I’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.
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.
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.
The 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. The 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.
As 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…