Closing the door on cancer

On Saturday Dan and I moved out of the flat we’d been renting since the week after my breast cancer diagnosis. We moved in during July 2015 and at the end of April 2016 we moved out. It’s quite a short time to live in a home but a lot happened in the nine short months we lived there – I had a lumpectomy and lymph node clearance, fertility treatment, six rounds of chemotherapy, three hospital stays and 20 rounds of radiotherapy. Our life revolved around my treatment and I wasn’t well enough for much else for the majority of the time.

Whilst my treatment is ongoing, my life is no longer dictated by chemo and radio and I’m able to rebuild my life; a life post breast cancer. I have a new job and Dan and I have become home owners. This exciting change has meant I can close the door on the home I lived in during the most challenging time of my life.

Moving out of my flat felt so symbolic. As Dan and I packed the car up with the last of our belongings, I had to go back to the flat one more time, alone, to say goodbye. Weirdly, I had to spend a moment in the bathroom. It’s a strange room to want to bid farewell to, I know, but it’s the room I associate most with my cancer; it’s where my hair washed away, it’s where I was sick, it’s where I sat in pain. It’s also where I had to dig deep within myself.

I’m grateful to those four walls, they kept me warm when I was cold. But now it’s time to move on and leave that behind, for good.

On Saturday, as the door to that bathroom clicked shut for the final time, I gave it an extra tug. I did the same with the front door. And the door to the carpark. Chapter finished – diwedd.

 
 
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What’s radiotherapy like?

This week I finished my radiotherapy treatment. The four weeks have flown, despite the 90 minute round trip in the car each day to Poole hospital.

Dan sent me some beautiful sunny roses to mark the occasion and we’ll be going out on Saturday to celebrate this as well as our five year anniversary and hopefully a Wales win in the rugby.

Before the celebrations, I wanted to share my experience of radio with you…

Before starting radio, about half way through chemo, I had an appointment with a specialist doctor to arrange the next stage of treatment. We discussed what radio would involve and the possible side effects. With all that was going on with chemo, I’d forgotten much of what was discussed but this wasn’t a problem as we went over everything again in the pre-radio appointment, about a week before starting.

At the pre-radio appointment I was given the tattoos that were mentioned in the initial appointment – permanent marks that would make life easier for the radiologists. I had imagined the tattoos would be a series of ‘blobs’ the size of bindis but instead I have three tiny pinprick dots on my chest which you wouldn’t notice for looking. Before having the tattoos I’d read forums where people had said they’d chosen not to have them because they didn’t want the ‘constant reminder’. I wonder if these people would have made the same decision if the term tattoo wasn’t used and if they’d realised how tiny the ‘tattoos’ would be.

In the radiotherapy department, there were two machines, named Elekta 1 and Elekta 2, on which I would be treated. At the pre-radio appointment, I was given a list of my appointment times and which machine I’d be treated on each day. Ahead of each appointment I put my appointment slip in the box so the team knew I’d arrived and got changed into the hospital gown I’d been given, before taking a seat in the waiting area.

Once called to Elekta 1 or 2, I removed the hospital gown from the area to be zapped, laid down onto the machine and the radiologists lined up the machine to the three tattoos, which was the part that took the most time. Once the radiologists were happy that I was positioned in exactly the right spot (the same position every day) and that the machine was lined up, they left the room and the radiation did its thing. During the first three weeks of appointments, I was zapped (I’m sure there’s a technical word for it) in three places; either side of my breast (where the cancer had taken hold) and the area around my collar bone (where cancer cells would spread next, if it were to have travelled).

My appointments were early morning, around 9:30 every day. This suited me well as it meant I could get straight back to work and settle for the day. On the first couple of mornings, I found the process very emotional, I can’t explain why. It’s odd being exposed where you’re never normally exposed to strangers and having them looking at and touching your chest. You’d think by now I’d be used to that but somehow it was different this time.

By the end of the first week, I was accustomed to the routine and the friendly radiologists kept me entertained with their chat and 80s music. Every one of the large team of radiologists was truly lovely.

In the final week they zapped the site of the cancer. This treatment was a lot quicker than the previous weeks as they had to line the machine up just the once.

Possible side effects include tiredness, aches and pains, lymphoedema, nausea/vomiting and a skin reaction similar to sun burn.  I was really lucky to only feel mildly tired. For the tiredness I drank lots of water and to avoid a skin reaction I was using My Trusty Little Sunflower Cream (a cream designed for people recovering from burns) twice a day from a week before radio started and I’m still doing that now as the peak of treatment is 10-14 days after finishing.

How did your radio experience compare? Are you about to start radio? Feel free to ask any questions and share your experience in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, here are my top tips for getting through radiotherapy treatment:

Don’t wear your best white bra 
They often use a pen to exaggerate the tattoos or to mark a specific area and the marks can transfer.

Take someone along to your first couple of appointments
Like everything unknown, it’s a bit daunting at first so it’s good to have someone waiting for you when you come out of your appointment.

Get some My Trusty
The rays can take their toll on your skin. I was really lucky that my skin didn’t react and I’m 99% sure it was because I was lathering on My Trusty Little Sunflower cream. Get into a twice daily cream routine and you won’t regret it.

Take it easy
The radiation can make you tired so you don’t want to be trying to do too much. Listen to your body and if that means going to bed at 8pm or getting someone to drive you to the hospital, that’s fine, just take it in your own sweet stride.

Those are my recommendations, what are yours? Please share them in the comments below.

Lots of love,
Becky xx

Getting back to fitness after chemo

I’ve always enjoyed running but in the year before my breast cancer diagnosis I was running more than ever. It was a great way to get some exercise and made my commute from East London to Surrey far more tolerable. And now, living on the coast and being able to run along the beach makes exercise even better.

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Ahead of starting chemo I’d hoped to exercise throughout the treatment or on week three of each cycle, at least. But when my body was being put through its paces, chemo paces, getting to the gym or going for a run couldn’t have felt more impossible – basic tasks left me out of breath so their was no puff for running and the like.

Whilst I absolutely wasn’t capable of physical exercise, it didn’t stop me craving a run along the beach. The fact that other people having chemo were managing to exercise and, in some cases, run 10k races days after treatment made my frustration worse. In the days following chemo I was often found in a hospital bed, which goes to show how differently we all react to the drugs.

The fact that my reactions were quite severe made me even more determined to get exercising as soon as I could. The weight gain side effect of the drugs is also a huge motivation for me to get my heart pumping and muscles working hard, so much so that I signed up to two 10k races – Cancer Research’s Race for Life in Bournemouth in June and Cardiff in July – before finishing my course of chemo.

At the time of signing up, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to run them – when you get out of breath walking 10 paces, a 10k couldn’t feel like more of a challenge. I also had radiotherapy to go and wasn’t sure how I’d react. I’m now 12 days into four weeks of radio and whilst I’m still not 100% certain I’ll be running a decent 10k by June, I’m determined to give it my best.

So how do you get from zero to 10k in five months?

The eight week training plan from Women’s Running is my starting point.

I printed out the plan and joined the gym for a month to run on the treadmill. The first gym session involved running for a minute and walking for a minute for 20 minutes. The running-walking thing lasted for five minutes before I felt like my teeth were going to fall out from exertion so I walked for the remaining time. After three more gym sessions I managed the full 20 minutes of alternate walking and running – in the space of a week I’d come along way. It’s amazing how quickly the body adapts.

Running on a treadmill isn’t my idea of fun and now the weather is starting to feel spring-y, I’m back to beach running. The sun and the view really lift my spirits – I feel so lucky to have such a beautiful setting at my feet.

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With the beach calling and the sun beckoning, I’ve been on four four-ish kilmometer runs this week, which have taken about half an hour, including pauses for breath and a couple of speed walking intervals.

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My bloods are starting to get back to normal so breathlessness is less of an issue but keeping up the endurance is definitely a case of mind over matter. Whilst there’s no shame in stopping for a break, I feel like it’s my brain stopping me and not my legs. That said, it’s really important to listen to your body and taking it slow and steady is essential. That’s why I’m really proud of my ‘measly’ 4k. I’m getting into my rhythm and it’s going to get easier but I’m being sensible with my body. My next goal is to make the 5k run to Boscombe pier by the end of next week – I’ll let you know if I make it!

If you’re looking to get back to fitness after chemo, it’s worth speaking to your oncologist. My oncologist suggested starting with stair walking or getting a step for exercise if you live in a flat. Also, lots of gyms offer a free month or two for people referred by their doctor. I was really excited about this (I know, I need to get a life) but be warned, the gym may take their time in setting it up (I’m still waiting for my free membership weeks after being referred by my doc).

Good luck with your journey back to fitness and let me know how you’re getting on

Becky xx

 

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’.

Kris
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…