Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The first cut is the deepest: part 2

I heard my name being called through a fog of anaesthesia.   The surgery was over and I hadn't died.  

The best bit after coming round was the post surgery tea and toast.  It was honestly the best tea and toast I've ever had in my life.  If I end up on death row, I'm going to ask for that as my last meal.

I was wheeled up to the ward about 7pm and they put me in a side room (ooh, thank goodness, there would be no snoring to keep me awake).  My husband and son were waiting for me.  I was so happy to see them.  I spent the next hour talking gibberish as, bizarrely, I was both groggy from the anaesthetic and on a high from the other drugs.  I was also still peckish so my husband went off to the shop and got biscuits, a croissant and two bars of Galaxy chocolate for me.  Heaven.

All night long

I had a wonderful nurse called Maxine look after me throughout the night.  She popped in every couple of hours to check my vitals.  We chatted about all sorts of things but whenever she came in and she had to wake me up, I kept asking her what the time was.  I can't for the life of me think why I was fixated on the time!  I mean, I wasn't exactly going anywhere was I.  

Breathing legs

I had a couple of special contraptions wrapped around my legs which inflated and deflated throughout the night.  The idea was that they were meant to help circulation and prevent me from getting a blood clot.  

In the depths of the night, I can't help thinking that it sounded like Darth Vader was at the end of my bed.

Morning has broken

At 5am, I woke with a start and couldn't get back to sleep - I was wired to the moon.  I cracked open a bar of Galaxy.  Maxine, bless her, came in and made me a cup of tea, gave me a wash, helped me get into my pyjamas and changed my bed clothes.  I saw the sunrise over the car park.  

The lovely Maxine went off duty at 8am and when I thanked her for looking after me, she replied that it had been an absolute pleasure.  She was a truly fabulous nurse and a real credit to the NHS.  

What a relief

That morning I was visited by the breast care nurse, various doctors and the Registrar who was in theatre with me.  I felt like a specimen in a jar.  To my great relief, the registrar said the CT and bone scans were clear apart from wear and tear in various areas.  You cannot believe how relieved I was when he told me that.  I had been so, so, worried that the cancer had spread and thankfully it hadn't.  Phew.  Things were looking up after all.

Life is a minestrone

You may have guessed by now that I love my food, so I have to tell you about my lunch.  It was delicious: potato and leek soup, roast turkey, peas, corn, turnip (I used to call it 'swede' until I moved to Northern Ireland), mashed potato and then jelly and ice cream for afters.  I felt like a kid again.  

I'm not a fan of Jamie Oliver but if any of the hospital food was inspired by him I'd go and give him a great big kiss.  Well, OK, that's probably a big fat lie.

Homeward bound

I was allowed to go home at lunchtime, accompanied by painkillers and a drain in my side, which the nurse told me how to empty and reconnect.  Eugh. 

Before I left the hospital I was also reminded about the risk of lymphodoema.  'What's THAT?' I hear you ask.  Something to avoid, you hear me say!  Because all the lymph nodes in my armpit had been removed, there was (and still is) a risk that an insect bite, a cut, sunburn, cracked skin, a hangnail and such like could cause my right arm to irretrievably swell up and never drain properly ever again.  

I now protect my right arm with my life and care for it like a newborn baby.

Next time...

I'll blog about being at home - feeling bored, sore and terrified of pulling out my drain - and my surgery results.


You can follow me on twitter: @luvvacurry

Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Monday, 29 May 2017

The first cut is the deepest: part 1

I went in for surgery on 2 May 2017.   I was going to get the lump in my breast and all the lymph nodes in my right arm removed.  

My husband and my son came with me and when I was called in to the ward, my son started to get upset.  'It's just like having a tooth out.'  I told him.  'Um, mum, no it isn't.  It's DIFFERENT', he said between sobs.  How could I reassure him when I didn't believe the tooth analogy either and was feeling a bit sh*t scared myself?

The board above my bed showed that I was '3rd PM'.  Hmm, did that mean I wasn't going to go to theatre until later that afternoon?  Yep, it sure did.  I had fasted from midnight before and the nurse reckoned I'd be called about 3pm.  WHAT?!  I was famished and thirsty!  I looked forlornly at the nurse so she gave me a welcome cup of tea.  It was pure nectar.  

Down to the wire

If you're a bit squeamish, you might want to skip this bit.  

So that the surgeon could operate in the right area, I had to have a wire inserted into my breast directly into my lump.  They froze the area first thankfully but I simply couldn't watch.  When I did, I could see a bit of wire sticking out of my boob...a bit like a 'breast kebab'.  

The nurse then took me for a mammogram on the boob to make sure that the wire was in the right place.  Bloody hell.  They were going to crush my boob whilst there's a fecking wire in it!  Now mammograms aren't the nicest things at the best of times, but with a bit of metal stuck in me and a dodgy shoulder I grimaced (and still do) at the thought of it.

Making the breast of things

The rest of the morning was spent being checked by nurses, the anaesthetist (Dr Foster - I did want to ask him if he'd been to Gloucester in a shower of rain, but stopped myself as I reckoned he'd heard that a million times) and the surgeon, who had originally diagnosed my cancer for me.  She made me laugh when she called the lump under my arm 'the big juicy one' and when she said my signature was as bad as hers.

I chatted to the other women in the ward, one of whom was a lovely, funny, elderly woman.  She was having a lump removed.  'I'm 90 and I told the doctor to bloody well leave it there.  I'm 90 for god's sake - it's not bloody worth it!'  She was a real tonic.

The morning dragged on but it was peppered with nice chats with the other four patients and the medical staff.   I had a lovely German nurse assigned to me who was absolutely fantastic.  We chatted about politics, Brexit, the NHS, Germany and how she ended up in Northern Ireland.  

In the early afternoon, I got into my bed and they fired up something called a Bair Hugger for me.  It was a disposable blanket into which they blew air from a warming unit so that I would stay warm for surgery.  It was heavenly.

Don't say good luck

There were three of us left in the ward in the afternoon.  As one of my co-patients was wheeled away I called out good luck.  My lovely nurse said 'Aargh, don't say good luck!  Luck has got nothing to do with it.'  I realised she was right: 'luck' shouldn't play a part in surgery.  It's the skill and expertise of the surgeons which count, not luck.  I'd never seen it that way before. 

Going down to theatre

By 3.30 I was the only patient left.  The porter walked in, and I said 'Are you coming for me?'  'Nah, I'm not.  I'm just in for a chat.'  My heart sank and then he laughed and said 'No, I'm just taking the piss.  I AM coming for you!'.  Cheeky bugger.  And then he proceeded to wheel me down to theatre, cracking jokes all the way.

I looked at the clock.  It was 4pm when I actually was wheeled in to see the surgeon.  16 hours without food.  A record!

Next time...

I'm going to write about post surgery and my hospital stay.


If you've enjoyed this blog, please feel free to follow me on Twitter: @luvvacurry

Please also consider donating money to my step-daughter, Fiona Dougan, who is running a half marathon in September 2017 to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

View from the bra: my bone scan

My bone scan took place on 28 April 2017 in the Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital.  I was, in a bizarre sort of a way, looking forward to it.  Why?  Because I didn't have to go without food before my appointment.  Ah, such sweet relief!

Going nuclear

Arriving at the Centre, I followed the signs to 'Nuclear Medicine'.  Those words sounded absolutely terrifying yet weirdly sexy at the same time. 

The first thing they had to do was to inject me with a small amount of a radioactive substance called a tracer.  This would help identify any areas of cancer in my bones where too much or too little tracer had been absorbed.  

The nurse couldn't find a decent vein and at last when she did she said, 'Oh dear, your vein seems to have burst.  I'll need to find another one.'  Marvellous(!)  At this stage I was starting to look and feel like a dartboard.  Eventually she managed to inject the tracer, and then I was allowed to leave for a couple of hours so my bones could absorb it. 

The scan

You'll be pleased (or disappointed?) to know there was no swearing out loud during any part of the scan.  

I was able to stay fully dressed.  I lay down on the x-ray couch in the scanning room, below this massive shipping container type contraption.  It looked like an enormous George Foreman grill for humans.  I kid you not.  The radiographer tied my feet together and wrapped something round my arms to help stop me from moving.  I felt like the proverbial egyptian mummy.

At this point my heart rate was starting to rocket and when they lowered the massive gamma camera to literally within a few centimetres of my face, I really felt like I was about to panic.  I had to close my eyes and call on some breathing techniques to help calm me down.  Once the camera moved beyond my head, I started to relax and then when I next looked up it was at my feet and the scan was over.  It took about 30 minutes in total and was totally painless and disappointingly free of bad language.

Radioactive wee

I was slightly radioactive after the scan so I had to use the private nuclear toilet in the hospital.  It even had the skull and cross bones logo on the waste pipe of the sink.  I was tempted to take a picture of it for posterity (OK, for Twitter really) but I thought that was a bit sad.  

The hospital advised me that for the next 24 hours I had to drink a lot (of water not alcohol, you naughty people), flush the toilet twice and wipe up any accidental splashes of my urine.  Me and my husband joked about me having glow-in-the-dark wee and so when I got up in the middle of the night to go to the loo I couldn't resist and I actually LOOKED into the toilet bowl to see if it glowed.  And you never guess what?  It didn't.  

Aw, I was quite disappointed - glowing wee would have been awesome.

Next time...

I'll tell you about going in for surgery.  Don't worry, it won't be gory.


If you've enjoyed this blog, please feel free to follow me on Twitter: @luvvacurry

Please also consider donating money to my step-daughter, Fiona Dougan, who is running a half marathon in September 2017 to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

View from the bra: the CT scan

My first scan was a CT scan in the Belfast City Hospital Cancer Centre on 27 April.  By now, I was under the care of the NHS.

I knew when I walked into the Centre that I would be in safe hands.  It was a warm, welcoming and tranquil place and it even had a coffee shop with lots of lovely cakes and buns.  Yes!  Anywhere that has a half decent coffee shop is alright by me.


To prepare for the scan, I had to go without breakfast (does cancer know what hell it's putting me through?) and my usual 10 cups of tea.  The nurse gave me a special type of contrast mixture to drink every 10 minutes for one hour.  It didn't taste too bad actually, although I think it would have benefited from a splash of gin.  She also stuck a needle into me so that the radiographer could inject some dye.

A wee chat

It turned out that the radiographer was English and had moved to Northern Ireland.  We talked about holidays on the Isle of Wight, how we both had fallen in love with a local, and how Northern Ireland was a real hidden gem (it IS, by the way).  He warned me that when the dye was injected I would go very warm and get a metallic taste in my mouth.  He also said that I would feel like I had wet myself.  Nah, surely not.


The process was quite a lonely experience as I was in the room on my own with the radiographer sitting in a sealed room, controlling the scanner.  But then he came back in to inject the dye and disappeared back behind his window again.  And guess what, he was right!  I felt this really weird sensation down below and it was so weird that I shouted out 'F*ck me!'.  Oops.  I apologised afterwards but he laughed and said he never heard a thing.  Yeah, right.  I know he was just being polite as everyone who knows me knows I have a voice like a foghorn. 

So there you go, that's my CT experience.  After it was over, I did what a girl had to do: I went and stuffed my face at Benny's Bistro.

Next time...

I'll blog about the joys of the bone scan.  


If you've enjoyed this blog, please feel free to follow me on Twitter: @luvvacurry

Please also consider donating money to my step-daughter, Fiona Dougan, who is running a half marathon in September 2017 to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

My breast cancer diagnosis

I must confess it sounds weird to write the words 'breast cancer'.  Breast Cancer.  Eurgh.  I have a 'bad boob' -  that sounds better!

Firstly a bit about me.  My name is Karen, I'm almost 55 years old, married, with a teenage son.  I'm English but I've lived near Belfast, Northern Ireland for nearly 20 years.  I've always been a bit work obsessed, I can't sit still for very long and get easily bored.

I always thought I was invincible.  I've never had much sick leave in the 36 years I've been working, nor I have I ever had any serious illnesses or incidents (touch wood, unless you count the time I nearly went head first into the Ennistymon Falls, Co Clare, Ireland but that's another story) and I probably rather naively never ever thought I would.  Ha!  How wrong could I be.

Before you start reading on, here's a bit of a heads up. I might use the occasional bad word.  Sorry about that but I want to write as a I speak and be true to the person I am.  I've also tried to be positive and avoid lighthearted as far as possible, despite the serious nature of the subject.

Finding a lump

How and when did I know I first had breast cancer?  I found a firm swelling in my right armpit.  I don't even know how I found it.  It wasn't through my regular mammograms, nor any self checking as, much to my shame, I was always pretty bad at that.  

I found the lump by accident and could only feel it when I was lying down or when I raised my arm above my head.  I thought maybe I had, rather laughingly, built up a super strong armpit muscle due to regular physiotherapy exercises I had been doing for impingement in my right shoulder.

I left it for a couple of weeks to see if the lump would disappear.  But it didn't.

The GP appointment
I went to see the GP, who looked like a 12 year old. She asked me if I had lost any weight to which I replied 'No, I wish I flaming well could'. She asked me about my appetite, to which I replied 'I eat like a horse'.  The GP examined me, did a blood test and then said she would refer me to the hospital for a possible ultrasound.  Alarm bells started to ring.  

When I left the surgery I read her referral in which she described me as a 'pleasant 54 year old lady'.  Blimey!  That made me feel like a dead old fuddy-duddy.  She also mentioned that the lump was 'tethered'.   Back home looking at Google (yes I know, it's the wrong thing to do when you're worried about something), I discovered that a lump that stays in a fixed place isn't usually a good sign.  Oh heck.

I decided not to wait for an NHS appointment which I was told could take a while to come through (wrongly as it turned out), so with the help of the wonderful Benenden Healthcare Society I got an appointment the following week to see a consultant privately.  I was told I would definitely find out at the consultation if I had breast cancer or not.  Bitter sweet, eh?

The consultation
On the evening of the consultation, I sat in the waiting room with other women, many of whom were wearing headscarves.  Please god, I don't want to end up like that, I said to myself.  One overly chatty woman with a headscarf sat right next to me and started to talk to me about breast cancer, how great the consultant I was seeing was and the treatment she was going through etc.  All I could think of was 'Shut the f*ck up!  I don't know that I have cancer and you're not bloody helping!'.
To cut a long story short, following an immediate mammogram, an ultrasound and a core biopsy (during which I yelped in surprise and went 'oh shit!') the consultant told me that as well as the lump in my armpit she had also found a small lump in my right breast which, as she put it, was rather 'worrying'.  I looked right into her eyes and I asked her outright if was cancer.  She said 'Yes, I'm afraid it is'.  I cried, she held my hand and she was lovely.
The breast care nurse then joined us and they called my husband in.  He gripped my hand so tightly as he listened to the words…'there are signs of cancer cells in Karen's breast…have spread to her lymph nodes'.  I felt like I was in a fog of despair and disbelief as they told him.  I felt completely well and healthy - how could I have cancer?  It was like a bad dream.  Surreal, almost. 
The date was 3 April 2017.  I'll never forget that date as long as I live.  There were many tears in our house over the next few days.

Waiting for the biopsy results
A week later, I had to go back to get the biopsy results.

Allow me to digress a little here.  It was a strange time between the biopsy and getting the results, almost like a state of limbo and suspended animation.  We all cried quite a lot during that week.  My mind was working overtime and I still couldn't believe that I had breast cancer and how it was all a terrible mistake as I felt so well and healthy.

Telling people

I was dreading breaking the news to my son.  My husband and I had already agreed that we wouldn't tell him until we knew what the results were and had a positive plan of action to tackle the cancer.  I'd got advice from various cancer support groups about how to break the news to teenagers but it was still unbelievably hard.  The look on my son's face will stay with me forever.

I sent a simultaneous Facebook message to my brothers and sister as I knew if I told one of them first the others would quite possibly get the hump.  My sister later rang me and her first words were, 'Where the f*ck did you get that from?!'.  She always makes me laugh.

My work colleagues were amazing too.  I had to email them because they're based all over the UK.  My phone never stopped ringing and emails kept popping into my inbox with people wishing me well, offering support, sharing their own personal experiences and generally being fantastic.

It's a times like this you realise how wonderful and supportive people can be.

A woman with cancer

I often looked at myself in the mirror and would see my usual face staring back. That's what a woman with cancer looks like, I thought. I looked normal, not ill.  But over the next few days, I somehow slowly started to get my head together a bit more.  I even managed to sort out a load of old personal documents which I'd put off doing for years.  Yet my mind could only focus on one thing.  Even fish and chips and Ben and Jerry's ice cream on the seafront that Friday night didn't help, and that's saying something.

Aches and pains: did that mean…?

I also couldn't help but worry myself sick about every ache and pain I had as I thought that meant the cancer had spread and that I would die. It's amazing how your mind goes into overdrive.  I kept imagining that I wouldn't be around to see my son go to university, to see him get married and then become a father to my first grandchild.  I had to know for sure what I was facing and I was desperate to know as quickly as possible.  I now know that I didn't know enough to know that it was too soon to know all of that!

The results

I waited nervously to be called in to find out what I thought would be my fate.  When I went in, the consultant explained that my breast cancer was the most common type: invasive ductal carcinoma.  It was grade II, oestrogen positive and was treatable, she said.  Phew!  I would however need what's called a wide local excision, lymph node clearance, possibly supplemented by chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy, hormone therapy to fight the oestrogen and CT/bone scans for completeness.  Oh god I thought, what if the scans tell me it's spread?

Ah well, if it turns out the b****rd has spread, I told myself, I would handle it and would enjoy every moment of my life from now on.

Next time...
I'll tell you more about having my CT and bone scans. Now they were very interesting!
If you've enjoyed this blog, please feel free to follow me on Twitter: @luvvacurry.
Please also consider donating money to my step-daughter, Fiona Dougan, who is running a half marathon in September 2017 to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support.

Tales of Lourdes...continued I've been a bit remiss of late.  I haven't got round to writing any more blogs but after a bit of...