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.