Archives for category: MRI

Today marks the day that, five years ago, I entered St. Vincent’s Hospital completely oblivious about the state of my health and left with the news that I had cancer. It was a day that would change my life in so many ways, not so much because of the horrors the illness would bring for me but because of the wonderful people I would meet because of it, and those I would lose along the way.

I am lucky, so very lucky, that I’m here today and alive and healthy, with the ability to do pretty much anything I want with my life. I’m eternally grateful for those five years ‘in remission’ and I hope to live 50 more. But it’s a bitter-sweet anniversary because just a few weeks ago we lost Laura Weatherall-Plane, one of the kindest, funniest people I’ve ever met and who serves as the biggest reminder of how short life is.

Laura and I met around four years ago through CoppaFeel!, the breast cancer charity she so faithfully supported until the very end, raising thousands of pounds, running half marathons after blood transfusions and while on chemo – her last long-distance run was as recent as this March. When I met her, she was, like me, recovering from primary breast cancer and believed she had a normal life ahead of her, so when we met again a few months later and she told me she’d had a secondary diagnosis, I couldn’t believe it.

IMG_0864.JPGMe (left) with Laura W-P (to my right) and our fellow trekkers

I didn’t know Laura well but I had the honour of sharing her company on the Iceland trek we did for CoppaFeel! last August. She and her husband Jon were the life and soul of the trip, entertaining us with their colourful stories and games and keeping us positive through the pain of the hike, even though Laura herself was walking on feet that were red raw from chemo. She even had the selflessness to tell me I wasn’t pathetic when I had tears in my eyes over having to cross an ice-cold river with our bare feet. She was really a special soul.

Laura made it her life’s work to support her friend Kris‘s efforts to make sure no one else is diagnosed with breast cancer at the terminal stage simply because they believe they’re too young for it. At her funeral, we heard an emotional letter from her cousin Jade, whose life Laura saved. So if you do anything else after reading this, please go check your boobs, or encourage someone else to – it’s exactly what she’d have wanted.

IMG_0894.JPGWith Laura Hughes, the moment we finished the 60km trek

Shortly after returning from Iceland, another Laura – Laura Hughes – was also diagnosed with secondary cancer. She’d had terrible pains in her shoulder throughout the trek but had put it down to a sporting injury, not suspecting it could have anything to do with her cancer spreading. Laura is 29 and is now working her way through her own version of a bucket list, called “Laura’s life is for living.”

So these last five years have been some of the hardest and scariest but also some of the best of my life, for so many different reasons, and I’m constantly reminded of how short life is. I definitely can’t claim to be someone who never spends a day feeling miserable, but I’m doing my best to do more of what makes me happy.

I remember sitting during the worst of my chemo days, writing a list of places I would visit when I was better. Happily, I’ve ticked a lot of those places off my list and had the good fortune to eat in some very special restaurants along the way, so I can’t complain.

Iphone Pics 029.JPGGraffiti snapped in Dublin right before I was diagnosed, in 2012

Most importantly, I’ve also had the all-clear from my latest MRI scan, which finally took place at Christmas after being cancelled about 16 times due to the unpredictability of my periods. I’ve heard it said that five years is the magic number in terms of survival rates, but I think it’s about plodding on and making the most of life, however it makes sense to do so.

As for next challenges, I’m taking inspiration from a fellow cancer survivor and Boobette, Jackie Scully. After running the London Marathon on her wedding day, she has decided to trash her wedding dress in Laura W-P’s honour by swimming six miles in the Serpentine. As anyone from the Iceland trek knows, I’m petrified of cold water (I keep saying it’s down to the trauma from the ice gloves and shoes I had to wear during chemo, but it’s probably just because I’m a wimp) but I love a good swim.

So it seems a fitting tribute to take the plunge and show Laura I can be strong like her too. I’m signing up for a shorter distance as six miles sounds nigh-on impossible, but I’m sure that will be challenge enough. You’re welcome to join us – the more, the merrier.

This one’s for the Lauras. xx

Three good things happened to me last month. Here they are (in order of occurrence, not importance):

  1. I had laser eye surgery
  2. I got discharged from my oncologist (forever, I hope)
  3. My three-year MRI scan came back clear

I’ll start with No.2.

After examining me, my doctor said, “It’s been three years, so it’s very unlikely the tumour will come back now.” Then he said “I’m sacking you! When your oncologist sacks you, it’s very good news!” Then he laughed, then I laughed, and then I cried.

If I hadn’t been crying constantly for the preceding 24 hours as a result of the laser surgery then everyone in the waiting room might have noticed my happy-emosh tears, but since I showed up dressed as a D-list celebrity in sunglasses and a visor (yes, A VISOR) to protect my puffy, red, light-sensitive eyes, I think I probably got away with it.

Now for those of you wondering about the laser surgery: well, I had LASEK, which is unfortunately not the one where you can go back to work the next day with perfect vision. I had the one where the laser works on the surface of the eye instead of cutting a layer below it, which means you can’t see properly until a couple of weeks later, when the surface has healed. It’s incredibly painful for the first couple of days and makes your eyes constantly stream with tears and your nose with snot, which is why I had to go to the hospital in celebrity disguise.

Kym Marsh

Channeling Kym Marsh exiting the gym

The laser surgery itself was fine – just 47 seconds on each eye, and the green laser beams reminded me of radiotherapy, so I felt strangely at home. (No, really). Afterwards, you have to be skilled enough to administer 127 different kinds of eye drops without actually being able to read the label on the bottle (thanks, Mum), then you have to be cool enough to pull off regulation one-size-fits-all goggles sellotaped to your head, and it feels like having chlorine and grit rubbed into your eyes for two days. But apart from that, it’s fine.

Goggles

A strong look, I feel

Would I recommend it? Well, two and a half weeks later, I still can’t really see that well, so maybe ask me again in a month.

Finally, onto news No.3: the annual MRI scan. I hadn’t heard anything by early this week so I called my surgeon’s secretary. “We don’t have any record of your MRI scan,” she said. So nothing changes.

They now seem to have got hold of it though and everything’s fine, apparently. So that’s good.

IMG_4274

Third annual regulation hospital gown selfie

Being discharged from the oncologist is of course a big deal, but I will still see my surgeon once a year and have the annual MRI scans, and I’ll be looking out for anything sinister in the mean time. But it still feels like quite a significant milestone, so I’m happy.

FB

Facebook tells me it’s three years since the chemo chair ice-pack challenge

IMG_8329

So this photo popped up on my Facebook feed the other day.

There’s nothing like Facebook to give you that big surprise surge of emotions with a visual image – whether it’s a photo of your ex on his wedding day or a school photo of you with pudding-bowl hair circa 1990 that someone has recovered from their parents’ house. Or, in my case, a pic of you larking about in a photo booth mid-chemo with a completely bald head and some ill-informed eyebrow pencillage.

I hate these photos of me, but I do look at them and think I must have been brave because I can’t imagine doing that now. What a difference a couple of years makes, eh?

Speaking of bravery, it’s been so long since I’ve written this blog that I’d forgotten the password. When you’re going through cancer treatment every day and you’re off work and living it, it’s a lot easier to share everything online. You’re sort of suspended from the real world, so sharing some of the most private details about your health with the blogosphere seems kind of natural.

Back in the real world and back at work, it’s easier to pretend the whole cancer thing never happened, so there have been times over the last six months that I’ve sat down to type a few words but I’ve never pressed “Publish” because it all somehow felt too personal.

Just because I haven’t been blogging or going through active treatment, doesn’t mean I haven’t been dealing with the many ways cancer manages to continually affect my life – hot flushes, night sweats, MRI scans, aches and pains that constantly make me think the cancer has come back, and 400-mile round trips for hospital visits (yes, I know I could get an oncologist in London, where I live, but for some reason I cling to the surgeon in Manchester who I love so much he brings a tear to my eye every time I see him).

I still read some of the cancer blogs and every so often there is something that really affects me. The death of a ‘virtual’ friend diagnosed around the same time as me, or a magazine article about a newly diagnosed girl my age that brings back all the feelings and memories. But most of the time, I manage to be the same person I’ve always been. And that scares the hell out of me because in a way I kind of blame the person I am for getting cancer in the first place.

Does cancer change you? Well maybe, in some ways, but mostly, no. I am back to being the person I’ve always been. I get stressed out with work and I push myself too hard. And now I also seem to have incorporated mild panic attacks into the mix – which I think is more to do with age than having had cancer. Even though there is no medical proof, I am fairly convinced my cancer was down to stress, or maybe the way I deal with stress.

In the two years before diagnosis, I had various stress-related ailments: acne, shingles and migraines. I was working 12-18-hour days, surviving on 4-6 hours’ sleep, and training for a marathon. So it didn’t surprise me that my body got so run down that my immune system couldn’t cope with those few tiny cancerous cells that everybody gets but that most people’s bodies manage to ward off before they start to multiply.

Two and a half years later, am I managing to be that chilled out, zen, non-stressy person I vowed I’d be? Am I hell. I mean, I have made vast improvements – I always make sure I get 8 hours sleep, I average about 10 of my daily fruit and veg (no, really), and I occasionally do meditation (like, once a month, but I will start using that Headspace app more regularly). But I still allow work and other things to stress me out and any ‘down time’ seems to get eaten up by stupid but necessary tasks. Oh, and I seem to have signed up for another half marathon.

There’s a daily grapple with myself over what to do – should I just quit full-time work forever, move somewhere much cheaper and live a stress-free, no-commute life? Or should I stay where I am and keep doing what I’m doing? I figure there’s never any guarantee the cancer won’t come back regardless of what I’m doing or how stressed I am, and it’s not worth giving up my ambition and letting the Big C win. So, on I plod.

Anyway, onto the good news. I finally got the results back from my two-year MRI scan and apparently there’s still nothing sinister to report:

Further to my previous letter I have now received the MRI scan. This has revealed no sinister focal lesion. Features were consistent with previous surgery. I am happy with this and will continue to monitor progress as planned.

I remember one of you telling me right at the beginning that if I survived two years then I would be “all clear”. While I now know this is not technically the case, because you’re never really clear of cancer, I’m relieved to get those results. (Not least because the nurse kept calling me Emma during the procedure, and when I rung up three weeks later the hospital had no record of the scan.)

The MRI was a stressful affair. I was determined not to cry this time because I knew what to expect – there’d be a cannula that would remind me of the chemo but I’d be ok with it. But for some reason, I woke up that morning with a terrible headache, which, coupled with the drive over the winding roads en route to Manchester, made me feel as sick and unwell as if I’d just had a bout of chemo. That, and the anxiety, the feeling I never thought I’d have because I convince myself I’m not bothered, that the ever-so-slight pain under my left breast (the cancerous one) might be something to worry about.

So I arrived at the hospital all shaky and sickly from the car journey, and they called me straight in for my appointment. And of course, true to form, they couldn’t get the needle in, and had to call a second nurse to help out. I couldn’t help but have a little cry. And then there was the bit where they kept calling me Emma.

It was my Mum who received the results letter, because for some unfathomable reason at 32 years of age I still get a lot of my post delivered to my parents’ house. Her response, when I asked her to open it, even though I’d already had the results informally over the phone, was “I must admit I still felt nervous opening the letter. You never really know until you get the results from Mr S.”

Yep, that just about says it all really. You never stop worrying. But I’m here, two years later, and that’s all that matters.

IMG_7487

Thought I’d end on some selfie action to give you an update on the hair situation – see t-shirt for explanation. [The doc was slightly surprised when I turned up for my scan a few days later with red and blue paint bruises all over my arms]

Love, Emma x

So I just had my bi-annual check-up with the surgeon who saved my life and I’m pleased to say it’s all good.

It was just a manual examination – no scans, no cannulas, no tears this time – but for some reason it seemed more thorough than the last time and I felt quite satisfied.

Anyway, Dr Lifesaver seemed very pleased (‘Your scars have healed so well! You can barely even see the armpit one.’) and told me to come back in October for my next MRI scan. (Well, it’s not actually that simple – he said I have to come back and ask him to write another letter to the NHS board asking them if I can have another MRI, so it’ll probably be Christmas by the time I have another one, but anyway).

I have a different hospital appointment next week for a separate chemo/Tamoxifen-induced problem that I shan’t go into, but after that, no more hospital trips until July, when I see the oncologist again. Hooray!

20140203-203355.jpg

As you can see, my hair has grown a bit since last time I wrote. It’s not actually as long as it looks in this hospital-gown selfie – it’s just got volume today because I went to sleep with it wet and woke up with a semi-Mohican (as happens most days). It is also getting mullet-like at the back again and needs a bit of a trim.

But the good news is I’m *almost* back to my pre-chemo pixie. I think it’ll actually be two entire years after my pixie cut (August 2012) by the time it grows back to that length, which is insane. But my latest theory is that if my cancer cells grow anywhere near as slowly as my hair cells then hopefully they have NO CHANCE.

Oh, and I figured I could get away with today’s headline since yesterday was apparently National Yorkshire Pudding Day. Didn’t know it was a thing? Nope, me neither. But fortunately I have a bezzie who knows these things and thankfully she was on hand to cook me a truly splendid Yorkshire roast. So it is, indeed, all gravy.

Anyone who has ever survived primary breast cancer will know the feeling of fear that lives with you every single day. That is, the fear that the disease will at some point return or metastasise, leading to incurable secondary breast cancer.

IMG_2361

Apologies for the recycled MRI selfie, but you can never have too many selfies

For survivors like me, there is no ‘screening’ for metastasis. But what doctors can do is regularly check the breasts themselves for recurrence, with manual examinations, mammograms and MRI scans.

I, however, have been somewhat confused over the last six months about whether I’m supposed to be having MRIs or mammograms from now on.

So, in my latest post for Breast Cancer Care UK’s Vita Magazine, I talk about the national guidelines and recommendations for MRIs.

Disclaimer: This should by no means be taken as ‘advice,’ because I am not your doctor. But hopefully it’ll give people a better idea about the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence’s guidelines, and from there you can ask the experts.

%d bloggers like this: