A cathartic week in Scotland

I very recently got back from Scotland, where I spent a whole week visiting family and friends I’d not seen since last November.

I feel like a weight has been lifted from me. I also swear that for much of the time I was there, I came as close as I possibly could to forgetting that I have incurable breast cancer.

The main reason I went to Scotland was to see my mum. This wonderful lady is 83, has dementia and lives in a care home in my home city of Glasgow. She is very well looked after but things are tough with the pandemic. The restrictions on visiting are very tight – for example, indoor visiting is banned. In common with thousands like her, my mum is struggling to understand what is happening and is suffering from the lack of social interaction and physical exercise.

Over the course of seven days, I saw as much of my mum as I possibly could. I also spent time with each of my five brothers. I saw nine of my eleven nieces and nephews (the other two live here in London). I visited a few good friends, and, thanks to the good organisational skills of one brother, I managed to combine a lovely bike ride out in the countryside south of Glasgow with a visit to a cousin who recently lost her mum – my own mum’s last remaining sibling.

I had four 30-minute “window visits” where I spoke to my mum on the phone while standing outside her room with her inside at the window. I also had one 30-minute socially distanced face-to-face visit in the grounds of the care home. 

While my mum now struggles to remember who we are, there’s definitely still a connection. Even if she can’t process the fact that the person standing there in front of her is her daughter, she knows that the concept of daughter is important and that the person talking to her is important to her and that she is to him or her.

The proof lies in the following anecdote. On my first visit, I suggest that she write in her diary that I’m coming to see her the following day. She gets her diary out, opens it on the July 27 page, and I suggest she write “Maureen”. She writes “Maureen to visit today” in that still lovely and still neat handwriting that I’d recognise anywhere. I’m aware that the more memory prompts she has, the more likely it is that she’ll make sense of what she’s written. I therefore suggest that she also write “daughter”.  She duly writes daughter. Then, out of nowhere, she adds a little tick and a few kisses. As she adds the final “x”, she looks up, gives me a massive smile, and says with great satisfaction and pride, “there”. I can’t describe how happy that made me.

I felt relaxed, cared for and loved throughout the whole trip. Despite talking about my situation at length to anyone who cared to and was brave enough to ask, I became aware many, many times throughout my stay that the fact that I have incurable breast cancer was as far back in my consciousness as it’s been since I was diagnosed over a year ago.

It helped that the week I was there coincided with my week off treatment. Under the drug regime I’ve been on for the past few months, I’ve been taking a certain number of tablets of the oral chemo drug capecitabine twice a day – every day, morning and evening, more or less 12 hours apart – for two weeks then I have the third week off. You have to take each set of tablets within 30 minutes of eating.

On the week off, I don’t have to eat at a specific time, twice a day. I can skip breakfast if I want. I can have a late supper without having to remember to eat a snack a couple of hours earlier to stay within the 11-13 hour range that I think is acceptable. I don’t have to think about whether I need to take that evening’s supply of tablets out with me in case I’m not at home. I turn off the “Tablets AM” and “Tablets PM” reminders on my phone. It’s nice.

I packed a lot into the week but it never felt rushed. 

I visited friends and family in various places – Glasgow, Killearn, Perth. I rode a tandem for the first time. I had my first ride on an e-bike. I discovered a new park in Glasgow. I was introduced to the music of a couple of bands I hadn’t come across before. I had some really great food. I played tennis. I went on two bike rides, one of 35 miles and one of 20 miles. I breakfasted on wild raspberries during a walk in a park in Perth. I had my first meal out since lockdown was introduced in mid-March. I also managed to read a whole book – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

If you’ve read the post I wrote for the Institute of Cancer Research, you’ll know that I don’t have a bucket list. That said, being on the tandem was such good fun that retrospectively I’m adding “have a go on a tandem” to and ticking it off from that non-existent bucket list! The e-bike was fun too, but not bucket list material. It may yet become so, I guess, once getting up hills on a regular road bike becomes too much of an effort.

On the book front, parts of Hamnet moved me to tears. The protagonist in this lovely novel is Agnes (William Shakespeare’s wife). In one particular scene, it’s Agnes’s wedding day and she’s thinking of her mother, who died years earlier. O’Farrell writes:

“[Agnes] senses, too, somewhere off to the left, her own mother. She would be here with her had life taken a different turn… So it follows, of course, that she will be here now, in whatever form she can manage. Agnes does not need to turn her head, does not want to frighten her away. It is enough to know that she is there, manifest, hovering, insubstantial. I see you, she thinks. I know you are here.”

Again, as I wrote in the ICR blog, I try not to worry about possibly not being here for specific events such as weddings – the events we fear we’ll miss may never happen – but that passage did make me tearful. Indeed it’s not exactly easy writing this now. I find the words sad but also hugely comforting. I hope that when I’m gone and people feel they have need of me, they’ll think along those lines and find some sort of peace. I recommend the book, not just for that passage.

You should get the message loud and clear from reading this that I had a really lovely time. 

If I’m in any doubt at all myself as to whether I had a lot of fun, I have a physical reminder that I did. I’ve got a sodding big cold sore on my bottom lip. I’m an atheist but I was brought up a catholic and I can’t dissuade myself from thinking in a very Old Testament-esque way that cold sores are God’s way of punishing me for enjoying myself too much. I get them quite regularly, in exactly the same place on my bottom lip. They never just happen, though. They always happen in the immediate wake of my having done something that’s really fun – skiing, being on holiday in the sun, cycling on a sunny or windy day (that’s what caused the one I have now). Of course I know that bright sunlight and the cold and the wind can trigger cold sores but I have fun thinking divine retribution is to blame.* I hate them. They are horribly painful and can make you feel really low. The Scottish word “louping” seems tailor-made to describe how your lip feels when you have a cold sore. In addition, of course, they’re unsightly – so much so this time round that I’m quite thankful I have an excuse to wear a mask in public places!

Going back to the god issue, I have to confess that I went skiing several times earlier this year and, despite skiing in glorious sunshine on some days and in bitter cold on others, I didn’t get any cold sores. I like to think that was god giving me a bit of a break cos he/she knew that 1) the scans I was due to have soon after I got back would show signs of progression and I’d have to move on to a new line of treatment and 2) coronavirus was around the corner.

The pandemic forces us to make choices. You balance the risk of catching or unknowingly spreading the virus against your desire and/or need to go to certain places and do certain things. I didn’t need to go to Scotland but I chose to go. I took care on the hygiene front and on the social distancing front I did what I could. Everyone was very accommodating. Almost everyone I came across was complying with the recommendations on social distancing and mask-wearing. I felt pretty safe. 

I also didn’t need to have a massive hug with each of my brothers or they with me, but hug we did.

It was sad that I couldn’t hug my mum. This photo shows how close we were allowed to get to each other on the outside visit. It was far from ideal but, under the circumstances, it was the best I could do. It was enough. 

I feel like a different person after my trip. I realised in hindsight how concerned I’d been about my mum. Seeing she was OK – within the limited boundaries of what is possible – was a big relief. It was also so good to be in the company of so many family members and good friends. 

I got back from Glasgow on Sunday evening. First thing yesterday I went down to the hospital to have blood taken for the regular end-of-cycle tests. Today I saw the oncologist for the results. I’m tolerating capecitabine well, the relevant tumour marker is down again and all the other blood test results were good enough to switch from a three-week cycle of two weeks on and one week off to a four-week cycle of one week on and one week off times two. I start cycle #4 this evening. Back to enforced breakfasts and reminders on my phone and, more importantly, taking the cancer treatment that for the moment at least is enabling me to get on with living my life.

*While this image made me howl with laughter, I do of course realise that it is based on an outdated stereotype. One of my mum’s sisters was a nun and she was the life and soul of the party. More pertinently, my mum’s care home is run by nuns. Before lockdown, there was plenty of singing and dancing and fun and frivolity. I hope they can return to those days soon.

Please don’t ask to see my feet

I have three pieces of good news.

One, after getting pretty positive blood test results on Tuesday, I started on round three of oral chemo that evening.

Two, I have had a post-lockdown haircut.

Three, in another very welcome development, it turns out that the seven cases of COVID-19 that had been diagnosed at the care home where my mum lives in Glasgow were false positives.

I had blood tests done on Monday, on Day 21 of my second three-week cycle of the capecitabine that I’m taking as treatment for secondary breast cancer. I saw the consultant for the results the following day. The relevant tumour marker level has fallen again by a huge amount. In just two cycles of chemo, it has more than halved. It’s only one part of the jigsaw but that’s very good news.

My haemoglobin count was fine; it has held steady since the blood transfusion I had around a month ago after my first round of capecitabine. My white blood cell count is also healthy enough, and within that, without any additional pharmacological support, my neutrophil count is ok too. Various other measures – to do with my liver, for example – are also fine.

At my appointment with her, the oncologist talks me through the results and asks how I’ve been. She has previously warned me specifically to watch out for two main side effects of capecitabine – diarrhoea and palmar-plantar or hand-foot syndrome, where your hands and feet can become red and sore and swollen.

No diarrhoea whatsoever, I report happily. “Hands and feet?”, she asks. Fine, I say, showing her my hands. My nails never recovered from chemo first time round and the treatment I was on for a year before I moved on to this current treatment made them even worse. They’re not at all painful but they are not pretty. That’s just my nails, though. My hands themselves are fine, with no sign of the dreaded syndrome. 

This is going well, I think. And then it hits me. “Please don’t ask to see my feet, please don’t ask to see my feet,” I think. I mustn’t give her any cause for concern, I think. My left foot in particular is a bit of a mess at the moment, with a couple of large and unsightly blisters at varying stages of healing (reasons below). What if she suspects they’re caused by the chemo?

Anyway, she doesn’t ask – at least not then. Next comes the physical examination. I undress to the waist and get on the examination table. The consultant does the usual (usual in normal times, that is; this is the first time this has happened since February), feeling for lumps and bumps in my chest and abdomen and getting me to take deep breaths in and out while she listens with her stethoscope. 

And then it happens. While I’m still on the table, she says “shall we have a look at your feet?” Shit. As I take my sandals off, I start wittering on about how she has to believe me when I say that the fact my feet are a mess has nothing to do with the treatment and everything to do with new pumps I bought and wore without socks and ended up with several big and really painful blood blisters and one popped and I had to cut away the skin because it was making it worse and that’s why it’s got a plaster on and I’m listening to myself and I’m saying to myself, “Maureen, shut up, just show her your feet” but I keep going and now I’m telling her – and the breast cancer nurse who’s also there – how I have a permanent flap of hard skin under my big toe as a result of a bunion-removal operation a million years ago that blisters really easily, and, really, really, this has nothing to do with the treatment.

I finally shut up. I take the plaster off to expose all. She looks and says, “that’s fine, it’s healing”, applies a fresh plaster, checks between my toes, and we’re done.

Next time, I’ll just show her.

Incidentally, these side effects can develop at any time while you’re on this drug. You can have been on it for months without any problems and then they appear.

Anyway, the end result is that I‘m on Day 3 of round three of capecitabine – at a slightly higher dose than I was on for the first two cycles. 

Everyone has a maximum dose based on their body surface area. I started on 85% of my maximum dose and now I’m on 87.5%. Ideally it would have been 90% but the tablets only come in certain strengths and that’s the closest they could get. It doesn’t seem much of an increase but these are highly toxic drugs and I guess you have to take things slowly. 

If there’s evidence that the capecitabine (also known as Xeloda) is working well  and you’re also tolerating it well, you can be switched from a 21-day cycle of two weeks on and one week off to a 28-day cycle of one week on, one week off, one week on, one week off. On this longer cycle, you have less capecitabine overall even at the higher dose and your body has more recovery time within each cycle. IMG_20200712_133309898You also have fewer blood tests and fewer hospital trips; you have four weeks at a time to live your life, as it were, rather than three*. You may also be switched if you’re not tolerating the three-week cycle well. Luckily it looks as if I might be in the former category.

In terms of knowing whether the drug is working, we currently have the CA 15-3 tumour marker level and other blood test results to go on. My first scan or scans to assess the full impact will be sometime in the autumn.

As for the haircut, it looked great when I left the hairdressers – all moussed up, blow-dried and straightened. It won’t last five minutes under a bike helmet, I thought. Having done several bike rides since, I have been proved right, but at least I know what it can look like!

I wrote about the COVID-19 scare at my mum’s care home in my previous blog post. A few days later, the seven people who had tested positive were retested and the results came back negative. To everyone’s huge relief, the original results were deemed to have been false positives. I’m getting closer and closer to deciding to go up and visit, even if it’s through a window. The fact that two friends have just very recently lost their mums has made me even more aware that this is something I have to find a way of doing, pandemic or not.

*It’s hard to keep everything in sync when you’re on treatments with different dosing schedules. For example, I have to go back to the hospital next week, just one week into my three-week cycle, for the other part of my treatment. That’s the monthly injection of denosumab, the bone strengthener that’s given to people like me whose primary cancer has spread to their bones, to reduce the incidence of “skeletal-related events” such as fractures, radiation or surgery to the bone, and spinal cord compression. Hopefully from next month I’ll be able to give myself that injection at home.

Cycling jersey memoirs, Part 1

Shortly after I moved on to oral chemotherapy at the end of May, I got it into my head that I would do a bike ride of over 50 kilometres in each of the seven cycling jerseys that I own.

There’s a story to each jersey. This challenge, I reckoned, would provide me with an opportunity to reflect on each one of those stories. As for the distance, I reckoned fifty kilometres constituted a proper bike ride. It’s sufficiently long that you have to plan and decide where you’re going, but not so long as to feel intimidating before you even set off. 

There will come a time for most of us when we’re no longer able to do the things we love. In my case, that time is likely to come far sooner than it will for most people my age. I was 57 a couple of days ago* and I view every day that I can still get on my bike and ride any distance at all as a bonus. 

I’m on treatment for advanced, currently treatable but ultimately incurable breast cancer. I’ve been on treatment for just over a year, since May 2019, but I only recently moved on to chemotherapy. I take tablets of a chemo drug called capecitabine (also known as Xeloda) in the morning and evening every day for two weeks then I have a week off. I’m coming to the end of the week off in the second cycle. I have blood tests tomorrow and I see the consultant for the results on Tuesday and she’ll tell me whether I can move on to round number three.

I’ve cycled all my life but it was only after I was treated for primary breast cancer in 2015/16 that I took up road cycling in a serious way. Before then, I’d never owned a cycling jersey. Four years on, I have seven. You may think that’s a lot. All I can say is don’t judge until you’ve read the stories. 

There wasn’t a hint of sadness involved in the decision about the jerseys and the rides. It was more a case of providing myself with an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate all the great times I’ve had on and off the bike in the past few years. Also, as I say above, it was a challenge and, as everyone who knows me is aware, I’m a bit of a fan of those.

I managed to complete the seven rides in exactly one calendar month. Or rather, I almost did. One was 42 kilometres, but it was such a nice ride that I’ve decided to include it. It’s my game and I make the rules! Anyway, I’ve included an eighth ride, which was longer than 50k and so more than makes up for the shorter one. 

This post covers three jerseys and the first three rides, in chronological order. I originally meant to cover all the rides in the one blog post but I found myself writing more than I had intended. I did these three rides with my husband, who has only just started riding a road bike again after many years of riding a hybrid for commuting and short leisure rides. He’s loving it and for me it’s great having a new and enthusiastic riding buddy who very conveniently lives in the same household!

Number 1

31 May, 68k

I wore my Mellow Jersey top for this fabulous ride of 68k from our house in Balham in southwest London out to a place in the county of Surrey called Reigate Hill. This was on 31 May, just three days after I’d started taking the capecitabine tablets and I was feeling fine. It was one of the sunniest – and hottest – days of the year so far and there was a lot of climbing involved. This was the first time my husband had used a road bike in more than three decades. Also, he hadn’t ridden anywhere near that distance before. On top of that, it was the first time he’d ridden with cycling cleats.

There was a real sense of freedom with this ride. The sun was shining and it was blazing hot, I was just grateful be out riding and my husband was loving it too. The view from the top of Reigate Hill was amazing, as you can see from the photo. Cafes were opening again in the wake of the loosening of the coronavirus restrictions and there was almost a party atmosphere at the cafe where we stopped for a break. Everyone was clearly happy to be out and about; we were no exception.

As for the kit, I hadn’t really given any thought to which jersey I’d wear for which ride. However, given that there was a lot of climbing, it was fitting that I chose the Mellow Jersey top for this one.

Mellow Jersey is a cycling tour company that runs cycling camps in the UK, France and on the stunning Spanish island of Mallorca. I’ve been to Mallorca with Mellow Jersey three times now on women-only camps and I cannot praise the organisers of these camps highly enough. My most recent trip, in March this year, was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, but each time I’ve gone, the team has been incredibly accommodating and supportive and has got me up hills I never would have dreamt of tackling on my own.

I’ve always been a very slow climber and I’m even more so now. My haemoglobin count is low as a result of the disease and the treatment and I just don’t have anything extra to give on the hills. I make up for it somewhat on the descents, though, and I’ve never ridden faster than I have in Mallorca with the folks at Mellow Jersey!

Such great memories every time I wear this jersey – especially as all the times I’ve been on these camps, I’ve been in the company of friends and/or fellow cyclists from either one or both of the two cycling clubs I’m a member of here in London.

Number 2

7 June, 56k

The jersey I wore on the 56k ride we did on 7 June is part of the kit for one of the two clubs I’m a member of, in this case the Balham Cycling Club. 

I largely have this club to thank for the fact that I can call myself a road cyclist. I joined this super friendly and open group early in 2017, not long after I’d decided to sign up for a closed-road, mass participation, 100-mile charity bike ride known as Ride London. I did some googling and it turned out my luck was in. The club had just re-established itself, having originally been set up in 1897!

I got in touch, signed up and started riding out with the club straight away, in the “steadiest” (ie slowest – love that euphemism) group. I loved it right from the start. I told a few friends who were also cyclists about it and they joined too. Soon I was regularly doing rides of between 60 and 80k. As Ride London neared, the club organised recces of the three main hills on the 100-mile route so that those who hadn’t done it before knew what to expect on the day. It was the perfect preparation for the ride itself (more on this in the next post).

As for the kit, this was my first cycling jersey.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to all club cycling being cancelled. Even before the outbreak, I hadn’t ridden with the club for a good while. I can do distances but I’m slow and I don’t like the thought of potentially holding back even the steadiest group. I’m fine with that. I still do plenty of cycling in the club kit and am in regular contact through various social media groups.

It’s great when you’re out on a ride and you come across fellow club members. Also, it’s a truly local club; there’s even one member who lives on the same road as me and another few who live close by that you bump into off the bike from time to time.

The friends I introduced to the club have become quite involved, which has been nice to see. I have huge affection for this and my other club, BellaVelo. Last October, in a hugely moving gesture, the two clubs came together and organised a 100 kilometre bike ride in my honour and to raise funds for research into secondary breast cancer.

As for the ride in mid-June, it was put together by the club’s ride captain during lockdown. It too has some beautiful views – not to mention some sharp hills that appear from nowhere!

Number 3

14 June, 59k

I bought the jersey I wore on this mid-June ride of almost 60k in Manhattan when I was there almost a year ago, in September 2019.

I’d gone to New York to visit two aunts of whom I’m extremely fond. They’re my late dad’s sisters and one of them is my godmother.

Wearing this jersey reminds me of that lovely trip and also of the almost two years I spent living in New York in the mid 1990s.

The make of this jersey is Rapha. It’s a high-end brand, is very expensive and cyclists either love it or hate it. As for me, I loved this jersey as soon as I tried it on and I decided to buy it there and then, as a massive treat to myself. You can imagine how pleased I was to find out when I went to pay that it was in the sale at a vastly reduced price! 

The photo here is of me enjoying a well-deserved ice cream near the end of what turned out to be yet another hilly ride on yet another very hot day. If I look sweaty and exhausted, it’s because I was!  

Writing about these rides has reminded me just how much of what we enjoy about life has to do with the people we share it with. 

I didn’t know what to expect when I was first diagnosed with this life-limiting illness in March 2019.  I’m not sure I thought that almost 16 months on I’d be managing to cycle 50 kilometre rides once or twice a week. Who knows for how much longer I’ll be able to do that? At this precise moment, I don’t feel any need to dwell on that question.

The stories for jerseys and rides four to eight will follow.

*My birthday on Friday involved family, friends, tennis, cycling, cake, prosecco, being cooked for, and some very nice gifts. How could that be anything other than hugely enjoyable? On the downside, yesterday we heard that seven cases of COVID-19 – all asymptomatic – have been identified among the residents and the staff and the nuns who run the care home my mum is in up in my native city of Glasgow. They had done so well; these are the first cases they’ve had, or at least identified, and everyone is devastated. Just as they’d announced that limited face-to-face visiting would be allowed for the first time since the start of the epidemic in March, they’re having to impose even stricter restrictions. My mum has dementia and is really struggling with the isolation. Where will it end? Things like this really ram home what a very difficult time this is for so, so many people.

 

Back on treatment, feeling mellow

Thankfully the break in my treatment for secondary breast cancer lasted only five days.

I saw the consultant on Tuesday to find out how my blood was looking after the blood transfusion and filgrastim injection the previous week. The answer was good and I was straight on to my second round of capecitabine oral chemotherapy that very evening.

I’d had blood tests the day before. The results showed that the transfusion and injection did what they were expected to do on the haemoglobin and neutrophil front respectively. My haemoglobin count was up by a whopping 36% (it has to be said it was rather low to start with) and my neutrophil count had almost trebled.

Apparently the rise in the haemoglobin level could be accounted for partially by the fact that I’d been doing a fair amount of cycling. More on that below. Also, we don’t know how much of the fall was due to the new treatment and how much was due to the cancer. Whatever the reason, my haemoglobin was at a decent level.

The consultant is as pleased as I am about the big fall in the tumour marker level. The details are all in my previous post but, after just one cycle of capecitabine (two weeks of daily tablets), it had fallen by almost a third. While the chemo had a negative effect on my bone marrow function, it also clearly had a marked anti-cancer effect. The sooner I got back on treatment the better, the consultant and I agreed. The only objective of the breast cancer that’s already spread to my bones and infiltrated my bone marrow is to grow and spread further and cause even more havoc. You don’t want to leave that untreated any longer than is absolutely necessary.

I’m on the same dose of capecitabine as during the first cycle – 85% of my maximum possible dose, three tablets on the morning and four more 12 hours later. Because there was such a dive in my haemoglobin during the first cycle, I’m to have a blood test half way through this second cycle to check how things are going. So it’s back to the hospital – I’m lucky to live so close – first thing on Wednesday this coming week to have blood taken. The consultant will call me later that day, hopefully to say it’s ok for me to continue with the second week of the tablets. If things have gone awry again… well, we’ll face that bridge if we come to it.

I should have been back at the hospital on Thursday for my monthly injection of the bone strengthening drug, denosumab. However, the consultant brought the appointment forward so I wouldn’t have to make yet another trip to hospital that week. Instead I had the injection at the day treatment unit when I went to pick up my capecitabine tablets a couple of hours after having seen the consultant.

The consultant again emphasised the need for good foot care given the fact that a common side effect of capecitabine is the dreaded palmar-plantar or hand-foot syndrome, where your hands and feet can become red and sore and swollen. This, I’ve just found out, is caused when small amounts of chemo leak out of your capillaries, affecting, most commonly, the skin on your hands and your feet. Nasty.

So what does good feet hygiene entail?

To start with, plenty of moisturising, and, basically, socks at all times – even at home. Yes, really. No more padding about bare-footed  in the house, to lower the risk of getting small cuts that might get infected. No wearing flip flops or sandals that have that a strap that goes between your toes in case the friction caused by the strap causes the skin, which is likely to be fragile, to break. Given that I’m not prepared to walk round the house in trainers or shoes, that leaves me pretty much with the option of that footwear which is de rigeur for Young Folk but pretty much a criminal offence for anyone over the age of 30 – sliders and socks!

IMG_20200627_183057200We used to laugh at our dads for wearing socks with sandals but now it’s an art form. Even if it does become the norm for me indoors, I’m not sure I could ever own it quite to the extent our elder son is doing in this photo!

On the coronavirus front, my thoughts are now turning to when I might be able to go up to Scotland and see my mum and my brothers and their families. That would be very nice indeed. Our younger son gets access to his second year university accommodation in Leeds at the beginning of July. He’s keen to go up sooner than later to settle in and spend some time with his new housemates. I can’t say I blame him. A plan is forming; we could drive together up to Leeds, drop him off then drive on up to Scotland.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself but it’s nice even to think that I might get to see my mum again soon. I haven’t seen her since November. She’s in a care home in Glasgow that thankfully has managed to keep the coronavirus at bay, but she’s struggling with the lack of contact. My brothers up in Glasgow have been as brilliant as ever. They’ve “visited” regularly and talked to her, sang with her and played games with her through a slightly open window but it’s hard on everyone.

Going on a trip – if and when it happens – will be weird. Everyone’s experience of the pandemic is different but it has made a lot of people’s lives much smaller in a geographical sense.

In my case, my policy of “not shielding but being careful” and working from home means that until a couple of weeks ago I hadn’t been inside a building that wasn’t my own house for more than three months – excluding the hospital and the odd cafe for a takeaway coffee or cold drink when I’d been out for a walk or out on the bike.

Also, other than going on long bike rides, I hadn’t been travelling much further than a two-mile radius from the house. The only car journeys I’d been on until very recently were to the hospital, which is less than two miles away. I really should cycle there but I still can’t bring myself to lock my bike up at the hospital. I have PTSD from April 2019 when my bike got stolen outside the breast cancer centre on the very day my diagnosis of advanced breast cancer was confirmed. (Note to self: “You really need to get over that. Just make sure you have decent locks.”)

I know there are lots of issues and challenges regarding the loosening of lockdown restrictions. For me personally, it’s been a joy. Playing tennis in the sunshine with friends you’ve been keeping in touch with through WhatsApp or the odd Zoom call. Meeting up with friends on the common at the bottom of our road to share socially distanced coffees or cold beers or Prosecco on picnic blankets. Stopping off for cold water, a cup of tea and a chat at friends’ houses on the way back from bike rides on scorching hot days. And, more recently, an even bigger change, and all the more pleasurable for it – suppers with friends in their back gardens. One was local; the other I drove to. If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, we’d have taken public transport and probably got a taxi back; I’m not ready for either yet if I have the choice. I’m still being careful, like any sensible person.

IMG_20200627_134204830_HDRI’m four days into this second round of oral chemo and I’m feeling good. I’m writing this sitting on the sofa, feeling mellow and enjoying the view – of flowers inside and out, bike sheds and bins, and blue skies and clouds.

In my previous blog, I said I was going to put that blood transfusion  to good use by going on a long bike ride. Father’s Day dawned last Sunday, the weather was beautiful, and off my other half and I went – on a beautiful, flat and slow 100 kilometre cycle from home in Balham in southwest London into the leafy lanes of Surrey and back. It was my husband’s first 100k ride. Flat or not, that is a fair distance for anyone. I‘ve done a fair few rides of that distance and more, but I‘d be lying if I didn’t admit to being amazed and grateful that, with all this shit going on inside, I can still manage it.

We got back just in time to have showers before settling down to the classy Father’s Day supper our two boys had prepared while we were out. It was pretty much a perfect day.

A quick update and it’s rather a mixed bag

Let’s start with the good news. I’ve no idea what its relative importance will be longer term but I’m a glass half full kind of gal and I’m happy to enjoy it for what it is, so here goes.

After just one cycle of chemotherapy, the breast cancer tumour marker that had been rising since last November has gone down by almost a third. 

The behaviour of this CA 15-3 marker is very much only one part of the overall picture. However, the fact that it’s fallen is a clear sign that the chemo treatment that I started just three weeks ago – oral capecitabine – is dampening down at least some of the cancer activity that’s going on inside my body. The level had been rising faster in recent months and while a reduction by a third only takes it down to what it was at the end of March this year, in proportionate terms that’s a big fall. That has to be a good thing. 

IIMG_20200618_142526718f I’m not rejoicing, it’s because that’s only one part of a substantially bigger and more complicated picture. Also during this first cycle of chemo, my haemoglobin count took a huge dive. Instead of picking up my second round of capecitabine tablets on Thursday afternoon so I could start taking them the following day, I spent upwards of four hours in the day treatment unit at the local hospital having a blood transfusion.

My haemoglobin count had been falling for a few months and this was one of a combination of factors that had led to my coming off the treatment I’d been on since my initial diagnosis of advanced/secondary/metastatic breast cancer in spring last year. I had known that if the level were to fall much more, a blood transfusion would probably be in order. That’s precisely what happened.

Coincidentally, it was almost a year ago to the day that I had a transfusion for precisely the same reason. Then, I was really taken aback when the consultant told me what she was advising. I had only recently had the diagnosis confirmed and being told I needed a blood transfusion really brought home to me the seriousness of what was happening. This time round it couldn’t have been more different. It wasn’t quite “hey, ho, let’s go“, but there was no drama, just an appreciation of the effort that’s going into keeping me as well as possible and a ready acceptance on my part that developments such as these are now part of my reality. 

There are two aspects to my disease. The cancer is in my bones, weakening them as it tries to spread further. It has also infiltrated my bone marrow, reducing my body’s ability to make healthy blood. Both aspects need to be managed, along with the side effects of the drugs. That’s what I mean about the fall in the tumour marker only being one part of the overall picture.

The bone marrow issue is a pretty big part of that same picture. Even if my haemoglobin count had been healthier, I wouldn’t have started round two of chemo. That’s because my neutrophil count too was below the level that’s deemed safe to carry on with treatment. Neutrophils are the white blood cells that fight infection.

The fact that capecitabine can also cause anaemia and neutropenia is an additional complication. It’s hard to determine precisely how much of what’s happening on the blood front is caused by the cancer and how much is down to the treatment.

As well as having the transfusion, I had an injection of the white blood cell booster, filgrastim. I’d been used to having this as standard under my previous treatment but we’d gone without during this first cycle so we could see how I’d manage on the neutrophil front under the new treatment without support. Not brilliantly, it seems.

So what’s next?

Well, for starters I get to enjoy the extra energy that comes from having two bags of healthy blood coursing round my body.IMG_20200618_155048864 There’s no denying I’m feeling perkier than I felt last week. There is, literally, more “blood in my cheeks” – a saying I’d never really thought much about until now.

On a more serious point, I go back for more blood tests on Monday to see how things are looking and we’ll see what the consultant recommends when I see her on Tuesday. 

Hopefully I’ll be able to go back on treatment. None of this is abnormal in the context in which it is happening. As with many powerful drugs, it can take some time to find the right dosage of capecitabine. I guess there might at least be a discussion around that. As it was, my starting dose was 85% of what it might have been.

As for side effects that I’d notice, I’m relieved to report that I’ve nothing to report. I have been aware of a little bit more tingling in my feet than usual but I can’t at this stage say that it’s anything other than the mild chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy I have from the original treatment I had for primary breast cancer in 2015. It can get worse in the heat and when I’ve been doing a lot of cycling. The weather’s been great and I have indeed been cycling a fair amount.

Talking of cycling, I’m planning on putting this transfusion to good use in much the same way as I did with the last one. It’s midsummer weekend and a long bike ride is on the agenda for tomorrow. When I’m out there, I’ll be even more appreciative than usual that I’m very much still in the saddle.

 

Moving to oral chemo: different treatment, different approach, fingers crossed

It was pretty clear to me even before I got my latest blood test and scan results that I’d got as much benefit as I was going to get from the treatment I was on for advanced breast cancer. I more or less knew that when I had my next meeting with the oncologist, I’d be moving to a new treatment.

That was indeed what happened. On direction from the oncologist when we met at the end of May, I agreed to stop the treatment I’d been on since I was diagnosed a little over a year ago, skip the next possible treatment and move on to an oral chemotherapy drug called capecitabine. The treatment I’d been on didn’t involve chemo.

A change had been on the cards and while it’s disappointing to know that one’s exhausted the first in a finite number of potential treatments, at least it wasn’t a surprise or a shock. 

This new treatment is in tablet form. IMG_20200528_183239668

You take it orally but it’s still chemo, as you’re reminded by the yellow warning sticker on the box the tablets come in telling you that the contents are cytotoxic and should be “handled with care“.

On to the rationale for moving on to capecitabine, which is also known by its brand name Xeloda. 

Well, there is no sign of any cancer outside of my bones and nor is there any sign that the cancer that’s in my spine is pressing on my spinal cord, where it could do serious damage – positives among the negatives. Things have progressed, though. There are new “skeletal lesions” in certain areas including in my pelvis and sacrum and in my right hip and left collarbone. In addition, my bone marrow is “more infiltrated”.

There are two aspects to my disease. The breast cancer for which I was originally treated for in 2015/16 has spread, or metastasised, to my bones. “Bone mets” weakens your bones and this in turn increases the risk of fracture among other things. It can also cause immense pain. As if that weren’t enough, the breast cancer has also “infiltrated” my bone marrow and so reduces my body’s ability to make healthy blood. Both aspects need to be managed in parallel. 

We’d known for months there was increasing cancer activity. Monthly blood tests had shown that levels of the relevant breast tumour marker (CA 15-3) had been rising since November. My bone marrow function remained stable, though, and rising tumour markers weren’t enough on their own to prompt a change of treatment. Also, the scans I’d had in November and February hadn’t picked up any meaningful or actionable change.

More recently, though, the blood test results overall had been showing a “continued though minor deterioration”. Among other things, my haemoglobin level had been falling. Despite this, I’d been feeling fine but over the past couple of months I’d become increasingly aware that certain physical exertions were leaving me breathless or were becoming too hard even to do.

So even before I got the results from the scans I had in mid-May, I knew things had changed. This time round, to no-one’s surprise, there was something to see.

Bone mets is hard to measure radiologically but there was enough change in the combined near full-body PET CT scan that I had compared to previous scans to be able to say for the first time that things were worse. According to the official report, “The interval change within the skeletal lesions in particular within the pelvis raises suspicion of disease progression.”

I’m in no pain so all this is happening without my having any awareness of it.

As for the MRI scan I had of my spine, “The pattern of marrow infiltration appears to be slightly more diffuse than previously and is concerning for progression.” It also confirmed “extensive metastatic disease throughout the visualised spine and sacrum.”

The blood tests confirmed that the tumour marker is still rising and that my haemoglobin level had indeed continued to fall. The former is not yet at the high level it was at when I was diagnosed in April 2019 although given the rate at which it’s been rising, it’d be there in a couple of months. As for the haemoglobin level, it’s near to what it was when, this time last year, the oncologist started discussing the potential need for a blood transfusion – which I subsequently had.

The results regarding the haemoglobin didn’t surprise me. Most obviously, just briskly walking up the two flights of stairs in our house to the loo had been leaving me breathless. (We’re lucky enough to have two bathrooms. At the moment, while we’re in pandemic mode, the one in the loft extension has been designated for my sole use.) 

Also, I’m playing tennis now that the courts are open and, while I love it, those explosive movements you make all the time have my poor heart pounding. FB_IMG_1591398352510As for running, I’ve more or less given up as I can’t even run fast enough to break a sweat.

Cycling is absolutely fine – you go at your own pace, you can stop and start when you want – and I’ve been doing plenty of that. The photo on the right was taken at the top of Reigate Hill in Surrey, half-way through a hilly, 40-mile ride with my husband a few days after moving on to chemo.

When I started treatment last May with abemaciclib (Verzenios) and fulvestrant (Faslodex), I was one of the first people in my situation to be put on this new combination at the hospital in southwest London where I’m being treated.

The most obvious next treatment was what I’d have been given had the abemaciclib/fulvestrant combination not been available then – a combination of two drugs called everolimus (Afinitor) and exemestane (Aromasin). While everolimus is also oral chemo, the combination is aimed at doing much the same thing as the drugs I’d been on, both over the past year and in the three years between finishing active treatment for primary breast cancer and being diagnosed with secondary – that is, stopping my cancer one way or another from getting the oestrogen it needs to grow. Capecitabine uses a different approach.

There was no reason to suggest the everolimus and exemestane combination wouldn’t work so I understand why the oncologist said things weren’t straightforward. However, to paraphrase in an extremely liberal way, I think her bottom-line recommendation was “let’s not faff about with more of the same and see instead if we can get a quick response with capecitabine”.

Depending on how things go, I could go back and try the treatment I’m skipping. Clearly at this stage I have no idea how likely that is but it is good to know.

With capecitabine, it’s a three-week cycle initially; two weeks on the tablets and one week off, with blood tests at the end of each three-week period. It can take time to find to right dosage.

If I tolerate capecitabine ok and it keeps things in check (remember we have the cancer in the bones and in the bone marrow to worry about), I’ll be on it for as long as it keeps working. Whether that’ll be weeks, months or years, we don’t know. It’ll be at least nine weeks before I have a scan to determine what effect it might be having. In the meantime, the regular blood tests that I’ll be having will give us some idea.

Also in the meantime, I continue with the four-weekly injections of the bone-strengthening drug denosumab at the day treatment unit.

My appointment with the oncologist – in-person, with masks – was on the last Thursday in May. I started on capecitabine the very next day. Having seen the way things were going, the oncologist had me tested a couple of months ago to see if I was in the group of people whose bodies are unable to metabolise capecitabine and would be likely to develop very severe side effects. I wasn’t. It’s strange what you become thankful for.

I was forced to make lifestyle changes from Day 1. For years on weekdays I’ve rarely eaten anything before 11am. However, I need to take these new tablets twice a day, at more or less 12 hours apart, within half an hour of eating. Given we have supper at about 8pm, I have to have had something to eat by around 9am. That really is not me but it’s amazing how quickly you adapt when you have no choice.

For breakfast on the first day, I had stewed prunes and yoghurt – a strange choice given that one of the very common side effects of capecitabine is diarrhoea. On that particular day, though, there happened to be some prunes in the fridge and, since I’m the only one in the family who likes them, I couldn’t let them go to waste. In fact, more than simply disliking them, my long-suffering husband can’t stand the smell of either prunes or yoghurt and refuses to be in the kitchen when I’m eating them! I usually drizzle some warm honey on top but he still can’t bear it.

The second day, a Saturday, I had a poached egg on toast. If I’m going to be forced to have an early breakfast, I decided, it may as well be nice. My resolve has petered out already, however; now I have a quick slice of toast and marmalade or jam, some fruit and a cup of tea, and I’m done.

Capecitabine can cause many of the same horrible side effects as other chemo drugs that are given via infusion. However, it works in a more targeted way compared with regular chemo and some of the standard side effects can be less severe. For good measure, though, there are some additional side effects that are specific to capecitabine.

On the hair front, I’ve been told to expect thinning but not loss. That’s something. I really wouldn’t have thought my hair could get much thinner than it is already but I guess I’m about to be proved wrong.

One of the more common side effects – that I’m looking out for and dreading getting – is palmar-plantar, or hand-feet, syndrome. IMG-20200528-WA0002With this, the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet can become red and  dry and flaky and sore and numb and swollen. It sounds horrendous and some people get it really badly. No-one needs that but for someone who plays tennis and cycles, it seems particularly cruel. I have already started moisturising my feet morning and evening in anticipation.

Exhausting one treatment and moving on to another is quite a sobering milestone psychologically.

Physically, ten days in on cycle #1 and I’m feeling fine. I wanted to write and post this before any side effects rear their ugly head. Once again, we can but hope for the best and see how it all goes.

Chocolate deliveries, bike rides, giraffes and scans

I have taken delivery of not one but two substantial amounts of chocolate over the past week or so.

How so?

I posted on facebook that I’d had to enlist our elder son to buy me some chocolate because my husband, who’s doing the shopping at the moment, eats too healthily and it just doesn’t occur to him to chuck a couple of chocolate bars in the trolley as he makes his way round the supermarket. It took a while, but at least now he does deign to bring home as standard a couple of packets of biscuits – but still no chocolate bars. 

Now I’m no addict, but I do have the odd bar on an ad hoc basis. However, I can’t currently indulge that habit while we’re in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic. My immunity is low as a result of the anti-cancer treatment I’m on and while I do go outside quite a lot now for walks and to exercise, I generally tend to not to go into shops. So no impulse buying of chocolate bars for me!

The photo I posted of me looking gleeful holding the bars my son brought back for me made a lot of people laugh and sympathise.

A couple of chocolate-loving friends – a huge thank you again, you know who you are! – were clearly feeling my pain to such an extent that they took things a step further and actually sent me supplies. We haven’t laughed so much in ages. My husband says he’s going to post that he’s got a craving for beer.

As you can see from the photo, I am now spoilt for choice. And that’s just one box.

I’ve given some away, the boys and I have been partaking, and the rest are “hidden for safe-keeping”, if you get my meaning. 

On the micro level things are still going largely fine on the lockdown front.

There are the chocolate deliveries for a start. Also, I’ve got most of this week off work and the weather is glorious. The roses in our garden have started blooming; they are gorgeous and there are dozens and dozens of buds, so it’ll only get more and more beautiful. Don’t look too closely or you’ll see all the aphids.

Yesterday I went out for a bike ride with a friend that involved seeking out and tackling the not insubstantial hills of south-east London, around Crystal Palace. There was blazing sunshine, there’s still far less traffic than there normally would be, and we enjoyed some incredible views over central London from the tops of the hills. 

We slogged up a fair few hills (with my friend overtaking me every time) and were rewarded with some lovely descents (with me doing the overtaking here). Before heading home, we bought some take-away coffee and chilled soft drinks and drank them in the welcome shade of a tree in Dulwich Park. It felt like we were genuinely on holiday.

On another bike ride, this time with my husband, we cycled past London Zoo in Regent’s Park and were delighted to see that the giraffes had come out for a stroll. There are two and there’s a sign there with their names on (I’ve forgotten their names*). Like everything else, the zoo is closed but we shouted over the gate and asked the zookeepers in attendance which was which. We don’t know, they told us excitedly, we’re from the other side of the zoo and don’t often get to see the giraffes. Their excitement was lovely to see.

On yet another ride into central London, we enjoyed great views of the river.

Those clear skies are good to see but they’ve come at a dreadful human and economic cost. We must never forget that.

Part of the reason I took time off work this week was that I was already taking time off to have scans. It’s that time again. I had a half-body PET CT scan this morning and tomorrow I’ll have an MRI scan of my spine. Both tests are to check to see whether there’s been any meaningful spread of the metastatic breast cancer I was diagnosed with just over a year ago. If there has been, we’ll be moving on to the next appropriate line of treatment.

I tell myself that I don’t generally get what’s known as “scanxiety”, ie worrying in the run-up to having the scans themselves and then again while you wait for the results (a week in this case). However, I really don’t think you can avoid it entirely.

You think it’s all fine then you realise you’re more argumentative at home than usual – and as those of you who know me are well aware, I’m pretty darn argumentative at the best of times. Or you’ll catch yourself doing too much forward thinking, dwelling on things you usually manage not to think about. Realising I’m doing this is usually enough to bring me back to the present. You just find yourself doing it more often than usual around scan time.

In this particular present, there’s a hedge that’s needs trimming out front. And afterwards, of course, there’s chocolate to be had as a reward!

* The giraffes are called Molly and Maggie, London Zoo told me in a reply to my tweet asking what their names were! I love Twitter when it works like that. Thanks to London Zoo for the reply!

The busy business of living under lockdown

Another four weeks gone by, another round of treatment started.

Last Wednesday, I had the usual blood tests – plus a couple of additional ones that I have every so often. The following morning, I got the all-clear to go ahead with treatment in a phone call from the oncologist, so off I went to the hospital later that day.

I had my temperature taken and was given a face mask before I could enter the oncology day unit, which has been re-sited to a stand-alone building away from the main hospital buildings to reduce the risk of patients catching or spreading the coronavirus. I had my various injections (fulvestrant, denosumab and filgrastim), was given my next 28-day supply of abemaciclib tablets and an extra filgrastim injection to give myself mid-cycle to boost my white blood cell production and headed home again.

That’s cycle #13 under way with the core drugs I started on a year ago now. On 23 April, I passed the first anniversary of my unofficial diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. Official confirmation came shortly after that the primary breast cancer that I’d been treated for almost four years earlier had spread to my bones (mainly my spine) and was also in my bone marrow.

There were a couple of changes but no big surprises on the blood test front. The relevant tumour marker has gone up as it has done every month since November. And while my red blood cell or haemoglobin level varies by the month, this time it had dropped to slightly below the normal range for the first time since September. It’s been going down since February or March. That unsettles me. I feel fine largely, but maybe that explains why my running has become little more than a brisk walk! I need some excuse so I’ll take that one.

During the phone call with the oncologist, I decided to take the opportunity to ask her to talk me through every possible drug treatment option from here on. She did, in great detail. It seemed like a good idea at the time but I spent much of the following day really out of sorts thinking about the enormity of it all. Plenty of good things happened that day but overall I would not describe it as a good day. Days like that are allowed every so often.

It’s been an eventful few weeks, despite lockdown.

For starters, I had a week off work. It’s been super busy and it was good to get some time off, especially so when it coincided with some fantastic weather here in my little part of south west London.

I read a couple of books. I got my summer clothes out and had a bit of a wardrobe clear-out. I polished four pairs of shoes that were sorely in need of cleaning and I replaced a pair of shoe laces that had needed replacing for at least a year. I prepped the garden for some plants I’m hoping will be delivered this week or next. I thought I’d mastered making flapjacks, but then promptly burnt the next batch.

I’m in the category that I’m terming “vulnerable but no longer shielding” – my oncologist said last month that she was happy for me to go out for exercise. I decided I could safely do socially distanced cycling, so in that week off I went for a couple of longish bike rides, through a beautiful and largely deserted central London. Being out on the bike felt very good indeed.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve also had a clear-out of my “memory box”, which in my case was a suitcase. It was a joyous thing to do and I highly recommend it.

There was the odd photo; not many though – the boxes and files of photos are  another thing entirely.

There were dozens and dozens of cards. Mother’s Day cards. Birthday cards. Christmas cards. Valentine’s Day cards. Wedding cards. Postcards from friends and family. Letters from old boyfriends. Dozens of cards and letters from my now husband. Wedding invitations. Orders of service from funerals. Letters from my brothers when they were away travelling, from Sri Lanka and Australia.The two cards I received from friends asking me to be godmother to their children.

There’s a letter from my late dad from when I was living in Spain in the mid 1980s. That’s one to keep – my dad never wrote. There’s also a cutting from a Spanish newspaper; it’s a photo of me on my now husband’s shoulders at a march in Madrid from around the same time (see below). Ticket stubs from dozens of concerts, going back to when I was in my final years at school the late 1970s. The ticket from my first flight. My first pay packet, from 40 years ago – four hours work in a grocer’s at 74p an hour. My first proper job offer in London. Exam certificates and indeed exam papers, that I couldn’t possibly answer now.

image
Madrid, December 1984

There are also medals and certificates from various 10k runs and the odd half marathon done over the years. My fastest recorded time for a 10k run, in London in 1993 when I would have been 29 or 30, was just under 50 minutes. Not brilliant, but not bad. It would take me more than half an hour longer at my current speed.

I was brought up a catholic and there was also the certificate from my first holy communion when I was seven and the rosary beads I had as a child. It seems really strange to me now that I kept these. I’ve been lapsed for so long, but perhaps there’s something in the saying “once a catholic, always a catholic”.

I came across an English project from secondary school. I got an A*, which came with a comment of “very competent”. For an A*? That seems rather harsh. I don’t recall feeling anything other than pleased at the time but I’m outraged now! Surely an A* deserved very good, or even perhaps excellent.

And then there’s the certificate thanking me for having been a blood donor. I gave blood 22 times in the UK before a gastrointestinal complaint I had nearly ten years ago meant I could no longer donate. I remember being gutted at having to stop. I loved giving blood – it made me feel part of something bigger. I donated 23 times in total. My first donation was at a mobile unit that had pitched up at the campsite I was staying at in the south of France for the summer between first and second year at uni. The incentive was that they handed out free sandwiches after you’d donated. None of us there had much money so it was a no-brainer! As you can see, I have the certificate from that too.



I’d gone to France on the train from Glasgow with a friend from uni after seeing a notice for summer jobs on the student union notice board. We ended up selling apple donuts (no hole in the middle) and ice creams on a nudist beach for six weeks. It was an interesting experience to say the least. I’d turned 18 just days before I left for France and was still pretty naive – I was less so by the time I came back! 

I’m going to get on my high horse here and say that if you don’t give blood and there’s no medical reason preventing you from doing so, you need to have a word with yourself. Having a genuine phobia of needles also gets you off the hook but just being a bit nervous around needles or can’t be bothered really doesn’t cut it. Say you get sick and you need, for example, chemo or antibiotics via a drip, or indeed, a blood transfusion. Are you going to refuse on the grounds that you don’t like needles? No, I didn’t think so. Do it, it’s your civic duty. You won’t regret it. Incidentally, I’ve had all three procedures I mentioned. That’s incidental, though; I’ve always felt strongly about this.

Other things have happened.

Some exciting cycling plans I had for the summer have been scuppered, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. My diagnosis last Spring meant I had to give up on plans to ride a few stages of the Tour de France a week before the real thing in July as part of a big fundraising event known as Le Loop. My heart therefore skipped a beat in December last year when they released the route of the 2020 tour and I saw there were going to be two back-to-back flat stages. Flat is not usually a word you associate with the tour, and my interest was piqued. Each stage was 100 miles but I was feeling much fitter than I thought I’d be. I mulled it over for a bit and decided that if I were still well and suitably fit come July, I’d go for it. I wouldn’t have to raise any money as the money I raised last year would roll over.

No-one knew of my plans other than my oncologist, my husband and two boys, and the lovely people at Le Loop. My plan was to crack on with the training – quietly and without any of the fanfare that accompanied my plans last year – then do the event, completing what I saw as unfinished business. Anyway, like many charitable events and so much else, this year’s Le Loop has been cancelled, having initially been moved to the end of August. It’s disappointing, but for me what matters is that I felt well enough to at least consider going for it. There may be a chance to do it next year, or there may not. There’s no need to think about that at present.

I heard someone say on the radio the other day that no matter how inconvenient things were for them under lockdown, they were very much aware that they “weren’t the victim here”. That resonates with me. Of course it gets you down and you fear for the future, but I can’t feel too sorry for myself. Too many people are losing loved ones and there’s too much real suffering going on. As for the fall-out of it all, we have no idea.

My family’s safe so far. My mum is in a care home in Glasgow. That’s a big worry in itself but to date thankfully the home has managed to stay cononavirus-free. I haven’t seen my mum since last November. That’s also tough, but we know she’s well cared for and we’re relieved she’s well. Those of my brothers who live locally pay regular visits and chat to mum from outside, through the window of her room on the ground floor.

Here in London, somewhat selfishly, my husband and I are relishing having our boys back home. They were both away at uni, in their first year and having fun, and while it’s only right that they’d much rather still be away, their very presence makes us happy. They probably find us as annoying as you’re meant to find your parents at that age, but I hope they’re at least feeling the love. They’ve reverted to pre-uni status whereby they spend a lot of time in their rooms, but supper together is sacrosanct (we all take turns at cooking) and we have carefully negotiated film dates. I am regularly woken up in the middle of the night by the smell of baking. I can’t complain when the result the following morning is freshly baked chocolate cake.

We’re being careful with hygiene in the house and while the boys do go out, they haven’t been able to consider getting jobs, for example, as they’re being careful not to put themselves at risk in light of my situation. We’ve just now started looking at potential less risky employment options for them.

My husband’s well. The boys are well. I’m well (apart from the obvious). I’m working, I can cycle, I can run (just), we live next to a lovely common, we’re in touch with lots of people and, very close to the top of the list if not at the very top, my treatment is unaffected. This isn’t the case for a lot of people.

Also recently, I had a call from the GP, asking me to arrange a care plan in case I catch Covid-19 and need to be hospitalised. It wasn’t a shock to have to think about this. I’ve already made my end-of-life preferences clear in the context of having a terminal illness. It’s written into the power of attorney document I arranged last year. If I’m in the final stages of breast cancer, I told the GP, I want to go quietly and gently, but if I get Covid-19, do whatever it takes to keep me alive. Everyone should have a care plan. No-one wants to think about their own death, but the point is to make things easier for your nearest and dearest at an already very difficult time – should the occasion arise.

It’s time for my next set of scans. It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly three months since the last lot. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll have an MRI scan of my spine and a half-body (essentially from the top of my head to above the knee) combined PET CT scan to check for any disease progression. If they pick up what’s been causing the blood tumour marker to rise and there’s evidence the cancer’s spread beyond a certain point, we’ll be looking at moving on to the next appropriate line of treatment. That would be a big step. I’ll get the scan results when I next talk to – or possibly even see – the oncologist, at the end of April.

That’s more than three weeks away. That’s another three weeks to get on with the busy business of living.

Personal positives amid broader negatives

The Thursday before last, I went ahead with another round of treatment for the advanced breast cancer I was diagnosed with last April. Also, I’m ok to leave the house as long as I stay clear of other people while I’m out.

Those are the two key pieces of news I have to report since my last post. Both pieces of news are good. Proving once again that everything is relative, I am aware of a substantial number of other women who’d be happy to be in my shoes. Every case is different, but scans and treatments are being postponed or cancelled across the country and many women are still “shielding” at home while the coronavirus continues its spread.

I had blood taken for testing on the Wednesday morning at the local hospital where I’m being treated, in Tooting in southwest London. Face-to-face consultations are not happening to reduce the risk of the virus spreading so the consultant called me that afternoon to discuss the results.

Here’s a synopsis. My bone marrow function in general is fine, which means the treatment is still working on that front, but that damn tumour marker is continuing its seemingly inexorable rise. We can’t pin down what’s causing this. There’s clearly cancer activity going on but we don’t know where. It didn’t show up on recent scans and I have no new symptoms that might suggest to where the cancer is spreading or has already spread but is not yet detectable. I’m a bit dehydrated – “drink more water” – but my neutrophil (infection-fighting white blood cell) level is just good enough to go ahead with the next monthly – or rather 28-day – cycle.

That’s treatment round 12 under my belt. It’s hard to believe that it’s almost a year since the oncologist called to say my blood test results had come through and that it’d be “crazy not to follow up”. Follow-up showed that the primary breast cancer for which I was treated a few years ago had spread to my bones and infiltrated my bone marrow.

The plan for now is that I stay on my current treatment until there’s a concrete reason to come off it. There’s no point changing treatment if you don’t know what it is that you need to treat. And, very importantly, it’s still working on the bone marrow function front.

In the absence of any new symptoms, we’ll keep doing regular scans – coronavirus pandemic permitting – so that we pick up promptly whatever it is that’s causing that tumour marker to rise. In the meantime, my blood is being tested to determine whether I can metabolise a chemotherapy drug called capecitabine, a likely future treatment. On the one hand it’s pretty disconcerting to think that we’re now essentially looking out for bad news. On the other hand, it’s good to be prepared. Even if I can metabolise it, though, capecitabine will not necessarily be the next treatment; that will be determined by where the cancer spreads to and to what extent.

The waiting area at the phlebotomy unit was more or less empty when I turned up at St George’s on the Wednesday morning. Sometimes there can be dozens of people waiting – although as a cancer patient, you get to skip the queue and go straight in. I don’t know whether the lack of people was a coincidence or whether they’re cancelling non-urgent blood tests. Also, to enable outpatient cancer patients to avoid any unnecessary human contact, the oncology day unit has been moved from its usual home on the third floor of one of the main hospital buildings to a stand-alone building in the hospital grounds. That was very reassuring.

I’m very relieved that for now at least the pandemic is not affecting my treatment. I’m a member of a breast cancer support group on Facebook and women on there are having scans and treatment and operations cancelled or delayed. Some are accepting of whatever decision has been taken but others are angry and upset. Healthcare professionals are having to make some very difficult choices but policies seem to vary from place to place and that really doesn’t seem fair. 

I also want to say that I’m really not ready for all these platitudes that are flying around, like “the earth breathed and the earth healed” and “this was the time parents became teachers” and, worst of all, “everything will be alright”. I know why it’s happening but it’s not for me.

I appreciate the beautiful birdsong and the fact that the air is cleaner. I love the Thursday evening clapping for the NHS and the lone trumpeter in Hebden Bridge. I love any number of other things that have come out of the crisis (the creativity and imagination on show is fabulous) – but there are many people for whom it’s already not alright and there are many more for whom it won’t be. And I’m not just talking about the people who’ve died and their friends and families. Life will be different, and we don’t know yet know how different, but for many people it will never be the same – and not in a good way.

On a more positive front on a personal level, the oncologist said during her phone call with me that she’s happy for me to go out – as long as I’m sensible and take all the obvious precautions. Walks in the park are fine as are cycling and running, but shopping isn’t, as that would entail going inside and being among people and putting myself unnecessarily at risk. That suits me fine!

As time had gone on, I’d more or less come to that conclusion myself although I hadn’t yet ventured out. It was good to hear it from someone who knows a lot better than I do. It was followed a couple of days later with a text from the NHS Coronavirus Service telling me to stay at home for at least 12 weeks “unless a healthcare professional suggests otherwise”.

That was over a week ago. I’ve been out for a couple of walks on the common at the bottom of the street and I’ve done one run. It was my first since February 1st and my legs have only just recovered. 

I’m not taking any chances, so I’ll stay very local. I don’t really even feel like going out on my bike. Out of the three activities, I feel this is the one where you have least control over your surroundings. I know it doesn’t work like this but my thinking is that I’ve not put all this effort into living well with incurable breast cancer only to be felled by this friggin’ virus. 

I may not have been cycling but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been pedalling. 

Last Sunday, one of the two cycling clubs that I’m in – the Balham Cycling Club – organised a virtual fundraising event for St George’s Hospital Charity. The idea was for those members who have access to an exercise bike or turbotrainer to cycle collectively the distance of the UK – from Land’s End in Cornwall to John o’Groats in the very north of Scotland – and to raise the distance in Pounds sterling (1,407km/£1,407). The response on the day was so incredible that we decided to do the return leg too. In the end, 45 of us took part, we cycled more than three times our original goal, and to date we’ve raised more than £5,600 – almost four times the amount we set out to raise originally.

I reckon my contribution – done in three stages – was 80km (50 miles). It was a heartwarming and humbling event and l was proud to be part of it. 

Thanks for reading. Stay well and stay safe.

From cycling in Spain to shielding in south London

I got back from a cycling trip on the Spanish island of Mallorca on Sunday 15 March. That’s a story in itself, but this post is about the fact that, as a person whose immune system is compromised and for whom catching coronavirus could be very bad news, I’ve been practising this new activity known as “shielding” ever since I got back from Spain.

That basically means I haven’t left the confines of my south London house and garden in almost two weeks. During that time, I’ve had pretty much no face-to-face contact with any human being unless it’s been at at least a metre’s distance. That includes my husband – and I didn’t even hug my sons when they came back from uni last week. 

As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic broke, I reckoned I would be in the “extremely vulnerable” group that would be advised to stay indoors and avoid all but the most essential contact. So I started shielding of my own accord as soon as I got home from Spain.

It felt more than a little bizarre given how fit and well I feel – as evidenced by the fact that just days earlier I’d been cycling up and down hills in Spain (see photo) riding 50-70k a day. I ride slowly but I get there.

A text from the NHS Coronavirus Service one evening this week confirmed my new status. It pulled no punches. It said I was “at risk of severe illness if you catch Coronavirus”, that I’d to “remain at home for a minimum of 12 weeks” because “home is the safest place for you”*, that while at home I should “open a window” but not go out other than to any “private space” such as the garden or front path, and that I should stay three steps away from others indoors. A subsequent text advised me to have an overnight bag ready in case I’m hospitalised.

I love the outdoors, but I’m already starting to see “outside” as a dangerous place. Given the stark advice in those texts added to my own desire to stay well and the fact that London is the epicentre of the outbreak in the UK, it’s not surprising that I’m wary of leaving the house – even if it’s to get the treatment which has, largely, been keeping my cancer in check for the best part of a year.

The primary breast cancer I was treated for some years ago has spread to my bones and bone marrow. While it’s currently treatable – and is more or less under control – it’s ultimately incurable.

Somewhat ironically, it’s more the treatment I’m having that makes me immunocompromised than the cancer itself. This side-effect is managed with injections of a drug called filgrastim, which stimulates the production of neutrophils, the white blood cells that fight bacterial – not viral – infection. For the past few months, I’d been having just one of these, at my regular treatment appointment. In March, though, just as the outbreak was starting, the consultant prescribed an extra one for me to self-administer mid-cycle to keep my neutrophil levels up.

In 2014, I was lucky enough to get the chance to take part in a transatlantic sailing race, from the Canary Islands to the island of St Lucia in the Caribbean. It took 13 days and it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done.

I had next to no experience of sailing. You just had to be up for an adventure, be a team player and be very good at following instructions (I can hear my husband snorting in disbelief at that last one but I can do that no problem if I decide I want to). Anyway, the pre-trip training included a one-day Sea Survival course that taught us how to use all the safety kit on board and what to do in an emergency. We spent a lot of time in the water at a local swimming pool with life rafts and the like. It was all well and good that we had this training,  but the key take-home message for me was do not fall overboard from a 72-foot long yacht that’s going full tilt in the middle of the Atlantic. The chances of you surviving are not good. 

I felt pretty much the same reading these texts I’ve been receiving. It really would not be good for me to catch this virus. I’ve gone from fretting that my treatment might be changed or delayed to fretting about the fact that next week I’ll have to leave the house on not one but two occasions – once next Wednesday to have my blood taken for testing and then again the following day, assuming the blood test results are ok, to start my 12th round of treatment. I won’t see the consultant for my results as I usually do as, rightly so, they’ve stopped face-to-face meetings.

My rational mind tells me it’s good news that my treatment plans are unchanged. Appropriate social distancing measures will be in place, I’m sure, but I’ll still be nervous.

It was a last-minute decision to sign up to the cycling camp in Mallorca. I did so after receiving “not bad news” in early March in relation to the two scans I’d had in mid-February.

I flew to Mallorca from Madrid on 11 March. My husband and I had gone there to celebrate his 58th birthday. That was on 10 March. It was also our 35th anniversary of getting together as a couple, so it was pretty special. We spent the evening with Spanish friends we’ve known since we lived and met in Madrid in the mid 1980s. The talk was of coronavirus but other than that Madrid was felt no different from usual and there was little sense of the huge upheaval that was to come.

Back to London. In the words of the oncologist, the PET CT scan results “gave with one hand and took with the other”.

Some previous “hot spots” were less hot than they were three months ago but there were some new hot spots elsewhere. As for the MRI scan of my spine, the conclusion was that despite there being “widespread metastatic disease”, appearances were “stable compared with previous”.

Things are still looking ok on the bone marrow function front. 

My view is that while “not bad news” is not good news, it’s a heck of a lot better than actual bad news. Also, I really can’t believe that with all this going on inside, I’m not in any pain. For that, I couldn’t be more grateful. 

I know this is all about me and that many people are in a far worse situation – and, of course, that there are many people out there in essential jobs who are themselves at great risk of getting the virus. However, it does illustrate perfectly how coronavirus has changed everything. And if we’re to believe the forecasts, we ain’t seen nothing yet. 

Long before most people had even heard of coronavirus, I wrote a long article about living with secondary breast cancer. Some friends read a draft and suggested I try to find a broader audience for it than I’d get with my blog. I approached the Institute of Cancer Research and they said they’d be happy to publish it.

In the article, I make the point that very often we make presumptions about the future when the reality is that we have no way of knowing what will in fact happen. Reading it now, it seems weirdly prophetic. 

The ICR published the piece on Mother’s Day. If you read it, you’ll see why they chose that day. It’s frank and honest right from the start. Please only read it if you think you’re ready for that. You can read it here.

*I take issue with the blanket assertion that home is the safest place for people to be in these times of lockdown and self-isolation. It may be for me but what about women in abusive relationships and/or at risk of domestic violence, not to mention children who live in very troubled households? I have relatives who are school teachers and they all know of children for whom school is their only safe place.