Breast cancer lesson number 109: Strength is believing you can do it, but recognising you don’t have to do it alone

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It’s a strange use for a beautiful cake stand I grant you (and to the lovely friend who bought it for me years ago, please don’t worry, it will be returned to its former glory as soon as I stop rattling). This little pyramid of pills (my portable pharmacy) is not just my ticket to a pain-free chemo. It serves as a visual reminder to me that for every challenge I face, there is someone out there who has either conquered it before me or can prescribe something that will!

I am rubbish when it comes to asking for help. When I spot a side effect my first instinct is not to ask someone who can do something about it, but to research it, determine whether or not it is ‘normal’ and then find my own way of getting through it. Something inside me says: ‘you’re doing really well Jackie so why should you be a burden for an already-creaking NHS system?’ On Saturday, when my temperature hit 37.7 (not 38), I was more worried about unnecessarily disturbing someone on their weekend than I was the fear of neutropenic septicaemia. On Monday, when I called acute oncology to ask for some advice and got no call back, I simply assumed there were lots more deserving patients ahead of me and that I should leave the line open for someone else. I felt bad about emailing my amazing oncology nurse instead. I felt worse when she replied straight away after hours urging me to call the on-call oncology registrar. And I felt even worse when the on-call registrar called me back when I wasn’t presenting a high temperature. Cancer has made me a burden in so many ways and, as a patient (particularly one that doesn’t have too many issues), I find it so hard to know when to ask for reassurance and when to just go it alone.

Yesterday, however, taught me that just because my symptoms are not serious, the illness for which I am being treated certainly is. And, while a sore throat, furry white tongue, hot flushes, painful and sore heels may not sound horrible in isolation, add them all up and throw in a chunk of cancer and there’s certainly no reason to feel bad about asking for help.

Yesterday, I felt less like a burden. On my way into hospital for a PICC line flush, my penultimate Zoladex implant (my side may stop looking like a pinboard soon) and my menopause clinic appointment, I got a call asking me to add in a blood test and a trip to acute oncology. The sore throat I didn’t want to bother anyone with was actually Oesophagitis, meaning I could replace my suffering with some pills (fluconazole to be precise). The nurse examining me was lovely and made me realise that I don’t have to get through it on my own and that a lot of people suffer from similar symptoms (hence the ease with which he was able to pinpoint and prescribe for the problem).

The highlight of my day, however, was the menopause clinic appointment (for which I was just two minutes early – not two months this time). Conditioned as I am to appointments with consultants, doctors, nurses and surgeons who see cancer every day, I thought nothing of launching into a matter-of-fact account of the last six months in response to the doctor’s opening line: ‘Well, I’ve had a quick look at your notes and it looks like you’ve had an interesting year so far.’ I think it was the point at which – realising I had overlooked the whole fertility drugs bit – I threw in the phrase: ‘Oh and then I froze some embryos’ that it struck me. Cancer treatment is not normal. Cancer treatment is hardcore and anyone who endures it deserves a medal not just a follow-up appointment further than a week away. I think it struck her at the point at which I was trying to remember when I last had a period. I couldn’t. My drugs list was also so long, she stopped writing it down!

As I discovered, an oestrogen-positive cancer patient is not the norm down in women’s services. Most menopausal women are allowed hormone tablets to stop their hot flushes. Those tablets may stop the flushes, but would end up fuelling my cancer and we’d be back at square one. When I threw in the fact I would rather avoid any drugs (having heard about them) that contained anti-depressants (albeit at a different dose) that left me with about one option: Clonidine. It’s a high blood pressure tablet that has been proven to be effective in about 30% of hot flush cases. I’ll take 30%! I have to get it from my GP (so can’t immediately extol its virtues), but I’ll let you know if it does the job. I am afraid I don’t have any advice to impart from the session (I was just relieved she didn’t tell me to give up drinking tea), but would recommend you seek out a ‘women’s services’ near you to take the heat off! 

We did have a good laugh about the Ladycare magnet, which brought humour (by successfully attached me to all nearby metallic objects) rather than good sleep into my life. I like to think she went home and googled it last night and will forever remember the story of the girl in the pink hat who tried to stop her sweats by popping a giant magnetic stone in her pants! 

Walking away from the hospital yesterday evening with two solutions to two problems, I felt reassured (and happy that I hadn’t been wasting anyone’s time). But I also felt proud of myself. I am getting up and fighting this every day and I am getting through. I am taking everything that is being thrown at me. I have been treated for cancer for 118 days now and – barring the day of and after surgery – I haven’t spent an entire day in bed. But, most importantly, I have realised that while it is good to be strong, it is better to acknowledge that you don’t always have to be.

Strength is believing you can do it, but recognising you don’t have to do it alone. It is wise and not weak to ask for help. Help is there, whether in the form of a pill packet or a friendly face, and help can give you the extra tools you need to keep fighting.

From now on, I will be strong, but not too strong.

 

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