I’m sure I should be somewhere today…

Today feels really weird. I woke up feeling quite tense, sure that I had something important and undesirable to do today. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I was playing football with DS in the sunny garden after dropping DD at school. Then it hit me: today is the day I would have been having chemotherapy. It’s 21 days since my final one, and the penny has finally dropped: I DON’T HAVE TO DO THAT AGAIN!!!

Perhaps that’s why today feels particularly bright and shiny. The spring sunshine feels extra warm on my face. The birds are singing a sweeter tune than usual. I feel physically lighter and taller, like Atlas must have felt when he got to put the Earth down for a bit and wriggle his shoulders. You just don’t realise how heavy a burden you’ve been carrying until it’s no longer there. Instead of sitting on the chemo ward soaking up drugs that will make me feel like poo for days, looking out with envy at the sunshine, I am at home, pottering with my potty-training DS (a different sort of poo), enjoying a picnic lunch in the garden with my sis, nephew and niece, and looking forward to seeing my mummy and Pops this afternoon.

It's official: playing with this little chap is More Fun Than Chemo!

So yesterday my chemo treatment was officially over, and something quite strange happened to DH. Last year, on Thursday October 6, I went to my GP to tell him I’d found a lump in my breast. That day, DH was being treated to a dream round of golf at Sunningdale, courtesy of our extraordinarily generous friend J. He had a lovely time, but was obviously worried about me. Yesterday, on the final day of my last chemotherapy cycle, he was playing golf with J again at another luxe location, this time the very exclusive Swinley Forest. Also playing in the competition was a familiar face: my consultant.

A nice bit of circularity – DH was quite emotional about the significance of topping and tailing the first bit of my treatment with a memorable round of golf, bless him. I don’t believe in coincidences, and I did get what he meant. (He also played like a demon and came home laden with wine and golf balls after coming second out of twenty something, yay!).

Over lunch and, later, a glass of wine at the bar, DH and Doctor H switched to first name terms and had a good chat about me. Apparently I am one of his best patients (I think he meant in terms of how my tumour has responded to the treatment he recommended, not his favourite, given that I am constantly questioning things) and he’s very excited about my case. It sounds very much like he is expecting, like my surgeon, that the lab results after surgery will show that my blend of chemo and trial drugs has actually got rid of the pre-cancer too. It’s a darn shame I have to lose half a boob to confirm this medical miracle, but there’s no other way of confirming it for sure other than to remove all the dodgy stuff.

Funnily enough, DH has seen more of my consultant than I have this week, since I saw his registrar instead at my official sign-off from chemo at the oncology clinic on Wednesday. Probably gearing up for golf… Anyway, I had an interesting chat with the registrar, as I’d flagged up to my lovely research nurse Celia that I hadn’t started the tamoxifen as I was meant to, because I had a few concerns. I was bracing myself for a row because anything that reduces the possibility of breast cancer recurring by up to 70% is a no-brainer, right?

Thing is, it’s such a powerful drug (it basically switches off the overenthusiastic oestrogen receptors that are one of the causes of my sort of cancer) that it has quite a range of side effects. The hot flushes, disturbed sleep, depression, weight gain etc that most women seem to get don’t sound much fun, but I guess you just put up with that sort of ‘quality of life’ stuff in return for a bigger chance of, well, being alive. I am more worried about the warnings about blood clots and stroke, since I have a bit of a family history of such things, and the slightly increased chance of exchanging one cancer for another: tamoxifen is linked with cancer of the endometrium, or womb lining.

Anyway, I’m pleased to say my concerns were listened to and when I have my pre-op check up on Monday, I’ll have a load of extra blood tests to rule out any predisposition to blood clots and strokes. My consultant is also happy for me to hold off starting the drug until the results of the surgery are back. These will be combined with a load of other data such as my age, the grade of my tumour (three, if you’re interested), the amount of lymph node involvement, my response to the chemo, and the fact I will be having radiotherapy, to give me a personalised statistic of the likely benefit to me of taking tamoxifen. In other words, they will be able to give me a number which expresses my likelihood of breast cancer recurring with and without the tamoxifen. Which will probably persuade me to just take the damn pill once a day.

In the meantime, it’s extraordinary knowing that from now on, I will only continue to feel better, stronger and brighter rather than being plunged back into the slough of despond. I’ve never felt like this before. It’s really, really cool. I’ll say this for chemo: there’s nothing quite like it for making you appreciate feeling alive and well. Enjoy the sunshine, you gorgeous lot.

Making apple cake with 18 smalls…

I’ve just got back from being hugged half to death by 18 four and five year olds. It was definitely one of the highlights of the past fortnight.

The theme for this half term at DD’s school is Countries Near and Far. There’s bunting made from painted flags and maps all over the place, and every day DD comes home with a new Fact! about somewhere in the world. Her misheard rendition of the National Anthem is hilarious. Anyway, as a half Pole, her teachers asked if I could pop in and talk about something to do with Poland.

This got mutated, Chinese whispers-style, into me running a two hour cooking and tasting session this morning. There was much excitement about Doing Something Different, and about Someone’s Mummy Being The Visitor. We all made Polish Apple Cake together (messy and fun, especially the egg cracking…), then while it was in the over we tasted One I’d Made Earlier (it was a late night but I was taking no chances on being shown up with an unfamiliar oven, and sure enough the one the kiddies made turned out a little bit burnt). We also sampled a Polish sausage called wiejska and Krakus-brand gherkins and sauerkraut.

A sausage from Poland, obvs.

Then I taught them the Polish lullaby I sing DD and DS every night (or they sing to me), which was super-cute, as well as teaching them the Polish for please (prosze)  and thank you (dziekuje). And at the end of the session, they all spontaneously ran over, hugged me and shouted ‘DZIEKUJE!’. I walked out into the sunny playground smiling from ear to ear.

As I said, it was one of the highlights of the past couple of weeks, which have been full of blessings, including eventually recovering from my last chemo (I have my final chemo-related consultant appointment this afternoon and then he hands me over to the surgical team). And I can tell you Hallmark are definitely missing a trick not selling ‘You Survived Chemo!’ cards, because my postbox has been full of them. My mummy and Pops bought me an amazing handtied bouquet with flowers chosen for their meaning, including roses for love and irises for inspiration, my lovely friend J sent my favourite white lilies, and my wonderful sister sent me the most beautiful pendant from Merci Maman with three gold hearts engraved with DH, DD and DS’s names so they hang next to my heart. All of which prompted tears, of course.

The big downside of the past couple of weeks happened last Friday, though, when Charlie Cat, he of the weirdly coincidental colon cancer, left us for good. He did test positive for pancreatitis, but the medicine didn’t work because that condition, nasty in itself, was masking something even more horrible. He deteriorated rapidly last week, was obviously in pain, losing even more weight, refusing his prescription food and throwing up anything else I gave him. So last Thursday we went to the vet and made the painful decision to stop his suffering. After his Last Supper of his favourite prawns, DH volunteered to take him in on Friday morning, thank God, as I don’t think I could have done it, and stayed with him while the vet did the injection to check he died peacefully. DH came back in tears, having dispatched Chaz to the cat crematorium. He had recovered sufficiently by that afternoon to announce he was planning a 10 mile run ‘for cat chemo’, though…

I was dreading telling the children. After school, I sat them down and said I had something very sad to tell them, along the lines of: Charlie was very unwell and hurting a lot, and the vet couldn’t make him better, and this morning he died. DD stood there open mouthed for a number of seconds and I was bracing myself for her reaction. Which was ‘Hurray, we can get two kittens,’ shouted gleefully. Wasn’t quite expecting that. DS, on the other hand burst into inconsolable tears, which I also wasn’t expecting given that he is only two and a half.

The black comedy continued at bathtime, when I heard DD composing a song with the lyrics ‘Chaz is gone, he is DEAD,’ with accompaniment on toy pink flute. DS keeps asking where Charlie is, but seems to have grasped now that he’s gone (‘up sky wiv angels’). I am missing Charlie terribly – you really don’t realise until a pet has gone how much they are in your peripheral field of vision.

So it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster couple of weeks, and two weeks tomorrow I have my first op. My tastebuds have almost recovered now (although daily nose bleeds and twitching eye muscles persist, as does low energy). So I’m off out this evening for tapas and a glass or three of cava for one of a number of celebrations of the end of a particularly shitty bit of my life. Not sure what the next region of Cancerland looks like, but it’s gotta be prettier than that last place. Enjoy the sunshine. Count your blessings. And f%ck caancer!

A tribute to my daughter

Today I want to tell you how amazing my little girl is. For one post only, let’s call my Darling Daughter by her real name rather than DD. This is about Bridget.

One afternoon last week, I was sat on the edge of my bed trying not to be sick when Bridget came in to say hello. I said I was feeling a bit tired because of the medicine, but wasn’t it great there weren’t any more Big Medicine Days (as she calls chemo). ‘Hurray!’ she said. ‘Is all the bad stuff gone from your booby, mummy?’. ‘Yes, all the really bad stuff is gone, but you know I still have to have a little operation to take out a bit of other stuff that shouldn’t be there.’ And then she said, in a serious voice, with her little arms round me: ‘Yes I know, but you don’t have to worry about anyone else, mummy, you just have to worry about yourself.’ She’s four and a half. I tried not to cry. I didn’t know what to say, other than I always worried about her and her little brother, because that’s what mummies do.

I don’t know what goes on inside Bridget’s dark little head, but whatever it is, there’s a lot of it. She’s remarkably eloquent and emotionally intelligent for a Very Small Person. She’s sensitive and empathetic and thoughtful. She’s kind, and loving, and generous. Earwigging on her conversations with Rupert (aged two and a half) is fascinating. She’s bossy and protective, and they absolutely adore each other. I’ve struggled deeply with various aspects of motherhood, but when I hear and watch them together in fits of laughter playing a game that a grown-up couldn’t hope to comprehend, it gives me profound joy that at least I’ve given them the gift of each other.

She’s been quite remarkable throughout my treatment. Sometimes I or someone else will tell or ask her something about what’s going on and she will appear not to have heard if she just doesn’t want to talk about it. But she takes it all in, and seems to be OK with everything. After four chemos of Bridget and Rupert being shipped off to stay with their grandparents so I could recover, she was getting a bit pissed off. She was increasingly clingy and was starting to play her grandmas up, which came as a bit of a shock since they were used to her being a complete angel. So after chemos five and six we all went to stay with them instead, and she calmed down immediately. Sometimes you just need a cuddle from your mummy.

Bridgey tells me a lot that she loves me (mainly To The Moon And Back), that she likes me, that she needs me. She strokes my face when I sing Raggle Taggle Gypsies to her at bedtime. She gets really cross when she doesn’t think I’m listening to her. She has often worked out an argument in her head before asking me something, and I admire her putting her case so much that I’ll say yes even if I was going to say no. She’s full of creative ideas, would quite happily spend all day drawing and making, and gets withdrawal symptoms if she hasn’t been near a pen and paper for a few hours. In the mornings, she wakes early and stays in her room playing quietly and drawing and trying to write. She’s bright, and extremely funny (her one joke: ‘Why did the banana go to the doctor? Because his skin peeled off!’).

In the car last week she said ‘You know you said that when I smile, your heart lights up? Well look, I’m smiling!’ [cue crazy-person fixed grin]. I told her my heart was full of fireworks. Biased as I am, she’s beautiful, with pale skin, brown hair with gold highlights, and grey-blue eyes. And although I’m cautious about labelling the child rather than the behaviour, Bridget is broadly what you would probably call A Good Girl. And she’s quite capable of getting into a bit of a rage, she does know how to press my buttons, and we do lock horns. I am sensing that her teenage years will be an ‘interesting time’ for our relationship. I’ve already started worrying about how quickly she’s growing up, and am trying to work out the best messages about stuff like her body, make-up, and her interest in being a ‘pop star’…

She already seems to have a strong sense of who she is. At school, she’s friendly and will play with anyone and everyone, but hasn’t yet got (and doesn’t seem to need) one, or a group of, ‘best’ friends, and rarely initiates activities. (Outside school, she has two really lovely best friends, one from NCT and one from pre-school). Initially this was interpreted as shyness, as something that Needed Addressing, but her teachers have now worked out that she’s actually more interested in having a good relationship with them. This is very familiar: at school I was part of a number of different friendship groups, but was never in a cosy twosome or foursome, and craved approval and understanding from the teachers I respected (not the shit ones, obviously).

Having said that, I am loathe to say Bridget is ‘like me’. Of course, genetically she’s half me and half her daddy, but while we can spot a number of physical features and personality traits that have come direct from us, I am in awe that she is mostly Herself. A whole new person, very much more than the sum of her parts. And I feel very, very blessed that there is now every chance I’ll get to see her blossom into the amazing woman she will undoubtedly become.

The fiiiinnnaaal cheeeemoooo!!!*

(*Title to be sung to the tune of Europe’s power ballad The Final Countdown, if you don’t mind. Thanks cuz!)

Pretty self explanatory, this one. Yesterday I had my last of six chemotherapy days. I can’t quite believe it. It’s an odd feeling. It didn’t feel any easier going into the last one than the first one, really, and in truth I would have given a lot to not do it at all. But now I never have to do it again. It hasn’t really hit me yet, and I certainly don’t feel elated, mostly because I’m just starting to feel really crap and I know I’ve got a couple of days of hell ahead before I come out the other side. And then maybe by the end of next week it’ll start to dawn on me that this time it’s not just a question of improving a bit and then being hit down again after 21 days, but of just getting back to feeling…normal.

So, no more pertuzumab, no more carboplatin, no more of the dreaded docetaxol, no more cold cap. After my surgery on April 7 I’ll be back on the Herceptin for another 10 cycles, which will involve being strapped up to a half hour drip every three weeks until almost Christmas. And in two weeks I start on my daily dose of Tamoxifen for the next five years to stop my dodgy oestrogen receptors doing this again. And of course there’s the radiotherapy to look forward to, a short, very targeted burst of radiation via a sort of x-ray to my lymph and right breast every other day for five weeks, which will start a few weeks after the surgery.

It was quite emotional walking out of the hospital yesterday for DH and I, after a day when I’d been completely spoiled by visitors as always – S brought me a cuppy Earl Grey and a pain au chocolat, and B even managed to pop up with sparkling grape juice and choccies while her DH was in A&E downstairs (get better soon N!). My lovely mother-in-law popped up, and I even got an unscheduled cuddle from my precious little DS when he accompanied his daddy to pick grandma up. And lovely texts and Facebook and Twitter messages flowed all day. After it was all over, and it was just the two of us, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. We drove back from Guildford to my mummy and Pops’ place in Salisbury, where we were met by DS and DD, who had been brought back after school by DH’s mum, in a lovely surprise welcoming committee. DH had even bought a bottle of actual Bollinger to celebrate, and we all had a toast to the chemo being over and he said some very sweet things about me being brave. My mouth had started to ‘go’ already so unfortunately the fizz didn’t taste as delectable as it will in a couple of weeks, when we can really celebrate ticking off this particularly large box on the F&ck Caaancer Action Plan.

I was also able to show off my very sparkly new piece of Significant Jewellery – DH spent most of his first bonus for three years on a stunning diamond eternity ring. Six perfect round stones on 18ct yellow gold in a rubover setting that perfectly matches the engagement ring he gave me 12 years ago next month. He presented it to me on Wednesday over a cuppa in the kitchen, and I was completely speechless. He said he was very proud of me, and we were both quite tearful. There are moments when this journey we’re on together is a huge pressure and challenge for our relationship, but the bottom line is we’re a team, and we love each other and support each other, and frankly if we can get through this, we’ll get through anything. And diamonds don’t hurt to smooth the way!

Also this week, in my first tear-free meeting with my surgeon, the very skilled Miss Tracey Irvine, we agreed to have a go at doing a reduction rather than a mastectomy. There’s quite a big chunk of boob to remove – a 10cm by 7cm strip towards the armpit – and my nipple will be moved up some distance, which will be interesting considering the other one is pointing at the floor. After my distress last time about my entire lymph being removed, she had gone to the trouble to ask around other surgeons and found that one chap in Guildford can do a lymph node biopsy to identify the glands that have and haven’t got cancer in them. Unfortunately this only really works where there have been no clear signs that the cancer has reached the lymph already. In my case, the scarring caused by the chemo melting away the marble under my arm and any other nodes that had cancer in could throw up some misleading results that might lull us into a false sense of security, so it’s really not worth the risk. And as Tracey pointed out, her job is to make sure this doesn’t happen again and I have a long and fulfilling life ahead of me. So I am choosing to let the lymph system under my right armpit be removed.

She also said there is a possibility that something quite remarkable may have happened (apart from the complete disappearance of my tumour!) Although the calcium deposits in my breast are still there as expected – the markers for the pre-cancer DCIS – she is seeing a handful of ladies recently where the newer combinations of chemotherapy and other drugs administered before surgery have actually affected the pre-cancerous cells themselves. This isn’t meant to happen: traditionally, chemo doesn’t touch pre-cancer, which is why the only treatment is surgery. In other words, when she removes the affected area in a few weeks and it’s sent off to the lab for analysis, we may find that the pre-cancer has disappeared too. This is truly exciting, not just for me but for thousands of other young women. Unfortunately the only way of telling whether this has happened at the moment is to do the surgery, but if it is the case, my prognosis is even more positive. 

My lovely clear mammogram pictures also got my oncologist all excited this week. He was showing off a bit in front of a young female junior doctor and a new nurse, so everyone got to have a feel and a poke. There’s no dignity in having your tits out all the time, it has to be said. Tracey was even planning the surgery in her head by drawing all over me with a biro to show where the cuts and scars would be. Nice.

One of the week’s other highlights was arriving home on Thursday to find a case of wine from my lovely aunty K on the doorstep, to celebrate our ‘return to the sunshine’. And yesterday the sun did indeed shine into the chemo ward all day, and we chased a magnificent ball of orange home down the A303. I’m anticipating a couple of overcast days, but I am looking forward enormously to feeling the light on my face very soon, and knowing I never, ever have to go through this particular district of hell again. If I could bottle what chemo is like, I would. One whiff of it and we’d all stop smoking, cut back on booze, sort our nutrition out, and most of all learn to chillax, love ourselves a bit more, count our blessings and seriously reduce the stress in our lives as an absolute priority. In the meantime, wish me a speedy recovery from the fiiiinnnaaal cheeeemooo. Whoop f%cking whoop!