Month: January 2015

Breast cancer lesson 174: Why hitting that ‘cancerversary’ is something to celebrate

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A year ago today, I was taken into a room and told I had cancer.

As days go, I think it is safe to say it is one I would never wish to repeat (I keep a line a day diary where I rate each day and this is the first time I contemplated minus numbers).

But what I could never have imagined or predicted – as I sobbed into any tissue I could get my hands on and rushed round the corridors to find a mobile signal so I could break the news – is the year that followed and just how much that year did to change my life.

One year on and I am sad to say I haven’t baked a boob-shaped cake or popped open the Champagne (dry January will be completed). In fact, with a morning sorting clothes into wardrobes and a trip to see a friend for lunch, you could describe it as any other day. That said, it’s not every day you get a congrats card (cancerversary cards aren’t that popular) just for being alive.

If you’ve followed my story, you’ll know that this is, in fact, the perfect way for me to celebrate (although admittedly, a themed cake would have worked too). Cancer, when it took over my boob and stole my tummy fat (which has yet to make an appearance once more) it also took away my constant desire to rush through life and brought the small details of the everyday into sharp focus. They are the details that I reflect on at night. They are the details I write about in my diary. And, they are the details of which I never want to lose sight. I don’t dream of big parties and lots of cheers. I dream about hugs from friends, nights on the sofa planning new meals to cook and the sunshine on my face in Greenwich park. Little things never let you down.

Keeping up with tradition, a big milestone in the cancer calendar just wouldn’t be properly marked without a run of some sorts (never thought I’d ever say that)! Tomorrow, I am doing my first ever run for fun (a 10k race to boost my half marathon training) and I have also just signed up for the 20-mile overnight Breast Cancer Care walk with my mum in July and the Royal Parks Half Marathon in October. Last year, life decided to throw me my biggest challenge. This year, I’ve decided to set my own.

Being able to call myself a runner (albeit the loosest sense of the word) is not the only thing that’s changed in the last year. I am 7KGs lighter. I wear hats for fun. I look at the leaking in the roof in the bathroom and I don’t panic. I know how to grow vegetables (although Duncan may dispute this). I can make crumpets. I have watched a play at The Globe and sung carols in London. None of these things may sound ground-breaking, but to me, they are a sign I am living the life I had buried away in a handwritten to-do list. I am putting actions before words at last (although I still love lists)

Of course, I will always be ambitious, but I have learned that true happiness is not always about succeeding in the purest sense of the word, but about making the best of the day you have and living in the present. That’s why I’m doing a mindfulness course at the moment. That’s why I am packing my already busy days with swimming, running, meeting friends and, shock horror, relaxing. And, that’s why I am happier than I have been in years.

So, if you are not on dry January today (or having a cheeky break), then I invite you to raise a glass to the little things. May they make you happy. May they fill your days with pockets of calm. And, may they be there to draw on when the big things come along, which they will at a really inconvenient time.

I now realise life isn’t a given, it’s a gift. And, if you know where to look, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Breast cancer lesson 173: Good things come to those who wait

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While a trip back to oncology in the first week of January was never going to make the 2015 highlights list, I am delighted to report that, as appointments go, it was actually rather nice.

For starters, when a doctor says the words: ‘well done’, ‘congratulations’ and ‘now go away and forget about us’ in the space of a four-minute conversation (that was actually stretched out because I had waited 1.5 hours to be seen), you know things are going to be just fine.

It was a strange experience walking back down the street to the hospital, passing the chairs where I waited anxiously on more than one occasion and sitting in the waiting room smiling conspiratorially at bald patients. I have to say, if you’ve got short hair (or in fact any hair), an oncology department is the place to go to feel hairy!

With such a glowing report, you’d think there wouldn’t be a test attached but, this being a research hospital, you can’t move across the waiting room without someone waving a consent form and asking you to sign away relevant bits of your body.

This time, I was asked whether I would participant in a genetics research project for 300 women with lobular cancer. Apparently, given lobular cancer (click here for more information) is less common than ductal, they are exploring whether or not there is a genetic reason why people are diagnosed. Sadly, my individual results will not be shared with me (and I didn’t qualify for genetics testing because the cancer in my family is, thankfully, too far away for concern), but I hope that the research study, when it’s completed, will help many more people in the future. Things are easier to fix (or prevent) when we understand them.

Of course, for me to be a useful participant, I needed to provide one thing = blood. A year ago (blood donor that I was), I would have thought nothing of this and dutifully presented my arm. Trouble is, with good blood-giving arm permanently banned due to it being a lymphoedema risk, giving blood is no longer the breeze it once was. I signed the consent form willingly, but then I added: ‘Trouble is, you may not be able to get any blood to test.’

Undeterred, the nurse approached my arm and proceeded to prod, press, warm, wiggle, rub and tap it. Anyone familiar with my fertility preservation blogging days will know that no amount of coaxing brings these veins to the surface (eight failed attempts is my record). After a few attempts (given it is elective rather than compulsory she refused to continue) she sent me packing with the promise of a rematch – and hand-pumping exercises to do while watching the TV to strengthen my veins so that I play ball in future. I am not sure any amount of pumping will make my arm needle-friendly (especially as it wasn’t ruined by chemo, but always a bit rubbish, but I would very much like to contribute to the research, so I better give it a go.

I can’t quite say I’m discharged (that revolving oncology door will always be open to me), but with no follow-up form and the suggestion that I go and erase the word oncology from my mind, I’m as good as free (to see the breast surgeon annually – so not quite as free as I’d like).

Next up, the end of treatment clinic, a mammogram and a new nipple. Then I might just take a holiday!

Happy new year one and all. May it not involve too many more waiting rooms!

Next up, the end of treatment clinic, a mammogram and a new nipple. Then I might just take a holiday!

Happy new year one and all. May it not involve too many more waiting rooms!