22nd December 2015

For Christmas 2015, I got my first ink! Traditional stick-and-poke rib and sternum pieces. Nope, not some filigree mandala- these were my radiotherapy positioning markers. Three dots: one on either side of my chest and one in the middle.

Radiotherapy uses a targeted, high-energy x-ray beam to kill of any residual cancer cells. In my case, this was used to further reduce the risk of recurrence. I was put forward to undergo “Deep Inspiration Breath Hold” Radiotherapy- DIBH. By taking a deep breath in, the lungs are inflated, moving the breast tissue away from the heart and reducing any unnecessary exposure to other organs. This was especially pertinent to me, given that my cancer was on the left side, where the heart sits. Previous radiotherapy techniques had involved the clunky use of lead plates; this is a much slicker method.

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Photo credit: Barwon Health. These are not my own images.

I was fascinated by DIBH. My curiosity in the tech involved completely distracted me from the fact that I was the patient. I felt like I was just having a go on the kit!

In order to ensure my lungs were sufficiently inflated, my lung capacity was measured. This where I was made to look completely ridiculous! My nose was pegged, and a scuba mask fitted, so that all of my breathing occurred through my mouth. I then had to breathe out as far as I could. Here, I learnt that I have remarkably large lungs! Meanwhile, I was fitted with a pair of goggles that displayed a graph of my breathing in my vision, peaking and falling with each inhalation and exhalation. During the moment of x-ray exposure, I would need to hold my breath in the region of a coloured band on my graph. This region highlighted a sweet-spot, where my lungs were sufficiently inflated to hold my breast clear of my heart, but not so over-inflated that I couldn’t hold my breath comfortably- up to 20 seconds at a time (try it now! It’s longer than it sounds!) If I failed to hold my breath and fell out of the sweet-spot, the radiation would automatically be cut off. Incredible tech!

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Photo credit: Genesis Care

My Christmas appointment was to measure me up and ensure that I could cope with the DIBH method. I would need to be able to tolerate the goggles, the mask, the breathing instructions and the laying position, with my arms above my head. This would be my routine, for twenty minutes every day, Monday to Friday, for four weeks. And, of course, I gained my first tattoos. The best radiotherapy positioning is planned out using a CT scanner. This also uses x-rays to gain the images. If I were to receive a CT scan of my chest every day for four weeks, I’d be exposed to a not-insignificant amount of unnecessary radiation. Instead, one CT scan is performed, and the required information is transposed permanently onto the skin. I was inked, and ready to go!

CHRISTMAS B(©)(©)B UPDATE: Obscure compliments of the day… I have the biggest lungs and the tidiest scars ever seen!! I am all tattooed, marked up ready for radiotherapy in the new year. 7th Jan- 3rd Feb, Mon-Fri. Book your dates for a lunch in Havant with me now!

9th December 2015

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I had ALWAYS wanted to visit New Zealand, even before Peter Jackson made a six-film tourism advert with elves. I used to draw swirly patterns in my schoolbooks in an embarrassingly ignorant attempt to recreate Māori Kowhaiwhai designs. There’s something about the “Lake District-meets-Jurassic Park” landscape that had been calling to me since childhood.

However, life happens, and it tends to get cluttered with obstacles. Like being on the opposite side of the world, for example. And, y’know, undergoing treatment for cancer.

My husband and I have been together since I was 20. We did the whole “Millennials-getting-on-the-ladder” thing of saving up for the house deposit, saving up for the wedding, then saving up for our belated honeymoon (I say “we”. Financially, it was mostly “he”, I’ll be honest. I tend to be the “ideas” partner). Finally, 18 months after getting married, we were due to visit my dream location together for three whole weeks! It was all booked, and then my miscreant boob threw a spanner in the works. An 8mm x 10mm spanner.

I had immediately questioned my wonderful Breast Care Nurse if I should cancel the honeymoon. At this stage, we didn’t know exactly how long my treatment would have to continue for. Her response was no- leave it booked for now. It could be my “carrot on a  stick” to aim for. Everything rested on whether-or-not I’d be going through chemotherapy.

Chemo comes with a whole package of side-effects. When you think of a cancer patient, I dare say that most of you imagine the chemo look- bald head, grey eyes, probably puking. Chemo can be a literal life-saver, but it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. For some, the side-effects can do more harm than good. It’s often administered in several cycles of drugs, which can take months to complete. Our New Zealand trip was in the balance.

Given my age, and the nature of my cancer, I wasn’t a definite candidate for chemo. In order to help make this decision, I was put forward for a clinical trial, using the EndoPredict genomic test to help make this decision. Read more about the test here. Taking part in the trial was a no-brainer for me. I didn’t want the lump- they could definitely have it! And, if my information could be used to help people after me- brilliant! Cancer is great for making you squeeze out every last drop of silver lining. I’d had my angry moment of “why me?”- I’d never smoked, I’m still relatively young, I live reasonably healthily… (A friend of mine reasoned with me- it left no room to blame myself. I was satisfied with that, and my flare of self-pity at being the victim of such an injustice of the universe passed. There are so many factors beyond our control, and so many cell divisions taking place all the time. It only takes one little blip in one of those DNA bases one time to rewrite a story). Taking part in a clinical trial allowed me to attach some purpose to being a surprise winner in the crud lottery.

The EndoPredict results returned with the news I wanted- my cancer scored as having a low-percentage risk of recurrence within 10 years. We would skip chemotherapy and head straight to radiotherapy.

That carrot was back within reach.

B(©)(©)B UPDATE: It’s been a while, but fantastic news today! My oncologist has my trial results… It’s a low-risk cancer, in terms of it returning, so I don’t need chemo! The benefit of doing the trial is that he was able to make this decision based on my own little sh*t, rather than the statistical probabilities of other people’s little sh*ts.

Now, I can start thinking about Christmas, then I’ll have four weeks of radiotherapy in the new year. Hopefully, it should all be finished in time for our belated honeymoon to New Zealand! 

In the meantime, I’m starting my decade of hormone replacement, so let’s see what kind of a menopausal monster I’m going to transform into. They’re not hot flushes, they’re just POWER BOOSTS! 

Once again, thank you so much to all of you sparkling diamonds in my life. I’m so very very lucky to feel so loved. #TeamSuperHan army!

SMOOCH!!
SuperHan
Xxxxx

 

13th November 2015

12096230_10100225424227707_6592145701750876487_nFriday 13th. Unlucky for some?

Fortunately, this Friday 13th brought me the best news I could have hoped for- my body was cancer-free! Just a couple of weeks earlier, I had wanted to claw my own boob open with my fingernails to scratch out the alien in my body. I still look at photos of myself from my Canadian holiday and can feel the shadow of another presence, knowing that it was still in there. Now, there wasn’t a trace of it left.

The truth is, I’d been as lucky as a 30-year-old with breast cancer could possibly be. Just two months earlier, on 17th September, I was freaking out. There was a pain in my boob and it was weird- it was at the wrong time of the month for my usual tender time, and it was just on the left side. Alerted by this pain, I’d prodded about, and only then discovered the lump. My body had called out to me; fortunately, I’d listened.

I was deeply worried- my aunt had been through treatment for breast cancer the year before, so it was right at the front of my mind. However, I couldn’t help but tell myself I was being dramatic… I was making a mountain-out-of-a-molehill… It’s probably nothing… Still, I confided in a friend (who would go on to become the founder of Team SuperHan), and her response to my distress was to make the call right away.

You see, we work in a radiology department. Another stroke of luck. Rather than going through GP appointments and referrals, we called a cheeky favour from a colleague. The radiologist took a look that lunchtime, confirming the presence of a lump under ultrasound. She believed it was probably a non-cancerous fibroadenoma- nothing to worry about. But, “as a matter of course”, she took a biopsy anyway. That tissue sample would go on to confirm that the lump was a Grade 2 invasive ductal carcinoma.

Unlike some of my peers, I wasn’t told that it couldn’t possibly be cancer, because cancer “isn’t painful”.

Unlike some of my peers, I hadn’t been turned away for being “too young”.

Early detection is the best form of defence against cancer. My friend had pushed me to get the lump checked, and the radiologist had been thorough in her investigation. Thanks to these people, I gained a timely diagnosis, and my cancer had been completely treatable.

I certainly had a fair share of good luck along the way. But we still have the power to tip the odds in our favour.

I now volunteer as a Boobette for a breast cancer awareness charity called CoppaFeel! Our mission is to stamp out the late- or mis-diagnosis of breast cancer. We do this by:

  • ENCOURAGING people to regularly check their boobs
  • EDUCATING people on the signs and symptoms of breast cancer
  • EMPOWERING people to get anything weird checked out.

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For more information, visit www.coppafeel.org.

Start the habit of a lifetime and get familiar with your boobs. You don’t have to leave it all to luck. Knowing your boobs could save your life.

B(©)(©)B UPDATE: OK guys, are you ready for this…?

Surgery results are back: the little sh*t is out and it hasn’t spread anywhere else!    I DON’T HAVE CANCER ANYMORE!!!!!! EEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!

So, now the unwelcome lodger has been successfully evicted, we just need to make it feel *really* unwelcome so it doesn’t come back. I’ll be going through 4 weeks’ radiotherapy and 10 years’ hormone treatment to see to that.

The next question is whether or not I need chemo. Given my age and circumstances, I’m not a”definitely does” or a “definitely doesn’t”, so I’m being put forward for a clinical trial where they will further analyse the tissue that they’ve already removed. I’ve got an oncology appointment next week to take that further.

Happy!! 
Big love,
SuperHan
Xxxxx

12th November 2015

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I’d been keeping Frankenboob under wraps since my surgery, supported day and night by a sports bra. The tape covering each scar was coming away at the edges, and each day I’d take a breath, tentatively tease it away from my skin a little more, before chickening out, smoothing it back down and fastening the sports bra back up.

It was the armpit tape that came away first. I remember being fascinated with the newly-revealed scar, obsessively studying it. The stitches had mostly dissolved, and the surface incision was sealed together with surgical glue. With the tape now removed, I could gently soap away their remnants and see my new skin.

It looked tidy.

The tape across my breast was more stubborn, being longer and better-protected inside the bra. So, despite being emboldened by my acceptance of the armpit scar, my boob was still an unknown entity that stirred a wibble of dread in my stomach. I could see the colours that spilled out from the edges of the tape: the shockingly blue blotch of the dye from surgery, the yellow bruising, and the green where the two bled together. The tape was no longer serving the wound; it was just protecting me from the full sight of my new boob, like an elastoplast for my brain.

Ultimately, the dressing needed to come off. And so, in the shower, I held my breath, peeled back a little more, then exhaled… Another gulp, another millimetre or two… It wasn’t the tug of the tape- it was the fear of what it would reveal. Somehow, in my mind, I felt like pulling the tape away would just cause the whole thing to spill open again.

Of course, it didn’t. It looked just as tidy as the armpit scar, and I was just as obsessed. Over a week after surgery, I viewed the entirety of my new boob for the first time.

There was a dimple that ran underneath the breast scar, where the tissue had been removed and the surrounding area was falling into place. (Later, after fully healing, the scar tissue within would actually come to feel comparatively dense, ironically making the scarred boob the fuller of the two. My left wonkytit became the Phlumphy to my right boob’s Flappy, and bra fittings remain a challenge to this day).

And there was the tiny remnant of an undissolved stitch protruding through my skin. I kept catching it with my fingertips as I explored the line across my breast, so I reached for the tweezers to tidy it up. Well, you know when a magician pulls out a coloured handkerchief, and it’s followed by another hanky, and another, and they just keep coming? This stitch just kept on coming. My brain lost its sh*t and jumped ship. Abandoned by the guidance of its pilot organ, my body found itself trying to cope alone. Breathing, right? That’s a thing I need to do! Lungs- do the breathing thing! Breathe like we remember how to breathe! Muscles- do the movement thing!

Panting, shivering, wimpering and sobbing, I raced into a full-on panic attack. Clutched within the jaws of the tweezers was no more than a centimetre or two of the stitch. It was enough.

Fortunately, I’d read a thing on the internet, which I’d later find out to be a “grounding technique”. They are tools to help us focus on our senses and bring us back into the room. Forcing my voice to find words, overriding the panting, I identified aloud:

  • 5 things I could see
  • 4 things I could hear
  • 3 things I could feel
  • 2 things I could smell
  • 1 thing I could taste

My husband rushed in to find me naked, in tears, shouting lists at myself. It doesn’t sound like my finest moment, but it was monumental- I’d found the power to seatbelt my own brain. Focusing on my surroundings, I descended back into my body and found myself cradled in the safety of Mike’s comforting arms.

To this day, I like to make myself do physical things that I know will challenge my fears: abseils, caving, bigger and bigger zip lines… I like to exercise that ability of “mind-over-matter”, to train myself in overriding my brain when it’s trying to trigger the ejector seat- like “toning” for my emotional resilience. This Spring, my husband and I did the Skywalk around the outside of Auckland’s Sky Tower, 192 metres over the city with no handrail. Why? Because one evening in November 2015, I completely flipped out after removing a plaster. I may or may not see cancer again in my life, but if I do, I want to have all the tools ready for it.

B(©)(©)B UPDATE: Both the dressings are off and it’s all looking pretty tidy! I thought I’d have to learn to love my new skin, but to be honest, it all still looks and feels like me. Just, with added interest  #ChicksDigScarsAnyway

4th November 2015

“Where would you rather be right now?”, my anaesthetist asked, as a cannula was being fitted into a vein in my hand.

It was the day of my surgery to remove the cancer. The lump measured 8mm x 10mm (about the size of a grain of sweetcorn), so I was undergoing a lumpectomy rather than a full mastectomy- removing the lump and a margin of healthy tissue, rather than removing the whole breast tissue. To confirm that the cancer cells hadn’t spread from that lump, the surgeon would also perform a romantically-named Sentinel Node Biopsy at the same time. This involved removing the lymph nodes from my armpit that the cancer would drain into. These lymph nodes would be the first “port-of-call” for the spreading cancer cells, so, if the lymph nodes were clear, the cancer hadn’t spread. In order to identify the Sentinel nodes to remove, my cancer site had been injected with a radioactive marker the day before, and would be injected with a strikingly blue dye during surgery. The surgeon then removes all of the radioactive and blue lymph nodes, which are sent away to the laboratory for testing. This targeted method allows the surgeon to leave as many lymph nodes in place as possible, so they can continue doing their smashing little job of shipping fluids and white blood cells about my bod.

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X marks the spot, indicating the Sentinel lymph nodes to be removed.

As such, I would be acquiring two scars today- one across my boob, where the cancer was being removed, and one in my armpit, where the sentinel nodes were coming out. Titanium clips would also be inserted to mark the original site of the cancer, in case of any need of a reference point in the future. To my relief, the surgeon that had originally broken the news of my diagnosis to me was also performing the surgery. He is an unpatronising, softly-spoken hand-holder who has been with me since D-day; I’m a tactile hugger that needs an influence of calm to counter my excitability. I adore this man. I trust this man. I feel safe with this man. Offering me some form of control of the situation, my surgeon asked if I would rather have the main scar running across or down my boob. However, if any further surgery was needed for any reason, an incision running across would be easier to re-open, avoiding any further scarring. I suggested that he had rather more experience in these situations than me, and decreed that I trusted his professional judgement. But he had given me the opportunity to at least make that choice.

I then met with my anaesthetist. For me, the concept of the general anaesthetic was the most unnerving thing about surgery- to completely hand over complete control of completely everything you are… it’s weird and it’s creepy. “Yeah, it is weird”, he nods, gratifyingly void of any dismissive BS. “I’ve been doing this for years, and, you’re right- it’s totally weird!” I’m reassured by his honest bluntness, and I feel like my uneasiness has been vindicated. I decide this guy’s good for my team. I’m still the boss of this situation. I’m still in control.

I’d never had a general anaesthetic before, so he talked me through what I would experience. It’s not like sleep, where you wake up with a notion of time having passed. With an anaesthetic, you wake up where you left off, so his method was to get me talking about a place where I am happy and calm and at ease, because I would then wake up in that same place.

Where would I rather be? The English Lake District, of course. Any day of the week. And so, I began nattering about my favourite fells…

…and views and hikes. “Oh, I’m not Duncan! I’m the nurse looking after you today”. The guy I was chatting to had changed. I was in a different room.

It had happened.

At this point, I became shivery and tears came to my eyes, but this was ok! The anaesthetist had warned me that a lot of people experience this when they wake up. This is expected! This is normal. I’m still in control. I’m still in control.

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Too much information? Nope!

About 4 hours after going into surgery, my husband was coming to bring me home. I clambered like Bambi across the day ward to the get to the loo. As I stood up from the toilet, I glanced back- I didn’t remember there being disinfectant down the bowl when I sat down! Then I remembered- that’s my body excreting the dye. My pee is bright blue! They’d warned me about this! This is expected! I’m still in control. I’m still in control.

Of course, I was never really in control. I was just doing what needed to be done. But the attitudes of my healthcare professionals allowed me to feel informed about what was happening to me, which gave me at least an illusion of having some say in the matter. In turn, that allowed me to take ownership of my experience, my treatment decisions and of my newly-cut, bruised, titanium-wielding boob.

“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do”- Brené Brown

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I’m home! Feeling like a warrior princess and #TeamSuperHan is my army  thank you so much for all the smiles you’ve sent my way. Big, big love xxxxx

30th October 2015

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What on earth do you say to your mate who’s just been diagnosed with cancer?

This was the dilemma that my friends faced as I returned to work from my Canadian escape. I had naïvely intended to keep working until my surgery, genuinely believing I could do so. I felt physically well- I could do my job! This was wishful thinking.

My colleagues had kindly scheduled my MRI scan for my return. Working in a radiology department, I’m pretty familiar with the scanners. I’d spent years talking patients through their procedures; I know the MRI scanner is noisy, I know you have to stay still for an relatively long time to gain diagnostic images. I thought I knew what was in store for me. But this time, I was the patient.

It’s a phenomenon that a (now-retired) MRI superintendent radiographer had once tried to explain to me- a person receives a diagnosis, they are swamped with information and responses and appointments and possible outcomes and statistics and all they can do is ride the wave that’s bouncing their little dinghy from rock-to-rock-to-rock. Then, for the first time since this diagnosis, they are dressed in a hospital gown, lying uncomfortably, alone, inside a machine for up to an hour. That person, in that moment of deafening solitude, realises that they have become The Patient. That was the moment it became real. It would be another six months before I went back to work after that.

However, I was never actually as lonely as I felt in that scanner. It was at this moment in my life that I experienced the very best of being a human being. One of my dearest friends, Becx, was not happy with the idea of buying flowers to cheer me up; she found the idea of cut flowers that would wilt and die to be pretty morbid, like she was already planning for my funeral. Instead, she designed a badge in my favourite colour (green- the colour of life) with my tongue-in-cheek nickname, and handed them out to all of my friends and family that she could contact. I knew nothing of this, until I started receiving a stream of selfies of all my nearest-and-dearest, all wearing my badge. Needless to say, I felt amazing! I was being wrapped with love from everyone I knew. But, even more ingeniously, Becx had given people a way to show their support at a time when it is so hard to find the right words to say. To this day, this has been one of the most powerful human experiences of my life, for which I am overwhelmingly grateful, and it has carried me through some of the darkest times. And so, in a flood of brilliantly cringey photos, Team SuperHan was born!

B(©)(©)B UPDATE: Everything is ready to rock and roll! Nuclear med appointment next Tuesday, in preparation for surgery to get it out on Wednesday. The MRI confirms that the little sh*t is teeny-tiny and doesn’t have any friends. Unlike myself, who has lots of friends and they are awesome and I’m really loving all these hugs!! It’s really been so nice to see so many people this week xxx

9th October 2015

IMG_20151008_140723241_HDRMy diagnosis arrived the day before I was due to fly out to Canada for two weeks… with two of my closest friends… but, without my husband. You don’t exactly plan for these kind of eventualities.

To be completely brutal- for me, at the time, in that moment, this was exactly what I needed. For those two weeks, it removed me from my situation. It removed me from the hospital- my workplace that had now become my treatment centre. It gave me somewhere new to explore and distract me, instead of anxiously waiting two weeks for my scan and surgery dates. It removed me from having to manage other peoples’ responses to my diagnosis, allowing me to digest it in my own way, at my own pace, for myself. I’m not going to lie- this was brilliant for me.

Basically, I lit the touch-paper and then ran away.

In hindsight, I appreciate how ugly and deeply selfish this was. My two friends probably experienced the weirdest fortnight of their lives, thrown into a desperately awkward situation of entertaining me, as I was trying to process a roulette-board of emotions. But I also left my husband to deal with the blast by himself. He’d been by my side for a decade already, supporting me through elation and emotional breakdowns, and I’d abandoned him for an adventure in another country. I know I hurt him then, and I hate me for that. The truth is, cancer affects more than just the individual, and the impact is also huge and lasting for those closest to them. I guess I just needed to get my own head around that first, to acknowledge it.

In survival mode, we need to fit our own oxygen mask before helping others. Am I proud of this? No. If I could replay it, would I run away again? To be painfully honest, probably, yes. Does this make me a terrible person? Possibly.

It was a fight-or-flight instinct, and in that moment, I flew.

So, it’s been a week already. Thank you so much to everybody for all the support and warmth that Michael and I have felt. I’ve read all of your messages over and over again, and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so over the next months. Sam and Derek have been the best distraction; lots of silliness and hugs! I had a little blip on Tuesday when stuff was sinking in, but then one of my friend’s messages told me that it’s OK to wobble, because that’s what boobs do. I love my people. xxx