Trapped in a Well with a Crocodile (or cancer)

Have you ever been trapped in a well with a crocodile?

 

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ONE FALSE STEP… (Image: http://www.sundayobserver.lk)

Captive in a limited space, confined and confused by the darkness, unable to gain a foothold because you can’t see through the dense thunderhead all around you. Making sense of this foreboding abyss with its slippery walls, isolating silence and icey cold waters is petrifying… and that’s not all.  Somewhere in the well lives a crocodile. It’s in there but you have no idea exactly where it might be. It might be far below  or about to break the surface. It might be about to seize you in a death-roll or look you straight in the eye. It might bite you once then leave you alone.  You know you need to get out and all the while you imagine how powerful that crocodile is, you sense its huge mouth and razor-sharp teeth.  You want to break free yet you know the crocodile might just as easily  swallow you whole.

When I was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in 2012 my relationship with my body changed.  Instead of seeing it as a safe haven, a place where my sentience could frolic, it became the well.  I was trapped inside and in there with me was a crocodile called cancer.  I knew there was no way out of the well and I knew a death-roll with a crocodile was a bad idea.  Losing part of my body was better than losing my life and so, for me, the journey through surgery and chemotherapy was better than letting cancer swallow me whole.

Whenever I could I tried to turn any negative thoughts into more positive ones. Having surgery meant removing the obvious signs of cancer from my body and that was a good thing.  Undergoing chemotherapy (something that frightened me because I’d witnessed my Mother’s experience) meant targeting any remnant – rogue cells that lurked in my body as yet unseen. Although the side effects were unpleasant, the chance to stop cancer biting me again made treatment  worth the time, effort and side effects I encountered.

We all have different views on our bodies, on our femininity or masculinity (because men get breast cancer too). We all have different views on what makes us who we are, which pieces of ourselves we love or loathe, the things that make us ‘normal’ or ‘a freak.’ In Western society it seems so much of who we are becomes entangled with how we look that any affront to our physical wholeness becomes an assault on the very essence of our being.

When faced with cancer the prospect of surgery means facing the prospect of never again being physically whole.  Keeping a sense of perspective when nothing much makes sense is important. I realised quite quickly that my life would  not depend on physical wholeness, but it would depend on eradicating the cancer that had taken root in my breast.  Viewed in this way the prospect of mastectomy also became an opportunity to prolong my life.

As it turned out, mastectomy was the correct choice. Aside from the cancer I’d discovered for myself there were areas of high grade DCIS and atypical hyperplasia, both of which had the potential to become new cancers in time.  Having exchanged one cancer containing breast for a silicon fake it seemed counter-intuitive to retain the “good” breast in the hope that the cancer crocodile would only bite me once.

Two year’s after my initial cancer encounter I was able to complete risk-reducing surgery – mastectomy and replacement of the remaining breast with another silicon fake.  I can honestly say I’m glad I did.  As research progresses we learn more and more and it seems DNA changes are already present in the healthy breast tissue of women with cancer. My family history made having breasts a game of Russian roulette. If anything, I wish I’d fought the system more rigorously to undergo risk-reducing surgery before finding myself facing cancer head on.

Its been a long journey. This summer will be four years since my original diagnosis and my trips to the operating theatre are still not quite complete.  In a few weeks I’ll be in for some revision work, things that need to be taken care of following the original surgery of 2012. In the grand scheme of things it’s very trivial, a small price to pay for the four years of life I’ve enjoyed so far.  I’ve learnt that my body is not invincible, that hidden dangers may lurk beneath the surface and things go wrong even if we do our best to adopt a fit and healthy lifestyle.  I’ve also learnt that I don’t really care about my fake breasts, my Herceptin damaged joints, or my lack of physical strength, I can exist quite happily with all those little niggles.  The things I care for most – my family and friends – can only be taken care of if I’m here so preserving my life was always going to be more important than preserving physically beauty, ‘normal’ femininity or bodily wholeness.

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Time to smell the flowers

I saw a dear friend for lunch recently. We’ve known each other for approaching twenty years – almost half of my life and almost a third of his.  We first met at work, at the beginning of the dotcom boom when internet technologies and the World Wide Web were becoming commercially interesting. We have many shared experiences from our time spent working together: the excitement of launching a new business, the mental challenge of creating something innovative yet industrially and technically unproven, deep camaraderie from working ridiculously hard to meet seemingly impossible deadlines because the launch date had been announced, a core of shared values, ethics and humour.

Its ten years since we last worked together but meeting up is as enjoyable as working together and it doesn’t bring the constant need to deliver projects, manage incidents or sort out security issues. We’d both be rich if we had a £ for every one of those scenarios we’ve managed. Now we get to talk about IT things instead of doing them while grabbing (or missing) lunch. Now we get to talk about holidays, health, children and grandchildren as well as news of friends and family. There is, I suspect, more balance in our lives today than when we worked in a frenetic start-up.

Neither of us is a person who does things by halves and neither of us will go to our graves having lived only a sedate half-life. My friend is at a point where work gets in the way of all the things he wants to do outside work. He’ll retire soon but in no way will he be retired. At some stage I hope to join him in that active, days full of adventure kind of retirement.  There have been points in both our lives where life was edged out because our careers required significant energy and we aren’t the kind of people who shirk. Do all things well or die trying could be our motto.

To be in the present and live every day as if it were my last means achieving a healthier balance. I learned the hard way. We all need time to smell the flowers, to do more than simply plant them in a rush, throw on some water and hope they grow. Over lunch we talked about my recent surgery, the benefits and consequences and that I’ve now done all I can to limit the risk of another run-in with cancer. My friend said it must feel good to have this final surgery behind me, to be able to get on with life. It does. Not that cancer was going to call a halt to everything but it certainly got in the way for a while. No-one wants to dwell on it but once you’ve been down this road you can never be certain you and the big C are through. Taking time to smell the flowers, to savour their beauty and delicious scent, holds far more importance than one might otherwise think.

Hunter S. Thompson once said “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming Wow! What a Ride!”  I have no way to arrive at my grave pretty and well-preserved (cancer took care of that) and in any case skidding in broadside and totally wrecked sounds much more fun.

I guess I’ll never stop planting the flowers but these days I take a moment to smell them too 🙂

Stamina: the hare and the tortoise

Six days on from surgery and all is progressing as hoped. Stopped taking pain killers on Sunday and the ‘out’ drain was removed yesterday. One down, one to go. 

There’s a moment of anticipation before the drain is pulled – a split second between the Consultant’s “do we have a stich cutter” statement and the patient’s “is this going to hurt?” thought. Quite irrational given the scale of previous procedures and no, it didn’t hurt. Co-amoxiclav will continue, to guard against infections while the outside world is closely coupled with the inner world through a green plastic tube and the remaining drain bottle. 

A bit of welly (stamina) is called for when it comes to surgery and recovery. The dictionary defines stamina as: endurance, the ability of an organism to exert itself and remain active for a long period of time, as well as its ability to resist, withstand, recover from and have immunity to trauma, wounds or fatigue.

Remaining active while shaking off the effects of anaesthetic and synthetic opiates is a little difficult, especially when it’s impossible to see straight. Once all those drugs have worn off getting up and about is an important step along the pathway to healing. Sitting/lying still for too long leads to bed sores or thrombosis, neither of which is a welcome addition in an already complex situation.  A bit of walking and gentle use of the surgery-side arm helps but running a marathon or digging the vegetable patch is out of the question for at least a few weeks. Aesop’s fable of the Hare and the Tortoise may well have been written for such occasions. Slow and steady is the way to go.

The same holds true for the dressings, the wound, the scars and the newly created breast itself. Initially there are all kinds of things holding everything together – steri strips, superglue, waterproof dressings and the industrial strength sports bra worn day and night to ensure nothing moves around. Underneath that there’s the creeping/tingling/pins and needles sensation of nerve regeneration (which is odd to say the least) and the natural swelling, bruising and scarring to get used to. So the requirement for stamina isn’t just physical, a bit of emotional welly is important too. Even with an eye for the avant-garde it’s difficult to describe a swollen, bruised and slightly distorted breast as aesthetically pleasing. These things all resolve in time too, slow and steady.

I was never a good sprinter but the 10k? Well that’s another story 🙂



Written in the stars?

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Constellation: Leo

I confess I don’t believe in horoscopes but every now and then something comes up that might just hold a smidgen of accuracy. Today my horoscope says: “This week you are reconstructing something that was once deliberately dismantled. It will be a positive process.”

Prophylactic mastectomy could easily be classified as something being deliberately dismantled. In this case a left breast. Immediate reconstruction with ADM plus an implant is reconstruction (of said left breast removed and reconstructed on Wednesday afternoon). This week’s horoscope begins to sound quite plausible. “It will be a positive process.”  That’s such an open-ended statement. Does ‘it’ relate to the dismantling, reconstructing, both or something else entirely – there are a host of physical and psychological processes going on right now but are they positive processes?

After giving this a lot of thought the only conclusion I can draw is yes.

This surgery had the potential to resurrect so much that was difficult, painful and confusing, negative even. Being diagnosed with cancer isn’t a positive life event; my previous surgery was cancer surgery and it caused significant disruption in my life and the lives of my loved ones.  We are still recovering from some of those problems. This time around the procedure was broadly the same but the reasons are different. The next steps won’t (with luck) involve any further treatment.

I can’t change what’s written in the stars, or more precisely, in my genetic code but limiting its potential impact is another story.  Taking action is a hugely positive process. It is not without cost but what value do you place on the chance to live beyond 50 years of age, to see your child grow up, meet your grandchildren, enjoy your retirement?

Women with two or more close relatives who develop breast cancer at an early age fall into the high-risk category. Those who’ve already experienced the disease face an increased risk of another encounter. I tick both of those boxes and my first encounter was aggressive and high grade. Very recent research indicates the risk for women with long histories of familial breast cancer may be as much as 1 in 3 rather than the typical 1 in 8. I tick that box too. For people like me undergoing prophylactic surgery may reduce the risk by as much as 90%. Of course it’s important to remain vigilant because risk-reducing surgery isn’t a panacea, it doesn’t make cancer an impossibility in the same way wearing a seatbelt doesn’t make everyone survive serious car accidents.

In life there are no guarantees – never were – we just kid ourselves that we’re invincible. However the benefits of this process, of dismantling and reconstructing, aren’t just physical. For me some of the most positive aspects are psychological. No more annual mammograms that leave me fretting over the reliability of results. No more second guessing self-exams that might or might not have uncovered another anomaly. No more thinking of my own flesh as a time bomb waiting to go off (again).

For more than twenty years I lived with a question that I was never able to answer to my own satisfaction. The question: “Have I done enough to reduce my risk of cancer?”

For the first time in a long time I am able to answer fully and frankly: “Yes. There is nothing more I or anyone else can do.”