Coming Back

There’s nothing like being able to return to something you love. Last Thursday marked four weeks since my surgery, and I was given the go-ahead to get back in the water. 

Best. Swim. Ever. Sunshine! Flat clear water! Close friends! An osprey! Swift current on the return! Cold Pacificos after! And I was officially cancer-free. 

Free! In this time of COVID lockdown, how lucky was I to actually feel that emotion?

After a full month of not swimming and restricted activity, I was nervous about how my stroke would be affected. But muscle memory is an amazing thing. 

So is desire and drive.

I felt a little expected stiffness in my shoulder and pecs, and I won’t have full-arm extension for awhile. But it’s getting better every day, and every swim I’m able to go a little farther before the sparky nerves start up in my right palm. 

The body always tells you when to turn, if you listen. 

The best part is being back in the water with my salty cold friends, the socially distanced chatter before we get in, the endorphin-driven giggles when we get out. How I missed it!

I’m grateful for everything right now: steadfast friends and family, my strong body and spirit, moonsnails, sleep, iris blooms, medical workers, oversized potato chips I can’t quite fit in my mouth. 

And the darkness. I’m grateful for it, too. Dark times always come with offers of growth and hard-won change for the crossing.  But once my toes reach down and touch sand on the other side, there’s joy, holding out a sun-warmed towel and cold Pacifico. 

I know I’m one of the lucky ones. It’s good to be back.

<Special thanks to Matt and Marni for the incredible pics!>

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Wading Through It

This is my new swim normal: the walk wade. Wade walk? Typing the name reminds me of a tap dance teacher I had growing up. We called him Mr. Wade. He was incredibly thin, incredibly effeminate, and incredibly cool. He never liked me. I found tap dancing too loud for my 10-year-old taste.

I ran into him a few years ago selling cars at a Lexus dealership. His name tag just said Wade on it, no mister, no glitter. He was impeccably dressed, and could’ve shuffled off to Buffalo in his smart Italian shoes if only I’d asked. 

So much wrong happening here with the anklets and choker. But please note rebellious absence of tap shoes.

It’s now the third week in April, the world is still in COVID19 lock down, and I am nearly two weeks post-surgery for my cancer. 

Glad to have it behind me. The toughest bit was walking into the hospital to face surgery completely alone. Pandemic restrictions allowed no one in except patients.

My amazing husband watched me go from the car. Halfway across the hospital skybridge I turned around and gave him a brave wave. Then I grabbed my right breast, in a final salute before its ultimate sacrifice, and I did a little stomp-ball-change dance for him down the walkway.

How do you survive the mental challenges of cancer? Doing crazy shit like dancing and waving your righty at a parked car in the middle of a hospital skybridge. It also keeps people guessing if your tears are borne of fear or laughter. 

I’ve found a mix of the two is perfect.

Swimming is not in the cards for me for another three weeks, hence the wade walk/walk wade along the shore while my swim buddies are out in the waves. A friend asked me if it was hard to show up for the swims but not get in. Would it be easier to not go at all?

I thought about that for a bit.  After awhile, I realized there were three components that made my swims soul-fulfilling: the swimming itself, the people, and the beach. By just showing up, I could get two of the three. And two is better than none, especially when you’re on a healing tirade. 

Plus, wading is hard work! I was hoping to step it up to a jog after I’m cleared to raise my heart rate. But with the risk factors of sinking sand and heavily barnacled rocks, I could easily end up badly concussing myself, or worse. And how would that look? 

“She survived cancer, but died from head injuries caused by an overly strenuous wade.” 

Humiliating. Tragic.

But also hilarious. Like life. Like waving your boob and imitating a really bad stripper on a hospital skybridge. Like wearing the loudest costume on stage and trying to tap dance quietly. 

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Cancer? No Thank You.

These are my swim gloves. I love them, but I’m pretty sure that with all that pink-on-pink color, I caught breast cancer from them. Pretty sure. 

Or it might be that I have too much protect-yourself, wear-a-mask, wash-your-hands, wear-gloves, keep-your-distance, never-cough, hoard-toilet-paper American-COVID19 mentality in my head that makes catching breast cancer from pink swim gloves seem reasonable to me. Even rational.

Here’s what I am sure about: if you’re going to catch cancer, don’t do it in the middle of a pandemic.

I realize in my last entry, I kind of snuck my diagnosis in, tucked it behind some healthy sentences, in true cancer form. It likes to be sneaky like that. 

This is a blog about open-water swimming, and it will stay so. But I had to make a quick side-trip here to tell a little bit about “my cancer journey.” That’s what the voice I kept hearing called it while I was on hold 42 minutes waiting for my surgical oncologist. 

Barf. 

If cancer is a journey, then get me the f*ck off this hell train. 

I’ve mentioned in earlier entries my belief that those of us called into open water have some kind of relationship with darkness. Nothing like testing the bejeezus out of my own theory.

As my cancer hell-train chugs along, I’ve been amazed at the parallels between the challenges of cancer, and OW swimming. (Makes you want to jump right into the sport, doesn’t it?) 

Not just living above a deep darkness (with, around, among, under, choose your best preposition there), but the perseverance and resiliency required to get through it, especially with the COVID19 complications. 

Being an OW swimmer, I already know how to tap into those reserves, and apply them. It’s very handy. 

Take our annual crossing swims from Whidbey to Camano. When we finally get close to Camano, there is usually a stiff current to struggle through before we reach the beach. Right when I think I’m going to see bottom, suddenly the shore isn’t getting any closer, and I feel myself losing ground. Or so it seems. 

I’m always tired by then, my shoulders are sore, and I’m ready to get out, warm up, and eat my weight in Brie. But I don’t stop. I tell myself, “I can go a little bit farther.” I keep putting one arm in front of the other; keep counting my strokes by 50s—48, 49, 50, 1, 2—; keep singing whatever Lady Gaga chorus I have in my head. 

Eventually, I see a blob of white shell through the deep green, then another, then rocks and seagrass, and I’m there. Best feeling in the world. 

The things we work the hardest for are the things that mean the most.

Sunset behind Whidbey from Camano side.

This push of self came in handy a few weeks ago when I had to drive to Olympia for a second-look ultrasound and biopsy. Bellevue had an opening two weeks away; Olympia had an opening the next day. Hello 4-hour drive!

Everyone in the radiology department was very nice, especially the nurse with one lazy eye that looked like Marty Feldman. (I wondered if I’d misinterpreted “second look” biopsy.) But then I was walking around, tits out and hanging in the breeze, so I had no room to judge.

The radiologist looked like he’d seen better days, and insisted on “gowning up” for the procedure. Let’s be clear: a biopsy sample is about the size of 1/16th of a meal worm, and there’s very little blood. 

Even Marty the nurse asked him doubtfully, “You want to gown up?” I could tell we both thought this step extremely unnecessary, at first. 

But while he was injecting my armpit with lidocaine for the lymph node biopsy, I felt a sudden spray on my lower arm. I’m guessing he’d overshot and gone through the skin to the other side, the needle spraying lidocaine on my forearm. 

With his face right next to mine, I simply whispered, “I don’t think it works that way.”

Then I kept counting: 48, 49, 50, 1, 2…. 

Eventually I made it out and back to my car, where I laughed myself silly. And cried a little bit.

Then I laughed again as I sat in the Trader Joe’s parking lot trying to fit a bag of frozen mashed cauliflower balls into my sports bra for the ride home. I could write a book about which frozen foods work best in your bra after a biopsy. FYI: hashbrown patties make a good second choice. 

–TJ Wiley Forsyth