17. Trainspotting

This is the seventeenth post of a series which begins here.

3 August 2017

‘Did you know there is a 4% chance breast cancer is hereditary, and only if two immediate family members have had it will you be checked for the gene? As you know I’m not a Googler, but I did do a little research about causes of the disease and apparently you’re more likely to get it with advancing age or if you’re overweight. On that premise I don’t understand how my mum or how I got it. I’ve given a lot of thought to similarities in our lifestyles that may have triggered it. Maybe we got cancer because we were both binge drinkers in our younger days, but I don’t believe that. And it’s definitely got nothing to do with dying your hair, your gran never dyed her hair,’ I said.

‘Men can get breast cancer too, can’t they?’ Marcus asked.

‘Yes, that’s true, they can.’ I answered.

We were walking back home from the village shop. When I was a little girl I used to like walking on the sunny side of the street and as a big girl I like to uphold my old tradition, it’s not superstition, I just like it in the same way as not walking on cracks in the pavement or walking along kerb stones, but not touching the joins or edges. On the opposite side of the road a small stand of Sycamore trees grow thickly. Light filters through the topmost layer of leaves which cast shadowy patterns on the white-washed wall I’m lightly trailing my hand along. It felt warm in the sun. The good old sun. ‘Women with low levels of vitamin D are at a higher risk of breast cancer.’

‘Where d’you get vitamin D from?’

‘Sunshine, Marcus…of which Scotland is distinctly lacking during winter months…You know, you need to look after your immune system and keep it healthy. Eat fibre. Eat your fruit and veg. Eat well. Drink plenty water, at least two litres a day. If you have to drink alcohol, drink in moderation. Get outside for a half hour walk every day, absorbing vitamin D from the sun that will help your immune system to function properly. Try to worry less and keep stress levels down. Prolonged stress will cause high levels of cortisol, white cells drop and the immune system is not as effective. That’s why you become more prone to colds…and some of those white cells fight cancer…’

‘Jesus Mum. Cringe,’ Marcus groaned.

‘What do you mean, cringe?’

‘You sound like you’re doing Ewan MacGregor’s bloody ‘choose life’ rant from Trainspotting!’

I laughed. It was funny he should mention Trainspotting.

Trainspotting was screened the same year my mum died from cancer and here we are, twenty years on, the sequel is out and I’ve got cancer. History repeating itself tidily in tens.

‘I didn’t mean to sound all Trainspotting! Anyway the point is, look after your immune system and it will look after you. Give more thought to what you’re shovelling into your face. If stress – like Uni workload or money or anything – becomes part of your life, deliberately make time in each day to relax for even just fifteen minutes. Do this and you’ll discover you’re able to better manage new problems as they arise.’

‘You’re the only thing giving me stress right now, Mum,’ Marcus joked. We laughed.

Choose laughter. Choose the ones you love. Choose your future. Choose life.

And if cancer chooses you, choose a positive mental attitude and choose to smash it in the face.

Next: Walk to Freedom: Radiotherapy and Cul Mor

We all have cancer cells in our body but what triggers the change to make them become active? My personal belief is that it’s entirely random. What do you think?

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16. Kindness from A Stranger

This is the sixteenth post of a series which begins here.

31 July 2017

No wonder my baking was terrible and I couldn’t get my brownies right – my oven packed in. It didn’t end its life in spectacular fashion, there was no explosion, it just stopped working.

Because I’m living with a lot of stress it doesn’t take much, just a sequence of two or three things going wrong, to tip me over the edge and immediately I am in a tizz. A giant emotional storm rages, and the cooker breaking becomes a story which goes like this:

How the fuck am I gonna find the money to replace the cooker? It’s not even four years old! Why is everything breaking at once? First the fridge freezer, now this. I don’t need this shit. (Feeling raging.) I’m super stressed out as it is. Stressed about Leon. Stressed about the leaking roof. Stressed I can’t get back to work. Stressed that I’ve still got radiotherapy to get through. Stressed about how fucking sore I am every minute of the day…And exactly how is it possible that my body feels worse now than it did when I was going through chemotherapy? All my bones hurt, my joints are constantly stiff and my feet are sore. I can’t walk without pain let alone run or hillwalk. (Feeling tight in the chest and tears are on their way.) I’m not ‘me’ anymore. My emotions are all over the place and I just can’t cope. I don’t get anything right. I’m a total failure (in reference to baking, being a girlfriend, mother and general human being). Stupid fucking cancer. (Now crying hard.)

This sense of not feeling in control is a symptom of stress. Of course a cancer diagnosis is enough on its own to throw life off balance, but stress is not a new thing to me. I’ve lived with it since my mum died. In those sad years I was chaotic and poor at decision making, but then I discovered the benefits of walking as a strategy for managing how I felt. I got into hillwalking and would go to the mountains to regain perspective and restore a sense of order.

Because my body (temporarily) feels like it belongs to a woman twice my forty-four years I have to make do with small walks about the village. So off I went. Out the back garden gate and onto the beach. I came out at the Common and walked home by the road. There is only farmland with sheep and hens and a scattering of houses at this end of the village. It’s quiet here. I feel at peace. Now the broken cooker isn’t a big deal and I realised the story I’d built up was a result of the stresses I’m living with; and the self-critical snipes were simply thoughts in my head, not fact.

I notice a man waving at me from his garden. ‘Hello. How are you keeping?’ he calls. I go to him. I don’t know who he is, but he seems to know me. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way,’ he says, ‘Can I just say, you look beautiful with your short hair.’ I don’t know what is was that I’d thought I’d hear, but it wasn’t that. I felt my hand raise automatically to touch my head. Lately I’d been feeling very self-conscious about how I looked. Why’s that lady got no hair, daddy?…I didn’t expect to see you looking like that…You did look like shit when you were on chemo…The compliment makes me feel good. He tells me that he’s been reading my blogs. He says he has something for me.

The man is a retired joiner. A skillful craftsman.

004
Outside the joiner’s house are really cool bird feeders he has made. All proceeds made from their sale go to Macmillan Cancer. How nice is that?

He goes inside and fetches a small heart he has carved from mahogany.

‘I made this for you,’ he said, handing me the wooden heart. ‘It’s for you, to know that any time you are feeling down there is someone out there thinking about you who cares.’

It was unexpected and random. This small act of kindness from a perfect stranger made a big impact, it turned my day around and I won’t ever forget it. (Thank you! You made a difference and the world could do with more people like you.)

In Conclusion

There were a few lessons to be learned from broken oven day: If I catch myself making a story in the future I’ll try to say ‘STOP’. I’ll remind myself that thoughts aren’t facts. I’ll go for a walk and if I can’t do that I shall settle in a comfy chair, pick up my wee wooden heart and close my eyes. For ten minutes I will notice my breathing and sounds around me, but concentrate solely on the shape and feel of that piece of wood and I will make up a story about it instead until calm is restored, and I’m back on track.

Next: Trainspotting

Does anyone else out there do the whole ‘story’ thing and the self-flagellation?

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15. D-day: Results

This is the fifteenth post of a series which starts here.

27 July 2017

My eldest son’s nineteenth birthday – what a day to get results from surgery and find out if the cancer spread beyond my breast…

Nothing about having cancer is easy, but waiting for results tops my anxiety list.

There were sixteen days between my surgery and being called back for the pathology report. Sixteen days my imagination had at its disposal to play with me; I imagine my death, I imagine my funeral, I think about the wake and can’t bear the thought of missing out on my own party, I decide I’ll have a pre-wake wake, just so I can be there.

It’s fair to say I’m reasonably fucking stressed out.

messy mind
If I were to paint it as a picture this is what my mind would look like.

 

During these sixteen days time was a paradox.

Since surgery I’d wanted time to hurry up so that today would come, but now that Paul and I were here at the breast clinic I was in no rush to get into the consulting room…that said, two-thirty seemed to take an eternity to come…hurry up! Minutes ticked on past my appointment time, but I didn’t mind this last bit of waiting; I was not ‘in there’ hearing the news, but neither was I at home trying to find ways to distract myself until I could be here.

Paul flipped through one of the magazines that were on the table, but I had no interest in them. Zeroid concentration. The door into the waiting area opened and a nurse accompanied a woman out – I recognised her. ‘Hello!’ I said. It was one of the women who’d also had surgery the same day as me. ‘You’re all smiles. I take it it was good news?’

‘No,’ she answered in her lilting Islands accent and shaking her head, ‘I’ve to come back for another lumpectomy. He said he didn’t scrape away enough of the marginal tissue.’

Oh fuck, man! I was gutted for the woman, and in the same moment a kaleidoscope of butterflies fluttered in my belly. She still has cancer, what if I’ve still got cancer? Did I have surgery before or after her? I hope he scraped it all out of me. What if I’ve to get another lumpectomy? What if I’ve to get a mastectomy? What if it’s spread and I’m a goner? It’s a lottery. An actual fucking lottery. I might be okay or I might not. This is crazy and yet it’s my real life. I managed to think all that while listening to the woman tell me she had to hurry because her daughter was waiting outside for her and that she’d be getting impatient. ‘Look after yourself. Goodbye.’ I said.

‘Sarah Douglas?’ I stood up, glanced in Paul’s direction to make sure he was coming and followed a nurse to the consulting room.

‘Hello again, how have you been?’ asked my consultant with a beaming smile.

‘Mm, I’ve been a nightmare,’ I said, looking at Paul who nodded agreement. ‘The waiting has been a bit stressful.’

‘Aw, well never mind, you’re here now. If you don’t mind I’d like to take a look at your wounds first if that’s okay. Can you pop up onto the bed.’

The nurse removed the sticky plaster and gauze. I looked at the skin of my breast for the first time in over two weeks and was impressed to see a very neat scar in my armpit and one around my nipple.

UGGHHHH! My nipple’s got gangrene!‘ I shrieked. My consultant yanked back the curtain and stared down at my breast.

‘You little bugger! You had me going there!’

I was laughing so much, then congratulated him on his excellent surgical skills. All happy that things were healing nicely I redressed and sat back down by his desk.

‘Well. You’re going to like this, Sarah. It’s good news,’ my consultant said,  ‘there were no traces of active cancer in the tissue removed from the site of the tumour and the lymph glands were clear.’ I stared blankly at him. There was no sense of relief or elation, nothing.

‘That’s what I’ve been most worried about, the lymph glands,’ I said, and then launched in about the whole ‘my mum’ thing. I needed absolute reassurance. ‘Mum had been given the all clear, but two and a half years later the cancer was back. Are you sure it’s gone and there was none in the lymph glands?’

”All clear’ are not words I would ever use because there are no guarantees in life. Cancer is something that will possibly come up for you again in the future, but as far as I’m concerned your breast cancer is cured. And there was no evidence of cancer having been in the lymph,’ he reiterated. I nodded, but felt dazed. He talked some more, mainly about radiotherapy and something about starting Tamoxifen soon.

‘Since it wasn’t shit news…you can have this,’ I said, pulling a thank you card from my pod sac.

happy

‘I baked you some brownies too, didn’t I,’ I said looking at Paul who nodded in confirmation. ‘But the first lot I made were drier than a menopausal woman’s fanny and the second batch were wetter than a hooker’s, so I didn’t bring you any.’ Paul rolled his eyeballs, the nurse went red and my consultant just laughed and shook my hand warmly.

Paul and I left hospital. I immediately called both my sons, first Leon then my oldest. ‘That’s the best birthday present Mum,’ Marcus said.

Next: Kindness from A Stranger

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