So how did it all happen?

Here’s how I found out I had secondary breast cancer.

I developed backache and a sore right hip in mid-March while I was on my first ever overseas cycling trip, in Mallorca. The week-long trip was the first proper phase of the huge amount of training I was planning to do over the following few months that was to have culminated in a long-distance, three-day charity bike ride in France in July.

Initially I put the pain down to a mix of factors. For starters, while I’d done plenty of indoor training, I hadn’t ridden much at all outside or for any distance over the winter, and here I was doing back-to-back 50-75 mile rides involving quite a few hills. Also, I wasn’t using my own bike. While the rental bike was far better than mine and I loved it, I figured I was probably riding in a different position and that that was part of the problem. I hoped I’d just strained my back and hip and that it would soon get better. Interestingly – and fortunately – while the pain was at times quite bad, there was no pain at all when I was on the bike and cycling.

The pain persisted when I got back to London, although it would come and go. The most common place to which breast cancer metastasises or spreads is the bones and I knew backache was a potential symptom of it having spread to the spine. The pain was worse at night and when I was lying down. I did some reading and discovered that these too were signs of “bone mets” in the spine.

I very rarely get backache of any kind. Pretty quickly therefore, I decided to contact the consultant oncologist who treated me for primary breast cancer in the summer of 2015 and ask her advice, hoping all the while that it was just a sprain and that it would go away soon.

That was in late March. The consultant said it made sense to investigate further, so I had some blood tests done the following week.

The following weekend, I held a games afternoon at home to raise funds for the charity I was going to be doing for the bike ride in France in July. Other than the intermittent back ache and the periodic hip pain (the latter had in fact almost gone by then), I felt as fit as a fiddle. This fundraiser had been planned for ages and, at that point, while I was worried, I was still hoping the remaining pain would disappear with time.

That hope all but disappeared when the consultant subsequently called to say some of the blood results “weren’t entirely normal”. It made sense to follow up, she said, and a PET CT scan was being arranged for the following week. The writing was on the wall.

Despite this big shadow hanging over us, my husband and I managed to have a lovely Easter. The pain in my right hip had gone away completely at this point. As for the pain in my back, it sometimes disappeared for days at at a time, it always came back.

In the now forlorn hope that I would still be doing the various cycling events I had planned for the summer – or perhaps it was just to make myself feel better – I went out training on three of the four days of the Easter weekend. I even set myself a new speed record, reaching just over 40mph on a descent in Surrey.

My husband came with me on two of the rides. We don’t usually ride together but I think we were both aware that our lives were about to undergo a massive change and wanted to enjoy each other’s company while things were still relatively normal.

I had an appointment with the consultant the day after the Easter weekend, on 23 April. This was a couple of days before I had the PET CT scan and it was to have been my regular annual review with her. The consultant knows from having treated me before that I like facts and straight talking. So when I asked what she thought the problem was, she told me that, going by the blood test results, she strongly suspected that the breast cancer I’d been treated for more than three years earlier had spread to my bones and infiltrated my bone marrow. We even talked through potential treatment plans.

Among other things, the level of a specific breast cancer marker (CA 15-3) in my blood was very high. While this was “meaningless in itself”, I also had anaemia. The two things together clearly spelt trouble.

A week later, and the results of the PET CT scan confirmed what the consultant had predicted – “bone metastases and bone marrow relapse”. As well as there being cancer in my bone marrow and in three vertebrae, there is a lesion in my left-side rib area and there are “areas of less significant scattered bone disease”. As for my right hip, while there are no obvious signs of cancer in the hip itself, the pain may well be related in some way to the diagnosis. Then again, it may not be.

Thankfully our two young-adult sons were away at the time. We had time to digest the news ourselves and to plan a strategy for breaking it to them.

Since the PET CT scan, I’ve had numerous additional blood tests, a bone marrow biopsy, an MRI scan of my spine, and I’ve started treatment.

I have, of course, had to withdraw from the charity bike ride in France in July. More on that later.

Treatment – a reluctant trailblazer

“A trailblazer on a path you don’t want to be on.”

I paraphrase slightly, but that’s what the specialist breast cancer nurse at the hospital where I’m being treated said I was.

I have to say I was touched by the huge degree of empathy with which the nurse said it. This was just after the consultant told me that the treatment she was proposing for my secondary breast cancer was a combination of drugs that has just been made available under the NHS in England for women in my specific situation.

Given together, the drugs have been shown to improve what’s called “progression free survival”, ie the length of time patients live without their disease getting worse, and so delay the need for chemotherapy.

This latest development has been described as “fantastic news” for women such as me. The nurse was spot on with her description. I’m the first person at my stage of the disease and at my stage of treatment to have this therapy at the hospital trust where I’m being treated. I’m definitely grateful, but it’s a funny kind of gratefulness.

I started treatment on 22 May and I’m trying to focus more on the fact that the consultant is hoping for a “durable clinical response” than on the “significant, unavoidable or frequently occurring” risks of the treatment that are ticked on the consent form (see image).

The drugs are abemaciclib and fulvestrant – the brand names are Verzenios and Faslodex respectively for anyone who’s interested.

Abemaciclib is taken continuously in 28-day cycles as tablets – one tablet, twice a day, 12 hours apart. Fulvestrant is given as two injections – one in each buttock, not pleasant – each of which takes a couple of minutes to administer. You’re given it on Day 1 and Day 15 of Cycle 1, then on Day 1 of Cycle 2 and all future cycles – so that’s every two weeks for the first three doses, then once every four weeks.

You stay on these drugs for as long as they’re keeping the cancer in check and you can manage the side effects. Or, officially, for “as long as the patient is deriving clinical benefit from therapy or until unacceptable toxicity occurs”.

It could be a few months before we find out whether the drugs are working or not. If they’re not, you move straight away on to the next line of treatment. As for toxicity, the big worry with abemaciclib is diarrhoea. It’s a very common side effect and it can be so severe that the dose has to be reduced or a break in treatment is required. Three weeks in and I’m extremely relieved to report that I have got off very lightly indeed on this front. That may be partly explained by the fact that one of the side effects of the painkiller I’m on for the pain from the “bone mets” I have is constipation. I like to imagine the two drugs battling it out together inside me for supremacy.

You’re under close medical supervision, especially in the initial phase of treatment. You have blood tests every two weeks for the first two months, monthly for the following two months, and then as needed. You have scans every few months to check whether the drugs are working.

The cancer is in my bone marrow and bones, most significantly in my spine. Bone mets weakens your bones and puts you at risk of fracture, so I’m also back on the bone-strengthening drug, zoledronic acid or Zometa. I have that monthly too – via infusion, like chemo, on the same day I have the fulvestrant injections. The infusion itself takes 15 – 20 minutes. Zometa can also ease the pain that comes with bone mets. On the downside, as I mentioned when I started taking it before, it can also occasionally cause a very nasty condition called osteonecrosis of the jaw.

Fulvestrant is a hormonal therapy that aims to help shrink or slow the growth of metastatic breast cancer such as mine that feeds on oestrogen. Abemaciclib is what’s called “targeted therapy”, ie it’s a type of drug that targets specific characteristics of cancer cells, such as a protein that allows the cancer cells to grow in a rapid or abnormal way. Abemaciclib is one of a class of drugs called CDK4/6 inhibitors, which work by targeting two crucial cell division proteins, CDK4 and CDK6.

There’s a bit of a debate over whether CDK4/6 inhibitors are chemo or not. In the end, it seems it comes down to definitions.

This new combination treatment that I’m on hasn’t been in use long enough for it to be clear whether it also improves long-term survival, ie whether you live longer overall. In terms of quality of life, though, improvement in progression free survival is hugely important. The treatments don’t get any easier as your cancer gets worse. Not do the effects of the cancer itself, of course, so the longer it can be held in check, the better.

It’s very early days. Let’s hope I fare well on that trail I’m reluctantly blazing.