Cancer is awful. It took 10 years until I didn’t think about it every day. Nobody should go through this. Nobody.
— Hans Rosling
Hans Rosling is right. Cancer is awful. Nobody should have to go through cancer. But the reality is, thousands of people do.
In my small, immediate family alone I can sit here and count off seven relatives who have had cancer; some are still with us, others aren’t. My father, grandfather and two aunts are no longer with us, although it was not the cancer which killed my grandfather. Two of my uncles are still going strong, and my grandmother (who has had 3 run-ins with cancer and is my inspiration). Then there are a host of my friends, from different parts of my life, who have been through various types of cancer. And, now, me.
The bitch is prevalent.
I refer to cancer with a female reference as it has many of the nastier female characteristics: sneakiness, stubbornness, a tendency to keep coming back when you have made it clear she needs to piss off …
But, I am not going to sit and wallow in my own self-pity on this post. I have had my 15 minutes or so of sooking about my fate. I am done.
I have found it much more beneficial to reflect on all the good things that are going to come out of this; reflect on why my diagnosis is positive and the ways in which my treatment is beneficial in other areas of my life.
Firstly, I am fortunate enough to have a very open, honest oncologist. He told me, at our first meeting, in no uncertain terms that my particular type of breast cancer is very aggressive … not good … but that it responds the best to the treatment he was going to order for me … good.
At the second visit, he was having a feel and a grope, then stopped and looked me in the eye and asked, ‘Have you been having a prod?’ When I replied I hadn’t, he looked at me again and said, ‘Well, it’s changed.’ I nearly died, instantly thinking that it had spread, but no … it has shrunk, quite a bit.
It’s still early days yet, so I am not getting too excited … but what an amazing start.
As for the chemotherapy treatment, on the down-side:
♦ I feel like a pin-cushion; my veins are really hard to find so sometimes there are multiple attempts and digging around under my skin before they manage to get the needle in. This is not fun!
♦ There have been many side effects; in fact, when I list them it seems it would be quicker to list the ones I didn’t get. I don’t do sick … so being sick because of chemo and steroids is frustrating and messes with my plans.
♦ Hair loss! I need not elaborate on that one.
On the up-side:
♦ Having my chemo nurse not be able to find a vein, spend 40 minutes digging around and take three attempts to actually get in then gave me the right to put unlimited shit on him; he also called himself a ‘vein whisperer’ before he started when I told him I took after my father with veins that were hard to find — ramp up the shit level. This is what I love to do! It makes the time hooked up to the IV drip go so much faster too.
♦ Yes, I got many side effects, but the one I didn’t get was vomity-puking. That is awesome! I can handle the fatigue, the skin breakout, the flu-like symptoms, the cotton-wool mouth, the lack of taste buds (see below) … and even the total demolishing of my white blood cells (resulting in a 3-day hospital stay, more pin-pricking and the worst food I have ever had to eat in my life) — vomiting is a whole different ball park. My son has emetophobia (a fear of vomit), so no vomiting was a huge win for both of us.
♦ Lack of taste buds — while this was awful because all of my food tasted like dirt, on the advice of one of my husband’s work colleagues I have been able to rediscover Fruit Tingles. These lollies are brilliant; not only did they bring back my taste for short periods of time (and alleviate my cotton wool mouth by giving me my saliva back), I now have an excuse to eat my favourite childhood lollies again. Got to love that!
♦ Messing with my plans — I am anal when it comes to planning ahead and being organised. Not knowing how I am going to feel each day has forced my to dial this right back. I cannot make firm plans for the following week, let alone the next day, because I honestly do not know how I am going to feel when I wake up. This is a good thing. I have learnt to go with the flow … maybe this will make me a more relaxed and better person at the end of this.
♦ The side-effects and overall treatment schedule have forced my hand to take unlimited leave from my teaching job. Despite my disappointment in not being able to go through with plans I had made with colleagues (which I was looking forward to this year), this was not a hard decision to make. As a teacher, I cannot chop and change, going in one day and not the next. My boss and colleagues have been amazingly supportive. I am still being kept in the loop. I have enough leave up my sleeve (by fortune of not ‘doing sick’) that I am still being paid. Above all, though, this enforced time off has provided me with much-needed time to catch up with friends I rarely see and focus on my writing. Bonus, win-win.
♦ Hair loss equates to a loss of privacy — or so I was told by someone at some point. To an extent that is true. Your hair is often your identity. Losing your hair makes you feel open, exposed and vulnerable. But, look at all the money I am now going to save on shampoo, hair cuts and hair colour treatments! In addition, shavers. I was told that my leg hair was the only hair I wouldn’t lose — but no, I haven’t had it fall out, but I haven’t shaved my legs (or my armpits) now for over a fortnight and they are still silky smooth. This hair may not fall out, but it takes its time growing back. Win! Finally, pubic hair, I will say nothing more here than free and painless Brazilian wax.
♦ Now to the best of all — friends. This includes friends I knew I had, as well as friends I didn’t know were such good friends. For someone who always said her friendship group was small but tight, to be inundated with support, love, beautiful messages and offers of help by so many people has been a real-eye opener — and extremely humbling. Staff at my school (and some of my dragon-boating teammates) have been cooking for us. Since my chemo started, I think we have had to cook about 4 times only. Pride is one thing, but it is getting easier to say, ‘Yes thank you, that would be lovely.’ It has taken a burden away that we don’t need, and reduced our grocery bill by a significant amount. But that aside — their caring is the only thing that regularly brings me to tears; happy ones. And I can’t go without acknowledging my dragon-boating pals who sent me a huge teddy-bear and have been my rock throughout all of this. As have my other friends. Totally amazing, humbling and heartwarming.
So, yes, cancer is awful. The treatment is awful. It is something that is in the back of your mind, every day and, I expect, forever (not just for 10 years). Nobody should have to go through this. Ever.
But, as far as I can see, the benefits far outweigh the bad side. Maybe it is the power of positive thought, and being lucky with my diagnosis. But if this is going to help me get through it all … then this how I am going to continue to think.