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 eight: Fashion has its place, just not in the hospital

Dress with confidence and you will feel good. It’s a lesson I learned with my hip surgery, having spent months in black joggers and oversized jumpers. I didn’t want to look in the mirror, not because I didn’t like myself, but because the picture never changed. Not this time!

When I started this process, I promised myself I would do everything in my power to stay true to myself. That means bright pink tops, navy dresses, pink belts and matching ballet pumps. For those of you who know me well, you’ll know I am not the least bit vain – I painted my toes for the first time ever last year and it took me years to realise that green cords and a long brown jumper are not going to get you anywhere in publishing! I only decided to match my shoes with my clothes in 2009 (maybe I have said too much)!

When it comes to fashion – by which I mean dressing up not being on trend – however, it seems cancer has other ideas. Take this morning, for example. I selected a pretty navy lace top (a birthday present from my parents) for a fertility clinic appointment, so convinced was I that I would remain fully clothed throughout. Twenty minutes in and I was wrestling to remove my top so that the nurse could take more blood. Trust me, bending over while trying to get a top over your head when you can’t reach the button at the back, is not a good look. I resembled a magician trying to escape from a straightjacket – a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the nurse who thought my determination to get it off unaided was hilarious. I am glad to say the top survived – but it was a close call.

The sad thing is, it seems one wardrobe malfunction is but the tip of the iceberg. Then there are the knickers. Recommended post-op knickers for those who are having the rather glamorous tummy tuck (or DIEP flap to be scientific) are big. And, by big, I mean HUGE! Bridget Jones would be proud. I was hoping my artificially flat stomach would stay in on its own, without the extra support!

Only piece of good news is that I can’t wear them when the two drains sticking out my stomach are still in place.

Let’s not forget the bras! As I am opting for immediate reconstruction, I must confess, I didn’t think I’d need a special bra. How wrong was I! While I admire the care and science that goes into creating post-surgery bras for women, I have to say, my heart sank when I went to a department store on Oxford Street yesterday to pick up a couple. For starters, you need to go up a back size because of the swelling – and no woman wants to go up a size in anything other than cup size. Visiting a lingerie department for a post-surgery bra is like going to a sweet shop and coming out with an empty paper bag. You feel special for all the wrong reasons and you generally don’t get lace or ribbon or silky bits. They also don’t come in navy or pink, which, as explained above, is just not part of the Scully colour palette.

The lesson here is, don’t go to the high street – shop online. From the sofa, it is easier to admire the craft and healing fibres without feeling like you’re missing out.  You are even exempt from paying VAT, which is a bonus (just make sure you call customer services to claim back if the option to remove VAT is not available).  I also have brand recommendations if you’d like them, courtesy of my lovely breast reconstruction nurse.

One interesting discovery in this rather unfashionable episode, was that around 80% of women are wearing the wrong bra size. Having discovered this fact, I promptly dug out the tape measure (useful bra fitting guide link should you wish to follow suit). I have been a 34B for as long as I can remember (even though my dress and top sizes have altered). Thankfully, I passed the test and have saved myself from the shame of having to admit to hospital staff that I had over inflated my assets.

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I am pleased to report, however, it’s not all small boobs and big knickers. Determined as I am to feel myself in hospital (after the morphine has subsided), I have splashed out on lovely nightshirts (not my first choice in nightwear, but if you ever need a button down shirt for easy access, I have some good tips), a soft dressing gown and fluffy slippers. I now also have a rather stylish selection of zip-up sweatshirts, which I think will be getting a bit too much wear post-surgery.

Cancer, you can have my right breast, but you won’t take my style – what little I have of it. I plan to dress to impress, even if it’s only for the lovely ward staff!