could think of a million things I wanted to forgive myself for. Silly stuff that I have carried around for years. It was going to be tough to pick just one! But when I put pen to paper, there was a surge of emotion I didn’t see coming and the petty issues gave way to something much bigger. My temples started to pulse and the tears began to flow. We had been asked to feel our centre line during the excercise. I could feel nothing but the buzzing in my head. 

My body (and mind and maybe spirit) was telling me to forgive myself for ‘letting Moses go’. Well that’s what I wrote. Freely and easily through a blur of tears. I couldn’t see the page but the words kept coming out. I wrote that I wished he’d been born, that wanted to have “loved him physically and kissed him on the head”. I read the rest of the template. “It was the best decision I could have made at the time for me. I forgive myself, release it and set myself free”. After sobbing for some time we were ask to read the template out, silently if we wanted and then burn it. I looked around and said I don’t want to let it go. I felt defiant. 

Reluctantly I got up, read it to myself, and watched it burn. I’d done something similar on my due date with Alex. It was cathartic but I was surprised at my reaction. And knew I had not entirely let it go. 

I had not realised the guilt I felt for my choice a year ago. I’d created an air-tight story that I would tell to anyone who listened why I did what I did. Logical, rational. One I don’t think I’d  change even now. But maybe I had being telling this story to protect myself as much as to justify to others. Fearful of criticism (self and others). Typical Anoula, hard on myself, my harshest critic. Here I was punishing myself, not willing to let it go. Not willing to forgive myself. 

I was never sure why I tell people my whole story. I didn’t think it was for pity, but sometimes I thought I did it to shock. Now I wonder if it is to punish myself or if it’s to keep his memory alive. In the meditation session that evening I imagined the albino monk in the Da Vinci Code whipping his back. Over and over. That was me. It needs to stop so that can continue to heal. 

I am so grateful Moses came into my life. As Alex said without him, we might not have her. I would never had gone to the doctors if it weren’t for him. 

So yet again, I realise I still have work to do. I need to work out the balance between honouring the memory and living with the choice (and giving up the ‘ghost’). Some way to go, but I’m getting closer. Thank you for still listening. 

Ergh, that was tough to write but it’s out now. I also remembered the next song that came on after ‘Ghost’. It was Billy Ocean’s ‘When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going’. I smiled. Walked home tall. 

Cycle 4 Day 15: Feeling is Healing

On the last day of the retreat we were ask to consider :

  • what we would like to leave behind
  • what we would like to thank the group for and
  • what we want to take with us

I decided to stop walking in this world with a ‘closed arm’ attitude and any doubt I can heal. I thanked the group for showing me how ‘well’ cancer patients really are and what true resilience looks like. And lastly I decided that I was re-entering the ‘real world’ with a renewed strength, an open heart and a new level of emotional awareness. 

 I looked back at what my hopes and expectations were before the retreat. Most were met.  I have a clearer focus. I’ve fine tuned my diet and addressed other lifestyle factors. I was inspired by others and day after day was left amazed by the human body’s capacity to heal. But a ‘closed arm’ attitude, an ‘open heart’ and a ‘new level of emotional awareness’, this was not on my list and took me by surprise…. Where had they come from? Maybe this was the ‘whole and happy’ I had refered to.  

The first week of the retreat focused on the mind and body components of healing. I felt like some of the missing pieces of the healing puzzle where falling into place for me. 

We had lectures on the power of the mind, nutrition and the causes of cancer. We (re)learnt meditation techniques, connected science back to mindfulness and had a guest lecture by a well-known doctor who is an advocate for Integrative Medicine. Everything was evidence based and I liked it! But something was amiss. I really enjoyed each session, it was improving my knowledge base but was I learning anything new? It didn’t feel like it….Something felt off… 

 I decided that at the end of the first week that although I might not be learning anything all that new, what I was going to take away from the retreat was a new understanding of what a balance vegetarian diet looks like and how much I should be eating. I was definitely putting on weight! I also decided that exercise needed to be a part of my life. The stats on physical activity and cancer survival blew my mind a little. I am surprised I have not heard more from my doctors about this. If you could take an ‘exercise’ pill I am sure every cancer patient would be prescribed one. A discussion for another time. 

But by the weekend something changed. I am not sure if it was the change in season, the fullness of the moon or the knowledge that we had a sleep-in on Sunday morning, whatever it was there was a shift and for me it began with a meditation concert. 

Just as the sun was setting, we all gathered in meditation sanctuary. For the first time I lay on the floor, instead of sitting. I closed my eyes and a harpist began playing. It was magical. Haunting. Beautiful. I felt the sounds vibrate across the floor into my body. My senses were heightened and I was able to feel the energy in my body more clearly than every before…. and hold it. Afterwards I had the chance to play the harp. I let the soundboard rest against my chest (on the right side, where my tumour is). I strummed the strings and let the sound echo in my chest. Wow, I thought. This is powerful.  

It set the scene for the following week because although I didnt know it at the time, we were about to delve deeper into the emotional side of healing….’Feeling is Healing’ was going to become my new mantra. Every emotion was about to be explored not as fact but as an expereince. 

I have been doing a lot of work on this already. I was prepared, but never in a million years did I think a cancer ‘journey’ could bring me here. 

But here I am….. and there’s no turning back.

Cycle 4 Day 6: Gawler Retreat

I was asked on Day 2 of the retreat what gives me ‘hope’ and what I want to live for. Most of the participants said children or grandchildren or a desire to be alive to see their children’s children.

When it was my turn to share I felt nervous and teary. I feel like I blurted out my response, not sure if I was about to offend. I want to live for me. Not for anyone else. Just me”.” I want to know what it’s like.

And what gives me hope??

My response was two-fold. Firstly, my belief that the body is a miraculous organism design to repair itself. I pointed to two images taken through an electron microscope we’d been shown earlier in the day. Something that had me in awe. A set of photos of white blood cells attacking cancer cells. I have seen many images through these types of microscopes before but never one showing so clearly the actual immune response in cancer. The first shows image shows NK cells and other lymphocytes attacking the cancerous cell. The second shows the aftermath. The cancer cell has been reduced to an exoskeleton. The other cell, a macrophage, is mopping up after the initial assault. (That description sounds very war like….) I see the skeleton like image in most of my meditations since arriving at the retreat. It’s nice to be able to visualise it.


Second reason for hope was an unknown factor. It’s something I can’t explain or put my finger on. Life over the past year and a bit has been beautiful and brutal in the same breath, but it’s my trust in the wonderfully mysterious universe that has got me through and will keep pushing me along this path.