No Seven Year Itch

This is my 7th cancerversary. And I am beyond happy to be here to type those words.

If there’s something I have learned these past years about cancerversaries, it is this. They are pretty much all the same but they are all different too. Each year, similar emotions are stirred. The memory of those words “highly suspicious of cancer” never fades, nor does the memory of feeling petrified. Petrified in its most pure sense, being frozen by fear, immobile, terrified and numb. The feeling of loss, that comes when faced with mortality. The knowledge that things can never return to they way they were before diagnosis. Yet, in seeming contradiction, I have found each cancerversary different. Some I have marked in quiet reflection and thankfulness. Some more analytical than others, and some more intense than others. None, not one has been celebratory. October is brimming with memories and landmark days as well as being compounded with the irony of Breast Cancer Awareness Month so I am surrounded by reminders both in my own head as well as all around me.

October also marks the time of the Big Check. Usually I roll up at Counter No 2 of my familiar Bangkok hospital, am greeted like a long lost friend and find myself on a conveyor belt of blood draws, scans, x-ray, mammo and vitals before seeing my dream team who unravel the mysteries held in the various tests. That’s usually when the tears start, while sitting waiting to wrap up the final paperwork and leave the hospital. An overwhelmingly emotional mix of relief, grief, release of tension as I find myself connected, sometimes a little less directly than others, with NED, No Evidence of Disease.

This year is very different. There is no seven year itch which leads to a rupture in the long relationship with my wonderful team in Bangkok. The reality is that I am no longer an hour’s flight from this team which has looked after me so well for so many years. I am now on Africa soil and would need to find a new dream team in the region. I had considered returning for one final Big Check in October but the unexpected health hiccup in August meant that was unrealistic and a long haul trip unwise. However, the extra time in the UK meant that was able to hurriedly arrange a check up. This was far less detailed than the Bangkok checks, protocols being very different and incorporated mammogram and bloodwork. And no tumour markers. We know these are controversial, and not considered reliable. I know that, yet the yearly or twice yearly marker check is one I cling to as I find reassurance in stable results. It has been strange starting my story at the beginning with new specialists and support teams. It was unsettling not to have a physical examination. I almost feel that I need to go through the intensity of so many tests to be able to breathe when I come out the other side, always knowing that breathing is a luxury and not guaranteed. This year, my bloodwork was fine. Kidney and liver functions and the other key bloodwork all normal. Slightly anaemic, unsurprisingly given the bleed just beforehand. And the mammo was also unremarkable. All reassuring and welcome news delivered over the phone just a few hours before I boarded my flight to return to Africa. I had half guessed this though. The mammo had been carried out a few days earlier, and the oncologist had my phone number and knew I was leaving the country. I knew that if there was something worrisome, then I would have received a call much earlier. Though my heart did stop when her PA called me with the opening words “unfortunately…” This was not related to the tests, thank goodness, but to difficulty in getting me a replenishment of Femara before I departed! So there was no moment when I was shooed out of Dr W’s door to be banished until the next round of checks. No release of  tension, nor tears. Perhaps the seven year point coincides with this new landscape and brings a new perspective even to the Big Checks.

So with the Big Check behind me, friendship maintained with NED, how do I mark this seven year cancerversary? I always have something to say, being a “remember-the-date” kind of girl and October 2 with its cancerversary status is one firmly etched in my mind. This morning Facebook welcome me with a swathe of reminders about the previous posts I have written on this day over the past years. Last year my Big Checks fell on the same day and date as the diagnosis six years previously and I focused on the similarities and differences of those appointments.  The previous year marked five years after diagnosis, a time scale which is widely held to be a magical milestone but which is far more complex. At four years, I was in a contemplative mood with few words but a great deal of thinking and remembering, noting that this was “a day of recognition, quiet reflection and gratitude for a a present which is precious and fragile“. On the third cancerversary I wrote about the line in the sand which you cross when you hear the cancer words. That line which marks the time before and the time after. At the two year point, I dwelt on what I had lost and what I had gained, much of it intangible and psychological. All of it real and intense.

But the very first cancerversary is one which retains its own particular character. That one year mark was an important one, especially given that I did not think I would see Christmas beyond diagnosis, let alone a whole year. Life had changed beyond recognition and I wanted to tell cancer a few things. So I wrote a letter to cancer. I re-read it this morning and realise that in fact, much of this sentiment holds true years later, so I have decided to share the letter again.

October 2 2010

Dear Cancer

It is a year since you came into my life and it’s about time I told you what I really think.

You were uninvited.  And unwanted.  And unexpected.  You have changed my life beyond belief and it really will never be the same again.

I had no choice about your unwelcome arrival, you didn’t give me any chance to opt in our out.  You were just there.

The first time I realised you might be there I remember a terrible fear. It was late September and I remember thinking that I would not see that Christmas.  The thought of you kept me awake at night, my mind veering between hope that there was another medical reason for your symptoms, and sheer terror that indeed you were the cause.  I admit I had never really thought that you would try and invade my life, after all you have not troubled our family before and I naively thought that you preferred certain genetic and family traits.  So when I was told that you were there I was shocked and surprised.  And terrified.

You are such a destructive force and that meant I had to endure destructive treatments.   For my survival I was trapped in an overwhelming battle between massively destructive powers. I had to lose parts of myself to cut you out of my body. My body hosted a long and violent battle between you and the toxic chemotherapy and the rays of radiotherapy as they sought out any trace you might have hidden as a seed for the future.  I know that I was left sick, exhausted and very weak but that was worth every ounce of suffering to know I tried everything in the hands of the powerful team I have to banish you.

While this has taken me through a horrible journey, when I have had numerous side effects, lost my hair, caught pneumonia, lost much of the use of my left arm and generally felt very ill, it has brought me some special things too.  The relationships with those near and dear have grown and strengthened and we have cherished time which we might otherwise have squandered.  While it was my body which you invaded, you touched the lives of many beside me with your heavy dark hand.  I have had to face up to some horrible and unpleasant procedures and been able to find a strength and resilience that I had no idea I possessed.  I have connected with many other women all around the world whose lives you have also invaded and we have shared the most private of details from the terrifying through to the hilarious.  We have laughed at your expense, even though we acknowledge that you have had possibly the bigger laugh.  Time will tell if you have the last one.  While I value and treasure these factors which I found through you, don’t get any ideas that this might endear me to you.  No, I CAN’T EVEN BEGIN TO LIKE YOU!  I get your point and I will continue to do everything possible to keep you as far from me as possible.

I am still frightened of you because you are such a destructive and determined force. You are also horribly sneaky and I know how powerful you are.  I know that I have always to be vigilant because I don’t know when or where or how you might try another attack on me.

I resent you because I am no longer able to think of the future without worrying about you coming back.  I resent you because I now live my life through what I call the “cancer lens”.  Even if I don’t need to take you into account in what I do, you have changed the way I see everything. You could say that instead of seeing life through rose tinted spectacles, I see through pink breast cancer spectacles.  I might not particularly like it, but I recognise, accept and live with it.

So I will be keeping a very keen eye open for any attempts you make to sneak back into my life.  And trust me, if you do try any comeback, you will be treated to exactly the same welcome.

Yours candidly

One Feisty Blue Gecko

This makes me think of the French expression “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” which translates along the lines of “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. Indeed they do. The landscape is new yet somewhat familiar in certain elements. The perspex plates which cause both physical and emotional discomfort in mammogram machines, the needles and skilled fingers which try to find blood in reticent veins and the anxious waiting all easily cross continents. Yet, the team now looking after me, and the systems and procedures are very new as is the African soil, the flowers and the birdsong.

Indeed in these times, there is always something to take us back to that which truly counts. The dry season which was underway when I arrived in Africa has given way to a short rainy season. It is less humid, and far less warm than Yangon but the thunderstorms which light up the skies are reassuringly constant in their dramatic nature. The lightning reveals the silhouettes of a thousand hills and causes electricity lines to blow. In the fresh post rain air this morning, I spotted on the rain-sodden grass an unexpected splash of colour. There in the middle of the grass was a brand new flower. As if placed there for this day of note.

A perfect, timely reminder to cherish the past and embrace the new.

africa

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