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.

The busy business of living under lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Madrid, December 1984

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

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

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

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



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

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

Other things have happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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