Dodging a bullet

I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet.

Yesterday I had my monthly appointment with the oncologist and I got the results of the MRI scan I had on November 20th. That scan was prompted by the fact that the PET- CT scan I had had earlier that month had shown there had been some growth in the cancer that’s in my spine.

If this was confirmed by the MRI, there was a possibility I might need radiotherapy to shrink the tumour if it was seen to be getting too close to my spinal cord, where it could do some serious damage if left untreated.

I also got the results of the blood tests I’d had the previous day. Those results would likely determine whether we needed to call a halt to the drugs I’m on and move on to the next line of treatment. That would have been very disappointing as things had seemed to be going so well. Obviously the longer you can stay on these early lines of treatment, the better.

Anyway, it turns out from the MRI scan results that, despite the “flare” highlighted on the PET-CT scan, there is “no strong evidence to suggest that there is disease progression”.

The results also confirm the “ongoing treatment response” on the bone marrow front. (The breast cancer I was treated for in 2015/16 has spread to my bones and bone marrow.)

Based on the MRI scan results and the blood test results, I went ahead yesterday afternoon with treatment cycle #8: the fulvestrant buttock injections, an injection in the stomach of denosumab*, and off home with the latest 28-day pack of abemaciclib tablets. The important tumour marker (CA 15-3) is up again but that in itself is not enough to come off this treatment. There’s stuff going on with my kidneys that could partly account for the rise. Importantly, my bone marrow function continues to improve – to the extent that this cycle I’ve not to give myself the injection of filgrastim, the white blood cell booster.

So no progression. No radiotherapy needed. Core treatment unchanged for one more month. A bullet dodged, whether for four weeks or longer we can’t know at this stage.

We still need to keep a very close eye on things. I see the consultant again in a month’s time and I’m to have repeat PET-CT and MRI scans early in the New Year.

So it’s still very much one month at a time but it’s nice that this particular month includes Christmas. We’re taking nothing for granted but this is an unexpected and welcome early present. We’ll accept it and be grateful.

*Denosumab is a bone-strengthening drug for the prevention of skeletal related events such as fracture, radiotherapy or surgery to the bone, or spinal cord compression. It’s given as a subcutaneous injection whereas Zometa, the bone hardener I was on previously, is given as an intravenous infusion like chemo. This means treatment now takes much less time – and I don’t have to go through the trauma of having a cannula inserted and being hooked up to a drip.

A stark reminder that you can never relax

The results from the PET-CT scan I had at the beginning of this month could have been a lot worse but they did not bring the across-the-board good news we were hoping for.

Everything had been pointing to a positive overall response to the treatment I started in May for secondary breast cancer. However, the scan results showed that there has been some growth in the cancer that’s in my spine.

The level of growth is not enough to necessitate an immediate change in core treatment but I’m aware this could now happen sooner rather than later.

The results from the MRI scan I had yesterday will provide additional information that will help inform near-future treatment decisions. We’ll also be looking very closely at next month’s blood test results and I’m to have a repeat PET-CT scan in two months’ time.

I wasn’t surprised by the results; nothing surprises me with this, good or bad. I’m not freaking out but I am hugely disappointed.

We had hoped that the drugs were keeping everything under control. Rather, it turns out I’m having a varied response to treatment. Some aspects of the cancer are responding differently from others. While this is not usual, it’s also not hugely unusual.

I’d been having blood tests every month since starting treatment for the breast cancer that had spread or metastasised to my bones (the main focus is certain vertebrae in my spine) and bone marrow. We knew from the results that the drugs were working really well on the bone marrow front. We’d even postponed the PET-CT scan – my first since I was diagnosed – by a couple of months because things were looking so good. There had been some twitches here and there in my back in recent weeks but nothing approaching what I’d describe as pain.

The good news is that there’s no sign the cancer has spread anywhere else and my bone marrow function continues to improve. And so I continue on my current treatment.

Of potential significance is the fact that the latest blood test results showed that a tumour marker specific to secondary breast cancer is very slightly up. It’s fallen every month since I started treatment and while the rise is within acceptable limits, if it contines to rise we’ll potentially be looking at calling it a day on the drugs I’m on and moving to the next line of treatment.

More positively, other tumour markers are continuing to fall.

There has been one change to treatment. “Bone mets” weakens your bones and puts you at risk of “skeletal related events” such as fracture, radiotherapy or surgery, or spinal cord compression. 

I was on a bone strengthening drug called zoledronic acid or Zometa that was aimed at preventing these SREs.  I’ve come off Zometa and have moved to a different drug – denosumab (Xgeva) – that is designed to do the same thing but in a different way. The two core drugs – fulvestrant (Faslodex) and abemaciclib (Verzenios) – haven’t changed. Treatment is on a monthly cycle; I went ahead with round #7 last week.

In other news, I’m still running, edging closer by the week to my 100th Parkrun, the free, volunteer-led 5k running event that takes place in parks up and down the country every Saturday morning. Just last weekend, visiting my family in Glasgow, I ticked off number 94. I ran with two of my brothers and a niece and nephew.

It’s taking some time to get my head round this latest development. Things had been going so well that I’d allowed myself to start looking further ahead than just one or two months. After this turn of events, it’s very much back to one month at a time.

So, a stark reminder that no matter how well you think things are going, with this disease you cannot take anything for granted. As I’ve said before, we can but take things as they come.

In the meantime, on we go. For now,  that involves a ten-day holiday in Israel and Jordan for my other half and me. It was have to been 14 days but we changed our outward flight to accommodate the MRI appointment and are leaving a few days later than planned. We fly out later today. An adventure awaits.

Lucky or unlucky? It depends how you look at it

Understandably, a lot of people get upset when you tell them you’ve been diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. My boss was one of the first people I told, back in April or May. We chatted and she said, sympathetically, that I’d been so unlucky.

She and I both know how serious any type of secondary cancer is. If you’ve been diagnosed early enough, it will be treatable and can be controlled – in some cases for many years – but ultimately it’s incurable. What treatment does is buy you time. 

Instinctively I agreed with my boss. To find out at the age of 55 that your likely prognosis is in years not decades felt pretty unlucky to me.

Almost immediately, though, it occurred to me that that wasn’t actually the case. In fact, I said to her while trying to hold back tears, I’ve been incredibly lucky.

What do I mean by that?

Well, there have been some very sad and difficult times but, broadly speaking, I have not had a hard life.

I have an amazing partner I’ve essentially been with since I was 21. We’ve had and are continuing to have lots of good times together.

I have two lovely, healthy and seemingly happy young-adult children. 

Mum, my brothers and me

I had a happy childhood with loving parents and five great brothers. My dad died just a few years ago but my mum is alive and kicking and clearly loves me to bits. My brothers and I are all still very close. The photo here is from when I was up in Glasgow this summer.

I have two aunts – my dad’s two sisters – out in the US, one of whom is also my godmother. I’m very close to both despite the distance between us. I went out to visit them this past summer, thus the photo below. One of my brothers was there too, from Scotland, and while I know the term “joy-filled” sounds schmaltzy and cliched, I can’t think of a better way to describe the few days we were all together.

My husband’s parents, my in-laws, thought the world of me. We were lucky to have them in our lives for as long as we did.

Outside of the family, I have a godson and goddaughter I’m incredibly fond of. I got to see both of them this summer.

My lovely aunts and me

I have numerous wonderful friends and lots of different friendship and acquaintanceship groups.

We’re financially secure and I have great colleagues and a job I love.

I’ve been able to travel extensively, both on a personal and professional level.

I’ve been responding well to treatment; there was no guarantee I would. 

Physically, most of the time, I really don’t feel like there’s anything wrong with me over and above the standard things any 56-year-old female might expect to have. I’m cycling, running and playing tennis.

Other treatment options will be available once the specific treatment that I’m on stops working. I hope it’ll be a long time before that happens but I’m aware it could happen sooner rather than later.

So have I been lucky or unlucky? Maybe it’s not a question of one or the other. We’ve had our share of troubles and no-one would ever choose to have what I have. Regardless of how well I feel physically at the moment, living with an incurable disease is really tough emotionally. Among other things it’s hard not to feel guilty for bringing this upset into everyone’s lives. 

Healthwise, I can but hope for the best and take the coming months and hopefully years as they come. In the meantime, I’ll try to stay calm and be easy on myself, and keep appreciating and making the most of this life – lucky or unlucky – that I have.

A birthday, a bike ride and a breast cancer reality check

That was a fabulous weekend – despite there being a stonking big breast cancer reality check at the end of it.

On Friday I went ahead and started my sixth monthly treatment cycle for the secondary breast cancer with which I was diagnosed in April. A mix-up with bloods meant it didn’t happen the previous day as planned. According to the blood test results, things are still looking good. For that, I am incredibly thankful.

The following day was our older son Jamie’s 21st birthday. It was the loveliest of occasions.

My mum bowling!

The two boys came back from uni and my brother Peter, who is also Jamie’s godfather, came down from Glasgow. He brought my mum with him. Finally, my two adult nieces – the boys’ cousins – who live in London (and who very sweetly call me their London mum) were also there, with the boyfriend of one of them. We went bowling!

The cake

Since I was diagnosed with this treatable but ultimately incurable illness in April this year, milestones have even more special significance than they ordinarily would have.

At this one, there was a sense of calm and wellbeing with lots of joy, affection, love and laughs… and, of course, cake. 

Then on Sunday, the next day, the two cycling clubs I ride with – BellaVelo CC and Balham CC – joined together for a 100 kilometre bike ride in my honour and to raise funds for research into secondary breast cancer.

Up to 90 of us, including my brother Peter, rode out through Surrey in different pace groups and then all met up in a coffee shop back in London at the end.

After the ride

The Balham club has a nice write-up and more photos of it here. The charity we raised funds for is called One More City.

It wasn’t until I saw the photos that I realised quite how many colours I was combining on the ride. I decided it would be fun – and appropriate – to wear both clubs’ kit and then, with the gloves, I added a touch of “breast cancer pink” to mark the fact that we were doing this in October, breast cancer awareness month.

The debate over the whole pink thing is quite polarised. In my case, I don’t mind the use of the colour but I do object to the use of “fun” props such as inflatable boobs and pink wigs, pink boas, pink tutus and the like. I get the fact that people want to make public displays of support and/or need an outlet for their own fears or other feelings but I find a lot of it quite tasteless. I think it trivialises, infantilises and sexualises this killer disease.

Colour clash!

Now we’ve got the feminist speech out of the way, let’s get back to Sunday’s ride. The two-club kit combo was bright enough but I hadn’t taken into account the bike and water bottle. That took the whole colour thing to another level!

The bright colours were appropriate, though, as they kind of reflected my mood. I was quite overwhelmed that some 90 people had signed up to do this event. I was definitely feeling the love. The support and sentiment that led to this ride taking place meant a great deal to me on a personal level and on top of that it was great to get these two lovely clubs together. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who helped organise and took part in the ride and/or have supported the One More City charity.

Relaxing on the sofa on Sunday evening with a glass of white wine, I reflected on what a lovely few days it had been. Treatment had gone ahead and both the birthday celebrations and the bike ride had gone really well. It had all been very special.

Then I read on Twitter of the death from secondary breast cancer of Deborah Orr, a huge character and well-known personality from the world of journalism. At 57, Deborah was just slightly older than me; she was also a Glaswegian. Chillingly, she died just months after receiving her secondary diagnosis. She was clearly very ill, but her death came as a shock, at least to me. I suddenly felt terribly sad.

Right there on the sofa, I raised a glass to Deborah and felt even more grateful for the weekend I’d just had.

Hey, hospital, where’s my blood?

I should have been in my local hospital in south London this afternoon having my sixth monthly cycle of treatment for the secondary breast cancer with which I was diagnosed in April. Instead I was sitting round the corner on the high street having fish and chips in a great little chippie.

Why? Because the hospital has seemingly lost the blood I had taken shortly after 0800 this morning for testing to see whether I was OK to go ahead with treatment this afternoon. I had a second lot of bloods taken early this afternoon and my treatment appointment has been rescheduled for 1100 tomorrow. I’ll hear from the hospital this evening only if the results mean I can’t have treatment.

Thus the fish and chips. Comfort food was needed to calm me down.

I’m over it now but at the time I was both frustrated and upset and I’m afraid I was initially less than polite with the poor registrar who saw me and had to try and work out what on earth was going on. I hope I caught myself in time; I have also since apologised.

It didn’t help that while I was waiting to be seen, I’d to listen to the inanity that is Loose Women, which was on in the TV in the waiting room. Among the topics for discussion on the chat show was whether it’s ok to dump your hairdresser. I swear I heard someone say it was easier to cheat on your partner. I’m sorry, but ffs.

You psyche yourself up massively for these appointments. What will the blood test results show? Will my tumour markers be up? If so, what might that mean? Will we go ahead with the next cycle of treatment or not? To be fair, this is the first time anything like this has happened. Everyone was very apologetic and keen that the alternative arrangements were as convenient for me as they could be. 

They say you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. Was this small stuff? In the grand scheme of things it was, but for a while it felt like big stuff to me.

I just got back last night from a short cycling holiday in Spain and I had today and tomorrow – and indeed this coming weekend – meticulously planned. It’s our older son’s 21st birthday on Saturday and we’re having a small family gathering that evening. On my list for tomorrow was to spend a couple of hours’ gardening (the garden’s a mess), buy helium balloons and party accessories, buy food and cook for Saturday, get some photos printed, sort out a present and, oh yes, meet my mum, who has dementia, off the train from Glasgow at Euston at 1600 and bring her and a bike (my brother’s bike, not my mum’s!) back to the house. Thankfully my brother will be there to help me get get my mum and the bike – and me – into a taxi.

On treatment days, I’m usually at the hospital for a couple of hours. On those days, I generally do nothing other than have treatment and relax around the house. Treatment’s generally not painful but it’s not an easy day. I have one drug administered as two injections, one in each buttock, each of which takes a couple of minutes to administer. I also have an infusion (as you do with chemo) of a bone-strengthening drug – that’s usually over and done in half an hour. The oncology nurses are incredibly caring and careful doing the injections and finding a good vein into which to insert the cannula for the infusion. But while generally none of it is painful, it’s certainly not pleasant.

Usually I have bloods done one day then see the consultant the following day with a view to having treatment later that same day. Ironically, this time round, the consultant had very accommodatingIy arranged for me to have everything done on the same day. This was so I could go on the cycling trip. I came back late last night and went down to the hospital first thing this morning to have blood taken so the results would be ready for my appointment with the consultant (or in the event with the registrar) a few hours later. Luckily I live close to the hospital and can easily get there and back.

There’s plenty of good news. I feel incredibly fit and well. Not only am I doing lots of cycling, I’m also running and I’m even playing tennis again. Back when I was diagnosed, I really thought my running and tennis days were over. On the cycling front, I’m incredibly touched that the two clubs I ride with are organising a joint 100k ride this coming Sunday (half way through Breast Cancer Awareness Month) to raise money for research into secondary breast cancer.

The cycling holiday, organised by a company called Mellow Jersey, was fabulous. The feeling I had hurtling downhill on my bike at almost 60 kilometres an hour will take some beating. As will the feeling of triumph at the top of a steady climb of around eight kilometres. I was by far the slowest in my group on the hills, but someone has to be last and really I was happy just to be there. When I was first diagnosed, I had no idea whether I’d be in a position to do something like this ever again. Cycling more than 300 kilometres over four consecutive days would have been inconceivable just a few months ago.

But where’s my blood? I know big institutions can’t be totally efficient but you have to wonder where the two vials of blood are that I had taken this morning. They have to be physically somewhere. The department that took them said they were delivered to the lab but the lab claimed to have no trace of them. Like lots of lost things, they’ll probably turn up and, in this case, we’ll end up with two lots of results on the system.

As for me now, I’m off to do some of the many, many things I had planned to do tomorrow. Hopefully I won’t hear from the hospital this evening and treatment will go ahead tomorrow, we’ll all have a lovely time with the birthday boy on Saturday evening, and we’ll have a great bike ride on Sunday.

Getting an incurable cancer diagnosis is not “a relief”

I’ve heard reports of people who’ve had cancer saying it came as a relief when they were told – perhaps many years after their initial treatment – that their original cancer had come back and was now incurable.

The reasoning behind this sentiment is that some people have such a bad time worrying that they might suffer a recurrence that when it actually happens, they’re relieved as it means they can at last stop worrying about it.

I don’t know if the accounts are true. As someone recently diagnosed with metastatic cancer, I really hope they’re not. It’d be too sad if they were.

Not everyone suffers from it, but fear of recurrence after you’ve been treated for primary cancer is totally normal. As everyone reading my blog should know, it’s broadly true that once cancer spreads beyond its original site, it can no longer be cured. Secondary cancer can be treated and held at bay for a certain length of time but you won’t get better. For as long as you are alive, you will be living with incurable cancer and everything that entails – psychological as well as physical. You’ll die of it or at the very least with it. So of course you’d be scared it might happen.

However, if your anxiety is so bad that you genuinely feel you’d be relieved to be told you have incurable cancer, I would urge you please to seek help. Actor Kathy Bates told a major cancer conference recently that “life after cancer is a precious gift”. If your anxiety around fear of recurrence is preventing you from seeing that, you owe it to yourself to do something about it.

So-called cancer survivors – I never liked that term – talk about “waiting for the other shoe to drop”. That’s the feeling that at some point down the line – five, 10, 20 (or in my case just over three) years – you’ll be told your cancer has come back and can’t be cured. I completely understand the waiting-for-the-other-shoe analogy, but fear of recurrence shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying the currently “no-evidence-of-disease” life you do have.

Let’s be frank. With metastatic cancer or “mets”, the issue is how much longer you’re going to be alive. With fear of recurrence, regardless of your risk, you’re worrying about something that might never happen.

After my treatment for primary breast cancer ended, I never suffered from “survivor’s guilt”, that feeling that some people have at having survived a life-threatening event that has taken and continues to take the lives of so many others. However, I suffered very badly from fear of recurrence. For a while I could think of little else. I wrote about it extensively. Eventually, I sought help.

As I’ve written before, I realised that if my breast cancer did come back, I’d far prefer to look back and see I’d made the most of the “in between” time than to look back and regret that I’d spent that time worrying. I went on two courses, run by two breast cancer support organisations, Breast Cancer Care and The Haven. I learned strategies for coping with anxiety that I still find invaluable. I also talked to a counsellor. I learned to stop worrying. If that hadn’t worked, the next stop would have been my GP.

“Moving forward” after your initial treatment has finished is not easy, but you have to try. While it’s totally normal to go through a period or periods of anxiety, it shouldn’t be a permanent state of affairs.

There’s a saying that no-one on their death bed looks back and wishes they’d spent more time in the office. I think it’s the same here. Surely no-one diagnosed with incurable cancer – or indeed any life-limiting illness – looks back and wishes they’d spent more time worrying that one day the event they were dreading might in fact happen.

Grounds for optimism and a fantastic bike ride

Today I started my fourth 28-day cycle of treatment for the metastatic breast cancer with which I was diagnosed in April.

I appear to be responding well to the combination of drugs that I’m on. The blood test results I got yesterday in advance of treatment today were all encouraging. They showed that everything that needs to be down is down – including the all-important breast cancer tumour marker – and everything that needs to be up – including my haemoglobin level and white blood cell count – is up. Also, I continue to be totally pain free.

I no longer take anything for granted. I know things can change quickly in this game but there are grounds to believe that this treatment might keep the cancer in check for a good while. The awful thing about the beast that is advanced breast cancer is that you can never tell how long “a good while” might be. That said, there’s no doubting that we’re in as good a place as we could optimistically expect to be at this particular point.

The breast cancer I was treated for in 2015/16 has spread to my bones and bone marrow.

The implication on the haemoglobin and neutrophil front from these latest blood test results is that my bone marrow is under less stress due to the action of the drugs on the cancer. The debilitating pain I had in my right hip vanished long ago and may not even have been cancer. On top of all that, there is now the possibility that what we thought was cancer in a lower vertebra and was causing intense pain initially may also not have been. So the focus is on my bone marrow and on two vertebrae in my upper spine.

All things going well, as with the last cycle I won’t see the consultant for the whole of this cycle. And I’m down from two to one mid-cycle injections of filgrastim, the white blood cell booster. Also, with advanced breast cancer you have periodic PET-CT scans to determine whether the cancer has spread. Given the blood test results and the fact that I’m in no pain means we’re delaying my first repeat scan by a couple of months.

It’s been a great four weeks. We’ve had a lovely holiday in Spain*. Our two boys got their first-choice accommodation at the universities they’ll be heading off to in September. I’ve taken unpaid leave from work to allow me to make the most of the summer; work has been incredibly supportive in light of my diagnosis. 37365C77-AA25-4BDC-B860-D545C8721E29 I’m continuing to do early-morning swims with friends at Tooting Lido, one of the country’s largest outdoor swimming pools which happens to be a 15-minute walk from where I live in south-west London (see photo from this morning – the water was cold despite the sun). Also, I’m planning a trip to the US in September to visit two aunts, one of whom is also my godmother.

The highlight, however, has been cycling the Prudential Ride London – Surrey 100-mile bike ride at the beginning of August. Given the circumstances, I couldn’t be happier.

Ride London was meant to be the icing on the cake of a summer of cycling. However, I had to pull out of the two big events I had planned to do in June and July and Ride London turned out to be a big event in itself.

When I got my diagnosis in April, my head was not in a good space. I also had anaemia which meant I very easily got tired. At best, come August, I thought I might be in a position to try the shorter, 46-mile version of the route. In the end, I got my head in gear. In addition, a blood transfusion gave me an energy boost and the confidence to get out and start training again.

I was delighted I was able to do this ride – as you can tell by photo of me at the finish line at Buckingham Palace. It’s on closed roads, some 32,000 cyclists take part and while it’s a bit chaotic, it’s a great event. This is the third consecutive year I’ve done it.

It’s quite hard to get your head round the fact that you can comfortably cycle some 100 miles while having advanced breast cancer. I guess I have to thank modern medicine; a consultant oncologist who clearly thinks that if you think you can do something you should give it a go; incredible support from friends and cycling buddies who took me out on training rides, encouraged me, and had more confidence in me than I had in myself; and, I have to concede, curiousity (can I do this?) and extreme bloody-mindedness (I can do this. I will do this.) on my part.

Sometimes you feel like you’re two different people living two different lives running in parallel. One’s busy training for and doing 100-mile bike rides and the other is undergoing treatment for and living with an ultimately incurable disease. But of course it’s all just you.

There was no guarantee whatsoever I’d be in this position at this stage. It’s early days and, as with anything in life, nothing lasts forever. We just have to embrace the good times while we can.

*I had to self-inject filgrastim on Aug 6th and 20th and I didn’t want to traipse through cauldron-like Europe with injections that needed to be kept refrigerated. So we left the second injection in the fridge at home and went on a ten-day road trip in central and southern Spain from Aug 9th to 20th, during which we spent lots of time with various sets of good friends Andy and I first met when we both lived in Spain in the mid 1980s. We couldn’t have had a nicer time.