As a young girl, I was a good swimmer.Tall and broad-shouldered, I became the girls’ swimming captain of my primary school and local district. My coach wanted me to take it further, but I quickly became bored with training sessions and left the squad. As an adult I’ve been a sporadic lap swimmer, but could keep up a strong breaststroke for as long as I wanted to whenever I gave it a go.
Now I’m on orders to swim. Like many women with breast cancer, I’ve had lymph nodes removed from my armpit. This tends to cause shoulder tightness, and creates a risk of lymphoedema in the arm, an extremely unpleasant condition in which lymphatic fluid accumulates and causes swelling. My OT has told me that swimming will improve ease of movement and will stimulate my lymphatic system, encouraging the remaining nodes to take on an extra workload.
So I dig out my board shorts, tie a supportive bikini top over my reconstructed breast (wondering nervously how swimming will feel with an implant), pull on a rashie vest and head to a place that I’ve been wanting to visit. Nightcliff Pool is situated near the edge of a cliff overlooking the Beagle Gulf, which separates Darwin from the Tiwi Islands. It is surrounded by palm trees, and their fronds toss wildly in the hot Wet Season winds as I arrive. Gazing out to sea, I feel like I’m about to swim at the very top of the continent.
Sliding into an empty lane, I do a lap of breaststroke, then one of freestyle. My shoulder feels stiff, and seems to click a little while pulling through water. The scar under the implant is sore. I feel like I’m swimming so slowly that I’m barely moving at all. I do one more lap of breaststroke, one more of freestyle. I try to keep my kicks steady without worrying about motion, focusing only on keeping afloat. Since diagnosis, it seems that every bloody thing is a metaphor.
After a paltry four laps my shoulder is tired. An elderly woman says that my lane looks like the right one for her, and I suppress the urge to explain myself to a stranger. I try to pull myself up onto the edge of pool, but my shoulder won’t allow it. How can this be me? I duck dive under ropes to reach the ladder, and glance at the clock as I climb out. I have been exercising for less than ten minutes. The drive to get here took longer than my swim.
Feeling embarrassed at the prospect of walking out past the chatty pool attendant so soon after arriving, I sit down to dry out in the sun. A man is running a swimming class for preschoolers. He is encouraging a nervous little boy to rest on top of his arms and be dragged through the water, while putting his face in for a few seconds. Gathering his courage, the boy lies on the outstretched arms and tentatively dips his goggles as he is swished along. The beaming instructor lifts him gently onto the side and raises his hand for a high five saying, “Who’s the star, hey? Who’s the star?”. And for the umpteenth time since this all began my eyes suddenly fill with tears.
[With thanks to Jessica Stanley for the lovely photo!].