It’s 15 months since my original diagnosis, the diagnosis that seemed to spell doom because just about all the features of the tumour pointed to invasion, aggression and far from satisfactory medium/long-term disease free survival. Trawling the World Wide Worry-maker in hope of some success stories left me shell-shocked and saddened. The number of very young women (and later in my research men too) facing their final hours inside a couple of years of this kind of diagnosis was, quiet frankly, frightening. I stopped visiting certain forums because the scale of lost life and lost love was too painful at a time when the extent of my own challenge was yet to be confirmed. It took three months to establish exactly what I was dealing with and what it would take to address it.
Much has happened in 15 months. A mastectomy and immediate reconstruction using acellular dermal matrix, three rounds of FEC chemotherapy followed by three rounds of Taxotere. Nine Herceptin infusions. Steroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, a bi-lateral salpingo-oophorectomy. A permanent needle intolerance that developed out of nowhere and seems to be going no place fast. It’s hard to believe this sack of bones and blood is a body any more. From the neck down its more like a modern masterpiece of medical experimentation, a Damien Hirst of intricate and iatric well-healed scars but scars nonetheless.
It would have been easy, very easy indeed, to give in to the monster; to accept this kind of diagnosis doesn’t turn up too many long-term survivors. By long-term I don’t mean the 5 or 10 years medicine considers when calculating statistics. I won’t even have reached my mid-fifties by then. I mean proper long-term, the forty or fifty year kind, the kind where I could safely be described as a little old lady. Or a cantankerous old bag, I don’t mind either way. Giving in to tyrants has never been one of my biggest strengths though.
Yesterday I had my first “routine” follow-up appointment. The English language is so laughable at times. Routine means usual, ordinary or everyday. Funnily enough I was not in the habit of regularly baring my breasts to complete strangers. I most certainly wasn’t in the habit of letting complete strangers touch me. Not so long ago anyone trying that might find themselves in possession of a sharp slap. Time and context changes everything.
Have you ever wondered how strange it might be to talk about work and children and holidays for 15 minutes while someone you barely know thoroughly examines a part of your anatomy normally reserved for those with a privilege pass? A year ago I’d have considered it very strange. Today it is almost routine. In these situations the talking me exists somewhere separate from the hunk of meat laid out on the examination table – the hunk of meat that happens to be the only home I have. The talking me converses with humour and gratitude about the past 15 months and she is even coherent enough to answer that yes, there are a few areas of the reconstruction that could be improved upon now the foundations have settled. The nice-but-barely-more-than-a-stranger consultant is kind and enthusiastic, suggests those improvements are completely possible with liposculpture, a procedure that is far less traumatic than those that went before. The talking me laughs and says you can take as much fat from my butt and stomach as you like because there’s plenty to give. Not this year says friendly consultant because now we need to give your body proper time to recover from everything it has endured. The talking me wonders if it’s just my body they’re thinking about.
I spoke to my father the evening before this appointment and joked that if anything untoward showed up following a treatment regime that would easily pole-axe Attila the Hun then I must be truly damned. The appointment came and went and I am not damned, at least not at this moment. There is no sign of disease today. I breathe a small (and in no way complacent) sigh of relief whilst giving cancer the regal two-fingered salute it deserves.
The past 15 months has been an exercise in wilful insubordination. No doubt the rest of my life will be spent perfecting that skill.
“Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all” -Dale Carnegie.