Thursday, 23 June 2011

I'm back !

Hello World ! I'm back after a tough old week in hospital. A place where injections, IV's and blood pressure bands became my unwelcome, yet constant companions. I survived the operation I'm pleased to let you know. Since I'm now half a sternum, some mammary nodes and a piece of lung lighter, you might assume that I should at least look different after enduring such a mammoth experience. But the reality is that unlike a mastectomy, there is no physical difference to be had, not even my weight has changed. Apart from the point of entry - the seven inch scar which runs from the top of my breastbone to the beginning of my stomach. Which is still as I write, concealed under dressings. And of course the complete feeling of shit-have-I-just-been-reversed-over-by-a-ten-tonne-lorry. But apart from that, I look like the same old me. Which I find a bit strange since I currently feel like Methuselah's older sister. But enough of the self-pity. According to my surgeon, the operation went well. I'm healing nicely and all the extracted bits of me will be sent to the lab, fiddled about in petri dishes; the results of which will be available in a few week's time.

It all sounds so simple yet the events leading up to my op had been fraught with problems. First, my insurance company refused to pay all the fee for the surgeon. Apparently (despite being one of the best surgeons in Europe) he charges too much. A few angry letters and terse phone-calls later and they budged, but only slightly. They still wanted me to pick up the remainder of the tab. Then I got back the second opinion from a medical company that my employer subscribes to. An eminent professor of oncology from the US contradicted the decision for me to have surgery. According to him, it's of no benefit when dealing with metastatic breast cancer as the chances of recurrence elsewhere are high. Instead, he recommended either regular scans or radiotherapy or more chemo. Naturally this sent shockwaves through my medical team. I'm sure no surgeon wants to put their patient through an unnecessary four hour operation if they can help it. As for me, I began to wonder whether I really was making the right choice. Suddenly my future wasn't looking so optimistically rosy. US prof didn't seem to be impressed about my limited metastatic spread. To him, metastatic breast cancer was indeed metastatic breast cancer.

When undergoing a treatment as gruelling as chemo, once you reach the last round, you hope that it will be the last time that you'll ever have to go through it.  You don't share the doctors' enthusiasm that should get a recurrence, more chemo will do the trick.  You long for the 'end of treatment' moment that you had when you were diagnosed with primary breast cancer.  So to see it written in plain English that I might well have to go through the roller coaster of chemo once more, filled me with dread. My surgeon spoke to many oncologists, most of whom felt that if there was no liver involvement, resecting the tumour from the sternum would've been a no-brainer. But apparently as the liver mets are an indication that there is possibly occult disease elsewhere (or in layman's terms, there are other cancer cells lurking in my body), taking out my sternum would do very little to influence my future outcome.

But I'm pleased to say, my surgeon took the gung-ho approach. Why sit back and wait for something to happen ?  Better to whip it out now and hopefully buy ourselves more time. From his point of view I'm young, fit and and healthy and most importantly have fairly recently had a baby. I can withstand a major operation and I will also do anything to prolong my life. So, in the week before the op, we fight the nasty insurance company (by changing the description of the op) and win, we do another PET scan which is thankfully clear and I spend the week drinking vegetable juices and eating tons of fruit and when the day of the operation arrives, I feel nervous but ready. I endure the spinal epidural, the lines in my wrist and neck, the one night in intensive care and the immobility and numbness and pain that follows. I'm pleased to now be home. I'm supposed to be taking it easy but as anyone who's ever looked after a 17 month old baby will agree, there's not much possibility of that when you're chasing an ever curious toddler around the house. Still, I'm pleased to be over the last big hurdle (for now, I hope) and am just looking forward to getting better, stronger and fitter. Oh, and not having to sleep on my back every night.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Going Underground...

Just a quick note to let you know that tomorrow is the big day.

Yes, indeed. Tomorrow I will be going under the knife and having a partial sternum-ectomy, some fatty tissue and a piece of my lung removed. Understandably I am not over the moon about having to face a four hour operation, but I am happy to undergo any procedure which aims to prolong my life, if not 'cure' me. Being the eternal optimist, I am sincerely hoping for the latter. Considering that I'm about to enter the confines of a hospital and endure a stay of a week, it strangely feels as though I'm about to embark on a holiday. My bag is packed, I have to remember to pay a few bills, send some e-mails and water the plants. I am packing my computer, camera, Ipod and a good book. All I need now is some sunshine. But failing that, a sunflower plant will do.

Wish me luck !


Cancer as a Chronic Disease...

Before my trip to Spain, I found myself contemplating which books to bring with me. It's been a lifelong habit of mine to ambitiously take along at least two or three hefty classic tomes when travelling. Apart from weighing me down and taking up valuable space in my suitcase, I rarely get beyond the first book. Distracted by the sights, sounds and smells of being in a new country, reading the work of some deceased but cherished author usually ends up being the furthest thing from my fickle mind.

I'm usually a sucker for a good yarn but I recently discovered that when it comes to fiction, I've hit a wall. While I've been away from work, I haven't been aspiring to catch up on my Jane Austens or James Baldwins. Perhaps this is because I haven't found it necessary to lose myself in the world of someone else when my own life has been so filled with drama. But with a diagnosis of cancer always annoyingly worming its way to the forefront of my mind, I find myself lurching from wanting to escape from the medical world of tests and scans to desperately searching the net for more and more information about my illness. And this is why at the moment, it's non-fiction all the way for me.

I've just finished David Servan-Schreiber's excellent book called Anti-Cancer. Schreiber, a psychiatrist, discovered his own tumour while conducting an experiment on himself for a completely unrelated test. After a recurrence a year later, rather than following the advice of his oncologist (which was to do nothing) he embarked on intensive research into diet, exercise and lifestyle to see if there was a way in which he might be able to influence his health. Seven years later he's still alive with no recurrences. The book is well-researched, searingly honest (he talks in detail about the breakdown of his marriage during this time) and has none of the new-age, anti-conventional medicine bullshit that you often get with other complementary health books. If I hadn't read it so intensely and enthusiastically the first time round, this would have been my number one choice for Spain.

But when it comes to fiction, the appearance of the big 'C' is always an ominous one. There are few stories on screen or in novels where someone is diagnosed with cancer and bounces back to work after a few months of chemo. Cancer is often the tool that ruins relationships, gets rid of the dutiful wife, kills off the only child and gives grandma or grandpa a few months left to reassess their life.

What I'd really like to read is a tale about a women who gets cancer, beats the nasty disease into submission, eats super healthily and then falls in love with her oncologist on the way. She then starts to grow her own herbs, finds a cure for cancer in one of the seeds which she combines with chemo (with the help of oncologist husband) to kick cancer's butt to oblivion. Everyone is cured, a national holiday is declared in her name and er, that's it. We all live happily ever after.

The End.

Okay. Maybe I'm never going to win the Pulitzer prize with a dodgy plot line like that and I doubt whether Mr Spielberg is going to be knocking on my door with a six-figure offer of a film deal, but... in all serious, in would be great to find a work of fiction or non-fiction about cancer that is both flippant and honest at the same time. The closest that I ever got to this was Marisa Ococella Marchetto's funny graphic novel about her 'it-girl' life in New York before the big 'C' knocked on her door.

I can't really think of any others. There seems to be nowhere in the world of fiction where cancer is treated like a chronic disease. But I guess this lacks drama and conflict and let's face it, how many great works of literature are there where the protagonist has diabetes or high blood pressure that they just learn to live with ? Not many. Before I go, I'll leave you with this great comment piece that I discovered recently written by a young lady who has metastatic breast cancer. She echoes my sentiments entirely.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Rain in Spain... was non-existent thankfully !

Yes, I'm back. My sojourn in Spain was surely a brief but exciting one. A relaxing break ? well, it was not to be since I spent many a day holed up in a room reviewing the work of photographers. But, I did manage to steal some time away to sun my poor post-chemo'd body on the hotel's brand-new roof terrace. I made sure that at least on one night, I ate a tasty selection of traditional tapas, surrounded by the cacophony of shouts, laughter and intensely loud conversations of the madrilenos. I ventured out to eat meals at a time when I would have normally been tucked up in bed in the UK. Still firmly sporting my close-cropped silver shaved head, I was delighted to be stopped by a local man accompanied by a child in a pushchair, and asked if I was a photographic model !  Ok, well he did continue to tell me that he was looking for a black model with a shaved head for 'art' photography and with that continued to make a growling noise. This rather instantly made me think of this rather iconic image of the indomitable Grace Jones in the heyday of her career...

I guess that I'm just too long in the tooth to not feel suspicious when the word 'art' is used in the context of photographing women. But, if I tell myself that perhaps he was the next Mario Testino in the making temporarily struck by a bolt of inspiration when he saw me, then my self-esteem and confidence soars to no end.

But more surprisingly, I did not miss my hair. Neither wig nor headscarf accompanied me on my Spanish trip. I relied only on my shaved pate to get me through introductions, viewings, socialising and general sight-seeing. Of course, some people stared. But I put this more down to the fact that they're just aren't that many black women in Madrid. And even less of them have shaved heads. I found (and this is something that Cosmopolitan or any of those other so-called 'empowering' women magazines never mention) just how easy it is to have a shaved head. No more mornings desperately fighting with hair that won't do what it's told. No more twisting, untwisting, or wrapping it up at night to keep moisture in. No heavy bottles of moisturisers and gels. I think I must have added an extra two hours a week to my life. Only once, did I feel self-conscious. I bumped into a colleague associated with my work. He exclaimed when he saw my new hairstyle (which I had forgotten that I had) and I immediately panicked inside. Words like chemo, cancer and hair loss all swirled around my head while I wondered how much I should tell him. Should I just lie and pretend that I cut my hair like this on purpose ? Fortunately, he assumed the latter and after his initial surprise, never mentioned it again. That I have to say, was the only time that I was transported back to Cancerland during the whole time I was there. I temporarily left behind my duties as a mother, a patient and an employee. I became myself again. And I loved every minute of it.