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. We chatted and she said, among other things, 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 through 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.

For now at least, I’m 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.

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.

How’s this for awesome?

Here’s an update on the past few weeks. It’s mostly been more than good and a couple of really lovely things have happened to me.

If things carry on at this rate, I may well attempt to cycle the full 100-mile route of the Ride London event early next month.

Here goes.

First off, later today, essentially without there being a break from treatment cycle #2, I start treatment cycle #3 for the advanced breast cancer I was diagnosed with a few months ago.

At St George’s Hospital in Tooting in south-west London, I’ll have two injections of Faslodex (fulvestrant) in my buttocks, I’ll be given the bone-strengthening drug Zometa (zoledronic acid) via a drip in my arm, and I’ll start my next round of twice-daily Verzenios (abemaciclib) tablets.

Each treatment cycle lasts 28 days. I had to have a short break between cycles one and two and I feared there might be another one between two and three – or that we might have to reduce the dose of tablet that I’m on. I’d really rather not have either at this stage as there are some signs that the drugs are having a positive effect and I’m totally paranoid about doing anything that in any way, shape or form might reduce the effectiveness of the treatment.

The reason I had the break between the first two cycles is that abemaciclib had pushed my neutrophil count to below the level that’s considered safe to continue treatment. That’s still happening. To counteract that, I had to self-administer injections of a drug called filgrastim yesterday evening and the previous evening. I’ll do the same again half-way through and at the end of this latest 28-day cycle. Filgrastim boosts the production of neutrophils – the white blood cells that help fight infection – and I inject it in my belly area. I did much the same during chemo nearly four years ago.

Assuming this treatment cycle passes uneventfully, my next trip to the hospital won’t be until near the end of the 28-day period, when I’ll have blood tests in advance of seeing the consultant and hopefully get the go-ahead to start treatment cycle #4. In the time between the two injections, we should manage a ten-day family holiday in Spain.

Re the drugs having a positive effect, my blood test results from Monday show that my tumour marker levels are down – again. A decrease in marker levels during treatment can indicate that the tumour is responding to treatment. You don’t want to get too excited but that’s a positive early sign.

On the pain front, I haven’t needed to use painkillers for weeks now. I have been in no pain whatsoever for a good couple of weeks. I’m expecting potentially to have to take painkillers over the next few days as the fulvestrant and zoledronic acid can cause bone and joint pain.*

There have been some tough moments emotionally, when I’ve started thinking too far ahead. However, for now I’ve become a bit of an expert at pulling myself back to the present PDQ.

Now on to the subject of exercise. Since suggesting in my last blog post that I might take up swimming to make up for no longer being able to run or play tennis, I have been swamped with offers from friends and acquaintances to swim with them – outdoors!

In the past ten days alone, I’ve been for two early-morning swims at Tooting Lido, the big outdoor swimming pool near where I live. I’ve also been to an evening session of open-water swimming at the beautiful Shepperton Lake on the outskirts of south-west London. I’m due to swim again at Tooting Lido early tomorrow morning and at Victoria Docks in the Thames one evening next week. All new and lovely experiences for me. I don’t have the fitness to do front crawl for more than a few strokes at a time but breast stroke is fine.

On top of all that, I managed a 75-mile bike ride last Sunday, with two cycling friends. I thought it was a flat 100k route but we followed a friend’s route and hers was 120k! That’s made me think I should at least try to do the longer, 100-mile route of Ride London, the mass participation, closed road bike ride through London and the Surrey hills that’s taking place this year on 4 August. I got a place in the public ballot but when I started treatment in May, I didn’t think I’d even be in a position to attempt the shorter 46-mile route.

And how’s this for awesome? If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know I was gutted at having to pull out of a big charity bike ride known as Le Loop that I was planning on doing in France earlier this month.

As part of Le Loop, I was due to cycle Stages 5-7 of this year’s Tour de France route a week before the real thing. A bunch of us from BellaVelo, the cycling community and club based in south west London that I’m a member of, had signed up to do various stages of the Tour as part of this big fundraising event.

It turns out that some of the BellaVelo women who did take part in Le Loop – often riding more than a 100 miles a day in ridiculously high temperature0f708d09-3921-4813-8b36-87b0d4421f63s – wore ribbons with the Scottish flag on on their helmets or bikes or even as hair ties while they were riding. Why? Because they thought it would be “a nice way to include you in Le Loop even though you were unable physically to be there”.

I’m still feeling so chuffed about that. What a kind gesture. That has to be up there with having had a sonnet written for me!

There’s more. Two BellaVelo members are currently riding every stage of the Tour de France the day before the pros. They’re part of a team called InternationElles and they’re doing this amazing feat to raise awareness of inequality in cycling. Anyway, what they’re doing is incredible and so demanding… but they took time out to send me a video of support. That was very cool.

Staying with the cycling theme, it was my 56th birthday recently and my husband gave me as a present a lovely framed photo of the two of us dressed up for an evening out… with 6153A64E-7A21-46B2-9139-683FB49A8D45a second option – of me with my bike and in full cycling kit – in case I get fed up with his first choice! In the one of me on my own, I’m standing at the top of Box Hill in Surrey. It’s a classic ride for south Londoners and we’d cycled there a few weeks ago to see whether I’d be able to do it. I was delighted that I could. My husband knows how much both photos mean to me. He is a star.

On top of that, on Monday I had the best evening out with three friends I’ve known since my early days in London. I’m the only one who still lives in the capital and this was a very hastily arranged get-together. They’ve been friends with each other since childhood and I’m the blow-in! It was a beautiful, fun-filled, life-affirming evening.

I could go on but I’ll mention just one more thing. A friend has given me a book called the Poetry Pharmacy, by William Sieghart. If you haven’t come across it, try to get a copy. It could change your life.

Plenty of other friends and family members have made other lovely gestures. I massively appreciate them all. I feel surrounded by kindness. People are amazing and it’s good to be alive.

*In the end, painkillers weren’t needed. There was no pain at all in my glutes after the injections and no joint/bone pain at all over the following days.