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