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 one: Bridget Jones shouldn’t be the only company you keep in the hospital waiting room!

Sorry Bridget. It’s not you and your incessant calorie counting. It’s the fact you’re fictional! 

Diagnosis day is not something I imagine I will ever forget. When the highlight of the day is going to the hygienist, you know there’s something not quite right in the world!

Of course, ever the optimist, I didn’t think for one minute Friday 17 January 2014 would actually be diagnosis day. Dr Google had already convinced me the chances were slim and that I was more likely to have a fibroadenoma (if you want a bit of a science lesson) or ‘breast mouse’. 

That’s why I went to the hospital alone for the results of my biopsy and lymph node cell test. True to form, I was more worried about the fact there are only about two chairs in the breast clinic waiting room that have phone reception than I was the appointment itself.  Having spent enough time ‘guessing the illness’ with fellow waiting room visitors, I decided I would at least try and move chairs – all because I wanted to reply to a few work emails.

Benign lumps don’t need breast nurses to care for them. So, when a nurse came to collect me for my appointment, I already knew the result wouldn’t match my own rather amateur diagnosis. The appointment itself was a bit of a blur. I have just received the diagnosis letter in which the doctor describes me as being both ‘pleasant’ and ‘very shocked’. I am not sure inconsolable crying could ever be considered ‘pleasant’.

Amusingly, my thoughts didn’t turn to pain, suffering or surgery. In fact, I was more worried about the fact I hadn’t done my homework, researched the disease and constructed a detailed to-do list of actions and questions!

I don’t really remember the mammogram that followed (I didn’t have one at the start of the process, because women’s breasts tend to be too dense for the screening under the age of 40).  All I do remember is the kindness of those around me and the cups of tea, the tissues and my desperate attempts to reach family and friends. The phone reception is so bad at the hospital that I ended up mounting a very large window sill in the corridor to try and call my parents, Duncan and my amazing GP friend Hannah. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before I was scooped up and ushered into a room – I think I was making the corridors look untidy!

I am happy to say that even on one of the darkest days in my entire life, there was still space for humour. The funniest moment, however, came from a rather unusual source: Waitrose. Not content with the bottles of champagne flooding in to help us toast our engagement, Duncan and I took advantage of Waitrose’s January offer of a free bottle with every online shopping order. Needless to say, the delivery wasn’t the first thing on my mind when Duncan and I got home. Imagine our surprise, when I opened the door at 6pm, only to be greeted by one of the happiest Waitrose employees I have ever seen clutching our free bottle and beaming from ear to ear. ‘What are you going to celebrate?,’ he declared. ‘So many things,’ I replied. The bottle may still be sitting unopened, but whoever you were, thank you Mr Waitrose man for making me smile.

I have always said that if you want something done, give it to me in January. You may have caught me off guard on one day nasty cancer cells, but I am going to spend the rest of my life making sure there’s only one winner!