Five things about Autoimmune conditions and me

I’m not an expert in this field but I’m trying to understand it as best I can. In much the same way that I set about researching information on my particular form of cancer, I’m now researching and learning about autoimmune conditions. I have them and they run in multiple generations of my family. Since none of my affected relatives are here to tell me about their experiences, I’m trying to piece it together myself. It’s a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack but so far I’ve discovered five things:

1. How many people are affected?

It’s difficult to find accurate figures on the number of people with autoimmune conditions. Estimates vary considerably. The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association suggests 50 million Americans – more than twice as many as the National Institutes of Health suggest. That’s a significant difference. Most sources seem to agree women are more likely to be affected than men – that holds true within my own family. Overall, the prevalence of autoimmune conditions seems to be rising. As yet no-one really knows why.

2. How many autoimmune conditions are there and how are they diagnosed?

There are many autoimmune conditions – at least 80 to 100 and despite research, they can be difficult to diagnose. For some people diagnosis is made by accident when assessing a seemingly more obvious illness. That happened to me. For others, diagnosis becomes a process of elimination – which means undergoing many different tests to rule out common or more obvious causes until such time as a less likely cause is deemed the culprit. As a patient, this can feel frustrating and traumatic in equal measure, especially when the outcome always seems to involve more tests. This happened to me too. Fortunately my GP is not in the habit of passing things off as a virus or post-viral fatigue.

3. Does it run in the family or are the conditions linked?

With my scientific hat on, it looks likely certain autoimmune conditions are linked. Having one in the family might mean other members of the family can have the same or similar conditions. Having one condition myself might generate a greater likelihood of having another… Or not… because autoimmunity seems to be another a very complex area of medicine and quite poorly understood unless you specialise in this field. My level of science doesn’t extend to anywhere near the expertise required to get to grips with all of this. Even if it did, our propensity for focusing on specific diseases or groups of symptoms makes it possible to miss subtle links – hence the turbulent experience of diagnosis via a process of elimination.

4. Is it worrying?

None of us wants to be or feel unwell. Having unexplained and debilitating symptoms is worrying. Having test after test without any clear answers becomes far more worrying, even for those of us who’ve been through countless tests, treatments and operations before. Without solid answers, the hamster wheel of tests can eventually lead to self-doubt, questioning your sanity or convincing yourself you’re imagining it all. I only escaped this downward spiral because a very dear friend with CFS had similar experiences. She isn’t insane and hadn’t imagined her chronic and very debilitating illness, but for years an array of professionals told her there was nothing wrong, even when she could barely stand or stay awake.

5. Has it changed things?

It’s said with age comes wisdom and I’d like to live long enough to be wise. Surviving a very aggressive cancer didn’t grant me wisdom but I do think quite differently about life. My health dipped suddenly a few weeks ago and a plethora of tests ensued. It’s autoimmune, not more cancer. In my world almost anything is better than more cancer, even if it isn’t great. Pre-cancer I’d have ignored this latest health thing in favour of work. Now I have a more considered approach. Of all the rogue genes in my gene pool, ‘nine-lives-of-a-cat gene’ isn’t going to be one of them. I’ve spent enough time in hospitals to absorb the fact life is fragile. So I’m giving up the career I’ve worked my socks off for over the last 20 years because simply being here for my loved ones for as long as possible is more important to me than anything else. My work has been a buzz and somewhat addictive; stretching, fun, full-on and frustrating, usually in that order. I’ll miss that I’m sure. But in 2019 and for the first time ever I get to take a proper break, take proper care of myself, and get on with the business of living instead of simply existing.

If life zooms by like a bullet train, people along the route become a faceless blur. Why have a family album full of blurs when pausing for a while is all it takes to stay in focus, and experience the detail in full HD…?

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Reflections: seven years on

This time seven years ago I was readying myself for the first of numerous major surgeries following a grade 3 HER2+++ breast cancer diagnosis. Back then I wasn’t sure if I’d still be around now. Thankfully I am.

So how are things?

I can’t lie, the journey has been tough at times. I assumed, opportunistically, that after treatment I’d bounce back and be able to do all the things I was able to do before. The oncologist hinted as much, the oncoplastic consultant surgeon was more realistic.

I can do many things, not all, and it isn’t a simple case of the ageing process as I gently head towards 49. There are lots of frustrations, but in spite of everything I love life more than ever and feel enormously grateful to be here. In 2012 that wasn’t a given. As I approach the last few days of my 48th year it seems appropriate to pause for a moment and take stock, now the whole situation is less raw.

Would I take the same course of action again?

This is easy to answer because there wasn’t really a choice. Grade 3 and HER2+++ don’t make for a great combination. If anything I’d have liked shorter gaps between the initial suspicious findings and formal diagnosis, diagnosis and surgery, and surgery and adjuvant therapy. It was almost 7 months until adjuvant therapy commenced, outside the NICE guidelines. It felt like a long time, long enough for any distant cancer cells to take hold. I didn’t want that.

I wish I’d known more about the challenges of surgery and how long it would take to regain my upper body strength (I’m still not as strong as I used to be). I remain glad that I opted for the more radical surgery, because choosing a conservative option may well have seen me going through it all again about now.

What was the most worrying moment?

Although cancer runs in the maternal side of my family – it wiped out the vast majority of my female relatives – I quickly realised just how little I knew about it and how complex it is. As soon as I was diagnosed I wanted it out of my body. I didn’t realise how much biopsy-ing, testing, imaging and investigation takes place before decisions about appropriate surgery, neoadjuvant or adjuvant treatments can be made.

The results of the MRI scan were by far the most worrying event for me because it “lit up like a Christmas tree.” I thought it might be too late even though I’d seen the Dr straight away. I had countless sleepless nights worrying that I’d die at a crucial stage in my son’s life leaving him motherless, homeless and unsupported. I love my family, I really didn’t want to leave them alone and destitute.

Was treatment hard?

On reflection, I think it was. It took 18 months+ and knocked the stuffing out of me. At the time I didn’t realise quite how big a toll it took. I kept pushing myself forward, trying to be “normal,” getting on with life as best I could. But life was far from normal, and normal didn’t include me.

I didn’t feel seriously ill pre-diagnosis even though I was seriously ill. At some points during treatment I wondered what else or how much more I might need to endure. At times I felt extremely ill. The lowest point came when I had to inject myself with granulocyte colony stimulating factor, to combat low white blood cell levels which increase the risk of serious or life-threatening infections. At night the pain in my bones was unimaginable yet still I carried on. That pain is still unlike anything I’d experienced before or since. So yes, treatment was hard but the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. I’m still here and as far as we know, cancer-free. It was hard but it was worth it.

What else happened?

Having cancer taught me a lot. Psychological lessons included learning my body was no longer my own. I couldn’t trust it and felt trapped in a shell that might break into a thousand hopeless pieces at any moment. Coming to terms with my own fragility and unpredictability took time. Physical lessons involved treatments designed to obliterate the disease that also obliterated my joints, my thought processes and my hearing. Although cognition has improved a little, my joints and hearing are permanently damaged. C’est la vie. Emotional lessons centred on relationships. People who promised to stand with me simply vanished into thin air and that was very hard. Thankfully strangers and acquaintances came closer, they became friends and remain loyal friends today.

More difficult and painful than any other part of this journey was the continuing loss of friends who were also fellow cancer patients. Some older, many younger, these were people for whom surgeries and therapies did not prove successful. There are so very many of them, not ones or twos but tens and tens. My heart gets a little more broken every time I remember friends and loved ones who have died of this spiteful disease, and think of those who are dying now as I write this post. Cancer still kills.

What next?

I don’t plan or daydream. Life is too uncertain and time is too precious for maybes, tomorrow perhaps or one day. I love my family more than ever and make the most of every moment with them. When they’re happy, I’m happy and nothing else matters. I enjoy my work, still thrive on pushing boundaries and encourage my colleagues to do likewise – why spend time in a job that feels like drudgery? I’ve taken control of things I can control (diet, exercise, rest) but I’m relaxed about it, not a zealot. Spending an extra hour in bed when I’m aching or tired isn’t going to kill me, and cancer won’t return just because I drink a glass of wine or eat a decent steak every now and then. I find beauty all around me and spend as much time as possible creating environments where nature can do its thing. In nature I find solace.

I’d like to stay cancer-free and live for a few more decades because life is good this way. But I never take anything for granted.

Close the door, keep walking

Close the door, keep walking

Wherever you are, whatever your situation, I wish all readers much happiness, love and wellness for everyday of 2018, these are life’s greatest riches and I hope you find them in abundance.

2017 was a difficult year for us. Although there were some high points, there were also terrors. The kind that bring sleepless nights and frantic days. We learn from all experiences, the good and the bad, but last night we pushed the door firmly closed on 2017.

The wonders and possibilities of 2018 are most welcome because the last 365 days have been a long, hard slog. Though the desire to wipe away the past is strong there are tributes to pay and deep gratitude to note before moving on:

  • For the medics who helped J survive meningitis and J’s will to recover from a very traumatic experience
  • For my father who continues to help others and spares little thought for himself
  • For our journey to the furthest reaches of Norway and our once in a lifetime experience of the Mirrie Dancers
  • For friends and family across the globe, and loved ones lost but never forgotten
  • For food, clean water, warmth and shelter – all so easily taken for granted yet still beyond reach for far too many
  • For life, however long it lasts, because every day is a day further from cancer. This year will be my sixth post-diagnosis.

This new year has barely started but it comes complete with some significant milestones for us, big events that will shape the future in ways we can’t fully imagine as yet. It also comes with lots of blank canvas, new days ready to receive whatever memories we chose to paint there. We are a family of three, and all three of us have brushed with death at an age that is far from being “old.” So as we continue this journey we remain optimistic about the possibilities that lie ahead. There is much to explore and too little time to grumble along the way. We know now that wherever the path takes us, we’ll make the most of it and keep walking on. It is, in every sense, a happy new year.

21 scars and all out of love for sloth

Just when I thought it was reasonably safe to put the operating theatre behind me…

2 out of 4 news scars, 21 in total

a bunch of symptoms showed up with plenty to contemplate. Upper right quadrant pain before breakfast, at random points through the day and resistant to over the counter pain-killers. An intermittent feeling of fullness beneath the ribs or a hard area towards the sternum, with pain, sometimes radiating to the right shoulder blade. After a run-in with grade 3 HER2 positive cancer, metastases couldn’t be ignored. The only way to find out was further tests. At the end of last year yet more blood tests and another ultrasound ensued. There are protocols around ultrasound and the sonographer isn’t usually at liberty to say anything but on this occasion he was more forthcoming and said the liver looked normal. I guess he knew no-one wants the thought of liver mets hanging over them like the darkest of dark clouds.

The source of the problem was identified quite quickly and completely non-invasively: a large gall stone.

Fast forward six months and there are four new scars to add to the previous seventeen littered around my torso. Although these are small in comparison to some of the cancer-related scars the after effects of gallbladder removal (laparoscopic cholecystectomy) have been more painful and recovery seems slower. Perhaps it’s because my body was already a human pin cushion and there’s only so many holes that can be made through a single belly button without repercussions? Strangely the scars in the area where the gallbladder used to be don’t hurt and the one in the midline, just below the sternum, is barely noticeable but the belly button and whole lower abdomen is another story. Maybe that’s because it’s been used before for other surgeries or maybe it’s because this surgery involved pumping carbon dioxide into the area leaving my whole abdomen distended like the alien in alien autopsy. Almost a week on and it is still out of shape.

In the recovery room where it took some time to recover (and was a little worrying at first) they showed me the offending gall stone. Just one but of sizeable proportions and certainly enough to have caused all the previous symptoms. The consultant came to visit on the ward and said “it was nasty in there.” I’m still not sure exactly what he meant and didn’t have the heart to tell him it felt pretty nasty living in here post-surgery too. It’s the one time when I’ll gladly declare opiates have been my friend.

Since parting company with the gallbladder and its unwelcome occupant all the unpleasant feelings and malaise thought to originate from there have gone away. Early days but with luck those problems are gone for good. As for the scars, they are healing well. (That purple stuff is medical super glue and it flakes off in 5-10 days.)   One of the worst things about surgery is recovery. It can’t be rushed which means being careful, nothing strenuous and giving things time. But time is precious and aside from piling on pounds when I sit around, every day spent in inactivity feels like an opportunity missed. It’s frustrating. Twenty-one scars in a 30 x 50 cm area is more than enough so hopefully this surgery is the last. Precious days are passing and I’m all out of love for sloth.

A slog more than fight

Until my mid-teens ‘fight’ meant one of three things:

  1. Squabbles between siblings – verbal, physical, but more often than not both.
  2. Altercations between kids at school, rival gangs, or the heavily inebriated having the kind of night they’d completely forget by morning.
  3. Boxing – where men knocked the stuffing out of each other for money in the name of sport. Female boxers were strongly discouraged at the time.

Since then ‘fight’ has taken on some extra meanings:

4. The role the armed forces conduct and lay down their lives for when politicians, fanatics, dictators or megalomaniacs fail to address their differences peacefully and revert to Neanderthal tactics. Clubbing one’s rivals is a proven solution tried and tested over many millennia.

5. The thing people with life-threatening or terminal illnesses are supposed to do, especially people diagnosed with cancer.

As a simple soul I’m ill equipped to explain why a proportion of humanity continue to pursue theological, political and ideological power-games that lead to more serious and deadly forms of the altercations witnessed in my childhood and teens. It must be something only despots truly understand.

I know a little more about the expectation to fight cancer than I’d ideally like and unfortunately its the kind of knowledge that once incorporated is impossible to forget. The language of cancer is frequently the language of war. People fight cancer, battle with cancer or wage a war on cancer because they are fighters, warriors, or even assassins. On some occasions  people win their cancer fight, but rarely is that completely guaranteed. On other occasions we’re told they battled bravely and courageously but sadly passed away. In real terms cancer is a win:lose scenario but whatever the situation, the language of cancer is full to the brim with fighting talk.

Perhaps societally we find it easier to deal with cancer if we say it’s something people fight. Fights can be won so when someone fights cancer there’s a chance they might win. This in turn can help make it a less frightening prospect for everyone else. School sports events conditioned us from an early age to know the winning team is always where it’s at so we rarely hear talk of people giving up, refusing the fight or waving the white flag of surrender. Giving up just isn’t the done thing, we must stay strong and keep fighting. There’s no glory in coming second, we have to win!  When people die (and lots of us will die from cancer) we hear talk of remaining courageous to the end. Perhaps this too is a means to make the truth easier to bear because someone else just lost their life to a disease we barely understand and still cannot prevent or cure.

I don’t like violence and never fully understood how anyone could fight with themselves so the language of cancer has never proven particularly helpful for me. Like it or not cancer is a bunch of our own cells that proliferate forever – cells that somehow manage to step outside the normal circle of life. Cancer is me, albeit an aberrant version. We are all different and for some people fighting analogies might be hugely helpful. For me the whole cancer thing is more of a slog.

Slog:

  1. to work hard over a long period especially doing work that is difficult or boring.
  2. to travel or move with difficulty, for example through wet, sticky soil or snow, or when you are very tired.

Dealing with cancer has taken considerable effort from me and my medical team. From diagnosis to current day I’ve been fortunate to receive nine separate surgical procedures designed to eradicate cancer, deal with the unwanted after effects of previous surgeries and do as much as possible to prevent any return of a disease with a high propensity to spring up elsewhere. In parallel chemo and monoclonal antibody therapies took place over a period of 10 months, again with the aim of preventing reoccurrence so that I might go on living my life in the quiet, peaceful way I’ve come to enjoy.

My cancer journey to date has taken four years, almost 15% of my adult life. In real terms this is very little – for some people including my own mother, aunt and grandmother it took much more.  I will always be grateful for every extra second gained through the expertise and determination of my medical team because without them my chances were slim to non-existent. Together we have now done everything possible to help me remain cancer free. Only time will tell if it’s been enough.

I haven’t been fighting for four years, I haven’t been brave or courageous and I don’t feel like a warrior. I faced a situation with few options, underwent gruelling treatment with unintended consequences and continue to rebuild my life, including everyday things like walking and working memory. I’ve been unrelenting for four years, enduring and tenacious, and I often feel tired and decrepit. I keep pushing myself hard because I want to do the things I could pre-cancer. Sitting here waiting or wishing for their return isn’t going to work.

In the time it’s taken to walk this cancer journey so far I could have walked around the Earth twice. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to be here and largely in one piece but that’s not enough because I’m not old enough to be decrepit. When I can once again walk more than a few hundred yards without days of painful repercussions, when I can go up stairs without grasping the handrail for fear my knees will give way and when I can read a book when tired and not have to re-read it next day I’ll be completely overjoyed.

For me this cancer journey continues even though the cancer itself appears to be gone. It’s much more a slog than a fight.

Credit: CRUK

 

 

The daily prompt – Fight.

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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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.