Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Cancer Myth...

To be brutally honest, the process of re-mortgaging my flat every two years is never going to top my list of activities that fill me with joy and mirth. The only emotion that I have ever felt on seeing the six-figure sum that seems to have hardly diminished since the last ‘fixed’ period is the feeling of resignation that I will always have to work to live, and not the other way around. Still, there is something very pleasing about having the kind of financial adviser who, despite having to come to work dressed formally in a pin-striped suit, is more like a male bestie, the type who doesn’t mind a bit of idle chat thrown into the kind of conversation that often starts with world politics and ends up with the Kardashians. So although I may not enjoy poring over all the figures and being reminded why it was that I once needed the help of a tutor to pass my Maths O’Level, I will willingly spend more time than I need to in his company, simply for the quality of the conversation.

Since we’re on such good terms, it didn’t surprise me that after enquiring about my current health, my financial bestie then asked me a very leading question. ‘So, is it true that once you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you don’t really sweat the small stuff any more ? Like those days when you’re stuck in traffic and suddenly someone cuts in front of you. Do things still get to you ?’

In retrospect I should have taken more time to figure out how to answer this. I liked his honesty, his genuineness and the fact that he really wanted to discover whether the myth was true. My gut reaction was to say with some bravado, ‘hell yeah, things still wind me up, sometimes I curse more simply because I can. In fact there are days when I’m just waiting for someone to put a foot wrong, just so that I can project on to them. Call it a cheap and effective version of therapy'. But of course I don’t say this because it isn’t altogether true.

Sometimes when I’ve spent most of the day inside my head having dashed from school to hospital to work to home, I’m so exhausted from having worn so many hats in such a short space of time that someone really could knock me over and walk across me and I’d probably get up, dust myself off and continue on my merry way. Because, like most things in life, my feelings are in a constant state of flux. Sometimes I feel angry and shouty and other times completely serene. The myth about cancer is that the payoff to having to spend the best part of a year with a cocktail of poisons infused throughout your body or being zapped by gamma rays, is that somehow you will come out of the experience a better, stronger and wiser person, that your patience will be boundless, that your ability to encounter the complexities of life will become god-like. Well, it isn’t like that really.

I don’t remember where I began, but I told him that yes, I still get angry over silly things, in the same way that I probably did before a cancer cell ever developed in my body. But the thing that I try to do differently is to be aware of the fact that I'm still able to do this. When I’m frustrated with my journey to work, I remind myself of the time when I was too weak to do the seven minute walk to my local station. When I’m on a bus and someone is rude to me, instead of immediately throwing an insult back, I try fixing my gaze at the window. I understand that sometimes silence is the best answer. And I continue my journey in peace without having had to absorb their negativity. This may sound as if my reluctant dalliance with the big C has now transformed me into Mother Teresa. It hasn't. The mind likes to stubbornly cling on to the ugly, so I'm always in a fight with my ego. But I find, I say, that even when I do lose it, those red mist moments often get shorter. I find myself playing the ‘will this really matter in five years time ?’ game. And invariably, the answer is always no. He listens intently and with admiration, as if I’ve just revealed the secret to happiness in the Modern world. I try my best to make my words sound more pragmatic than they really are, but it's too late and without intentionally doing so, I fear that I have just reinforced yet another cancer myth about life after diagnosis.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Thinking Beyond Pink...

Halfway through the month that some would describe as 'pinktober', when companies decide to donate a portion of their profits to a number of leading breast cancer charities, I realised that National Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day, which falls on October 13, had clean passed me by. This might have much to do with the fact that my days of reading glossy women's mags are long gone, but for someone who is an avid listener of news, it seems strange that a day that has been created to raise awareness of a type of cancer that actually kills women on a daily basis seems to be firmly at the back of the queue when it comes to coverage.

Metastatic or secondary breast cancer for those of you who think that all breast cancer is the same, is when the little blighters escape the confines of your breast and decided to set up camp elsewhere around your body. Their favoured hang-outs are bone, liver, lung and brain but in the odd case, any old organ will do. Many charities focus on early detection and prevention. Perhaps the thinking behind this being that being watchful and vigilant gives the individual some kind of control when it comes to preventing a diagnosis. Naturally, this often leaves ladies with mets feeling a tad unloved and isolated. So when I was contacted recently by a company and asked whether I would be willing to mention on this blog that a leading chocolatier was offering a 10% donation to a breast cancer charity with every special box of chocolate sold, my first question was to ask, 'Who is the charity' ?

After doing a bit of research, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Breast Cancer Now, an amalgamation of Breast Cancer Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, not only includes secondary cancer as an area of focus, they have been busy lambasting the government over its plans to throw the recently hailed wonder drug Kadcyla out of its Cancer Drugs Fund. They've also been petitioning pharmaceutical company, Roche to lower its prices. In real terms, the move by the government translates to thousands of women suddenly being unable to access this super-crazily expensive drug which is doing its best to keep them alive, simply because the powers-that-be have deemed it too expensive. Also on the site, was this very touching story about a woman who had been previously treated with Kadcyla and who was now in remission (don't forget to sign the petition at the end !)

But before I forget the most important bit, the chocolatier is Godiva, the Gucci of all things choc and fondant whose range extends into the realm of dark and post 70% cocoa mass, and with everyone from nutritionists to neuroscientists currently promoting the benefits of dark chocolate (and in some cases chocolate in general), now there really is no need to feel guilty about having an occasional binge.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Return to Sender...

It has been almost a month since I sat in the oncology clinic at my local hospital, eagerly awaiting the results of my latest scan. For obvious reasons, I find these appointments stressful. It isn't just the fear of knowing that a few lines of print, hurriedly faxed over by a radiologist might be enough to change the course of my life forever, it's also the waiting, the observation of other patients, some younger, mostly older, often with other family members coming to terms with their new or existing life. Since I take tablets every day, and have three monthly zoladex injections at my GP office, for most of the time I can avoid being drawn back into the world of cancer with all its cruel accessories. I don't have to look at the headscarves, or the obvious wigs, or the wheelchairs, or sticks or frail bodies that I encounter every time I walk into Guy's hospital. I'm part of the world that is (as one psychologist termed it) blindly optimistic every day. I cross the road without giving a thought that at any moment a car might not stop at the pedestrian crossing and hurtle into me. I walk into bars and pubs not worrying whether a fire might break out and I'll be trapped inside. If I thought about every possible eventuality that could hasten my demise, I probably would think twice before getting up in the morning. And yet, these occurrences happen every day to other people in other parts of the world. Just not to us, because of course, we're unique. This is I guess, what the psychologist meant by blind optimism - the idea that traumatic, life-threatening events only ever happen to other people. Not us.

Every three months while I sit in the fawn coloured faux-leather chairs and wait patiently for my name to be called, my eyes study the other patients entering the room and my mind wanders as I try to imagine their lives and their prognoses. Usually, I welcome the distraction. I'm usually too agitated and too anxious to calm myself down and whatever thoughts I can put into my head to stop the sweatiness of my palms and the palpitations in my chest, are given my full attention. But this month was different. After having to delay my appointment by a week (at the hospital's request), I plucked up the courage to email my doctor to find out the results of my scan. Was I scared shitless at the prospect of being told by email that I might well need another course of the dreaded chemo ? You bet. I deliberated for days. To contact her or not to contact her ? Would it be better to live for a few more days in blissful ignorance, and then hear the results in the usual, stressful fashion ? But if I decided to check the results before the clinic appointment, I'd give them time to think of a plan B well ahead time.

And so I did. And I waited, and waited and heard nothing. No response from my email, not even a telephone call. I decided to convince myself that this lack of a response meant that it could only be bad news and before the day was out, I imagined myself back to where I was five years ago, wearing an icy cold cap while attached to an IV, clutching a hot drink to keep warm. After a long week of waiting followed by the prospect of sitting once again, sweaty-palmed in the waiting room looking for a reason to halt the thoughts swimming in my head, I received the reply I'd been waiting for. Just a few lines, but enough to tell me all I needed to know.'You'll be pleased to hear that the results of your recent scan show no change'. I could've leaned into the computer and kissed those words off the screen. My weekend celebrations lasted well beyond the weekend and when I saw my oncologist the following Monday she gave me a big hug as if she was greeting an old friend. When I tell her that I was secretly worried by the silence after emailing her, she laughs it off and tells me how bad she is with email. If only you knew, I feel like telling her. If only you knew how much difference that email made to the next 48 hours of my entire existence, you would have sent it straight away.