Chemotherapy is barbaric. It is counter intuitive to everything we know and expect from medicine. It makes you feel poorly before it can make you feel better. Often it doesn’t make you better. It just slowly eats away at your insides and messes with your head until your bodily functions and processes are effected. Then, in theory it starts to impact on your cancer’s ability to grow.
That’s if you’re lucky, with Triple Negative this is often a short lived effect. Sometimes it doesn’t work and the cancer just grows. After 18 weeks of four types of intravenous chemo last summer, mine grew. The main tumour was bigger than 96mm when it was removed. The last lot of 18 weeks chemo I had in spring/summer this year worked at first. My RECIST (Response Evaluation Criteria In Solid Tumors) was even described as ‘0mm, a complete response to treatment’. That was for about a month, until I felt it growing again. It was another couple of months before this showed up on a scan. My secondary tumour is now bigger than it was when I started the last clinical trial and it’s in other lymph nodes too, plus a local reoccurrence on my chest wall. You can probably tell I don’t believe chemo is that effective.
You have to be dying, to want it. Enough said.
Added to this I was always way too much of a control freak and sensible scare-dy cat to take drugs (aside from a few puffs on a spliff at Uni). Having worked for 25 years in marketing, advertising, branding and innovation consulting that’s quite an achievement and a very deliberate choice. So, it’s depressing to poison your body again and again. It is beyond comprehensibilty that the cancer continues to defy the chemo’s aggressive purpose.
It’s fair to say I’ve had a few interesting reactions to drugs in the past (pre cancer) and I’m even allergic to Red Bull. It gave me altered reality and makes me hallucinate. Even without Vodka.
So as you can imagine I’m not relishing starting my daily chemo.
I put on my big girl pants (I think I will need them!) and I tucked into my seventh type of chemo drug last night.
Two years ago I was ignorant about chemo. Chemo was chemo. It was a scary abstract concept that I’d seen depicted in films. It made you lose all your hair, vomit, your skin turned grey and it hollowed out your eyes. It looked grim. It wasn’t on my to do list. It definitely happened to other people. Not people I knew and not me.
And here we are. I am no chemo expert by any stretch and having looked into the ingredients and how they discovered some of them, you don’t always want to know. I’ve mentioned the mustard gas derived Cyclophosphamide before. That really messed with my eyes when it was surging my veins and my eyesight deteriorated. Others are platinum based, taxanes are derived from genus taxus which are yew trees, a tree we played under as children and were told in not uncertain terms not to touch the sticky yew berries (or glue berries as we called them). These are not ingredients you are salivating over putting in your body. That’s why for me intravenous is better. It’s a good way to detach.
This time around I’m on oral chemo. Who knew there was such a thing? It’s a tablet. Ten to be precise. Five in the morning and five at night. So ten times a day I am expected to knowingly swallow cytotoxic chemicals. So cytoxic (not that I think anything can be a little bit cytoxic) that I have to wear gloves to pop them out into a little sauce pot and then take them. I have to return the empty shells of the packet to the hospital, presumably to incinerate (or maybe because it’s a trial). Hopefully I won’t be an empty shell too, I’m not ready to be incinerated yet.
I thought tablets would be easier, more convenient. I’m only 10 tablets in and psychologically it’s a bit more invasive.
Give it a week and it will be my new normal. Or I’ll be distracted by the side effects.
I started writing this on Tuesday morning. A lot can change in a matter of days. Emotional roller coaster feels like a hackneyed and over-used metaphor, one that doesn’t feel adequate to describe the last 48hrs.
I want to be true to what I felt and wrote a day or so ago, so the tense might jump around in this piece – for any grammar pedants out there, you’ve had your warning.
In the run up to being on the trial I am looking for signs of hope or good luck. Originally they were sending my eligibility and radomisation request on my birthday. That seemed like a good omen. The very fact that I got the place offered to me after it had previously been allocated, that seemed pretty serendipitous too.
I’d lost the diamond out of my 40th Birthday ring that signifies 4 decades and 4 family members. It was my birthday, the stone was missing, this didn’t seem like a great sign. However, in the dark of the theatre I found the rock lying on the floor. I had found it again, almost instantly. Surely I’d get through elligibility?
I have jumped through every hoop I have been asked to, I’ve anticipated hoops and removed them before we got to them. I’ve organised my own scans with the help of proactive and kind teams in other hospitals. I have collected my own pathology reports from hospitals in person, scanned them and sent them to other hospitals. I have checked on the nurses screen that ECGs have actually been whizzed on internal systems. I have been ‘on it’ in the most full on way possible – even for me.
Yet we are still waiting… I was told I’d have the go ahead and details of which arm I’m on, on Friday… Monday at the latest… Yet it’s Tuesday and no news.
I am sitting in the clinic waiting to see an oncologist for what is supposed to be Day 0 of a new clinical trial. I’m due to start tomorrow, yet I do not know if I am eligible for this trial (I’ve checked myself, but I don’t get to decide) or which arm I will get. I feel physically sick with anxiety, hope, excitement and panic. An uneasy compound of conflicting emotions. I am emotionally and physically exhausted.
I feel like I’m at the finish line, but there is no one here. No cheer. No accolade. I am wondering if anyone knows I’ve sprinted this race?
So I am literally waiting to hear if I get immunotherapy. I’m in a windowless side area of a hospital lobby. Amidst the juxtaposition of hospital buzz and sedentary cancer patients (and their loved ones), standing and sitting in lines. All of us facing the screen waiting for our name, our fate and our next step. Slowly people are called in.
My husband and I aren’t talking. Not because we are in a grump with each other, but because there is nothing to say or do until we know. Everything else is suspended in time. As a couple with young children you long for one to one time. This is not the vintage of time or location we need right now.
We are biding our time, until it’s time.
Just over an hour after our apt we are called. Not bad.
From my research as someone at the second line treatment phase (second attempt at a drug or drug combo to control the growth and spread of a secondary cancer and/or local reoccurrence), this trial is the only way I can get immunotherapy in Europe (and possibly The World) at the moment. That is without robbing a bank, changing the genetic make up of my tumour or bribing a lab technician in a large pharma company.
I’ve been at this stage before for my first line treatment. I got the placebo.
This time It’s an open label trial so I will know at the start of the trial. This is because it’s a much earlier phase trial and I’m guessing because the control is a tablet and the arm open is an intravenous Atezolizumab and a tablet of an AKT inhibitor called Ipaterstrib. Still struggling with the pronunciation of the latter. Atezolizumab is now a word my 10 year old can pronounce. I don’t believe in dumbing things down for kids. After all, ‘immunotherapy’ isn’t much easier to say.
As yet another aside, when I first talked about immunotherapy with the kids, at the beginning of the year, they were fascinated to hear how that worked. My son, who fancies himself as a future zoologist said, “Mummy, but how did they find out that Emu’s could help people with cancer?”. Oh how I laughed.
I like the idea of emunotherapy. Frankly I’d try anything right now.
BING! I’m called in to meet another new oncologist, who works with the one I saw just under three weeks ago. To my relief, I have been accepted to the trial. Phew! It literally was the last place as it has closed globally for review. We’d secured it. However they still didn’t have the go ahead to randomise me (drug lottery). So I was on, but we still didn’t know which drugs I would get.
Adrenalin was switching on and off like a strobe light. I wasn’t sure I could take much more. I’d already experienced a kind of primeval emotional outpouring on Sunday night. A kind of release that I hadn’t really experienced since being diagnosed in May ‘18. I was a bit freaked out by my reaction, but it was probably proportional and I felt a lot calmer the next day!
After another blood test and another 2hr wait in a hospital chair – I was free to go. To go and wait somewhere else. My husband had taken the day off work, but we still didn’t know if I would get immunotherapy, I was provisionally booked for the next day.
Right now I could do nothing more but go home and wait for the drug sponsor based in a different time zone to get into work and process our randomisation request.
The way this trial works is you either get the control, or one of 8 other drug combinations. Capecitabine (a tablet form chemo) is the control, then the other 8 combos are like a cocktail menu with Atezolizumab as the gin or vodka base and the other drugs they combine with it are mixers or other little spirits to pep up the Atezo. I guess the drug companies aim is to see if they can give Atezo without chemo for it to be effective. What they are seeing right now is that the Atezo works in some PDL-1 positive patients when combined with a taxane based chemo called Abraxane. FDA have approved it in the USA for first line. I wouldn’t be eligible though. NiCE have yet to approve beyond expanded early access programme, due to cost and narrowness of the indications (conditions/disease areas it can be applied to).
OK, this post is starting to feel as drawn out as the real thing was and I’m not sure I can go over it again, so I’ll cut to the chase. The oncologist called me twice that same Tuesday evening to advise of changes to the trial structure, ratios etc. We didn’t want to wait any longer for treatment to begin again, so even at a 50/50 chance of Atezolizumab we pushed the button on the lotto machine (it is literally a computer programme).
I got the chemo.
8th October 2019 (finished on 10th October when I could bear to write about it again).
Who owns the images on the street? On our urban walls? When does graffiti become street art or art? Earlier this year whilst in London with the children we stumbled upon an uplifting piece that I immediately connected to. I think this is street art; apparently graffiti is done for other graffiti artists whereas street art is for a wider audience. Like many others we were compelled to have our photos taken with this happy mural. A bright and hopeful backdrop for many a picture of loved ones. Past and present.
Later when looking through my phone shots for suitable images for my blog, the above street art image popped out at me. It made me instantly smile. It felt right for the start of the blog. I don’t want all the chat about cancer to be depressing and melancholy. I want it to connect to you and others. There is a genuine out pouring of real love that happens with a serious cancer diagnosis. Or at least that has been the experience I have been lucky enough to have.
“I want people to be closer, more expressive and have real conversations with each other rather than a life masked or filtered through social media and conformity. “
I appreciate the irony as I write this on a blog and refer to it on social media, but what I try to do is to be honest and unvarnished. Sometimes this isn’t possible as I have to keep something for myself, sometimes it is unfair on my children, family or close friends to share everything, often it is just so raw I can’t even go there in my head, never mind on paper or in conversation. But I try to be as real as possible, and when I am, great things happen; to me and others. People around me are making life changing decisions, they are saying f**k it and embracing or planning for changes. What I love about this, is people talk to me about it in a way they didn’t always before.
A plethora of people have contributed to the creative process of this blog. From the small bits of encouragement with off the cuff comments about the style of my text messages or whatsApps, sharing of poems and the site, with significant and time consuming gifts like pro-bono executive coaching, logo design, help and confidence with publishing the blog. In the beginning, when I was toying with the idea, I hadn’t realised it was live. At least not until I started getting comments and followers from sincere and real people that I had never met! I then had to take the plunge and not look back.
So I am left with the dilemma of whether I should contact the artist, I’m not sure if I’m asking for permission, because I don’t know if I need it. But I’d like to thank him for his inspiration and mood changing role of his work. It’s a manners thing.
I went to a talk on writing at The Guardian a couple of months ago and met this great woman who was going to start a blog about street art. A weird coincidence. I asked her what she thought. Her view was that the artists liked the publicity and as I took the picture it was OK to use it. I described the art to see if she knew the artist, she thought it might be an artist from New York. He’s apparently fond of hearts and travels the world spray painting them. I looked him up – I didn’t think it was his.
With some light google effort I relatively easily found out who’s work it was. I also found that other works I had photographed and been inspired by were also his. Another weird coincidence. I also saw on closer examination that the work was signed and like many things in life, hiding in plain sight!
The work above was created by James Cochran (aka Jimmy C). The ‘London Hearts’ is one of his ‘drip paintings’ or ‘aerosol pointillism’. It is dedicated to the 8 people who lost their lives in the London Bridge terror attack in June 2017. James talks about the response of love in dark times. It was painted in Spring 2018, when I got my cancer diagnosis. This made it even more poignant and I was glad I’d included it. Those people didn’t invite terrorism into their lives in the same way that I hadn’t invited metastatic breast cancer into mine. I decided to write to the artist and let him know that he was part of a growing tribe of people who encouraged me to keep going, to keep telling my story and to hope that it will be longer than the Triple Negative Breast Cancer prognosis stats suggest.
I’ll let you know what he says…
I do believe that art shifts you, heals you, makes you think in different ways. There is a lot of it in and around the hospitals I visit and it definitely triggers something different. Not least that the people walking these corridors are worthy of some break from the monotony and blandness of endless hospital corridors and appointments.
I am not sure what this ceiling installation is trying to tell you? Each piece of silver, or likely silver plate, is reflected in a flattered version of itself. Is this the juxtaposition between the multi dimensional us and the one dimensional us? Or was it more tongue in cheek? As the owner of one boob and one flat chest I couldn’t help but think it was ironic in a clinic with people who’d had breast surgery. It gave me something to think and laugh inside about whilst waiting for yet another consultant.
Again I looked this piece up and the artist, Cornelia Parker was interested in the captive audience of waiting rooms where ‘time and reality are suspended’ (so true) and was influenced by tromp l’oeil. This is a technique often used on ceilings to ‘deceive the eye’ into seeing something three dimensional. She has done some similar pieces, more recently, one of a series of ‘alter ego’ works in 2010.
So just goes to show we draw our own meaning from art and our experiences regardless of the artists intent. For me art does trigger or jolt me to think in different ways, to make connections and uncover insights that I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t seen it or created it. I am grateful for the rich and vibrant art scene we have in this country and am delighted that I can stumble upon it on the street and in hospitals.
Look out for it on your travels this week. Let us know if you find any interesting bits?
Written on 26th September 2019 (to post later because I knew these last few days would be tough, and they are). If you are reading this in an email or link. Feel free to visit www.thecancergap.com to enjoy and share other posts and poems.
I have paused. I feel calm for a moment. The train is taking me, I am not driving it. Momentum is someone else’s
En route to do one final test, Timely hoop jumping will surely bring eligibility? The adrenalin and cortisol are slowing for a rest, They are exhausting friends of mine who fuel my agility.
Looking out across the fields, pondering the probability, Only days before the open label I will see and know, Recalling the last manic journey to only get placebo, Some feel deceived; I felt relieved, A reason for disease progression, A known price for future science to learn the lesson.
Whilst mostly strong, I’m aware of my growing fragility, The cancer has had time to take hold. I’m tired, aching and a little uncomfortable; affecting my ability, The cumulative chemo effects, I’m told.
Once again I feel like I’m in a race, Obstacles to go around, this time for the last space, When I reach the finish line, it will once again begin, New hospital, new journey, new side effects within.
I want to be hopeful, but can’t escape the reality of Triple Negative morbidity Is giving over my body and life for a bigger cause the ultimate act of humility?
On the last day of blood cancer awareness month and the eve of breast cancer awareness month, I am wondering what awareness looks and feels like?
Less than two years ago I didn’t know what Acute Myeloid Leukaemia was, never mind its symptoms. I first became aware of it when our good friend Gemma Thomas was diagnosed with it. I received the call out of the blue to say she’d been diagnosed and was going to have chemotherapy. For those of you following the story in the media you will know that 3 days later we received the tragic news that she had died. We were still in shock about the diagnosis, we couldn’t catch up with ourselves at the news of her passing. She was a happy, healthy and compassionate women with a rye sense of humour. We still miss her massive smile and rolling eyes.
Simon, Gemma’s husband has just finished a whole month of challenges to raise blood cancer awareness for @Bloodwise. Judging by social media and the rise in google searches on the subject he’s done a great job.
A few months after Gemma’s death, I found out my cousin Trudi has AML. My heart was in my mouth, I could not comprehend that a disease I was not really aware of had taken someone in my life and could take another. I am pleased to say despite being put well and truly through the wringer on chemo, isolation units and stem cell transplants she is doing brilliantly. Like me Trudi is passionate about raising awareness of her form of cancer and what it is like to endure the treatment for cancer. I’m super proud that she made a film for Leukaemia Care to bring to life both the difficulty in spotting the signs (and she is a nurse with bags of medical knowledge and understanding of the system) and the mental and physical harshness of cancer treatment.
It is only in becoming aware of the symptoms of different cancers and their impact on individuals living through treatment, that we can begin to catch cancer earlier, and help people feel part of their community and society when they endure treatment or live with their disease.
“Awareness, for me, is about ‘not fearing cancer’, but being alert for its signs and empathetic and authentic with people who are in treatment or living with cancer.”
Two months after Trudi’s diagnosis I found my lump. As you know I was diagnosed with Grade 3, Stage 3, Triple Negative Breast Cancer. This has now metastasised to other parts of my body as well as a local reoccurrence. So I am now stage 4 and have an incurable and inoperable cancer. There are no known targeted therapies or treatments for Mtnbc. I’m trying to experiment with immunotherapy, but every three weeks someone keeps giving me the placebo. I’m hoping to get onto another immunotherapy trial soon. This and/or chemo hopes to extend my life expectancy. Sounds grim, right?
But I feel and look really well. Honestly.
Not at all like I thought someone with stage 4 cancer would look like. Even last year, with stage 3 cancer, I didn’t think stage 4 would be like this. I was pretty ignorant. So don’t feel bad if you are.
This is another reason why I write this blog, to raise awareness of living with cancer. To help us all work out how we accommodate cancer into our everyday lives, because like it or not, cancer is here to stay. Much better to be aware and face into it rather than to ignore it or the people who have it.
I think listening to these stories, and those of the millions of other cancer patients out there, are what cancer awareness is all about. Not the pink ribbons and decorated bras which will no doubt be marching out from tomorrow and the start of breast cancer awareness month.
Don’t feel you need to wear a pink ribbon or buy something for breast cancer awareness, but do go home and give your boobs or moobs (because boys aren’t exempt) a good check over!
Have you ever noticed that when a news item becomes a bit more serious or drawn out it gets a logo on the BBC? The global economic downturn had one, the US Elections, the referendum etc. Brexit has had several, a made up name and it even got a dictionary entry! I’m clearly not that newsworthy, but as I am now about to enter into my 18th month of cancer treatment I thought it was time The Cancer Gap got a logo. So here it is.
The beady eyed of you will have noticed it at the top of the search bar or on social media.
I could have asked or paid one of my design colleagues or contacts to do this, but I thought I’d ask my friend who is teaching herself design. She loved working on something real. Or so she told me. She explored a few options and together we came up with this. She even dragged her IT husband into the task. This is just one of many examples I have of people in my community going above and beyond to help and to contribute somehow.
I thought I’d do this update now as its pretty slow getting all the eligibility scans in place for the trial protocol. It is only when I’m through this that they can confirm that I will be put on the trial.
For those of your following previous posts, the tiny maggot sized and coloured piece of me that was extracted with a punch biopsy a week or so ago turned out to be malignant. So that distinct shape, wasn’t scar tissue, fat necrosis or my paranoia, it was a mass of cancer cells that have grown from some microscopic cancer being left behind. This is why you always want clear margins, the bigger the better. Mine weren’t clear. Ever. So this is not a surprise.
I first felt the lump as a pin head (that’s when they thought I was a bit hyper vigilant or even paranoid) and now its the size of a sweetcorn kernel and is a adenocarcinoma (a cancer tumour made of glandular cells). They’ve sliced this little tiny maggot up into slithers like a cucumber into tiny rounds and put it on slides. They have tested it for hormone receptors. It has none. No targets for treatment. So as well as being a grade 3 tumour, it has 2 out of the 3 markers it needs to be classed as ‘triple negative’. The HER2 status (the third marker) takes another week or so and I’m sure it will be negative again. So it is the same Triple Negative Breast Cancer. This cancer can sometimes mutate to be HER2 positive, so we have to go through this motion. Once my tumour has finished its little trip around the labs of the south west of the UK, it (or another piece from one of the other tumours) will be put in some formalin and flown to the US or Switzerland. Whilst my body is pretty much grounded, little chopped off bits of me are able to travel passport and insurance free.
Invasive breast cancer is tricky. It starts small and undetectable and then eventually the cells join up to cause a lump you can actually feel. A lot of breast cancers are ‘ductal carcinomas in situ’ or DCIS and never become invasive. These are more like a boiled egg still in its shell, easier to cut around and remove. Whereas invasive cancer is more like scrambled or powdered war time egg or a Jackson Pollock painting.
One of those little microscopic bits has grown into something that is still not traceable on a ultrasound. I even sharpie-ed up the spot beforehand. The sonographer felt it with her hand, but the scan didn’t show it. The PET-CT and CT scans didn’t show it either as there is so much other activity going on around this place from the surgery, scar tissue and radioactivity damage. My surgeon said he always prefers physical examination for this kind of local reoccurrence.
‘Once again, the grope test wins over tech then, but I guess you can’t say that’.
My response to the surgeon.
Well, that got a little side tracked from talking about logos, but at least you are up to speed.
Tune into your intuition
If I could sign off with one thing it is this: don’t delay if you have symptoms or lumps you are not sure of. Don’t be paranoid, but get to know your body. You are so often the best judge of any changes or suspicious activity. Tune into your intuition.
I already have the mastectomy scars branding me a ‘breast cancer victim’. However, a little lump, like a logo could be a recognisable symbol of early cancer or re-occurrence. Its distinctive design, this time of cells, the malignant or benign deciding factor.
Either way, for me, it is always better to know and to act.
I can’t really dress that up in a fancy headline. Before this week ends I’m going to attempt to capture 48hrs in the life of a mTNBC patient fighting the system for treatment and their life. I wasn’t going to write this post at all. Firstly I’m in it up to my neck and it’s hard to get enough perspective or space to write coherently. Secondly the situation is shifting all the time. However I think if I don’t try and capture some of these recent events I won’t even believe it happened and I’m living it.
If you read this to the end I hope it helps you understand why sometimes people with cancer and serious disease just smile and say ‘I’m good thanks’.
On Tuesday this week the facts came at me:
– ‘We now have unequivocal evidence that your disease has progressed and is functionally active’. – ‘You are no longer on the trial’ – ‘We’ve applied to unblind you and you were on the placebo’ – ‘We don’t have any immediate options at this hospital’ – ‘We will refer you to another hospital who might have something for you, but we don’t know what’
Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. The news kept coming.
Despite knowing in my heart that my disease had progressed, hearing it finally confirmed was brutal. Not a surprise, but a shock none the less. I felt like I was being ejected off my plastic hospital seat into the ether. Abandoned by the system and the lack of treatment for TNBC again. Left to come up with my own plan (or at least that’s what it felt like).
But this is what I do best. It’s my calling. I make stuff happen. I go around problems. I try to look ahead as much as I can, to scenario plan my next move. I often have a strategy. I breathed, I had one here too.
However, I was upset. Not angry, but mourning my future. Grieving the reality. Trying to accept the injustice and bad luck of not getting the drug I researched so heavily back in March. The trial that so many people helped me get on within 3 weeks of my secondary diagnosis. The hope ebbed away. I felt hollowed out. Not done, but desperate to catch a break in this relentless, once hopeful, now seemingly futile journey.
I looked around at the wonderful NHS hospital that has held me close for 6 months. I smiled at yet another person I knew by name, knew about her children, where she trained. I must know about 30 people by first name in this hospital. It felt intimidating back in March when I knew no-one and now I felt sad to leave the building and the people who has enveloped me for this part of the fight. I was sad. I was letting go in a way that I haven’t normally done when the bad news comes. The work on myself and even this blog meant I was feeling it deeply, not disassociating. This is good and bad.
I walked to the train with my husband, we were in a bit of a trance. Then a switch flicked. I literally got back on the train metaphorically and physically. I had to make a decision to detach again. To pretend this was work. A mammoth project to direct. A big problem to solve, move forward and take control of. People to mobilise and mindsets to shift. Starting with mine. I could not let this happen to me. I had to get back in the driving seat. Fast.
What did I know? Who did I Know? How long would it take my current hospital to send a referral letter? What were my options? Who else might have a perspective on those options?
I was manic, but straight away I remembered a kind and determined woman I had been exchanging posts with on an invaluable forum I belong to. She was on a clinical trial at the hospital they were talking about referring me to. If it was anything like the hospital I was leaving she would have a direct line number into the trials team. I private messaged her. She astounded me with her speed and quality of response. She is a kindred sprit. She sent a screen grab of names, direct lines, mobiles and emails within a minute or so. I was getting intermittent WiFi and reception. She messaged that she thought the trial might be closed. It sounded ambiguous though – ‘thought’. My mind was racing. While I was in a tunnel, on her own initiative, she called the trials team. Out the tunnel – another message. ‘There’s one place left, you’ll have to move fast’. I felt sick, but excited.
“There has got to be more relaxing ways to die.“
WhatsApp to my family
Whilst on the train, I used my mobile, genius-scan and dropbox to scan all the recent scans and letters I had. I copied the bold ‘diagnosis title’ at the top of the paper. I frantically tapped my recent medical history, NHS number etc. into my phone. The file I carry around and the data in my head was coming into its own. Not to mention the digital revolution. Once off the train I finished the scanning in the waiting room (If that isn’t a metaphor for how I feel I don’t know what is).
No one could say I’d missed an opportunity, by not acting fast enough. This is the exact opposite of an appropriate epitaph for me!
I spoke to the fab forum woman (you know who you are) on the phone. It was the first time I’d ever heard her voice aurally. We have never spoken or met face to face, yet I knew her and this week she did for me what I try to do for others. She got me back into action mode fast. Thank you.
I followed up my email to the hospital with a friendly call. They hadn’t seen my email yet, they’d just come out of a busy clinic, they hadn’t seen an email from my hospital either. I briefly explained the situation, mindful that she probably looks after many trials and patients. She was effable and kind, but sadly updated me: ‘That place has now gone’. ‘The trial is closed’. ‘Sorry’.
My heart fell inside again. I slumped on the worktop. I knew it was the only 2nd line trial (second lot of treatment for a secondary cancer) in Europe that I had a chance of being eligible for. The only way to get Atezolizumab. I’d used up my 1st line life on the previous trial and got the placebo. I felt sick and exhausted. I was still on the phone though, chatting about trial recruitment and safety reviews. The work part of me conversed with the hospital trial manager I’d never met to understand the process and the system. I asked her to keep my details and if possible start a wait list for a place in the unlikely event that someone pulled out or wasn’t eligible. A total long shot, but I want my husband and children to know I did everything in my power to be here for them for as long as possible.
I went for a swim. 20 lengths. A change of tempo and location. The water on my skin. I felt alive. I had reasons to be alive (to coin Matt Haig). I just had to find a way to keep alive.
Late afternoon the next day, I had a pre-scheduled appointment with my original surgeon at my local hospital. I had planned to discuss the surgery or radiotherapy options. Except these were no longer options. Off the table.
It was still worth seeing him though because I wanted to understand more about the lymph glands and the small lump I suspected was a reoccurrence. He and the breast care nurse were first class and continued the action mode. I ended up having a mammogram. I had to laugh when the radiographer said ‘Are we just doing the left side?’. She had looked up at my naked torso before I had a chance to answer, so my response was redundant.
The purpose of the mammogram was to rule out any spread of disease in the left breast. I’ve been banging on about having both boobs off since the day I was diagnosed so it was mildly disappointing that the mammogram was clear. Whilst my breast was mangled in the machine, I could see a persistent ‘no caller ID’ call coming up on my apple watch. I’m all for answering on the go, but this seemed extreme, even comical. It might be after school club as I’d just received a text from another parent, it could be my mum…or it could be a hospital. I wriggled free and tried to answer it. Missed it. I got dressed and waited to see the surgeon again. The phone rang again just before I was called back in for a core biopsy (undressing (3rd time) local anaesthetic, shot of adrenalin (like I needed it), scalpel, core punched, tweezers, stitches, dressing) on the right side (I kid you not).
It was 5.12pm on the Wednesday. A two minute call. There was a place on the trial. If I could read the c20 pages of consent form tonight, and be at the hospital for 9.15am the next day, it was mine. I was ecstatic. 18 months ago I could not have imagined using that adjective to describe entering my body into a lottery to get either my third lot of chemotherapy or two experimental drugs (one of which is Atezolizumab). If this was fiction it would seem far fetched, but this is my life and subject to eligibility scans next week, I’m going to be able to get some treatment. It still hasn’t really sunk in.
‘Welcome back to the arena! The fight ain’t over! Buckle up we’re off!’
My youngest sister’s message to the family WhatsApp
I was awake at 5am. I got up at 6am and travelled to the clinic. I met the new oncologist, signed the tome of consent paperwork and as of lunchtime we might have a treatment plan. Just a few more scans, blood tests, ECG’s and biopsies and we should be done. So that’s next week covered.
Telling the kids
We updated the kids this morning as they have antennae for a change of mood.
‘Mummy’s cancer lumps aren’t shrinking anymore and it turns out that I wasn’t getting the proper medicine, but the good news is we found another doctor and he’s going to try and give me a different medicine’.
That’s what you call the distilled version.
‘Why didn’t they give you the proper one the first time?’ As an adult it’s pretty hard to accept the way clinical trials work and when you say it in lay terms to a child it seems absurd. Especially when you are talking about how long their mummy will live. What’s worse for children is if I get the right drug it will probably make me tired and ill before it even starts to make a dent in a tumour.
Cancer and its treatment are impossible to explain to children, but we have to try, we can’t shut them out. Anyway, that’s a post for another time, I’m off to watch Fleabag at the National Theatre Live.
I have been distracting myself quite nicely this week by filling my time with productive ‘busy-ness’. I often do this when I don’t want to think about big things. It drives my husband crazy. Watching telly and reading books are tricky as my mind wanders easily and there also seems to be someone dying of cancer or being diagnosed with it on every channel or page. I guess that’s representative as 1 in 2 of us will get cancer and 1 in 7 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s still annoying when you are trying to get away from cancer for a bit.
I can’t wait for next month and breast cancer awareness! It’s always annoyed me even before I had breast cancer – all those pink ribbons and decorated bras. Granted the awareness job cannot be denied – 5,000 people will be diagnosed next month. However, that pale pink ribbon seems a bit pathetic when it’s the second most common cause of cancer death in UK women. That accounts for about 11,500 deaths a year. So roughly 31 women died of breast cancer yesterday, today, tomorrow and the next day.
When you spend time with women or being a woman on chemo for life, fighting the spread of breast cancer, dealing with lymphoedema, mastectomy nerve damage, one or no boobs, skin mets bursting out of their chest, a dainty pink ribbon seems a bit trite. It has become a ‘thing’ in its own right and I wonder whether people see beyond knowing what it stands for?
God, there’s two weeks to go and it’s already winding me up. I’ve also got to get through the Macmillan Coffee mornings. Last year I was invited to several and most people didn’t know I had cancer. At least this year I’m out and proud, maybe I’ll go in sequins and represent cancer pride? I’m clearly not proud to have cancer, but I am proud that I am still here smiling (mostly). I am not going to hide my cancer (diagnosis) in any closet. I am also proud of my friends and family for all their support and ability to hold themselves together (around me at least).
So apart from turning out cupboards and tidying sheds (can’t blame the steroids anymore) I’ve also been doing some ‘nice’ things.
I’ve always had a bit of a creative side. I like painting, design and making things. I’ve resisted getting back into painting for fear of what might end up on the canvas. I thought the anger (which is only recently making an appearance) might spill out through the end of my paint brushes creating a disturbing legacy of my inner mind. Stuff obviously needed to come out though, which is why I think the poems turned up in my life at the beginning of this year.
Last month I signed up for a last minute art course at our local art place. I saw it on social media late one evening and thought ‘I fancy doing that’. Often this would be accompanied by ‘one day’, but I’m more of a ‘now’ person than ever before (for obvious reasons). It’s very liberating.
If there is something you love doing or think you’d like to have a go at, do it. Don’t wait.
The course was in geli plate printing. You use a silicone plate a bit like a giant slice of posh grown up jelly dessert or quince jelly on the side of a cheese board. You use this instead of a press or a screen to make a monotype print. I have never done this before, but I did textile design and screen printing at school and I absolutely loved it. I still have my work in the loft somewhere (that’s next for the turn out). I assumed the course was for a couple of hours. It was actually for a day. Husband was very accommodating, so all worked out brilliantly.
The course was absorbing, fun and very therapeutic as no one on the course knew me or that I had advanced cancer. The technique was also very conducive to my state of mind as it allowed me to be totally captive to something else with little room for the busy mind to race. The teacher taught us a 3/3/3 principle which was the number of seconds you have to put the paint on, arrange your relief material (leaves in this case) and print. Then peel off and print again. Then more paint and go again. It was fast. Fast process, fast results. The total opposite of treating cancer. No time to think. Perfect for my anxious cancer obsessed mind.
So since the day I spent covered in paint and immersed in creating prints at high speed, I have bought my own press and had a go at home. Aside from the resulting prints (which are of mixed quality and success) the actual process was so engaging and cathartic that I’ll be trying it again.
It got me thinking much more deeply about art and creativity.
We tend to judge art on the end result and not the enjoyment of the process. The thing, not the experience. I genuinely like experiencing and trying new things. I get a thrill from learning to do something different, from the learning itself. It’s a cliche, but I guess we could all learn to enjoy the ride and not focus solely on the destination. After all, we are all going to end up in the same place. The ride differentiates us.
Statistic from Breast Cancer Care and Cancer Research websites.
Feeling pretty low today. A full day of appointments and scans in various hospitals. I think I’ve been triggered into a bit of a pensive mood by the text that came through about my psychologists appointment. It’s in the main hospital in palliative care not the main cancer centre.
The word ‘palliative’ has slightly freaked me out.
Intellectually I know that palliative care can happen at any time in your cancer journey, but it’s typically associated with end of life. It doesn’t help that when you google the definition. The other material or searches are about things like ‘the death rattle’; ‘do people’s eyes close when they die?’; ‘Does death smell?’ (Yes it does I have been up close and personal to that with my beloved Nan) and ‘end of life care options’.
Turns out google or their previous searchers aren’t up to speed with the broader definition of palliative either. It’s not just me then.
Reflecting on all of this, I’m wondering aren’t we all trying to ‘live as well as we can until we die’? If you’re not, don’t wait for stage 4 cancer to do it!
Back to my mood. I’m also feeling concerned. This is the closest succession of PET-CT scans I’ve ever had. My scans are so historically unreliable we want to do some additional ones to see if the picture is clearer and if I am on or off the trial and treatment programme.
So after my psychologists session, I’m waiting in line for yet another radioactive injection for my PET-CT, then to talk about family counselling and then for a CT scan. All in 4 different locations and 3 sites.
There is no way on earth that CT scan is not going to show disease progression. I can feel the secondary tumour under my arm, it’s making carrying my bag hard, there is also a suspected local reoccurrence near my mastectomy scar. This latter one I can feel and see and yet it hasn’t shown on any of the scans. Even the sonographer saw it and felt it with her finger, but nothing on the scan. Not big enough.
I’ve been bringing it up at every appointment. I know my body. I massage those massive scars across my chest every night and every morning so the muscle and skin doesn’t lock up further. All the layers of fascia that separate muscle from organs and bones are melted together by radiotherapy. This was once described to me as putting several layers of cling film on top of each other and then popping them in the microwave.
You get the picture.
Anyway back to the little lump. I know what my chest feels like and I know what is new. It was new in June and it’s still there. Just a bit bigger. It might be scar tissue or fat necrosis (think this means dead cells from fatty tissue). But I would bet a lot, perhaps even my life, that it is not.
I hope I’m wrong.
‘Have surgery, cut it/them out’ I hear you cry. It’s just not that bloody simple. I wish it was.
If I’m taken off this trial there is still no targeted treatment (or cure, that’s long gone) for Triple Negative Breast Cancer. The only way to get anything that MIGHT slow the spread is to find another clinical trial. Those of you that know me will not be surprised to know I have one in mind. BUT here’s the tricky bit: in order to get on a clinical trial you need a big enough piece of measurable disease. If we do surgery I won’t have this, but I won’t have the cancer lumps either. If it has spread elsewhere, we need something systemic (whole body), like more chemo. If we do surgery, this will delay more chemo. It will also be another big op. to recover from which will eat into quality of life in the short to medium term (which might be all we have).
It’s such a conundrum!
All my years in innovation, problem solving, insight and consulting are being stretched to their limit. I wish I was working on someone else’s problem not mine.
My gut feel says surgery. They are also talking about and recommending (until the latest growth) radiotherapy in the contralateral (left) side.
My gut still says surgery. I want us to get a good look at what is actually there, not what it looks like is there. I’m a reality girl. I just hope either surgery or rads are still on the cards.
I can’t bear the thought of just waiting for cancer to pop up and say ‘hi guys, I’m over here now, you can’t catch me!’.
I’m the meantime while contemplating all this I am rammed in my eighth carriage of the day and wishing I’d worn my ‘cancer on board badge’. Although wearing that feels like admitting defeat and I look and feel physically good and well today. I just have a scrabbled head and a growing sadness in my core.
Time to grab life with both hands again and get distracted for a few days…
Some weeks there are no words, no tears – It’s not my life, I detach to keep going. Other weeks they just keep coming – tears, tears, words and more tears I sob and howl at the likely lost years, The futileness of it all, I curl up in a warm cosy ball, I hide under the blankets – I try to block out you all, I give in to the mets’ I go to ground and hide, Sometimes I need to prorogue this ride.