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! 

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!