The Deep End.

December 8, 2014. I'm really not as cheerful as I look.

December 8, 2014. I’m really not as cheerful as I look.

Recently I passed another milestone. It’s now been a year since my big surgery, the retroperitoneal lymph node dissection. In plain English they sliced me open from my nipples to my navel and removed all the lymph nodes from my midsection. When I was told I’d have to have the surgery I was devastated. I stupidly thought chemo would be the end of my treatment, that the scans would give me the all-clear and my life would return to normal. And at that point my life was returning to normal. The big surgery felt like a setback. It would mean more weeks of recovery. I hadn’t been able to swim since I’d been diagnosed and I was itching to get back in the water. Not literally itching because that might mean I had some kind of skin condition and shouldn’t be allowed in a pool used by other people but psychologically itching. The big surgery meant I’d have to forget swimming for at least a few more months.

Swimming for me isn’t just good exercise. Actually for me I’m not sure it is good exercise because I’m kind of a clumsy swimmer, but it burns some calories and works the major muscle groups. It’s very mentally liberating being suspended in water. At the pool I go to regularly I start every lap in the shallow end then as I swim across the pool it gets deeper and deeper. When I turn to go back I like to dive down, completely submerging my body. I like to go as deep as I can, all the way to the bottom. I sometimes wonder if this freaks out the lifeguards. Or maybe they don’t notice. Well, I hope they notice, but maybe they realize that as long as I’m down there doing the breast stroke everything’s okay. I admire lifeguards. It’s one of those jobs where a good day is one where absolutely nothing happens, so I admire their ability to sit in one place and do nothing for a really long time and not fall asleep. And it’s mostly adults at the pool so we aren’t subject to the mandatory ten minute rest period every hour the kids get. When I was a kid and went to the pool almost every summer day I hated that rest period. That ten minutes always seemed interminable and it never occurred to me that it was a rest period for the lifeguards too, and that for them ten minutes was barely enough time to smoke a couple of cigarettes and maybe have a beer, but that’s another story.

When I’m deep under the water it’s very peaceful. It’s as though all the problems of the world disappear into the silence of the depths and I’m alone to contemplate big questions. Do we have a purpose in the universe? Can we survive as a species? If you swim hard enough do you sweat in the water? How can I keep my goggles from fogging? Is that a hairball?

At least that’s what I could do before the chemo and surgeries. When I first got back in the water I noticed I couldn’t swim as many laps. And I expected that. I was out of shape. The whole experience had been physically draining and emotionally it wasn’t easy either. There were a lot of times when I could have exercised that I spent lying around, times when I just felt so down I wouldn’t even have wanted to swim if I could, times I didn’t even want to get up and walk. There were times when the flesh was willing but the spirit was weak, and then the flesh got weak. So once I started swimming again I knew I had some catching up to do. And after a few months I could see the improvement, but I still couldn’t dive like I used to. I couldn’t stay under long enough to touch the bottom of the deep end.

Chemo left me with lung damage. That was one of the trade-offs: I could either get rid of the cancer and have lung damage or, well, eventually the cancer would probably have spread to my lungs as well, but at least with chemo I’d have lung damage and still be alive. I just accepted that the depths would forever be off limits to me. It was hard to accept that I’d be stuck almost at the surface for the rest of my life, but at least I was still swimming.

In some ways my recovery has been so gradual I really haven’t even noticed it. After all I’ve been through I should be a lot more conscious of my body, but I’ve been so determined to focus on what’s wrong that sometimes I don’t even notice what’s right. Some things take me by surprise. About a month ago I had reached the wall of the deep end of the pool, turned, dove, and realized I was descending. I kicked, went about halfway down, then turned and came back up. I breached like a humpback whale and took a deep breath which I’m almost positive freaked out the lifeguards but then kept swimming so they could relax and continue doing nothing. I started pushing myself, spirit and flesh working in tandem. And a few days ago I did it. At the deepest point in the pool, the ten-foot mark, I planted my left foot flat on the bottom. I’m five foot six inches on a good day so that meant there was a four and a half foot column of water over me. Then I pushed off gently and glided back to the surface.

Cancer has changed me permanently but not every change is permanent. It’s taken time but I realize that some of the things it took from me can be taken back.

IBEATCANCER

15 Comments

  1. cindy dorminy

    great post.

    Reply
  2. Janie

    This makes cry, to realize what you have gone thru. But you will make it, you are a true Waldtop

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I appreciate that. I’ve never thought of my last name as a compliment but I like it.

      Reply
  3. tripping

    It’s a timely coincidence for me to read this. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about getting a Y membership and getting into the pool. When I’m in water, I don’t feel my MS.
    Thanks for sharing this awesome story.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it and if you feel like it please share your experiences of getting into the pool. The nicest thing about the Y membership is the pool is available year-round. It’s wonderful that in the water you can escape your MS.

      Reply
  4. Gina W

    This is lovely Christopher. It needs to be shared with a larger audience; I think it would be most appreciated other cancer survivors as well as people currently fighting it. I don’t know what publications to suggest.

    Oh, love the photo. You do look rather happy for someone about to undergo surgery. I’d blame drugs, whether they are actually to blame or not.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      There’s at least one place that’s asked me to submit some of my cancer stories–it’s a nice change to be actively solicited rather than worrying about acceptance. And if there’s one thing I want to share both with survivors and those facing the crab it’s that things can get better.
      And I hadn’t been given any drugs when that picture was taken. That’s my scared shitless smile.

      Reply
  5. Ann Koplow

    So glad to dive into the deep end with you. And I agree with Gina. Please share this and buoy up as many other people as possible.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      For some reason the expression “a rising tide lifts all boats” comes to mind but I’m not sure how to apply it here. But hopefully my gushing will help others.

      Reply
  6. Gilly Maddison

    It’s hard to comment without sounding patronising which I am sure you certainly wouldn’t want from a friend, much less a stranger! So I will keep my potentially patronising thoughts to myself and just say swim on! All the best to you.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I can’t imagine what you would have said that would sound patronising, but I assume you would have meant it as a compliment. Anyway let’s all swim on!

      Reply
  7. Margot

    It’s funny (not your cancer, of course), but for a long time I thought that your sign of the crab with the circle and slash through it meant “no being crabby”. And even though I felt like an idiot once I realized that the crab was the sign for cancer, I also cut myself a little bit of a break. Because you’ve been remarkably uncomplaining about this whole experience. It’s not like you deny that it sucks; it’s more that you seem to take a step back when you look at it and never let it define you.

    Another very cool post about your experience with cancer. Thanks for sharing and also, congratulations on touching the bottom of the pool!

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I hadn’t thought of “no being crabby” before but I like that interpretation. Besides knowing the crab is the sign for cancer is quite a stretch. It’s not something I connected until I was talking about astrology with a friend and he said, “I’m a Cancer, sign of the crab. I’m two diseases nobody wants.” And this might sound crazy but the whole thing has been a good experience. I didn’t want it and certainly don’t want to go through it again, but it’s been very rewarding.
      The best thing has been talking to people who have loved ones who are dealing with cancer or others who are facing it themselves and being able to say, hey, it gets better.

      Reply
  8. Sandra

    You are an inspiration..and funny (a hairball! Ha!) I love that you have taken this very serious and life altering experience and found your strengths from it. Honestly I don’t know you that well, but your posts are always so positive and uplifting, I would have expected no less from you. And your writing is exquisite as always.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      My wife did a lot of the heavy lifting so she’s probably the one who deserves the real credit for being an inspiration, but it does surprise me when I look back and realize how much humor I could find in going from being someone who’d never been a patient in a hospital since he was four to having four surgeries plus chemotherapy in a little more than a year. Anyway I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you enjoy my writing. That praise encourages me to keep going.

      Reply

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