Breast cancer lesson number 47: The importance of being normal

For those of you currently splitting your days between the waiting room and the living room, I am delighted to report that there is life beyond these walls. I have seen it. I know it’s hard to imagine. But, it’s still there, being interesting, just like you left it.

The truth is, daily walks, daily planned-in box set viewing and almost-daily hospital visits – although vital for post-surgery recovery ­–­ do not a life make. In recent weeks, I have felt more like an observer on my own life, rather than a participant in it. If health allows, however, and you are brave enough to open the door to the other side of you (the pre-cancer normal), I would encourage you to do so – right now.

By normal, I don’t mean dull. By normal, I mean the bits of life you enjoyed before cancer swept in and took them away. Yes, be selective (you may wish to live without the ritual of Friday night pizza). Yes, make adjustments (I am seeing more friends and having more laughs than ever before). But make normal your base and, you’ll find it’s the hospital appointments that start getting in the way – not the other way round.

Since the day I was diagnosed I have made a conscious effort to not be a cancer patient (she says writing a blog on the subject!). I don’t want to hide away with only my thoughts for company. I don’t want to be defined by the clinic and chemo dates in the diary, because I know that when the dates stop coming, life can go from being very busy to very lonely overnight. I want to use the time cancer has inadvertently gifted me to cherry pick the bits of life I love and shut the door on everything else. There’s a lot of truth in the phrase, ‘you are what you do’. Give yourself over to cancer and you’ll forget the life you’re fighting for.

The great thing about rediscovering your ‘normal’ is that something you’ve taken for granted for years suddenly becomes more exciting and beautiful. Take Thursday night. I had a theatre date in the diary and I was determined to keep it. It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that my taste in theatre is acquired. While I do love my musicals, a bit of Shakespeare and the odd sedate play, I also like to explore the world of immersive and promenade theatre. Those of you who know me well will know I’ve been kidnapped by vampires in Barbican car park, sent on a mission underneath Waterloo station and electrocuted (mildly) in the name of art. If it’s rather strange and often devoid of a coherent plotline, I’m there.

While I was making my way to Shoreditch Town Hall basement to watch Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, I was trying to remember why it was I’d booked it in the first place. As I approached the theatre it hit me – or should I say the wording on the poster did. It was immersive. That meant involvement. Instead of my usual nervous excitement, I suddenly felt completely vulnerable. I didn’t look even remotely ill, so how would I be able to keep my arm, boob and tummy protected when surrounded by focused actors and curious theatre-goers. I didn’t feel ready.

The great news is, that rather running for the exit – or back stage to find someone who could furnish me with a big ‘don’t touch me’ sticker – I grabbed a glass of wine and had a wonderful evening with a friend. While I would have loved to have found a seat in each of the rooms and, while I slept well that night, I found being at an event where only one other person knew what was going on beneath my clothes really exhilarating. Cancer wasn’t centre stage and, you know what, I loved it.

Of course, there is a small note of caution. It is worth remembering, you’re still not normal, even though you’re playing the part. I was reminded of this on Friday night when having a takeaway with friends at home. I ate my usual healthy (or not so) Jackie-sized portions (at my usual fast Jackie pace) and enjoyed some of our engagement Champagne and wine. It was only later that I realised the body corset/curry combo was not a particularly good one. I didn’t enough have space for water and was still reliving the experience 24 hours later. A few less mouthfuls and a lot less speed, and I would have been fine.

People talk about discovering their ‘new normal’ after finishing active treatment. I have around six months to go and think it is important I use this time to go back to my version of normal so that I can work out what I want my ‘new normal’ to be. I know it will include a hair cut every eight weeks (once there is something to style. I am already craving the smell of product knowing I won’t be there as a client for a while). I know it will include immersive theatre. But I know it will be different. It has to be. There are already 40 things on my Brighter Life list for starters and I am determined to complete each and every one.

I know it will be busy, but I know it will be better. And, there won’t be a single cannula, oxygen mask or blood pressure cuff in sight.

 

Breast cancer lesson number 26: Make every day a milestone day

Today is a milestone day. Ok, so it’s not exactly on a par with diagnosis day or pathology results day (just a few of the compulsory days Breast Cancer likes to throw in to keep us entertained). But, that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. No, today is the day I come off Provera (my progesterone hormone). That means, in a few days time (if my body plays ball), the fertility side of my treatment will begin. Self injecting here I come!

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Moments in time don’t have to be monumental to make it as milestones. When you are strapped into a body corset, even getting to the end of the road can feel like a huge achievement! So here is a glimpse into my world of the major – and not so major milestones – that have made a mark in my diary these last few months. I hope this will help those facing the cancer challenge in the future to understand a bit more about timeframes and what to expect.

1) 24 December: Lump discovery day
Arguably the most important day (and most valuable shower) of my life. I took the discovery seriously, but am glad to report, it didn’t put me off the Christmas ham.

2) 25 December: Proposal day
Ok, so not fundamental to the story, but it’s a lot easier talking about losing a boob and making embryos when you have a man by your side (and a ring on your finger). I am a lucky lady.

3) 27 December: GP referral day
Not the most reassuring of visits I’ll admit, but the doctor acted really fast and referred me straight away. I know a lot of young women are told to come back at another point in their cycle to see whether the lump has changed size, but thankfully, due to it being Christmas, I got my referral. Just another reason to love Christmas!

4) 9 January: Hospital appointment day
Was planned in as the morning before, but due to work commitments, I moved it to the Thursday morning. I know how stupid that sounds, but I really didn’t believe it was anything other than a breast mouse. Let’s just say, I have learned my lesson (and missed a fabulous annual client lunch that day as punishment). What started as a quick ‘feel’ turned into an ultrasound, a few biopsies and a rather awkward conversation with two consultants (they didn’t say cancer, but they did ask about my family history A LOT).

5) 17 January: Diagnosis day
Not a day I’ll forget…ever! Crying, mammogram, more crying, truck load of leaflets and, you guessed it, more crying.

6) 18 January: The day that taught me the value of friendship
Afternoon tea at the Modern Pantry was made all the more sweet with a close friend at my side. Having hidden away for months, this day encouraged me to get out my phone and start planning (trips to Sketch, nights with Darius, relaxing walks and home visits). I love my friends and the colour they bring to my days.

7) 23 January: MRI day
Four needles, one arm full of contrast dye and a noisy test to determine whether or not I could have a lumpectomy.

8) 25 January: Feeling human day
I had a facial. No one mentioned cancer. I walked into a shop (ok, so I was buying track suit bottoms and zip up tops) and someone told me I looked and smelled great. I smiled. It felt good.

9) 27 January: Diagnosis day (part two)
More cancer, another biopsy, a trip on a secret staff bus, a plastic surgeon meeting, pre-op testing and a lot of tummy squeezing. The mastectomy is on, the tummy is borderline.

10) 31 January: Fat testing day
One CT scan and one feel-like-you-are-wetting-yourself moment to check whether I had a good blood vessel in my tummy to transfer to my boobie.

11) 1 February: The day I decided to start this blog
A major mental milestone, this blog helps me stay positive, while keeping my loved ones informed and helping others diagnosed with the big C!

12) 4 February: Carbo-loading day
Ok, so with the volume of chocolate coming through the letterbox on a daily basis, this was more like a two-week period. But, on this day, at a work away session, I ate a lot. I believe this was a major step forward for tummy and will always think about it when rubbing aqueous cream into new boobie.

13) 10 February: Decision day
Tummy confirmed as new boobie. Did a little dance (away from the surgeons of course)!

14) 14 February: Provera day one
The countdown to freezing embryos begins. Won’t mention what happened to Duncan that day. More of a fertility milestone for him than me. And on Valentine’s Day!

15) 15 February: Last supper with D day
Sounds a bit dramatic, but it was actually a beautiful meal at the Cutty Sark pub that reminded me of the importance of taking time out to savour special moments with loved ones.

16) 19 February: Pre-assessment and mobile off day
Memorable not because I found out about leeches, physio moves and arm measuring, but because I turned my work emails off on my Blackberry for the first time in a long time. The red button now only flashes to alert me of good wishes.

17) 20 February: the day I tried my first ever Nandos
Ok, don’t judge me. Not quite the last supper I had imagined. Couldn’t resist. First time ever – and with my parents.

18) 21 February: Surgery day
Wasn’t around much, but hear it went well. Got a new boobie. Got rid of cancer. Not a bad day.

19) 22 February: The day I survived
Owwwwwwwwwww! It hurt, but I got through it, and that is all that matters.

20) 23 February: The day I got up
Getting out of bed is only a big event if you thought you’d never get out again the day before.

21) 24 February: The day the drains started coming out
They don’t hurt if you breathe in and out three times and follow the nurse’s instructions. Go to your happy place and you’ll be fine.

22) 25 February: Big reveal day
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the mirrors or the tears. I did manage to wash myself and pull my big knickers up though, so it wasn’t all bad. I also got rid of that moving mattress (certainly something worth celebrating).

23) 26 February: The day I got released
Hospital day 5 means home time. Felt good sinking down into our old mattress and getting settled with my home comforts.

24) 1 March: The day I did nothing
Having overworked my arm the day before, today was a day of reading and film watching. Never underestimate the restorative power of nothing. I have been too busy in life to notice.

25) 3 March: The day I finished my first post-surgery book
I love books, but could never get into them after my hip surgery. I take this as a good sign my brain is starting to fire again.

26) 5 March: The day I dressed myself
Wouldn’t have made this a milestone a few weeks ago. It’s amazing how much excitement can be gained from putting your socks on. I also passed wound care today, so one step forward.

27) 6 March: The day I walked in the park
Ok, so we had to drive there, but Greenwich Park had never looked so inviting with the early signs of spring. I even got to see the deer and admire the view.

28) 7 March: Pathology results day
The first day of the rest of my life. A big meeting that reinforced the importance of seeking out milestones and making a difference every day. Friday was also the day my wonderful nurse of a mum went back home to leave Duncan and I to fend for ourselves. I am happy to report that we are doing pretty well. Duncan is spending most of his time trying to stop me lifting things (I have resorted to painting my nails in the hope that the frustration of chipping the paint will stop me in my tracks) and we did have a rather interesting discussion about the merits of a scrubbing brush when doing the washing up (he is going to buy one this weekend).

29) 8 March: Duncan does the washing up day (and gets a quick look)
A monumental life event. Ok, so he struggled with the pan, but he did great (even without a scrubbing brush). His reaction to the ‘new’ me was thoughtful and kind. He even towel-dried my back when I couldn’t reach. I also got to remove the sticky mesh on my tummy and the final steri-strips on my boob, so am starting to look less like an accident victim.

30) 9 March: Bye bye Provera day
The window to help preserve my fertility is starting to open. Have also just had a lovely lunch outside for the first time this year.

They may not be big, but for me, each one of these milestones has made 2014 one of the busiest and most emotional yet – and it’s still only March. Each date has made such a lasting impression, I didn’t even need to consult a diary to write this post.

There will be many more cancer milestones (and more tenuous ones) to come (from chemo day one to radiotherapy planning day and the day I get my first tattoo) and I intend to embrace and smile in the face of each one. After all, a life without milestones, however small, is not really a life at all.

So, raise a glass to milestones. May you all have many happy ones this year.

 

Breast cancer lesson number 25: Now is the time to stop waiting and start living

Ask me what one of the hardest things about living with breast cancer is and I won’t mention the pain, the frustration, the sadness or the fact I can’t wear pretty much anything from my wardrobe (if it’s not button up, zip down or very stretchy, it just won’t work). For me, an impatient, ambitious, run-before-you-can-walk type person, one of the hardest things is the waiting. Because, when you’ve got lots of tests and a dedicated team all rallying round to save you, there’s lots of it!

Now, by waiting, I don’t mean waiting rooms (with a good book and my mum at my side, I could wait all day). I still have mixed emotions about the fact there is rarely anyone even close to my age in any waiting room (I nearly pounced on a young woman on pre-op day because she looked like she was in her 30s). No, by waiting, I mean waiting for the next hospital appointment, waiting for the biopsy results, waiting for the surgery, waiting for the pathology results, waiting to start fertility, waiting for chemo and waiting for the letters summoning me to all these things to come through the door. It’s not the waiting so much as it is the fear and the sleepless nights that descend when certainty is replaced with those wonderful words: ‘what if?’

Waiting in cancer land is like queuing for a new ride at a theme park. You have a rough idea of how long it will take, but that gives you no comfort. You think, when you join the end of the queue, your turn will just never come. And then, when it’s your time to sit down waiting for the action to start, you wonder why you even wasted a moment worrying. That is, until you join another queue for the next ride and the pattern starts all over again. I’m a Brit, I’m polite when queuing, I’m a patient patient, and I should really relish the opportunity to stand in line and wait my turn. Trouble is, when your life is on the line, even the smallest of waits seems like an eternity.

There is one comment from yesterday’s pathology meeting that has been playing on my mind. When I asked about the future and the probability (the higher the stage, the higher the risk) of the cancer returning, I was faced with a lifetime of uncertainty. Every individual and every cancer diagnosis is different. My surgeon explained that if I can get through the next 10 years, I can get through the next 60 (92, maybe I’ll be the fittest grannie going). That’s one whole decade of standing in line. Even I, queue queen (I have a tendency to gravitate to lines longer than about five people), think that’s a pretty long queue. Yesterday, I walked into the hospital thinking I just had chemo left. I came out with a course of radiotherapy thrown in too. Cancer doesn’t play by the rules and stand in line, so why should I?

So today is the day I stop waiting and start living. The appointments will come and go, the treatment will come and go. The cancer was here and now it is gone. Life is a colourful tapestry of memories and magical moments – and most of these aren’t made while waiting for something to happen. I will go to the Amalfi coast (after years of hoping), I will get married (once Duncan agrees to there being more than four guests), I will achieve my dream of looking good in a pair of shorts (maybe not this summer while on chemo) and I will try and seek out something in every day that reminds me that you only get out what you put in. Your challenge, should you wish to accept it, is to help me keep smiling, keep positive and keep adding to that tapestry so that this next decade can be the best one ever!

Diary, you’re about to get busy!