Breast cancer lesson number 23: Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional

Ok, so this hurts. By this, I mean the fact that I can’t bear touching (or anyone else touching) my upper right arm, the fact that when I laid on a hospital couch with my corset off yesterday, I felt a terrible pulling and the fact that, try as I might to push through the pain, I just can’t sleep on my side (good or bad). I know it’s temporary, but I wish it would hurry up and subside!

This pain is my own fault, so no need to dust off the sympathy violin just yet (the ‘woe is me’ will be over presently). I’ve been keen to cut down my pill intake so that, when fertility starts, I won’t feel like a walking chemist. I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought I was recovering really well. I think I might have been a little bit too ambitious (oops).

For those of you who’ve had major surgery, you’ll know that the treatment of pain is unlike that of treating a graze or a thumping headache. The aim of the game is to eliminate pain from the start, and then ensure it stays away – rather than only taking pills when the pain strikes. For my hip, for example, I was assigned my very own pain team, who were tasked with making sure I didn’t feel pain – let alone think about it. I did pretty well, until the nerve pain descended, making it feel like my leg was being split in two.

This time, when the anaesthetist’s parting words in the recovery room were: ‘I’ve been generous with the pain medication,’ I knew I was in good hands once more! My PCA was packed with Fentanyl to tackle breakthrough pain, and the liquid morphine (Oramorph) was a welcome friend after a walk to the shower room.

Of course, controlled medications don’t usually make the outpatient pill package (I had to confirm my name, date of birth and hospital number just to get a shot of morphine). But the combination of dihydrocodeine, omeprazole, ibuprofen and paracetamol – along of with my meta progesterone pills for fertility – has kept me in a comfortable and happy place since leaving the ward – as long as I take them that is!

One quick aside: as a cancer sufferer, you do qualify for a prescription exemption certificate, which gives you free prescriptions. Ask your breast care nurse for a form, post it off and a nice credit-card sized treat will arrive through the letterbox.

I’m not sad writing this. I’ve learned my lesson, and I am committing this to virtual paper to remind those dealing with pain to ‘take the pills’! I’ve had my pill cocktail to start the day and it’s already making a difference. I am also happy to report that yesterday was not all grimacing and winching. I passed my wound care clinic appointment with flying colours and there was only minimal weeping – from the saucepan-shaped wound on my new fleshy mound, not from me. It was slightly odd that I didn’t feel the cold solution squirted on my new boob or the steri strips being removed, but I won’t complain about numbness (in many ways that’s a blessing).

While thinking about this blog post, I typed the word ‘pain’ into Google and something beautiful appeared. It was the word ‘hope’, redefined as an acronym: Hold On Pain Ends. As long as we have hope, we have the strength to know that one day, we won’t feel pain any more.

In many ways, pain should be the last thing on my mind right now. I have my big pathology meeting tomorrow to determine the course of the treatment. Wish me luck!

Breast cancer lesson number 22: Meet Agatha, she’s rooting for you!

The phrase ‘you learn something new every day’ could have been invented just for those coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis. It was only three months ago that I thought breast cancer was just one cancer – not an umbrella term linking together a series of complex stages and elements. I had never even thought about a lymph node and its role in supporting my body. And, most importantly, I didn’t know Interflora did the most amazing ‘first aid’ biscuits (in the shape of thermometers, safety pins and scissors). Thanks auntie Joanne!

Not all discoveries are medical ones. Having been tucked away at home for more than a week now, it is easy to block out the stages, the machines, the drugs and the treatment plan. In fact, the most interesting thing I have discovered this week (with the help of a beautiful friend) is that Breast Cancer has its very own saint – and her name is Agatha!


Now, Agatha was pretty tough (you certainly wouldn’t want to meet her down a dark alley). After being arrested for rejecting the affections of a man named Quintian (good name), she was subjected to a series of punishments. She was sent to a brothel to be corrupted. She did not waiver. She had her breasts cut off (thankfully there have been advances in medical science since then), but Saint Peter swooped in and miraculously restored them (that certainly doesn’t sound like it involved her tummy fat). Sadly, in the end, not even Agatha could survive the torment of being rolled over burning coals. As a saint rooting for those facing the challenge of breast cancer on a daily basis, however, she seems pretty inspirational.

I may have missed her feast day (5 February), but this is my quick shout out to Agatha. May the little charm I have popped in my purse give me the strength to smile in the face of uncertainty and pain. She may not be able to make our boobs grow back, but let her story of survival be one that inspires all breast cancer sufferers to fight, especially when they feel they have nothing left to give.