Sailing the ship of Theseus

Thought experiments like the Chinese Room or Ship of Theseus amuse me but I never bargained on becoming one of them. Now it seems I’m not just a member of Theseus’s crew but a part of the ship itself.  For most of us everyday life tends not to include thoughts about how much of oneself is oneself. Today my thinking extends to how much of me is alive, dead or somewhere in between at any point and how many more parts can be removed while still retaining the fundamental essence and dimensions of who I am.  Chemotherapy is responsible for these bizarre thoughts.

Surrealist ship

I’ve noticed that although some things try hard to renew themselves others are starting to show the strain.  Most people know chemo is the ultimate bad hair day but a geographical survey of my external landscape reveals other findings.   Knocks and bruises weren’t a problem in the beginning, they healed in the same way they did pre-chemo.  Lately I’ve noticed they are less conciliatory and bruises in particular seem to spread further and last longer.  This could be an illusion since my skin is near translucent but I suspect it’s a signpost to the slowing of cell renewal, or an indication of the extra effort and time required to repair any minor traumas.

My skin (an essential protective barrier keeping me inside and nasty germs outside) has also changed.  As well as being a different colour, it’s a different texture.  I’ve noticed it is thinner, drier and much older looking than it was in September. I would go so far as to say that by the end of chemo there is a distinct possibility I will look like an overly tall version of Yoda complete with 900 years worth of UV damage! Once the drugs are through I hope my skin will rejuvenate to around 40-ish, I’m just not sure how long that process will take to conclude.

Like hair, nails are made of keratin and mine have always been very fast growing. I thought by now they’d have stopped but they struggle on, fingers more than toes. I notice they are weaker than before and as expected they show deep ridges from each chemo session; sometimes they’re sore around the edges. Nails are also supposed to renew themselves fully once chemo is through but they haven’t stopped growing yet. I’m wondering if they’ll continue to fight against the chemical onslaught or join hair in this winter’s long hibernation period. I’m amazed at this point that they manage to do much at all – they’re obviously as stalwart as my head!

I can’t conduct an interior geographical survey and I suspect that’s a good thing as I’m not sure I want to see what goes on inside.  Just about every part of the body gets impacted during chemo and although it isn’t always visible, it is possible to feel and sense what’s going on inside. Most systems of the body stop or slow down and some tell-tale signs for me include heartburn and indigestion.  These are issues I’ve never experienced before.  Deregulation of homeostasis, swelling of soft tissues eg the palate and eyelids and disturbed sleep are also here to mark that medicine is at work.  All the automatic processes that take place in our bodies, the things we rarely stop to think about, suddenly become disjointed and misaligned.

A while back my reflexologist advised that during chemo there is no control, it’s simply a case of going with whatever the body decides to do about it. This was wise advice because there is no dictating the physical world of chemo reactions and fretting over them doesn’t help a great deal.  Last time I was in the Oncology Department I listened to two women discussing their lives since chemo. One remarked that her hair and nails had never really recovered to their pre-treatment state though she was grateful to have them back.  The other noted her skin was much more difficult to manage post-treatment than at any point in her life beforehand.  I was encouraged that neither seemed to have suffered chemo-brain since I feel it is one of the more debilitating legacies of this kind of treatment.

With luck by the end of my own chemo process the parts that are meant to renew will regenerate in a not too dissimilar fashion to their pre-chemo days and the parts that are meant to stay dead will, I hope, refrain from resurrection.  Once this phase is over I’ll be able to focus on more removal and replacement (or not) of various other bits and bobs that might also be tempted to go into overdrive for no good reason at some point in future.  This takes me full circle into wondering just how much can be extracted or replaced and yet still remain the same.  The answer appears to be quite a lot.

Mentally I’m the same person, as curious and crazy as ever and I’m pleased about that. Physically I’m both less and more than I was – some aspects have been improved upon from the 100% human version.  But the most rewarding transformation occurring in spite of everything, including the physical restraints of chemo, is spiritual.  Chemo cannot constrain the spirit.  There’s no doubting I’d have preferred an easier route to become more soulful and at one with the world around me but if this is the path I have to take then I’m happy to learn from it.  My soul is deeper and richer as a result of this experience and the events leading up to it. There is always something positive to be gained, even in the face of adversity.


12 thoughts on “Sailing the ship of Theseus

  1. ‘A while back my reflexologist advised that during chemo there is no control, it’s simply a case of going with whatever the body decides to do about it. ‘
    What wise words!! Our bodies are amazing vehicles, and sometimes they do need a bit help when they come off road. I have never had chemo, but my body has irregularities that mean I have to listen carefully to it to assess what I am capable of . I have a strange neurological disorder that throws out messages to the body that aren’t quite in alignment, so I end up suffering symptoms like heartburn, disrupted sleep, pain, rashes, irritable bowel – you name it!! Once I got the diagnosis, I felt more at ease with coping with it. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by it, but knowing I CAN cope is the secret. One day at a time.


    • Listening carefully to our bodies is so important, even when they seem to be healthy. You have a lot to contend with and I’m glad they could eventually tell you why these things happen to you. I hope you never need to have chemo. I’ve learnt a lot through the experience but I prefer that others don’t have to do this, especially children, it must be so hard for them.


  2. Pingback: The Adventures of the U.S.S Starburst: An Exercise in Absurdity (Part 2) « Excursions Into Imagination

  3. Making meaning out of your experiences will help you come out the other side of this a stronger person. Your body is going through a lot and I greatly admire your mental strength and generosity in sharing your struggles. You wrote this post on the U.S. holiday, Veterans’ Day, which commemorates men and women who have served in our military. I thought yesterday about the brave women who are fighting a war with their own bodies. Know that there are people sending healing thoughts to you from all over the globe.


    • Thanks Elizabeth, we had Remembrance Sunday here at the weekend too. Seeing the poppies always moves me, so many lives taken or changed forever. If there were a poppy for all the people fighting their own body wars the whole world would be a sea of red petals. I wish countries would spend more on medicine than fighting each other (Ive seen the problems lack of insurance causes in the US and lack of funding causes here and both our countries are wealthy in spite of themselves). I know it’s too much to ask but we could prevent so much needless loss of lives.


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