The day I thought would never come is finally here

Today, the 15th January 2016, brings my final chemo session – yippie, whoop, harrah!

It brings a feeling of elation as well as a battle to hold back tears of happiness and gratitude that I am able to say my chemo is coming to an end, hopefully forever.

I feel like I’ve reached a HUGE milestone and learnt so much about myself along the way so what better time to share a bit of the journey to get here than today.

It’s been a challenging ride. Even before chemo began the not knowing what to expect was bizarre; there are many different drugs and everyone reacts differently, so other peoples’ experiences were often lost on me.

Then there was the first round of chemo. From the moment they administered the first drug – Herceptin followed by Docetaxel and Carboplatin – I was waiting. Waiting for something to happen. Am I going to vomit (my main concern)? Am I going to feel fluey? Is my hair going to fall out right now (I’d brought a headscarf just in case)? Little did I know that any reactions experienced in the oncology bay would be the least of my worries.

It wasn’t until day three that I really felt the chemo hit – the mouth ulcers, the hot flushes, the exhaustion, the sickness. Looking like a cross between a 15 year old boy and Sandi Toxfig didn’t exactly help my morale either thanks to an outbreak of steroid induced spots and my newly cut barnet. Talking of hair, that was another waiting game – when would it fall out?

The second round of chemo came and alas – Sandi Toksvig was as thick as ever and showing no signs of going anywhere. I was beginning to feel like I’d aged myself 20 years for nothing. Still I’d heard the effects of chemo could build and so the apprehension was ever present.

I was wrong about Sandi, she wasn’t as stubborn as I’d given her credit for. The hair loss started slowly after the second round – malting just a little more than usual. A week later and it was coming out in clumps EVERYWHERE!

Round two brought my first hospital stay. I’d caught an infection but I was also neutropenic (low white blood cell count) so I couldn’t fight it. The drugs worked wonders and I was allowed out on my birthday, feeling a million dollars. My first port of call was to the hairdresser. The time had come to shave what was left of my balding scalp – on my own terms. My hairdresser, Tasha, was amazing – we had a laugh (see ya later Sandi) and there were no tears. There was no charge either. It’s times like these you realise how kind people can be.

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My new look

Round three brought another hospital stay – the biggest test of all. On arrival to the hospital my dad had to practically carry me to the ward, I’d never felt so weak before. Unfortunately I had to get worse before I could get better but I did get better, thanks to the fantastic team of docs and nurses.

After round three I was terrified of the next dose and the end had never felt more distant. Luckily my oncologist was on a mission to keep me out of hospital, warning me that chemo can kill (like anyone needs to hear that?!) so they couldn’t risk another hospital stay. Her stern words came with an adjusted dosage of the relevant drugs and boy has it made a difference. The last two cycles haven’t been fun but they’ve been easier than before and I’ve stayed out of hospital (phew). I’m hoping round six will be no different.

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We did it – Team Jones (with mum taking the photo)

So here I am, finally the day is here. I now have three weeks until my last cycle finishes. Now all I can think about it how much I’m looking forward to sipping some celebratory prosecco (pass me a pint glass) and seeing fewer bodily fluids – I’m over that lark, thank you very much!

How would you describe your chemo experience? How did you feel when it came to an end? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments below.

My breast cancer diagnosis was a strike of luck

Yes, you read that correctly – my breast cancer diagnosis was a strike of luck. Well, three strikes actually:

Lucky strike #1: I found a lump purely by accident 

I discovered a lump when waking one morning. In a lazy daze I rolled to press snooze. As I did so I brushed my left boob and felt something that didn’t feel like much like boob. I was instantly awake. After further inspection I could feel a brazil nut size lump.

Dan and I discussed it, thinking it was probably a cyst and nothing to worry about but we agreed I’d go to the docs, just to be safe.

Lucky strike #2: The doctors aired on the side of caution

A week later I had a breast examination with a junior doctor. She was lovely – asked about family history of breast cancer (of which there is none) and other symptoms like weight loss (of which there were none). Her verdict was that she thought it was most likely a cyst but she was going to chat to a colleague between appointments to get her opinion. She’d call me to let me know the outcome. The call came and they had decided to refer me to The Royal Marsden in Sutton (down the road from where I lived at the time) to check the lump out, just to be safe. 

Lucky strike #3: The nurse thought twice 

A fortnight later, I rocked up at The Royal Marsden. It felt strange to be there. It’s a dedicated cancer hospital and as someone who didn’t have cancer, I found walking past so many very ill people in the corridors incredibly humbling. After arriving on the Breast Cancer Rapid Diagnostic Clinic, I was seen by a specialist nurse who examined my breast. She said it felt like a cyst, that it was nothing to worry about and was I ‘happy to leave it there?’. Having read the leaflet sent by The Marsden, I was expecting a little more than an examination and was slightly confused over what she meant by ‘leaving it there’ – I was expecting to have a scan of sorts, at least. In response to my surprised reaction, the nurse decided to send me for a scan, just to be safe.

It was the scan that followed and the subsequent biopsy that revealed I had stage three breast cancer. It just goes to show you how important it is to check yourself and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to the doctors who aired on the side of caution and the nurse who thought twice. If either of them had made different decisions, my future prospects may not be looking quite so bright. I was lucky to be diagnosed when I was.

It could have been easy to overlook a healthy young woman with no family history of breast cancer because it’s not all that common, hence it happens all too often. This is something Kris Hallenga has experienced first had. When Kris went to her GP about a ‘lumpy boob’ aged 23 she was told it was probably hormonal, after all she was too young for breast cancer, right? Six months later and the lump was ever present so Kris and her mother insisted upon a referral.

Two months later and with an ‘avocado-sized lump’, Kris finally discovered she had breast cancer. Not only did she have breast cancer but it had spread to her spine and was now stage four – as advanced as it gets. Since then, the cancer has spread to her liver and her brain. Had the cancer been diagnosed on her first trip to the doctors, she could be cancer free right now. Instead, as Kris puts it, ‘cancer is kind of my life these days’.

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Kris Hallenga, founder of CoppaFeel!

But rather than sitting back and festering at cancer, Kris and her twin sister have used their experience to set up cancer charity, CoppaFeel!, to spread the message that breast cancer does affect young people. After all, it’s not as freakishly rare as you might think – in the UK, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women under 40 and around 2,100 new cases are diagnosed each year in women aged 20-39 according to Cancer Research UK.

CoppaFeel! encourages young men and women to get to grips with their breasts and regularly check them for lumps, bumps and anything that doesn’t feel normal. As someone who found my lump by accident, I’ve become very aware of how important it is to check yourself. So if there’s one thing you do today, let it be a quick boob check and with this easy to understand guide from CoppaFeel!, you have no excuse not to. If you notice something that doesn’t seem right, get on to your doctor – you have nothing to lose by getting it checked and potentially a lot to lose if you don’t.

 

‘When the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly’

“The transformation from chrysalis can take weeks, months or even years – mine took one year. And although I have become this person, I’m still in the midst of a larger transformation, one that I won’t recognise until I look back at me now and say ‘who was that girl?’ We are constantly evolving; I suppose I have always known that, but because I always knew that, I feared stopping, and it is ironic that it was only when I finally stopped that I moved the most. I know now that we never truly stop, our journey is never complete, because we will continue to flourish – just as when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.” Cecelia Ahern, The Year I Met You

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Starting my first post with a quote might seem like a bit of a cop out – a cheat to ease me into a bare canvas. Maybe it is but it’s also significant. It’s a quote from my favourite author, Cecelia Ahern, taken from one of her more recent books, The Year I Met You.

Why is this collection of words noteworthy?

In July I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The following months were a whirl of operations, hospital visits and treatments. I felt like I was trapped in a bubble, feeling my way through augmented reality. It’s only now, nearing the end of my chemotherapy treatment that I’m beginning to see things clearly and fully digest what’s been happening and what’s going to happen.

As a result of this newfound clarity, I’ve been able to think about who I want to be and what I want to achieve with this life I’m lucky to have. In essence, I’m beginning my own transformation from chrysalis.

One positive I want to come from my experience is a blog; if I can share my experience and make things just a little easier for other young whippersnappers going through cancer diagnosis and treatment then I’ve achieved something huge.

That said, I’m not 100% sure what the blog is going to become – what it’s going to look like and how it’s going to be organised. I’ve considered not posting until I’ve figured this out but who cares that there’s no fancy design or integrated twitter feed right now. What matters is it’s going to grow, evolve, metamophasise into something. What matters is I’ve made a start, just as I’m making a start on my journey to recovery.

2016 is going to be the year I create and nurture my own blog, it’s also going to be the beginning of my transformation from a chrysalis. It might take weeks, months or even years but I’m making a start.

Just as when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly…