Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Truth About The Milky Way...

This afternoon, while I was preparing a meal to be rejected by my ever increasingly fussy toddler, I found myself being drawn into a radio programme that was currently on air. Alex James (ex-Blur bassist and now born-again cheese farmer) was waxing lyrical about the pleasures of eating, making and selling cheese. In his interview he revealed that he felt about cheese the way some some people feel about wine. It was more than just his passion. It was his raison d'etre. And the interviewer, man-about-london-town Robert Elms just didn't seem to get it. He liked cheese, but he didn't love cheese. And because of this, he couldn't quite understand why anyone else could either. 

Now the reason why I'm telling you all of this is because in my quest to stay on this earth for as long as I possibly can, I've given up all the epicurean vices that I once adored. Plainly speaking, I've cut out milk, cheese, butter, alcohol, refined suger (well if you don't include the dark squares of chocolate that I guzzle down on a daily basis) and biscuits, cakes and anything else that usually makes my taste buds come alive. In its place I've introduced spirulina powder, manuka honey, nuts, seeds, turmeric, broccoli sprouts and vegetable juice. I know that I'm now sounding like the last person you'd ever call upon if you ever fancied a debauched night on the tiles, but I still like to think that I'm an interesting, karaoke-loving kind of gal who can fling on a party dress at a moment's notice and get down with the best of them - just don't ask me to man the bar or expect me to bring the dessert. My new regime (as much as I've always been a health nut, I have to admit that some of the concoctions that I now down on a daily basis truly make me wonder if I'm taking part in some military endurance test) is hard work mainly because I realise that when it comes to dairy, I'm the female version of Alex James. I miss it the way a dog misses a bone. I was the only one in my family who would regularly down a glass of milk for pleasure. And I can name at least ten different types of cheese and even tell you where in the world they're produced. I'm not bragging, just making a point. My point being, that I was the milky bar kid long before he was ever invented. I wasn't just into dairy, I was crazy about Dairylea. Even before I knew the meaning of the word, you could say I was destined for a a cheesy life. 

So why am I doing this ? What exactly is the evidence for and against dairy when it comes to breast cancer ?  Well, the first person who turned me on to this way of thinking was the queen of anti-dairy herself, Jane Plant. For those of you not in the know, for the last decade or so, Ms Plant, the one with the doctorate in geology, has been writing about the evils of milk solids. She started researching dairy after being diagnosed herself with the disease not once, but five times. While this experience would have been enough for most of us to throw in the towel and summon the services of the nearest priest, Ms Plant set to work trying to find out why her body seemed to be letting her down on a regular basis. Her findings on milk and milk products as hormone disruptors haven't convinced everyone and although she now lectures to oncologists, some still find her arguments too simplistic and anecdotal. After reading her book for the first time, I was shocked to find her blaming a friend's recurrence of breast cancer on a relapse of a cheese sandwich !

But it was listening to my oncologist tell me about a recent medical study which looked at the relationship between milk production and breast cancer occurrence which made me think again. The bottom line is that the milk we drink today is produced in a very different way than it was when I was a kid. Pregnant cows naturally produce more milk and so are milked more often than non-pregnant cows. But as well as milk, they also produce a hell of lot more hormones too. They're also injected with hormones to make them produce more milk.  Humans ingest these hormones which in turn then interfere with the functions of our own hormones. We all know that breast cancer tends to be a hormonally driven type of cancer. When my onc told me that if she was me, she'd avoid milk and dairy products like the plague, that was enough for me to turn my back on the white stuff forever. 

I can't say that it's easy. I do have my days where I slip off the wagon. And I have to say that the pleasure derived from biting into a delicious slice of mozzarella-topped pizza is almost better than, well, any aphrodisiac that I've ever had. In Japan and China, there isn't really a word that describes dairy; most probably because they hardly eat any. And they can't understand why we in the West are so in love with the stuff. They also have much lower rates of breast cancer than us. But the rate in Asian women increases once they emigrate to Western countries. 

I don't know if my abstinence will make any difference to a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, I just know that doing something is better than not doing anything at all. My thoracic surgeon, a man of traditional science, who also respects and embraces the holistic methods of Eastern medicine, summed it up perfectly when he said to me after I told him about my green tea, turmeric taking diet, 'Why not ?  what have you got to lose ?'.  I know that not everyone agrees with this. 'Eat what you like' responded another onc when I quizzed her about the benefits of a green diet. Other cancer patients feel that with so many liberties taken away by the merry-go-round of scans, blood tests and debilitating treatments, why bother to deprive yourself of the little pleasures in life ? Perhaps my abstemiousness puts my mind rather than my body to rest. Who knows ? Who cares ? If I stay in NED for an extended period of time who cares how I got there as long as I'm there ? And if it means I have to pass on a piece of parmesan every once a while, then so be it. But if anyone knows of a good, tasty, orgasm-inducing vegetarian cheese substitute, I'd love to hear about it. 

Monday, 5 March 2012

Pandora's Pet Scan

I know. It's been a while since I dropped by. I've had good intentions, really I have. I have at least three unfinished posts to prove this, but every time I think of blogging I can't help but think of the loss of three internet 'friends' which has occurred over the last few months. I didn't know them in real life, nor really within the context of the blogsophere. I once wrote a comment on one of their blogs but I was, more often than not, a silent reader. But the loss feels substantial and has affected me in ways that I never really imagined it would. How can I really feel so much compassion for people that I've never met ? Perhaps I am just being selfish. The knowledge that metastatic breast cancer kills exists in all of us who have this disease. But in everyday life when I'm exchanging celeb gossip at work, or playing at home with my child, I choose to switch off the white noise that is the cancer default switch - the one that usually buzzes around in my head like a swarm of angry bees. I can't say that I forget for a while. Because forget is perhaps too desirable a word. No, I switch off. And I celebrate the fact that despite the treatments, despite the lack of pre-cancer energy, I am alive. And well. Well, for now anyway.

And really, there is much to celebrate. My birthday for one. All forty-three years of me enjoyed cake and red wine last month with the gay, giggly abandon of a teenager. I made no effort to rally friends and family around. I just wanted to enjoy the day as it unfolded, without expectation, without ego. And it worked. Being aware of myself for a change rather than what others might be thinking of me was such a relief that I wondered why I hadn't practised this kind of thinking before. Mindfulness is what meditation yogis call it. And apparently it provides all kind of health benefits. Although living in the now and having cancer are strange bedfellows. Staying somehow suspended in the present is the way that most of us cancer patients 'cope' on a day-to-day level. We know that if we thought long and hard as to what the future might hold, well, we might decide to give that forthcoming episode in our lives a miss.

But wait, what of the other good news ? The good news. I mean the really good news is that I'm currently NED!!!!  No, not the abbreviation of some hot new rap group, but that physiological state that us cancer patients all aspire to. No. Evidence. of. Disease. The first time in over a year since diagnosis that I've managed to reach this current state of nirvana.  The truth is, I don't even like to proclaim it too loudly lest I jinx myself for next time, but the real truth of the matter is, NED comes with a price. What price, you might ask ? The huge amount of scan anxiety that I seem to face before and during the whole tortuous process. In the last month I've not only had a PET/CT scan but also a CT brain scan after I complained one too many times about headaches. For someone who is often not short of ways to express herself, this time I have truly failed to find the words that explain the sheer anxiety and terror that accompanies the knowledge that in the space of a thirty minute consultation, my whole future could implode. And rather like the experience of being told that you have cancer, it doesn't matter how many times that you go through it, somehow it never gets any easier.

But let's not get maudlin. Let's say goodbye to three formidable women, who blogged their way through the same anxieties, the same hardcore drugs that I'm currently on, who made me feel less alone on many a lonely, fearful night and who inspired me to tell my own story. I know that at the moment I'm incredibly lucky. I also know that this reprieve could come to an end all too quickly. Just before I was given my good news, I have a confession to make. I looked at the disk of my scan before my doctor had a chance to. A crazy, crazy, utterly insane thing to do. I know.

In the world of private healthcare you are always given a disk of your scan before your own doctor has had a chance to review it. Quite why they would want to thrust a Pandora's box into the hands of an anxiety-ridden patient, I just don't know. But I guess in the world of corporate healthcare some would call it value for money. Well, of course like Pandora, I opened the box and saw what I thought was extensive spread to my pancreas and kidneys. I cried and worried and gasped and cried and prayed and worried and cried and gasped for the rest of the day. And then I had the rest of the weekend to imagine all kinds of terrible things happening within my insides before I had the chance to see my doctor. As I have already revealed, thankfully my own personal diagnosis was way off the mark. That day, I proved to myself as well as to my two bemused consultant oncologists, that just because I choose to spend my time reading breast cancer abstracts on the internet, I am indeed no doctor, scientist or pathologist.

I'm just a very terrified 40 something woman who on the outside looks as though she is coping well. I try to sound confident and positive when really sometimes I'm so frightened deep within. I wonder now when I look back at the beginning of the blogs of Toddler Planet, Just Enjoy Him and The Cancer Culture Chronicles, if this was the way all these remarkable women chose to deal with their cancer too. My thoughts are often with Susan, Judy and Rachel as it is more often than not with the partners and children that they sadly leave behind. I feel angry but hopeful at the thought of metastatic breast cancer being a chronic illness. Angry that it's so damn obvious that we just aren't there yet but desperately hoping that one more woman will not have to lose her life in this tragic, tragic way.

I guess that's all I have to say.