The purpose of this blog post is to give some insight into what it’s like navigating life after cancer. I’ve often thought of the cancer journey as though it is made up of a series of train rides, each marking a different part of the journey. For me that journey so far has been: the ‘chemotherapy’ train, the ‘surgery’ train, the ‘more chemotherapy’ train, the ‘maintenance treatment’ train and now, since November 2017, the ‘life after cancer’ train.
This blog is made up of a collection of different blogs, which I wrote at different stops that I have to date encountered on the ‘life after cancer’ train. This is something that I will continue to do. I feel that this was helpful for two reasons. Firstly, to help me calm the inevitable anxiety that builds between my check-ups. Secondly, to give some insight into what it’s like on this part of the journey. In some ways I dreaded this bit the most; having less contact with hospital and fewer check-ups means more time to get caught up in my anxieties and fears about what might be going on in my body.
When I boarded the ‘life after cancer’ train, I knew it would be more comfortable than the treatment train because I get to have a seat instead of holding on for dear life, but the reality is that it still comes with its bumps and troubles along the way. Five months on and I have learnt a lot, but there is so much more to learn. Life after cancer is a beautiful thing but it’s also incredibly hard and fragile and to me, the title of this blog describes exactly what it can feel like at times. I’ve decided to share a few entries from the first few months of this year, cancer and non-cancer related, and I hope this can be a useful insight into this part of the journey.
Monday 12th February 2018 – Check-up stop
I found myself back at the Royal Marsden for my first 3 monthly check-up since stopping Avastin in November. I couldn’t quite get my head around how its come around so quickly. Walking up the front steps to the hospital felt very different this time compared with all the other times. I wasn’t there for treatment because Cyril has gone, but I was overcome with a strange feeling of happiness mixed with a horrible reminder that he could find his way back. In some ways it feels harder. This is because the more I take back control of my life and get back into the things which define me, the more I feel I have to lose if Cyril were to come back.
It was a quick visit this time; only one vial of blood taken to check my ca125 and ca153 levels. I’ll be back there again next week for an oncology check-up appointment and to review the results.
Once back home I felt really strange. Reality set in. The blood had been taken so now it was just a waiting game. I felt the familiar signs of anxiety and fear, wanting to cry but trying hard to not. I tried to reassure myself with the knowledge that whatever the results, I’m in the best possible hands and while that worked for a while, it didn’t stop it all getting too much later that evening when I went to fill up petrol. Yes that’s right; I had a breakdown… on the petrol forecourt! I’ve been driving a hired car this week and just the fact that I didn’t know how to open the petrol gauge set me off. I eventually managed to open it but then proceeded to splash petrol ALL over myself (no, I don’t know how either), which resulted in me ending up in tears and calling my dad to drive round the corner to save me from my petroleum panic which was clearly nothing at all to do with petrol.
Once sorted and back in the car I felt calmer. I needed to cry. I’m not quite sure why I was so fixed on stopping myself from crying because I know that it can actually be the thing that helps. As I drove to where I was going, I was able to think more clearly. I was able to talk myself through the three ways the check-up results could go:
- Markers and physical examination will be fine and I’ll just go back in three months.
- Marker and/or physical examination will flag up something, but it will turn out to be a false alarm.
- Marker and/or physical examination will flag up that Cyril is back.
I need to keep reminding myself that there is no evidence to suggest option three so my job is to focus on that fact. I have felt good since November, my body has been behaving, and I’ve had no symptoms to suggest anything is wrong. So I have to remember that option three is one option, but not THE ONLY option.
Friday 23rd February 2018 – Results stop (and also my birthday!)
Over the past 10 days, I found myself trying to pretend I wasn’t waiting for my marker results; that there was no difference to previous weeks. It helped me get through a few days so I suppose some days it’s okay to pretend.
By the 16th February, I decided to come back to reality and call the nurse to ask about my markers because pretending didn’t seem to be helping as much. I was so nervous to ring; I was shaking, my mouth was dry and although I couldn’t see, I just knew I had a look of terror across my face. My nurse gave me the results which were very much in the normal range and the relief I felt was immediate.
Fast forward to yesterday (23rd February) and I was back in a hospital, this time to see my oncologist. We had a long chat about how I’ve been feeling and he checked my stomach for any abnormalities. All was fine and I was sent away with a new blood test form for three months time. It was the end of an anxiety filled week and although I was able to feel relief, it is never just relief. The check ups remind you that there is still more to come and that relapse is not just a worry but is a possibility. This is also the case for a new type of cancer because as BRCA 1 mutation carrier I have always been, and continue to be, at higher risk of breast cancer than I ever was of ovarian cancer. But for now, the risk of recurrence from my ovarian cancer is too high, which means I can’t yet take action with a preventive mastectomy to reduce my risk of breast cancer. It’s a horrible catch 22, but one I have to accept for a while longer.
Today’s appointment marks the end of a week and a half of anxiety and I’m very pleased to let it go. But I also need to remember that anxiety (or Jaws as I like to call her) is not all that bad. Anxiety helps me remain vigilant to signs and symptoms. I don’t want to push Jaws too far away because she was part of what pushed me to get help the first time. So it’s not about trying to not feel anxious, it’s about managing my relationship with it. I need to remember to read this before my next check-up.
Yesterday I also celebrated turning 29. Rather than think of the party or presents, birthdays seem, more than ever now, to be an important mark of all that has happened in the past year. And there has been a lot. Since my last birthday I’m back working full time, I’ve passed my masters and I am due to graduate this summer, managed to continue to be involved with ovarian cancer and BRCA awareness raising events, formed very special friendships and celebrated a one-year anniversary with my boyfriend. I find it amazing to think back to all these positive things and how lucky I am to be able to list them because the painful reality is that not everyone who goes through cancer gets to do that.
5th March 2018 – Breast check stop
Next stop, breast check-up. This one was fairly quick and no major problems. Good results and plan in place; ultrasound and a mammogram in three months. Mammograms don’t usually happen at my age but it’s now going to a routine be part of my care. I’ve been reading up on them and based on this cartoon it seems like it will be interesting experience…
Later on in the day, I felt the emotions and tears arrive and soon it felt like my head was going to explode. It wasn’t anything new going round in my head, just the same old scenarios spinning round, mixed with feeling desperate to be able to make the choice to remove my breasts rather than cancer making the choice for me. I often think about what it would feel like when and if the day comes. I’m not scared of it but actually weirdly excited. Although it can be exciting to imagine this scenario, I have to check myself from time to time because this is still a long way off and dependent on lots of things going exactly how they should, mainly me staying cancer free long enough for my team to feel confident to operate, which I know is certainly not a guarantee. The wait is hard. I feel that in some ways I said goodbye to my breasts the day I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. They still remain on my body but they don’t really mean anything to me anymore. I just have to keep hoping that my body will continue to work well and keep me healthy so that I can one day make the choice I’m longing to make.
28th March 2018 – Career stop
Today was a big day and for all the right reasons! Work is going well and I have been lucky enough to be part of a project that aims to create an international link with a school in South Africa. Today we got to arrange a Skype assembly; it was amazing to be able to watch the children from both schools start their friendship over the internet! We managed to make initial contact, but the connection wasn’t great so instead we ended up recording our assembly and emailing it across to them. I was buzzing after the assembly. I’m so excited to be part of the project and to be able to encourage the children to develop understanding and awareness of different language and culture, which has always been a passion of mine. Today was another reminder of how beautiful life after cancer is. I felt very lucky and grateful to be experiencing it all with my pupils and colleagues.
12th April 2018 – A date with the MRI scanner
Yesterday was the first MRI scan that I’ve had in 6 months (since I came off all treatment). It’s routine now and a way to make sure that Cyril is staying away. I went up to the hospital with my dad and Jaws came along too. And she didn’t behave as badly as I feared she would; at one point I’m sure I even saw her smile. I also managed the scanner much better than I thought I would. After having a substantial amount of my diaphragm removed in surgery, it becomes significantly harder to hold my breath for the required 17 seconds, but after a few attempts and some laughs with the radiographer about it, we managed to get the job done.
Today I was back up to the hospital for the results. Jaws and I had a very good morning together. No fights. Until the waiting room that is. We played the less than pleasant ‘ovarian and/or breast cancer scenario’ game and the result was me becoming agitated and anxious. Add on a delay in my appointment time, which my rational side knows is completely normal in clinic, and I was already assuming the very worst… “The results are bad and they’re trying to figure out the nicest way to tell me this.” I finally got called in with all my thoughts being about needing to restart treatment, only to be told that the scan was clear and there was no evidence of cancer. No evidence of cancer; four amazing words that anybody going through a cancer journey longs to hear at check-ups. Although I know that this doesn’t take away the risk of recurrence and also of breast cancer, it’s a milestone that I feel incredibly lucky to have hit. My consultant drew me a diagram that showed the milestones I had already passed on this cancer journey, which made me feel even better because although I have my milestones in my head, I don’t think I had really registered just how many I had already passed. It’s easy to forget some of them but so very worthwhile taking the time to remember and acknowledge them.
Leaving the hospital with good news in hand was a great feeling, and one thing that I’ve learnt about my anxiety is that it affects my appetite but when it leaves, it makes A LOT of spare room for hunger. So I listened to my body and went on an eating spree! Which is very easy to do in the brief walk from the Royal Marsden to South Kensington tube station. It went like this:
- A take away Pret a manger sandwich
- A portion of chips from Lyon café
- An ice-cream biscuit from Snowflake
- Half a Palmier biscuit from PAULS Bakery
- Two praline chocolates from Jeff de Bruges
Once refuelled and with extra supplies for the train ride home, I felt calm and relieved. The reality is that Jaws is never truly gone but I managed her well today and I am well today. And that is to be celebrated. Just like Martin Luther King said, you have to keep moving forward. It can only ever be one step at a time so that’s just how it’s going have to be.