Expectations? It’s hard not to have them.

It’s sometimes good to have positive expectations – I think as humans we need them – but I should know by now that it really doesn’t do to raise your hopes in this cancer business. 

I don’t want to overdramatise things, but I have to confess to feeling rather annoyed at myself for daring to hope that things might have been different from how they turned out last week.

After just two months of staying where it was, that old tumour marker level is up again. This cancer of mine is doing a damn good job of fighting against the drugs that I’m on to try and contain it.

I’m – still – a glass half-full person and I couldn’t help but let myself hope that this “period of stability” might last for slightly longer than two paltry months. In fact, it wasn’t even two months; it was eight weeks. But it wasn’t to be. 

There I was, early Wednesday afternoon last week, feeling pretty good, in the middle of a regular, super busy day at work – working from home, of course. My oncologist was due to call with the results of the blood tests I’d had the previous day, at the end of my latest four-week cycle of oral chemotherapy for the secondary breast cancer that’s in my bones and bone marrow.

Was it too much to ask that the tumour marker level might have remained stable for even just another month? Apparently so.

The results showed my haemoglobin level was down. That’s not such a big deal as it fluctuates from month to month and it’s still at a decent enough level. My neutrophils were also down – to the level where it is just ok to go ahead with the next cycle of chemo. That’s ok, they’ve been there before. But, disappointingly, my tumour marker level was up by almost 20% over last month and is back up to where it was in August. I said already that I don’t want to overdramatise things. Specifically, it’s nowhere near as high as it was when I was first diagnosed in Spring 2019 or when I switched on to the drug I’m on now, in May this year. But that period of stability I had dared hope for never materialised. Also, the level never got as low on this drug as it did with the first drug I was on.

My oncologist knew I’d be disappointed and said she wished she had better news for me. We’ll carry on as is. My next scans are due early on in 2021 anyway. They may or may not show what’s causing the rise in the tumour marker level. I don’t expect the level will go down again although I guess it’s possible. It could stay where it is or it could be that it’s on an upward trajectory that will ultimately lead to my having to change on to the next line of treatment – whatever and whenever that may be. What will be, will be.

The standard regimen for the capecitabine oral chemo that I’m on is two weeks on, one week off. You take tablets every morning and evening for fourteen days then you have a week off and have blood tests at the end of the three-week cycle. I had been tolerating treatment well and my cancer was also responding well so a few months ago I switched to a four-week cycle under which you have one week on tablets followed by one week followed by the same again. It’s easier on the body. Should we go back to the more intensive regime, I asked my oncologist, thinking that might give the cancer more of a run for its money. But it’s not as simple as that. She doesn’t think my bone marrow would tolerate well “two weeks on, one week off” and that if I were to switch, I’d end up needing a dose reduction, which would defeat the purpose of switching.

How can this be, I think to myself. Physically I’ve been feeling really great. In the past few weeks, I’ve played tennis, I’ve been on the bike (outdoors and indoors), and I’ve done a 7k run – a very slow one with two stops for errands but it was still a run. Feeling well physically makes you feel well mentally so, to be fair to me, those two things probably contributed to my allowing myself to think things might have been under control cancer-wise.

I started my latest four-week cycle of capecitabine at the beginning of this week. Four weeks will take me well beyond the pandemic-restricted Christmas season, which we plan to enjoy regardless.  

The tree has been up for a while and I indulged myself this year and bought three funny-to-start-with-then-really-annoying singing trolls. They sing The Jingle Bell Rock and it impossible to get them all singing it at the same time. They do make you laugh when you set them off, though, and laughs are just what we need at the moment.

My husband has not only already made the gravy for Christmas dinner in advance, he has also prepared the stuffing and made a Christmas cake. Our two sons are home from uni, which is lovely.  Their very presence lifts the sprits. I’ve even made myself appreciate the sound of them singing in the shower to music, much of which is really not my taste and is far too loud even when I like it! What I really find amusing is coming down in the morning and trying to work out what they’ve eaten since I  went to bed the previous evening. This morning there was an empty cereal box beside the recycling bin and an empty hummus container in the bin itself  – neither of which was there at midnight last night! It reminds me of my own youth back in Glasgow, although with me it was cheese toasties rather than cereal. As for hummus, I’d never even heard the word, never mind eaten the stuff!

We have plenty of things planned over the Cristmas break – either with or without the boys, in case they read this and start panicking that they will be asked to go on a walk. There will be indoor and outdoor games, films, long walks, bike rides, and Christmas Day catch-ups on Zoom with friends and family. I will enjoy the four weeks of this cycle and will aim to have no expectations one way or the other in advance of my next blood tests and appointments in mid-January.

I had got used to taking things a month at a time and will pretty easily revert to having that mindset. Interestingly, the pandemic is forcing everyone to focus on the shorter term. This is something those of us with life-limiting illnesses have already had to learn to enable us to live with some modicum of peace. It’s not such a bad way to live your life. 

Still looking on the brighter side of things, it seems there’s no reason I shouldn’t be vaccinated against COVID-19 when the time comes. It doesn’t feel like it when I’m on the tennis courts or sweating buckets during an indoor cycling session on my newly purchased smart turbo trainer, but I’m in the “clinically extremely vulnerable” category.

That means I’m pretty high up there in terms of who gets offered the vaccine, although it will still be some time before it’s my turn.

No cancer patients were included in the trials of the vaccine; the big question is how much immunity it will give people like me, on chemo with compromised immune systems. I guess like many things relating to the pandemic, we won’t know until we know.

Before this latest lockdown, we’d gone out for a few pub meals – outside, as was allowed, in heated beer garden areas. At the beginning of this week, the NHS Covid app alerted me to the fact that I had been in contact with someone who had the virus and advised me to isolate for all of two days, which I did. I’m assuming it was related to eating out. I had to cancel a trip to the bike shop and a long walk with a friend that I was very much looking forward to; you’ve got to do the right thing. I’ve had no symptoms and so haven’t had a test myself.

I’ve had much to celebrate and enjoy this year but there’s also been a lot of sadness and sorrow, related to the pandemic or otherwise.

There have been too many deaths and too much serious illness among relatives, friends and acquaintances. A couple of the deaths have been far too premature and/or have happened in heartbreaking circumstances.

Even when a death goes well, as it were (as it did with my mum , this past August), it’s still hard. When I was diagnosed with primary cancer back in the summer of 2015, I wrote a piece about how it was ok to cry. Well this year, I have cried so many tears. Just the other day, Everybody Hurts by REM was playing on Spotify and half-way through I felt the floodgates open and there was nothing I could do except go with it. Sometimes you just have to let it all out. Grieving is a process that lasts a long time, and that’s ok. Also, I think the pandemic has made many of us more fragile than we were before. Things you might have batted off easily in pre-pandemic times can these days tip you over the edge.

Along with the grief, there has been a lot of joy. I will remember this year with fondness along with extreme sadness. Fundamentally, I am so grateful still to be so well physically. Also, the pandemic has led to people showing so much kindness and generosity of spirit. The older you get and/or the more the going gets tough, the more you appreciate that it’s connections with others and taking pleasure from everyday occurrences that matter most. I can’t deny that managing to do the Hadrian’s Wall Walk in northern England in September and escaping to Greece for ten days in early October also helped! 

Anyway, enough about me. Even in the best of times, it can’t be easy to make calls such as the one I received from my oncologist, can it? And let’s face it, there’s news far worse than that that they have to impart. So let’s spare a thought for all the healthcare professionals who are under intense and immense pressure at the moment, trying to manage the pandemic on top of everything else. This article by Lucy Gossage, the oncologist who co-founded the ‘5K Your Way, Move Against Cancer’ initiative, provides a great insight into how challenging things are, and that’s just in oncology – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/oct/29/watching-cancer-patients-treatment-alone-heartbreaking

Back to me (that didn’t take long!). This year I’ve found it hard to write Christmas cards. My heart has just not been in it. The naively exuberant words that that are printed in some of the cards somehow seem inappropriate when for so many it’s been a really dreadful year. The last thing lots of people will be having is the “wonderful Christmas” they’re being wished in the cards we send. Perhaps I should have made more of an effort, though, as I do appreciate how nice it is to receive cards.

I really do hope for a safer, saner and brighter year for everyone in 2021. If that’s not possible, then I wish calm and peace for those who are grieving or struggling or dealing with problems of whatever kind. 

Let’s finish with a smile, with a photo that was “Christmassed up” by my brother Stephen – so many thanks to him for that.

The original photo is from when my husband, the boys and I went wakeboarding in London’s Docklands for our younger son’s 20th birthday in August. I love this photo.

That day was one of the many highlights of 2020. I fully expect – here come those expectations again – that whatever 2021 brings, it too will have plenty of highlights. Best wishes to all. Thanks for reading.

 

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.