What do you mean I look like a wreck?

This post isn’t new. I wrote it in mid-September for the Macmillan cancer support charity on the importance of exercise during my breast cancer treatment and ongoing recovery. I read back through it the other day and realised – to my astonishment, really – that nearly 11 months on I’m still seeing improvements from the surgery I had last December. Details will follow but in the meantime I decided I wanted this on my own blog for the record. I really like it; it’s nice and upbeat and it makes me smile. 

Here it is…

When the consultant breast surgeon greeted me at my most recent appointment with the words, “You look like a wreck”, I was more than a little confused. It seemed completely out of character and was, I thought, downright rude. More importantly, though, I was feeling really well physically and just couldn’t fathom why he’d say such a thing.

I’m fitter and healthier than I’ve been in years. Since finishing pretty gruelling treatment for breast cancer nearly seven months ago, I’ve been eating healthily, I’ve cut down on my alcohol consumption, and I’m exercising loads. As 53-year-old women go – never mind one who’s relatively recently been through cancer treatment – I think I’m doing pretty well.

“A wreck?” I said, trying not to sound put out. “But I feel great.”mo-parkrun-edit-2

“Not a wreck,” the consultant said, amused that I could think he’d say such a thing. “A rake! You’re fading away.”

I laughed at the misunderstanding and reassured the doctor that I was not in fact fading away. Since my diagnosis in July 2015, I have, however, lost the six, seven or eight kilos that I’d put on gradually over the previous decade. The consultant’s comment illustrates just how much I’ve taken on board the recommendations for healthy living that you’re advised to follow when you finish cancer treatment. Doing certain things, you’re told, reduces the risk of your cancer coming back. I’m at high risk of recurrence, so it’s perhaps not surprising that I’m trying to do everything I can to lessen that risk.

Initially I was ambivalent about the lifestyle changes I was making. I felt they were driven by fear of recurrence rather than by a genuine desire for change. But now I’m positively enjoying being fitter and healthier than I was pre-diagnosis.

I’m loving the extra exercise. I’ve always been sporty – tennis and cycling have been part of my life for years – but for the first time in my life I’m enjoying running. I’ve even joined a local running club.

I invariably feel better after exercise. During treatment itself, on more than one occasion, I felt it was my saviour. There were days when I’d be feeling tired and low and I’d force myself to cycle to the hospital or clinic appointment rather than drive. During radiotherapy I challenged myself to cycle to more sessions than I drove to. It wasn’t always easy, but I won – just! No matter how I felt when I left the house, I always felt better by the time I got to my destination.

When I did my first local 5K Parkrun in mid-April six weeks after finishing radiotherapy, I was both relieved and elated. Around 300 people did the same run that morning. I was amongst the slowest. Running the same route at the same time as all these other people, however – and knowing thousands of others were doing exactly the same thing in Parkruns up and down the country – in some way made me feel I was back in the real world after having been in some sort of parallel universe since I was diagnosed in July 2015.

I had Stage 3a breast cancer and went through six-and-a-half months of treatment that comprised eight sessions of chemotherapy, a right-side mastectomy with immediate own-tissue reconstruction, lymph node clearance and 16 sessions of radiotherapy. It takes a long time to recover from that kind of treatment. The chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy that I had in my feet is pretty much gone, but I still get the odd niggle, especially when I run (ironically). My upper arm on the operated side is still numb and there’s a feeling of discomfort in my chest and armpit that never quite seems to go away. There’s a little swelling in and around the operated area that’s been diagnosed as lymphoedema. Some days even now, I can feel really fatigued and have to take things easy. I’m on letrozole anti-hormone therapy and if I stay sitting for too long I feel my joints stiffening up. Hot flushes appear out of nowhere. In my right hand I’ve developed trigger thumb, a painful and annoying condition that can be caused by low oestrogen levels, which is precisely what letrozole is designed to achieve.

There’s no doubt that exercise helped and is helping me deal with both the physical and emotional effects of having had breast cancer. Everyone has their own way of coping, and exercise, it seems, is mine. There’s no downside as far as I can tell. I’m aware that what is a huge challenge for some is a breeze for others and vice versa. It’s about knowing what’s right for you and about setting achievable goals and not being overambitious. Exercising with friends or in a group can help.

For me, exercising is empowering. I’m fitter, I’m healthier, and over the past few months I’ve met some great new people. On the recurrence front, I know there’s no guarantee my cancer won’t come back. Exercising is a massive help in keeping in check my fear that it might.

 

 

 

“A star patient.”

“A star patient.” The words of the plastic surgeon after the operation. All appears to have gone well, Maureen is awake and talking rather a lot (no change there, then) and taking her usual interest in her surroundings, which currently amount to a labyrinth of tubes and various plastic bottles containing er, stuff (biology was never my strong point). So, a difficult day over and let’s hope she’s back home in time to cook the turkey (I mean, to be looked after and waited upon by her loving family!). Thanks for all your good wishes. Andy.

The torture of scalp cooling

That’s Chemo Cycle 2 over, and was I happy to see the back of that one.

Getting the chemo was fine, but OMG the scalp cooling. That was torture and it took all my strength to go the distance.

I have just read over my post after the first session where I said that the cool cap was “bearable”. I can’t believe I wrote that. It really was mind over matter to get through the first 20 minutes this time; the oncologist had said if you can get through the first 20 minutes, you’ll manage the whole thing, as that’s the time it takes to get to the required temperature. I buried my head in a book and tried very, very hard not to clock watch. I had a fleece and a blanket over me and I was still cold.

So you wear this really tight silicone cap on your head that covers your whole skull. That’s covered with a neoprene cap that insulates the inner one, and that’s kept on with a scalp coolingreally tight chin strap that pushes your cheeks up and makes you look like a hamster. The cap is connected to a cooling unit that circulates coolant through the cap “extracting heat from the patient’s scalp”. Your scalp needs to be cooled from its normal temperature of 36 degrees C to below 24 degrees C. Sounds lovely, huh? I swear I felt ice when I touched the back of my neck.

Even though the wig’s been bought – and I love it – I can’t bring myself to say no to the cap. Hair loss usually starts after the first or second cycle, so I guess I’ll know soon enough whether the cap’s having the desired effect. Part of me would be relieved if it didn’t work as it would mean I wouldn’t have to bear another session. Also, the good old Macmillan website says “Some people find that losing their hair over a prolonged period while using scalp cooling is harder to cope with than the quicker, more predictable hair loss that tends to occur without scalp cooling”. Tough as it is, I think I’ll take my chances.

If you’re doing scalp cooling during chemo, you have to rest the arm in which you’re having the injections on a heated pad to keep the vein dilated. So once chemo was over and I had another hour-and-a-half to go with the cap, I used the pad as a hot water bottle. That helped a little but it was still miserable. I was so happy to leave.

I’m clearly still traumatised almost 24 hours later. Other than that, I’m fine!