Archives for category: St Vincent’s
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In Buenos Aires, at a conveniently named ‘Bar,’ back before any of this ever happened

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.

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Two weeks after my final radiotherapy session, I finally understood what they meant about fatigue. It didn’t kick in until at least a month after I started radiation, and it wasn’t until late last week that I began to feel a bit debilitated by it. Nevertheless, I knew it was a side effect of the radio when I started needing an afternoon nap after a solid eight hours’ sleep. (Eight hours soon became nine hours, nine hours became 10, and before I knew it, I was sleeping 12 hours and still feeling exhausted.)

It’s both a mental and a physical kind of tiredness, but it’s not a constant thing – it really comes and goes. I wake up feeling reasonably sprightly but by lunch time I’m ready for a few hours of shuteye and sometimes I’ll be back in bed by 9pm. Some days I feel fuzzy headed and can’t concentrate, other times it’s more of a physical tiredness, but more often that not, I’m just sleepy and don’t feel like doing much.

All this, I’m told, is totally normal. The peak of the side effects usually occurs about two weeks after the final treatment, which is round about now, and the cumulative tiredness from the chemo and radiotherapy is likely to last a few months.

It’s easy to feel frustrated by this. After all, I’ve had almost nine months of my life effectively taken away from me by cancer. I spent six of those months cooped up in my parents’ house, unable to go out and socialise or work. Now that I’m no longer bed-bound by chemo, I want to recover lost time: work, go out, have fun, travel, live a normal life. Unfortunately, however, I’m not quite yet free of the side effects of treatment and I’m going to have to hold onto my urge to run marathons for a little longer.

Last week I read a brilliant essay by Dr. Peter Harvey, consultant clinical psychologist at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust, which completely captures this phase of treatment. It’s a long read, but I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand how it really feels to step off the rollercoaster of cancer treatment and be left reeling, still dizzy-headed, wobbly and – quite frankly – wanting to vom from the ride.

One of the things Dr. Harvey mentions is the importance of allowing yourself time for recuperation,  convalescence and rehabilitation after cancer treatment, and this doesn’t happen overnight. I took this week off work because I was struggling to concentrate through the tiredness, but I’m not going to suddenly revert to being a bouncing ball of energy (Was I ever?) as of Monday morning. It takes time.

Here are a couple of paragraphs that explain a little about the need for proper rest:

It is a widely held belief, often correct, that the treatment of an illness is meant to make you feel better. One of the many paradoxes of cancer is that, more often than not, the treatment makes you feel worse. This is not surprising – we cut and possibly mutilate, inject you with poisonous and powerful chemicals, subject you to dangerous rays all in the name of treatment. The aggressiveness and power of the treatments are a necessary response to the power of the disease, of course, but this very power takes its toll in other ways. […]

All too often I meet people who, for quite understandable reasons, want to get back to doing the things they used to before the diagnosis but find themselves falling at the first hurdle because they simply find the whole thing too much. In my view, however smoothly your treatment has progressed and however well you have tolerated the various indignities to which we subject you, some time simply to recharge and recover – to recuperate – is absolutely essential. This is the necessary foundation on which to build recovery. […] Take however long you feel you need. Recuperating is the very first step in a process of rebuilding.

And I think that’s just where I am right now: the recuperation stage. Sitting in my flat in Dublin, drinking milkless tea, listening to the rain outside and taking it one day at a time.

“Boob Tattoos, Five-Centimetre Soup and 66 Grays of Radiation: A Radiotherapy Diary” – my latest blog for the Huffington Post:

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/laura-price/radiotherapy-diary-boob-tattoos_b_2759582.html

IMG_4719I’ll never forget Valentine’s Day 2012 because it was the day I went to the Clinica del Sol private hospital in Buenos Aires to get that lump in my breast seen to. There was nothing romantic about getting my boobs out in front of the grey-haired old male Argentine doctor, nor was it particularly sexy having them squashed like pancakes into the vice-like clamp of the mammogram machine. But hey, at least I didn’t have cancer! Or at least I didn’t find out about it until later.

The good thing about Valentine’s Day 2012 was it set the standards low for 2013, so I wasn’t too disheartened when the heart-shaped card in my letterbox turned out to be a thank you card (a nice one, at that!) and not a display of love from one of my many (elusive) secret admirers. Nor was I too bothered about spending a second consecutive Valentine’s day in the hospital, because at least this time it was for my penultimate round of radiotherapy. But it’s fair to say I’ll be easy to please come 14th February 2014.

IMG_4688So that’s it: radiotherapy done. And with it, the end of eight long months of cancer treatment.

One operation, six rounds of chemo, 33 rounds of radio, roughly 80 injections, 40 self-injections, more than 50 hospital trips, five nights in hospital, three seasons, one birthday and a whole load of cups of tea.

It’s been quite a journey.

But if anyone thinks that means it’s ‘over,’ they are very much mistaken. I managed to avoid hospital for the first 29 years of my life but I’ll be going back every year for the rest of my life without fail. The first check-up takes place in 4-6 weeks, the next shortly after that, and another one in July. For the rest of my life I’ll be having mammograms and letting strange doctors feel my boobs. But I’m fine with that, because I feel safe when I’ve got someone checking up on me. In fact, it’s widely said among the cancer community that the hardest part comes after the treatment ends. Once there are no more daily hospital trips, no more doctors and nurses monitoring your progress, the mind starts to wander and the insecurities and fear set in. It feels pretty overwhelming after such a long time under constant medical care.

IMG_4687But at least I get a little reprieve from the daily hospital trips for a while.

The sun came out in Dublin for my final day of radiotherapy, affording me the rare opportunity to walk to the hospital via the beach. After so many weeks of gailforce winds and torrential rain, this felt quite symbolic. It also allowed me to take off my hat and get some much-needed vitamin D to my face and head, which I’m sure will help my hair grow.

IMG_4716The last radiotherapy session was the same as all the rest. The final eight sessions were ‘boosters,’ directed towards the area where the tumour was, instead of the whole breast. I was expecting to have a bright red boob by now, but in fact you can hardly see the effects of the radiation at all. It may get worse over the next few weeks and it’ll be a while before I can shave my armpit and use normal shower gel and moisturiser, but I was expecting it to be a lot worse. I’ve included this photo to the left so you can see what it looks like to be under the machine. Bear in mind this is just for blog purposes – in reality I’d be naked from the waist up!

After the final session, I went up to the Breast Care section of the hospital to say goodbye to the nurses who were there when I was diagnosed. One of them, Maeve, congratulated me on finishing and asked me how I was feeling. I could barely find the words to answer because the question made me want to burst into tears. The poor woman must think I’m an emotional wreck because every time I’ve seen her, I’ve welled up. But the truth is, I can’t go back to that little room where I received my diagnosis on 22nd June 2012 without breaking down a little. That little room with its wonderfully friendly nurses is the place where all this started and it just brings a big lump to my throat. Most of the time I manage to cope by taking each day at a time, but that place brings back the whole unbelievable overwhelmingness of it all.

The effects of the radiotherapy will continue to work for a few more weeks. IMG_4693The tiredness has already hit me and is getting worse, but it’s a strange kind of exhaustion that comes in waves. I sleep for 8-9 hours but often in the afternoons I feel the kind of sleepy you feel when you’ve had a few glasses of wine and a big meal in a really toasty room – a kind of after-lunch sleepiness where it’s hard to keep your eyes open.

For the final session, I decided to wear the heart vest sent to me by my fellow breast cancer survivor and Fighting Fancy founder, Heather. I wore it not because it was the day after Valentine’s Day, but because it was my last session and it kind of symbolised what myself and all the other girls in my global cancer support network have been through. From the one who’s currently in hospital after her fourth mastectomy surgery, to the one who was admitted to hospital with a horrible mid-chemo infection last week, it’s been great to be able to share my experiences with people who really get it.

IMG_4643As all those girls all know, the journey is far from over, but at least I can start to regain a little normality in my life and slowly get over the effects of the treatment. Now if only my hair would grow faster so I could stop looking like a cancer patient…

IMG_4596What an extraordinary week. In a good way.

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.

IMG_4482After 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.

IMG_4548It 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.

IMG_4601Unfortunately, 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?!”

IMG_4605On 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.

IMG_4534Also bringing me infinite joy this week was the massive package full of goodies I received all the way from Little Rock, Arkansas.

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.

IMG_4550Finally, this week hailed my ‘Not Birthday’. On February 2nd, for some curious reason, I received not one, not two, but three birthday cards. And it was definitely not my birthday.

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.

IMG_4604So, with 28 rounds of radiotherapy down and only 5 remaining, I’d just like to wish myself a very Happy ‘Not Birthday’! I think this calls for some cake…

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