A newly-wed diagnosed with breast cancer writes of a life interrupted – but not destroyed.
My story is a good-news cancer story. Not because I’m now cancer-free – which I am, whoop-whoop! – but because having cancer wasn’t all bad. And I still felt like me during treatment, despite the shite. Given one in three Kiwis will have cancer at some point, I figure that’s a pretty good message to pass on. And perhaps even knowing a little of my story will make it less scary if you’re ever in the same boat.
What’s more, illnesses, disabilities, conditions – they’re all part of being human. And I think we should talk about these more: what it’s like, how it happened or how you knew you had it and, my personal fave, living well with it. Perhaps by talking about illness and disability, we’ll normalise them, even if they feel like the most abnormal thing.
Let’s start with me. Cancer interrupted a pretty great life and an exciting time: I had just got married and our honeymoon was fast approaching, my career was on track, we’d moved into our first home, and we’d just scored some folic acid to start trying for a baby. And then, cancer. Cue doom music! It’s an all-too-common story for younger women like me who have not yet reached regular mammogram age. I found a lump, which was actually two; tests showed aggressive grade 3, triple positive (oestrogen, progesterone and HER-2), invasive ductal carcinoma, stage II breast cancer. Yeah, I had to Google it, too.
I was not a regular boob checker; never considered cancer a possibility. Even after knowing two women in their 30s with breast cancer, I still didn’t cop a feel. Younger breast tissue is denser, too, so by the time you feel a lump “by chance”, it’s often pretty big or has spread to places you don’t want it to go (thankfully mine had not, and was localised in my breast only).
So, a side note to all – and I do mean all, as men get breast cancer too, and hell, this applies to all cancers and illnesses – know your body’s version of “normal”. And if anything changes, go straight to your GP. And whatever you do, get the scans and tests to know for sure. Be your own health advocate, know your family history, have regular WOF check-ups (be like your car, people!) and don’t delay if you notice anything different.
We asked for candidness, and pretty much knew from my first scan that it was cancer, which was confirmed a week later. One of the shittiest parts of getting cancer – as with any condition, I imagine – is processing it. It’s all the unknowns. Tears, shock, cuddles, WTFs, incessant Googling (I don’t recommend it), imagining your death, raging against what may be taken from you, despair at your life being interrupted, and fear about what’s to come. There were lots of long walks on the beach with ice cream, I tell you. And we most definitely got drunk the day it was confirmed and had to tell people.
From then, things went into hyperdrive. We started IVF the next week; a fortnight later, I was in induced clinical menopause and in the Chemo Chair (a very comfortable blue La-Z-Boy).
Yes, folks, my cancer journey began with IVF. A double hit, you could say; well, a triple hit if you count the menopause that followed. We went from thinking we had months of (fun) sex ahead to being reliant on science to keep the baby dream alive. It’s a weird thing being in the midst of a cancer diagnosis – endless appointments and tests – and going through IVF. It wasn’t until they started counting my follicles at each scan that it dawned on me we were actually doing IVF and that It. May. Not. Work. It’s not the time to discover you have fertility issues, as some sadly do. But it worked: we have six embryos on ice, and a lot of inside knowledge about how amazing and kind IVF medical people are, how much of a rollercoaster infertility treatment is, and how sad the waiting rooms are (much more so than they are in oncology).
Then, chemo. I was locked in for six cycles, every three weeks. The idea was terrifying. I’d seen those cancer movies. I imagined being bed- or toilet-bound like one bald, sick, unhappy baby. But I wasn’t (though I was, indeed, bald when not rocking a wig). Anticipating the unknowns was way worse than the reality.
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I was given a long list of possible side effects, and I went down a Google rabbit warren of what to expect and what could help counter them. I stocked up on so many unnecessary things, child’s toothbrush included. Day one of chemo, I packed like it was the first day of school with a whole lot of things I didn’t end up needing. By my second chemo, I was down to a mug, book, pack of cards and some treats for the nurses.
Chemo, for all its scariness, is just a liquid that flows through an IV. You don’t feel it. In fact, if you feel it, it’s a bad sign. You’re comfortable, people chat, laugh, nap, read, write, knit and drink tea. The day after? I usually worked out. Yeah, that surprised me too. But I was on a cocktail of drugs to combat side effects – a nana pill-box full! – so I felt relatively normal, good even. Steroids were my friends.
It wasn’t until days later that things kicked in. It’s different for everyone; for me, it was a mix of a bad hangover, the flu, the day after an intense gym session, and some serious sleep deprivation. It can be bad, but it’s bad moments or bad days, and not all-consuming. Yes, the fatigue could be hard; I was in a perpetual chemo fog (that I noticed the most after it was over), had no idea when an often-weird side effect would hit me, and I had an old-man shuffle going at times, but I was never bedridden for long bouts as I feared.
Of four and a half months, there were only about two weeks when I spiralled into the sick hole – when I started to feel actually sick, then my brain took over and I stayed inside, feeling sorry for myself. Generally, though – with my husband and Mum’s help (in the form of “Are you up and out?” texts) – I was able to move quickly from my bad, actually sick days to feeling more normal.
And I still had fun. I still went to gigs and dinners, I still saw friends, I still laughed, I still went on adventures, I still felt like me. Chemo did indeed change things, but it didn’t change me or my lifestyle. I just adapted and carried on – which is pretty much what having cancer is all about: adapting and carrying on. You really don’t have a choice and you’re definitely not a “fighter”, as so often described. You’re more of a sheep: you do as you’re told and simply put one foot in front of the other to survive and – hopefully – enjoy life when you can.
After chemo, came surgery (two, thanks to a complication). I had my boob off and another one in via an implant (a foob, or fake boob). Naturally, we had the customary “boob off” party, complete with a boob cake and bubbles, beforehand. I took a good whack to the cancer side of that cake with a knife. I wasn’t bothered about losing the breast – it had cancer, after all – and I was on cloud nine (and, um, morphine) after the surgery, knowing the cancer was finally gone. I did find recovering from surgery hard, though. I was in pain, immobile, had complications that required regular check-ups and another surgery, and had to lug around drains that were attached to my insides (so, so gross). But it wasn’t cancer and I knew it was all temporary, so I put on my big-girl pants and rode it out.
Now, I’m cancer-free. Not treatment-free: I have Herceptin infusions until September and will be in clinical menopause for five years or so to starve my body of cancer-feeding hormones. But, six months on from my last chemo and five months on from surgery, I feel (and look) almost back to normal, hair growth ’n’ all. I even have moments of disbelief that cancer even happened.
Hopefully, it’s the end of my cancer story. There’s a chance it will come back and, if so, it will be stage IV and incurable. But I don’t think about it. If it does, it does. I don’t want the fear of that possibility impacting my happiness today. And I know that if it does happen, I’ll find a way to live well when I can.
Don’t get me wrong, cancer sucks. The mental, financial and physical toll is huge – on you and your loved ones. And while my story has a happy ending, others’ don’t. Many people can’t get out of bed even when they want to.
But there’s so much good, too: the love, support and kindness of others, reconnecting with old friends, seeing our amazing nurses and doctors at work, meeting so many fab people with the common denominator of cancer, moments of joy, wit and laughter, and the strengthening of relationships – especially mine and my husband’s. And yes, re-evaluating life, how to live it, what you want out of it, what’s important, and what will make you happy every single day. Because one thing having cancer does is teach you that you’re mortal. We die, and we have very little control over when and how that happens. To me, this isn’t scary anymore, it just makes me determined to live a happy, healthy, stress-free and connected life with the people I love.
I hope you and your loved ones never get cancer, I really do. Or any other debilitating illness or condition. But if it happens, know there’ll still be good among the bad and that the bad may only be temporary. You will adapt and carry on, and still be you.
This article was first published in the August 2019 issue of North & South.