Breast cancer lesson number 34: Take one day at a time

Hermione Granger (of Harry Potter fame) has something every single cancer patient needs. By this, I don’t mean books (although you get given quite a few), a wand (wouldn’t say no, though) or intellect (although it does come in handy when tackling those cancer terms). By this, I mean a time turner. Basically, if you ever need to be in two places at any time, you can.

In the absence of said magical device, this morning was a little bit challenging. My task, on the face of it, was simple. Visit the Assisted Conception Unit at 9am for a blood test with an anaesthetist and then head over to oncology for a 9.45am with a cancer doctor. You can usually get quite a lot done in 45 minutes. Not so in hospital. Blink and you can miss a whole day in cancer land.

Armed with a cup of tea (second of the day as first was one designed to warm the veins), five layers and a scarf, I was toasty and ready for my blood test at 8.50am. Little did I know, it would be 11.20am when they actually managed to squeeze me in to take it (by which time I had changed departments, undressed for the oncologist, redressed, and pretty much lost the benefit of all the tea drinking). The good news? He got the blood. The bad news? It wasn’t easy. The good news? At least I can handle the pain even with bad veins. The bad news? Even with a high pain threshold, it still wasn’t very nice.

Why is it that time always seems to disappear quickly when you need it the most? Running between departments certainly doesn’t do much for the stress levels, so first lesson of the day is: one day, one appointment. Any more and you quickly develop an unhealthy obsession with clocks (which all conveniently like to tell different times). In fact, I think my Blackberry likes to tease me by moving forward a minute a day just to play with my mind.

Albeit in the wrong order, I did get to both appointments and, am now, one step closer to the end of my treatment. Abraham Lincoln once said: ‘the best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.’ All I can say is, thank goodness for that. Today, I got one long look into the future. Eighteen weeks of chemotherapy followed by five weeks of radiotherapy. My reward for passing this endurance challenge? Five years of anti-oestrogen drug Tamoxifen. If that future came all at once in a giant high-dose injection, I think my body would probably start walking… with my mind not far behind. Put it this way, left arm certainly wouldn’t produce a vein for that one.

Having had a whistle-stop tour through the world of cancer drugs and its wonderful list of side effects (starting with: ‘you will lose your hair’), it didn’t take long for the subject of time to rear its head once more. Because the cancer they extracted so neatly from my body was high stage and aggressive, they want to get going… as soon as possible. For someone still strapped into a body corset for the next three weeks and still currently injecting herself with fertility drugs in any part of her body that doesn’t feel tender (there aren’t many of those left), the prospect of swapping one set of drugs for another lot (while also still trying to laugh and cough without my tummy hurting) is not particularly inviting. Guys, this is really hard – and don’t let anyone tell you any different.

It looks like my next two weeks will be a delicate juggling act of blood tests (both fertility and cancer), appointments (scans, tests and assessments), a quick anaesthetic to collect some eggs and possibly the insertion of a PICC line. Fertility and cancer are fighting for my attention and they both need time. Trouble is, by the looks of both schedules (and the current uncertainty surrounding egg harvesting day) neither really wants to wait in line. Far from avoiding two appointments in one day, I’ll be hard pushed to avoid two at the same time. If life can’t magic up a time turner (or just a few extra hours in each day), I will just have to get used to the fact that the day I wake up expecting might not be the day I end up experiencing. 

The future does looks brighter with a game plan, and I just have to accept that, for the foreseeable future, my time is not my own. All I can do is take one day at a time. If I can get through this unscathed, I will give myself the best chance of survival. Then, I might just have time on my hands – or on my side – once more. 

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!