Thankfully I shall start 2012 officially free of cancer. I think it is going to be a year of no limits!
To everyone reading this post, Happy New Year!
Metal Mama is the affectionate name I have given to the mammogram machine in Hereford County Hospital. Mysterious and rather noble, she maintains the throne in the X-ray room and no one has yet challenged her supremacy. She is unyielding, dispassionate and cold to the touch. She stares in stoney silence as you stand before her, watching your every move with an air of feigned patience. Then she takes your breasts in her metal hands and squashes them each in turn. Occasionally, she’ll whisper to the radiologist that you have cancer. So would you be surprised if I tell you that Metal Mama and I are as good as mates?
When I first met up with her a year ago I did not know what to expect. I did not know I had cancer, I did not know that despite Metal Mama attempting to crush my breasts I would not actually feel pain. I went in to the palatial chamber fearful and naive. Metal Mama did nothing to allay my anxieties, and in fact she may have made them more acute. She was too shiny, too perfect, too supercilious by far. And that metal gleam of hers highlighted my own mortality. The fact that I had to remove my bra and T-shirt was a huge ordeal back then. It did not occur to me that Metal Mama and her radiographer side-kicks have seen hundreds of shapes and sizes passing as women. But there was so much I didn’t know then. Almost exactly a year ago.
To be perfectly honest I was not relishing my reunion with Metal Mama today. I remembered her hard stare, her cold grasp, her chilling verdict. She held my fate in her steely hands, and she always will do. I cannot think of her without some part of me shuddering. Today I had my trusted hound Trudy with me and she accompanied me into Metal Mama’s chamber. She had a sniff around the regal feet, but decided that the bin in the corner smelt more interesting so pitter-pattered off in that direction. Thanks Trudy! I faced Metal Mama alone whilst The Hoover hoovered quietly nearby. Unlike me, Metal Mama was no different from last year. She was still iron-hard and ice-cold, no-nonsense and no-frills. Yet as she was no longer a complete stranger I felt relatively at ease. Today Metal Mama and I had an understanding.
I smiled at the fact that today I was able to stand topless before Metal Mama without blushing scarlet. When you have breast cancer, one thing you quickly learn is that you have to order your inhibitions to move aside and shut up. I have learned to forget that it is me with no T-shirt on. Me automatically goes to the back of my head when I’m in a hospital environment. Metal Mama could have told me that a year ago.
But it does not pay to be cocky. Last year each X-ray courtesy of Metal Mama was painless (albeit slightly uncomfortable). Today’s experience therefore came as a shock. When Metal Mama clamped the breast which has undergone surgery and radiotherapy, I nearly shot to the ceiling with the pain that sliced through me. But it was short-lived. Metal Mama’s hugs are never longer than about 30 seconds, thank God. Four hugs (two on each breast) and she’s usually done with you. And here came the second unwanted surprise of the day. Metal Mama took my offer of friendship literally. She spat out one of the X-ray images and called me back for one extra hug – the one that hurt most of all.
Last year I received Metal Mama’s verdict the same day, as I was seeing the Consultant straight afterwards. This time I have to wait between a week and ten days for the results. It’s quite weird knowing that Metal Mama knows already if I’m clear of cancer or not. She has my image imprinted on her mechanical brain. I’d love to be able to meet her for a drink in Wetherspoon’s and get her to divulge the results after a triple Vodka. Then Metal Mama might roll along Commercial Road spilling all her secrets throughout High Town. I have a picture of her crashed out in a metal heap, turning up for work later with a thumping hangover and being fired for breaking the code of conduct. But she’s far too professional.
Back to reality. I’m all set for an impatient ten days, wondering what Metal Mama has seen and what she will tell.
Video of a mammogram http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mammogram/MM00639
Information about mammograms and breast cancer http://cancerhelp.cancerresearchuk.org/type/breast-cancer/about/screening/mammograms-in-breast-screening
Since having cancer my determination to stay alive is something that permeates my consciousness. I am ever-aware of my fight for survival. Stronger still is the need to make the most of each day. At first this was a pressure which had the effect of stifling my creativity. I was so desperate not to waste time that I cupped it in my hands like a trapped butterfly, afraid to let it go. Once I became aware of what I was doing I slowly unfurled and now my spirit feels free again.
But once again I am facing uncertainty. After a visit to my GP I have been referred for more tests, which are scheduled for July 13th. The familiar feeling of not knowing what’s in store, not really wanting to know yet disliking being in the dark – it all buzzes round my head like a swarm of angry bees. It’s possible that the changes in my breast are due to lymphoedema, but it’s also possible there may be a more sinister cause. I’m so scared of the worst scenario becoming a reality. I feel as I’m in some kind of limbo. Being suspended from a great height and looking down at my situation has its merits in that it stops the panic taking hold of me. But then there’s the frustration that I might be wasting precious time. It’s that not knowing – it gnaws away at you like an invisible worm.
I think this is something I may have to expect from cancer. Overcoming one hurdle and then stumbling upon another when you least expect it. I wonder if I’ll ever feel truly free from the shadow of cancer. If this latest scare turns out to be just that – a scare – I’m almost certain there will be more.
But whatever happens I know that I won’t go down without a fight. I am very clear about what I value, and I’m not going to relinquish what I value just because the mountain I’m climbing suddenly gets a thousand feet taller. July 13th will come and go. Before then I’m going to London as my Guide dog Trudy is a finalist in the Guide dog of the Year Awards.
Trudy’s award is a welcome distraction from my anxieties, and I think if I look hard enough I’ll be able to find a few more. But although distracting myself is one way of dealing with anxiety, I’m also trying to accept what I think and feel. Learning to accept that this is what I’m feeling rather than always trying to push it away, might well preserve my energy for when the fight is really on.
I will be so relieved when this particular uncertainty has evaporated – whatever the tests reveal.
When I first found the lump I did what several people do – tried to ignore it. Sometimes I could go for months without thinking about it. But then (usually in the shower) the niggle would start to worm away inside my head: “What if it’s cancer?”
When it was just my lump it was my secret. Deep down I knew it was cancerous, and it was more than a general anxiety. I knew in my heart that this was nothing to do with hormones or my menstrual cycle. So in the end it was a case of when to visit my GP, not should I? shouldn’t I? I kept it to myself as long as possible, but all the while I knew that my lump’s hiding place would have to be exposed. Confiding in a friend was the first step on the “cancer journey” for me. She came with me to the GP, and we both talked ourselves into thinking it was nothing serious. The statistics of breast lumps are that around 80% turn out to be benign, so I put myself in that 80% camp – though deep down I knew I wouldn’t be there for long.
The GP visit fuelled a whirlwind of events. Within two weeks I was at the hospital undergoing a mammogram and biopsy. My guide dog Trudy was behind the curtain with a friend, and I could hear her crying while the needles went in – first under my arm, then into the breast itself. Although the axillary biopsy was quite painful, I found myself calling to Trudy to reassure her that everything was going to be OK. But within half an hour I was listening to the Consultant: “I think you have a small breast cancer”.
The shock sent waves round my entire body, but I didn’t feel emotional. My friend appeared more devastated than I did. I went into fight or flight mode, and the battle was definitely on. The results were confirmed two days later, which was exactly a week before Christmas day 2010. I remember being surprised that I felt OK. I was still exactly the same, except that I knew I had cancer. The lumpectomy was booked for New Year’s eve, and after that it was an agonising wait for the pathology results. Those two weeks dragged their feet as if they were shackled by a ball and chain. I thought I was definitely going to need chemo, and tried to joke about losing my “barnet” although I dreaded the prospect.
But thankfully as far as cancer results go, mine were positive. It had been caught early, and was not an aggressive cancer. I was prescribed tamoxifen as my cancer was oestrogen-positive, and told that 5 weeks of radiotherapy would begin in about a month. The tamoxifen affected my mood and I became very irritable and depressed. The physical side effects (i.e. nausea, hot flushes, itching) were nothing compared to the sudden change in my emotional state. Since coming off tamoxifen 2 months ago I now know that this was definitely the cause of my depression.
The radiotherapy didn’t affect me until the last two weeks. My skin broke down completely and became infected. The fatigue began taking its toll. I literally couldn’t resist the urge to lie down – it was like a magnet pulling me towards the sofa or bed. As the radiotherapy treatment was out-of-County in Cheltenham General hospital, that became my life for about 6 weeks. It was Cheltenham, home, bed, Cheltenham, home, bed… Trudy’s routine was out of the window, and for this reason I decided to board her with Guide dog volunteers while I was having treatment. But the separation was more painful than I’d anticipated and my life fell apart. After two days, she came home and we endured the “radiotherapy days” together. Trudy’s companionship and unerring support kept me from going under.
Then suddenly (or so it seemed) the treatment finished. No more hospital appointments or doctors, just an empty space. Was I supposed to be “back to normal”? Was this it? My empty space became a haven for fears and anxieties, suppressed anger, confusion and a sense that I should be happy, relieved, even grateful. In truth I felt that I’d been abandoned, and was free-falling into an abyss far away from everyone. The invisible cancer curse followed me everywhere. I couldn’t express my fears easily as those who cared about me were rooting for me to be my “old self” again. But my old self has left, and at first this realisation annoyed me because I felt the change had been forced upon me through no fault of my own. Now though, the rawness of cancer and cancer treatment is slowly starting to heal.
I’m beginning to feel that I’ve been given a second chance, and it’s up to me what I do with this second chance. As time goes by, I’m hoping my fear of a recurrence or that the cancer has already spread, will lose its grip on me. There’s now an urgency about life, which gives me zest, and flattens complacency. I consider myself very privileged to have had such a rude awakening. None of us knows what lies ahead, but if you’ve battled with cancer or something similar you make damn sure that you value what you have and make the most of it. I have Trudy who is unconditionally loyal, I have friends who have stuck by me even during my “tamoxifen tantrums”, and I have life.