Seven words on cancer

Family:

They say blood is thicker than water and it’s easy to see why. My family trudge every step of this path with me no matter how challenging. My Dad remains a rock despite the fact that he’s encountered the journey far too many times before and with no happy ending. My Mum would’ve done likewise if cancer hadn’t robbed her of her life at such an early age. M, J and S remain positive, future-focused and encouraging. They all believe I’ll still be here in 30 years and that’s a wonderful vision to hold on to.

Medics:

These people are amazing. The surgeons, oncologists, sonographers, anaesthetists and nurses are skillful, compassionate and dedicated. Behind the scenes there’s a whole community including  histopathologists, biomedical scientists, pharmacists and nutritionists to name but a few.  They’re the driving force behind cancer care and cancer research. Many of us would not be here without them.

Invincible: 

We like to think we are and then we find we’re not. Deep down I’ve always been acutely aware of the fragility and vulnerability of all life on our beautiful blue planet, including my own. I spent 35 years attempting to ignore this until cancer provided an uninvited reality-check. So now I know I’m not invincible but I also know I’m more robust – physically, mentally and spiritually – than imagined.

Friends: 

Whatever the weather some friends will weather the  storm with you. They’ll offer to do things for you (or do things anyway because they know you’re too proud to ask), they’ll help put you back together when you’re in pieces and remind you of all the reasons you need to hold on. Other friends will abandon ship. The wife of a friend explained this to me when I was first diagnosed and I thought her judgement somewhat harsh at the time. We stand by our friends when they’re sick or dying don’t we? I owe her an apology and at the same time I give thanks to the all-weather friends who opted to stay with me.

Health:

Must never be taken for granted. Fit and in the prime of life one day, nose-to-nose with death the next, the turnaround is quite a shock. When the shock subsides a subtle awareness of the uphill journey from illness to wellness begins to dawn and the distance seems so vast. It’s also full of boulders and sinkholes.  I never loved my body but I didn’t hate it, even though it was pre-destined to let me down. As a receptacle for my soul it continues to serve it’s purpose and I’m grateful for that. But it doesn’t feel like me anymore and for however long I’m here, I’ll never be able to trust it again.

Time:

Does not last an eternity. It passes in the blink of an eye and once its gone it can’t be revisited.  Time is too precious to waste so life-changing events shouldn’t be the catalyst for this vital life-lesson. If the art of valuing time was taught in high school,  future adults might stop deluding themselves that they have all the time in the world, plenty of years ahead and are guaranteed to reach a ripe old age. Write all the time related clichés you know on a piece of paper and safely set fire to it. See how quickly it burns?

Death:

We all die. From the day we’re born it’s a one-way ticket and a completely natural part of the circle of life. Developing cancer makes death impossible to overlook and also brings the very real possibility that it will arrive much sooner than anticipated. There’s no getting away from this, no amount of worrying or soul-searching can change the shape of things to come. All I could do was find a way to live with it and in doing so savour every second of every minute of life in this very moment.

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Work, Worth & the winding road to Wellness

Alongside fear, uncertainty and the possibility of a life curtailed cancer brings many other undesirable consequences. These issues receive little media attention and this lack of publicity coupled with poor employer, government and public awareness means the implications for individuals, families and the economy at large remain hidden from view.

I know most about breast cancer so will highlight the issues through a lens I am all too familiar with. In almost all cases people diagnosed with breast cancer will require some form of surgery and surgery inevitably requires time in hospital as well as time to recover. For many cancer patients it is not a stand alone event. Even without complications people with breast cancer may find themselves facing multiple surgeries over a period of years in order to ensure the physical aspects of the disease and its aftermath are fully taken care of. As well as surgery, many patients also require additional treatments such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormone or immunotherapy. These treatments can take months or years and frequently come with side effects, some of which may be permanent. Like surgery, these treatments often require regular trips to hospital for their administration or follow-up which inevitably requires some time away from work.

Cancer is an expensive business because treatments and the time taken to administer them are both are expensive. But this is only part of the story. More of us are developing cancer, more of us are developing it at a younger age and worryingly, that trend looks set to continue. Economic pressures and fragilities make it very unlikely our countries can afford the significant costs involved in providing disability benefit for hundreds of thousands of working age cancer patients who suddenly find themselves out of work. Yet despite legislation, e.g. the Equality Act in the UK or the US ADA, many working age cancer patients still find themselves facing discrimination, exclusion from the workplace and enforced redundancy. There are many good employers in the world but there are also far too many who remain ill-informed and retain outdated policies that fail to adapt to the changing face – and health – of the workforce.

This lack of awareness and inflexibility is short-sighted because it places enormous strain on the economy let alone the hardship it inflicts for individuals and their families. Research highlights that cancer survivors work at least as hard as their colleagues and take less time off for trivial illnesses when compared to other employees. In competitive employment markets where demand for skilled workers is high, finding ways to retain the services of cancer patients is therefore good for business, good for the individual and good for the economy as a whole. Although some cancer charities have attempted to provide relevant employer education and awareness, a straw poll of friends with cancer suggests there is still much to do on this front. It’s time governments and mainstream media joined forces on this issue because most cancer patients don’t want to be consigned to the dole queue or long term disability payments. It is more than an issue of income or economy, it’s also an important factor in an individual’s perception of their personal contribution and self-worth.

In many societies the way we perceive ourselves, our confidence, standing, personal and social usefulness is now intrinsically linked with our work. Our jobs, particularly when we’ve trained for them for many years or worked hard to achieve particular goals, have become part of who we are. We measure our worth not only in terms of the salary we earn but the contribution we make as employees. Cancer patients who are forced to give up work often suffer a huge sense of grief and a damaging loss of self-worth at a time when stability and security are of paramount importance. It is not the case that early stage cancer patients need less demanding jobs because they won’t be able to “keep the pace” after treatment. It is not the case that all stage 4 patients are too unwell to work, or will prefer to “spend their remaining time doing other things.”

The number of patients dealing with depression, PTSD or social anxiety as a result of enforced loss of work is significant and likely to increase as the number of working age cancer patients increases. Once again this presents a drain on local and national resources that extends well beyond the realms of individual suffering so it’s time governments and mainstream media joined forces on this issue too. Unemployment creates all kinds of social, economic and psychological problems so keeping people in work has to be a primary aim. With more lateral thinking, more flexible employer attitudes and the application of some everyday common sense, keeping people in work is rarely impossible in an age where we can connect from anywhere, converse from anywhere and complete most computer-enabled processes from anywhere. Even in more manual jobs it’s possible there are tasks employees can usefully and successfully complete with some creative thought about job design and desired outputs. We need to reach a point where pushing people out of their jobs because they have cancer is a decision of last resort.

Awareness of cancer as a critical and chronic disease has increased quite significantly in recent times but awareness of its wider implications – for individuals, families, employers, society and the economy as a whole – remains shrouded in mystery, myths and misinformation. We all have a role to play in unveiling and addressing these important issues because they aren’t going away. Without action and in a world where cancer is increasingly affecting younger people of working age these issues willcontinue to affect our children and our children’s  children if we fail to act.

 

Stocking confessions

For anyone who thinks stockings are a throwback to the 40’s and the post-war frenzy of the nylon riots, fear not. Stockings are alive and well and making a huge comeback in my household and the homes of countless other women across the globe. These stockings are immensely functional, have a hint of sheen, an open toe and a block heel. They also have a small seam. They’re manufactured by a German company but I don’t think it’s Falke, which is a shame because Falke make good stockings. Falke or fake, I’ve been persuaded to wear these very special stockings for at least the next two weeks because I’m reliably told they are a lingerie lifesaver, for me and others like me.

Of course no stocking is ever perfect and often we have to contend with bad length, limited silkiness, wonky seams and the like. Length and texture are certainly a bit challenging though it’s fair to say I’m tall. A further downside is that they only come in white and the denier rating is a bit on the high side, easily twenty-times greater than the best pair of 5 deniers I ever owned. (Back in the days when stockings were at least as important as non-chip nail polish, 4 inch heels and a big can of Elnet.) However as I’ve already indicated they’re extraordinarily functional, extremely unlikely to ladder or run, afford excellent durability – they’ll survive at least 100 washes in the automatic machine but more likely 10,000 – they’re warm, and of course their unique selling point is the all important lingerie lifesaver label. Who could possibly resist?

I have a love-hate relationship with these stockings. They represent all that’s been difficult in my life yet they also represent hope, the chance of a future. They’ve kept me out of trouble on at least 5 separate occasions including today and will do so for another coming up in the not so distant future. It appears they’re very well designed to prevent unwanted pregnancies, ward off perverts (bet you didn’t think stockings could do that) and double-up as flight socks for anyone planning to jet across the planet or sign-up for Virgin Galatic. I suspect there’s every possibility of remaining a virgin for centuries in these beauties but its also reassuring to know I’m very unlikely to suffer a DVT (deep vein thrombosis) following  my trip to theatre today.

No, I didn’t see Miss Saigon but I did meet three very nice male anaesthetists, a lovely lady theatre nurse, a fabulous and stunning staff nurse and of course my all time favourite Miss M.  I didn’t have to wait around as I was first on the list for surgery which is good for all sorts of reasons and I think (hope) I’m now at the end of all cancer-related surgeries, revisions and repairs. Das ist alles as they say in Falke.

As with the stockings, rarely is anything completely perfect and though I warned of the heinous condition of my left side veins the consultant anaesthetist suggested the junior anaesthetist should “go for the one looking sort of ok-ish below the left index finger.” So he did, it didn’t work, I felt incredibly sorry for him – its my fault not his, and consultant anaesthetist then had to prod my right hand which was equally touch and go for a while. We got there in the end and consultant anaesthetist apologised to his junior and to me saying “I’m sorry, we should have listened as you do know your veins well.” Far too well for my liking, an intimate knowledge in fact, and so accurate that I pity anyone who has anything to do with them. Another reason on the long list of reasons why I’m very glad das ist alles on the cancer-related surgery front. (Gall bladder next and that really should be it, all done, cyborg here I come!)

After morphine and Fentanyl for the operation itself, a combination that makes me wonder why anyone would become an addict because the effects are so way out they are completely bewildering, not enjoyable, I’ve resisted any further pain killers and feel much better for it. After swimming in drugs through much of 12/13 I now steer clear as far as possible. This post-op discomfort is well within the realms of manageable, a reflection I think on the skills of the surgery team. I’m told healing is 3-6 weeks, nothing at all strenuous for 6, no driving or work for 3. That’s a real challenge because my job needs a lot of attention, the university is extremely busy, we have students to recruit, systems to develop, projects to deliver and as ever, IT problems to resolve.  Aside from all that, 3 weeks of daytime TV is almost certainly bad for my health (and sanity) and my favourite recuperation past-time – growing things to eat –  is off limits. No digging, hoeing, mowing or sowing.

So while I contemplate what to do while doing very little and avoiding as much daytime TV as possible I leave you with a photo of my souvenirs from today – port and starboard – complete with coloured gauze and post-surgery puffiness.

I couldn’t post the stockings, they’re far too risqué!

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.

Cast out the old year, seed something New

I lost a friend to cancer just before Christmas. She wasn’t old, lived healthily and did all the ‘right’ things but her encounter with the emperor of all maladies was shockingly brief. Just 5 months from diagnosis to death, treatment offered no respite. I attended her funeral yesterday and am still stunned. This year brought more than its fair share of rain and though I cannot afford to wish my life away – every day is a gift – I will be glad to see the end of 2015.

Cast out the old year, seed something new

2015 – A year of worry buried deep

A year of struggles, strife and grief

A year of friendship cut so brief

A year of making angels weep

The year will pass and trouble with it

The year will pass, it’s reached its limit

The year will pass, now almost through

The year will pass having taken you

2016 – New Year is edging ever near

New Year will vanquish harsh frontiers

New Year will cast aside old fears

New Year will keep your memory dear

 

Scar Tissue, Tattoos and “Are we there yet?”

“Are we there yet?” The question anyone making a long journey with a small child is sure to have heard. You don’t expect to hear it asked in many other situations but breast cancer is one where the thought occurs even if the words remain unspoken.  Pre-diagnosis I heard many media stories about how we no longer need to be afraid of  breast cancer, how treatable it’s become and how many more women survive these days. Bearing in mind none of the women in my family have survived I try to look on the bright side and hope these stories are all correct. I’d heard that treatments had moved on, surgery was less debilitating and with the help of pink ribbons the world was now full of courageous cancer warriors – previvors, survivors and thrivers.

Until I was faced with aggressive breast cancer, a type that brings a high propensity to metastasise, I had  not heard that diagnosis, surgery and treatment may well take over a year. I had not heard that diagnosis itself requires multiple steps which can (and did) include many false starts, lots of potentially conflicting information and significant additional stress. Post diagnosis I had not heard that surgery and surgical revisions, follow-up treatments and regular check-ups can extend for a minimum of half a decade – and that’s if you happen to fall into the ‘best case’ scenario.  Nor had I heard via any popular media sources that in the case of those  diagnosed at Stage 4 (or the 30% of us who go on to develop mets in spite of treatment), the journey is never complete. Check-ups, treatments and various surgeries just keep going until we ourselves come to an end. “Are we there yet?” takes on a whole new meaning in this realm.

My own breast cancer journey has been tracking along for over three years now. We are still moving forward yet still unable to answer the “are we there yet?”  question.  Major surgery is complete and I am in remission as far as we know but only time will tell if that will remain the case. Meanwhile there are a number of minor things to tackle including surgical re-work to address unintended consequences arising since the original reconstructions.  When these revisions happen depends on waiting lists, beds and Government spending reviews but in the meantime there are highly recommended ‘finishing touches’ designed to help me believe that life is as it should be.  This involves the creation of an illusion of a more normal appearance, but in truth there is nothing normal about any of this.

It is at this point that the scars and tattoos become relevant. Post-surgery, chemo and Herceptin I am the owner of a Barbie-esque chest that is almost as unnatural, shiny and pink as Barbie herself. Were it not for the scars running across the front of mine (and the vampire bites – double drain scars that adorn either side of my rib cage) my torso might be that of a plastic toy. Fortunately the vampire bites are not obvious and there’s little to be done with them in any case. The same is not true for the front facing scars and on top of all this (no pun intended) is the small issue of absent areola/nipple complexes. You won’t be surprised to learn that this tends to give the game away.

At first I didn’t think the whole Barbie/nipple thing bothered me. I was glad to be alive and still am – glad and alive. I didn’t plan to show my chest to anyone other than the person I married so missing in action areolas and nipples felt like no big deal.  But having lived with pink plastic mounds for three years I’ve come to realise the absence of those oh so common breast adornments and the obvious scars that took their place serve only to remind me of things I’d rather not dwell on.  Additionally there’s the small issue of any activity involving communal changing rooms, taking one’s top off or the dreaded but inevitable accidental reveal. Being an outdoor type that’s easier to achieve than you might at first imagine.

So after much deliberation I took my consultant’s advice and engaged in the process of additional fakery – to help disguise the fact that both breasts are completely fake.  A fake to hide a fake is pretty clever stuff but in real terms it consists of multi-pigmented tattoos designed to give the appearance of an areola/nipple complex. There is no need for more surgery to reconstruct fake nipples and as they’ll never be or behave like the originals I couldn’t see that they serve any purpose other than being there.

As with all things breast cancer the tattooing procedure is a multi-stage process and requires more than one treatment. Before commencing work the nurse tattooist gave me some anaesthetic cream. This has to go on an hour in advance in the hope it will numb the area.  On reflection I should have realised it wouldn’t be terribly effective because the same stuff is used by my dentist and never works. I normally end up with multiple doses and have to wait much longer than normal before it kicks in. So the tattoo process was not pain free and although it was reasonably quick it had me wincing and silently chanting ‘I hope this is worth it.’  The nurse did offer to stop but when you’re a third the way through that doesn’t seem like a viable option!

At the end of the process there was some blood. This was followed by more bleeding and weeping afterwards.  It’s fair to say that the area was quite sore for a few days and a little tight and swollen.  Scabs formed then became itchy and began to fall off. I left them alone because picking would cause pigment loss and possibly lead to an infection.  About a week out from the tattooing process the scabs were all gone and the resulting pigmentation is reasonable if patchy in places. This is why the procedure requires more than one attempt.

Looking closely at the scar tissue it seems the pigment struggled to take in the sharp edges of both scar lines. Incidentally this area was hyper-sensitive when the tattooing took place.  Peering less closely and looking from a small distance the scars themselves are much less noticeable and hidden by something that passes as an areola/nipple complex.  Although this is the first attempt it’s probably good enough to fool anyone who might catch a glimpse in a communal changing room – as long as they don’t stare!

The next tattooing episode will happen in about 6 weeks time when the skin is properly healed and the big question is… Is it worth it?  On balance I think it is. After breast cancer nothing is ever the same so something approximating normal is about as good as it gets.  I now know what to expect during the next round of inking and will slap the anaesthetic on well in advance. Once the soreness and scabbing subside I can look forward to having two very respectable forgeries in place of the torso of a badly treated Barbie doll.

I had to think about this long and hard because I am tired of hospital visits, surgeries, re-work, worry, stigma and prejudice. But my consult (who is a miracle worker as well as a thoroughly lovely lady) was right. Looking more normal is helping me feel more normal and that is the ultimate placebo effect.  If you’ve had surgery and are thinking about areola/nipple complex tattoos the following articles may be useful. Nancy’s post gave me the inspiration to try this for myself and like Nancy I am happy with the result

Liberté, égalité, fraternité: when will we cure our obsession with self-destruct?

Today I’d intended to write about the never ending story that is breast cancer: discovery, treatment, reconstruction (or not), revision, reflection and resolve. Those things are, quite literally, close to my heart. But I can’t concentrate on the horrors of breast cancer because my mind has been consumed with the horrors of terrorism and my heart goes out to the people of Paris.

Credit: Skyrock.com

I’ve had two spells working in Paris. The first in the early 2000’s involved regular time in a grand office in the 10th Arrondissement. By day much of my time was spent at my desk, in meetings or running workshops somewhere inside the building. Arriving well before 9am, staying beyond 7pm and failing to stop for lunch would frequently prompt questions and jokes from my French colleagues. “Why do you English always work like donkeys? You are silly to work like this. The French way is far more civilised” they would say. As a guest in my colleagues’ country I couldn’t argue with this so would join them in the joking.

I quickly discovered that the French way was more civilised at every level. Coffee and pastries in a nearby patisserie before starting work, an hour or two for lunch in a local café and then home or more likely out for dinner by mid-evening and an opportunity to explore one of the capital’s many fine restaurants. Dinner, the pièce de résistance, presented an opportunity to partake in another leisurely meal carefully consumed so as to make the most of an evening with family or friends. My French colleagues savoured time with each other as much as they savoured the wine or the food. I didn’t need to be in Paris too long before I began to favour the French way too.

My second spell in Paris arose in the late 2000’s when I worked for France Telecom. Their offices lay just beyond the Periphique to the south of the capital but since that area was largely residential I spent my evenings in Montparnasse. The hotel was good for people-watching and the local cafes and restaurants were vibrant and welcoming. Theatre goers mingled with groups of work colleagues, families mingled with couples and local residents mingled with overseas visitors. The City of Light was a sensuous, sophisticated and sociable place to live, work and play.

Today the City of Light is shaken, sombre and trying to make sense of multiple acts of wanton violence, acts designed to kill, maim and terrorise innocent civilians during a typical Friday evening in central Paris. The faceless, nameless, shameless perpetrators no doubt believe they committed these acts in service of some greater cause, to right some deep-rooted wrong, or to demonstrate conviction to the will and way of whichever god they happen to subscribe to. Whatever the reason, the streets of the City of Light are once again stained with blood and innocent people lie dead or injured.

Modern humans evolved c.200,000 years ago and civilisation (such as it is) c. 6000 years ago. We claim to be the most intelligent species on Earth yet we appear to change at a glacial pace. Our ability to curb our most primitive, tribal and often superstitious belief systems, to learn from the mistakes of the past and fully embrace our diversity is questionable at best. Events like the one in Paris quickly become visible across the globe but look closer to home and you’ll find stories of cruelty, violence, bullying and abuse right on your doorstep.

Humanity seems destined to prove it is the most dangerous, spiteful and debased species that has ever inhabited the planet and Paris, sadly, is the most recent in a long line of atrocities. When will we learn and how many more 13/11’s, 9/11’s or 7/7’s must we endure before we finally cure our obsession with self-destruct?