Today marks six years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I’m not quite sure how to sum up everything that’s happened in the last 24 hours, let alone the last year or six years. So here’s a list, in no particular order, of random thoughts and people who have inspired me. Continue reading
In August, I’m trekking 60km across Iceland (the country, not the supermarket) to raise money for a small but perfectly formed charity named CoppaFeel! Despite the daunting prospect of sore knees, blisters, sleep deprivation from the four hours of nightly darkness and the small matter of raising £2,695, I’m up for the challenge. Continue reading
It’s that time of year again: October, aka Pinktober. The month that is now almost as well known for cancer awareness and the colour pink as it is for falling leaves, pumpkins and trick-or-treat.
There is nothing wrong with pink, and I am 100% supportive of breast cancer awareness, but there is a growing sense in the cancer world that so-called Pinkification and Pinkwashing are trivialising the disease and giving a disproportionate amount of attention to breast cancer awareness while other cancers are virtually ignored.
My latest Huffington Post blog introduces a new video aimed at real cancer awareness by cancer survivors Ashley Blair Doyle, Shellie Kendrick and Rachel Michelson. Please read it, watch it, share it and spread the word.
A year and a half ago, I had my very first mammogram, having just discovered the lump in my left breast while living in Buenos Aires.
Thanks to my health insurance, I had the tests and results all in the same day. Everything was fine. I didn’t have cancer, said the Argentine doctor.
I was given some printed reports and a short letter, which I read and kept, always planning to follow up with the Argentine clinic when I was eventually diagnosed with breast cancer, four months later.
But cancer is time-consuming, and it took me a year after my diagnosis to retrieve the letter and really look into its meaning. It turned out I’d been given the impression I’d got the all-clear, when in fact the medical code in the blurb actually only meant ‘Probably benign.’
Here’s what happened next…
To read the rest of this post in Breast Cancer Care UK’s Vita Magazine, click here.
Six months ago, I foolishly signed up for the Royal Parks Half Marathon, thinking I’d be right as rain by October and not quite realising just how long it takes to regain full fitness after one surgery, six months of chemo and 33 rounds of radiotherapy. Add to that the effects of a scorching British summer, a month travelling around hot, sweaty Asia and a week of extreme jetlag and flu, and you can probably imagine I’m not doing very well with my training.
This week I gave my first breast cancer awareness talk to a class of young women at Notre Dame school in south London. It was my first experience as one of the ‘Boobettes,’ a group of young women who’ve all had breast cancer or some kind of scare and who are now helping Coppafeel! spread the message to boys and girls around the UK to check their boobs.
I did the presentation with Jo, a fellow breast cancer survivor who had the disease at the remarkably young age of 21 and who is doing fabulously now, 15 years later. I talked about my personal experience while Jo talked more about the charity. The teenage girls were very receptive and asked everything from “Do you sometimes have to have your boob chopped off?” to “Are you going to be able to have children?” Ah, life’s big questions! Let’s just say I got a proper grilling, but I didn’t mind.
The next day, I got some results back from a blood test I’d had earlier in the week at my local doctors. It was my first blood test since December, and I was quite alarmed to discover that my blood counts have not returned to normal since finishing chemotherapy. My white blood cells, neutrophils and lymphocytes are still lower than they should be, meaning my immune system hasn’t returned to normal and I’m not quite the strong ox I thought I was. There’s nothing I can do to raise the blood counts, but my GP is writing to my oncologist to see if anything needs to be done. Given that I haven’t had so much as a cold since before Christmas, I thought my immune system must be pretty strong, but maybe I’ve just been lucky.
Meanwhile, my hair has been growing pretty nicely and is starting to look a bit like my Dad’s. If I don’t comb it down when I get out the shower, it sticks up hedgehog-style, so here’s a pic of me post-shower and au naturel, with Pricey Senior. Also note my make-up-less eyebrows, which are still a shadow of their former selves but slowly, slowly getting there. (The eyelashes, on the other hand, are pretty much back to their pre-chemo state).
This morning I did my final bit of training for the 10k Race for Life I’m doing in London next Sunday (14th July). I practically killed myself running up and down the hills of Yorkshire in 25C heat today and I haven’t managed to run 10k in less than an hour yet, but I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. If you’d like to sponsor me and Team Stylist 10 to raise money for the all-important life-saving charity that is Cancer Research UK, please click here.
Finally, I thought you might like to see this picture of me after my first post-treatment 3k run (in the snow) in February, vs. my third 10k run (in the boiling sunshine) today. Evidentally I’m not looking quite so much like a cancer patient these days. Cancer, we’re coming to get you!
Well, it’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post, and that should be interpreted as a good thing. It means there has been no cancer news and no cancer treatment, apart from me trying to remember to take my daily doses of Tamoxifen, Vitamin D, fish oil, Co-enzyme Q-10, turmeric, ginger and 27,000 servings of vegetables…
Yep, I’ve been getting on with a thing called Life for the past few hospital-free weeks, and I have to say, I’ve been enjoying it. Yes, I am still tired from the chemo and radiotherapy and I do still look a bit like a peeled potato when I take off my eyebrow make-up, but otherwise I am infinitely hairier and simply happy to be alive, as you can see in the above photo of me and my team.
Those of you who don’t see me every day at work have been asking how my hair is doing, so here’s an up-to-date photo:
And how do I feel about it?
1. I AM JUST SO HAPPY WITH MY HAIR.
2. I am so grateful to have hair.
3. I am thankful every day in the shower when it doesn’t fall out in my hands.
4. I know it still looks kinda bald from the back, but I couldn’t care less – I love it.
5. I can’t really describe to you how amazing it feels to have just this little bit of regrowth… But I have got a lot of my confidence back in these past few weeks and I feel fantastic.
6. I can’t stop touching it.
7. I could do with a hairbrush – one of those really soft baby hairbrushes.
8. Does anyone know where I can get one?
So that’s it on the hair front, really. I did also spend £50 on some sort of eyelash-strengthening product from Boots but I’m not convinced it’s doing anything at all. Strangely, my lower eyelashes are growing back thick and fast but my upper ones (i.e. the ones I could really do with having) aren’t growing back at all yet. And my eyebrows are growing back in totally the wrong place as well, but beggars can’t be choosers.
In other news, my friend Chris decided to take on the amazing Eddie-Izzard-esque challenge of running three marathons in three days in freezing cold conditions this very weekend, to raise money for the brilliant charity Coppafeel! on my behalf. This incredibly crazy challenge on the UK’s Jurassic Coast just happened to coincide with one of the coldest, wettest, rainiest, windiest, snowiest, blizzardy-est weekends of recent years, and led Chris to endure knee-height floods, mud, killer hills and all manner of chafing. Nevertheless, he has trooped right through it and here he is looking very dapper in his orange top and sexy pink Coppafeel! accessories!
At the time of writing, Chris has raised an incredible £1,388 for Coppafeel!, which raises awareness about breast cancer in younger women. However, it’s not too late to sponsor him! Please just click on this link if you’d like to donate to this extremely worthy charity.
While I can’t quite claim to have run 78 miles this weekend, I have reached a few little milestones of my own lately too. Last week, for instance, I went indoor climbing with my team and reached the top of a few easy routes. Each 5-minute climb was so exhausting and exhilarating that I came down trembling and panting for breath, but it felt like such an achievement to reach the top and just to be able to do the same physical activity my colleagues were doing. I’m definitely not back to the same fitness levels I had before chemo, but considering there were times during chemo when I could barely even stand up, I’d say this was a pretty awesome achievement. There I am, above, looking like a little spider at the top of the wall.
It’s not all fun and games, however. Next week hails my return to the hospital, for my 9-month check-up with the surgeon who saved my life. From reading a lot of other cancer blogs in the past few months, I know my fellow surviving sisters tend to get extremely panicked about these check-ups, thinking a new lump is going to be discovered and they’ll be summoned back to hospital for endless months of stomach-wrenching chemo. Thankfully, I am not a worrier and my positive thinking tells me everything is going to be just fine. (Though keep your fingers crossed for me, just in case!)
After a very tough month (surely there should be some kind of referendum to abolish January?), things are finally starting to get better and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The main triumph of the week was giving up my wigs and unleashing my bald, slightly fluffy head to the entire world. Although the final result has been liberating, it certainly wasn’t an easy move. In fact, from Monday to Wednesday I ditched the wigs but instead wore a bright red woolly hat that I’ve had since I was about 16.
After three days of having an itchy and sweaty head, I finally felt semi-ready to ditch the Paddington Bear/ Little Red Riding Hood look and whap out my naked head to the entire office. And, believe me, ‘naked’ is the operative word.
You see, bearing your bald head all-of-a-sudden to an office of 400 people is very much like walking around the office in a bikini. Or your underwear. It feels disconcerting, uncomfortable and very, very scary. And ‘self-conscious’ is certainly an understatement.
But, fortunately, by Thursday, two males in the office (one gay, one straight and married) told me respectively that I look ‘sexy’ and ‘much better’ with my bald head than with my wigs or hats. And, I know it might not seem like it, but that meant an awful lot.
It also helped that some kind soul had posted a very uplifting message on the mirror of the ladies’ toilets on my floor, so I get told I look FABULOUS every time I go to the loo. I think I might make one of these posters for my bathroom mirror at home as well…
Saturday night, I was ready for a bit of a night out, despite feeling exhausted, and I would have probably gone back to wearing a wig for extra confidence, had I not been told about a live music night called “Shave or Dye” to raise money for the Irish Cancer Society. It’s part of the “Punks Vs Monks” fundraising event in Ireland and basically does what it says on the tin – you go along for the night out and either shave off or dye your hair to raise money for charity. Naturally I decided to attend the event with my naked scalp in tow, assuming I would fit right in.
Unfortunately, there weren’t actually any takers for the head shave, and I was still the only woman in the pub with a bald head. It was still completely worth it, though, because everyone assumed I had shaved my head for charity and I became the heroine of the evening. One woman said “Wow, your hair looks amazing!” as she passed me on the way to the loo, and another high-fived me and shouted “Did you get the full head?!”
On the eyebrow front, I burst out in tears of joy earlier in the week when I noticed there were some 30 or so tiny little eyebrows starting to sprout on both sides. In the picture to the left, you can see my original eyebrows circa May 2012, and my current eyebrows, circa three days ago (sans make-up). As you can see, I still have a few stragglers, but nothing like the caterpillars I had before. But what you can’t see is the tiny little shoots that are starting to grow, and bringing me infinite joy.
Through the online cancer support groups I’ve joined recently, I have met a number of women in their late 20s and early 30s who are also going through the horrible experience that is breast cancer. One of these girls is Heather, who is even younger than me, at 29, and was diagnosed around the same time as me. Not one to sit on her arse and moan, Heather set up “Fighting Fancy,” which sends out boxes full of amazing, useful goodies (mascara, hair-strengthening shampoo, etc) for women all around the world going through chemo. (Or those who have just finished it, like me). I was the lucky first ever Dublin recipient of a Fighting Fancy box and it very much brought a smile to my face, so thank you, Heather.
The date was 8/2, and my birthday is 2/8 (Aug 2nd) but by total coincidence two friends sent me cards that day that had the words “Happy Birthday” crossed out inside, and both of them wrote “I didn’t realise this was a birthday card when I bought it, soz”. And a restaurant sent me a discount voucher because it was my birthday.
So, tomorrow marks exactly one year to the day I found a lump in my left breast: Saturday, 4th February, 2012. For those of you who’ve only recently started reading this blog, I’ll go back to the beginning.
I was living in Buenos Aires this time last year when I went to northeast Brazil on a surfing holiday. It was just after I checked into the beautiful beachside guesthouse that I lay down on the bed and, somehow (I’m still not sure how), I discovered the lump.
Now, I’m aware that for anyone who has never found a lump, it may be difficult to imagine what one looks like, so I thought for the first time I would show you a couple of photos I took just before my surgery last June. (Please excuse the blurry, red face – I had probably been crying as I bid goodbye to my boob in its original state.)
If you look closely, you should be able to make out the bump in the skin on the right of the photo. It is bruised because I’d had the core biopsy a week or so earlier (where the giant needle is inserted into the tumour to take a sample). But, as you can see, it wasn’t like a massive bump sticking out of the breast, nor was it a different colour from the rest of my body, nor did it have any other outwardly visible characteristics.
I thought it might be helpful for people to see that my cancer didn’t come with a glaring neon pink sign that said “Hey, here I am – a big fat tumour just waiting to kill you!” No, it was much more subtle. Cancer is sneaky and sly. It often hides itself away while it quietly spreads around your body and waits for you to notice the more glaringly obvious symptoms.
That said, breast cancer comes in many shapes and forms. The symptoms can be anything including a lump, a dry patch, discharge from the breast, discolouration, swelling, or any change in size or shape. And it’s important to feel around the whole area – armpits included – because the cancer might not be in the main protruding part of the boob.
So that’s what happened exactly a year ago tomorrow. I had cancer and I didn’t even know it. I went to the hospital straight away for tests and was told by the Argentine doctors that it was a benign tumour (I.e. not cancerous). After the misdiagnosis, I continued living my life as normal until June 22nd, when I finally got the correct diagnosis in Ireland. I’m forever thankful to my then-boyfriend and my mum, for being the two people who insisted I get a second opinion. Without that, who knows what would have happened?
Fast forward to 2013 and radiotherapy continues to go well: 23 down, 10 to go. I think half the people at work don’t even realise I’m going out for radiotherapy sessions every day, so at least I appear normal.
That said, as you can see below, the hair growth is still painfully slow. (FYI, today’s eyebrows are brought to you with a normal eyeliner pencil, because I came back to Huddersfield for the weekend and forgot my eyebrow make-up. Someone get me a stylist, please!)
I’m currently trying to pluck up the courage to stop wearing my wig to work. There may be an opportunity to ‘break people in’ at a fancy dress party on Friday. The theme is 90s. I was thinking of copying a fellow breast cancer blogger, Dee, and going as a 90s-look Sinead O’Connor. But I don’t think it really fits in with what the rest of the partygoers are planning to wear. Also, it’s slightly absurd to think of going to a fancy dress party as Sinead O’Connor, just to feel brave enough to show my bald head, when everyone knows I’m bald underneath the wigs anyway! So maybe another week and I’ll do it. Or maybe a bit of alcohol is needed for Dutch courage? Maybe a few shots of tequila before work? (Actually that might not be the worst idea I’ve ever had – the drunkenness might deflect away from the baldness…)
Apart from that, there’s no real radiotherapy news. I am still quite sleepy but otherwise managing to do everything as normal, and getting 9 hours of sleep every night. (Previously unheard of in my life – another silver lining to having cancer.)
Being back at my parents’ house after a month is a bit weird. The drive home from Manchester airport on Friday night was the same drive we did home from the hospital after every chemotherapy session, and going over the Yorkshire moors I felt a slight pang of chemo-familiarity-associated sickness. Then the same again when I put a glass of water on my bedside table and got a flashback of putting a banana next to my bedside table so that I could wake up at 6am and eat it with my chemo steroids. Yuck. It’s only been two months, but these chemo flashbacks are likely to stay with me for a long time. Fortunately, it hasn’t completely coloured my time back at home.
Well, that’s it for today. This time last year I had cancer. Now I don’t. Thank goodness I found that lump.
Happy New Year and good riddance to the last one!
It’s fair to say 2012 was the worst year of my life, even without the cancer. But it had plenty of redeeming factors, for which I couldn’t feel more grateful and lucky. And I am genuinely feeling very excited about my new adventures in 2013, starting today with my return to Dublin.
Over the past few days I’ve been feeling extremely lucky indeed. Why? Because I spent the last week reading Please Don’t Go, the autobiographical account of the Welsh footballer John Hartson‘s horrific experience of testicular cancer. For those who don’t know his story, John ignored a lump in his testicle for years, until his head ached so badly he couldn’t even open his eyes and he began vomiting a murky grey liquid and was rushed to hospital. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which had already spread to his lungs and brain, and his body was riddled with tumours. He came very close to death but came through it all with the support of his family and friends and his own steely determination.
In the past few days, I also found out about friends of friends who have just died of cancer. All of the above are in their 30s, so all these tales really hit home with me. I realise I have spent most of my cancer journey in a bubble of positivity, knowing I will be fine and never once thinking the cancer would kill me. But the simple fact is, cancer does kill, and if I’d ignored the lump, it could have spread and killed me.
I am lucky that my cancer presented itself in the form of a lump, so I would notice it. I am lucky I went back for a second opinion and eventually was diagnosed. I am even more lucky the cancer didn’t spread in the four months between the first and second lot of tests. I am lucky I had private medical care. I am lucky I had my parents to look after me throughout the entire process. I am lucky I didn’t have to have blood transfusions. Although the chemo made me ill, the cancer itself never once made me ill, because it didn’t get the chance. At the time of diagnosis, I felt the best I had felt in a long time. And I could put up with the chemo making me ill, because it’s making me better. I am lucky I’m alive.
Simply put, I am lucky.
John Hartson says the answer to the question “Why me?” might be that he is a famous footballer and therefore is in a perfect position to raise awareness. So perhaps the answer to “Why me?” in my case is that I write, and I can raise awareness through my writing. I also think there are personal reasons for my getting cancer – some I know already, and others I’m yet to discover.
John has done a brilliant job of raising awareness for testicular cancer and this year I will do my best to raise awareness of breast cancer. Aside from the blog, I can’t wait to get back to running, and hopefully at some point I can raise some money for a breast cancer charity. If you have any ideas, let me know.
2012 was simply a horrible year for me, but I’m so excited about 2013. Even though I have two months of radiotherapy still to come, I know I’m on the final strait and in control of what lies ahead. I just want to thank you all for all the wonderful support, whether it be through reading and commenting on my blogs, sending me stuff in the post or being there for me in person at some point during this awful journey.
There’s a link here to a blog I have written for Breast Cancer Care UK with my Five Resolutions for a Cancer-Free New Year: http://www.breastcancercare.org.uk/news/blog/five-resolutions-cancer-free-new-year
All that remains to be said, to steal a quote from a fellow cancer-sufferer: “Cancer is so last year”.