Breast reconstruction surgery

Breast cancer lesson 175: You don’t need a nipple to feel whole again after cancer surgery

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A few days ago, I called the hospital and took myself off the waiting list for nipple reconstruction surgery.

It wasn’t a rash decision (many a cup of tea has been needed in the build up), but as far as decisions go, it is among the best I have ever made.

I must confess that while I would have loved to have said to colleagues and clients: ‘Sorry, I won’t be able to make the meeting as I am having my nipple put on that day’, and, while part of me liked the idea of being put back together again, a huge part of me was shouting: ‘Why?’

After surgery and finishing active treatment, it felt like the natural next step (why wouldn’t I go for a cherry on top’?!). Sitting in front of the surgeon talking about cutting and snipping and stitching back in October, it seemed like a quick and painless procedure and an easy way to forget the past.

But, ask me what I am thinking about six months on and I can tell you, it’s not a pink, fleshy (albeit realistic) blob on the end of my fat-filled right boob. It’s the fact that I am happier, healthier and fitter than ever and a nipple really won’t add anything – except a ‘permanent outy’ that no amount of warm weather would conceal.

Now, I realise that I was more curious than in need of an extra asset. And, curiosity just isn’t a big enough reason to brave a hospital gown, needles, a knife, an operating table, a series of nipple tattoos and the memory of a year in the warm, but treatment-focused arms of the amazing NHS.

I guess you might call me lucky. Strange as it sounds, I don’t want to hide from my scars. Each one carries with it a story that makes me who I am. Each one reminds me not to worry when I get caught up in the complications that come with everyday life. Each one keeps me grounded. Each one is a reminder of all I had to lose and all I have gained as a result of this challenging – and yet weirdly fulfilling – period of my life. My scars are just as much a part of me as my right foot that turns in and my dodgy hip. I am not looking to replace them, but embrace them. I have no ambition to be a topless model so why would I cover up what is always covered up.

I read my story in the lines that cancer has given me and I smile. I smile because they remind me not of pain and surgery, but of just how far I have come – and of just how far I want to go. It is with these scars that I will be lining up on the starting line of the Bath Half in two weeks (and the Pink Ribbonwalk in July and the Royal Parks Half in October). It is with these scars that I will be flying to the Caribbean (yes, leaving Europe for the first time) with my new size 6 tankini (sun-exposure conscious as ever). And, it is with these scars that I hope to make a difference on this wonderful planet of ours. As I said, all the way back in lesson 21: ‘scars remind you where you’ve been and how hard you worked to get there. They don’t have to dictate where you’re going, but they can give you the strength and determination to make sure the path you do choose is a beautiful, interesting and inspiring one.’

Last year, I came face-to-face with my own mortality at the age of 32. I had the chance, at a young age, to reflect on what my gravestone could say and I decided the message needed to change – and fast. I can guarantee it won’t ever say: ‘Here lies Jackie, cracking right nipple.’ What I hope it will say (and not for a very long time) is: ‘Here lies a woman who smiled, laughed, lived and loved – and dedicated her life to helping others do the same (admittedly may need editing as I am not in the market for a tomb)! Sounds morbid, but I have plenty of years to get it right.

Breast cancer lesson 162: Why it’s hard not to laugh in a nipple consultation

The trouble with attending a hospital appointment on your own (don’t worry, I am not throwing caution to the wind after lesson number one, these are very routine appointments), is that you have no one to cover you if you need to pop to the loo. That’s why, I spent the best part of my 90-minute wait on Monday working out the best time to take the chance – only to realise it takes less than a minute to get back in the waiting room if you’re focused.

The reason for this latest waiting room visit was to meet the plastic surgeon and discuss reconstruction phase two. Phase two is, of course, the ‘return of the nipple’, if we see phase one as ‘destruction of the boob’. That was my understanding of the meeting anyway, so I was amused when the registrar took one look at me and asked me how the chemo was going! And I thought I actually had a bit of hair.

Now we are onto the cosmetic side of the job, I am finding it hard to treat the whole thing as surgery. I diligently took my top off on demand and smiled as we went through the usual: ‘we can tidy it up of you’d like to look even on both sides’. My stock reply tends to be: ‘I am very happy with my set (asymmetrical as they are) and I wouldn’t consider another general anaesthetic at this stage. Plus, the right one will grow and shrink as my weight fluctuates, so I will always be pretty lopsided.’ It is very kind that plastic surgeons don’t want me to be wonky, but I am just happy to be here – imperfections and all! Trust me, if they fix the boobs, their perfection would just look out of place.

I did consider stopping without a nipple given I am happy with my fleshy mound. But, I feel like the journey won’t be complete without finishing it off. It will be a permanent ‘outie’, so I think it will be padded bras all the way after surgery. It will also be tattooed so that it matches the left side.

Today was quite interesting in terms of reconstruction options. It seems there are two ways to reconstruct the nipple (or should I say we only discussed two). The first is a local flap, created using existing skin attached to the reconstructed breast. The only downside it seems is the fact that it would leave a little scarring to the sides of the nipple, but this would be covered up by the final tattooing stage of the process, Yes, I didn’t think it was enough to get radiotherapy tattoos. Now I want to tattoo my boob.

The second option is to remove skin from another area of the body to create the ‘protrusion’ (sounds a bit scientific for a boobie). The downside to this procedure is the fact that there would be two wound sites and the fact the grafted skin may not take to its new home.

For me, this didn’t feel like decision that would be hard to make. I have opted for the local flap and will take the extra scarring! I don’t fancy carving up any other body part for an extra bit of skin. It is already part belly. It certainly doesn’t need to be part anything else.

So, in six months time (you have to wait for the boob to settle after radiotherapy), I will, at last, complete my reconstruction. It’s a local anaesthetic. It’s a quick procedure. And I would bet money on it being one of the strangest experiences of my entire life. (I must admit, the consultation was pretty funny, with the highlight being the young doctor poking my boob with this finger to point out the position of the nipple. I kept thinking to myself, I haven’t been nippleless that long!)

It certainly is amazing to see what these plastic surgeons can do. I just never thought they’d be doing them to me!

NB: In other news, as part of Breast Cancer Care’s #hiddeneffects campaign for Breast Cancer Awareness month I put together a piece on smiling through cancer. Click here if you’d like to have a read.

Breast cancer lesson 140: Ten things that will make breast reconstruction surgery that little bit easier

I have a confession. In lesson number 72 (click here for a quick refresher), I talked about setting my boobs free and tucking my post-surgery bra away in a drawer rather than wearing it to bed. Truth is, the boobs were free for all of about a night, before I found myself reaching for the unattractive-yet-feels-like-you’ve-got-nothing-on bra once more. I don’t need to wear it. But, I don’t feel quite right sleeping without it.

The reason I am telling you this is that I have just finished typing up my breast reconstruction surgery tips for the cancer kit list (click here to view both chemo and surgery suggestions) and I have come to realise that I am really quite attached to this beige front-fastening number. In hospital, it meant easy access (nurses could check whether my breast was still alive without moving me). At home, it remains one of the most comfortable things I own. And comfort – rather than style – is all that matters now! Life is way too short to wear wired bras that dig into your side or high heels that make your feet swell (and you look like you’re drunk when you haven’t even been drinking). The other reason I am telling you this is that I was asked not to wear it last night and this morning (as part of a secret charity mission) and I actually really missed it. Who would have thought a bra would bring me so much happiness!

As you can imagine, the front-fastening Royce bra (click here to see it in all its glory) sits at the top of my ‘ten-things-that-will-make-breast-reconstruction-surgery-that-little-bit-easier’ list. Excluding painkillers (an essential part of any surgery that involves a tummy tuck), here are a few of my favourite things:

  • A front-fastening bra: One more mention for good measure! It’s so important to get the right bra for you. I took my bra with me into surgery so it could be put on while I was asleep. Due to the swelling, it’s good to go up by one back size so the bra doesn’t feel tight (you might want to bring a few sizes just in case and the return the one you don’t use).
  • Button down nightshirts or nighties: I think surgeons and nurses alike would queue up to see you wrestle with a top that doesn’t button up in the days after surgery. When there are wounds, drains and a new boobie to inspect, it pays to make things simple. Regardless of the time of year, aim for lightweight layers rather than thermals (it can get pretty hot in hospital). I would aim to bring two nightshirts/nighties so you can change (and encouraging a friend or relative to rinse them through would be great)!
  • Big knickers: Bridget Jones would be proud! If you’re planning on laughing, coughing or moving around, big knickers or ‘magic pants’ are a huge help. They can be quite tight to get on and off, but they can make getting in and out of bed a lot easier. They’re handy in the weeks after surgery too. It’s worth bringing more pairs than you think you’ll need for your hospital stay, so you don’t run out (plus a few normal cotton pairs too in case you get too hot). I can’t say I am wearing them now, but I think fondly of our time together.
  • Drain bags: If you’ve been advised that you will have drains after surgery (they look a little bit like sports bottles attached to a tube), it is really handy to bring a bag (for example, a natural shopping bag) that you can slip over your shoulder. This frees up your hands if you need to steady yourself while walking. People do make and gift fabric drain bags too, so it’s worth asking your breast reconstruction nurse if there are any available. Same goes for an easy-to-carry wash bag! If you’re feeling crafty, click here for a drain bag pattern (you will need to scroll down a bit).
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  • Anti-bacterial gel and wet wipes: The bathroom can seem like a long way away if you’ve had DIEP surgery. These will help you cut a few corners in the early days!
  • External power pack: Keeping in contact with friends and family is a great way to make those hospital days go faster. If you’re worried about keeping things charged up (or taking lots of chargers), you could consider buying an external power pack. These can be charged up before you’re admitted and will power your phone many times over without needing to be recharged. They also come with lots of different connectors so you can power many devices. Fewer wires mean a lot less hassle.
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  • Adbo binder/corset: Not one you can bring with you, but worth requesting if you are finding the tummy tuck tight after surgery. I wore mine for six weeks and it was such a support when it came to moving around and laughing. The binder/big pants combo is amazing!
  • Breast pillow: Sleeping on your operated side may not be possible for a while after surgery. That’s when breast pillows can provide real support – not to mention much-needed protection should you share a bed. Some people use breastfeeding cushions, but there are specific breast surgery products, such as TenderCush pillows, that are great for easing discomfort. You might also want to change sides of the bed temporarily to protect your operated side even further. Setting this up before surgery means you can just sink into bed on your return home rather than rearranging your belongings.
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  • Post-surgery caddy: There is nothing worse than getting comfy to find your book is out of reach and your lip balm is in the other room! Setting up a tray or bag of essentials next to your chair is a great way to make sure you have all the essentials close to hand.
  • Cream: Once your wounds have sealed, you will be encouraged to massage them with cream to help things recover even further. I love Moo Goo’s Udder Cream. It smells wonderful and is highly recommended as a repair cream. You are also surrounded by cow puns, which makes this both creamy and amusing!
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You can read the full list in the cancer kit list section. And, if you’re interested in reading more about the breast reconstruction days, why not head to the ‘breast reconstruction’ category (I am excited I have now categorised all my blog posts for easy reference).

If you’re preparing for surgery, then I wish you all the best and hope that these tips will help the days in hospital fly by.

And, if you’re not, then please do one thing for me and make sure you have a comfy bra (not just a sexy, lacy one that makes your bits spill out). There is no strong evidence to suggest wearing an ill-fitting bra will give you breast cancer. But I am a great believer that happy people are comfortable people. And, I want you all to be happy.

And, if you’re a man, you might just want to pass this advice on. I am not sure you need a bra (or big knickers for that matter).

Breast cancer lesson 135: Why I won’t be binning my bras just yet!

Breast cancer surgery does present most women with a bust-sized dilemma. Can I – and should I – get back to wearing the bras I lovingly selected for myself before cancer stole my boob? The answer, it seems, like a lot of other cancer-related questions, is that there are no hard and fast rules.  

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Having had DIEP surgery, it seems surgeons, breast nurses and patients alike all agree that you should steer away from under-wired bras for a good six months after the operation. This I have done – in fact I can’t stop wearing my post-surgery bra in bed, which I was allowed to remove at night after six weeks!

What happens after six months, however (a marker I am about to hit), is the subject of much debate. Being a big fan of my underwear drawer, I was delighted to hear from both my plastic surgeon and a fellow survivor that, in their view, the question is not whether or not you should wear under-wired bras, but more whether wearing under-wired bras is actually comfortable. In fact, the best piece of advice I received was from an event speaker who suggested you try on everything in your underwear drawer before deciding to burn the contents (with Suzie the wig in tow, it would make an impressive fire though).

The fact my bras may get a stay of execution makes me very happy for a number of reasons. Firstly, if you’ve actually had the joy of scouring the racks in a department store for something without a wire, you’ll discover it’s not really a joy at all. The selection is limited (think 20 racks of wired to 1 rack of non-wired and you’ll get the picture) and it seems you are suddenly categorised alongside breastfeeding mothers and teenage starter bras, which is not particularly sexy for a lifetime choice. Building up a new collection is not something I fancy doing overnight either, especially when I have a tummy fat-filled new boob, which has a tendency to grow when it feels like it (if you’ve been following the blog you will know that the fat never actually forgets its origins and can grow considerably if you put on weight).

Of course, with the help of Google, I have found a few non-wired bras that make me feel my age (and feminine as well, which is a bonus). M&S, Gap and Fig Leaves have been my shops of choice and I am delighted to have found some that are navy and pink (rather than simply beige, beige, white and more beige). Amoena also has some nice styles, which I may try if the post-surgery bra fashion parade doesn’t go according to plan. My advice is definitely to try out some different non-wired styles in the months following surgery (for morale more than anything else) and avoid the stores (mail order is much more satisfying and you don’t risk dragging yourself round the shops to find the only one you like isn’t available in your size).

If the under-wired option does prove to be a little uncomfortable, I do have a few back-up plans. Firstly, I am attending a meeting with a bra manufacturer one evening in September to discuss wearer trials for some post-surgery bras (that don’t make you feel like you’re either 70 or 12). Secondly, I have signed up to a lingerie evening with Breast Cancer Care in October to get a proper fitting (let’s hope new boobie plays ball) and some tips on choosing right bra for your body shape. They are held across the country and come highly recommended for those looking for a bit of comfort and style! 

I will let you know how I get on when I can extract myself from the comfort of my post-surgery bra. It may take a while, given I have to minimise friction while going through radiotherapy (am just hoping I can run and wear clothes for that period at the moment).

As a quick aside, for those of you worried about whether or not there is a link between the type of bra you wear and breast cancer, please do not despair. There is a great piece by Cancer Research UK (click here to read), which explains that there is no scientific evidence to link the two. It appears that some people believe under wired bras can have a negative effect on the lymphatic system (causing toxins to build up in the breast area). Cancer Research UK explains that your bra would have to be unbearably tight to start to have any impact at all.

The underwear drawer is safe for now – and long may it remain so!

Breast cancer lesson number 117: Turn your scars into stars

Having spent most of my 32 years trying to creatively hide my tummy from the world (I’ve worn bikinis on rare occasions and was once asked to ‘put it away’), I am finding it quite amusing that, now it has a nice long scar right across it, people are suddenly rather fascinated with my not-so-fleshy midriff. Only recently was I at an event where two ladies (interested in their surgery options) asked me to lift up my top. And, as soon as you mention relocating your belly button over drinks, you can tell people are trying to work out just what is going on around your knicker line.

So, for one post only, I have decided to put you all out of your misery and flash my still-flat-but-not-for-much-longer-thanks-to-chemo stomach. For those of you who have stumbled across this blog or would really rather not become acquainted with my tummy (I wouldn’t blame you, it’s still a bit angry), I am tactically posting a pictures of the baked goods that are currently in my stomach first, so that they show up on your feed. To distract myself from the dizzy spells and peripheral neuropathy, I have spent the morning baking (and, of course, licking the bowl, which for anyone not connected to me on Facebook, is today’s #100happydays moment). (Visit lesson 112 here to find out more about my #100happydays project.)

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And, here it is ­– one big smiley face, which will fade over time (and after I have massaged a truck load of cream into it). You can also see the two drain marks just above my trousers, the angry little belly button and the mole (to the side of the belly button) that had been hiding under my boob until the surgery moved everything down. It’s flat, it’s happy (although admittedly it is a smiley face without eyes) and it’s all me. I am proud of my tummy and I am proud of this scar. It reminds me every day when I look in the mirror that I was stronger than the cancer that tried to take my life away.

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It seems I am not the only one happy with my new look. At my plastic surgery check-up on Monday, my breast reconstruction nurse and the doctor on duty were pleased with what I like to think of as my recent body enhancements! The doctor did confirm she thought the right one was larger than the left (I think they are quite fixated on making me even) and we did have a laugh about tops that exacerbate the situation. But, with radiotherapy planned, the nipple and tuck chat is now on hold until the autumn. By this time next year, I should be fully reconstructed!

Don’t worry, I won’t be making a habit of flashing the flesh. My tummy can’t be exposed to the sun for a good year at least, so it is now going back into hibernation. And, as for my new boob? No chance! And, for any ladies out there considering DIEP surgery, I would highly recommend it. While, at times, the recovery can be tough, the results are more than worth it.

Thank you surgeons for finding a practical use for my tummy fat, thank you cake and chocolate supplying friends for making the surgery possible and thank you tummy for healing so nicely. I will try not to feed you with too much cake in future, so you retain your shape just that little bit longer.

 

Breast cancer lesson number 94: How to get more from active treatment

Cancer treatment is like being signed up to run a marathon race with no training. In short, it hurts. But, just sometimes, days like today are sent along to remind us that there are plenty of pit stops along the way that are actually rather enjoyable. As long as you know how to find them that is – and make the most of them when you do!

On annual leave, you’ll usually find me tucked up in front of a log fire with a glass of wine or strolling along the Dorset Coast path. The UK is our oyster and we do our best to enjoy it. Today, however, I spent the day with my arms in the air for a really good cause.

While most of you were commuting to your desks, I was on my way to the wonderful Haven charity in Fulham to take part in an exercise video. By exercise video, I don’t mean raising a sweat (although I did have a few too many hot flushes). By exercise video, I mean a series of exercises designed to help those who have had lymph node surgery manage the risk of developing lymphoedema (or arm swelling). Ok, so it might be the world’s most sedentary exercise class and I am not about to give Nell McAndrew a run for her money. But that didn’t make it any less important.

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Although I don’t think I am destined for life in front of the camera (I dread to think what my exercise face looks like and I waffled a bit on my vox pop at the end), it was a really wonderful day. I met a fantastic team dedicated to getting the medical side just right and also informing people about the latest thinking surrounding lymphoedema. No longer are we supposed to rest our affected arms and wear preventative compression sleeves. Exercise (within your limits) is the answer to ensuring we all have a really good base from which to get on with daily life. Managing the risk of lymphoedema isn’t about focusing on what you shouldn’t do, it’s about making a few adjustments to life so that you can keep doing everything you love. Saunas may not be top of the list, but everything else is pretty much up for grabs.

I also met some pretty special ladies, all at different stages of their treatment. With their positive spirits and colourful characters they were great film buddies. It will certainly be interesting to see the final cut, that’s for sure. Don’t expect a screening!

Never did I think that three rounds into chemo, I would be described as the fit one. It’s also strange to think that my hairless self (albeit in a hat) will now be immortalised, a DVD reminder of the fact that even when chemo piles on the side effects, you can still come out smiling.

Amusingly, I got a few odd looks on the tube. It seems a cancer patient with a hair loss cap, jeans and a t-shirt presents no challenge to onlookers. Dress her in leggings, trainers and yoga tops and suddenly she becomes an enigma. An active sick person. Does she deserve a seat or a round of applause? After what feels like about a thousand arm raises, I think I’ll take the seat thanks.

The great thing about today is it doesn’t end there. I am just doing a quick dress change before making my way to ZSL London Zoo for a safari gala dinner.

Take that cancer!

Breast cancer lesson number 87: The answers to those burning questions are closer than you think

How often have you walked out of a consulting room partly reassured by all the questions answered and also partly plagued by the one or two things you just forgot to ask? By this, I don’t mean (if you’re anything like me) the questions you’ve diligently noted down in order to quiz any unsuspecting consultant? No, by this I mean the bigger picture questions that keep you awake at night or creep up on you when you least expect. In cancer land, that is a question like: ‘How long do you think the cancer was in my body before I found the lump?’ Questions that have no real bearing on the treatment plan in front of you, but questions that are no less important or interesting.

Since diagnosis day, I have been making a note of ‘random questions I wish I’d asked’ for a blog post at the end of active treatment. Currently on the list (in addition to the above) is ‘what do you actually do with the cancer you extract?’ Is there a cancer bin? Is it incinerated? Or, can they store it and retest it should there be developments in science? I know it sounds strange and I would guess the answer is incineration otherwise they’d have to take out extra storage space. But, it’s just one of those questions that for someone only recently inducted in to the world of cancer and unacquainted with the inner workings of hospitals actually finds rather interesting.

There is one question, however, that I have wanted to know the answer to ever since I came round from general anaesthetic number two after my egg harvesting.

And, on Saturday at Younger Women Together I got my answer. Younger Women Together is a fabulous and free two-day event held by Breast Cancer Care for women aged between 20 and 45 who have been diagnosed with primary breast cancer. Not only is it a great opportunity to meet and share experiences with other women in a similar position (none of which I have managed to spot in my own hospital), but it is also – with its expert speakers and workshops – the perfect environment within which to ask a few of those burning questions. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough to young women who are grappling with a diagnosis, undergoing treatment or trying to find their ‘new normal’ in the years that follow. I left inspired, moved and supported. And with my answer!

Starting with ‘the question’ here are a few things I am glad (and thankful) I now know (apologies in advance if I get any of the detail wrong, just passing on what I scribbled down):

Fertility question: If I am rendered infertile as a result of treatment, am I still able to carry the embryos frozen as part of my fertility preservation before chemo?
Answer: Yes! It may involve a few drugs, but just because your body has stopped producing eggs, it doesn’t mean you can’t carry one you’ve already harvested. Great news.

Fertility question: Can you test your fertility status before going onto Tamoxifen?
Answer: With difficulty if you are recovering from chemo and on Zoladex. It is possible to test for fertility using blood samples (for your hormonal profile) or scanning, but drugs can interfere with the results until your body is back to normal. Testing on Tamoxifen is also not advised due to the fact it stimulates oestrogen receptors in the uterus, while reducing oestrogen levels elsewhere and can cause temporary loss of or irregular periods, so may also give misleading results.

Fertility question: Can you predict the chances of someone losing their fertility during chemo?
Answer: The chances depend very much of the drugs used in the chemo regime. Alkylating agents (such as the C in FEC) are considered more problematic. Having said that, the C when used in the CMF regime seems to cause more problems than when it is used in the FEC regime. The Tax regime is less concerning. Statistics suggest women under 30 have a 5% risk of losing their fertility compared with a 50% for those between 36 and 40. I am somewhere in the middle! Age, drugs, dosage and a woman’s ovarian reserve (before treatment) help doctors predict an individual’s chances.

Fertility question: If you get pregnant after a cancer diagnosis, should you expect to be treated differently?
Answer: The short answer is yes. Chemotherapy can cause possible cardiac issues, which may not present themselves until pregnancy when the heart is working harder. This means echocardiography and closer monitoring is probably advised. There is a small increased risk of complications at delivery and a 30% increase in the C-section rate (although it is not known whether women are choosing this option as a way of taking more control). Where breasts have been reconstructed, pregnant women may wish to wear a prosthesis if the unaffected breast grows and leaves the woman feeling lopsided!

And a few ‘Did you knows?’:

1)    According to the latest statistics, 537 women between the age of 30 and 34 get breast cancer in the UK every year. That is compared with 2,899 women between the ages of 40 and 44.

2)    Even with a mastectomy, there is usually some breast tissue left behind in the affected breast.

3)    A new report just out has suggested that Phytoestrogens (basically oestrogen-like chemicals found in plant foods such as seeds, beans and grains) can reduce the risk of cancer.

4)    Omega 3 can help with joint inflammation and chemo brain (or memory issues)!

5)    Valerian can help with sleep problems while on chemo.

6)    Figs contain calcium

7)    And, wise words from speaker and fellow cancer survivor Kelly Short: ‘Don’t think about yesterday, you were a different person then.’

8)    www.insurancewith.com is a useful insurance provider for those looking to travel with a cancer diagnosis.

There was also plenty of exercise-related material I will save for another day. As you can probably tell these two days have enhanced my life – and my understanding of the illness I now face. If you’re a young women with a breast cancer diagnosis, I would urge you to book on today for a strong dose of inspiration, motivation and practical advice. Click here to find out more.

And, if you have a burning question that you really want answering, why not post it here (as long as it is not ‘what is the meaning of life?’). Someone out there might know the answer, or, if it’s cancer related, I might just be able to add it to my list once I have summoned up the courage to find out which bin my cancer landed in!

NB: There is a whole other side to the event that I feel it would be wrong to touch on in a blog and that’s the amazing and wonderful women who sat alongside me over those two days. How amazing it was to sit among women who didn’t know the me with hair, who understood what it was like to spend a night awake with nothing but a hot flush for company, knew how to navigate the terminology and side effects that come with the words breast cancer and understood the importance of a smile. Less a support group and more a practical and lively forum for sharing experiences. I feel privileged to have met these amazing women.

Breast cancer lesson number 82: Why it’s time to get out of the right side of bed… if you can find it!

There is such a thing as the wrong side of the bed. For me, it’s the right side and I’ve been on it for 68 nights. Cancer kicked me over there when it decided to attack my right breast and lymph nodes. The PICC line on my left tried to get me reinstated, but cancer won through. Last night, however, I moved back.

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Apart from the fact I can’t really sleep on it, new boobie no longer needs the level of protection granted to it by being close to the edge of the bed. That means, the clip attached to my PICC line (that if unclipped by mistake could cause blood to flow freely out of mind arm) is now out of harm’s reach and I am back to where I belong – near the door, near the wardrobe and close to all my notebooks and belongings. I was never really far away, but by just moving a metre to the left, I feel at home once more. It’s another small milestone that has brought a big smile to my face.

Interestingly, the question as to whether or not the left side is, in fact, the official ‘right’ side of the bed on which to sleep, has led to a surprising number of column inches over the years. I believe the idiom ‘to get out on the wrong side of the bed’ dates back to Roman times, when it was considered bad luck to get out from the left (maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong!).

That said, in recent years, a bit of probably-not-very-robust-but-I-like-it research from hotel chain Premier Inn, has tried to give the left side a stay of execution. The group’s study (dating back to 2012) found that two-thirds of people who sleep on the left side of the bed believe themselves to be calmer and more confident than their sleeping partner. Of its findings, Premier Inn went on to say: “The research clearly indicates a pattern between which side of the bed you sleep on and the mood you wake up in. Left sleepers are more cheerful, appear to enjoy life slightly more and have a more positive attitude to the day ahead than right sleepers.”

This is further supported by an entertaining earlier study combining psychology and Feng Shui. Because the left side of the brain uses logic and rational thought (and the right, emotion and imagination), Feng Shui associates the left side of the bed with family, health, money and power. The idea is that by getting out on the left from a lying down position you focus your energies towards logic and away from stress. Does this mean that as a ‘leftie’ I am more likely to remember to read the gas meter, but I might not get the colour scheme for the hallway right? Not sure I like that logic!

The only trouble is – and something I find highly amusing – there seems to be no real agreement as to which side of the bed is left and which side right. The Premier Inn research states that the survey is based on someone standing at the foot of the bed. Why would they be standing at the foot of the bed I ask? And in what direction are they looking? As far as I am concerned, if my right side is closest to the edge, it’s the right side of the bed. And, if no one can decide, it just means the ‘right’ side is the one you choose to sleep on!

While I like to think that my preference adds a positive start to my day, the key thing is, it’s my preference (and probably that of millions of others in the world). And, thankfully, it’s not Duncan’s. After all, if there were a universal ‘right’ side that affected our psychological well-being, no one would want to share a bed.

Regardless of which bit of your brain falls out of bed first, it seems that choosing (and sleeping on) ‘your right side’ (and not that of the research scientists) does help you get a good night’s sleep. It’s probably all in the mind (and not the Feng Shui), but given sleep is supposed to support everything from weight management and mood to memory and your body’s ability to heal, it’s not something I’ll be moving away from again in a hurry! Take note cancer.

Sleep tight tonight and I hope you aren’t one of the 10%* of couples (*again according to Premier Inn, so please apply a pinch of salt) that likes to argue about the taking of sides. If so, I may have just fuelled the fight!

NB: I’d like to say you need to know your left from your right to be able to unpick this blog post. But now, I’m not even sure that matters!

Breast cancer lesson number 72: Set your boobs free!

Nine weeks ago today I was on the slab being separated from my cancer. Nine weeks on and I have been celebrating in a small, but meaningful way. Firstly (and not really related but worth a mention) by not vomiting for 24 hours straight thanks to the anti-nausea medication. And, secondly, by sleeping without my post-surgery bra for the first time.

Going ‘au naturel’ or braless in bed is another of those cancer milestones that doesn’t often get a look in, surrounded as it is chemo sickness stories and hairless updates. But, as a step towards the new ‘post-active-treatment’ normal to which I am heading, it feels like another great big tick on the cancer checklist.

My post-surgery bra and I have had some good times together. It may have aged me in the bra department by a good 30 years, but with its healing fibres and its soft fabric, it has been a loyal friend. So much so, that I could have stopped wearing it in bed a few weeks back, but chose to extend our relationship just that little bit longer. I have purposely chosen not to post it here so as not to scare off the male followers among you.

Before you question my hygiene levels, I did have two identical post-surgery bras (best to go up a back size when choosing just to give you added comfort around the swelling). I am delighted to report that they are now both in a drawer, replaced with a new non-wired bra for the daytime (another mini milestone). A good three months without wire is the recommendation and then I get to take a call on whether to return back to the underwired bras of my pre-cancer life, or opt for a lifetime of comfort. As someone who only wears heels on special occasions (and is known to walk like I’m drunk before I’ve had a drop when I do due to my rather special hips) it might be comfort all the way from now on. Last thing I want is a bit of wire digging into my new fat-filled boobie.

It will be a while before I get a nipple and any final nips and tucks. I will have a fleshy mound for a good six months post radiotherapy, so the tissue and skin have time to settle down. I should be seeing my surgeon again in a few months, however, to discuss these little reconstruction extras and, most importantly, get me added to the waiting list for day surgery next year. When your life is no longer dependent on surgery, the NHS waiting list system comes back into play. I wonder just how many nipple-less woman are currently waiting their turn for a manipulated bit of skin and a pinky tattoo?

So, to all reconstruction ladies out there I say, love your post-surgery bra (and pick wisely – I highly recommend my Royce one), but also love the day it comes off. It means you’re one step further away from the ‘patient’ label and one step closer to those post-cancer comforts.

As a side point, if anyone knows of any beautiful and comfortable non-wired bras, please do get in touch. They seem a little hard to find. 

Breast cancer lesson number 59: Never underestimate the power of a good pair of knickers!

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Before my tummy became my boob, I had only ever bought one pair of magic knickers (by which I mean big, tight, figure-sucking Bridget Jones knickers not magical figure-adjusting knickers). I think it would be fair to say I had such limited success with the cycling-shorts-masquerading-as-underwear item, we had about one outing together. While it did eliminate certain troublesome areas from my waistline, it just repositioned them to both above and below said undergarment. Let’s just say, your typical body isn’t usually designed with a trunk that resembles the Scottish Highlands.

Having been briefed on the benefits of support knickers to help my tummy enjoy its new (if only temporary) life as an artificially-flat stomach, I approached my knicker shopping with some trepidation. These knickers are big and, if they are to be effective, don’t really have much wiggle room. They also tend to come in the imaginative black, nude and white range, meaning pink and navy don’t even get a look in (gap in the market methinks).

I must confess, I didn’t enjoy packing them in my hospital bag or putting them on at first (it took two of us to yank them up anywhere close to my stomach scar for the first five days). But, before I’d even left the safety of the hospital bay, my mum was already primed to pick up two more. Trusty old M&S. You know your underwear!

In the early days of my post-surgery recovery, the combination of big knickers and a body corset became a little bit too hot to handle (so much so, there were some rather unpleasant side effects. I will spare you the details). It felt more like a heat wrap than a support system and, in the end, the knickers had to go back to the drawer. With the corset firmly in retirement, however, the knickers are back in action and coming into their own. That is, when I remember to wear them.

The trouble is, when you have a lucky knicker drawer, it’s hard to get excited about pulling on a pair of nude cotton body suckers that don’t have quite the same effect. (Come on, I know you all have something lucky lurking in your drawers). It may sound odd, but I have knickers that have changed the course of a day by just being present. There is a priority list (mostly navy and pink) and, should one pair have to be recycled as a duster, the parting is like that of two good friends saying goodbye. My knickers have won pitches. My knickers have experienced great holidays. Of course, they didn’t prevent the cancer diagnosis, so maybe it is time to invest in some new ones!

Yesterday was a lucky knicker day – and it was a good day. It was also a day that introduced me to a quite unexpected nemesis: the stool. After an enjoyable session of work and a lunchtime visit from a good friend, I decided to brave the city centre for a meal. Aware of it being low immunity week (7-14 days after each cycle your white blood cell count is at its lowest), I diligently googled the restaurant and checked for illness in the group, before setting off on the train. (Duncan did point out that he was amused at my checking for illness, when I didn’t think twice about getting on a train, but I did argue that I would move if I spot a coughing commuter.)

On the chemo-related front all went well. Even the food was conveniently cut into small pieces, so the fact that I can still not open my mouth wide enough to eat anything larger than a cherry tomato, went largely unnoticed.

It was only after moving downstairs to the cosy bar area that it hit me. My scar had been rubbing against my jeans for a good few hours. While I look normal, beneath my clothes, my body is still hurting and crying out for a comfy sofa. It suddenly felt quite phased by the prospect of a stool. All I can say is beware the backless chair. It may not look menacing, but when your stomach muscles are still coming out of hibernation, sitting up straight is a workout. 

It wasn’t long before I started to feel quite naked without my magic knickers for company. It wasn’t long before I was back on the sofa, trapped back in my body suckers once more. I’m writing this with the black cotton tugging at my tummy, and I couldn’t be happier.

Next step is trying to turn a pair of these beauties into lucky knickers. Could a nude pair become my new pitch-winning panties? Bridget Jones would be proud.