Those days of the Big Checks in Bangkok are in the past in many ways. Many years were punctuated by three monthly check ups, and then six monthly with more thorough checks annually. These were a Big Deal in my post diagnosis life. I was fortunate to have such thorough follow up from the end of the heavy treatment in mid 2010 until I left Asia in mid 2016. Another world, another lifetime, it often seems. Now checking is different in frequency and nature. The past is indeed a different country.
Every year in October, in addition to the three month or six monthly checks, I would turn up at the hospital for what Dr W fondly called the “Big Check”. He had explained to me at diagnosis, that once the active treatment was completed I would be called back for checks every three months for the first two years, and every six months after that until I reached the five year point. Then I would graduate on to annual checks. The three and six monthly checks would be lighter, but at the one year point I would additionally have a mammogram, ultrasound and any other checks indicated.
Those checks were a mixed blessing. I approached each round of checks with trepidation, and the annual Big Check with nothing short of dread and fear. I knew that I was incredibly fortunate to have a variety of bloodwork, physical examinations, mammogram and ultrasound and if indicated, further scans such as CT. I knew that if there were any nasty activities underway and any signs of progression or recurrence, there was a very high chance that these would be spotted during the Big Checks. And of course, that was my greatest fear. That there was some nasty malignant beavering away of cell multiplication out of view. Yet, alongside that Big Fear, there was the attraction of knowing that if the checks all came back without any worrisome results, then in all likelihood I was in very good health and the designation of NED (No Evidence of Disease). And NED is exactly in whose company I wanted to be. If I passed through these major checks with no worrying results, then I would be rewarded with enormous relief and reassurance. l could then breathe out and get on with some serious living until the next round. My first followup checks were in early July of 2010, thus by by strange coincidence my first Big Check took place in October 2010. Exactly a year from diagnosis. And also the start of the visible Breast Cancer Awareness month which was even present in Bangkok.
Those first checks set me on a path of appointments, blood taking and other checks regularly until I left Yangon in June 2016 to my new life in Rwanda, saying goodbye fondly to Drs W and W2, and the teams which had looked after me. We had been a team for 7 years and had been through a lot of hiccups and nastier moments together.
As well as the checks, my ongoing followup consisted of taking Tamoxifen once the active treatment was completed in the May of 2010. This was not a pleasant experience with its many side effects including the very nasty one which tried to do away with me altogether – the pulmonary embolism which appeared in July 2012. When I was first prescribed Tamoxifen, research and trials indicated that the prognosis was best when patients took the drug for 5 years. The prospect of 5 years on a medication with such heavy side effects is daunting. When the embolism happened I was taken off Tamoxifen immediately. And prescribed Femara/Letrozole. This is an aromatase inhibitor and works in a different way to Tamoxifen which is a selective estrogen-receptor modulator (the wiki link is need to explain that as I am not able to do so!) Femara is more usually prescribed for women who are post menopausal. It has just as many side effects, equally heavy and unpleasant such as joint pain, weight gain, fatigue, dizziness, increased cholesterol just to name a few and I was both thankful and frustrated about these “extras“.
As I was approaching four years of taking the hormone therapy Tamoxifen and then Femara, and almost able to touch the five year point when I would be able to stop, new research findings were hitting the breast cancer headlines. What an ironic blow to learn that women who took the medications for ten years had better outcomes than those who did not, or who took them for five years. I knew what was ahead before the next round of checks. And sure enough. Dr W2 recommended that I keep on taking the Femara. For an additional five years. Five. Whole. Years. That felt like for ever! Or until mid 2020 …
Leaving Asia and the attention of Drs W and W2 with the reassurance of the Big Checks, was a massive step out of a comfort zone which I loved to hate, and really valued. Moving to Rwanda, meant that I had an annual mammogram in Scotland around the time of the checks in 2016 and my unexpected return to Scotland in 2017 meant a very different approach to cancer follow up, particularly as I approached the ten year point from diagnosis. This involves an annual mammo and a letter to let me know if there is any need for follow up, and a separate check up with the breast nurse. No single day to focus on both with dread, and knowing that clarity would be provided. No bloodwork and tumour markers with my record and trends. Instead, lighter checks over several days or weeks. A very different experience, particularly psychologically.
This year, I had to juggle the dates around as my nurse appointment was scheduled earlier than the mammo so results would not have been available at the consultation. So with some phone conversations, and a house move all underway, it was agreed that I would have the mammo and then see the consultant prior to moving to a new area. This took place, ten years to the day from my formal diagnosis and surgery by some very bizarre coincidence. These checks are not nearly as stressful as the Big Checks in Bangkok because they do not include bloodwork so I have no idea if tumour markers are within the trend that was clear throughout the regular testing in Asia. Occasional testing of markers is not useful, so I did not miss the results, just the ongoing knowledge that these were stable. The significantly lessened stress of these checks is balanced by the limited reassurance. A little sigh of relief, but the underlying nagging uncertainty of NED status.
So after a very short wait, the consultant invited me into his consulting room, and noted that I had had much of my treatment overseas, asking me if it had been Paris or Singapore? I began to explain …
The mammo result was unremarkable, happily and we talked through my general health and the worries that I always harbour. Then we talked about the Femara. I was fully expecting there to be some new research which indicated that results for women who took the medication for 15 years had better outcomes … and prepared for that news. To my surprise, he said that the latest research and analysis shows that there is no marked benefit in staying on Femara beyond 10 years. He also said that there was a kind of a ‘hangover’ of the medication as the benefits stay in the system for some time after it is stopped. This was the precursor to him advising me that I could stop taking Femara. After TEN YEARS. He asked how many tablets I had left before I would need a new prescription. I had around 3 months, and that would take me through to early January. “Then, I suggest, that you continue to take these until they are finished. And then stop. There is no benefit in getting a new prescription, you can stop when they run out”.
And just like that, I was given permission and the advice to move forward by a giant step.
I have been taking this feeling of lethargy, joint pain, and general effort needed for everything I do for granted for so many years, I did not actually believe the day would come when I would no longer be taking this heavy, albeit probably life preserving medication.
And so around 20 days ago, on Twelfth Night, 6 January, I had my own personal epiphany. The realisation that this ten year phase had come to a close. As I prepared to go to bed, I took my glass of water and the last Femara in the packet. Hopefully, my last ever Femara. The end of an era indeed.
I am looking forward to seeing if there is any change in how I feel. Let’s see. One thing is for sure – I am bound to tell you.