Three years on in some cases, but thank you

Earlier this year, I wrote that at some point I would write about “all the people who’ve helped and supported me through what I can only call the shit-stormy periods of the past two and three-quarter years”.

That was in March, just after I’d run a half marathon on one of the coldest days of the year. I have nerve damage in my feet – peripheral neuropathy, a side effect from the chemotherapy I had as part of my breast cancer treatment that started three years ago to this very day. Most of the time, I almost don’t notice it. However, it was particularly painful as I was running along the River Thames on that cold day, when London was in the midst of a horrendous cold spell dubbed “the Beast from the East”. To distract myself, I started thinking about all the things I had to be grateful for from when I was in treatment for my breast cancer – and, as if that weren’t bad enough, melanoma too, a couple of years later.

Then one Sunday this summer, in July, 60 miles or so into a fabulous but challenging 70-mile bike ride from Crystal Palace in London to Whitstable on the Kent coast, my right foot was killing me again. It was very, very hot – probably one of the hottest days of the year so far. Extremes of temperature clearly make the peripheral neuropathy worse. Again, some distraction techniques were called for. As I was thinking, I decided I really had to put it all down for the record.

So here goes. The list is not meant to be comprehensive and it’s in no particular order. It’s for all the friends who reached out in whatever way during those times. If you did something and it’s not included, don’t be offended. It was all very much appreciated and your kindness and thoughtfulness made things a lot easier than they might otherwise have been. I will be forever grateful. Thanks, therefore, to so many, including those who:

  • randomly cooked meals and dropped them off, including but very much not limited to when my husband Andy had – at my insistence – taken our sons skiing when I was stuck at home having daily radiotherapy sessions
  • drove or offered to drive me to hospital appointments
  • phoned or texted when they were popping to the shops to ask if I needed anything
  • sent words of encouragement or sympathy by whatever means
  • gave me a box full of “things you might need during chemo”, including hand cream and a hot water bottle
  • took me on a walk up Sugar Loaf Mountain in Wales between chemo sessions and visited between Xmas and New Year, days after I’d had my big op
  • gave me a lovely snuggle blanket because they knew I’d be spending a lot of time on the sofa
  • cycled from north to south London against a strong head wind – it might also have been raining! – to pay a visit after my op
  • kept playing tennis with me throughout chemo
  • sent hand warmers after reading about how cold I was when I was suffering under the cold cap during chemo
  • presented me with a bottle of nail varnish from Liberty to use when my nails (which chemo had trashed) were in better shape
  • issued an invitation to take me out sailing when I was better – and kept following up until it happened
  • appeared out of the woodwork to wish me well after they’d “heard from a friend” or colleague that I was unwell. That takes nerves. Cancer is scary and the easy thing is not to say anything.

On the blog front, a shout-out is due for those who gave feedback on draft posts or who took time to make thoughtful/sympathetic/encouraging/funny comments on actual posts..

And there’s all the stuff involving my beloved Tooting Common, the park at the end of the road. Thanks on that front to the folk who:

  • took me there to pick raspberries after one of my first chemo sessions
  • accompanied me on walks and trips to the cafe during treatment and recovery
  • encouraged me and cheered me on when I started doing the Saturday morning 5k Parkrun there after I’d finished treatment and was trying to get fit again.

And then there’s the Spanish friend who wrote and dedicated a sonnet to me. Yes, really. Now how many people can say they’ve had a sonnet written in their honour? Not bloody many, I’d venture. And there’s the other Spanish friend who wrote me the most beautiful long and heartfelt letters (or rather emails) that I will never tire of reading.

And, of course, there were the cards and the flowers that made the living room look like a flower shop.

Throughout the whole thing and beyond, there has been work, which really could not have been more supportive. Also, I have to mention Breast Cancer Care Worldwide chat on Twitter (#bccww) – a testimony to the positive power of social media.

On the melanoma front – which to be honest I kept relatively quiet about, at least initially – there were the friends who bought me running socks for when I was up and running again or who gave me scar-reducing cream for the scar I now have on my right calf from that particular operation.

This might all seem a bit random but I wanted to get it out there and have it on record. There you have it.

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My final Zometa, a bone density scan and a – clear – biopsy

It’s been a busy couple of months, here in cancer survivor land.

I had my two-year “no evidence of disease” anniversary at the end of February.

Since then I’ve had my final cycle of Zometa, a drug I’ve been taking periodically since finishing active treatment for Stage III breast cancer in November 2015 in the hope that it will reduce the risk of my breast cancer spreading to my bones. I’ve also had a bone density scan that assessed the impact on my bone strength of the anti-oestrogen tablets I’ve been taking daily for more than two years now. That was fine. Finally, I’ve had a biopsy done on a lump in the breast where I had cancer that turned out to be nothing more sinister than – essentially – dead, hardened fat.

My two-years-out-of-treatment anniversary was an anticlimax. I’m not sure what I was expecting but the day – February 26 – came and went, uneventfully.

My final cycle of Zometa in early March was a different matter.

Zometa is the brand name for zoledronic acid, a medicine that belongs to a group of drugs called bisphosphonates. Among other things, it’s used to help prevent breast cancer spreading to the bones in women who’ve been treated for the disease and are post-menopausal. I’m one of those, and I’d been having Zometa initially on a three-monthly and then on a six-monthly basis since my final chemo session in November 2015. I had to go to hospital for it as it’s given as an infusion, ie via a drip.

Walking out of the hospital after my final session, I was completely blindsided by a wave of utter panic. I remember walking along the long corridor to the exit feeling like a support had been kicked away from me and that all that was now between me and a recurrence were those little yellow letrozole tablets I take every night before I go to bed. I was, literally, panic-stricken, but I knew what to do. I know it sounds a bit new-agey, but I stopped, acknowledged what was happening, thought about it for a couple of minutes, then gathered myself and moved on – physically and emotionally. I knew that the benefit of Zometa is in the first three years – this final cycle just about takes me up to three years. My oncologist had already talked it through with me and I knew this was to be my last cycle. It was good to be at this stage. I just hadn’t expected to have this reaction. I’ve said before, you can be fine for ages and then out of the blue something triggers a response like this.

As for the bone density scan, I’m delighted to report that things are pretty much unchanged from the “benchmark” scan I had in December 2015, just before I started taking letrozole. This medicine works to lower oestrogen levels in the body and so increases your risk of developing osteoporosis. My “score”, though, has remained normal. I guess that’s down to a combination of things – including the Zometa infusions (this drug is also used to counteract the oestrogen-depleting effects of letrozole on the bones), the calcium and Vitamin A supplements I take daily (also designed to strengthen bones), and all the weight-bearing exercise (running and tennis) I do. And probably also to some extent the luck of the draw.

Assuming everything continues to go well, I won’t have another bone density scan for another two-and-a-half years, at which point I’ll have been taking letrozole for almost five years.

Around 80% of breast cancers are what’s known as oestrogen-receptor positive (or ER+). This means they need oestrogen to grow. The idea is that, by taking letrozole, any slow-growing or dormant cancer cells that may have survived chemotherapy (and/or radiotherapy) are starved of the oestrogen they need to grow and so they slow or stop growing and/or spreading to other parts of the body. Fingers crossed.

Now on to the biopsy.

I’d noticed there had been a change in the lump of scar tissue that had been there for a long time in my reconstructed boob under a scar from my surgery in December 2015. I’d had a right-side mastectomy, immediately followed by a reconstruction made essentially out of my own stomach fat. A “DIEP flap” reconstruction involves taking excess skin and fat from the stomach to reconstruct the breast. The lump of scar tissue was under one of the scars where the “flap” of abdominal skin is attached to the original skin of the breast.

Anyway, that lump had got bigger and harder and was causing some skin tethering. I decided to mention it to the consultant when I went to get the results of my bone density scan towards the end of last month. She had a good feel and decided the best course of action was an ultrasound scan. After doing the scan and quizzing me about the changes I’d noticed, the radiologist decided the best course of action was to biopsy the lump. There was no point in doing a mammogram as there’s next to no breast tissue there; it’s all tummy fat.

For my part, I decided the best course of action was to try and persuade myself not to worry in the period between having the biopsy taken and getting the results this past Tuesday. The worst-case scenario was that it would be a local recurrence of my breast cancer. Nobody had suggested that I prepare for bad news, but there’s always a sneaking doubt. After all, medical tests aren’t for checking that everything’s ok; rather, they’re to try and find out if anything’s wrong. That’s not just semantics, believe me.

I largely succeeded in my task. However, the fact that I kept my worry under control doesn’t mean I assumed things would be ok. Taking things for granted is a luxury I no longer have but I knew that worrying was not going to change the outcome of the biopsy. Of course I thought about it and of course I had visions of what my mind thought my life might be like if it were a bad diagnosis. But I’ve learnt not to dwell on negative thoughts – at least for not too long at any one time. It’s not always easy, but in terms of managing negative thinking, I’ve come a long, long way.

In the end, it turns out the lump is scar tissue, as we already knew, and fat necrosis, which is new. It’s not unusual for fat in reconstructions such as mine to harden.

At the end of April, a few days before I had the ultrasound, I went up to Scotland and, along with some some 6,000 other cyclists, did the Etape Loch Ness, a 66-mile, closed-road bike ride round Loch Ness that I’d signed up for last October.

What a stunning bike ride and what a beautiful day.

It was especially nice to do it with two of my brothers. I also managed to raise a few hundred pounds for Macmillan Cancer Support, which can only be a good thing.

Amid all this, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say a war has been raging in the media here in the UK over the value of routine breast screening.

The heated debate was prompted by the news that over a period of several years a computer flaw had led to up to 450,000 older women in England and Wales not being invited for what should have been their final routine NHS screening. Computer modeling suggested that up to 350 women may have had their life expectancy shortened as a result.

The experts had a field day. Some cried scandal and demanded that every single one of the affected women who were still alive be called for screening as soon as possible. Others insisted screening did not save lives overall and said that women who missed appointments should “carry on with their lives” and only contact their doctors if they experienced symptoms indicative of breast cancer.

No wonder people are confused and angry. It’s hard to accept things aren’t always black or white.

As for me, I’m not taking any chances. I’ll be going along to the next scheduled mammogram on my healthy breast, in December.

I hope things are quiet between now and then – and indeed that they stay that way.

 

Approaching my two-year milestone with mixed emotions

The highest risk of recurrence for women who’ve had breast cancer is during the first two years following treatment so it’s clearly a big deal that I’m approaching the two-year mark. I finished treatment at the end of February 2016 and while I don’t want to tempt fate by speaking too soon, the start of a new year seems as good as time as any to put a few thoughts on page.

In broad terms, risk of breast cancer recurrence reduces over time, but it never completely goes away. And – at the risk of folk complaining that I’ve said this a hundred times before – if it comes back away from the original site, it’s treatable but it can’t be cured and it’s therefore ultimately fatal. And I’m at high risk.

With the type of breast cancer I had, the risk falls after two years, and it falls again after five, which is why many survivors (for want of a better term) celebrate their five-year “cancer-free” date. If you plotted it on a graph, however, the “tail” would be never-ending. As many recurrences happen after the first five years as happen before (see Recurrence 1).

Some days I think about it a lot; other days hardly at all. For an example of the latter, take a couple of weeks ago – December 19th, to be precise. It was twenty minutes to midnight before I realised it that was the two-year anniversary of my breast cancer surgery. I was stunned – in a good way – that almost the whole day could go by without me being aware of its signficance.

This was particularly surprising as I’d been thinking at lot “about my breast cancer and me” – the subtitle of my blog – at around that time. Just a week earlier, I’d had the second of the five annual post-treatment mammograms and ultrasounds I’m to have. Everything was normal. When I saw the consultant breast surgeon for the results, we talked about the importance of the two-year milestone. He was clearly very pleased, but it really brought back to me the seriousness of the whole thing.

Almost every night before bed for the past two years – I really have only missed on one or two occasions – I’ve assiduously taken a little yellow tablet containing a drug called letrozole. There’s some evidence that this daily hormone therapy that I’m on to reduce my risk of recurrence should be taken for ten rather than five years.

So are we looking at staying on letrozole for ten years?, the breast surgeon ventured at that appointment in mid-December. I looked at him, my mind suddenly thrust into overdrive as I realised I was finding it impossible to think eight years ahead. I had to answer. Let’s take it a year at a time, I said.

It’s hard to speak in absolutes as no person is the same and, as I’ve said before, statistics are only statistics. That said, NHS Predict, an online tool that estimates how any one woman may respond to additional breast cancer treatment, suggests that taking letrozole reduces my risk of recurrence by almost as much as the chemotherapy I had.

For as long as I can, then, I guess I’ll be taking letrozole. Or rather, for as long as I safely can. It’s complicated. For the moment, I’m one of the lucky ones who seems to have minimal side effects. Lots of women come off letrozole and other similar drugs because the side effects – including fatigue, bone and joint pain, hot flushes – are debilitating.

Importantly, letrozole increases your risk of developing osteoporosis. We’ll be able to what effect it’s had on me on that front in March, when I have my first bone density (or DEXA) scan since starting on the drug in January 2016 (see One down, just 3,652 to go). A scan done at that time showed I had good bone strength, so at least we started from a high baseline.

Nearly two years out of treatment, I look back and feel grateful I’m still here. As for looking forward, well I do that too, if not with confidence, then at least with pragmatism and indeed enthusiasm.

For a while I found it very hard to look forward with anything other than fear. Gradually, though, things got better (see And time goes by). Then things then got complicated again, when I was diagnosed with very early-stage melanoma at the end of August last year (Melanoma? You’ve got to be kidding). At this precise moment, I’m recovering – extremely well – from a second round of surgery I had on my right calf at the end of November relating to that.

Eight years is a long time in anyone’s book, not just mine. I may not manage ever to look that far ahead, but that’s ok. The next few months are busy enough, starting with a big family reunion up in Scotland later this month.

On the sporting front, I’ve signed up to the Hampton Court Palace half marathon on March 18th and to a 66-mile bike ride round Loch Ness at the end of April. I’ve been out of action for a while due to the surgery on my calf (hopefully I’ll be exercising again by the end of this week), so getting fit for these will be quite a challenge. Unlike with cancer though, these are the kinds of challenges I love.

Here’s to the end of February and well beyond. Very best wishes to all for 2018.