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.

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