Well, it's been a while since I've posted a blog on here. The reason for this hiatus is a good one. It's all still quiet on the cancer front. Apart from the niggles and worries that I can never really shift (as every other so-called cancer 'survivor' knows) it's been pretty much plain sailing.
A lovely lady from Church asked me today when I would be posting again, and Facebook seems to be doggedly on my case to put my virtual pen to virtual paper and share an update. So, here it is...
My last oncology appointment was in May. It was a routine appointment with my eminent, world-class Professor, highly regarded by all who have been fortunate enough to be treated by him. I was checked for lymphadenopathy and breast lumps. Neither were evident. It's seems strange to me now that the origin of my cancer was in the breast, as the metastatic, malignant Triple Negative Breast Cancer tumours in my brain have somehow dwarfed the memory of the breast cancer.
The Prof also performed an examination of both breasts as part of the trial I was part of, called Import High (where a higher and more focused dose of radiotherapy was administered to the cancerous breast). There was "slight breast shrinkage" but in comparison to my breast cancer peers, many of whom who needed mastectomies, and others who tragically died, I got off lightly. It was also reassuring to be checked over by a specialist. In my previous appointment with the surgeon who conducted my wide local incision (medical lingo for cutting out the lump), two young male medical students inspected my breasts. They were not training for breast surgery, so they awkwardly patted them as if they were a pair of unexploded bombs, looking around the room to avoid catching my eye!
The next step is a CT scan on my brain on Friday. Unlike the usual protocol, if all is well, I won't have a review meeting and I will be advised by letter. The Prof also wants to do another CT scan in 2020 to coincide with year 6 of the Import High trial. To me, it was extremely important that a trial of this kind would make a difference to breast cancer patients in the future. So, the cancer journey (to coin a completely overused phrase) continues. I'm on a narrow country lane now, far from the fast-paced motorway I was on three and a half years ago and at some point I will leave it all behind and feel the grass beneath my feet.
I am here by the Grace of God, by the gifts of the magnificent team at Royal Stoke Hospital and with more than a little help from my friends, husband and Dad. My heart bursts with gratitude and I hope and pray for the healing of those who are still in the eye of the storm. You know who you are.
Apologies for the over-use of (mixed) metaphors and hyperbole
In my opinion, there is no greater test of character than when a woman is diagnosed with cancer.
I am incredibly inspired by those around me who are facing the manifold challenges of this disease, applying bucket-loads of strength, dignity and good humour to withstand their treatment. Having walked in their shoes, I know how important it is to dig deep to face the daily onslaught of symptoms, the mental challenges and the management of the feelings of those around you. It is impossible to describe how one day you are living a 'normal' life and then in an instant, your world has turned on its axis and you just have to completely re-orient. You have no choice over what happens to you after a cancer diagnosis. What you do have a choice in, is how you deal with it. So this brings me to five amazing women.
I met Kate at my first chemo in Jan 2014 when she was already an old hand and took the whole thing in her stride. Her hair had long gone and she was on chemo for life. I was struck then by her emotional resilience and watched in awe (and great sadness) as this impressive woman took blow after blow from her vicious cancer which has stolen her career, her life and her future. It was devastating to hear that recently she was told that she could no longer drive and would be confined to a wheelchair. And, whilst she was facing this mammoth situation, both her parents went through cancer themselves. This is a feat of endurance that would break the rest of us. She is a courageous woman and is still with us despite everything that has been thrown at her.
As I was celebrating my 'cancerversary' (five years since diagnosis) in October of last year, my beautiful oldest friend, a clever, witty, warm-hearted person, accomplished wordsmith and narrowboat-dwelling free spirit was there to celebrate with me. She was overflowing with love for her partner and radiating happiness. One day later, she was taken ill and eventually diagnosed with lung cancer (she has never smoked). She has handled this horrible news with grace and humour, her usual sunny disposition and all-round loveliness (fuelled by fabulous vegan meals cooked by her partner). I am humbled to see how she is dealing with cancer and I am praying for a full recovery.
The first of Dean's friends I met when we started going out was Josie (who made me so welcome when we were attending a wedding in Florida). A warm, intelligent and funny person, she is the heart (and soul) of Dean's group of friends. She is incredibly generous and throws a fabulous party. I was extremely shocked to learn that she had been diagnosed with cancer in her head and neck, including her tongue. However, despite the intensity of the treatment ahead, I knew that Josie would tackle this with the strength and no-nonsense attitude I always associate with her. It's been arduous so far but Josie is ploughing on and I respect her greatly for her fortitude and spirit.
Another of Dean's friends (and mine too), Gill, has also been diagnosed with cancer. One of the most gentle and delightful people I have ever met, she is approaching this with such dignity and patience that again I am in awe. Already facing unpleasant side effects from chemo and losing her beautiful hair (which must be even more unpalatable as she is a hairdresser) she maintains the brightest of smiles despite everything.
Finally, a church friend who welcomed me when I was new to the congregation has been valiantly facing cancer second time round. Yvonne is an inspiring and incredibly strong woman who has tackled many challenges with her powerful faith and indefatigable courage (even enduring the woeful Stoke City season that has recently passed). Testament to her character is that she is still standing despite countless blows, stints in our local hospice, her foot in a cast and pain throughout her body as a result of the spread of her cancer. After all that, she maintains a great sense of humour and supports other cancer sufferers with her empathy and understanding. She is an incredible example of God's work in her life and I pray for healing for her.
Well, if you have had the perseverance to read to the end of this blog post, then you have a tiny fraction of the strength of these inspirational women. I am proud to know them and place them all in God's hands to guide them through this perilous journey.
We've all heard of fake news of course. Everyone loves good news. But what about completely underwhelming news?
Case in point: Obesity is the second biggest preventable cause of cancer in the UK. Thanks Cancer Research UK for this incredible insight. Next they'll be researching whether smoking causes cancer or indeed whether the Pope is Catholic.
I think research into curing cancer is incredibly valuable and I hope and pray that one day, these brilliant minds will come up with a cure. However, it feels to me like this pointless finding is going to have little impact on people's lives.
Before I was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer in November 2013, I was a tee-total pescetarian who had never smoked a cigarette, ate healthily and exercised regularly. The friends I have lost to this vicious disease were (and are) people who lived a normal, moderate life. In fact, many were incredibly committed to a super-healthy lifestyle and it was a bitter pill to swallow that these people, despite their diligence and commitment to their well-being died anyway.
Prior to having cancer I never gave a thought to trying to prevent it. I find it hard to believe that many people do. If they did, would anyone smoke, drink to excess or over-indulge? Cancer is abstract for the uninitiated. So, it seems counter-intuitive to put measures in place to mitigate against something that may never happen. We are all just people. No-one has a perfect lifestyle (even those who pretend they do on social media). So, who is going to look at this news and get themselves to boot camp forthwith to make sure they keep cancer at bay?
The other part of this announcement that I find irksome is that there is an element of implicit blame on cancer sufferers. Nobody deserves cancer, whatever their lifestyle. It's not helpful to those who are going through treatment to feel like something they did resulted in cancer. Cancer is indiscriminate. All of us should look after ourselves and do our best to be healthy, but we are people, not automatons.
At my Church, instead of giving something up for Lent, we are going to take up something good for us instead. This may be prayer, reading the bible, being more compassionate or finding ways to help others. I would suggest that we all consider changes to our lifestyles, not to prevent cancer, but to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. It's pretty obvious really.
When we were young we had family friends that really were family. Steph and I were pristine, dressed in whiter than white knee socks and neatly tied pigtails, the boys taught us how to play cricket, had an underground hideout and took us crabbing. On the amazing holidays we shared over the years, we loved spending time with each other as did our parents. The Macs and Cokes were a family of eight.
This week I saw those boys, now accomplished men with children of their own, support each other as they delivered their beloved Mum's eulogy. Sue had been a special part of my life since I was a baby. She was an incredible woman. Strong but kind. She had been with Pete, her husband, since her late teens and they had a marriage that was so solid that others could only dream of it. She was incredibly supportive to me during my cancer and I was devastated when she was diagnosed with it herself. But, she didn't stop supporting me even when her cancer was advancing and at her funeral I met a woman who had cancer for whom Sue had done the same. She was the heart and soul of the family and loved spending time with her grandchildren. She died just before Christmas and her loss is devastating to her family and to us, her extended family. I look at the photo of us all on my wall and it is terribly sad that three of us, my Mum, my sister and now Sue are no longer with us. But my memories will endure and love lasts beyond death.
Sadly, cancer continues to blight my life and the lives of the people I love. My beautiful, clever, lifelong best friend has been diagnosed with lung cancer. A talented wordsmith, witty and warm with the biggest of hearts, she was by my side throughout my cancer challenges of the last five years. She even told me that she wished she could take it from me. It is devastating that now she has to face it too. I have been praying my heart out for her and I know she will face this with the humour, grace and optimism she has always displayed. It makes me even more sad that she had been the happiest I had ever seen her, due to her relationship with a man that she loves wholeheartedly. I know however that with her partner, family and network of friends she will be overwhelmed with love and support.
Shortly after I met my husband eleven years ago, he whisked me away to Florida for a friend's wedding. We were all staying in a villa and as I arrived, Dean went off to the stag do with the boys and I was left in the villa with a group of women I had never met. Although slightly intimidated I could not have been made more welcome by these lovely people. One of them in particular was so kind and funny that I liked her enormously right from the off. Fast forward to today and this lovely friend has been diagnosed with head and neck cancer (including the tongue). She has been characteristically upbeat, and again has an army of supporters and a fabulous husband.
It's harder than I expected to be the person who is watching and supporting friends with cancer. When I was suffering I knew that my loved ones were suffering too, but not to the same extent. My view on that has changed now. I feel helpless, but I know I can play my part in supporting them. Maybe that's one of the things I've learned from having cancer. It's a hateful disease but love is irrepressible and will overcome all.
So, yesterday I had a hospital appointment with the Professor who conducted my original breast cancer operation in December 2013. At the end of my previous appointment with my oncology Professor (the hospital does roll out the big guns), he had mentioned that the next step would be to understand why I had got cancer in the first place and whether it may be genetic. He also mentioned a trial I had taken part in called 'Impact' (a super blast of radiotherapy to the area where the tumour was) for future review and discussion. I didn't expect it to be a significant appointment, rather just a catch-up on both issues and an examination of his handiwork from five years earlier.
I had an hour-long session with a delightful medical student whilst I awaited the Professor's grand entrance. And then...there I was (alone for the first time at a hospital appointment, normally I would have my trusted back-up team of my Dad and husband) and was expecting a light-hearted discussion about how the trial results would 'impact' on women with breast cancer in the future. I had completely forgotten the conversation with my oncologist about genetics. The Professor arrived with an entourage of the first medical student, a new student and my former Breast Care Nurse.
I had the customary breast review (a thorough investigation from the Professor and a more tentative feel from the two young men, who I think were worried about hurting me!), we all exchanged pleasantries and I awaited a cursory discussion about the trial. Things started well with a positive note from the Professor who said he was delighted to say that sometimes the specialists can be wrong and that he was extremely pleased that I was healthy and on good form. So far, so good.
He then began to explain why he wanted to see me. I expected to discuss the trial, however, the conversation was entirely focused on genetics. My family is no stranger to cancer (and other life-threatening diseases), however, on consulting the cousins on my Mum's side, and my Dad on his side of the family, none of them had been through breast cancer.
The mood in the room darkened and I was completely unprepared for the subsequent discussion. I was vaguely aware of the BRCA gene and that those who carried it had a significantly higher risk of getting breast cancer than those who do not carry the gene. The Professor advised me that I may or may not have the gene and if I wanted to have the test, I would then have to deal with the implications of a positive result. I could be opening myself up to the prospect of surgery, pre-emptive treatments, high insurance premiums and many other issues further down the line.
I have only just celebrated my five year 'cancerversary' and was hoping to have left cancer in the past (concentrating on supporting those for whom cancer is well and truly in the present). So, do I want to open that can of worms? Erm...no. I really don't. This may be a contentious decision and I may live to regret it. I am not Angelina Jolie or Michelle Heaton (although I have been mistaken for the former several times *joke*). They are brave women who made life-changing decisions. I respect them greatly, but I trust that God will keep me safe and that I will not need to go down that road. I am still unsettled, but my heart tells me that this is right for me, right now and so I'll put down my can opener and move on.
We all have milestone dates in our lives, dates that come around every year, dates that you either dread or dates that you celebrate. The most common dates are birthdays and these are completely out of our control but you never forget your birthday (even if your husband/wife does).
Anniversaries in their most common form are dates whereby you celebrate a partnership or perhaps on a sadder note, we remember the date of the passing of somebody we love. As we go through life, these type of anniversaries tend to accumulate.
When you are a cancer survivor, you have additional dates etched into your memory, you'll never forget where you were or what you were doing when you heard the words 'you have cancer'. For me, that date was December 30th 2013. Today I am a 5 year cancer survivor. It was the day that life as I knew it ended and a new life began. From that day on, life would never be the same again whatever the outcome.
The first year after a cancer diagnosis is a brutal year: life changing and body changing surgery, chemo and then recovery followed by years of medication for lots of people. Sometimes I wanted to speed the clock up just to get me through those days. Five years of three monthly check ups, followed by six monthly check ups and then yearly check ups (massive fanfare). I always imagined how I would feel if I were lucky enough to reach the five year benchmark.
In many ways, this date has become the most important milestone and one that only fellow cancer survivors will understand. I have reached the magical five year mark! Most people will equate this to being cured or in complete remission but this of course is not completely true as many breast cancer survivors reach five, ten or even fifteen years only to hear that those pesky malignant cells have been hiding and waiting quietly until you're sipping on another celebratory cancerversary glass of champagne to surprise you with a recurrence.
Although I shall mark my five year cancerversary, I shall still remain cautiously optimistic for fear of jinxing myself. This is all part of my 'new normal' and the reality for many cancer survivors, a mixture of happiness, joy, anxiety and immense gratitude.
We also celebrate other milestones with far more thankfulness than ever before. Never again will I dread a birthday and say the obligatory 'woe is me, can't believe I'll be 50 in March'...Yes, it's another massive milestone that I have (almost) reached and it will be a privilege to be able to celebrate my special birthday as so many people don't get to do that.
What does one do to celebrate a cancerversary? My answer is quite simple, I shall celebrate purely waking up, feeling grateful to be alive and being able to simply enjoy life.
I have a wonderful family, a fabulous and supportive husband, three amazing children, the best circle of friends and since my original diagnosis, I am now the proud grandparent of three beautiful children. What more could I possibly celebrate?
I am the leading cause of death in developed countries.
I am the second leading cause of death in developing countries.
I am savage and underhand.
I make people sick.
I decimate families.
I erode confidence.
I am cruel and insidious.
I take special people away.
I am pervasive.
I am a master of disguise.
I give nothing but take away everything.
WHAT AM I?
Author's note: I know that this is an uncharacteristically acerbic post, but it is an outlet for me to vent. So, while we are celebrating the birth of our Lord and wonderful Christmas family time, people close to me who I love deeply are facing an imminent death, an impending diagnosis or debilitating treatment. Others will be mourning the loss of loved ones and will have a empty seat at the table.
So, as I am sure is the case for many of my cancer contemporaries, an annual appointment with the oncologist can be an anxiety inducing experience. In my case, even though I have received lots of good news recently, I still can't quite shake off the feeling that the butterflies in my stomach might burst out and land on the oncology Professor's forehead.
My usual modus operandi is to measure the feeling in the room (look for clues e.g. is he smiling? Are the nurses looking at me sympathetically? Is his handshake warm and welcoming?) before sitting down with my entourage (my dream team, wonderful Dad and amazing husband). If all the signs are good and his opening sentence is a positive one, then I am so giddy with relief that I essentially zone out for the remainder of the appointment.
I mitigate this problem by asking my Dad and Dean to make notes so that I can absorb the news when I'm back home.
Incredibly, despite the enormous pressure on the NHS, my oncologist always takes time to write a summary letter of what was discussed. This then gives me the chance to Google any complex terminology and disseminate the information to friends and family (and for this blog obvs.)
So, this one included my initial diagnosis:
"Triple negative ductal carcinoma left breast" is translated by me as "super aggressive cancer that cannot be treated by hormone therapies".
And my secondary diagnosis:
"Metastatic poorly differentiated carcinoma to the brain, had left craniotomy followed by whole brain radiotherapy" translated by me (I can't blame Google) as "OK...this is not looking good."
But that was then and this is now. I home in on the key phrases of the letter:
"CT and MRI scans of the head showed stable appearance and no new metastases...This is TREMENDOUS news!"
"It is looking OPTIMISTIC that this will have been a solitary metastasis."
"She is doing very well from a point of view of the breast cancer generally. Clinically there is no sign of any recurrence."
And...drum roll..."We are now optimistic of the chances of a CURE!!!!!" *Words: oncology Professor. Punctuation and capitalisation: Author's own.
So, again, it's an amazing miracle at God's hand. According to a butterfly conservation site, butterflies are considered to represent "freedom, beauty and peace". Exactly my aims for the future.
I'm no meteorologist but if I had known when I celebrated my 40th birthday five years ago what the storms ahead would be, I would have replaced my umbrella with a full-on body suit.
So, the conditions of cancer were stormy (a lumpectomy followed by turbulent vomiting), tempestuous (six sessions of chemo) through to downright savage (whole brain radiotherapy).
The forecast seemed so bleak (my terminal diagnosis in 2015) that it would have been easier to zip up my rain mac and stay indoors.
However, after every rainstorm, something beautiful occurs. A prism of colour that fills the sky. A symbol of hope and the promise of a pot of gold.
This month, I had my annual reviews with my neurosurgery and oncology consultants. My neurosurgeon hugged me and discharged me (WOW!) and the oncologist told me he had only had one patient before me who was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer that spread to the brain, in 28 years and that she was still alive and well. He even said that my outlook was sunny (well in more formal language, but that didn't help my weather metaphor) and that now I have the same chance of getting cancer (again) as anyone who has never had cancer (WOW!).
I was often to be seen in this outfit
So after the rain subsided and the clouds dissipated, the rainbow appeared. Being alive and cancer free, able to spend time with my loved ones is a huge pot of gold.
Now I am painfully aware that friends around me are still in the eye of the storm and I pray for them to make it through. But this is a story of hope, and God's love and grace. He has saved me from the hurricane and it's time to rebuild.
P.S. Debbie has her oncology review today, so I hope she finds her pot of gold too.
I am not a fan of technology telling me what to do. I have to brace myself for the obstreperous self-service super-market tills. I like to run as many steps as I choose rather than have a nagging automaton on my wrist. And, I prefer to write a blog post when I have something to say. Facebook however, just chastises me until I relent.
So, on viewing the blog after my Dad's heartfelt post last week, Facebook gave me the usual dig in the ribs to write a post. As I logged on, I was surprised and delighted to see that mine and Debbie's blog was heading towards the 200,000 views milestone.
What started off as an informational blog on tips to help sufferers improve their cancer journey, evolved as my journey evolved, from my Triple Negative Breast Cancer diagnosis in November 2013 to 'months not years to live' in October 2015. My blog became a mode of self-expression, a way of communicating my progress with friends far and wide and, I would like to think, a way of showing cancer sufferers that there could be a positive outcome.
My Dad and I had lunch today in the restaurant in which my agency colleagues had organised my 'pre-funeral' funeral. (I had always thought it was a shame that you didn't get to hear what people thought of you when you were alive!). It feels odd and somewhat disingenuous to be eating there three years later with a full head of hair, a normal-sized head and rather thrillingly, an 'in remission' status. It was also a wake-up call (I do tolerate being woken up by a phone) to remind me that life is as precious as a jewel but as delicate as a flower. It's only when something throws your world off balance that you yearn for a humdrum, uneventful life.
So, as the blog hits the 200k visits mark, I will remember that this blog is my narrative (and Debbie's too) and charts a journey of hope, faith, despair, lots of love and a miracle thrown in for good measure.
I'll write soon. Facebook wouldn't allow me to do otherwise.