Breast cancer lesson number 53: There is a time and a place for playing the cancer card

Every patient facing a cancer diagnosis gets a card (I like to think of it as the cancer equivalent of Monopoly’s ‘get out of jail free card’). It’s a card that when played too often can all too quickly become meaningless and frustrating. But, it’s also a card that, when played tactically, can open doors and make things that otherwise seemed impossible, suddenly very possible.

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Up until now, I have been reluctant to call in the card. I don’t want to scream and shout and parade my illness in a way that makes people uncomfortable. I just want to be me. While there have been a few notable exceptions – 95% of which involve couriers and delivery drivers, absurd delivery windows and strange demands ­(the thought that someone might actually dismantle my new kitchen table if it wasn’t delivered on the day of an important hospital appointment being one) –­ my card is pretty clean (and my conscience too).

That is, until today. Today I needed the card and I was more than happy to play it. Having had another steroid high of a day (yes, beyond a constant morning mouth feeling and strange taste sensations, I am doing pretty well after my first bout of chemo), mum and I decided to catch the boat from Greenwich into the city for a lovely long walk along the river. The sun was shining and it was wonderful being carried along by the crowds. It felt normal and we felt normal. It wasn’t long, however, before we realised there was something missing. Two little white anti-sickness pills!

Having experienced a nasty helping of nausea on Wednesday night, these were two pills I wasn’t going to miss. The trouble was, time wasn’t on our side. When we arrived at the jetty to catch the next boat back we were told the boats were fully booked for the next hour. With the memory of Wednesday still firmly imprinted in my mind, we aborted plan a) (quietly sit and wait) and opted for a more assertive (while still pleasant) plan b).

As soon as the words ‘cancer’, ‘chemo’ and ‘pills’ passed my lips, we were escorted to the nearest seats and looked after my a lovely chap in a bright orange high-vis jacket. He squeezed us on the next boat as a ‘priority case’ and we got back just in time for me to take the drugs. I will be forever thankful to this tall, dark, bright-orange clothed man and am now looking forward to – rather than dreading – the smell of sausage casserole filling the kitchen.

It may seem like a small incident, but that moment taught me the real power of ‘playing the card’. I felt weirdly untouchable and important. When I had actually got over the guilt of knowing it was my own fault for forgetting the pills, however, I also felt a little sad. It’s rare that I am reminded of the seriousness of the cancer that tried to take my life. The truth is, you don’t have to be being treated for the illness to know just how scary the whole thing is. When cancer comes into play, everything feels like a race against time. Trust me, it’s a powerful card, and it’s one I hope you’ll never have to play.

There was another reminder waiting for me at home of the doormat – confirmation of my histology results. For the first time, printed in black and white were the words: ‘multifocal grade 3 invasive pleomorphic lobular carcinoma with admixed LCIS’. As well as my dominant tumour, my naughty breast was also filling up with LCIS (lobular carcinoma in situ). With the LCIS and the invasive mass, the total tumour measurement came to a total of 60mm. Add in the lymph node involvement and that puts me in the stage 3 camp. High-grade, aggressive, and not very fun. The good news? It was stage 3 (click here for the science) and not 4 and it’s out. I have a life – and a wedding – to look forward to and my fight will end. I am lucky. But, I know there are many people who are not so and, for that, I am very sorry indeed.

It was a letter packed with medical terminology. But, it still made me smile. Tagged on the end, after talk of ‘macrometastic disease’ and ‘adjuvant therapy’, was the phrase: ‘On examination her wounds have healed well with good cosmesis’. Thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia, I looked up the word ‘cosmesis’ and discovered it to mean: ‘the preservation, restoration, or bestowing of bodily beauty’. In short, the new boob is pretty good looking. I’ll take that. It’s in a medical letter. It must be true. It may not have a nipple, but the shape is there.

Of course, fuelled by my steroid high and no longer fearing the nausea I didn’t dwell on the letter or the boat trip. Mum and I proceeded to clean the kitchen floor (until I cut a finger on my right hand and went racing for the Savlon), do the washing, hang out the washing, change some lightbulbs, do some composting and cook up some Turkish delight. The dinner is now on. Let’s hope when the steroids wear off tomorrow, the positivity and productivity continue. There’s publishing work to get back to next week!

Cancer doesn’t do days off. In most cases, a pill or a layering of antiseptic cream will bury it in the background for a moment, but it never goes away. At some point, you will need that card. Hold it safe and play it wisely ­­– and dream about the day when you won’t need to play it again.

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