Tuesday 16 May 2017

Entering a New World

The fear of the return of cancer is a most unwelcome, uninvited guest for anyone who's stared down this heinous disease in the past. Nonetheless, over the last three years since diagnosis, I've taken solace in the fact that my cancer, of the grade three variety, with its particularly nasty and fast working cells, was deemed to have been caught early. I tweaked my diet, got more sleep, kept up the sport, never missed a tablet and wished on every wishbone - this is one of those occasions where I can fully justify use of the word literally - literally ever since.

Still, it wasn't ridiculous to think that some of those irksome cancer cells might have put two fingers up to chemo, broken through the formidable defence of my lymph system (even when only three of my eighteen removed lymph nodes showed any sign of cancer having ever darkened their doors, it's that sneaky) and skirted past the barricade of white blood cells into the red stuff. They might have faced up to a year of infusions of Herceptin, and miraculously found the oestrogen they needed to breed, despite its big switch off by my daily dose of Tamoxibollox, sorry, Tamoxifen when my own body was struggling to find any oestrogen anywhere, and was clearly missing it so.

Nonetheless, when I celebrated my three year Cancerversary at Christmas, I was in a good place. I was working hard and enjoying it. Chemo brain mixed with Menopausal Mindmush was finally beating some sort of retreat - or perhaps I was learning to deal with it - either way, it had become less galling and a little more bearable. And I was finally tolerating Tamoxifen and an Easter 2016 hysterectomy a little better. I'd had two books published, one of which was a direct result of having cancer, and I had another novel in its infancy. Indeed the horrors of that initial diagnosis seemed oceans away from the babbling brook of my current life and I was daring to think that I might just be OK.

It was a new year and I had pins and needles in my hands. I wasn’t worried but my wonderfully caring husband is very good at pushing me to the doctor for anything unexplained.

The doctors also weren’t worried. But it wasn't Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and it wasn’t a side effect of Tamoxifen. Because it was unexplained, I was sent for an MRI scan to rule out disc degeneration in my neck.

After the 9.00am scan I skipped away from the hospital towards the gym, with my hospital take-out coffee, ticking off overdue errands as I went, sun on my face (no, really) snowdrops lining the path (yep, those too). Much as I adore teaching, I was thoroughly enjoying my cheeky morning off work.

Of course, I didn't know then that I was skipping into a new world. A suburb of Cancerville I'd had no interest in ever joining.

It was 3pm on Tuesday 13 March, the day after my MRI scan. I was at my desk preparing lessons, the hubbie was downstairs also working and our children were still at school. The phone rang. 'Doctor,' it flashed up. (And, 'This no. for appts,' because I have an inability to store a phone number without a story to accompany it.)

I'd had three MRI scans before this one for cancer related suspicions and all had been fine. Those results took a good two weeks to arrive in the post. The 'Doctor. This no. for appts,' only hours after the scan, made me brace myself to be told that I did indeed have a slipped disc. My poor friend has had two. The pain is horrendous and both times she had to have a scary, thankfully successful, operation to sort them out. A slipped disk also meant no running and with an acute addiction to putting one foot in front of the other, particularly over wooded paths lined with bluebells, I didn't relish this either.
A slipped disc was not the cause of my pins and needles which remain unexplained but unimportant. Another day I might have been relieved to rule this out. But I know people's voices when they have bad news. I think we can all hear the almost imperceptible sigh at the back of the throat, the intake of breath, the invisible, 'but' before the unfortunate person with the news shifts into the right position to get to the point of the call.

Fast forward three weeks, a bone scan, blood tests and a CT scan and there I am in the second appointment in my life where I shake and shiver as I grip my husband's hand, finding myself simultaneously watching over this poor couple in the oncologist's office who are being told that it's cancer. This time, it's secondary breast cancer in my bones.

I've entered a new world. My family have entered a new world and I wish we hadn't. I'm scared and I'm sad. But you know, I'm surprisingly not unhappy and I'm certainly not pessimistic about the future. Secondary breast cancer bone mets is not currently curable but it is treatable, often for a long, long time and it's getting longer. And the longer the wonderful medical people can keep us alive, the more time we have for them to discover something else around that corner.

I first blogged about cancer only two weeks after my initial diagnosis. This time it's taken me two months to come to the decision to post. I guess I needed to get my own head around it first, but there are two other reasons why it has taken me this long. The first is a concern that I would terrify people with a similar diagnosis of primary cancer to mine who'd previously taken comfort in me being a 'good stat', that I was one of the many to have a primary diagnosis and emerge a little battle weary, but otherwise 'free' of cancer and happy and healthy - as I certainly was, am, in fact. For the record, I feel great.

If you are in this group of readers, please try not to worry. I was just unlucky. Many more people with my original diagnosis won't go on to develop secondaries, than will. On a day years ago when I was all consumed by The Fear, I remember my oncologist saying that it takes time for us to learn to trust our bodies again, but time does work. He said that many more people with primary breast cancer don’t go on to develop secondaries than do. Please, if you take only one thing from this post, take that!

The second reason is related. I only ever wanted to blog about cancer in a hopefully informative, but certainly positive, way. I hoped I could calm a few nerves and put a metaphorical arm around the shoulders of patients and their loved ones who were a step further back on the rocky path of cancer, than I was. I desperately didn’t want to upset or spread fear.

But here's the thing. I feel I have to write because, once again, I think my experience might be helpful, calming even. All the time I feared secondary cancer which was, aside from my family contracting cancer, my worst fear, I would never have thought I'd have anything positive to say about it, nor that there could be any silver linings. And yet, in this relatively small time frame, I have found what others with secondary cancer already knew: I have discovered that I can still function, still be happy, laugh, joke, work and seriously play and this is what I want to tell you about.

And I will. But not today because this post is too long, even by my standards (!) Today, I'll simply say, please don't worry, I have no intention of going anywhere any time soon. I have way too many things to do and life to live, and you know, modern medicine is on my side. Today, I'll just say thank you. Thank you to everyone who has already given me so much love and support. I feel truly blessed to have so many wonderful people in my life. And as I ended my first ever post about cancer the same is true now as then: It's really hard to feel down when so many people are showering you with love and caring. Love really is what makes the world go round, or should be anyway.