The lifting of a great weight

It’s pissing down outside. It’s a chilly, miserable, October day, and big plops of rain are dripping off the monkey puzzle tree outside my office window. I’m full of the chesty coldy virus that’s going round. But you know what? I’ve rarely felt happier, or healthier.

I’ve had four months of feeling like I’ve been holding my breath. Yesterday, I exhaled.

I finally went to my GP a couple of weeks ago about all the aches and pains in my back and torso that have been plaguing and worrying me since June. She prodded and poked and said she didn’t know what it was but was fairly certain it was nothing serious; the IBS and sciatica I had mooted were probably right. However, given my history she understood that wasn’t a good enough answer. She filled in a chest X-ray form for me to take to the radiology department at the Royal Surrey County Hospital, ‘Because,’ she said matter-of-factly, ‘it’ll immediately show up any bony secondaries’. She also said she would write to my oncology team and ask them to pull me in for an appointment earlier than my one-year-after-sign-off appointment in February 2013.

In the meantime, I was scheduled to see my amazing surgeon, Miss Tracey Irvine, for a check-up to see how the balancing boob job was settling down after the double-general-anaesthetic drama in March. (It looks bloody good, by the way. Practically the same as the downsized one that had all the tumours in, with a matching anchor-shaped scar. I feel very lucky that Tracey is such a brilliant surgeon and I managed to avoid a mastectomy. Having your own boobs that are small and pert enough to not really need a bra in the summer when you’ve breastfed two kiddies and it’s a downhill ride to your 40th birthday is something of a silver lining.)

The oncology appointment came through: the afternoon of the same day I was due to see Tracey. I didn’t sleep the night before. I knew I’d have to discuss my concerns, and was hoping desperately for some reassurance, and dreading what would happen if that couldn’t be provided on the spot. I hadn’t been for my X-ray (work deadlines/bit scared): I thought I might as well spend the day at the hospital and get it all done in one shot. DH didn’t sleep either. He’d offered to come with me, which was brilliant; I had to attend so many of my appointments alone when I was being treated, while he looked after the children.

Yesterday morning, I dropped DD and DS at school as usual, with their book bags and lunch boxes and snot and smiles. Back home, I did Distraction Tidying before it was time to go.

Sitting in the radiology corridor in my back-to-front robe was a deja-vu experience, reminding me strongly of when I spent every day in July 2011 having radiotherapy. DH did the sudoku in the newspaper. I just sat, trying not to think what-iffy thoughts. I was called in and had the chest X-ray. The young radiologist said she would just check it. Two minutes later she came back and asked how long I’d had my cough and where I had been feeling pain. I noted a low-level adrenaline response in my body as I tried to answer without shouting ‘WHY??? WHAT CAN YOU SEE ON THERE??’ because I knew she would just say the results would be with my GP within 10 days. As she did.

Another corridor: the outpatients breast clinic. I tried to distract myself with Tina Fey’s very funny autobiography on my Kindle, but was fretting. I’ve waited for hours in that clinic before, but luckily it was only 20 minutes before we were called in to see Tracey. She asked how I was, and listened attentively as I told her about my concerns and my ongoing struggle to deal with the hormonal rollercoaster of being on Tamoxifen (one year down, four to go!). She said that there was no need for me to go to oncology later as well – she ‘could do more than boobs’ and would do a thorough physical exam. I stripped to the waist (I wonder how many times I’ve done this in the past two years?) and the prodding and poking began.

She dug her fingers deep into both armpits, palpated both breasts, felt my neck glands and all over my chest, and pressed hard all over my abdomen, feeling my liver, spleen, stomach and kidneys. She firmly pressed on each of my vertebrae and ribs. Some bits were a little tender (no-one needs their tumkins being poked that hard, frankly), but I didn’t need to yelp. She left me lying behind the curtain while she checked the X-rays that were already on the system. There was silence for too many seconds before she finally said it all looked fine to her.

I got dressed again. She looked me in the eye, and said, very clearly and kindly, that I was absolutely fine and there was nothing to worry about. She said this sort of concern post-caaancer was normal, but I shouldn’t worry again – I could call anytime and come in to see her. She said she’d like me to have some bloods taken, and would wait until they were back and my two-year-after-diagnosis mammogram at the end of this month to sign me off, but otherwise she would see me in six months. I thanked her. DH thanked her. We left.

We sat in yet another corridor waiting for phlebotomy, and it was then that I exhaled. And cried. The relief, my God, I cannot tell you. Letting go of all that worry, I felt about a stone lighter and six inches taller. And like a happy idiot: why did I leave it so long before seeing the GP, and mentioning my concerns to my team? They are there for me, they are the experts, I totally trust them and I know if anything was wrong they would be on it like a bonnet, why didn’t I let them check me over and reassure me at the start of the summer, rather than suffering and assuming the worst?

We went for a celebratory pub lunch: a doorstep beef and horseradish sandwich with our best man. My mummy and Pops and sister and in-laws and best friends sent texts, all of which started ‘FANTASTIC!’. After school, me and my sis made the most of the sunshine and took the smalls to run around Wisley gardens, on a whim, since I didn’t have to be in the oncology department after all. Last night we treated ourself to a delicious M&S meatloaf and a nice Barolo. We had a very good night’s sleep. I woke this morning feeling like a happy, shiny snake that had sloughed off its old skin. DH called me this morning from work to tell me how much better he was feeling too.

I still don’t know what all the discomfort under my left ribs and in my back has been about all summer. It has calmed down a bit recently; it probably is just a touch of IBS and a flare-up of sciatica after all. Or maybe, as at least one dear friend has put it, simply a question of being nearly 40 and leading a rather full-on existence.

On 13 October 2010, I was diagnosed with stage 3, grade 3 breast cancer. Two years on (two years!! Where did that go?), I am still learning huge lessons. I must learn to trust my body again. I can accept, acknowledge and appreciate my health and be open to wellness, rather than focusing on disease. I am safe, and free of f*cking caaancer, and all is well. Now the burden of fear has been lifted, and I can stop lasering in on every twinge, I can concentrate on my babies, and DH, and being a good school mum, and having fun with my family and friends, and developing my business, and writing my novel, and decorating the house. Living. Loving. Breathing.




The first day of the rest of my life

So here we are. Today is officially the first day of the rest of my life. Because yesterday, gentle reader, I finished my cancer treatment. Yup, you heard right. I FINISHED MY CANCER TREATMENT! Whoop whoop!

I can’t quite believe it. No more intravenous drugs, no more radiation, no more hospital other than occasional check-ups with my consultant and the extra bit of surgery in January to give me two equal sized boobs. And five years of daily tamoxifen pills, of course, but that’s fine. And I have to look after my right arm and hand for the rest of my life, since there’s no lymphatic system there any more to deal with germs. (I’m on antibiotics at the moment after getting an infection in my arm for the first time since the surgery: the whole top of my arm went hot, and hard, and red, and swollen, and unbelievably painful. Cellulitis, apaz. Not nice. Taking ages to clear up. Must look after myself better in future, and stuff.)

It was an emotional day all round. I spent the morning alternating between grinning like a fool and sobbing, partly with relief and partly remembering how awful things were this time last year. You remember: my unexpected minibreak to a quarantined room at the Royal Surrey County Hospital when my immune system went awol after my first chemo. It was bitterly cold, snowing, school was closed, and I missed my daddy’s birthday supper in London. It was a particularly bleak week for DH and our families. At the time I was just hugely annoyed by the whole inconvenient episode. Looking back, I feel horror at how close I came to, er, dying from a common cold. I did not at all grasp the seriousness of the situation. Now I understand exactly how chemo can kill you.

The day started normally, leaving the house at 8am to do the nursery run and the school run. I had a busy morning and was late for my 12.30 appointment, because I wanted to get some Krispy Kremes for the nurses on the chemotherapy suite. As I bustled breathlessly up to reception, loaded with doughnuts, the receptionist smirked and looked at the waiting area, and there was DH, bless him, with a big smile and an even bigger poinsettia for me. It was so lovely to see him, and such a fab surprise that he would be with me for my final treatment, and to resign our membership of Cancer Club.

It all went remarkably smoothly. I’ve waited for two hours before now, but we had barely sat down when my name was called and I was taken into one of the little rooms with two comfy chairs and two drip stands. The sister got my canula in the back of my hand first time (it usually takes two or three attempts with my rubbish veins hiding away), and rigged me up to the Herceptin drip for half an hour. DH held my hand and was a bit tearful. It was very strange sitting there for my 17th Herceptin infusion thinking: ‘I never have to do this again. Gosh. Yay!’

We chatted away to the middle aged man in the chair next to me and his wife. It was his first chemo session for stomach cancer. He was as upbeat as I was during my first chemo, before I understood quite how hellish the side effects were. DH says I was holding court telling survivor’s tales from the trenches, but I don’t think I was that bad. (He was asking the nurse about wearing the cold cap to avoid hair loss, but I advised him not to bother as it was bloody cold, uncomfortable, made the treatment twice as long, and I still lost pretty much the equivalent of all the hair he had on his head.)

Then all of a sudden it was over and I was out of there. OUT OF THERE! With a huge spring in my step. On my way to our celebratory lunch at Burger King (DH didn’t have much time before a meeting, and we fancied something that was defiantly as far from  an anti-cancer diet as it’s possible to be) I made a couple of elated calls to my mummy and my sister. I felt all full of giggly bubbles, giddy as a kipper, light as a feather, a skip in my step (which got me some funny looks in the car park).

Oh, the feeling of freedom, and relief: I cannot describe to you how I felt. All the cliches in the book: on top of the world. On cloud nine. Really, really aware that my rebooted life starts right here, right now, that nothing can hold me back, and I have a duty to make the most of every day, to fulfill my potential, to follow my dreams, to be utterly, completely, joyfully, authentically myself.

And how did we celebrate, you ask? Well, in style, of course. By happy coincidence it was my darling Pops’ birthday yesterday, and he and mummy arrived bearing flowers and a bottle of Pol Roger (Ooh! Big fizzy treat!) which we drank as we got ready to go out. A lovely friend had offered to babysit (thanks honey!) so me and DH and my olds got a cab into Guildford and met my sister and my brother-in-law (whose birthday it si today – a triple celebration!) for rather good margaritas in the swanky new bar (and were joined briefly by our friends E&G, who were out celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary – a quadruple celebration!), and thence for a slap up Thai supper. Nom nom nom. Lots of toasts all evening. Lots of glasses raised. Lots of smiles. Because we were all together, unlike last year, and I am well, and I have well and truly f*cked caaancer. Hurrah, hurrah, and thrice hurrah.

So now we have reached the end of my cancer journey. The beginning of the best years of my life. This blog will revert to mostly mummy, parenting and school topics from now on (which may be a blessed relief, if you’re bored of the whole cancer thing. I’ve had cancer, yadda yadda yadda, time to get over myself). I’ll post relevant updates and let you know how the surgery goes. I might even treat you to some topless photos next time (now there’s a promise). Thanks for coming along for the ride, you’ve all been MARVELLOUS and I couldn’t have got through the past year without all the love and support I’ve had showered on me from loved ones and friends old and new, near and far.

I don’t know exactly what’s next. Big changes are afoot, in the way I work, in my actually getting on with writing the damned novel, in the way I am in the world. Today, the butterfly has emerged from the chrysalis, only a tiny bit hungover. My wings are still damp and new, but when they open, it’s going to be one hell of a display.

Ooh, I fancy a snuggle with these two!

And this is the happy ending, where the director pans out a shot of me and DH cuddling up on the sofa in the House That Cancer Bought with our gorgeous babies, smiling into their sweet smelling hair (well, Oatibix smelling hair, anyway). That’s all folks!


Now this is a bit weird…

They say animals and their owners grow to resemble each other, but this is ridiculous. In a spooky echo of my own diagnosis, there I was yesterday afternoon in the vet’s, looking at an X-ray he had taken of the nether regions of our 11 year old moggy, Charlie, hearing him say ‘I am very suspicious that we are looking at a lymphoma.’ In other words, it looks like Chaz has got cancer too.

Charlie Cat

This would be blacky funny if it weren’t horribly true. And when our lovely vet went on to start talking about cat chemo, I fear I did actually smirk. Who knew cat chemo existed?! Extraordinary.

We knew something quite bad was wrong. Towards the end of last year, our enormously long, fat cat, who had been on an expensive dry prescription diet for five years to try and get him down from nearly 6kg to under 5kg, with absolutely no discernable effect whatsoever, suddenly stopped eating, starting vomiting and lost shedloads of weight. He didn’t eat for nearly a week until I tempted him with some posh wet food, but he’s now around 3kg, so he’s lost half his body weight. After 10 years of bracing ourselves to pick him up, we now shoot backwards on lifting him because he’s light as a feather.

The vomiting continued, on and off, to the point that we are nervous about what we’re going to step in in the mornings when we come downstairs, and what little gift he may have left on the sofa. He alternates between refusing all food and raiding the kitchen worktops, famished. His coat is still glossy and his eyes are bright, but apparently cats are better at hiding pain than dogs, so he may well be in a lot of pain or discomfort.

Obviously it was time to take him to the vet. I know, we should have gone months ago. But, again spookily, he started being sick the week I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and in the shock and whirl of tests and scans and starting chemo, we were just hoping he would get better, I suppose.

When I told the vet Charlie started being unwell at the same time I was diagnosed, he didn’t look at all surprised, and just said ‘animals pick up more than we know’. I’ve heard about the dogs that can smell certain types of cancer, and a neighbour of my sister’s also had cancer at the same time as his dog. Who knows what subtle links we have with the animals we live with?

Anyway, the vet is currently running more tests to rule out pancreatitis, then we can give him a course of steroids to treat any inflammatory bowel disease, which might make him more comfortable and reduce the vomiting. But basically it’s a quality of life issue, and as the vet said, while doctors pledge to prolong life, the vet’ s oath is to end suffering. Quite a different basis for treatment choices. So in a couple of weeks we are probably going to have to make a very tough decision, because there’s no way I’m putting him through an aggressive treatment like chemotherapy.

I cried all the way back from the vet. I feel very bad that he’s been uncomfortable for so long. I feel bad for not being kinder to him and just being annoyed about the sick every morning. I feel bad that he has been at the bottom of the food chain in our house since the kiddies came along, and I haven’t loved him enough or given him enough attention. He was a wedding present from our best friends, and we picked him up the week I went freelance in 2001 – he was a rescue cat who was found on Purley tip – when we lived in our first tiny house in Croydon.

I noticed his absence even just yesterday morning when he was being sedated. If we have to say goodbye, it will leave a cat-shaped hole in the energetic fabric of our household. Poor old Chaz.

Four out of six ain’t bad

I had my fourth chemotherapy session yesterday. It all went swimmingly, apart from a ‘cannula incident’ (you don’t want to know) that delayed things a tad. On the plus side: 1) only two chemos left to go – that’s only six weeks left! 2) my gorgeous old school mucker J trekked up from Winchester to spend a couple of hours filling me in on seriously good gossip, laden with treats 3) my darling sister, my rock, brought me a delicious healthy lunch and was, as ever, the bestest company 4) DH got me home by 4pm in time to give the babies a big squeeze and wave them off to Salisbury for their customary weekend minibreak.

We’ve swapped things round this time, with DH’s parents doing the chemo day/weekend childcare admin, and my mummy and Pops bringing them home on Sunday night and staying for a couple of days to look after us all. I still can’t believe how blessed we are to have this level of support from our families. I know they love having the kiddies, and it’s wonderful that they are all so close and the smalls ADORE all their grandparents, but I can’t help feeling a bit guiltyabout the amount we are having to rely on them at the moment – a four year old and a two year old are, you know, a bit full on when you’re in your thirties, let alone your sixties.

But last night me and DH took advantage of the child-free house and the calm before the side effects storm kicks in (any minute now, judging by my mounting nausea and tingly tongue) to head out for supper in Guildford. He had very sweetly booked a table at Cote Bistro, a fine steak frites emporium (after mooting Maccy D’s and dirty chicken at Fleet Services – he’s not one for enthusiastically spending money on meals out, bless him, in complete contrast to me).

My confidence has taken a bit of a bashing with the hair loss situ. Even rocking the Hermes in a full on Kylie Stylee, with my gorgeous butter-soft nude leather dress, fishnets and my highest heels, it has to be said I was basically feeling old, knackered, sort of diminished, and a bit nervous about going out. The food was fab, though – we had scallops, rillettes, rib eye, cheese and creme caramel, washed down with kir royale and a cheeky little Macon Villages. I texted my fab friend S to tell her I was eating rare cow while dressed in dead cow, and she replied that it sounded like a Damian Hirst installation, and how pickled was I?

This is my dress. This is not me wearing it.

DH then said he was taking me for a post-prandial cocktail somewhere new. Apparently he and ‘the boys’ discovered this really cool place on their Christmas day out (the one that ended with DH in A&E, remember?). Almost inevitably, the bar in question was not quite up to the love of my life’s somewhat fuzzy memory, however, and we had an awkward half hour drinking the first frozen margaritas the barmaid had ever created (ie not historic), surrounded by drunk students. We were quite literally double the age of everyone else in there, and on a day when I wasn’t feeling at my most hip and groovy, it was time to hotfoot it out of there and jump in a cab home.

I’d had enough alcohol to get me to sleep, but not enough to counteract the effects of the steroids I have to take the day before, day of and day after chemo to stop me having some crazy allergic reaction to the yew tree extract they inject me with, so for the second night running I had about four hours’ sleep. Rubbish! Still, I am going to cuddle up on the sofa for the rest of the day, armed with the Sky+ remote and some ITV Mystery Dramas Sponsored By Toyoya Avensis (who sez advertising doesn’t work?).

And I have some more Medical Miracle news to share with you. At my pre-chemo check-up with my genius Aussie whirlwind of an oncology consultant, he declared, after much prodding of the old knockers, that my tumours have, to all intents, and purposes, GONE! Disparu! Melted! Tah daaaahhh! He said ‘This is going down as an outstanding result!’ Nice work fella. More than nice.

I have to be honest: I didn’t actually respond with such unbounded joy at the time. I just thought: Oh, that’s good. Let’s crack on, then… The intense rollercoaster of crapness I am strapped to on my pretty unrelenting treatment schedule is beginning to take its toll. My levels of energy, cheerfulness, and enthusiasm are low. My cognitive function is becoming noticeably impaired:  my short-term memory is buggered and I am starting to hesitate in my speech as I can’t always find the right words. I am tearful a lot of the time.

And I am starting to think about the surgery at the end of the chemo tunnel and Not Looking Forward to it one little bit. I’m sure I’ll feel more reassured after meeting my very talented surgeon again next week, but I think my chances of escaping her deftly-wielded scalpel are going to be nil. I know it’s all for the good, but I just want it to be June, in Spain, with a great book and a cold drink, and No More Treatment. Other than the three-weekly Herceptin drips I’ll have until November and another five years of checks and scans… Altogether now, F&CK CAAANCER!

We are the champions!

Oh. My. Goodness. I’ve just found out that I’m one of the winners in the Inspirational category of the Brilliance in Blogging awards, run by British Mummy Bloggers. I’m completely overwhelmed, chuffed to bits, can’t stop smiling!

I’m particularly honoured to be sharing the stage for this award with the truly inspirational Linda Jones, whose Speaking Up – Breaking the Silence blog is a lifeline for anyone with mental illness, and the very lovely Josie George (otherwise known on Twitter as @porridgebrain) who writes beautifully and with humour about life’s big and small challenges in Sleep is for the Weak.

Thanks SO much to everyone who voted for me. It’s made my day, if not my year, and I really appreciate your support. I think I might have a small Stones Ginger Wine on the rocks to celebrate. Tinkle tinkle.

I did jinx myself before Christmas by saying I didn’t think I would need a wig, by the way. Appointment booked at Joseph’s West End Hair next week to get a syrup sorted. I don’t know what West End Hair is but it sounds like a song from popular beat combo the Pet Shop Boys, who I have loved forever, and has to be better than the Terry Nutkins look.

I showed DH the website and he was drawn to all the long blonde wavy wigs – ie the ones that lap dancers wear. Personally I quite like Glaze  and Bianca (doncha just love that wigs have porn star-ish names?)

In the meantime, my hair’s really too thin on the crown now to leave the house without some sort of head covering, so I’ve been rocking my prized Hermes scarf and making full use of my beanie, and today got a lovely parcel in the post from Suburban Turban. What do you think?

I haven’t taken it off since it arrived, it’s really soft, comfy jersey and makes me feel much less self-conscious. I hate getting a glimpse of my baldy bonce in the mirror, it makes me well up every time because it’s so bloody obvious now that I have f%cking caaancer.

But hey, it’s only temporary, as my wonderful Pops always says, and winning my little gong has made it a tad easier to Keep Buggering On (you have to say this like Winston Churchill used to, for full effect, pretending you have multiple chins and a big cigar, with Adolf and the Black Dog both breathing down your neck). Now, where did I put that bottle of ginger wine?