Starting iv chemo and celebrating a special 21st birthday

A lot has happened since my previous post on 7 August.

The bottom line health-wise is that I have moved onto a new line of treatment, intravenous chemotherapy involving a drug called paclitaxel. I had my first treatment session on 23 August and my second session yesterday.

Life-wise, our younger son has turned 21 and it has been a real joy to be able to celebrate this milestone.

We thought I might be catching a bit of a break on the cancer front. However, blood test results from a few weeks ago showed that, overall, things really weren’t going well in terms of my bone marrow function. In addition, the important CA 15-3 tumour marker had gone up again, meaning the cancer was more active than it had been recently.

The situation was complicated but the consultant concluded that it was time to come off the treatment I’d been on for almost four months – a combination of two drugs called everolimus (Afinitor) and exemestane (Aromasin), taken once daily in tablet form – and move on to the next line of treatment, iv paclitaxel.

I knew it was coming and I understand the rationale for changing. We really need to get a grip on the bone marrow issue and we can’t ignore potential tumour progression. However, I’d hoped it might not happen for another few months. We’d discussed the matter at length and the consultant knew how keen I was to hold off iv chemo for as long as possible.

There were various reasons for this.

One reason is that I’m now tied much more to the hospital. I’m on a 28-day treatment cycle, with treatment sessions on Day 1, Day 8 and Day 15. Each session takes about two hours. You also need to have blood tests done before each of the three sessions of each cycle, etc, etc, etc.

Another reason is that I know this drug. I had it as part of my treatment for primary breast cancer way back in Autumn 2015. It had a very good effect on my cancer then and we obviously hope it will this time too. However, it is also responsible for the “chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy” – essentially nerve damage – that I have in my feet that even now can stop me from sleeping. During the day it’s not so bad, but it is there. We’ll keep a very close look-out while I’m on paclitaxel now for signs of additional damage. It would be too bad if the treatment worked well but again brought with it this distressing and, it has to said, potentially debilitating side effect.

Then there are all the other common side effects, including likely hair loss. I didn’t like losing my hair last time. If I lose it this time, I don’t think I’ll like it any better.

All in all, I think I can be forgiven for feeling rather nervous about starting this particular treatment again.

Despite my concerns, though, now that I have started treatment, I’m desperate for it to work and for me to stay the course. It’s not as if the previous regime I was on was a breeze. In fact, at times it was hideous, but you put up with a lot when you know there are limited options ahead of you, each potentially more toxic than the previous one.

Discussing it all with the consultant on 11 August, any hopes I had that my husband, two young adult sons and I might fly off to Spain in late August/early September went flying out the window. Following right behind were plans for a trip to my home city of Glasgow that I’d hoped to take before going to Spain. Other trips were and are – as of today, at least – still planned, potentially for later in September and certainly for October.

I’ve had dozens and dozens of appointments with doctors since my diagnosis of primary breast cancer in the summer of 2015. I’ve cried at only a few. This was one of those. It felt like we were definitely moving into new territory and I was feeling very sorry for myself.

The transition to chemo and the weeks preceding the move have been really quite traumatic. This may not be a complete list but they have involved tiredness and extreme fatigue, a lack of appetite, dry mouth, insatiable thirst, being tested for diabetes, sore feet, badly disturbed nights, joint pain that I’ve been told is not related to the bone mets, dental discomfort, a 2am trip to A&E with a high temperature and suspected serious infection (nothing was found), a couple of blood transfusions – and me feeling very, very low and dejected.

This is the fourth line of treatment that I’ve been on since I was diagnosed in April 2019 with secondary – incurable but treatable – breast cancer. When I was diagnosed, it had spread to my bones, with “bone marrow involvement”, meaning it was impairing the ability of my body to make healthy blood.

More than well over two years on, the various drugs I’ve been on have managed to keep the cancer from spreading outside of my bones and into, say, my liver, or my lungs, or my brain. I would say I have been largely healthy, despite experiencing some quite nasty side effects and, of course, despite having the illness in the first place. However, the real and serious problem at present is bone marrow suppression. We know the cancer itself is causing at least some of this but it doesn’t help that the treatments themselves can also cause your haemoglobin and neutrophils to fall. For those of you who are interested in the detail, my platelets are also not in a great way – that’s a new development and a new concern.

The plan initially is to have four 28-day cycles of iv paclitaxel, assuming it works and I cope with the toxicity. The number of cycles could be increased to six if things go exceedingly well. I’m not second-guessing anything. I’ve already had to have a one-unit blood transfusion and several neutrophil boosting injections between the first and second sessions.

Let’s hope things settle down, that I’m not afflicted with additional peripheral neuropathy, and that I can make the most of the two-week breaks between cycles.

I’m to have blood tests tomorrow before seeing the consultant for a mid-cycle debrief. They’ll take an additional vial of blood for a “cross-match”. This is when they test a patient’s blood against a donor’s blood to check that the two are fully compatible. This happens regularly now when I have my regular blood tests done, “just in case” I need a transfusion. I’m getting used to it.

I think I’ll need yet another set of bloods done the day before my third treatment session of this first cycle, which is scheduled for 7 September.

To say it’s been a tough few weeks – physically and emotionally – would be a huge understatement. Through it all, ordinary life goes on. Today, for example, I’ve felt great. I wrote this blog and this evening I went out on a three-mile walk. Earlier on, I had a nice chat on the phone with one of my brothers. Yesterday, between having bloods done in the morning and my chemo session late afternoon, I did a few hours’ work. I’ve been taking a bit of a break from work recently.

I’d been feeling so wretched that I hadn’t been meeting up so much with friends. You feel less like making plans to socialise in case you have to cancel at the last minute. A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I feared we’d have to pull out of at really short notice a lunch date in central London with friends we hadn’t seen since last summer. We’d really been looking forward to it. I’m so glad we made it – not just for the company, which as always was excellent, but to experience the zaniness of the place we had lunch. The photo is of Cath and me, somewhat over-excited in the sci-fi toilets; each pod is an individual loo!

Some days, I really haven’t felt like getting out of bed – especially when I’ve slept particularly badly that night. I do, though, one always feels better for it. On those days, even picking up the phone when someone calls to chat can be a real challenge. Friends and family know the situation well enough not to be offended.

It can’t be easy for my husband but, throughout this whole thing, he has continued to be an absolute rock.

Among all the turmoil, our younger son turned 21 – a real highlight and milestone for any family. Family-wise we did a couple of low-key things – not on the day itself as he was off in Cornwall with friends. After the year many young people have had, we loved thinking of him mucking about in the sea and on the beach and enjoying big wide open spaces on the very day of his 21st. We have no doubt whatsoever that he was feeling the parental love and affection from a distance.

I think I deserve a medal for the most quickly and imaginatively cobbled together birthday cake – a slice of malt loaf with a candle on top! A few of our son’s friends popped round one evening soon after his birthday for drinks before heading out to a party. I decided they should sing happy birthday to him. They duly obliged. You can’t say I don’t make an effort!

A welcome surprise and another lesson in unpredictability

Well, well, well. Not only did the PET CT scan I had a couple of weeks ago show no disease progression, my tumour marker level has fallen twice in a row over the past several weeks. The ongoing inability of my bone marrow to make enough haemoglobin to transport sufficient amounts of oxygen around my body continues to be a major challenge but there’s no doubting this is welcome news.

It was not expected. For me, it’s yet another lesson in how unpredictable this whole thing is.

I was more or less resigned to the breast cancer that has spread to my bones and “infiltrated” my bone marrow having spread further. This would have meant my moving on to intravenous chemotherapy. Instead, I am staying on my current medication – a combination of two (non-chemo) drugs, everolimus (Afinitor) and exemestane (Aromasin). This will be my fourth monthly cycle on these two drugs, which are taken in tablet form, once daily.

I know that iv chemo is an inevitability and I have to accept that. However, I’d be lying if I said the thought of it doesn’t scare me, with all of the associated additional and potentially lengthy treatment sessions and toxic side effects, including hair loss. Thus my relief at having dodged this particular bullet – for however long it may be.

Let’s stay with the good news. Not only was there no progression, there was, in the words of my consultant oncologist, “a hint towards better” in that the disease in my spine and pelvis showed up as less bright on the PET scan than it has done on previous occasions. The brighter an area is on a PET scan, the more active the cancer is in that area.

As for the tumour marker, this had shot up considerably towards the end of the second treatment cycle, suggesting there had been an increase in cancer activity. Now, going by the latest test results, it is back at almost exactly the level it was at when I started this current treatment three months ago.

On now to the issue of my bone marrow and the fact that the cancer is impairing its ability to make healthy blood – most critically at this stage healthy red blood cells, which contain the haemoglobin that transports oxygen around the body.

On the haemoglobin front, I’ve essentially been anaemic to one degree or another since my diagnosis in the spring of 2019, well over two years ago now. Up until now we’ve intervened with transfusions of red blood cells when it has fallen to a level that’s considered too low. I now generally know myself when it’s falling as I get breathless doing the simplest of things such as climbing stairs. That’s pretty much the current state of affairs.

Yesterday, for example, I went to Tooting Bec lido* for the first time since last summer. It’s baking hot in London at the moment so this is a great place to be. I swam four widths (the pool is 33 yards wide), breast stroke, after which I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest it was beating so hard! That said, it was fabulous to be there and I was fine after a rest.

The problem with blood transfusions is that you can only have so many before you get iron overload, a serious condition that can damage major organs such as the heart, liver and pancreas. We’re not close to that stage yet but it wouldn’t take long to get there if I were to continue to have transfusions as regularly as I’ve had them recently. Earlier this summer, I had two within less than six weeks of each other. We’re now therefore looking at ways of tackling the problem that don’t involve transfusions. I hope they work.

My tumour marker and haemoglobin levels will be monitored even more closely than usual over these coming weeks. The results of the other scan I had – an MRI of my spine – have still to come through. I should get those next week. 

I can also report that a good few of the drug side effects and/or other physical ailments that were making me so miserable on a physical – and emotional – level have subsided.

I’ve continued to stay to clear of the painful and spirit-sapping mouth and tongue sores that I had on and off during the first and second cycles. That sentence really does not do justice to how awful these sores are. 

The massive cold sore wound on my bottom lip that wasn’t healing and that’s been plaguing me for around six weeks seems to have a mind of its own. One day it seems almost to have gone but then it’s a bloody mess again the next. I’m not swearing here, it really is sometimes a bloody mess. However, it does seems to be going in the right direction, albeit very, very slowly. Also, the wounds from the two pigmented skin lesions that I had removed from the sole of my right foot and my right calf nearly three months ago have now completely healed. These two things combined allowed me to go to the lido yesterday, although I did keep my face out of the water to be on the safe side.

The night sweats have been much less frequent but are still pretty nasty when they do happen. 

The discomfort that I’d been feeling in some teeth has gone – at least for the moment. I have a session with the dental hygienist at the hospital next week, by which time I really hope the cold sore wound has fully cleared up.

The sore feet at night can be a bit of a nightmare, especially if I’ve been out on a long walk during the day. My plan to take sleeping tablets more regularly so as to basically knock myself out hasn’t worked as planned. You can’t take alcohol with sleeping tablets and at 7pm when I fancy a cold beer or glass of cold white wine (or both!), bedtime seems a long way off. The alcohol usually wins!

I’ve had some new joint pain, but I can’t tell whether this is cancer- or age-related. The pain either eases on its own or I take painkillers. 

My 58th birthday has come and gone.

There was so much going on and so much uncertainty on various levels in the weeks running up to the day that I had been veering from thinking I wanted to see as many people as possible to feeling that I just wanted to hide under the duvet all day.

In the end, I had a lovely time, with celebrations and events with friends and family spread over the best part of a week, or indeed longer.

On the day itself, we kept things low key, with a little but perfectly formed extended family group. The rain stayed off and the cake tasted as delicious as it looks in the photo.

Over the course of a few days, there were multiple deliveries of, among other things, cakes, pastries, chocolates and flowers – lots of flowers!

There was a trip to the Wimbledon tennis championships, with Dave, my friend and partner in seizing the day. I have incurable breast cancer; Dave is five years younger than me and has Parkinson’s disease.

My husband and I went to the Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival one evening. Friends treated us to supper at the smartest restaurant in our local area. Some very good friends visited and stayed over one evening. We had a very relaxing night away with our 22- and 20-year-old sons.

I also went to a gig at London’s Jazz Cafe on July 11th, the day after my birthday. This was the night of the European football championships final in which England – the “auld enemy” of my country of birth – were playing. I’d booked this evening out a while ago as a birthday treat for my husband, our sons and me. However, when it became clear that England was going to be in the finals, I started looking round for replacement company – friends who, like me, didn’t mind whether they watched the match or not. An Australian friend and a Dutch friend answered the call and we had a lovely evening – unlike the people watching the match, given the sad ending for England! I’m only sorry that one of the two friends had to self-isolating afterwards as she was “pinged” to say she’d been in close contact that evening with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19.

Suffice to say I have felt very loved over these past couple of weeks. The cutest and perhaps best birthday present of all was a promise (see photo) from our sons to become blood donors. I understand they were all set to donate before my birthday but they both contracted Covid and had to postpone it. I’m quite hardline on this in that I see giving blood as one’s civic duty but I have to concede there was a certain amount of persuasion and emotional blackmail involved here!

Back to my medical situation.

The bone marrow impairment is of course a big concern but one has to be grateful for the other, more positive news. I am delighted to have received this unexpected surprise. Nonetheless, it seems appropriate to end this post with a phrase that I’ve used many times before: let’s just see how things go.  

*At 100 yards long and 33 yards wide, Tooting Bec Lido in southwest London is the largest freshwater swimming pool by surface area in the United Kingdom. It holds a million gallons of water and is just a 15-minute walk from where we live.

Saying it like it is

From a living your life point of view, the past six weeks have been fabulous. On the cancer and related general health front, they’ve been much less so. It’s getting increasingly difficult to separate one from the other.

We went on no fewer than three trips, one by train and two by car.

We visited some beautiful parts of England. We did lots of sightseeing. With friends or on our own, we went to museums, art galleries and exhibitions. We visited various sets of friends and relatives, some of whom we hadn’t seen since just before the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2019 and some of whom we hadn’t seen for many years. We helped our younger son move into his third year accommodation at university in the city of Leeds in the north east of England. 

Back in London, I continued to meet up with people – current and former work colleagues, my brother and nephew who were down visiting from Scotland, and a group of women from BellaVelo, one of the two cycling clubs of which I’m still a member, despite not having cycled with either of them for a very, very long time.

As you may be able to tell, I did not do much work in June.

That’s a synopsis of what’s been happening over the past month-and-a-half in that part of my life over which I have control. Now here’s what been happening in the part over which I have little control*.

I had two blood transfusions in the space of just over five weeks, each prompted by falling haemoglobin levels.

My most recent blood tests showed a substantial rise in my tumour marker level, meaning there’s been an increase in cancer activity.

The implication of the above is that the metastatic breast cancer that’s in my bones and has infiltrated my bone marrow has not responded to the treatment I started just over two months ago. My next set of scans – a half-body combined PET CT scan and an MRI of my spine – is therefore being brought forward as we want to try to determine whether the cancer has spread.

If the scans show signs of progression – or even perhaps if they don’t but the tumour marker level is still markedly rising and my bone marrow is still struggling to produce healthy blood – I will move on to the next line of treatment. This would be my fourth treatment since I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer just over two years ago. It would be iv chemo, with all of the associated additional and potentially lengthy treatment sessions and toxic side effects, including hair loss. I am really, really, really not ready for any of that. Also, with each new treatment you start, you can’t help but be aware that you’re one step closer to running out of options.

But let’s not pre-empt things. Who knows what the scans will show?

Back to the tribulations of the past six weeks.

I had another round of treatment-induced mouth sores. However, I’ve been totally clear of these for the past few weeks, which is a huge relief. You can read in previous posts how painful these were.

Another side effect of one of the drugs I’m on is night sweats. I’ve been having these on a regular basis, although not so much in the past week or so. When they happen, it means: 1) having to change your nightwear in the middle of the night; 2) changing the bed sheets the following morning; and 3) depending on how wet the sheets are and what time of the night it is, moving to the bed of the son who at the time was still away at uni and trying to get back to sleep. My oncologist and I agreed that for someone such as me who pretty much sailed through the menopause, this is a particular affront. I’ve had more night sweats in the past two months than I had during the whole of my menopause.

I had a slight temperature over the course of a couple of days and at one stage I feared it might jeopardise a much anticipated trip to Wales and Manchester. It was fine in the end but there was a fair amount of anxiety involved.

There’s more.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a nose bleed, but one morning there was blood rather than mucous on the tissue when I blew my nose.

That kind of freaked me out as you’re advised to “seek medical advice urgently” if you develop “gum/nose bleeds or unusual bruising” (see photo). I duly called the emergency number I’d been given and spoke to one of the oncology nurses.

The nurse asked me lots of questions, after which her reassuring advice was: “Monitor it and call us again if it gets worse.” Thankfully it didn’t and all was ok. So off I went to an arranged lunch date with two friends – women I’d met at antenatal classes 23 years ago but hadn’t seen for several years.

I’ve also been having dental problems – not quite pain but certainly discomfort in a couple of teeth. Tooth or gum problems ring pretty loud alarm bells in people such as me so I reported the discomfort to the cancer nurse specialists who work alongside my oncologist. An appointment was immediately made for me at the specialist dentistry department at the hospital where I’m having my cancer treatment.

I was given an extremely thorough dental examination that involved among other things tooth sensitivity testing and x-rays. Nothing of concern was found. The discomfort remains. I’m to be seen again in three months’ time, or sooner if it gets worse. In the meantime, I’ve been referred to the hygienist for a deep clean (my own words there).

Zometa (zoledronic acid), the bone strengthening drug I currently have via infusion over 15 minutes every four weeks, helps prevent skeletal related effects of the cancer such as bone fracture, pain and subsequent radiotherapy, and spinal cord compression. It’s one of a group of drugs called bisphosphonates that, unfortunately, come with a small risk of a nasty condition called osteonecrosis of the jaw, or ONJ – a rare but potentially debilitating condition in which bone tissue in the jaw is no longer covered by the gums and starts to die.

ONJ symptoms can range from very mild to severe. It can cause tooth or jaw pain and swelling in your jaw. Severe symptoms include infection in your jaw bone. You can get ONJ after dental procedures, such as extractions. The healing process after such procedures may take a long time or may not happen at all. That’s why everything possible is done to avoid the need for tooth removal in patients taking Zometa or denosumab (Xgeva), another drug used in this setting. That’s why my report of dental problems was taken so seriously.

Your risk of ONJ increases the longer you’re treated with bisphosphonates or denosumab. I’ve been on either Zometa or denosumab since my secondary diagnosis. In addition, I was on Zometa periodically for some time after my primary diagnosis as there’s some evidence that, in post-menopausal women, it can reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back.

Given all of the above, I’m taking a break from Zometa this month to see whether it makes any difference with regard to the discomfort. And I guess, in case any dental treatment were needed.

I was impressed that an appointment was found for me so quickly. However, it was on the morning of the day we were setting out on our Wales/Manchester adventure and I spent a fair amount of time worrying about whether we’d make the train. We did make it, and it was the loveliest of trips, despite my teenage goddaughter in Wales beating me at chess in an agonisingly slow game that lasted the best part of two hours. We’re evens now, but I will endeavour to rise again!

I mentioned in my last post that I had started once again to have sore feet at night, yet another side effect of one of the drugs I’m on. I suffered badly from this under my previous drug regime and while it’s not as bad as it was then, it’s no fun. Now as then, it’s exacerbated by exercise that puts pressure on the feet, such as running or long walks. Cold, wet towels to wrap round my feet in the middle of the night when the discomfort is stopping me from sleeping are once again a feature.

I’m not so bothered about running, having proved a point by completing a 5k just recently. Stopping walking or only walking for short distances, however, is not an option.

Had I not been prepared to walk on the various trips we’ve just been on, it would have meant not traipsing round and enjoying the northwestern city of Manchester for hours and hours and hours over the course of a couple of days with friends from London.

It would have meant missing out on wandering round the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, south of Leeds. This has been on my to-do list for ages and it didn’t disappoint (couple of photos here as evidence).

It would have meant not exploring the pretty village of Hathersage in the Peak District.

And it would have meant not walking round Sherwood Forest near Nottingham or visiting the small but super interesting Civil Wars Museum in Newark.

For the moment, I’ll take the sore feet. It’s a price worth paying. They’re not likely to get any better under the next treatment. Hopefully by adding painkillers and/or sleeping tablets to my arsenal, I’ll get by.

On top of all that, the wound on my lip from the horribly painful and ugly cold sores that I had earlier this month is taking forever to heal.

The cold sores appeared over a month ago, triggered by a bike ride in the sun (see photo) on the first of the three trips.

One day recently, my lip looked so awful that I almost called off a brunch date with a very, very good friend and her husband. I’m so glad we went in the end. On another occasion, the wound started bleeding when we were minutes away from the house of some old friends we were going to visit. I burst into tears from sheer frustration. We stopped the car and waited til the bleeding had stopped and I’d stopped crying before continuing.

While we’re on the subject of wounds, the one on my right calf that was healing so well opened up again, stopping me from exercising at a time when my feet were still fine. Is that ironic or just Sod’s law? The wound has almost cleared now.

Finally, my finger nails are getting ever softer and weaker and in some cases are lifting off the nail bed. As for my hair, when I find a knot and try to tease it out, sometimes a whole clump of hair comes out.

I started this latest treatment – a combination of two (non-chemo) drugs, everolimus (Afinitor) and exemestane (Aromasin), taken in tablet form, once daily – a little over two months ago. At my latest appointment with the oncologist, we agreed that I’d stay with it for a third, 30-day cycle to give it a proper chance to work. I agreed to stay on the highest dose of everolimus, despite the problems I’ve been having with mouth sores. The rationale is that we need to give the drugs the best chance of generating a response. I find it rather ironic that I’ve not had any mouth sores during this third and possibly final cycle.

So there we are, just saying it like it is.

I initially thought of having a photo of me having a blood transfusion at the hospital as the final image in this post. How much nicer, though, to use a photo of some of the beautiful roses that we are so lucky to have in our garden. Or rather had in our garden until the rain of the past few weeks came and ruined them!

Let’s see what the next few weeks bring on the health front.

What is certain is that there will be multiple trips to the hospital. Thank goodness I only live a couple of miles away. As it stands, I have six appointments for one thing or another over the next two weeks alone. The first of these was this morning, for blood tests to see how things were looking after the transfusion I had ten days ago. I had blood taken then waited for the results with the cannula in “just in case” I needed another transfusion. I didn’t.

Another certainty is my birthday, next weekend. I’ll be 58. I’m still standing.

*I also have increasingly little control over the lives of our 20 and 22 year old sons, both of whom in the past four or five weeks have had and, thankfully, have also recovered from Covid.

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!

Ode to Kenny Rogers

Kenny Rogers, King of Country, has died at the age of 81.

I come from a big card-playing family and Rogers’s song The Gambler was something of an anthem for us. When I read that he’d died, of all of his songs that I know, that one came to mind first. It’s associated with so many happy memories.

My five brothers and I all learnt to play cards when we were small. I remember our lovely gran being there and playing with us (for many years my gran lived with us from Monday to Friday and helped looked after us so that my mum could go back to the teaching job she loved). We’d gamble using matchsticks and then two pence pieces – “coppers”, my gran would say. She was English; no-one in Glasgow used that word.

We kept playing as we got older, and we moved from coppers on to silver – and worse! Once we all started leaving home – and in some cases leaving Glasgow and Scotland – we’d make a real effort to arrange a card school at our parents’ house whenever we knew all six siblings were going to be back in Glasgow at the same time.

These card schools were always a big deal (see what I did there?).

My mum never played for money so it was always my dad, my five brothers and me.

Sometimes just the seven of us would gather. Or we’d play after big family gatherings such as at Christmas. On those occasions, anyone else who was around as things were about to get going would make themselves scarce.

My then partner (and now husband) and my sisters-in-law were more than happy to go. They were fine with the jokes and teasing and laughter but they couldn’t stand all the shouting and arguing that also went on as well. Fair enough. Any children that were there would be desperate to stay but were made to leave because we didn’t think it was right for them to see us gambling for money! There was the odd exception – like in the photo, when our younger boy as a baby had conjunctivitis and just wanted to be with his mummy. If I recall correctly, it didn’t occur to me not to play! I thought of that photo when I read some years ago that now writer, television presenter and poker player Victoria Coren Mitchell had learnt to play poker sitting on her grandad’s lap.

I was the wimp who would always fold first. I’d rarely win much because everyone knew that if I stayed in for long, it was because I had a good hand. I’d only manage to fool them on the odd occasion.

We’d play for hours. If we got too loud or it was getting very late, mum would bang on the bedroom floor upstairs. That would quiet us down for a bit then, as it got later, we’d hear it again, and again. Finally, at two or three – or sometimes four – in the morning, mum would come downstairs in her nightdress and say “it’s time you lot were all going to bed”. We’d play on for a while, and that would be it, until the next time.

I moved from Glasgow for good when I was 22 or 23 – first to Madrid, where I’d already previously spent two years, and then to London. I regularly went back home and in the early days I used to joke that it had been a good trip if I’d won the cost of the coach ticket at cards!

The Gambler was released in November 1979. I would have been 16 then, at secondary school, and I have no idea whether I know the song from then or from later. That really doesn’t matter. I only know that – along with many other country music classics (that’s Glasgow for you) – it’s part of my life’s soundtrack.

Like in the song, we learned never to count our money when we were sitting at the table. Some of us tried but every time someone started to stack their coins into piles of ten, someone else would reach over and knock them down – and then quote from the Kenny Rogers song. I found it so annoying at the time, but I did also see the funny side.

When I read that Rogers had died, my mind went racing back to all the card schools we’ve had over the years.

It also went back to this photo of us all, from just a few years ago.

I love this photo for so many different reasons. My dad died just a couple of months after it was taken. It was taken in November or December 2015. It’s one of the very last photos of all eight of us together and it’s just so appropriate that we’re playing cards. I love the fact that my mum’s in it. We must have persuaded her to come and sit at the table for a family shot. My dad’s not smiling but he never smiled in photos; it was a standing family joke.

There’s another reason I love this photo. I had only recently finished chemotherapy for the primary breast cancer I’d had and I was due to have to my big op just before Christmas. I must have gone up to Glasgow for a few days thinking that I wouldn’t be up for a good while after that.

It was such a happy occasion. I was wearing a wig. Underneath, I was completely bald. Not long before or not long after this photo was taken, we’d all been rolling around laughing as some of my more idiotic brothers and some of my younger nieces and nephews had been throwing the wig around and trying it on! We weren’t to know then that I’d be up again just over a month later for, as I wrote at the time, “the saddest of reasons”.

I honestly don’t remember but I can say with absolute certainty that this song would have been played at the get-together after my dad’s funeral. Here’s the chorus: “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sitting at at the table; there’ll be time enough for counting, when the dealing’s done.”

Good advice for life in general.

Thanks for the memories, Kenny. We’ll toast you the next time we play.

When buying new ski gear is an act of defiance

I’d resisted buying new ski gear for years but last week I finally succumbed. I blame Storm Ciara and cancelled flights – and a sudden, enlightening realisation that while I might have advanced cancer, it’s up to me how I choose to live with it.

My old ski outfit had become something of a standing joke. Not only was it very much past its best and dangerously close to being not fit for purpose, I’d lost lots of weight in the past few years and it was now far too big for me.

There were various reasons I hadn’t already replaced it. A key one was that a few years ago I essentially stopped buying stuff I didn’t need. This year there was an additional reason. Last April, I found out that the primary breast cancer I’d been treated for in 2015/16 had spread to my bones and bone marrow and could not now be cured. It’s treatable and I’m doing well but ultimately it’s incurable. 

After my diagnosis last April, I assumed I wouldn’t go skiing again. When I realised I would in fact go this year, I convinced myself I shouldn’t buy new gear because I might get only one season’s use out of it. To be honest, the thought that my cancer might recur was always in the back of my mind in previous years – another reason I couldn’t bring myself to buy new kit.  In the end, last week, I bought new trousers and a jacket in what I can only describe as a major act of defiance against the fact I have this cancer.

I’d had my old ski trousers for at least 15 years. They’d long lost any claim to being waterproof and indeed for the past couple of years had offered very little protection against the wind. The jacket was in fact a hiking jacket with none of the niceties that make a ski jacket a ski jacket. These include a little pouch on the sleeve for your lift pass – and, more importantly, inner cuffs in the sleeves and a “snow skirt” inside the body of the jacket to stop the white stuff going right up the inside should you fall. I say more importantly as I tend to fall, at least once every trip.

I’m extremely fortunate that, in normal circumstances, I get to go on more than one trip a year. I went with friends a few weeks ago and I’ve just got back from a week with my husband – our first ski trip together without the children in 19 years.

Not exactly flattering.

Having seen a photo of me on the trip with my friends where even I have to admit I look like a bag lady without the bags, I was almost persuaded. The photo’s there; see for yourself. In the end, though, even that wasn’t enough.

I read an article a couple of years ago about consumerism by the American author Ann Patchet. I was never that materialistic to start with; even so, this article changed the way I live my life. I’ve also just read a book by Vicky Silverthorn called “Start with your sock drawer”. If you read either or both and like what they say, you’ll appreciate my reluctance to buy anything new, never mind kit you only wear once or twice a year. Having this cancer adds another huge dimension. “How much use will I get out of it?” and “Do I really need  I it?” are questions I ask myself every time I think I might buy something new. On balance, I felt I couldn’t justify new ski gear.

So when I packed last Saturday to come away with my husband, it was my old gear that I folded into the suitcase. Our flight from Gatwick to Geneva was the following day, at around lunchtime.

And then Storm Ciara happened. First thing last Sunday we found out our flight was cancelled. Over breakfast while we tried to reschedule our flight for the following day, I had an epiphany. That’s it, I announced, I’m getting some new ski gear this afternoon. And that’s exactly what I did.

The miracle is that I’ve gone skiing at all this season. When I got my secondary cancer diagnosis last April, I thought I’d be kissing goodbye to this particular activity. When you hear you have cancer in your spine, you don’t think, great, that’ll set me up nicely for  skiing.

The closer it got to the ski season, however, the more I found myself thinking I might be able to go.

I did a thorough risk assessment before booking anything.

I hadn’t had any pain in my spine or anywhere else for months. I was feeling fit and well. Despite an initial scare towards the end of last year, an MRI scan failed to find any sign that my cancer had progressed. I was taking bone-strengthening drugs as part of my treatment. Finally – and this final factor was given extra weighting – I just really wanted to go!

I promised myself that if I did go, I’d be really careful. Sure, I might still have a catastrophic accident but I ride my bike downhill at speeds most people would think were fast and no-one is suggesting I don’t do that. And, as we all know, any one of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow. It’s highly unlikely, but you know what I mean.

On to treatment.

Between one ski trip and the next, I had my monthly blood tests and appointment with the oncologist. I went ahead with the tenth round of the monthly treatment I began last May. The blood test results were good enough to keep me on this treatment but that blasted blood tumour marker keeps going up. This means there’s active cancer somewhere, but at the moment we don’t know where that is. I have my next set of scans – MRI and PET-CT – this coming week and they may or may not pick something up. The results will determine whether I stay on this treatment or move to another.

That’s more like it!

I’ve said this before, if you think scans and other types of diagnostic tests are “just to check everything’s ok”, you’re very much mistaken. It’s the total opposite; they’re to see if they can find anything wrong.

Back to the new ski gear. No, it doesn’t make me ski better* but I feel like a total badass wearing it.

I have so little control over what’s going on in terms of this disease – most importantly in terms of how it will progress but also in terms of the appointments and the blood tests and the scans and the treatments. This wasn’t just about buying a new jacket and trousers. It was about taking control and confronting my fear about the future. I’ve done just five days’ skiing in my new kit. I’ve already had more than my money’s worth.

*That’s a nod to my brothers. We come from a sporty family and even now, when someone shows off a new piece of, say, cycling kit they’ve just bought, someone else is always quick to ask if it makes them pedal faster. 

Topping off a lovely few weeks with my 100th Parkrun

I’ve just done my 100th Parkrun and it was the perfect end to a lovely few weeks.

I started doing Parkrun seriously in April 2016 to get fit again after finishing active therapy for primary breast cancer. Little did I know then that these free, timed, volunteer-led Saturday morning 5k runs would become a big part of my life and that almost four years and two cancer diagnoses later, I’d be chasing down my 100th.

Reaching one hundred is a pretty big milestone in the Parkrun world. I couldn’t be more pleased, especially as at one point earlier this year, not long after I was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer, I genuinely thought my running days were over.

It really felt like a massive achievement. Others agreed. Friends turned up to cheer me round our local course at Tooting Common in southwest London with the banner they’d made when I cycled Ride London last summer. One friend ran the whole 5k with me. Another chose to make this her first Parkrun. Finally, there was a welcome party waiting for me with champagne, party poppers and cake!

It was the perfect end to what had been a very pleasant few weeks.

Just two days earlier, I’d gone ahead with the ninth monthly round of the treatment I began in May for secondary breast cancer. I’d had a wide range of blood tests the day before. It’s no longer as straightforward as saying that the results are showing good news across the board – the relevant tumour marker has edged up again. However, my oncologist clearly thinks the balance is still in favour of continuing with the same core medication I’ve been on since starting treatment last May. This is my first so-called “line of treatment” and the longer you can stay on these early lines – and off chemo – the better.

I’d been feeling good physically most of the way through the four weeks of treatment cycle #8 – apart from on one key front, more of which below. Feeling well, however, is no indication that things are going well inside. That being the case, together with the uncertainty of the past couple of months, it was a huge relief to hear I’d be staying on this treatment for another four-week cycle.

So off I headed to the day treatment unit for three lots of injections and to collect my next 28-day supply of the abemaciclib tablets that I take every morning and every evening.

Treatment at the day unit consisted of four individual injections: one of the same drug (fulvestrant) in each buttock lasting two to three minutes each, one of another drug in the left side of my abdomen (denosumab) that took about a minute, and a quick 30-second jab of yet another drug (filgrastim) on the right side of my abdomen to finish.

It’s not an exaggeration to say I felt like a pincushion by the time I was done. That’s not a complaint; it really is just a statement. They can stick as many needles as they want into me if it keeps the cancer in check.

It’s been the loveliest of Christmases and New Years – spent very sociably but also very locally. Our two boys started uni in September and it was great to have them home for a few weeks. A highlight was them treating us to a delicious home-made Beef Wellington on Boxing Day.

I’ve been having a lot of fun sports-wise. I was on a mission to reach my 100th Parkrun as early in the new year as possible. To achieve this, I did four Parkruns over a ten-day period – two regular Saturday runs at my home course and two special events, one on Christmas Day at Dulwich Park a couple of miles away and one on New Year’s Day, also at Tooting.

Also, I’m back playing in the tennis leagues at my club. Over the holidays I played – and lost – two singles matches.

Most fun of all, on New Year’s Day a friend and I took a dip in Tooting Lido, the local 100 x 33 yard open air swimming pool. Even with a full wetsuit, we managed no more than two widths – my hands and feet were frozen the second I got in. It felt like a suitably bonkers thing to do on the first day of a new decade.

Another positive relates to the issue of drug side effects. Severe diarrhoea is a potentially serious side of abemaciclib, one of the two drugs I’ve been on from the start. There had been moments but I hadn’t been too badly affected. That all changed with treatment cycle #7 just over two months ago when I switched from Zometa, the drug I’d been taking to reduce the risk of bone fractures and other “skeletal related events”, to denosumab, which is aimed at doing the same thing but in a different way.

If you’ve had bad attacks of the runs – and I mean really bad – you’ll know how nasty diarrhoea can be. If you haven’t, well just be grateful. The antidiarrhoeal medicine loperamide quickly became my new best friend. I can now boast of being an expert in its use – for both treatment and prophylactic purposes.

While it didn’t spoil our recent holiday in Jordan it was, as I said euphemistically to the oncologist, most certainly “an issue”. I could only look longingly at the all-you-could-eat breakfast buffet at the smart beachfront hotel where we stayed for the last two nights of the trip. That felt most unfair. Also, I bet I’m one of the very few people who know the location of all – and I mean all – the public conveniences in Petra.

Anyway, the good news is that this cycle so far I haven’t been troubled anywhere near the degree to which I was in the first two cycles. It’s usually at its worst in the first two weeks – and at its very worst in the first few days – of the four-week cycle. Fingers crossed things are settling down.

Finally, the charity Breast Cancer Now has chosen to feature on its website an update of a blog post of mine that I wrote originally last November after a lovely summer and a trip to the US to visit two much-loved aunts. The fact that it’s had lots of positive feedback from many, many women with breast cancer makes me very happy indeed.

As I said, it’s been a lovely few weeks. Indeed it’s ongoing. At a ridiculously early time tomorrow morning, I fly off to the French Alps for my annual ski trip with friends. I’ve stocked up on loperamide but I do feel very fortunate even to be in a position where I’m able to  go. It’s from Friday to Tuesday, and the aim is to ski on each of the five days we’re away. I call it a long weekend; my husband calls it a short week. He is technically correct, but don’t tell him I said that.

Here’s to 2020. Let’s hope it’s kind to all of us.

Relax, honey, you’ve passed

This post is in praise of the man who is still making me laugh after some 35 years of partnership.

My previous post was about how a diagnosis of an incurable, progressive, disease gives you an opportunity to reflect on life. Well, this is me reflecting on my relationship with my husband and best friend.

Like any couple who’ve been together for a long time, we sometimes drive each other nuts and bicker over silly things (or is that just us?). On our recent trip to Jordan, we’re wandering round the incredible Roman ruins of Jerash in the north of the country, and I jokingly tell him off for some ridiculously minor infraction.

Jerash

In response, he quips that sometimes he feels he’s still on probation. He smilingly says he’s worried that one day he’ll find out he’s failed and I’ll tell him, as we say in my native city of Glasgow, to “sling his hook”.

This has me doubled over laughing. It makes me laugh every time I think back on it.

We’ve been together essentially since we were 21. We survived living in different cities and indeed in different countries for several years early on. We got married two children and 20 years into the relationship – almost 16 years ago – and he was the one who joked in his speech at the wedding that it had taken him nearly two decades to be sure he’d made the right choice!

The idea that I’ve yet to decide whether he makes the grade is hilarious. As he knows very well. At least I think he does. Just in case, though, I’d like to say for the record that this man who is still making me laugh out loud 35 years on has indeed passed his probation. What’s more, he’s done so with flying colours and deserves the highest distinction going.

Reading Unsheltered in the Dead Sea

Part of the trick to a long relationship is being willing to say sorry quickly after a falling out. It has to be said that it took both of us some time to learn this – and I confess it took me longer than it took him. On holiday, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Unsheltered. In it, one of the main characters says that sorry really is “the word that could never be said enough in the space of one marriage.” I think most people would agree.

Now bear with me on this next part, there is a point to it.

Recently, I’ve increasingly taken to making sure my boobs look level when I’m wearing tight-fitting clothes. When I had my right-side mastectomy in December 2015, I had a reconstruction made out of fat taken from my belly area. The radiotherapy I subsequently had robbed the reconstruction of its elasticity – it’s a known risk – with the result that the right one looks pretty much the same now as it did four years ago and the other one, ie the real one, well, doesn’t. Nature, shall we say, has taken its course. (You are allowed to laugh; we do.)

These days, therefore, it takes some readjusting when I get dressed to get that sought-after “in-bra symmetry” look.

That photo!

Anyway, back to Jordan. It’s late afternoon and we’re wandering through the spectacular archeological sandstone site of Petra. The light is beautiful. He takes a photo of me at the entrance to a cavernous tomb. “That’s lovely,” he says, “I’ll post that.” It’s a close-up, and it’s going on social media. I ask, almost instinctively, “What do my boobs look like?”

What I mean, of course, is do they look lopsided or uneven in the photo? He, very deliberately, looks at my actual chest and replies with a smile, “under the circumstances, not half bad”. We both know what he means and, again, it has me laughing for ages.

I could have kept all this to myself. Shortly after our holiday, however, I happen to find myself listening to the first album in 17 years from Tanya Ticker, one of my favourite country singers from back in the day. There’s a song on it called Bring my flowers now (while I’m livin’).

You may not know this, but I am a huge country music fan. With song titles like that, how could you not be?

Anyway, the song is basically about how if you’re fortunate enough to have people in your life that you cherish, you should let them know that you appreciate them while you have the chance. Because guess what, folks, as Tanya Tucker tells us in the song, “We all think we got the time until we don’t.”

She sings: “Bring my flowers now while I’m livin’. I won’t need your love when I’m gone. Don’t spend time, tears and money on my old breathless body. If your heart is in them flowers, bring ‘em on.” Fantastically schmaltzy, even for country, but a great sentiment. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see how those lines hit a massive chord with me.

I’m the one with the incurable illness – secondary breast cancer – and you might think that my drawing attention to this song is to encourage those people who cherish me to let me know they do. In that regard, any of you reading this are indeed very welcome to “bring my flowers now” whenever and in whatever way you want. This post, though, is for my partner, who reckons that under the circumstances, we’re doing not half bad. I couldn’t have put it better myself. This is me bringing him his flowers now. I’m lucky to have him.

Thoughts on dying… and living

There have been two high-profile deaths in recent weeks of UK celebrities where the individuals involved have died in very different ways. I’m trying to work out whether I think one way is preferable to the other.

In the first case, Gary Rhodes, a British celebrity chef, died very suddenly in Dubai, where he had business interests. He reportedly died of a subdural haematoma, otherwise known as a bleed on the brain. The point is that one minute everything was completely normal then a couple of hours later he was dead. He was 59. I’m 56.

The second case involves Clive James, a well-known author and broadcaster. He died at the age of 80, nearly a decade after he was diagnosed with incurable leukaemia. He’d expected to die much sooner and, in 2015, he admitted to feeling embarrassed at still being alive.

I used to think that dying suddenly – of natural causes, at a decent age – would by far be the best way to go. Much better, say, than after a long illness where for a long time you have a very poor quality of life. Naively, I only ever considered these two possibilities. The situation in which I now find myself – living with an incurable, life-shortening disease with a prognosis that’s in single figures but currently with a good quality of life – never came into it.

I say naively because, as Dr Leslie Blackhall says in a thoughtful TEDx Talk, a great many of us who are over 40 are going to die of chronic, progressive and incurable illnesses such as metastatic cancer, emphysema, congestive heart failure, cirrhosis or dementia.*

Anyway, what do I think now?

Well, it’s harder to answer than you might think. But I’m starting to think that dying suddenly is no longer as appealing as I once thought.

What my diagnosis of secondary breast cancer has done is allow me to reflect on things in a way that I think is only possible for someone who knows with complete certainty that her or his life is going to be cut short. It’s an incredibly hard piece of knowledge to live with but, over the seven or eight months since I was diagnosed, I have come round to thinking that, in some strange way, it’s something of a privilege.

I am not in any way saying I consider cancer to be a gift. I don’t and I want to be absolutely clear on that. For my family’s and friends’ sakes more than mine, I wish with all my heart that this were not happening. I’d much rather be carrying on oblivious. But I don’t have that option. What I do have is a clarity about life and living that – and I accept I may be wrong here – I wouldn’t think is possible to have under normal circumstances.

The only thing any of us really knows with any certainty is that at some point we’ll die, but it’s the one thing, for obvious reasons, we don’t talk about. I’m not facing anything that the rest of us won’t ultimately face. Among the chaos and sadness that my diagnosis has brought, I find that fact strangely calming.

It is, of course, entirely possible I will outlive some of the normal, healthy people I come across every day in all sorts of different situations. Sudden, unexpected deaths do happen, as we’ve seen with Gary Rhodes – not to mention the recent, awful killings on London Bridge. Also, I may not die of this cancer. Something else entirely could carry me off before that does. There are no guarantees on anything when it comes to life – except that at some point we’ll die. Remembering all these things helps to keep me grounded.

Finally, my diagnosis has given me an outlet for my writing. That’s something for which I have to be grateful. I write for a living but it’s only since getting my initial cancer diagnosis that I’ve written in my own time.

I write but I’m not a poet, and these beautiful words by Clive James just blow me away. They’re the final lines of his poem Event Horizon:

What is it worth, then, this insane last phase
When everything about you goes downhill?
This much: you get to see the cosmos blaze
And feel its grandeur, even against your will,
As it reminds you, just by being there,
That it is here we live, or else nowhere.

“You get to see the cosmos blaze and feel its grandeur.” Isn’t that just magnificent?

For me, the most difficult thing is the uncertainty of it all. But then none of us has any real idea of when our own “last insane phase” will be – or indeed whether we’ll have one at all or whether, like Gary Rhodes, we’ll come to our end unexpectedly and suddenly. With me, we do at least know that it’s highly improbable I’ll be here in ten years’ time, still banging on about my situation and, like Clive James, feeling embarrassed at having survived for so long.

If I am still around though, I’m sure no-one will mind too much.

On that note, Happy Christmas, everyone. Here’s to a 2020 filled with peace, love and adventures!

*I urge you to listen to the TEDx Talk by this palliative care doctor, on Living, dying and the problem with hope. Here’s the link:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=KQEWc3LVfyc