Month: March 2014

Breast cancer lesson number 48: Short-term pain, long-term gain

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Meet PICC. He’s my new best friend for the next four months (sorry body corset, but you’re history as tummy is pretty much sorted). Otherwise known as a peripherally inserted central catheter, he’s my ticket to the pain-free (and finding-a-vein free) administration of chemo drugs and collection of bloods. He’s not much to look at, but he’s better than a needle (or eight) and that’s all that matters.

There’s nothing like getting 42cm of flexible tubing inserted into your arm to make you feel like a real patient. One more consent form and another plastic wristband down and I was lying on a bed staring at an ultrasound machine, a syringe full of local anaesthetic and a lot of wipes and tubes. The good news? I didn’t have to wear a gown!

It started well. The nurse found a vein with the ultrasound while I was quizzing the nearby student nurse about all the operations she’d observed. (She was quite forthcoming about the details, including the time she watched a surgeon connect blood vessels from a tummy to a chest as part of DIEP surgery. It was fascinating and certainly a strange distraction from the procedure). The local anaesthetic went in well and then the tubing started to enter my arm. I heard the word ‘kink’, then a pause, then a ‘could you bleep the other nurse?’ and a ‘I’m sorry it’s got to come out’. She had done so well and got so far, but when the pressure turned to pain (it’s not supposed to hurt) we both knew it was time to abort. Another vein thrown on the vein scrapheap!

Round two was a complete success. Vein located, anaesthetic in, and 45cm of tubing later and I was off for a chest x-ray. I say 45cm, because the x-ray (an interesting experience in its own right and another x-ray first ticked off the list) highlighted that the tubing was in about 3cm too far. So, I was back to the Cancer Day Unit to get it pulled out a little bit. The tip of the PICC line sits in the big vein just outside the heart, while at the other end, there is about 4cm sticking out of my arm. Don’t worry, for those of you concerned about whether it will come out, the line is held in place by something called a ‘statlock’ and a transparent breathable dressing. Golf and tennis are now on the ‘temporarily banned’ list (along with swimming due to chemo), but I should be able to use it as normal once the initial tenderness has subsided. For those of you who’ve been unlucky enough to see my golf swing, you’ll know this is no great loss. The Olympic Park swimming trip on my Brighter Life list, will just have to wait.

Tucked away neatly under a piece of tubing, it wasn’t until I reached for my cardigan that I stumbled across challenge number one. At the moment, bad arm is right arm, so bad arm goes in to the sleeve first. But what happens when you have two sensitive arms? Let’s just say, it was a pretty good comedy sketch and, after a quick wrestle, I managed the cardie. The coat is a challenge for another day!

One other thing I didn’t consider in this battle against bad veins was that, like all good cannula-like devices, it needs looking after. That means weekly dressing changes and line flushing. More nurses, but thankfully no more needles! That’s a price worth paying. 

Today I have learned a good few things. One, the Cancer Day Unit is lovely (more on that tomorrow). Two, my right arm is now straight enough to pass arm testing for the clinical trial. (It took six attempts and the nurse and I were laughing by the end, but we got there.) Three, PICC line insertion is an interesting procedure (as is a chest x-ray) and really isn’t that uncomfortable if you’re considering getting one. Four, details of the acute oncology assessment unit must now travel with me everywhere. And, five, my blog URL is (amusingly) blocked by the hospital WIFI (probably deemed as dubious, but given the amount of boobs currently on show in most hospitals, I find it so funny. Mine just includes the word). The hospital does do a good egg sandwich though, so I’ll let them off.

I’ve seen the unit. I’ve seen the chemo chair (looks quite comfy). I’ve seen the suite and I’ve got the line. There’s only one thing missing. Those cell-destroying drugs. Just two sleeps left.

First, I have to work out how to have a shower without getting the PICC wet and then I need to look at just how many more clothes are now off limits due to my new arm accessory. Just when I thought I was getting my wardrobe back.

Breast cancer lesson number 47: The importance of being normal

For those of you currently splitting your days between the waiting room and the living room, I am delighted to report that there is life beyond these walls. I have seen it. I know it’s hard to imagine. But, it’s still there, being interesting, just like you left it.

The truth is, daily walks, daily planned-in box set viewing and almost-daily hospital visits – although vital for post-surgery recovery ­–­ do not a life make. In recent weeks, I have felt more like an observer on my own life, rather than a participant in it. If health allows, however, and you are brave enough to open the door to the other side of you (the pre-cancer normal), I would encourage you to do so – right now.

By normal, I don’t mean dull. By normal, I mean the bits of life you enjoyed before cancer swept in and took them away. Yes, be selective (you may wish to live without the ritual of Friday night pizza). Yes, make adjustments (I am seeing more friends and having more laughs than ever before). But make normal your base and, you’ll find it’s the hospital appointments that start getting in the way – not the other way round.

Since the day I was diagnosed I have made a conscious effort to not be a cancer patient (she says writing a blog on the subject!). I don’t want to hide away with only my thoughts for company. I don’t want to be defined by the clinic and chemo dates in the diary, because I know that when the dates stop coming, life can go from being very busy to very lonely overnight. I want to use the time cancer has inadvertently gifted me to cherry pick the bits of life I love and shut the door on everything else. There’s a lot of truth in the phrase, ‘you are what you do’. Give yourself over to cancer and you’ll forget the life you’re fighting for.

The great thing about rediscovering your ‘normal’ is that something you’ve taken for granted for years suddenly becomes more exciting and beautiful. Take Thursday night. I had a theatre date in the diary and I was determined to keep it. It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that my taste in theatre is acquired. While I do love my musicals, a bit of Shakespeare and the odd sedate play, I also like to explore the world of immersive and promenade theatre. Those of you who know me well will know I’ve been kidnapped by vampires in Barbican car park, sent on a mission underneath Waterloo station and electrocuted (mildly) in the name of art. If it’s rather strange and often devoid of a coherent plotline, I’m there.

While I was making my way to Shoreditch Town Hall basement to watch Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, I was trying to remember why it was I’d booked it in the first place. As I approached the theatre it hit me – or should I say the wording on the poster did. It was immersive. That meant involvement. Instead of my usual nervous excitement, I suddenly felt completely vulnerable. I didn’t look even remotely ill, so how would I be able to keep my arm, boob and tummy protected when surrounded by focused actors and curious theatre-goers. I didn’t feel ready.

The great news is, that rather running for the exit – or back stage to find someone who could furnish me with a big ‘don’t touch me’ sticker – I grabbed a glass of wine and had a wonderful evening with a friend. While I would have loved to have found a seat in each of the rooms and, while I slept well that night, I found being at an event where only one other person knew what was going on beneath my clothes really exhilarating. Cancer wasn’t centre stage and, you know what, I loved it.

Of course, there is a small note of caution. It is worth remembering, you’re still not normal, even though you’re playing the part. I was reminded of this on Friday night when having a takeaway with friends at home. I ate my usual healthy (or not so) Jackie-sized portions (at my usual fast Jackie pace) and enjoyed some of our engagement Champagne and wine. It was only later that I realised the body corset/curry combo was not a particularly good one. I didn’t enough have space for water and was still reliving the experience 24 hours later. A few less mouthfuls and a lot less speed, and I would have been fine.

People talk about discovering their ‘new normal’ after finishing active treatment. I have around six months to go and think it is important I use this time to go back to my version of normal so that I can work out what I want my ‘new normal’ to be. I know it will include a hair cut every eight weeks (once there is something to style. I am already craving the smell of product knowing I won’t be there as a client for a while). I know it will include immersive theatre. But I know it will be different. It has to be. There are already 40 things on my Brighter Life list for starters and I am determined to complete each and every one.

I know it will be busy, but I know it will be better. And, there won’t be a single cannula, oxygen mask or blood pressure cuff in sight.

 

Breast cancer lesson number 46: When you’ve got nothing to lose (except your hair), go for it!

I have a challenge for you. If there’s anything in your life you’ve always wanted to do, then find the time and the space to do it – and soon. Put it off no longer. I’ve just been for the shortest haircut of my life and, I have to say, I feel totally liberated. I’ve always wondered what I’d look like with a pixie haircut, and now I know. And, you know what? I wish I’d done it years ago.

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Ok, so having a pixie cut fours days before chemo may not sound brave or overly outrageous. After all, it was always going to look better than bald. But, having had a rather chequered history with anything shorter than a graduated bob, taking it off before cancer gets its hands on it was still a big decision (people forgive the cancer, but I think they’re less forgiving about elective style changes). This is something I decided to do, not because I wanted to make a statement, but because I want to keep the strands falling into my sleep cap to a minimum.

The last time I had hair anywhere near this short I was eight. Let’s just say it was forgettable. The local newsagents kept referring to me as ‘boy’ and, on a school trip down a mine, the guide asked me – otherwise known as ‘the lad’ – to assist in a demonstration. Sadly, at the beginning of the 1990s taking (and developing) photographs of virtually anything was all the rage, so there is a little too much photographic evidence of my basin look. I thought I’d never go back. I am so glad I did.

As my last hair appointment for more than six months, it was pretty special. Delighted that I have at last let go of the trusty bob, my hairdresser was visibly excited at the prospect of taking even more off. Getting an ‘it really suits you’ from the guy who has been cutting your hair for years – not to mention a quick head massage and a cup of tea – and then watching as his colleague complemented him on his snipping skills, is not something that happens every day (or even once in a decade for me). It felt good.

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Hair, we’ve had a good 32 years. I did once think you were a bit rope-like in consistency, and longed for a plait that didn’t look like it could moor a boat. I’m not sure the obligatory perm in my teens was a good idea. Growing my hair to the point at which I could sit on it was a bit misguided. Thankfully, the basin fringe was just a phase. And, having a four-hour trim with a hairdressing apprentice while at university, only to discover I had just 2mm less hair and roots dyed-in (can’t blame the apprentice, it was free) was a low point. But now, I appreciate you more than ever. I like your strength. I like the fact you’re a little bit of me. And, I hope that whatever grows back will give me as much pleasure – or at worst amusement (it could be grey, it could be baby curls, it could be me all over again).

While I felt a slight sadness knowing that I couldn’t book another appointment, and that the next time I would be here would be to let my hairdresser shave it all off (once the clumps start falling), I also felt a real boost. I’d had the confidence to do something different. If you don’t change a thing, there’s nothing to see.

They say if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room. I am ready to step out of my comfort zone – as long as I can bring a cushion when the edge occasionally becomes the sharp end!

This is one hairstyle that won’t be growing out. This one’s going to fall out. Wish me luck!

Breast cancer lesson number 45: If it helps, pass it on

Throughout my life, whether it be guide camp, bikram yoga, school, work or swimming, I have always been the one to look the part. If it comes with a kit list, I am in my element. And, if it doesn’t, I will feel duty bound to create one. I buy the t-shirt and, eight times out of ten, I do detach the price tag! (One notable exception is a yoga top that I know would be guaranteed to put people off their postures. I like to look the part, not get arrested!)

The same goes for cancer. Our house is packed with every factsheet and leaflet going. Given the seriousness of the illness, I didn’t think my old tracksuit bottoms and loungewear wardrobe were quite up to scratch. So, two weeks after being diagnosed I made a trip into central London to buy some new pairs (along with zip-up tops and button down nightshirts). I bought a White Company toweling robe because it was ‘essential’ and even found matching slippers to go with my hospital dressing gown. For the next stage, I already have the hats on order, ginger tea in the cupboard and udder cream on the bathroom shelf. I have booked my ‘wig referral’ and my PICC cover research is also well underway. That chemo chair is coming, and I want to be ready!

Something wonderful happened to me yesterday while trying to compile the ultimate chemo kit list. First, I posted my chemo queries on a secret Facebook group (it’s called the Younger Breast Cancer Network (UK) and it’s open to any young women with a breast cancer diagnosis). Within minutes, there were so many great recommendations posted (from ice pops to boiled sweets). Then two women sent me private messages offering to pass on both unused and rarely worn items (that probably seemed like essential purchases at the time). When I received these messages I was so touched by their thoughtfulness. I was also reminded of the fact that I am not alone in my desire to stock up and take the ‘Be prepared’ Scouting motto to extremes!

A lot of the time, what we’re buying is specific to the treatment we’re having. In truth, I probably won’t need a sleep cap again and there is such a thing as too many headscarves. I will try and be inventive in redeploying the more fabric-based items, but I was inspired by these women (my latest kind strangers) to think about how I might ‘pass it on’ too. In lesson 37, I talk about the concept of ‘passing it forward’ and starting a chain of kindness. I would like to think when my caps have done their time, they could be warming someone else’s head. I would love to imagine someone getting joy and a self-confidence boost out of one of my summer caps (that have admittedly not made it onto my own head yet). I would also like to think that I could share more than words with others facing up to a breast cancer diagnosis.

In both cases, I have accepted their kind offers. In return, I have asked each one to nominate a breast cancer charity so I can make a donation. I plan to pass on the items that have made me smile (or brought me relief) when cancer has had enough of me and I would encourage anyone reading this to find a way to do the same. While I am not geared up to be the cancer equivalent of freecycle (or a cancer swap shop), I would like to think I could help you find a new and loving home for your cancer cast-offs (there’s a swap shop in the secret group for starters on which I could post items). If you have something to share and no one with which to share it (or are a hospital or charity looking for donations of drain bags or other treatment-related items) please post here or contact me directly (see Get in touch for more details). Together we can share the love – and the expense!

Second-hand comes with a story attached and that thought makes me smile.

Breast cancer lesson number 44: Living with cancer doesn’t just mean being treated for it

It’s official. I am being stalked by cancer. It is not enough for me to be diagnosed with the illness. Everywhere I go, I am bombarded with adverts, campaigns and television plot storylines. I can’t even go on Facebook without seeing the latest no make-up selfie. I keep asking myself has it always been this prevalent? The answer is probably yes. I just wasn’t looking.

Have you ever found that when you learn about something new, you suddenly find yourself seeing it everywhere? For me, it started with a train journey after biopsy day. Suddenly, it seemed every carriage brought with it a message about cancer. After I was diagnosed, I felt like every advert break on TV was talking to me in some way. Is it strange that the first film I watch on returning home from hospital ends up with a bit of cancer at the end? Is it stranger that the book my mum was reading at the time took a turn towards breast cancer halfway through? Even the TV soap Eastenders decided to get in on the action – just as Hayley was saying her goodbyes on Coronation Street.

Interestingly, I am not alone. Apparently I am experiencing what is known as ‘frequency illusion’ or the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. What this means is that while you think you are seeing things more often, it is likely that whatever it is you’re seeing has been there all along. A lot of discussion on this subject surrounds the discovery of things that you’ve never heard of before (a town name or a song title for example).Ok, I appreciate cancer isn’t new to me. But, until 17 January, it was a generic term to describe a serious illness in different parts of the body. I have known loved ones who have been affected by it, but I wasn’t being reminded of it every day. My cancer radar is now in overdrive. Trust me, if there is a cancer story out there, I am probably going to be drawn to it.

With cancer constantly beating a drum in my head, I have been truly touched by the stories of those undergoing treatment and the way in which people have chosen to raise awareness. Only last night was I watching an inspirational BBC3 programme Kris: Dying to live about Coppafeel founder Kris Hallenga. Diagnosed at 23 with stage IV breast cancer, she has had to learn to live each day with cancer as her boss. Now 28, I think she’s doing a pretty amazing job. Then you have Lisa Lynch. Soon to be made famous in a TV programme with Sheridan Smith playing Lisa, the dark humour in her book The C Word really moved me. While she may have lost her battle (after being originally diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer), her story lives on through her words. She will continue to inspire those going through treatment and becoming all-too-familiar with hospital corridors!

The truth is, cancer is everywhere. It affects us all. One in three people will get it in their lifetime. Cancer stories move us because they’re real. They’re being played out in your next door neighbour’s house, in your extended family, at work or, even worse, at home. We are all living with cancer and the more stories that can be told, the more awareness we can raise and the more comfort we can bring to those facing the illness.

As an aside, you may be wondering why I haven’t done a no make-up selfie yet. Initially troubled by the whole concept (my blog is positive not political hence the radio silence), I was delighted to see how much money it raised. I have donated about three times already and am storing up my selfie for when my hair falls out (I don’t really wear make-up, so it would just be a picture of me currently, and nobody needs to see that). That is the true face of cancer and I’m afraid no amount of make-up will ever really conceal its effects (a good wig, yes, but more on that after wig shopping)!

Cancer, I’d like to think one day you will just be another zodiac sign. But until then, I say bring it on (not more disease, just stories)! I would like to be stalked. I want everyone to know just how mean you are. I also want everyone to know that while you do so much harm to this world, destroying lives and ripping families apart, you have inadvertently created millions of strong, beautiful and inspiring people. You should be recognised for your contribution to the arts, the amount of amazing words and films for which you are responsible.

Yes, it would be great to think we could live in a world without cancer plotlines. But, while there is cancer, I want to be moved and touched by each and every one.

Breast cancer lesson number 43: Cure, Help, Empower, Me to Overcome = CHEMO

With the embryos now packed away in the freezer, one pixie haircut and one PICC line insertion are all that stand between me and chemotherapy. Cycle number one is planned in for next Wednesday and, I must confess, I’m already trying to imagine the side effects. Up to now, apart from a bit of pain, a lot of needles and enough drugs to stock a pharmacy, I have felt well. A week today, whether I like it or not, that’s all about to change.

They say the fear of chemo is often worse than the act of going through it. All I can say is, let’s hope they’re right (and that it’s not the cancer equivalent of ‘childbirth is fine’ so we all go into it with blind optimism). I have a rather vivid imagination and it’s currently in overdrive. This is in no small way to do with the consent form – or should I say dossier of potentially debilitating side effects. Beware drugs that come with consent forms! After seven pages listing out all the life-changing conditions I might end up with, it began to hit me that this is no normal prescription drug. This might actually be a bit grim.

For those wanting to know a bit more, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment using anti-cancer drugs. Its aim is to go after cancer cells in the whole body (not just the breast) and interfere with their ability to divide and grow. I will be going through what’s called adjuvant chemotherapy. This means it’s an additional treatment to reduce the risk of breast cancer returning after it has been removed (in some cases people have chemo before surgery – known as neo-adjuvant chemo – to slow the growth or shrink a tumour).

So, what awaits me in the chemotherapy chair? I will be undertaking something called the FEC-T regimen. First, I will enjoy three three-week cycles of FEC (lucky me). This is a combination of the following drugs:

1)    Fluorouracil (or 5FU)
2)    Epirubicin (a nice red liquid)
3)    Cyclophosphamide

Then, once I have got used to the way my body reacts to the above drugs, I will  move on to T or Docetaxel (one brand name is Taxotere, hence the letter T). This takes longer to administer and stays in the body longer (it gets better and better). And, I mustn’t forget the supply of anti-sickness drugs and steroids you get thrown in to keep said chemo drugs company.

In truth, the drugs are just words. It’s the list of side effects that leaves an impression. Everyone is different and no one knows how they are going to react. I know I’m strong, I know I’m positive, I know I will work when I can – and my consultant seems to think I’ll be just fine.

Bearing in mind, you probably wouldn’t take a paracetamol if you gave the pill packet too much attention, factsheets and side effects booklets are to be regarded with some caution. I will probably get some side effects, but if I get a lot, I will be more than a little unlucky and will be trading in my body for a better model at the next available opportunity.

The potential effects are many and varied. Rather than plough back through the consent form, here is my edit of the highlights (or lowlights depending on how you look at it):

1)    I will lose my hair: it seems the cold cap that is available will merely delay the inevitable, so I am going to lose my hair in style! Pre-chemo pixie is planned for Saturday and then, by the end of April, it will probably have disappeared. I am not particularly worried about this, am enjoying shopping for hats and am waiting for an opportunity to stand on a cliff with my bald head. Quite fancy not having to shave the rest of my body for months on end and it will, as a friend said, be interesting to see the shape of my head. My only fear? It growing back grey. At 32!

2)    I will get constipation: I doubt I’ll be able to beat eight days after hip surgery (not sure I want to try) so it will be back on the Laxido I’m sure. Whoop! You can also go the other way (now that would be a change!).

3)    I may get an infection: if my white blood cell levels drop, I will be more susceptible to infection. I plan to avoid the Underground where possible and have been acquainted with my new best friend, Mr thermometer. Apparently, if my temperature goes above 38 degrees, I will need to get to the hospital… and fast!

4)    I may vomit: having only vomited a few times in my life, I hope my strong constitution stands me in good stead. I certainly won’t be eating my favourite foods around the sessions, just in case I see them again ­– and then never want to eat them again. I hear the anti-sickness drugs can be effective but they can cause constipation (see 2).

5)    I may get fatigue: it’s fairly common, and the cumulative effect of all the treatment may take its toll.I plan to walk as often as I can and, of course, not operate any machinery if I feel tired (maybe just a kettle, a TV, a computer and a mobile phone).

6)    My sense of taste could change: I must say, I am intrigued by this side effect. Some say things taste like metal (yum) and others say they become addicted to sweet things. I better make sure I don’t overdo the baking, just in case. Let’s hope I don’t get too many ulcers and sores (another joyous side effect), so I can actually eat something.

7)    Docetaxel can cause bone pain: If it’s anything like my original hip pain or nerve pain, I will be willing these cycles to end!

8)    My hands or feet might start to tingle: This would be another treat from the wonderful T and is known as peripheral neuropathy. I am quite fond of my hands.

9)    Chemo brain: Chemo, if you’re listening, please don’t take my memory. I love remembering birthdays and running through my to-dos in my head. Take my memory and you take a big chunk of me. That’s not part of the deal.

All that, and I haven’t got started on heart problems, fluid retention, sun sensitivity, allergic reactions, blood clots, infertility or nail changes (or the side effects of Zoladex, the drug already in my system).

The truth is, by putting it out here in post form I wish to now close the A-Z of scary chemo effects. I will smile as the red liquid approaches. I will smile at my chemo nurses. I will smile as I write my first post-chemo blog. I will keep smiling until one of these things makes me smile no more.

As of this moment, I plan to take control of chemo. In an attempt to go down smiling (or better, not go down at all), I am in the market for chemo tips (I will write a post compiling them all later this week). Thanks to some beautiful friends, I have sleep caps, an inflatable bath pillow, nail varnish and queasy drops ticked off the list. I have senna. I have a toweling robe with which to dry myself and am on a mission to find the tastiest ginger nut. If you have a tip you think may help me stay strong and positive, please get in touch. I am willing to try, experiment and do anything (within reason), if I end up with a big smile on my face.

I was going to call this blog post ‘Know your enemy’, but when I finished writing it, I realised it’s wrong to call chemo the enemy. Cancer is the enemy and chemo is one of good guys (even if it likes to knock you down a few times along the way).

Here’s my deal. I’ll give you my hair, but you’ll have to fight me for everything else.

Breast cancer lesson number 42: Make your next appointment a real treat

If my diary is anything to go by, I can tell you now, NHS staff are busy (and I mean busy). Let’s face it, when undergoing active treatment, a week without a trip to the hospital (or a least a series of letters) can seem a bit disconcerting.

Stood waiting for the nurse to puncture me with a giant needle and implant of Zoladex this morning, however, I was hit not by the fact it was my third appointment of the week and it was only Tuesday, but by the fact that it was before 9am and the waiting room was packed. On each warm seat was a patient (or supportive shoulder) with their own story, their own medical history and their own treatment plan. Each one of those patients needed time. But, when you have a waiting room overflowing with people, time is the one thing in short supply.

I am in awe of the NHS. This has nothing to do with the number of needles that have made it under my skin over the last 32 years, the eight general anaesthetic procedures I have now racked up or the phone system that you do occasionally get lost in. This has everything to do with the level of care that I have received – and continue to receive – on a daily basis. It’s the breast care nurse who attended my oncology appointment yesterday just because she wanted to catch up with me. It’s the surgeon who stopped me in the corridor to tell me I was looking well. It’s the student nurse who took me to the toilet seven times in one day on the ward and gave me a wonderful shower when I couldn’t move properly. It’s the receptionist who said how great it was to see me smile. See the NHS as a large, flawed, headline-making system and you miss the point. The NHS is an awe-inspiring service filled with people who give over their lives to make the lives of strangers just that little bit better. Don’t believe me? I challenge you to go and sit in an oncology waiting room. Then, you won’t disagree.

The trouble with cancer (like so many serious and debilitating illnesses), however, is that appointment times and treatment plans are only half the battle. A consultation provides merely a window into the life you are leading and each one is often determined by the way you are feeling when you get up that day. Away from the bright lights, the smell of alcohol wipes and the understanding faces, when it’s just you and the ‘big C’, it’s easy to feel alone and invisible. The experts are working tirelessly to save your life and reassure you at every stage. They can’t be there to help with through daily exercises, to rub oil into your scars or support you as you shape a new life plan.

I am a great believer that the more positive I am when I embark on a new course of treatment, the happier I’ll be both going through – and at the end of – it. That’s why I decided early on that I needed to find a place to go where I could be treated (in a pleasurable way), supported and encouraged to rebuild my body and my life (with not a needle in sight). The good thing about living in London is, it didn’t take me long to find it. It’s called The Haven, and I have just spent the day there exploring the wonders of Qi gong and discovering a few nutritional secrets – and surprises.

Haven by name and haven by nature, the centre is designed to help anyone affected by breast cancer. Here, deciding your treatment plan is less about the size of your tumour and more about whether you’d prefer to try a bit of homeopathy, Shiatsu or craniosacral therapy. Although there are currently three centres, this is a charity with no geographical boundaries. The therapists will skype, call, email or meet in their attempts to reach as many patients as possible. It’s the care that starts when the NHS consultation room door closes.

I learned some interesting things today, not least about blood sugar management. Here are a few fast facts to tease your palate:

1)    Cinnamon mimics insulin (will be sprinkling more liberally in future)
2)    The health benefits of turmeric are only felt by combining it with black pepper
3)    Cooking with lard is not always a bad thing (in fact cooking in lard is considered better than cooking with vegetable oil)
4)    My desire to have eggs with everything could work in my favour
5)    Apparently, try a bit of raw butter and you’ll never go back
6)    Herbs and spices are a girl’s best friend. Not only do they pack meals with great flavours, they’re superb for the body too.
7)    I drink too much tea (and wine)

I came away feeling relaxed, inspired and with a burning desire to eat porridge for breakfast all next week. Talking of food, I can confirm there is actually no fat to be grabbed from my tummy currently (I appreciate this has been engineered, but it still felt good to hear it). The nurse this morning remarked on it and I was enjoying this news until I realised it wasn’t actually a compliment – it was a problem (that was where the giant needle needed to go). Thankfully, my left side stepped up to the table. All I can say to anyone having the Zoladex implant is don’t look at the needle (especially not if you’re not having cream to numb the area)!

Today taught me that it’s healthy to see more than the hospital waiting room. Fill your diary with things that make you smile and appointment times with only positive side effects and you’ll find you’re a lot stronger when it comes to facing the milestone meetings and sharp and increasing-large needles. You’ll feel better and, so too will the team dedicated to helping you get through each treatment stage.

Let the hospital save your life and the Haven (or an equivalent near you) help you get your life back.

NB: In case you’re interested, we got seven embryos. We may never have to use them, but they’re in the freezer for the next decade!

Breast cancer lesson number 41: The injecting is worth it

Eight has always been my lucky number. And, I am delighted to report, it seems to be not just lucky in life, but lucky in producing life. That’s right, the surgeon and embryologist have managed to extract eight eggs. By lunchtime tomorrow, we should find out how many of these eggs have been turned into embryos. There’s a one in 20 chance it will fail, so let’s hope the odds are in our favour this time after so much bad cancer-related luck.

The egg collection procedure (or what I saw of it) is nothing to fear. First, you arrive in your cubicle, get into a gown, foam slippers and a trendy mesh cap. Then you answer lots of questions, confirm consent and, in my case, pop a quick suppository in (it was either me or the anaesthetist doing this and I could tell by the look on his face that he’d rather it was me doing the honours). I obliged as he was the magic anaesthetist who’d managed to extract blood from me just a week ago.

The procedure room itself is the first theatre-like room I have ever seen (usually I get knocked out in a room nearby so I don’t get to see the monitors, team and sets of scrubs). Due to the fact it’s the first time I have been without my bra and corset for an extended period, they let me position myself on the bed, before attaching heart monitors, oxygen and a cannula. After a little gentle persuasion, the team took enough blood out for themselves and the oncologists so I avoided two blood tests today – and further bruising on my sore-looking left arm. Right arm was off limits as this second band shows.

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The last thing I remember is a syringe worth of happy relaxing juice and a further syringe of general anaesthetic. After that, they stuck a needle in my ovaries, extracted the eggs and fed me a nice cocktail of morphine and paracetamol. I was back in my cubicle with a packet of biscuits and a nice cup of tea in no time and, am now back home, back in the corset and rejoicing in the fact stage two is pretty much done. Just have to drink three litres of liquid a day (tea doesn’t count sadly) to flush my system – and wait for that embryo call.

You’d think after all this ovarian stimulation, my body might get a day off. Sadly, the oncologist I met in the morning had other ideas. My ovaries may have been swollen with eggs today for baby-making brilliance but, as of tomorrow morning, they’re going to be shut down completely until August (part of fertility back-up plan part two). Tomorrow morning, a lovely nurse at the hospital will be popping an implant under my tummy skin to release a drug called Zoladex. This clever drug (released over the next four weeks, after which I will need another implant) is designed to send me into a fake menopause. Chemotherapy can’t kill something it thinks is already dead. While I can’t say going through the menopause twice (first time at 32 at the same time as chemo) is particularly attractive (just imagine the combined side effects), if someone gives you the chance to protect you’re ovaries, you’ve got to take it. I will be well-versed in hot flushes when the menopause happens for real, that’s for sure.

As well as putting my body through five Zoladex implants, there was one further drug-related revelation in oncology. It seems that because of the fact the cancer had spread beyond the breast and into tissue surrounding the lymph nodes, I will be taking the anti-oestrogen drug for 10 years rather than five. This means that the end of treatment will be 2024 at the earliest! The good news? We should be able to come off it to try for children before the 10 years is up. Sounds a bit like extreme family planning to me.

With the eggs out, the countdown to chemo is now on. April 2 is D-day (or destruction day) and 31 March the day when the PICC line goes in (meaning four months without blood test needles). Stage three is in sight at last.

So, let’s hope we get those embryos in the freezer and let’s hope cancer doesn’t take another chunk out of my femininity. Having taken my boob, it’s already got its eyes on my hair!

Breast cancer lesson number 40: Cancer treatment is like a punishing endurance challenge. Savour those checkpoints

For me, breast cancer treatment is a five-stage race. First, you lay down on a slab and get rid of the troublesome cancer. Stage one, tick (if we ignore the fact I have to get a little cosmetic adjustment at some point in the future). Next, you get to store some babies in the freezer. Stage two, tick. With fertility over, your veins get a high dose of body-killing (or life-saving) chemo drugs. Stage three, tick. Once your body has started to recover, you get a blast of high-energy radiation. Stage four, tick. Then, if you’re still standing, you say goodbye to daily hospital visits and hello to daily doses of oestrogen-blocking pills. The finish line is currently scheduled for some time in 2019, and I have no plans to go back in training after that! After that, the only races I’ll be tackling will be charitable ones!

Tomorrow is the end of stage two. That makes it a special day (one refreshing checkpoint in this epic race). With the end of stage three planned for mid-August, it will be a while before I once again feel like I am one stage closer to the home straight. Chemo is a long stretch and I know I’ll need all my energy just to get to the end.

I have to say, sitting here with a bloated stomach that makes me wants to live in the toilet, tomorrow cannot come soon enough. I certainly don’t think a body corset, tummy scar and enlarged egg-stuffed ovaries – combined with a functioning bladder and stomach – belong together. I feel like someone is bouncing on my stomach and there isn’t enough skin to go around. Starting to find the idea of a needle in my ovaries rather attractive.

What did I feel like after completing stage one? First, there was pain. Then, there was immense relief. I’d like to say I was dancing around my hospital bed. But, let’s face it, I could barely stand. How do I think I will feel if we are lucky enough to pop some embryos in a freezer bag? First, I will be happy that the baby back-up plan is in place. Then, relief that I can walk from the living room to the kitchen without needing a wee. (I also quite like the idea of a fridge that isn’t full of syringes and vials.) Neither of these sound like great moments of celebration or markers in history. But, when there is life at stake, you’ve just got to be happy you registered for the right race and are running in the right direction.

Cancer checkpoints don’t come along very often. When they do, whether you’re on morphine or Merlot, you’ve got to grab them, get the most out of them and use the happiness (or relief) they bring to take you forward into the next stage. I may be more likely to be raising a mug of tea than a glass of wine at the moment (last night aside), but I am determined to make sure each one of these stages does not go by unnoticed (I think a lot of people design a sign to mark their last chemo session, so that’s on the to-do list for stage three). You may lose a few consultants and nurses along the way, but that doesn’t mean there are any less people rooting for you to succeed. There are just a few less appointments to attend, a few less needles and a few less worries to occupy your fact-filled mind.

This is a race I will complete – and there will be a big smile waiting for me at the finish line (and probably one of the many bottles of engagement champagne currently gathering dust in the cupboard). I am not going for a personal best and there won’t be a medal at the end of it, but there will be life. I hope you’ll be there to cheer me home. 

Breast cancer lesson number 39: Timing is everything!

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This is it. Inside this box is the last injection I have to administer myself as part of the fertility process (we won’t talk about the chemo-related ones just yet). No more Menopur. No more Cetrotide. Just two Letrozole anti-cancer pills and an injection stand between me and being able to have my eggs collected at 3.30pm on Monday.

Ovitrelle is a trigger injection. It stimulates the final maturation of eggs in the ovaries. That means, once I have jabbed myself with this last needle, there is no going back. I will be on the slab on Monday and, with any luck, we’ll have embryos in the freezer soon after that. The procedure to extract these eggs is something I have just read about (although wish I hadn’t) and is something I will not be reporting here. Ok, so it’s not on a par with having your stomach cut open and the boob chopped off, but I am glad I am asleep for it. If curiosity is getting the better of you, click here for the science, but please don’t ever bring it up over dinner! 

For the trigger to be effective, timing is everything. So, mum will be keeping me company tonight until 2am when I can deliver the final and important dose (she might get to watch Les Mis from start to finish as a treat). Then I get a day off drugs tomorrow (my body will probably go into shock), a light breakfast of tea and toast at 6am on Monday and a date with a cannula and some IV sedation later that day.

Of course, when the nurse called, I had my priorities right. One, what do I do with the sharps box of syringes that is currently making the kitchen look untidy? Two, what to do with all the leftover drugs in the fridge? (Sadly the answer in both cases is to bring them with us, which means we’ll be heading to oncology looking like a portable pharmacy or like we’re about to have a picnic in the waiting room. Let’s hope I get to keep the cold bag!). Three, if I’m at the hospital all day, when do I take my suppository? (There was a lot of laughter attached to that answer and you really don’t want to know more). And four, (arguably the most important question) can I have a glass of wine with dinner? I am glad to report, I got a whole-hearted ‘absolutely’ in response! (Better set the phone alarm for 1.55am just in case)!

There is one last – and rather unexpected – obstacle to overcome in this fertility challenge. It’s brown, it has a tail and it likes to enter our kitchen at night and camp out under the dishwasher. We’ve being trying to get rid of our visiting rat for nearly two weeks, but we do have an understanding that we just don’t enter its trap-filled and Nutella-fuelled lair at night. With refrigerated drugs to take, I think I may have to take a torch and some back-up if I stand a chance of getting to the pre-filled syringe without getting nibbled.

Oh yes, don’t think just because you get cancer, you can avoid first world problems. I have a list!

One last needle, one last shot of drugs and one chance to make embryos. Cancer won’t wait for a second cycle. We have everything crossed!