Archives for posts with tag: breast cancer

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.

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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.

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

And so it was that almost three years to the day of my original surgery, I found myself going under the knife again. This time it was to remove a cyst that emerged after my original operation in June 2012 and recently got infected. So, no biggie. However, as with anything in the world of boobs, hospitals and health, it was not without its fair share of drama.

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It started a couple of months ago when I noticed that the cyst in my armpit, which had always been about the size of a sesame seed, had suddenly grown to marble size. It was also red, sore and painful, so naturally I thought “oh God, the cancer is back”. At the same time, I had been feeling exhausted and weepy, but had put this down to jet lag after returning from a trip to Asia, and certainly hadn’t related it to the lump.

My GP didn’t relate the two either. In fact, he put the tiredness down to a urinary tract infection and then took one look at the glowing lump in my armpit and gasped “gosh! Well you’re going to have to take that out! If anything, for aesthetic reasons. I mean, if this is what it’s like after three years, imagine after five!” Fortunately though, despite his barely concealed horror, he was fairly sure it didn’t look like cancer.

I managed to get an emergency appointment at my hospital a few days later, at which point the cyst had grown so red and sore and my exhaustion so pronounced that I realised it must be an infection. Even cancer doesn’t grow that fast, I reasoned.

Sure enough, the doctor agreed, and gave me two options: 1) we give you antibiotics, drain the cyst now and then wait a month or so until it’s gone down before removing it or 2) we put you into emergency surgery to remove the cyst now while it’s still infected, but be warned, the results will be “pretty ghastly”. Er, I’ll take option 1, thank you very much doc.

So they drained the cyst and I went around for a week or so with a large dressing under my arm, braless with unshaven armpits and no deodorant – a strong look for the start of summer. The cyst duly shrunk to its original size, the GP gave me a vitamin D prescription and I was my usual self just in time for my holiday.

When I was having chemo in the middle of summer three years ago and painfully watching all my friends’ holiday snaps appear in my Facebook feed, I used to write lists of all the places I would go to when I was better. Colombia was on that list and it definitely didn’t disappoint. I ate my weight in fresh fish and crispy fried patacón (see below), drank my way through the national coffee supply and partied like 2012 never happened.

Picstitch

Fast forward to last Wednesday and I’m all set for my operation with the lovely surgeon who did my original op three years ago. However, just as I’m about to leave the house, I get a call from Stepping Hill hospital (if the name sounds familiar, it’s because you read about it in the recent poisoning scandal), telling me the surgeon has cancelled due to unexplained ‘personal circumstances’.

After much waiting, umming and ahhing, I eventually agree to have the surgery the following day with a different but similarly qualified surgeon, since I’ve already made the trip up north, planned the days off work and prepared myself emotionally.

The next day, I’m just about to leave for the hospital again when I get another call. This time they ask me if I can come in sooner. You may notice that I am having a bad hair day in the picture at the top of this screen. This is, firstly, because I washed and dried it the day before, in preparation for my weeks-in-the-planning operation with surgeon No.1, and secondly because on day two I rushed out of the house without brushing it when the hospital asked if I could come in earlier than planned.

It turns out I was lucky to get my operation at all, because the entire Stepping Hill computer system had gone down, and the hospital was in complete chaos, with surgeries being cancelled left, right and centre.

“Everything’s broken, nothing’s working, it’s an absolute nightmare” were the last words the nurse said to me before she took me in. Not exactly what you want to hear before you’re wheeled into the operating theatre.

Anyway, all went well and I was taken to a recovery ward and given a couple of slices of buttery toast with sugary tea. (One of the tiny joys in life is having a sugary tea after a hospital procedure – see photo below of me and Linders enjoying proper teapot tea in my luxurious private hospital after the 2012 op)

Tea and toast

Unfortunately, just as I took a bite into my buttery toast, the poor woman across the ward looked over at me with puppy dog eyes and started to make conversation. It turns out she had been nil-by-mouth since 6:45am, waiting for a general anaesthetic that kept getting put back due to the technical outage. And all around her were post-op people drooling over their buttered toast…

Anyway, the operation went smoothly and I have to go back for my results in two weeks, just in time for the three-year anniversary of the Big Scary ‘C’ Word. Life has thrown up rather a lot of other great material for me to write about lately, but you’ll have to wait a little longer for that. In the mean time, the major news is that my hair is finally long enough to go into a pony tail. Give it another year and I might be back to pre-cancer hair length.

Clove Club

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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.

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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

Hair growth June 2014I haven’t written anything on this blog since February, which is due to a combination of having just completed a Masters degree in nine months and starting a new job immediately after, and – more importantly – having no cancer news to report.

But those of you who follow me on Twitter and Facebook will know that Sunday 22 June was the two-year anniversary of my diagnosis, so it was high time for an update, which you can read on the Huffington Post website.

Here’s a preview:

For the last year and a half, I have taken a photo of myself almost every day using an app to track my hair growth. I started three months after chemo finished, which is why I look like a baby chick in the initial pics. I also went make-up free in all the photos so that I could track my eyelash and eyebrow growth – a whole year of no make-up selfies, if you will.

In other very brief news, I did a talk at a school in north London the other week to teach young women about breast cancer awareness. I wrote a few words and stuck a few pictures up on the Boobette blog, which tracks the work of all the other lovely ambassadors for CoppaFeel!

I’ll be back with another post in a few months when I have my two-year MRI or mammogram, but until then please assume no news is good news.

Boobettes June 2014

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