If I were ever to write a book about my brush with cancer that would be the title. People look horrified when I disclose I suffered a recurrence almost ten years after the initial bolt from the sky. Inevitably follows the question, ‘Is everything ok now?’. Implied is are you cured now? This is one question I don’t know how to answer. So far so good, it has been almost seven years clear. But we have been here before. The magical five = remission and the even more mystical ten = cure, or so I was led to believe by my well meaning consultant, who was obviously an optimistic soul.
I am no expert nor am I medically trained. But in my humble opinion I don’t think the word cure and breast cancer can be uttered with 100% certainty with the same breath. I don’t know about other cancers but it seems to me that recurrence is very common amongst the women I have met since 1998 and their acquaintances, friends and families. Maybe more research should be done to look into why and what if anything can be done to lessen the chances.
I couldn’t have had a better prognosis; they even claimed it was pre-cancer, DCIS which stands for Ductal Carcinoma In Situ, which to the man in the street means it is still contained in the ducts. However this was the bit I couldn’t get my head round, I still needed surgery as in time it will definitely become invasive. One the one hand I was told I was very lucky, then the feel good factor was snatched away by the extent of surgery required. There wasn’t even a lump, for goodness sake, just some abnormality.
I was told there was no rush, I had plenty of time to get used to the idea and make a decision. Ah newsflash, doctors are not God, no offence, doctors but one did misdiagnose me in the first place and this consultant proved to be wrong. There was a 5mm invasive tumour already in my breast which was only revealed during the operation. Luckily I went for a second opinion and didn’t have to wait the eight weeks for an immediate reconstruction, as my consultant was also a plastic surgeon.
Nevertheless, the prognosis was still excellent. No chemo nor radiotherapy required. Off you go and enjoy the rest of your life. This blip would not shorten my normal lifespan, I was assured.
Well guess what nine and a half years later … I had the lump right at the bottom of the saline implant. I recalled the doctor saying that it generally has a ten year lifespan so I wasn’t too bothered. Quick call to the Marsden, they’ll book me in for day surgery, whip it out, put in a shiny new one and off I go again…
Irony is I was comforting another lady who seemed very anxious in the waiting room while reading Ian Rankin and that perpetually drunk Rebus. You know to start worrying when the senior registrar ignores your question as to if everything was ok. Then disappears and summons the consultant, who incidentally was someone I’d never met. Then a mobile Ultrasound Scan is wheeled in, didn’t even know they existed; trust me when the machinery comes to you that spells bad news. The cold gel is applied and spread and then the immortal word:
It’s not the implant
at which point I went into hysterics. The consultant was far from sympathetic.
Surely Mrs B you must have had some idea this might happen
Ah actually no. They had taken everything so I assumed in my ignorance that there was nothing for it to come back. I worried about the other breast but sod’s law it was the same one. A microscopic cancer cell left behind, undetected by the naked eye? Who knows? Because I didn’t take the 5 year course of Tamoxifen as I was still young and might want another child? Or just damn unlucky?
Nobody warned me that they have to always leave a bit of skin flap to sew up the wound and that was the site of the 2.9cm grade 3 invasive tumour. Grade 3 is the most serious before it has spread to your other organs, called metasis and signals the end. Then they don’t talk about remission or cure or treatment but palliative care and we all know what that means.
This time they didn’t tell me I was very lucky. Though one nurse who knew me from before did comment that at least I had nine years clear. The NHS machinery went into full drive and threw in the full armoury, surgery, chemo, radiotherapy and tamoxifen, in that order. As on cue the hair fell out in patches and I just had it all shaved off and was instantly transformed into a buddhist ‘nun’. All I needed was the orange robe and I could be an extra.
Lucky or unlucky? Well that’s debatable. Unlucky to have had cancer in the first place at a relatively young age, even more to suffer a recurrence when the finish line was flapping at almost touching distance. Lucky that it was such an excellent user friendly type of cancer the first time. Apparently DCIS is the best one to get if fate decrees you must have breast cancer because it is the earliest stage and it doesn’t usually recur in the other breast. And of course the piece de resistance is that the recurrence was detected in time for the tumour not to have spread and I survived while many good ones have gone before me.
I guess you win some and you lose some. Do I worry if it will come back? Hell yes, all the time. If it can happen once, twice, what is to say it can’t again? I predict it won’t be third time lucky. I have already decided if offered I will refuse chemotherapy. The cure was really worse than the disease. It damaged my heart muscle and almost killed me two years later.
At the time the bit of paper you sign warn you of a hundred million possible side effects but are you really in the right state of mind to read the small print. And though cancer has singled us out, we still are under the delusion that no, they have to cover themselves and warn you but it is not going to happen. Like you never think it is going to happen to you.
And at the time there wasn’t much choice. And my daughter was in her early teens. And I thought I was indispensable to my family; it turned out I wasn’t and was once again deluded as to my importance, but that is another story. Maybe best not go there. Even I am sick of hearing it.
Well the long and short is I am still here, alive and kicking and refusing to go quietly into the night. Maybe it would be more convenient for my ex if I had just disappeared off the face of the earth but someone is looking after me up there. Maybe Sharman is my guardian angel; someone I met on the cancer ward the first time round. She was only 40.
Moral of the story: Live life now. You want to eat that piece of yummy fattening high calories chocolate gateau, go for it. To hell with the waistline. You have always wanted to swim with the dolphins, do it. You regret never having studied Law, go for it, it is never too late. You are stuck in an unhappy, unhealthy soul destroying marriage/relationship, have the courage to end it.
Be happy, be free, most of all, live life to the full. Mama taught me a lot of good stuff but one disservice was to drum into me that looking after one’s needs is being selfish and that a woman must always put others first at the expense of your own health, happiness and even sanity. I don’t blame her personally, that was the way she was brought up. I blame thousands of years of male dominated Chinese culture. Cos with the sons a different rule applies. You can be as selfish as you like. In fact it is a pre-requisite of being a real man. If a man has an affair that is because he is a man and has needs. If a woman cheats then she is a tart and scum and will be disowned by all and sundry, especially her own disgraced family.