It’s a pretty surreal experience to be told you have cancer. It’s hard to know how to react. After three hours of tests and consultations and an anxious 20 minutes in the ‘private waiting room’ (you know it’s not good when they take you to your own waiting room), the young doctor tasked with delivering the news had her very best ‘sorry you have cancer’ face on. She kept pausing, waiting for me to cry at the opportune moments. I just sat there thinking, ‘I wish they’d wrap this up so I can get home, put the baby to bed and watch I’m a Celebrity’. Your mind can’t quite take it in, so it doesn’t. A prime example of someone in the ‘denial phase’.
We were whisked away by a cancer nurse for the post bad news pep-talk. “Be positive,” she said. That’s tricky when you’ve just been told you have cancer at 38, I thought. She said some women found it helpful to write down all the good things in their life to see how much they had to live for. I told her that was unnecessary. I have a 14-month old little boy. That’s the only incentive I need.
The mood was so sombre and I didn’t feel I could ask the questions that were burning in my mind, for fear of being thought frivolous. We’d just started trying for another baby, would that ever happen now? We’d just booked a holiday to Dubai for my birthday in January, would we still be able to go? I didn’t want to be told that was the least of my worries. I did ask the number one question that was concerning me, I didn’t care if it displayed a sense of vanity. Would I lose my hair? Yes unfortunately was the reply. But it would grow back. That’s a difficult thing to digest when you’ve spent the last few years growing it way past your shoulders. Throughout my adult life I’ve worn my hair long. I’m naturally self-conscious and my hair is like a protective cloak within which to wrap myself. There as a self-comforting tool to twist around my fingers when I’m feeling anxious. I’d always joked that I was a bit like Samson…my strength came from my lion’s mane of hair. Well now I’ll find out whether there was any truth in that. I hope it was just me, as ever, caring too much about how I look to other people. I hope that really, once I lose it I’ll discover it’s not the source of my strength, and that in turn will make me tougher for the battle ahead.
The biopsy results showed a Grade 3 ‘triplenegative’ tumour, meaning it isn’t receptive to any hormones. It keeps being described as ‘small’ but it has spread to one, possibly two lymph nodes under my arm. Thank God though, the CT scan didn’t show it to be anywhere else at the moment. It’s funny how cancer really lowers your standards of what constitutes good news. After nine days of wondering if I was riddled with the stuff, being told I ‘just’ had breast cancer felt like a win. We even celebrated with Champagne that night! Not dead yet. Full of post diagnosis confidence I decided to consult Dr Google about my type of tumour (I’d previously been avoiding googling like the plague so as not to see anything that would terrify me). Big mistake. First page I read said it was more difficult to treat than hormonal type tumours, more likely to return and had a lower five year survival rate. This sent me into a bit of a tail spin. My husband was away that weekend and my mum was keeping me company. I spent most of the weekend morose and monosyllabic and deep in the depression phase - sorry mum! After processing it all through with friends and family, I came to the conclusion that my cancer is just that, mine. My case is not like anyone else’s, my outcome will be individual to me. There is no point dwelling on the stats of what may come in future. I need to knuckle down and deal with this tumour right now. Live in the present with an eye to a better future.
The NHS has been amazing so far. I found the lump on a Saturday, saw my GP on the Monday and within three and a half weeks I was diagnosed, biopsied, scanned and sat with my oncologist putting the treatment plan in my diary. She is wonderful and the perfect physician to deal with my over-anxiousness and propensity to imagine the worst case scenario. I instantly trusted her opinions and she deflected my negative questions with a very jolly dismissiveness. The Macmillan centre at my local hospital, where I’ll be receiving a lot of my treatment is a wonderful place. The staff are all so lovely, but never in that pitying ‘sorry about your cancer’ kind of way. The seats in the waiting room are comfortable and even have cushions, I didn’t think that was possible in the NHS! Kindly volunteers offer to make you cups of tea that come in proper china mugs. You know you’re sick when you’re offered free hot drinks in the waiting room. The only thing about it that I really hate is the fact, so far, I am the youngest person I’ve seen in there by a country mile. I feel like the old guard are looking at me with pity thinking ‘poor cow, she’s so young to be here’. I know I’m not the only woman under 40 to get breast cancer and by a long stretch I’m not the youngest but sometimes it feels like it. But I’m trying not to dwell on those ‘why me?’ kind of questions. Same goes for the feelings of ‘this is so bloody unfair’. I’m not perfect of course, those thoughts do go through my mind - I’ve definitely done the anger phase! - but thinking them too often sends one into a spiral of self-pity and that is the last place you want to be when you’ve got cancer to be dealing with.
In the past I’d always found it a bit naff when people were described as ‘battling’ cancer, like you picked up a sword and shield and went at it like a medieval knight. Or when cancer was humanised with an evil persona. F*** you cancer, you bastard… and all those rallying cries you hear. Journalism really taints you with a sense of cynicism for such platitudes! But now I am facing it I actually find it helpful to think of my tumour as a villain whom I need to fight against. My twitter bio now reads ‘currently punching cancer in the face’. Mentally I am preparing and visualising myself posturing theatrically like a wrestler, muscles flexed, face snarling…you will not take me away from all those that I love, it is not my time….cancer I’m coming for you.
While cancer has already, quite frankly, been a bit of a shit to me, it had one last sting in the tail for now. As I mentioned we had just starting thinking about another baby, a sibling for Freddie to complete our family. I already knew my biological clock was ticking VERY loudly. I was told those pesky eggs of mine - already getting ready to draw their pension – may not survive the onslaught of chemo. Apparently, particularly in women of my sort of age, chemo can in fact bring on the menopause. Oh the glamour. Now, for a woman of child bearing age, who would like another baby, to hear that will never happen would be a massive trauma to deal with. Couple that with the double whammy of cancer and losing my hair and this news could have been enough to tip me right over the edge. For someone who has had much of their mind-space taken up over the last few years with cycles and ovulation and pregnancy tests and maternity care, hearing that may never happen again was horrible. As it is, I have been granted a glimmer of hope with the offer of ‘fertility preservation’. It means delaying chemo for a week or so and some fairly unpleasant injections followed by the egg retrieval procedure. The fertility consultant told us, that even with embryos frozen, the odds of conceiving post treatment at my age aren’t great. But the fact there are odds at all fills me with all the hope and positivity I need that if I can get through this, then another baby is still a possibility.
So this little bit of good news has brought me into the acceptance phase. The next few months are going to be rough. I will feel and look the worse than I ever have. But I’m ready to start and in a weird way I’m actually looking forward to starting chemo (the operation and radiotherapy come later – one step at a time). The sooner I do, the sooner it’s over. I’m incredibly lucky to have some amazing support from a brilliant husband and family and friends who will help make the whole process as simple as it can be. So we get on, deal with it and get back to living our lives.
Steve and I have a little song we sing when we’re having snuggles with Freddie. It’s actually sung by Zach Galifianakis’s character Alan in the movie ‘The Hangover’(I know…we’re great parents teaching such wonderful cultural examples to our little boy!):
“We’re the three best friends that anyone could have,
We’re the three best friends that anyone could have,
We’re the three best friends that anyone could have,
And we’ll never ever, ever, ever leave each other.”
There’s a bit of a bump in the road coming up, but I’m not going anywhere.