Archives for posts with tag: chemotherapy

‘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

IMG_4205Ah, the definition of happiness: Soft-boiled eggs and toast soldiers with the papers on a Sunday afternoon when it’s raining outside.

You may not think that sounds that great, but anyone who’s ever lived with me knows I like nothing better than a pair of boiled (or poached) eggs of a weekend lunchtime and I’ve been deprived of this pleasure for FIVE WHOLE MONTHS. Why? Because chemotherapy is like pregnancy – you can’t drink (much) alcohol, you can’t eat soft cheese, raw fish, live yoghurt or soft-boiled eggs, because of the risk of infection. Anyway, nobody told me at what point it’s ok to start eating foods off the banned list again, but it’s been 6 weeks since my last chemo, so I figured I would allow myself the pleasure on this otherwise joyless weekend. And I haven’t vomited yet, which is promising.

Anyway, back to radiotherapy. Week two is officially done. Eight (sessions) down, 25 to go. This week during my daily blasts of radiation I was treated to the likes of Alicia Keys, Coldplay, Robbie Williams and even Fairground Attraction (“It’s got to be-e-e-e-e-e-e per-fect, yeah”) – I can’t say these are my favourite musical artists, but fortunately the radiation sessions were short and sweet and I didn’t have to listen to Coldplay’s warblings for long.

The major development of the week is that I went back to work – after five months off. I’m working in the mornings and going for radiation sessions followed by rest in the afternoons, which is a perfect set-up as I think I’d go stir-crazy if I was at home the entire time, but I do need the rest. Some people work during radiotherapy, while others don’t, depending on the side effects, but the tiredness hasn’t really set in yet so I’m happy to be able to go to work. Fortunately, I also work at a place that provides the most magnificent catering, so I’ve been treating myself to delicious healthy breakfasts of scrambled egg, grilled tomato, spinach and mushrooms, and they’ve even provided me with rice milk to help me along with me no-dairy crusade.

IMG_4206On Tuesday I arrived at the hospital a little early, so I decided to visit the breast care nurses who were there when I was first diagnosed, at this very hospital (St. Vincent’s, Dublin), more than six months ago.

As I approached the second floor of the hospital where the breast care department is, I could see the women sitting in the waiting room outside the very room where I was diagnosed. Some of them would be waiting there for their loved ones, others might be just about to get diagnosed – just about to walk into a room and be told the news that shakes up their entire world and changes the rest of their lives. Needless to say, it was quite emotional for me, returning there. I even went into the room where I received the shocking diagnosis on June 22 last year, and I just about managed not to cry.

Aside from being back at work, being back in Dublin after six months is quite strange for me, as I had only just moved here when I was diagnosed. It’s like the City That Stood Still. Basically, everything that was happening in my life before I left Dublin was frozen in time and it’s all hit me all over again now that I’m back, as if the last six months never happened. Only I know they did, because I only have to catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror to see the hairless face and I know I’m still a cancer patient. That said, it’s great to be back in my apartment and back at work, living a semi-normal life.

On Wednesday I had the bright idea that I would start cycling to work. It’s only a 10-minute walk so I figured cycling it would be even quicker. My bike has been babysat for the past six months by my very kind colleagues and my aim was to eventually be able to cycle it to the hospital each day (a 50-minute walk).

Bad idea. Whereas I thought I was regaining my fitness pretty quickly and have been walking around at my usual pre-cancer pace, it seems I am far from fit and have lost all the muscle mass in my thighs. The 10-minute cycle to work almost killed me. Not only because I nearly had to stop in traffic I was so puffed out, but also because I have forgotten everything they taught me in my primary school Cycle Safety course. So the bike is now firmly parked once again inside my apartment and will gradually be taken on further outings once I start feeling fitter.

On the hair front, I have been wearing wigs all week because I am still looking horribly patchy and bald. While I cannot wait for the day when I can stop wearing wigs and just go out with my bare head with an even layering of hair, at least I can say the wigs don’t give me headaches any more. Plus, even though they all know I’ve had chemotherapy for the past five months and am bald as a baby, that didn’t stop one of my closest colleagues from saying he didn’t even realise I was wearing a wig. So at least I’ve got a few people fooled!

Happy New Year and good riddance to the last one!

It’s fair to say 2012 was the worst year of my life, even without the cancer. But it had plenty of redeeming factors, for which I couldn’t feel more grateful and lucky. And I am genuinely feeling very excited about my new adventures in 2013, starting today with my return to Dublin.

Over the past few days I’ve been feeling extremely lucky indeed. Why? Because I spent the last week reading Please Don’t Go, the autobiographical account of the Welsh footballer John Hartson‘s horrific experience of testicular cancer. For those who don’t know his story, John ignored a lump in his testicle for years, until his head ached so badly he couldn’t even open his eyes and he began vomiting a murky grey liquid and was rushed to hospital. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which had already spread to his lungs and brain, and his body was riddled with tumours. He came very close to death but came through it all with the support of his family and friends and his own steely determination.

In the past few days, I also found out about friends of friends who have just died of cancer. All of the above are in their 30s, so all these tales really hit home with me. I realise I have spent most of my cancer journey in a bubble of positivity, knowing I will be fine and never once thinking the cancer would kill me. But the simple fact is, cancer does kill, and if I’d ignored the lump, it could have spread and killed me.

I am lucky that my cancer presented itself in the form of a lump, so I would notice it. I am lucky I went back for a second opinion and eventually was diagnosed. I am even more lucky the cancer didn’t spread in the four months between the first and second lot of tests. I am lucky I had private medical care. I am lucky I had my parents to look after me throughout the entire process. I am lucky I didn’t have to have blood transfusions. Although the chemo made me ill, the cancer itself never once made me ill, because it didn’t get the chance. At the time of diagnosis, I felt the best I had felt in a long time. And I could put up with the chemo making me ill, because it’s making me better. I am lucky I’m alive.

Simply put, I am lucky.

John Hartson says the answer to the question “Why me?” might be that he is a famous footballer and therefore is in a perfect position to raise awareness. So perhaps the answer to “Why me?” in my case is that I write, and I can raise awareness through my writing. I also think there are personal reasons for my getting cancer – some I know already, and others I’m yet to discover.

John has done a brilliant job of raising awareness for testicular cancer and this year I will do my best to raise awareness of breast cancer. Aside from the blog, I can’t wait to get back to running, and hopefully at some point I can raise some money for a breast cancer charity. If you have any ideas, let me know.

2012 was simply a horrible year for me, but I’m so excited about 2013. Even though I have two months of radiotherapy still to come, I know I’m on the final strait and in control of what lies ahead. I just want to thank you all for all the wonderful support, whether it be through reading and commenting on my blogs, sending me stuff in the post or being there for me in person at some point during this awful journey.

There’s a link here to a blog I have written for Breast Cancer Care UK with my Five Resolutions for a Cancer-Free New Year: http://www.breastcancercare.org.uk/news/blog/five-resolutions-cancer-free-new-year

All that remains to be said, to steal a quote from a fellow cancer-sufferer: “Cancer is so last year”.

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…)

Today I had my 15 minutes of fame in the Huddersfield Examiner, the follow-up to my 2004 hotpant-clad debut, back before the online archives even began.

I’m pleased with Hilarie Stelfox’s article, which focuses on how I’ve used this blog and my Huffington Post blog to help me through the horrible cancer journey. The only minor issue, as one of you pointed out, is the rather unfortunate advert for some funeral services in the online version of the article (which they’ve said they’ll remove) but we’ll let it pass, in the name of good humour!

Click here if you want to read the article.

Since I know only about 2% of the people who actually read this blog are in the Huddersfield area, here’s a couple of pictures of the hard-copy version, which my Dad just went out and bought:

(I’m not overly happy with the bald pic, which I think makes me look a bit chubby-faced. But then I realised when I got weighed at the hospital yesterday and today that I have actually put on 5kg (ie almost 10% of my original weight!) since before chemo, so maybe I am just a little chubby-faced compared to what I was before!)

And the unfortunate funeral ad:

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