Archive for the ‘Round Two’ Category

I hate Valentines day. Always have, always will. Here’s why. I’m not a fan of prescribed romance. Whether you’re hooked up or single, being told that you should be feeling love, lust or passion for someone on a certain day of the year is a recipe for disaster. Love doesn’t come in heart shaped box and my own experience of Valentines day isn’t exactly a bed of roses.

There are the ones who think that a Valentines meal is the perfect time to air all the grievances they have with your relationship – cue uncomfortable scene in restaurant; the ones who would rather be be buried alive than commit to any display of public affection; and those awkward ones you’ve just started seeing who suddenly become ‘unavailable’ on Valentines day lest it commits them to marriage, babies and a life in suburbia.

If you’re feeling sensitive about being single, Valentines Day is one of those dreaded annual events that reminds you of your non-conformity. Half of me strides haughtily down the fuschia-themed aisle in Sainsbury’s thinking ‘I’m glad I’m not part of that vomit-inducing consumer bullshit’, whilst the other half is being stabbed in the heart by a tear-stained rose. Sometimes I care, sometimes I don’t.

My favourite Valentines day ever, was one of those spontaneous nights that just kind of snowballed into something good. I went into Manchester with a friend to see Isobel Campbell at Night and Day. We hadn’t bought tickets, naively believing that we might get in. It had completely sold-out, so we went round the corner to Odd Bar. Here we encountered a pick-n-mix of after-work drinkers and misfits who had nothing better to do on a Tuesday night. Nobody copped off but there was a great cameraderie between people who were bonded by nothing more than the fact that they happened to be single on Valentines night. It ended up being a really great night.

Love definitely isn’t ‘in the air’ for me at the moment and my counsellor questioned me about relationships the other day. As you can imagine, having a relationship hasn’t been top of my priorities recently, and I have considered myself ‘off-the-market’ since my diagnosis in June 2012. Having cancer is a pretty legitimate excuse for being single. I’ve lost my hair (it has grown back), a breast (it won’t grow back but I’ve got a new one), my fertility (it won’t come back) and a lot more. Perhaps you’re worrying about being too fat or too thin but try throwing a mutilated body, infertility and a reduced life expectancy into the equation and suddenly that spare-tyre might not seem quite so important.

So how do you sell that one on Soulmates? At the moment I don’t care and my current priority is staying sane. I’ve only just come back to Manchester and I’ve been keeping myself busy with setting myself up with some cancer support. I thought I’d struggle to get support here, however the cancer support services in Manchester are really good. Along with my Macmillan support group, I’m also getting support from the Neil Cliffe centre at Wythenshawe hospital. Free massages on the NHS are one of the few perks of being a cancer patient.

I’m grateful for all the support the NHS has given me, however the one thing they can’t prescribe is a boyfriend. I was single before I had cancer so I can’t blame the disease for my marital status, however it does throw some interesting excuses into the mix. Aside from the scars and the asymmetry, I only have one nipple. On reflection this does seem like a daft excuse to take myself off the market. The nipple is next on my ‘to-do’ list.

I’ve never been a fluffy romantic however having cancer has turned me from a fantasist into a realist. I used to believe in unicorns and happy-ever-after, but the dreams I have now are firmly based in reality. Besides, life could be so much worse. I could be on a bad date in a crummy restaurant accepting a cheap rose from someone I never want to see again.

“I’m single because I was born that way.” – Mae West

Feliz navidad y feliz año nuevo!

Posted: December 31, 2013 in Round Two
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I’m writing this post on my return from Fuertaventura, on a plane full of pissed up Scottish holidaymakers. Call me a snob, but picking your nose, getting up on your seat and shouting “have ye nae got any o’ those big cans o’ Strongbow?” is neither behaviour becoming of a lady, nor the best way to represent your nation. I think said lady, sat next to me, isn’t sure what nationality I am, so I’m keeping up the pretence of not being Scottish, to avoid getting caught up in a drunken altercation about the Spanish trolley dollies not having any “f’ing Strongbow”. Makes me proud to be Scottish, so it does.

I’ve had a fantastic two weeks in Fuertaventura: my cancer-free-christmas present to myself. I booked this holiday back in October, not knowing if I was going to live or die and was adamant about having a final-fling. Now I’ve been given a reprieve and this holiday has become a celebration, a chance for me to rest and recover from the cancer that’s taken over my life for the last 18 months. Admittedly, I hate Christmas, so it’s also given me a legitimate excuse to escape the country for the festive period. I’ve wanted to get away from Christmas for as long as I can remember and found myself in good company in Fuertaventura, surrounded by a bunch of sun-worshipping santa-haters.

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Drunk lady has just blown her nose – sans tissue – into her own hand. Very classy, although I suppose this is the risk you take, when you pay £66 for a return flight to anywhere.

Ghost of Christmas Past

My contempt for all things Christmassy goes back a long way. It was fun when I was a kid, but my Christmas’ have always been tainted blue. I’ve never been a fan of forced jollity. Fun for me is spontaneous and unexpected, it doesn’t come with bells on and it’s definitely not glitter-wrapped. My ghost of Christmas past remembers the tangled web my childish head weaved between ‘my father’ and ‘our father’. You see, Christmas day is Jesus’ birthday but it was also my dads’ birthday, and in my warped little 5-year-old brain I truly believed my dad had some divine connection with Jesus. My belief resulted in my becoming a temporary Christian with ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ my annual TV pilgrimage. My mind harks back to the Christmas day tantrum, when my brother won the TV battle to watch David Attenborough’s ‘Life On Earth’.

My devotion to the bearded one was swiftly knocked out of me when I cracked my head open at Sunday School. I’ve had issues with Sir Dave ever since: give me Jesus grooving to a 70’s beat over Mr tortoise-face any day.

Ghost of Christmas more recently

My ghost of ‘Christmas more recently’ is pretty bloody miserable, which is why I decided to leave the country. I have a ridiculously large family, for which I am eternally grateful, but in more recent times I’ve begun to feel like an overgrown child at Christmas. When you don’t have a partner or children of your own, Christmas is the empty stocking that no-one has filled, reminding you that you’re not part of the ‘over-30s-settled-with-a-nice-house-and-family-brigade’. If you felt sad and single before, Christmas is a sure way to ramp up those feelings of inadequacy by about 500%. Aside from the ‘Kath + O’ wedding invitations, it’s the social event I dread most as a single person.

A message from David Shrigley

A message from David Shrigley

Cancer cast an even darker cloud over last years’ festivities. It wasn’t a happy time, and Christmas has the annoying habit of magnifying all of those negative emotions that you manage to keep under wraps for the other 51 weeks of the year. If you felt rubbish before, then the relentless ‘HO-HO-HO-SHOP-SHOP-SHOP-KEEP-SMILING-COS-IT’S-CHRISTMAS’ message rammed down your throat, from mid-October onwards, is the perfect recipe for a less than Joyeux Noel.

Last twix-mas, it all got too much for me. I had to escape, and an emotional reunion with an old school friend turned into the mother of all hangovers. What started as a civilised lunchtime reunion became rocket-fuelled champagne-bombers on an empty stomach. I somehow managed to drag myself into hospital for a check-up and scan at 9am on New Years Eve.  CT scans and hangovers are a lethal cocktail and an experience I never want to repeat.

Ghost of Christmas Present and sometime in the near future

This Christmas I discovered a whole new world. A world where it’s okay to say ‘I hate Christmas’. Being in Fuertaventura at Christmas was like joining some weird support group for the festively disillusioned. Does seeing the colours red and white together bring you out in a rash? Would you be happy if you never had to eat turkey ever again? Do you believe the world would be a better place without that ear-bleedingly-irritating Slade song? Then come to Fuertaventura where no-one gives a shit what day of the year it is!

David Shrigley (240x240) (2)

David Shrigley

My Christmas in Fuertaventura might be the best I’ve ever had. The festivities started on the 23rd and there was no crazy shopping frenzy, no making a twat of yourself at the office party, no gorging yourself on mince pies and no television. Our Christmas day was a delicious cocktail of beach-yoga, swimming and Factor 20. Sunshine was my tinsel and olives were my sprouts. A lone piper played Christmas carols on the beach. A nostalgic nod to Christmas’ past and a little slice of festive heaven.

Going on holiday is a time for reflection and although I’d love to tell you that I had an earth shattering epiphany whilst lying on the beach, I simply enjoyed having time to empty my head of the cancer-clutter. The only decisions I came to, were to have more holidays and to get a tattoo. No, it won’t be a dolphin.

Feeling the sun on my body and sand between my toes was the best present I could have asked for. Every ray of sunshine a final ‘Up Yours!’ to cancer.

My ‘ghost of Christmas sometime in the near future’ might not be spent lying on a beach, but it will definitely be a healthier, happier one and who knows, next year I might even be tempted into having a turkey sandwich. All that remains to say is:

“Feliz navidad y feliz año nuevo!”

“Enemy combatants this is your final warning, please evacuate. I repeat this is your final warning!”

Everyone loves a military cliché when it comes to cancer, so my secret mission for this blog post was to try to squeeze in as many as possible. I must stress that military clichés are reserved for people with the disease and there’ll be no bravery awards on my watch.

When I filled out my cancer return for 2012/2013 I wrongly assumed I’d repaid my karmic debt and my recent diagnosis proves that I still have plenty of credits in the bad-shit bank. My sense of normal has been severely warped in the past couple of years and I wonder if I’ve just resigned myself to life being shit, as it took the nice young doctor examining me before surgery to remind me how abnormal my life has become. His four words “you’ve been in the wars” were enough to unleash a torrent of tears.

war on cancer

Two weeks ago I had surgery – axillary clearance – to remove the lymph nodes from my right axilla: that’s the ‘armpit’, or ‘oxter‘ to you and I. In the war against renegade cells, the battleground of my body has been subjected to another assault. Unlike the sentinel node biopsy I had last year, this operation was much more invasive and they ripped out half my armpit. I think the NHS should scrap the latin and start using slang: “Aye we’re gonnae clear yer oxters” sounds much less intimidating than the militaristic “we’re going in for axillary clearance”.

As is the norm in my world, I thought I’d be fully recovered after a couple of days, however it’s taken me much longer to recover than I expected. You’d think my body would be hardened by previous battles but perhaps the relentless chemical and surgical assaults are starting to take their toll. They do a lot of rooting around to get to the nodes, nerves can be damaged, and tissue-fluid can build up in the axilla (armpit). This can result in a number of not very pleasant side effects. 

For the first couple of days, there was a definite rumble in the jungle of my armpit: I was mightily pissed off about having to go through surgery again, so it’s understandable that my armpit might want to communicate its discontent. By the end of the first week I was starting to resemble a human-bagpipe, and could have joined a ceilidh band with the ever-growing bulge and chorus emanating from my right oxter.

shrig-1112-400x215

An extreme reaction to axillary lymph node clearance

I’m surprised my body isn’t screaming, the damage that’s been inflicted in the last year: the FECin Chemotherapy; the now seemingly pointless Sentinel node biopsythe Mastectomy with bottom transplant; the skin-shedding Radiotherapy; the ‘let’s give the other one a bit of attention’ Mastopexy; and the bagpipe inducing Axillary lymph node clearance. That’s 4 operations, some heavy duty chemicals and a ton of radiation.

It’s not a competition, however I am considering starting a new Facebook game called “Disease Top Trumps”. Having been diagnosed with cancer twice in the last year, I do get slightly irritated when I read a Facebook status update that says “feeling rubbish today, sore throat 😦 “. It’s all relative and everyone’s entitled to a whinge, but from where I’m standing, anything that can be treated with paracetamol does not require a Facebook status update, and the next time I see one of these updates I’m going to find it hard not to play my cancer top trump: “I HAVE CANCER – WOULD YOU CARE TO SWAP?!” Or maybe I’ll just start doing tumour status updates: “Tumour feels bigger today, think it’s terminal 😦 ” and see what response I get.

I promise I will never give tumour status updates on Facebook, in fact I hope I never have to talk about this insidious disease ever again (at least not my cancer), because on Wednesday something incredible happened. Last week I had appointments, with both the surgical and oncology teams, to get the results from surgery and discuss the rest of my treatment plan. The results were irrelevant, I knew I was starting chemotherapy again in December, I just wanted a date, so that I could book a much needed holiday from the cancer that’s taken over my life for the last 18 months.

My apathy turned to shock, when I received the news, that of the 18 lymph nodes removed, only 1 was cancerous. The minimum requirement for treatment is 4 positive nodes and I only had 1, which means no further treatment, besides monthly injections of Goserelin (Zoladex).

You’re probably wondering how did this happen again? The answer is nobody knows. They can’t tell if the tumour was completely new, or if it stemmed from cells which migrated from the previous site. I had quite a large gap between finishing chemotherapy and having my mastectomy during my last course of treatment, so there’s every possibility that a few cells jumped ship when no-one was looking.

Obviously I’m ecstatic that I don’t have to go through chemotherapy and radiotherapy again, but it’s scuppered my weight loss & hair removal plans. I’ve been fattening myself up in preparation for the chemotherapy I thought I’d be having. The chemotherapy diet is cancer’s best kept secret: ‘Feeling flabby? Watch the pounds melt away on the chemo-diet!’ I also expected to be as bald as a coot by xmas so I gave up on depilation: losing your eyebrows and lashes can make you look like an alien, however it means you don’t have to shave your legs for a whole 6 months. Perhaps if they emphasised these positive side effects of chemotherapy they might get more takers?

Alice

Dorothy and Alice contemplate the meaning of life

Those of you who know me well and who follow my blog will know that this recent recurrence has thrown my whole life into complete disarray, again. Friends and family have commented on how well I’ve coped with my recent diagnosis, but I’m a great believer in bottling things up & letting them out in inappropriate places. I’m joking, it’s actually really hard to contain your emotions when you think you’re going to die, and simple things like a trip to the supermarket are made even more stressful by the prospect of bumping into someone you know or bursting into tears at the checkout. You realise that the small-talk that people make in these environments is mostly just meaningless waffle. When people ask “how are you today?” they don’t want to know the truth and this for me is one of the most difficult parts of having cancer: it’s an exercise in people management. You’re continually thrown into situations where you have to predict and mop up other people’s emotions. Having the disease is stigmatising enough, but I’ve been in so many situations where I’ve lied because I can’t cope with other people’s reaction to my disease. It’s much easier to say “yeah I’ve got breast cancer but I’m feeling really positive and treatment is going really well” than to say “actually I’m beginning to question the meaning of my existence and wondering what I’ve got to live for”. It’s deep man, but it’s normal to ponder these questions when the grim reaper comes a knockin’.

I was ecstatic when they gave me the good news on Wednesday, however my elation has faded into quiet contemplation as I consider the enormity of what I’ve been through. I’ve survived cancer for a second time and I’m trying not to feel bitter about my recurrence, because if I do that, it means the cancer has won. I need time to lick my wounds and get my head around the fact that I’m not going to die before I start thinking about life again. I’ve earned my stripes, I’m hanging up my boots and I hope I never have to face this disease ever again.

Shit happens

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything for my blog, mainly because every-day life is quite dull & I don’t think anyone is interested in knowing what I’ve had for dinner. Given the choice I’d always take dull, or at least normality over drama, however it would seem that ‘Him up There’ is determined to ensure my life will never be that way.

Around a month ago I found a lump in my armpit, on the same side previously affected by cancer. I was due for my 6-monthly check-up at the start of October so I’d pre-warned my breast care nurse about the lump. Pre-warning the breast-care-team meant, that when I had my check-up a few weeks ago, I was able to have the lump scanned and biopsied on the same day. Two weeks ago I received the devastating news that the cancer is back. Last week I had a CT scan, to determine whether the cancer has spread elsewhere in my body. Since then it’s been an anxious wait for results.

T-shirt

I’ve tried to avoid telling too many people this time, as I couldn’t face the rigmarole of having to break the news to everyone when I don’t have the complete picture myself. I’ve learned from previous experience that telling other people is just as traumatic as finding out yourself. A strange role-reversal occurs, where you end up having to comfort and reassure others that everything is going to be alright – “it’s ok, it’s just a tumour, nothing to worry about” – when you don’t actually know yourself.

Scanxiety

Scanxiety is the worst kind of anxiety, you’re stuck in a no-man’s land, not knowing if you’re going to live or die. There’s the pre-scanxiety leading up to the scan, a brief moment of relief when it’s over, followed by the post-scanxious wait for results. I tried badgering everyone, from the radiographer who did the scan – “sorry I just take the pictures” – to the breast-care nurses who always do their best to reassure, even when they don’t know the answer.

Extreme scanxiety of the heart fluttering variety, which I’ve experienced much of over the past week, is quite terrifying. Every physical ailment becomes a sign that the cancer is spreading. The heart palpitations are caused by a tumour on the heart, the achey back is undoubtedly caused by mets on the spine, and the dizzy spells must mean it’s spread to the brain. It’s only a matter of time before I’m being fed mince & tatties through a plastic tube. On my train journey back to Manchester last week, I felt so rough, I actually wondered if I was dying. This turned out to be a dose of ‘Hand, Foot & Mouth’ caught from one of my mini-relatives.

Conversations and phone messages from health professionals are scrutinised and misinterpreted: they all know you’re going to die, they just want to make you wait 10 days before breaking the news. A message from my consultant which said “ try to enjoy yourself this weekend”, I interpreted as “try to enjoy yourself this weekend because it might be your last!!”. My anxiety levels were so high that the only way was down and I’ve been feeling much calmer these last few days. I’m not resigned to it, but like I’ve said before, shit happens.

That was then, this is now

Although I’ve been psyching myself up for bad-bad news, today I had some good-bad news. The good-bad news is that I’m booked in for surgery next week. My CT scan showed that the cancer is contained and that it hasn’t spread beyond my lymph nodes. Once I’ve recovered from surgery I’ll be having chemotherapy – different drugs this time & I might get to keep my hair – followed by more radiotherapy. It’s not great, but it’s better than the bad-bad news: if it had spread the only option would be palliative chemotherapy.

I’ve only recently started to settle in and enjoy Manchester life again and it’s been good returning to normality, however I’ve decided that my only option is to move back to Scotland for treatment. Although I’ve got an amazing group of friends in Manchester, I know I’ll need the support of my family whilst I go through treatment again. Besides, no-one else can substitute a mum hug when you’re feeling rubbish.

So here I am, back on the cancer merry-go-round. Although the news might come as a bit of a shock to many of you, I’ve had nearly two weeks to come to terms with the fact that the cancer is back. The results from my scan today came as such a huge relief and I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. I’m just ecstatic it’s not metastatic.