Staying Alive and Being Alive
Over the past 12 months, after my breast cancer diagnosis, I have learned how to reduce risks of it coming back again i.e. how to STAY alive. But I also want to BE alive so I realise I need to form new habits that are more healthy for body and soul, yet still enjoyable! This is the first blog about the start of my journey.
It’s nearly a year since that dreadful day when I was told I had cancer, which means my first „cancerversary“ is approaching. That term confused me initially because so far in my life „versaries“ have always been good things. What’s there to celebrate about cancer? But now I get it - it is time to celebrate that I am still alive, one year on. Sadly my aunt was not so lucky. She was diagnosed and died within 3 months of her Breast Cancer diagnosis. I never met her, but I have thought about her a lot this year. Her daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer at exactly the same age as me, leading people to ask if we have the „Angelina Jolie“ gene. My reply of „negative“ is always met with jubilation, until I explain what was explained to me by the doctor on receiving the results of my test. She told me I was tested for 10 different genetic mutations that increase the risk of various types of cancer, however they know that there are many more than just 10 hereditary genes. Quite possibly I have one, but they just don’t know how to test for it yet.
Meanwhile I still want to celebrate staying alive, but how? Not in my tried-and-tested way of drinking and dancing til 4am, because by 9pm and one glass of wine I am falling asleep at the table. The side effects of my daily anti-oestrogen pills cause all my joints to ache. The nerve damage in my feet caused by chemotherapy means standing for long periods is uncomfortable. On the plus side I can imagine that the regular need to strip down to my underwear within 10 seconds due to hot flushes might be considered entertaining and win me a few new party friends (whilst loosing others!). Many people including me think that as the chemo is behind me I am 100% fit again. Wrong! In fact I have a list of ailments as long as my arm about which I will bore (and disgust) anyone who stands near me for too long. That is, as long as I can still remember them, because chemobrain makes me very forgetful, which reminds me, I almost forgot to tell you about my toe nails! All yellowy and deformed and about to drop off. Needless to say, if I ever was once in posession of good party-small-talking skills those times are long gone. Along with my chances of being the belle of the ball: „Let me show you my receeded gums! Just look what the chemo did to them!“
My life now revolves around a series of doctors appointments tending to the above, plus of course monthly self-checks, quarterly ultrasounds and 6 monthly mammograms. During the „diagnosis“ mammogram last January I remember thinking „those poor women who must squeeze their boobs into a machine on a regular basis“. And now, I am one of those poor women. My post-chemo elation was further doused when my doctor informed me that I must keep my port in place for another five years and that must be flushed with saline every 3 months (another bloody appointment).
Just to be clear, I never thought I would be the type of person to get cancer. That’s something that happens to other people, I thought. But it happened to me and now I have to deal with it. Now I have to do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t come back. How do I do that, yet not let my life be defined by cancer? Some days I just want to draw a line under it all and continue on as if nothing happened. I imagine in five years I’ll be talking to a new friend (perhaps at 4am at a party) and maybe it comes up in conversation. Past tense, almost forgotten. Realistically though, I cannot continue business as usual because that clearly didn’t work. I need to start a regular fitness programme, swap out wine with tea and choose peace over chaos, actually attend pilates instead of just thinking about it and most definitely stop trying to save the world. Actually the last one was a suggestion of a psychologist I didn’t much like, so I am going to ignore that. But I need to make the rest happen. Because I want to be celebrating many more cancerversaries in the future. With that I will raise my cup of nettle tea to you all and wish you a happy, healthy 2018!