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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.)

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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.

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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!)

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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.

‘Oh, but you’re so young!’It’s a phrase I’ve heard repeatedly throughout my breast cancer journey. Nobody expects a woman in her 20s to have breast cancer – after all, eight out of 10 cases are in women over 50, and only a tiny fraction are women under 35, or men. But every year, about 200 women under 30 are diagnosed with the disease.

Having breast cancer is an isolating experience, regardless of age, nationality or background. It’s no less easy for a 70-year-old than for a 25-year-old. Nevertheless, over the past seven months since my diagnosis at age 29, I have found that a lot of the support and guidance available is (understandably) catered towards older women, and doctors don’t necessarily take into account the needs of the pre-menopausal.

With that in mind, I’ve put together a few bits of advice from personal experience. Most of it is relevant to women of all ages, but I hope some of it will be particularly helpful to those few fellow women in their 20s and 30s who receive a diagnosis this year.

(Please click on the link below to see my latest blog for Breast Cancer Care UK):

http://breastcancercare.org.uk/news/blog/beginners-guide-breast-cancer-diagnosis-younger-women

5am Get out of bed, 9am arrive in Dublin, 9:30am eat leftover turkey-and-stuffing sandwich and sausage for breakfast in taxi to hospital, 10:45am locate correct wing of enormous hospital and have CAT scan and three boob tattoos all before 11:30am. Plane journey sitting next to the most vile, drunken chav duo from hell, then back to Manchester in time for dinner at a city bar, spot I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! and Coronation Street actress Helen Flanagan out on the razzle dazzle with her mates and leave just as the paparazzi arrive… Bed by midnight. All in a day’s work for a dedicated cancer-fighter like me!

Apart from the paparazzi (who I think were there to photograph Miss Flanagan, rather than my dear self), I expect what most intrigued you from the above were the words “boob tattoo,” so let’s delve a little further into that subject. Disappointingly, the tattoos are not actually on my boobs. They are all in a line below my boobs – one in the very centre, and one on each side.

First, I lay on the machine while the big whirring CAT scan machine bobbed me under and took a few pics (this was painless and took two minutes). Then a young man called Owen (or Eoghan – I’m not at one with Irish spellings yet but will ask him next time) appeared as if from nowhere with a felt-tip pen and drew some lines on me in an X-marks-the-spot fashion. He and another lady called Olivia stuck some stickers on me and finally Owen/Eoghan tattooed me with a needle at the meetings of each of the three Xs. It wasn’t painless but was basically just the same pin-prick as a quick injection and was over in minutes.

Above-left, you can see what one of the tattoos on my side looked like yesterday after the tattooing took place (please excuse the bra marks). It looks sort of painful and bruised, but I can assure you it’s just ink and was not in the least bit painful. Fortunately the Xs washed off, and to the right you can see what the tats look like post-wash. I was kind of expecting them to be a little smaller – you can certainly see them – but I couldn’t care less. I now have three permanent scars from my cancer and three little tiny speck tattoos, and I love having the war wounds to remind me what I’ve been through. Something to show the grandkids, I s’pose…

I have just posted the pics of the tiny specks on my side as I have a feeling I might regret it if I post the one in the middle of my cleavage, so I won’t…

Meanwhile, it seems the lovely Miss Flanagan decided to go bra-less last night, according to the Daily Mail. I’m thinking maybe she was doing it in sympathy for me?

Phew! So yesterday I got back from an exhausting two-day tour of the UK and Ireland’s cancer hospitals.

It started with a 5am rise on Tuesday for my flight to Dublin with Mum, to meet the oncologist who’ll be looking after my radiotherapy treatment. By 9am I had trekked through two airports and endured a cramped Ryanair flight with a screaming, kicking child in the seat behind me, people coughing all around me and the constant intrusive din of Ryanair’s overhead advertising of refreshing J20, a selection of hot drinks and snacks and a very special, exclusive 2-for-1 scratch card deal. Let’s just say I understand why air travel is not recommend during chemotherapy treatment. It’s exhausting.

First up, I headed to work to see my colleagues and pick up my post before going to my hospital appointment. At 11:30, after greeting half of my department with a hug and being regaled with tales of how half of them had just got over the 24-hour vomiting bug that’s sweeping Britain and Ireland, I called my doctor for the results of Monday’s blood test and found out I was neutropenic again. My white blood cells and neutrophils had completely reversed their earlier gain and were so low that I had virtually no infection-fighting abilities and shouldn’t really be around anyone at all, let alone sitting on Ryanair flights and hugging germ-ridden workmates (no offense!). However, I was already in Dublin by that point and any damage had already been done, so the hospital said they’d test me when I got back to Manchester.

Next up, my appointment at St. Luke’s, a specialist cancer hospital in the leafy Dublin suburb of Rathgar. Now, for those of you who’ve been reading this blog since the beginning, you’ll know I was diagnosed at St. Vincent’s, which is a large hospital in Dublin, and I was expecting something similar. But as soon as we pulled up in the taxi outside St. Luke’s, I could see it was different. You can’t really tell from the photo to the left but it was more like a quaint old people’s home or an American chapel than a hospital – just one storey high and with a very friendly, intimate vibe. I loved it immediately. (Well, as much as it’s possible to love a hospital where you’re about to be blasted to pieces with radiation).

I walked up to reception and said “Hi, I’ve got an appointment with Dr McVey” and the response from the reception desk was a very hearty, smiley, “Ah, you must be Laura!”

Honestly, I have never felt so welcome (even at a hotel, never mind at a hospital!) It turns out I had been in touch with the friendly woman on reception via email, and when she saw me with my little wheelie suitcase she realised I was from out of town and put two and two together that I must be the young British girl coming over for radiotherapy. But still! What lovely people.

Unfortunately, after all that, it turns out I won’t be able to have my radiotherapy at St. Luke’s because they couldn’t fit me in on the public system so I have to go privately at St. Vincent’s instead, but that’s fine because it’s closer to work and my flat. I’ll write a separate post about my radiotherapy treatment plan because it’s too much information for this post, but basically I should start on 2nd Jan and finish at the end of February, with 33 radio sessions.

Flying Back to Manchester

On the flight home, with Aer Lingus this time, I was momentarily delighted when I saw that we were sitting in the emergency exit seats, i.e. plenty of leg room and as much space as possible away from my fellow passengers with their various vomiting bugs and winter flu. The delight was soon snatched away from me, though, when your lady from Aer Lingus looked at me, gestured towards the window I was sitting next to and said “You’re guarding the emergency exit there, are you willing and able to initiate an evacuation in an emergency?” (You see, I had taken off my wig by this point and was wearing a snazzy purple beanie and I obviously screamed “cancer patient/invalid” to her.)

I paused for a moment, recalling the opening scenes from series 1 of LOST. Was I really strong enough, after six rounds of chemo and one exhausting day of travel, to lift a 15kg aeroplane door off its hinges in a crash and lead my fellow passengers down the inflatable slide into the sea, making sure they all took off their heels so as not to puncture it?

“Yes,” I finally said. I was too exhausted to move and I really didn’t care that much about my fellow passengers anyway. (Apart from Mum, and I’d help her down the inflatable slide first anyway). Plus the evacuation procedure looked simple enough.

“Please ensure all electronic devices and mobile phones are switched off,” the cabin attendant said, eventually, preparing for take off.

“Oh NO!” Mum exclaimed from the seat next to me. She had left her mobile phone on, and the cabin lady had insisted we put our bags up in the overhead cabins so as not to block the emergency exit, and now we were all firmly belted in and ready for take-off. “What should I do?” she said, looking at me for answers.

I was in two minds. I knew Mum’s phone was unlikely to cause a crash during our 40-minute flight to Manchester, but I wanted to avoid any increased risk that I would have to get off my poor chemo-sapped arse and shuffle 100-odd passengers out of that emergency exit, so eventually we asked the cabin lady to get Mum’s bag down so she could switch her phone off.

The plane did not crash. We made it safely to Manchester. Then I got a paper cut from one of the items of my mail I’d picked up from the office. Will it ever end?!

Back to the Christie

Luckily, we had the good sense to stay overnight in Manchester on Tuesday, otherwise I don’t think I’d have even had enough strength to get myself back there on Wednesday (purely due to tiredness and still fighting this infection). I was in for my three-week post-chemo check-up, which truly marks the end of chemotherapy – hooray!

Because I was neutropenic on Monday, I went in for another blood test on Wednesday. Unfortunately, I was dehydrated from our overnight stay in a stuffy hotel room (I know people commit suicide sometimes but I really wish hotel rooms had openable windows…) and it took three painful attempts before the nurses could get blood from me. Yuck! Seriously, I must have had more than 100 needle injections so far in 2012.

Then followed a tense wait for my blood count results. If my white blood cells and neutrophils went down from Monday, I would have to be admitted as an inpatient and be hooked up to a drip again for a few days in hospital – possibly spending Christmas Day at the Christie Clinic. But if they went up, I would be allowed to go home. So you can only imagine how relieved I was when the doctor told me they’d gone up. Not exactly by much, but honestly, I couldn’t care less as long as I was able to go home.

Now please let me not have picked up any vomiting bugs in the past two days! (Not that it matters anyway, seeing as the world is going to end tomorrow…)

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