Today is one year since my breast cancer diagnosis. I have been from Dublin to chemo and back. Here is a little bit of how it unfolded.
On 19 April 2011, at the age of 43, I was diagnosed with breast cancer… again. In February, my Breast Surgeon had called me in to say that there was a calcification showing on my January annual mammogram. I had a repeat mammogram, an ultrasound and on 15 March, a core biopsy. I thought about telling my manager about the biopsy but decided against it; if it was nothing, I would have looked like a drama queen.
The dates all got jumbled up as I was going away on a one month holiday on 19 March. So when I left, I didn’t know what the result was. I also went on holiday knowing that my job was being restructured and would possibly not be there on my return. What a stress free holiday! One of the Nurses said that the Surgeon could email me while I was away but not say what the result was. She could however say “there’s nothing to worry about” or “we’ll need to see you on your return”.
Off I went to Wales to stay with my sister and her family. At times I said to Sally what was on my mind but there was no point worrying. I then got an email from the hospital saying that they’d like me to come in the following week. I emailed back to say that I was away so an appointment was made on 19 March at 9am. Then I got worried…but it was unreal; there I was in Wales, preparing for a week in Ireland and catching up with friends in Cardiff, London and then Singapore.
I tried to visualise a good outcome but it was hard. I emailed my friend Philippa and she said, the results could be inconclusive; I hadn’t factored that in. So in my mind, I had three scenarios: a) I’m okay – sort of unlikely, b) cancer or c) inconclusive. I also thought…well they’ll need to remove the lump regardless. I’d already had a lumpectomy four years prior. So if they were going to suggest that, I would ask for a mastectomy and reconstruction.
Life was good. I had finally started getting myself back from cancer number 1. Here I was in London. Cardiff, Swansea and Dublin. On my return to New Zealand with my work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was preparing to go on a two year posting to Papua New Guinea with the Aid Programme. I was really looking forward to doing that as I was back in to life again.
I was running all these scenarios and outcomes though my brain. I developed a bad chest infection and a migraine but hey, I did have a good holiday. I met lots of lovely people on my tour in Ireland, saw my friend Selina in Cardiff and went to the XFactor concert including One Direction! I went to Jaimee Oliver’s Italian restaurant and hung out with my five nephews and nieces in Swansea.
There were a couple of intuitions I had in the preceding months. But honestly, I felt healthy – I was going to the gym 4x per week and feeling good. However there were a couple of conversations: 1) at the bank, one of the tellers was an old colleague’s little sister. I asked what my ex-colleague was up to these days and she said, “oh Norma died of breast cancer about five years ago.” I felt a chill. Not just for Norma as that was awful – she was young and had a family. But I felt a chill as if it was a message for me. Then in Singapore, I did a tour and one of the men on my tour group started telling me that he’d just been diagnosed with cancer and this trip was his gift to himself. I felt another chill.
By the time I got to see the Breast Surgeon, I was prepared for anything. My Surgeon walked in with a breast care Nurse. I looked at the Nurse and I knew that I had breast cancer. There was something about the way she looked at me and also, that she was there. She was the breast cancer Nurse, not the outpatient Nurse. I was so shocked; I kind of jumped out of my skin and the Surgeon hadn’t even spoken to me yet. Then the Surgeon told me the bad news. Almost straight away, I said “I want to have a breast reconstruction as well as the mastectomy”. She said yes, but it would take around six to eight weeks to organise which it did.
It was a bit confusing as to why another cancer tumour had grown. The Surgeon said it was a new primary diagnosis – not a recurrence – and that this occurred in 4% of women. I walked out of the Hospital with tears in my eyes and texted a friend Shaz who met me in a café near his work. After a hot chocolate and a chat, I felt I could do this…again. I went back to work and sent messages to my managers and told a close friend at work. I asked my Director if she could talk to HR and find out if they could secure paid sick leave for the surgery (at least six weeks off). We usually only have up to ten days’ sick leave a year so this was a special request. I said that I wouldn’t know if I needed chemo until a couple of weeks at least after the surgery (I didn’t know how long I would need off work). My Director came back and said the sick leave was secure. That was a relief off my mind.
During my holiday, I had found out that my job didn’t exist and they wanted me to move to another role. On my diagnosis day, I was told that they wanted me in another team ASAP. By the end of the week, I was working in another job with a new team and on a new floor. It was quite a traumatic time as I was the only person from my team who’d had to change teams.
I decided not to tell many people at work initially. It was just easier for me as I didn’t want people to act differently around me. I had enough to deal with without having to deal with others’ reactions. However, a few colleagues who knew me well worked it out.
Over the next few days, I had a number of scans and tests to ascertain whether the cancer had spread. I kind of stopped sleeping due to the new job plus the diagnosis. I wasn’t feeling good. I did my best in the new job to continue until the surgery date came closer. It was really hard.
I found out that the tumour was estrogen positive, progresterone positive and HER 2 neu positive. That mightn’t mean much to non-breast cancer folk but the HER2 neu positive part means that the cancer cells are dividing quickly and the cancer is said to be aggressive. However, the tumour was early stage and Herceptin targets this type of cancer really well.
My medical team
I met my Plastic Surgeon Annie Fullarton (who is incredible) and my Oncologist (Kate Gregory who is also amazing). I felt very grateful and privileged to have a fully female surgical and oncology team, all women who were around my age. Annie and Kate were both 43 yrs old, same as me. My Breast Surgeon Christine Mouat has also been amazing. She is warm and empathic as well as highly skilled (she diagnosed my first breast cancer too so I knew her well). I also had a wonderful Oncology district nurse Bernie who visited me at home.
In June 2012, I had two surgeries and some of the hardest moments of my life. However, I am really glad that I had the surgeries and I am very happy with the results. (You can check out my breast reconstruction diary for more details).
So one year on, what have I experienced?
- Shock and grief over breast cancer and treatments
- Three breast surgeries i) a delay preparing the veins in my tummy to be moved ii) one week later, the full mastectomy and TRAM flap reconstruction from my tummy and iii) a nipple reconstruction. The nipple tattooing is yet to come
- 3 months of chemo drugs called CMF (a combination of three chemotherapy drugs: cyclophosphamide, methotrexate and 5 fluorouracil) and lots of side effects
- 8 of the 12 months of Herceptin
- My job being disestablished and leaving work
- Learning about and setting up a website called Breast Cancer Nirvana
- The lows of cancer but enjoyment from life
- A lot of support from friends and family (and some people disappearing)
- A lot of new friends!
What I’ve learned
- I’ve been reminded once more that life is short lived and time is precious. It feels important to hurry up and get on with things I’ve always wanted to do. An eternal reminder that a ten year plan is okay but doing great things this year is better.
- How difficult and amazing breast reconstruction surgeries can be
- That if I can handle chemo again, I can do anything
- That I have been able to add some value to others affected by breast cancer through Breast Cancer Nirvana
- How to set up and maintain a website 🙂 fun
- The importance of rest and enjoying life especially during cancer treatment
Thanks to everyone who has helped me through cancer #2. I hope it is the last one and your thoughts, support and friendship will be remembered always.