Surgery: Take Two

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It’s been a super stressful week, as my white blood cell counts are still low, which was the reason for cancelling my operation two weeks ago.

But after much wringing of hands and changing of minds (and that was just the doctors), we are now going ahead with the surgery. Tomorrow.

I can’t say I’m over-confident going into an operation which was deemed “unsafe and irresponsible” under the same circumstances a mere two weeks ago, but the tumour has got to come out so all I can do is cross my fingers and hope.

Wish me luck x

 

The best-laid plans…

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All ‘marked up’ and nowhere to go

If Theresa May was having a bad start to the day, I was feeling more hopeful: my hospital bag was packed; iPad fully-loaded with films; childcare arranged. Hell, I’d even written A farewell letter to my boob. I was ready.

The positive vibe continued after arriving on the ward: the nurse told me I was first on the list (that never happens) and I had been allocated to a private room (that never happens). By 8.30am I was in my gown and compression stockings (sexy), had been ‘marked up’ by my surgeon (i.e. she’d scribbled all over my right boob with black pen) and I’d even managed to share a crap joke with the anaesthetist who seemed to share my gallows humour (they always do).

Then my blood test results came back.

The surgeon came back to see me with a grim look on her face. She explained that my white blood cell levels were too low to proceed with surgery. White blood cells help your body fight infection; too few of them and your body can’t defend itself against infection post-surgery.  Chemotherapy’s to blame for my paltry levels – it destroys white blood cells temporarily. Then your body makes more and your levels ‘bounce back’. But mine were seemingly too bloody knackered after six cycles of chemo to be bothered. I know how they feel.

It may seem odd to get upset over not having one’s boob surgically removed, but at this point I just wanted the tumour gone.  So obviously I burst into tears. And then removed my surgical stockings and threw them onto the floor. That’ll show them.

Then I got dressed, tried ineffectually to rub the black marks off my chest, and got back in the car with my long-suffering husband for the grumpy drive home (stopping off at B&Q on the way to buy the sodding smoke alarm that I’ve been nagging about for the past two weeks).

My surgeon is (of course) away next week so my operation will now be delayed for a fortnight.  I’m sure I will muster enough energy to psych myself up again, but seriously – why is nothing ever straight-forward?

A farewell letter to my boob

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Dear Boob,

We haven’t always got on, but now I’m losing you I’m feeling kind of sad.

You see, I’d already chosen what kind of breasts I wanted when I was ten. I had this Illustrated Guide to Puberty. It explained, with what I can only describe as a gallery of boobs, that breasts come in different shapes and sizes, and no one type is superior to others.

Whatever.

Even then I knew that in Real Life only the big and bouncy ones count.

And we did have a promising start to our relationship. Getting my first Tammy Girl training bra was one of the highlights of my pre-teen years. Although I never did work out quite what we were training for. At any rate you never made it much past the start-line, stubbornly remaining flat, even though I did all the chest-press exercises prescribed by my bigger-boobed mates. I was incredibly gullible in those days; I also spent an entire weekend winding my hair round a pencil because another classmate told me that was how she got her naturally curly hair.

Luckily, along came my saviour in the form of the Wonderbra. I took one look at those life-size Eva Herzigova billboards and ran to Debenhams to buy one. You spent years encased in that punishing push-up underwired hell (sorry about that), yet I still didn’t stop traffic.

I felt that you’d let me down in your sullen refusal to form a cleavage, and I spent way too much time crying in the Miss Selfridge changing rooms as various low-cut tops and strappy dresses failed to produce the curvy silhouette I craved.

But then 2005 happened. A shock diagnosis of bone cancer in my leg. So I didn’t even think about you for several years. I had more important things to worry about. Having my limb amputated was just as devastating as you’d imagine. And then some. For a start, I’d always compensated for my lack of cleavage by flashing a bit of leg (classy, I know) and my fiancé-now-husband had always reassured me that he was more of a leg man than a boob man.

So that turned out well for him.

The along came my two precious (and unexpected) babies, and finally you morphed into the D-cup I’d always imagined I wanted. But you were rock-hard, engorged and sore and had to be carried around in a deeply unattractive Mothercare breastfeeding bra. At one point there was a savoy cabbage leaf stuffed in there too because someone told me that helped with the mastitis (apparently I’m still a bit gullible).

It has to be said – credit where it’s due – that once we got over the sore-as-hell-tits bit, you did an excellent job of feeding my babies, and so I wasn’t too cross when, later, you shrunk back to your pre-nursing size. Although I could have done without the extra droopiness.

Then I got into sport in a BIG way. Partly this was an act of defiance: I’d spent so long as a cancer patient, that I was out to prove I could still achieve something. And so I chose a sport (or it chose me) that was singularly difficult to do as an above-knee amputee: cycling. Because – bloody hell – if I could ride a bike really fast with one leg, then I could put all this cancer crap – once and for all – behind me.

And for a time I did. I rode in competitions in Italy and South Africa, and represented Great Britain at the UCI Paracycling World Championships. The advantage of being flat-chested soon became clear when I tried to squeeze into my Lycra skinsuit for the first time.

And so, finally, I made peace with you. I felt positive and powerful in my new cycling-fit body. I became used to pushing my body to its limits and enjoying that post-workout glow. I had survived cancer and I was strong. Your diminutive size no longer mattered – because you were healthy.

Until you weren’t.

When I felt the lump in the shower, I knew straight away that it would be cancer. I was familiar with your usual monthly bumps, but this felt different – like a little hard and jagged stone close to my armpit. I’ll admit I had neglected my regular lump-checking duties duties for a few weeks – I was busy and anyway, I was done with cancer. Wasn’t I?

I had no idea how long you’d been host to this malignant stranger and that made me feel guilty. Perhaps if I had shown a little more TLC, checked more frequently, eaten more carefully, drunk a little less… These are the kind of irrational thoughts with which I’m now plagued.

So, after five months of chemotherapy, here we are. The drugs have shrunk your tumour a little, but there are still too many cancerous cells remaining.

It’s time to say goodbye. Your silicone replacement won’t be as soft as you, or as warm.

After all these wasted years of pointless criticism,  it’s time to admit the truth – I’ll miss you.

Love Sal x

End of chemo

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I had my last dose of chemotherapy last week – and I had planned to write something celebratory, but when I sat down at the computer I found I couldn’t. The truth is I’m tired and fed up.

I had expected to find this cycle easier somehow – thinking I’d sail through the side effects on a tide of elation that this was the last time I’d suffer, but actually it’s been really tough. I struggled to get out of bed at all for a few days and when I did I was hit by waves of nausea, fatigue and grief.

There has been a lot of crying this week. Perhaps it’s because I’m now forced to think about the next step of treatment – masectomy. Since diagnosis five months ago I’ve been trying to convince myself that I’m not really bothered about losing a breast – because it’s nothing compared to losing a leg.

I mean it’s just a boob, right? It doesn’t help you walk or run or get you out of bed in the morning. It just kind of sits there lumpily, perhaps jiggling occasionally during exercise, but otherwise (in my case) hardly even bothering to add much in the way of womanly curves to a lanky frame.

But losing my leg made a huge dent in my body confidence, and now losing a breast is another blow – another bit of femininity gone. And obviously the feminist within me says, “Geez Sal – it ain’t all about legs and boobs you know – being a woman is about personality, humour, intellect, charisma, spark….” But the problem is chemo has robbed me of that too – I feel dull, dreary, tired…. really, really tired. It’s been five long months of hell, I have a mouth full of ulcers, a balding head and an operation in three weeks.

I know there’s a positive spin to put on all this – I’m making progress, the surgery will rid me of the tumour etc etc, but right now I’m too exhausted to make the effort.

Chemo round 5

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Having (another) bad hair day with chemo buddy Vicki

Usually I have a couple of days’ grace straight after chemotherapy before I start to feel ill, but this time the side effects kicked in almost straight away – which is why I’ve only just got around to writing about it.  Also, my arm swelled up around the cannulation site, making typing painful – a sign that my veins, rather like their owner, are getting “grumpy’ (the medical term) from the repeated infusions.

The long list of unpleasant side effects seems to lengthen with each cycle of chemo and this time muscle spasms came, uninvited, to join the usual boorish party-goers of fatigue, sickness, dry mouth, lack of appetite, acne, diarrhoea, heartburn, mouth ulcers and hot flushes. Painful cramping in my leg and toes kept me awake for five nights after the infusion.

Apart from that, I was absolutely fine and dandy.

Luckily, I’ve since emerged from chemo hell to engage in activities that don’t involve needles, hospitals or feeling sick. Which is always nice.

This week’s loveliness has included: watching the Tour de Yorkshire in Wetherby and Tadcaster; tea-drinking and gossiping with friends; monster-chocolate-cake-making; scone-eating and bike pootling with the kids.

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Next week is (fingers crossed) my final round of chemotherapy. I’m focusing on that milestone, rather than the mastectomy, reconstruction surgery, radiotherapy and Herceptin injections to follow.

There’s still a long road ahead but we’re making progress – one painful step at a time.

Some good news at last

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This picture shows my nine-year-old daughter jumping for joy over waves at the beach last week. And it’s kind of how I’m feeling today.

Today’s MRI scan results show my main tumour is finally shrinking. The radius has gone from 11.5mm to 8mm, meaning the volume (V = ⁴⁄₃πr³) has shrunk from 6368mm to 2143mm – a much more impressive reduction of around two-thirds. (No, I didn’t understand the calculation when the oncologist explained it to me either, but my chemistry teacher husband did!)

The shrinkage now won’t necessarily have any impact on the course the disease takes in future, but it’s a massive psychological boost. Compared to the results of my last scan, when the chemotherapy showed no impact on the tumour at all, I will be going into tomorrow’s fifth chemo session feeling much more positive.

I’m taking today’s news at face value: the chemo is nasty but right now it’s working.

And I’ll take that, write it down, and be thankful.

Change of scenery, change of mood

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Sea, sand, sunshine: it’s hard to be blue at the beach.

This week we went to Scarborough for a typically British seaside break, i.e. it was pretty cold and a little wet but we had a blast anyway.

We dug trenches and built sandcastles in jumpers and raincoats, ate fish and chips on the harbour at Whitby, dodged the crowds at Sealife with an early-bird pass, swopped iPads for card-playing, and spent a glorious day on the beach in Sandsend reading a book in a deckchair (me) and Boogie-boarding in wetsuits (Pete and the kids).

I did think about the Big C a bit (debating whether my headscarf/buff could pass as surfer chic or just screamed CANCER) but it didn’t dominate my thoughts like it does at home. I was able to enjoy the holiday for what it was: precious time with my family.

Massive thanks to my friend Linda, for lending us her house for the week – it was just the tonic we needed x

 

Infection

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One of the (many) side effects of chemotherapy is immunosuppression. The drugs cause the number of white blood cells in the body to plummet, making it harder to fight infection. Which is how I ended up back in hospital on Friday.

As a prosthetic limb wearer, I’m used to dealing with skin breakdown, blisters and ‘lumps and bumps’ where my socket rubs at the top of my leg. It can be unpleasant and makes walking uncomfortable but it’s usually nothing a bit of Sudocrem won’t heal overnight. But on Thursday night, a nick in the skin had turned into an angry, red lump, and walking was agonisingly painful.

I phoned the chemotherapy ward the next morning and a nurse advised me to come in to the assessment ward at St James’. There, a doctor examined me and confirmed that the cut was infected, as I’d suspected, and I would need antibiotics. There followed an anxious four-hour wait while the team decided whether I needed to stay overnight on the ward, but after much pleading and a promise to come straight back if things got worse, I was released home with a big old box of flucloxacillin.

I escaped just in time to watch Beauty & The Beast at the cinema with the kids. At which I cried.

I blame the chemo. It’s turning me into a right wet lettuce.

 

The dog with a ridiculous name

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This is Cuddles, the dog with the ridiculous name, who came into our lives via The Dogs’ Trust when our lives were turned upside-down by cancer the first time around.

Back then I was grieving: for the loss of a limb, for the loss of a future with children (the infertility diagnosis was thankfully wrong) , the post-cancer loss of my self-confidence. Getting a dog when our life was an uncertain mess wasn’t the sanest idea  but Cuddles, the car-sick hound with the embarrassing-to-shout-in-the-park name got me through those first dark months. She needed to go out for a walk even when I didn’t want to leave the house, and when I sat down sobbing on the kitchen floor she would pad over and put her head on my lap.  Not judging me, just being there.

 

As the years have gone by, I’ll admit I haven’t paid Cuddles as much attention as I once did. Pete walks her so she is ‘his’ dog really, and life with a full-time job, kids and sport has meant that whilst Cuddles is always a much-loved member of our family, her advancing years mean she’s happy to curl up in her basket out of the way of frantic activity.

And yet, now I’m at home much more on my own, drowning once more in the enormity of my second cancer diagnosis and what this means now for my future and that of my children, Cuddles is playing her part once more. There have been tear-filled hugs lying on the floor (because it’s OK to cry in front of the dog once the kids have gone to school) and some pitifully slow limping walks around the block (because chemo and limb loss don’t mix well).

Today we even staggered up to the field where I collapsed/sat on the soggy grass for a while next to my loyal friend.

Not thinking, not worrying, just being there.

 

 

 

 

Chemo round 4

After round three’s meltdown, chemo round 4 was a breeze – for me at least.

I had plenty of company – thanks to Emma, Zelie and Pete for keeping me smiling.

Also my lovely chemo buddy Vicki (read her latest blog here),  who’s had a really rough week in hospital battling a nasty infection, but still found time and energy to bring me a matching wooly hat to keep our balding heads warm. She also had to endure some very painful injections in her hand today, after the chemo drugs started to leak out into surrounding tissue.

Here’s hoping we both have an easier time of it over the next couple of weeks. See you on the other side of the side effects xxx