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Archive for March, 2012

Warrior Man

My friend Annie turned up at green tea time today (I used to say coffee time) clutching a dark chocolate cake and a little warrior.  He is made of bronze, fits in the palm of my hand and was made by her late father, a wonderful sculptor.  The warrior’s rectangular shield is held at an angle across his body resting on one muscly thigh.  The other leg is flexed back.  He’s looking through a straight visor in a pointed helmet.  There are broad shoulders but no arms.  The metal feels cold and heavy.  He was made as a pawn for a chess set.  I don’t think Mike finished the set.

Apparently Annie’s mum woke up today and said, ‘I know what we have to send Hester.’  I am hugely touched by this. And he really does look as if he is ready to defend the fortress.  He is definitely not a panicker.  Knows his own mind and will remind me to know mine.

He is  accompanying me into battle on this the first day of chemo.  I tied a lace around him and attached it to my jeans.  He is coming with me wherever I go.  When I am through this I will give him back, as he will be experienced and can accompany others.

When Fred wakes up I will get the photo of Warrior Man from his phone and upload it.

ps, did have a bit of chocolate cake even though mainly am eating strawberries, quinoa, almonds and green tea.

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First chemo

In the car, we discussed the name for the breast blog.  ‘I need a better name than just The Breast Blog,’ I said.

‘You should call it ‘The Breast Blog in the World,’ said Fred.

It’s perfect.  Like finding the right name for your child.  It made me happy all the way there.

Arrived at half past two.  They called us into the ‘pod’ about an hour later.  I lay on the bed with the back up.  Fred had the chair.

My nurse, Carolyn, was really informative, obviously loves her job.  Two nurses have to check obsessively all the time that you are the right person.  Name, date of birth, first line of address, only then are the drugs forthcoming.

The pod was full of peeps.  The man next to us had been there since nine in the morning.  The young girl opposite had a cold cap on.  It can slow down hair loss.

Carolyn put the cannulla in a vein in the left hand, taped it on neatly.  ‘Do you not put it in the elbow?’ I asked.

‘Well, better in the hand, in case of a bad local reaction… the further down the limb the better,’ she replied.

‘Worst case scenario, amputation, you mean,’ I realised.  She nodded.  It’s the reality.

I clutched Warrior Man in my right hand.  She put through a bag of steroids which help prevent an allergic reaction to the drug.  She gave me an anti-sickness pill.  Twenty or so minutes later she flushed with saline for about twenty minutes.  Then she put the bigger bag of docetaxel on the drip, covered in a dark brown bag as it is sensitive to light.  I must say, it had a bit of an ominous look.

The nurse said she would stay with us, as if you are going to have an allergic reaction it will happen usually during the first few seconds.  All went well, though.  I felt nothing, just the cold going up the arm, and a bit light-headed.  And then suddenly giggly, as Carolyn said the wig lady had retired, and Fred said, ‘don’t worry, we’ve got lots of wigs at home in the dressing up. You could wear the big curly blonde wig.’  He seemed really chuffed by this idea, a blonde wife at last.  Really had quite a massive laugh.  Carolyn had warned us about the euphoria from the steroids.  You have to be quite careful not to succumb to giggling wreckdom for too long, or you can crash again quite badly.

So there I was, trying to quench my laughter.  Whenever Fred said annoying things I pointed Warrior Man at him which got us laughing again.   We were watching the lovely girl with the cold cap on.  Fred was reading the chemo booklet about hair loss still.  He said, ‘Oh look, you lose all your body hair.  That’s good, I suppose?’

It must be recorded here that both of us simultaneously invented the idea of the muff-protecting cold cap.  Don’t try to claim it for your own, Fred!   We thought how funny it would be to turn up next time with a prototype.  I mean, who really wants to save their pubes? Apart from me I mean?  Maybe lots of people.  This thought reminded me of the Happy to be Hairy poem, Ancestors by Adrian Mitchell. ( If you want to read it:  http://wonderingminstrels.blogspot.co.uk/2000/04/ancestors-adrian-mitchell.html )

Our uncontrollable spasmic hoots were probably disturbing the man next to us, but he and his wife didn’t seem to mind.

Rode at the front of the top deck back to the Park and Ride.  Still moderately high as a kite nine hours later at four in the morning.  Body feels well oiled, pumping away, beautifully comfortable and energetic.  Hey, enjoy it while it lasts….

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Strong woman crash

I relate the following not because I am proud, please understand, but because my little hard-gleaned truths might help other newly diagnosed ‘strong women’ !  :

Again, I assured my friend who had accompanied me that I would be absolutely fine on my own, why would I not be, and she went to park the car for me before going on into Cambridge.  I went to Oncology, showed them the letter and asked, ‘Is this where I am meant to be for an MRI Scan?’

‘Yes’ the chap said, ‘yes,’ again, ‘and your notes are here so it must be.’  He smiled. ‘We’re expecting you.  Take a seat.’

I checked with the bloke sitting next to me as well.  ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘we’ve been coming for six years.  They come and call you.’

I chatted to him for an hour about his son’s Ewing Sarcoma which he got when he was thirteen.  Then I went and asked again. ‘Look, sorry, but are you sure I’m in the right place?’

This time the chap checked with someone else and said, ‘No,  you were meant to be 100 metres along the road at MRI Reception one hour ago. Your later appointment is here. That’s why your notes are here.’

I ran.  I burst in to the reception, panting ‘I’m so sorry.  I’ve been waiting in the wrong place for an hour.’

The receptionist said ‘They won’t scan you now.  You’ve thrown their whole program out.  You were meant to be here half an hour early.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ I repeated.  ‘I made a mistake.  I did ask if I was in the right place…. it really seemed like the right place.’

That’s why we send a map out,’  she said.  OMG did I ever feel incompetent and ungrateful.  She went off and came back.  ‘Well, they will see you, but there’ll be a long wait.’

I waited another hour with around ten people.  Grabbed a Hello magazine.  I was surprised to find that the odd tear was uncontrollably plopping onto the magazine.  Shit.  I’m forty five for God’s sake.  Where had Strong Woman gone?

Eventually I sat waiting outside a locker room in a hospital gown, no clothes, no phone, no bag.  I felt physically and emotionally like an onion that has had layers and layers removed.  Exposed to the core.  I saw that buoyancy is fragile.  You can go under so  fast, it’s ridiculous.  And although you know, you know, you know your friends and family are thinking of you, you can suddenly feel horribly alone.

The scan was interesting enough to distract me from my terrible pathetic feelings.  They give you ear plugs.  You go on all fours on the platform thing, they raise it up (my usual self would probably have started singing ‘You raise me up!’  Just for a laugh), you lie forward and put your head on a foam support, your arms forwards and your boobs through two holes.  The MRI people sort of rummage the breasts to make sure they are in position.  Then they go away.  I didn’t feel alone though now as I was so intrigued.  The machine does not just make knocking noises.  It judders and buzzes and rhythmically groans.  A bit like a rollercoaster when you’re at the top before the big descent.  Fascinating.  Twenty minutes of pure entertainment.  I entered a trance state.

I went back to Oncology, had blood taken, MRSA swabs (nose, roof of mouth, groin, sorry but it is all quite fascinating), talked with a nurse about side-effects, and met another consultant, a really beautiful young doctor.  She made me tell her what I understand so far.  She told me that instead of having FEC-T, I will be having T-FEC.  It means having docetaxyl for the first three treatments, then the other drugs beginning with FEC for the second lot of three treatments.  She explained that women in a recent trial did better with T-FEC.  She explained that the chemo before op is a good choice as any rogue cells which might have gone further into the body will be killed.  It’s safe.  (We hope, I keep adding darkly, normally with a massive chuckle.)

So then the nurse showed me round the ‘pod’ in the day unit, where the chemo happens.  Beds and chairs round the edges, ill peeps and a big drug station in the middle.  I asked the nurse how come the doctor I just met feels confident to overturn a whole team’s decision on the FEC-T.  ‘It’s her speciality,’ she replied.  ‘She’s amazing, really clever.’

She certainly seemed so.  ‘So you would trust her?’

‘Yes, I would.’

Nice and simple.  I will trust her then.

I walked out of there at three pm.  I had been there for five hours.  Totally forgot about food.  Didn’t think it would take so long.

In the car I started to cry again, sob even, and just couldn’t stop.  The news talked about the twenty two Belgian children killed in the coach accident.  I howled for them and their families. You would think this would have jolted me out of my ridiculous self-pitying state, but it didn’t.

Arriving home, I found the post had arrived.  I opened it to find the map showing MRI reception clearly two along from Oncology.  I couldn’t stop crying. Jetting hot tears!  Seriously, this is not like me.  Three slightly cutting remarks from a receptionist and I am to be floored for the rest of the day?

I managed to give a flute lesson.  My adult pupil was kind,  sympathetic, insisted she would come with me and give em what for.  We drank tea.  Then she left.  All my children were out.  The dogs surrounded me, Whisky on my knee, Treacle leaning her hairy bulk against my legs, Huggi laying his head on my knee.  There were plums and strawberries that a dear friend had dropped in earlier from the market.  I phoned several friends, all of whom were out!  Then I remembered my sister.  Thank god.  Due to her circs, she can be relied upon to accept crying as a normal part of life.  As she did.  I just boohooed and boohooed and boohooed.

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Cancer in the family

So, today was my meeting with the oncologist, a handsome chap with a Greek accent.

‘Do you have any cancer in the family?’ he asks.

‘No, none,’  I answer confidently.  Then I think about it.  ‘Actually, three of my cousins have had breast cancer and another two had other cancers.’

His eyebrows shoot up.  ‘First cousins?’

‘Yes, but I am one of twenty seven cousins,’ I add hastily, ‘so it’s not that bad is it?’

My cancer makes the fraction six over twenty seven.  Even though I’m not prepared to take the maths much further, plain as day even I can see it’s pretty bad.

‘Any other family?’

‘Well…. Jean, David, Jimmy and  Kay,  my uncles and aunts,  they all died of cancer.’

He scrutinises me with a clinical interest.

‘Meg, Bobby and Linty are still going strong, don’t worry,’ I reassure him.

‘On your mother’s side or your father’s?’ he asks faintly.

‘My mother’s.   I don’t think she’ll  get it though.  She’s had porridge every day of her life.’

The medical student sitting on the bed looks baffled.  I nod at him encouragingly.

The oncologist asks if I have any other symptoms.

‘Well, I have a bit of a dicky heart.  It was going through patches of missing every third beat.’  If  I’m going to have an op I want them to know my heart might give up the ghost in the middle of it.  ‘So I gave up coffee and it got better.’

‘That particular arrhythmia has a name.’ He gives me the name but I forget it straight away.

He says they want to perform a single or maybe double mastectomy in five months after four months of chemo.  ‘We feel it’s safer to sterilise your whole body first.’

Shit, does he know that I never mop the floor?  I stifle the desire to come out with ‘Are you calling me a pikey? Are you disrespecting me though?’  That wicked Catherine Tate has a lot to answer for.

Later he asks if I have any questions.  I ask him if I can fly.  He says they would prefer if I don’t travel over the next four months in case I suddenly get a high temperature or other dodgy symptoms and have to be rushed in.

‘Greece is too far, right?’ I know the answer already.  My booked flights will have to be given away.  “Bovvered, does this face look bovvered?’

‘You like to go to Greece?’

‘I love Greece.  I studied Modern Greek at uni.  Spent a year in Thessaloniki.’

He smiles.  ‘I am from Thessaloniki.’

We talk  Greek.  I feel like I have an ally.  I don’t call him Malaka or Pousti this time.  We are not that familiar yet.

Then he examines the breasts.  The first time, two weeks ago in the doctor’s surgery, this felt slightly awkward.  Since then the breasts have been felt ten times by different people as well as being prodded and pricked for the biopsy and ultrasound.  It is beginning to feel a bit routine.

Afterwards the attendant nurse hands me my bra.  Sweet.

I have to go again on Thursday this week for an MRI scan.  Chemo will start on Friday.  Exciting!  I wonder how it will feel.

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I pick Fred up from the station.  So much has happened, including diagnosis and mastectomy recommendations, during the time he’s been away.  I am obviously bursting with things to tell him.

He’s looking slightly tanned, healthy, gorgeous.  First we kiss.  Then he talks about his journey.  I mention treatment options.  He mentions the journey again.  I mention operations and reconstruction.  He talks about Pune, the town he stayed in.

‘Hey, we have to talk about boobs,’ I insist. ‘In two days time we have to have made some decisions.’  I tell him about not being able to have radiotherapy due to having had a lifetime’s worth when I was young.

A little voice comes out of the dark beside me.  ‘Can I tell you about India now?’

We laugh because he says Indiah like the boy in the Youtube Gap Yah sketch.

It is clear that while I have been immersed in this little breast drama, he has not really understood what is happening.

At home, when he has rested and had a glass of wine, and told us all about his travels and work, ‘that’s sooo strange, because in Indiah…..’etc,  I am puzzling away to find imagery that will work for him.  What part of the male form is equivalently soft and tender?  Oh yes.   ‘Look, it’s like as if someone is going to cut a round hole in each of your bollocks, scoop out the insides, stuff them with fat from your abdomen and then sew them up.’

The moans and  groans are visceral.  ‘Uh, uh, stop, please, don’t.’  Hands over eyes, the works.

I know I’m really mean, but by Jove, I think he’s got it.

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