Breast cancer lesson number 28: Don’t forget your toothbrush… or the dentist

There’s one thing I fear more than giant needles, mean cancer-fighting drugs and surgeons with sharp scalpels ­– and that’s the dentist. Don’t ask me why. I have never had invasive procedures, don’t have a clue what real toothache feels like and I have been blessed with lovely dentists (my childhood dentist even had a photo of the town on his ceiling to keep us patients entertained). I know it’s irrational. I know it sounds truly bonkers when I seem to be smiling in the face of everything else. But, there is something about the prospect of sitting in a dentist’s chair that makes me feel a little bit sick! Maybe it’s the fact that when someone has their hand in your mouth, no one can hear you scream.

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I have to admit, however, that following today’s early-morning appointment, I may have to reconsider my view of the dentist. I still hate the chair (more so today because I had to raise my knees to stop it pulling on my tummy ) and the fact every time I go to swallow I fear the dentist’s tools will end up in my cheek! But, I have now discovered a word that makes dentists roll up their sleeves and forget the flossing lecture. The word? CHEMO!

I felt sorry for my dentist this morning. No one wants an 8.30am patient with more problems than can fit on a medical history form (they should make the boxes just a little bit bigger though. Am not sure having room just to put the words ‘breast cancer’ is enough). A few minutes racing through new boobs, fertility, chemo and radio and my check-up turned from a quick blast of dentist speak: ‘one, two, upper part erupted etc’ into a 20-minute ‘let’s-fill-and-seal-what-we-can-to-stop-the-chemo-getting-your-teeth’ session. I reckon my teeth are now so well reinforced, I could make a stick of rock feel like a stick of celery.

I would never have summoned up the courage to go to the dentist two weeks after the introduction of new boobie, had it not already been penned in the diary (I don’t like crossing things out). But, having had such a pleasant and supportive experience, I’m already booked in to go back in June (with the hygienist in a few weeks time).

Humbled again by the kindness of strangers, it’s amazing just how many people there are willing you on and arming you with the tools to stay strong.

Read booklets about chemo (which my breast care nurse did warn me is like reading the list of side effects in a packet of paracetamol) and they talk about the possibility of getting a sore mouth, dry mouth, ulcers, tooth decay, infection, bleeding gums, oral thrush and taste changes! Nice. They also advise people to use a soft toothbrush, brush after every meal, use an alcohol-free mouthwash (which Listerine in photo isn’t by the way), avoid spicy and acidic food (if mouth sore), take regular sips of water and chew sugar-free gum.

Hopefully, with a combination of toothpaste treats and dental checks, I’ll get through this next phase with happy – if not pearly white – teeth.

So, today is the day I say goodbye to ‘the fear’ and hello to mouthwash! My teeth are ready for battle – now I just need to work out what else needs a bit of reinforcement!

Breast cancer lesson number 24: Not all upgrades are worth having!

I have only ever been upgraded once before in my life. Duncan and I were on a holiday in Cyprus and, having opted for a really tiny hire care, we were upgraded to something a little bit better. As the designated driver, I was visibly thrilled at the news. Duncan was laughing. I didn’t know why until I saw the car – or maybe juggernaut with a giant boot would be a better description. Having driven nothing larger than a Nissan Micra (I am pretty fond of my small car), it took me days to get used to it. As anyone who has been up the Troodos Mountains will know, big cars and little windy roads with sheer drops are not a match made in heaven.

Today, at my pathology report meeting, I received the results of the testing done on the cancerous mass – or should I say masses. This meeting is one of the most important meetings in the whole process because it’s the first time they’ve tested everything and it’s the first time they know for certain what really went on behind naughty right boobie!

With the results, came the second upgrade of my life (why can’t I just be upgraded to first class on a plane like normal people!?). The tumour they found was larger than anticipated; there were other masses (making it multi-focal cancer); and while there were only two lymph nodes affected out of a possible 13 (the number of lymph nodes present in a body varies from person to person), the cancer in one of the lymph nodes had spread into the surrounding tissue. This means I have stage 3 cancer, which is sometimes referred to as locally advanced breast cancer. Stage 4 cancer is secondary cancer and it doesn’t even get a mention in some cancer leaflets.

Ok, so you’re probably thinking that there’s no way Jackie will be able to get a positive post out of these findings. But, I am delighted to say I can and I have! The reason being is that I AM CANCER FREE. Yep, you heard that right. THE CANCER HAS LEFT THE BUILDING – AND THE BODY!!! Yes, it’s not the best news in the world (although the surgeon did say it was better than they thought it would be). Yes, it means I will have to have chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a course of hormone therapy. But, I can now say I HAD STAGE 3 INVASIVE LOBULAR BREAST CANCER AND NOW IT’S GONE.

Today has been a good day. The surgeon and the breast care nurse were surprised to see me looking so well – and bolt upright. The surgeon had a quick peek of the new improved me and looked very impressed with the results (it’s nice to get nods of approval when you take your top off). I met the surgeon who saved my life and got the chance to ‘thank him for working his magic’, and I am no longer waiting to hear what the next six months are going to look like. My cancer surgeon doesn’t want to see me again for a whole YEAR (woohoo) and there was an incredible amount of smiling and laughing. Anyone would have thought we were having a celebration rather than discussing the fact the cancer was trying its hardest to take me away.

Thank god for amazing surgeons and for Christmas Eve 2013. My engagement may have been the best Christmas present ever, but finding this lump on Christmas Eve has got to be up there. While no one can tell me what the future holds and whether or not it will come back, the fact is, right now, I’m lucky to be alive – a fact that’s only just starting to sink in!

Breast cancer lesson number 21: Scars are tattoos with better stories

I am proud of all of the scars life has chosen to give me (maybe not the one from burning my arm on the cooker while trying to make victoria sponge – that just hurt).

Scars tell stories. Scars signal strength. Scars remind us that life is hard, but that every time we hit a difficulty, we have the power to recover and that the memories do fade. Every scar I have makes me who I am – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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When I came out of my hip surgery with a drain mark, a seven-inch scar and 44 holes, I thought I was pretty hard. Looking down at each mark today, I think of the moment I learned to walk again (in my parents’ kitchen), the moment I took my first post-op cycle ride and the moment I stepped back into high heels (still look a bit tipsy in anything over a centimetre so this is still a rare occurrence). Little did I know that just over six years later, there would be a few more impressive scars fighting for the top spot as a marker of life’s challenges.

With my wound care appointment and my first trip back to hospital since surgery fast approaching, I thought I’d take a moment to assess the scars that are now covering my body (don’t worry, there won’t be any photographic evidence).

1)    The tummy tuck: appropriately I think, the big tummy tuck scar is a 38cm whopper in the shape of a smile. It is glued together (open for the eyes to enjoy) and is covered in a thin sticky mesh tape, which keeps it protected and attracts every bit of fluff possible. When I look at it I smile at how flat my tummy is and how many people contributed to the chocolate fund to enable me to have the surgery. I am very lucky. I believe it will look angry for 12 to 18 months and will then be neatly tucked away under my bikini line. Nice!

2)    The drain holes: two in the abdomen and two down the right side (with a few pinholes where the stitches were). Blink and you’ll miss them! When I do locate them I think, they were painless tubes attached to sports bottles and they did a good job. Thanks drains!

3)    The belly button: Now moved to its new position (quite what they did I will never know – cut it out and dig a hole to reposition it?) it is surrounded in stitches that look like threads of cotton. I think I get a trim tomorrow when I go in! When I look at it, I laugh at the fact they went to such lengths to keep it in a normal position. They think of everything.

4)    The boob: imagine a milky mound with a saucepan-shaped scar on it. Basically, the boob skin is still the same, except for a circle where they took off the nipple (the nipple area is now a flap of skin from my missing tummy – complete with light tummy hairs). There is a line extending out from the circular scar, moving towards to the right armpit. This incision helped them reach and extract all my lymph nodes, saving me from a further scar under my arm. Currently covered in little steri-strips, I am still waiting for the big big reveal. When I think of my mound, I don’t think of what I had, I think of what I have: my life. I am grateful to those surgeons who are both trained to take the cancer away and create something that means I won’t be afraid to look in the mirror for the rest of my life. Take that cancer!

In short, it’s less Frankenstein’s monster and more a new improved me.

I read a beautiful quote earlier: ‘Scars remind you where you’ve been. But they don’t have to dictate where you’re going.’ I’d like to amend it slightly: ‘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.’

So make today a day to be proud of all your scars. And, if you don’t have any, start living!