Five unexpected lessons I’ve learnt so far during my cancer journey.
HOW WOULD YOU REACT?
I have always played a game where I’ve asked myself how I would react and what kind of person I would be if I were told things such as… “You have just won three million dollars!”, “I’m sorry darling, the truth is you’re adopted”, “Beth, I’m from Hogwarts and I am here to inform you that you are magic”… or “You have cancer.”
The time between first being told I had cancer and having my breast removed was exactly five weeks. I had known something was not right for over a year but the attempts I made to have my concern verified were firstly fobbed off by my GP and, still worried a few months later, undetected by a self-ordered mammogram. So… I didn’t persist with doctors, but I would point it out to friends, worry about it, and examine it frequently. Rather than a lump, I had a shadow in my breast when I raised my arm that had lost all matter under it.
Lesson one: listen to your gut
MY CANCER JOURNEY BEGINS
The morning after completing a cellular transformation workshop (a process by which grief and trauma are released at a cellular level from the body) and at which I had had a profound intergenerational and personal purge, I woke to find that a red-hot patch of skin and a lump had replaced the shadowed hollow. I phoned a nurse friend who assured me that cancer didn’t appear overnight, it was probably just a blocked duct. The subsequent ultrasound revealed enough for the breast surgeon at the Austin to declare cancer 3 days later. He just didn’t know what type or how far it had spread. I was rushed in for a biopsy to take samples from the two tumours detected and the first layer of lymph nodes in my armpit.
Another nurse friend came with me to get the results of the biopsy. While we were waiting, she mentioned that while cancer was a terrible thing, all her oncology patients had had the most incredible spiritual journeys because of it. It reminded me that at the start of the year, after being made redundant after 11 years of a high-stress, high-responsibility job, I had pledged this year for my own spiritual journey and growth.
Lesson two: be specific about your aims
By week 3 the results of the biopsy were in (hormone receptor positive breast cancer) and I was on the priority list (within 30 days) for a mastectomy. The idea of removing my breast to catch the cancer before it spread seemed right to me. Breast removal also seemed far more palatable than chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy and I was relieved when the surgeon told me it didn’t look like I would need either.
KISSING MY BOOB GOODBYE
In preparation for a mastectomy, I thought about how I could say goodbye to my breast. At 45, and having never had kids, my boobs were one of my favourite assets. My amazing group of friends embraced my ‘Kiss my boob goodbye party’. This included boob-themed snacks, a breast cancer lesson, a life drawing session (which has given me a folder of beautiful and hilarious drawings to remember my breast by) and a competition to design the best alternative breast implant (the string dispenser, wine bladder, and hypnotism wheel were my favourites). I joked that I was going to get one giant Pamela Anderson-sized implant (my other breast is a much smaller 12D).
On the 7th of July, I had a mastectomy of the right breast and the first four layers of lymph nodes stripped from my armpit. The biopsy revealed that cancer was evident in the first three layers. I came home with a breast implant, no nipple and two drainage bags stitched into my skin. The bags involved about three feet of tubing with a device on the end you had to squeeze regularly to keep the suction up. I watched with grim fascination as stuff passed through the tubes that could have been hired out for horror movies. Keeping these things from catching on furniture, being trodden on, or pulled out by affectionate pets, partners, and friends was a full-time occupation.
I was now being visited daily by ‘Hospital in the Home’ and eagerly awaited the day when I produced less than 20ml of fluid from each site. Less than 20ml meant the drain could come out. The armpit drain came out after 10 days, which was about standard. 21 days later, the drain bag for my breast was still producing 50ml or more a day. That night I went for a wee and when I returned to the bedroom realised that the drain bag was still hanging off my bedside table. It was no longer in me.
I called the nurse but as I had an appointment with the plastic surgeon five days later, they cancelled my daily visits and decided it would be best to let them check it. It had been in so long they were sure the fluid was about to stop anyway. It didn’t. I got my Pamela Anderson-sized breast.
Lesson three: be careful what you wish for
Surgery revealed that I actually had three tumours, one of which had reached Stage 3 and metastasised. Chemotherapy, radiotherapy AND hormone suppression therapy were now recommended as we now knew micro cancer cells were on my chest wall and travelling throughout my body.
A CHALLENGING CHOICE
I had always been rabidly anti chemotherapy. My mother had worked as a terminal cancer carer years ago and her stories of the effects of it seemed worse than the illness. I had always loudly proclaimed that if I ever got cancer, no way would I do chemo.
The reality of a metastasised tumour is that those escaped cancer cells may well pop up elsewhere in later years. Conversations with specialists, my naturopath, and friends who had lost loved ones to late diagnosis led me to accept 40 years of breast cancer research and the chemo and radio treatments recommended. The only way not to do them was a life change so radical and uncertain that personally I didn’t think I could commit to it.
Lesson four: until it’s happening to you, you can’t possibly know what decisions you will make
I am just past the half way point in six months of chemo. When I was first diagnosed, I decided to put a foot in each camp and do a full naturopathic support alongside traditional western medicine. I take a multitude of vitamins every day and have switched to a predominantly ketogenic diet (carbohydrate and sugar-free, but high in fat, protein and vegetables) and have had a smooth and painless experience to date where occasional fatigue, losing my hair and chemo brain (forgetting you have said things or forgetting something a few seconds after it happens) have been the most noticeable side effects.
From diagnosis to mastectomy, I had medical appointments two or three times a week – biopsies, bone scans, radioactive tracers, heart tests. It was a whirlwind in a foreign world of giant machinery, hospital gowns, and hard plastic chairs. I started to see the same nurses over again and doctors would mention that they recognised my name. Infamy at last.
Five months since the initial diagnosis, I realise that I am just starting to come back into myself
Emerging from shock finally with time to think, I am processing what is important – what I do and don’t want in my life, and the realisation that I don’t want to go back to a job that causes so much stress. My redundancy package has meant I haven’t had to work through my treatment and, off the back of a welding short course last year, have been channelling my energy into the creation of metal and bone sculptures, joy, and yes, my own spiritual growth.
Lesson five: I think I would still lose my s#*t if I was told I was magic, but I know that whatever else happens, I can choose how I will respond
It may sound odd, but of all my friends and family, I’m glad it is me that got cancer. I was born with a resilient, happy disposition and am a pragmatist by nature. I love machines, the unexpected, and understanding complicated processes. I’ve always maintained that while we can’t control what happens to us, we can choose how we respond. Why have a crap time when you can have a good time? I chose and choose not to be a victim of cancer.