Wednesday, 25 December 2013

The Joy of Being Average...

It's Christmas night. The toddler (who is fast turning into a highly spirited pre-schooler) is fast asleep, clutching a toy dragon and recovering from an over-stimulation of chocolate, wrapping paper and an abundance of interactive toys. His father and grandmother are asleep too. I'm slumped in front of the TV, watching yet another re-run of Love Actually (can they really not find anything else put on at this time of year ?), having stuffed myself with a huge christmas dinner, followed by a few glasses of prosecco and a handful of chocs. A few phone-calls have been made to distant, but close family members. We've even managed to skype my sister all the way in L.A. The fairy lights twinkle on the small tree which sits comfortably on the lounge table. It's just another average Christmas in a very average household, and one that will be echoed the world over. Some might call it boring and yearn for a change in routine. Me ? I've loved every minute of it. It's been an average Christmas that hasn't included having to take an abundance of drugs, or make trips to A & E in the early hours of the morn, or self-adminster injections to myself. The most pressing worry that I've had all day is the excessive amount of money that I've ended up spending on the finer things in life (like the delicacies in the local Sainsbury's) after hearing that my very refined sister and her equally refined husband were due to make an appearance at chez moi on the most stressful day in the culinary world. After filling my trolley with some of the most sumptuously fatty and sugary items that would scarcely make it past my front door even during one of my weaker moments, I set about trying hard to think of a menu that could incorporate my strict abstinence of everything but the bare nutritional necessities of the modern diet - namely fruit, veg, a few carbs and the odd bit of oily fish. It wasn't easy. I soon realised that not 'doing' dairy or sugar pretty much wipes out most of the average yuletide menu, and allowing yourself nothing but 85% dark chocolate and a few cashew nuts doesn't feel like much of a treat when everyone else is tucking into lemon tart and christmas pudding.

As it happened, my sister and her husband couldn't make it in the end. Something to do with having a heavy cold and needing to check up on an elderly in-law. Of course I was disappointed. It's not every day that I spend the equivalent of a month's shopping in one go (and to be honest, being something of a frugal spender when it comes to normal supermarket visits, I'm not sure that I really want to relive the experience again). The old pre-cancer me might well having ranted and raged about the injustice of having wasted so much money on food that I really had no intention of ever eating, the current me ? (I'd love to use the word 'post-cancer' in this instance, but being of superstitious extraction, I'm afraid that I might well jinx myself in the not-so-distant future). Let's just say that I took it with a pinch of salt turmeric, and instead was more than thankful that I had the luxury of being able to cook a meal without wondering whether my tastebuds would catch-up and be able to actually savour the flavours (anyone who's ever been on chemo will know what I'm talking about). Having been able to avoid chemo for a whole year has been fantastic, but having been cancer-free and in remission (otherwise known as the much coveted long-term fling with the beloved NED) for 365 days has well and truly been the icing on the cake.

Merry Christmas to each and everyone of you. Here's to many more average Christmases to come...

Friday, 25 October 2013

When Harry Met Sally...

The other day I bumped into someone who I hadn't seen for roughly two decades. He had been a student of film when I was studying English and we'd had mutual friends at a time in my life when partying and socialising seemed to be never-ending priority pursuits. I was coming out of the building where I work when he happened to be passing at the same time,

'Hello, remember me ?'

'Hi, yes of course I do ! How are you ?'

'I'm fine. And you ? You look really great ! I love your look !

Now to any other woman at any other time in her life this would be noted down as a great, no strike that, fabulous moment. An attractive man who you haven't seen for all of 20 years bumps into you and utters (before the usual 'so, what are you doing now ?') how good you look has to be the stuff of a Hollywood rom-com. At this point I feel obliged to state that although I'm already spoken for, at times it still feels great to get a compliment from a member of the opposite sex. Of course, there's always the possibility that it could have a double-edged meaning. Perhaps in my awkward 20-something days when I was so caught up in pursuing a career there's the chance that I may well have let my appearance slide at times. It was certainly a long time ago, but I don't remember ever caring too much about what the current weave trend was or whether I looked like the girl from the latest music video. I'm certainly not saying that I do now, but it's amazing what an unintentional hairstyle can do.

I thanked him, smiled sweetly and we carried on catching up. The rest of the conversation isn't that interesting to recall here but what struck me as important from this encounter was the fact that in no way did I give him the slightest impression that I had spent the last two years of my life dealing the one of the most devastating diseases known to man. If I had walked out of the door limping, I would have elicited more sympathy. Should I have honestly told him how rough the last couple of years had been ? Wouldn't it have been more honest of me to tell him about the experience of chemo, radiotherapy and surgery while looking after a child who was barely a year old ? Should I have done by bit for the cause by explaining exactly what metastatic breast cancer is and why I'm still able to function despite the loaded sound of the illness ?

I guess I'm either a pollyanna type or a coward or maybe I just didn't want to scare him away but I firmly said nowt. Not one sniff of the C-word. It just didn't seem appropriate and I guess I was reluctant to burst the bubble of joy and surprise that comes with re-aquainting yourself with someone that you haven't seen for a while. I found it much more pleasurable to talk about the experience of having a child for the first time, or speculating what other long-lost friends might be up to or sharing gossip and titbits about other mutual friends who I sadly don't connect with any longer. Stepping out of my persona of the successful, career-minded 40-something working mother and into the role of chronic cancer patient just didn't seem that appealing and for once in a long time, since I didn't happen to be experiencing any tell-tale side-effects from the treatment on that particular day, I had the luxury of being able to choose which person I wanted to be.

As we parted after a big hug and promise that we'll search for each other on Facebook (where else ? gone are the days when folk would exchange telephone numbers but then never get round to ringing...) I walked away with the thought that my life is well and truly surreal at times. Why is it more acceptable to talk endlessly about having a stinking cold or the fact that I almost broke a bone in my foot while on holiday, yet speaking at length about an illness that affects one in three us in our lifetime still has the power to halt a conversation in its tracks ? Believe me, I have tried it in the past, thinking that it was far better to be brave about my 'coming out about the Big C' then hide it under a bushell. But the response has always the same - a sharp intake of breath, followed by something, anything that might fill the uncomfortable gap in conversation, usually followed by a hasty retreat. Just before I continue, I have to admit that I'm probably no better. Seeing a colleague recently wander over to my desk to say hello after having spent months off sick from having a stroke, found me in a similar position of not knowing quite what to say. I felt ashamed of myself as I fished for words that might trigger a joke and finally realised what it is that makes others so tongue-tied. Human beings aren't necessarily programmed to cope with new or difficult experiences if they've had no prior warning of them. Sometimes flight seems to like an easier option when faced with the question of your or someone else's mortality.

In a way I guess that I'm lucky that my close crop gets such a seal of approval and it was great to talk about my life without for once having to factor in the cancer bits. But I wonder how the conversation might have gone if I was having one of my bad days ?

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Is All Cancer Metastatic ?

So October 13th, 2013 was Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day. Were you aware of this ? Nope, me neither. I heard barely a whisper about the date on UK radio or TV. Actually, I'm lying. Having more than just a passing interest in the subject, I'm aware that buried somewhere within the mountain of pink ribbon paraphernalia is an awareness day that doesn't sit easily with the media. It doesn't have the feel-good-triumph-over-tragedy story of its younger early-stage sister. Metastatic breast cancer day rather ambitiously aims are to inform the general public about the realities of living with an incurable but often treatable disease. Only there's a problem with the branding. How do you make something that's 'incurable' but treatable sound anything less than 'terminal' ? And terminal can only mean one thing when seen in newsprint - that short-cut rat-run to the pearly gates (or the furnace depending on how good/bad you happened to have been in your past life). The problem with metastatic breast cancer is that even though, by virtue of the fact that you're still alive and kicking, you're showing the world that you truly are surviving, you will never get to that day when you can say that you're a survivor. As anyone who has lived from scan to scan will attest, the ok months sandwiched in between feel more like a reprieve than a remission. When I was diagnosed with primary breast cancer, I lived for the day when the treatment was over and I could get back to 'reality'. Only once I was there, I realised that this state of nirvana doesn't really exist. And once I was away from the drugs and the doctors and the hospitals and the drains, in my head I never really felt that I had truly managed to take the exit train out of Cancerland forever. Despite the hormonal treatments, the zometa infusions, the nightly sweats which keep me awake at night and the hot flushes that make me fuzzy-headed during the day, on the outside I look like the same old person, albeit with much less hair. And because of this, sometimes it's hard to talk about my illness. I either get the head cocked to one side pity face of here's-a-woman-who-will-never-live-to-see-her-son-grow-up or better still, 'so, when are you going to get the all-clear ?' All cancer survivors live in a constant state of limbo. We're encouraged to get on with our lives and live for the moment and other nonsense cliches, while at the same time trying desperately hard to keep keep everything as normal as possible when the future seems so uncertain. Perhaps in order to truly raise awareness we should do away with the differences between metastatic and primary breast cancer and just change the way that we view cancer in general. As Susan Love articulates in her article, 'All Cancer is Metastatic', perhaps the differences between the two types of cancer are not really that different at all.

Monday, 7 October 2013

And About Time Too...

Do I really have a good excuse for neglecting this former lifeline of mine for all of seven months ? In fairness, I have on many occasions thought about dropping by, if only to reassure you all out there (if you truly are still there after all this time...) that I'm still here rather than having crossed over to 'there' and I'm hoping things will stay this way for a long time to come. But, like trying to rekindle a friendship long after you've lost touch with your former friend, it hasn't been easy trying to find an in-road back to blogging. Firstly, I'm tired. A combination of part-time work, part-time childcare and full-time attention given to making sure that I take my letrozole tablet every day, get my zoladex and zometa shots every couple of months and generally try to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible has left me pretty much exhausted with little or no energy for the more fun things in life, like writing. Secondly, I've been scared. No, not scared, terrified. Why ? Well every time i've tried to revive this beloved blog, I find my fingers as well as my mind wandering about the current status of other fellow bloggers who were feverishly posting updates at around the same time as me. Curiosity would get the better of me and I'd end up nosing around the site of another metster only to find - shock, horror and complete and utter sadness... that they've recently passed away. It is not possible to try to explain how the death of someone who you have never met nor have any real connection to can affect you in such a way that you find yourself feeling devastated, but it always seems to have this effect on me. Partly because of this, I've stayed away not quite knowing whether I should post about the demise of women who began their blogs with such gusto and humour while bravely (and I do not use this word lightly even though I know how many of my fellow cancer patients hate this terminology) being able to joke in the face of a serious illness. Or more admirably, willing to reveal their most innermost feelings to a complete bunch of strangers.
But this year has been more than good to me. While my almost four year old son who has the energy of a little puppy might steal away most of my energy, my scans have been great, fantastic with that much coveted status of NED bestowed upon me ever since I began the hormone combo of zoladex and letrozole at the beginning of this year. I hate to jinx things by even uttering or ruminating on these words so let's quickly move on and be thankful that for now, the drugs are working. I'm also thankful that I've been able to do a lot of one of my favourite pastimes - travelling. To Canada in May and more recently to Spain, and in a month's time to the beautifully picturesque city of Lucca in Italy (see above), to attend a photo-festival. Right now I know that I'm in a pretty good place. It's almost tempting to turn my back on Cancerland and its community and like Lot's wife, try my damndest not to look back. But metastatic breast cancer has very few pin-up girls. And while I'm not proposing to take up the mantle and represent a whole community, I do feel that it's important to write when things are going good; not just when they're going from worrying to worse. Reading my previous post, I realise that the last challenge I set myself was the super-ambitious task of eating 10 portions of fruit and veg a day. This, I have to ashamedly admit seems to have fallen by the wayside, since with a fast growing toddler comes a steadily growing number of kiddies birthday parties - usually complete with sugar-laden cake and crisps, which I've discovered I'm more than partial to. So instead of trying to be supermum and super-healthy cancer patient... I'm trying to settle for 'good enough' on both counts right now, which seems to suit me and my weakness for dark chocolate and red wine just fine. And just before I go, just in case you're wondering... I still haven't found that elusive afro wig. But my low maintenance, extremely low (which some might call shaved) hairstyle is still around and judging by the number of compliments that I still receive almost three years later, I'm in no great hurry to part with it for now. Cx

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Giving it up for Lent...

With Easter fast approaching, I've been spending a lot of time wondering what I should give up for Lent. This isn't exactly a regular thing for me to do. In fact, in my old pre-baby, pre-cancer, pre-juggling world, I was lucky if I knew the exact date for Good Friday, such was my lack of forward planning and organisation. Now, in my bid to be not only the best supermum there is, but also the most productive and efficient supermetastatic breast cancer patient around, my iphone is now filled with beeps and reminders of appointments and nursery dates. Is this such a good thing to have one's life ruled by a small but chunky piece of glass and gadgetry ? Only time will tell after we have finally forgotten how to actually 'speak' to each other. I envisage a world of texters not talkers in about ten years time, but that's just my own humble opinion... 

So back to Lent... this one is a tricky one. You see the problem is - I have no vices. With the revelation of my cancer diagnosis almost three years ago came a complete commitment to abstinence. No more spirits, shots or sangria, no more dairy, no more saturated fats, hardly any sugar, no more being a couch potato, no more wearing of paraben filled cosmetics, no more barbecued food... I could go on and on. It ain't easy not having a wild side any longer. I know that parenthood often puts an end to the free and easy teenage lifestyle that we often continue to carry with us into our thirties and beyond. But somehow even after the birth of my son, I wasn't quite ready to hang up my dancing shoes just yet and would occasionally sneak off to a music festival or girls' night out just to remember what it was like to feel well and truly free again. But with abstinence I have found, comes a swift descent into middle age.

At work, I have often found myself repeating a mantra that I read in some book about green juices - to the woman who is known for necking a few pints every night after work. I will then tell someone else exactly why you shouldn't take antibiotics too regularly (because your body builds up resistance to them and they destroy the good bacteria in your gut - just in case you were curious to know...). In other words I've become well and truly - boring. And nerdy. And old. At nights, just before I slip off into slumberland, I will sometimes remember that girl who danced the night away until the following morning and got well and truly plastered on way too much red wine and find myself wondering whether she'll ever come back into my life again. Or did the chemo and the radiation and the herceptin all do enough to send her packing ?

So this year, just to change things up a bit, I've decided to give up something and the thing that i've decided to give up is... my choice of food. Stay with me on this one. I've decided to try to eat ten portions of fruit and veg every day, which means that I'm giving myself less choice as to what to eat each day. I'm doing this because I've read that a diet rich in plant foods gives your immune system one hell of a kick up the arse and since things are currently back on with NED (no evidence of disease to you newcomers) once more, I'm determined for it to stay that way. I've also read that apparently here in the UK we eat far too few portions of the green and yellow and red ones - a govt guideline suggests five portions a day, but that's only because they don't think we'll eat any more than this. Across the channel in France, it's more like ten, in the US the national cancer society suggest five to nine for cancer patients. My challenge is to try to find a creative way to ingest all ten of the these cancer-fighting foods. It might not be very rock n' roll but if it gets me back on the road with NED once more, I'll happily save the partying and good times til I'm well and truly back on that train out of Cancerland - even if might not be forever. I'll let you know how it goes...

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Reality Bites...

Firstly, even though a visit to this poor neglected blog has been long overdue, I'd like to wish you all a very belated happy new year. Yes, I know that we're almost in March already. Yes I know. And for all I really know, I could well be addressing an audience of only, well, er myself. But the beauty of the blogosphere is never knowing whether you're really writing posts to ease some discomfort or tension within yourself or possibly touching the heart and soul of a stranger thousands of miles away.  So even though I may no longer have an audience, let us pretend for this moment that I do. Since my last visit I have been through Christmas (way too much cake and turkey) and a new year that saw me temporarily become a single mom for a month while my partner worked his way through each state of America photographing people and places there. Oh, and I had a scan. I don't use this word lightly. My bouts of scananxiety have been well documented in the past. But the preparation of a scan, when i know that I'll have to mentally and physically prepare my body to receive possibly the worst news of the year so far, never gets easier. My heart still palpitates and my imagination runs wild. Fight or flight is what they called it when we were roaming the savannahs. Only this time there's nowhere to run to.

This time round things were more complex. After a failed attempt which happened to take place on my birthday, I finally got a scan. Previous to this, I was told that the clinic didn't have a referral letter from my doctor and I had approximately ten minutes to get them to fax it over or that nasty radioactive stuff that they pump into you to see where those sneaky c-cells might be hiding out, would run out. Well, as you can imagine, I perspired my way through the next few minutes, desperately trying to contact someone, anyone, who could help. When the letter finally arrived... it wasn't enough for them to go on and I left the clinic a shaken and traumatised woman who had abstained from a hearty breakfast (rules is rules) and was now badly in need of some caffeine. My birthday, on a lighter note, went swimmingly well. I celebrated all 44 years (which felt more like 24) on this planet with my two favourite human beings. We had lunch, an exhibition, cocktails (juice for the toddler !) and cake and then it was back home for a warming meal and a night in front of the telly. Bliss !  The following night I threw on a little red dress, met a couple of friends and went to a private members' club for dinner. We all drank far too much wine and spent way too much money and it felt great.

But back to the scan. After a few nights of imagining the very worst case scenarios and thinking that every ache and pain that I felt in my needle punctured body was indeed a recurrence, i was surprised - no absolutely quietly ecstatic - to find out that the scan was a good one. No change since the last scan (which is good news, believe me) and some of the possible areas of concern (like the suspicious spot that had previously lit up in my lung - which turned out to be a mild case of pneumonia) had resolved itself. How does it feel to be so relieved that you can't quite bring yourself to celebrate ? Well, it wasn't so hard to force myself to guzzle down a glass of the finest red wine I could find. Nor was it hard to eat the gooey slab of chocolate cake that evening that a colleague had given me at work. So, it was a reprieve for another three months until I have to face it all over again. The new normal of being a metastatic breast cancer patient should be renamed 'the new surreal'. It would be a hell of a lot more honest and even though this term might sound like a new catwalk trend, well you never know, it just might catch on.