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Ten things that breast cancer taught me

Friday, November 29th, 2013

Often, a life-threatening experience like breast cancer can leave you with a different outlook and change the way you view things – from life’s various trials to the most trivial day-to-day experiences. I’ve had breast cancer twice over the past nine years, and have learned from the experience. Here are ten great things that having breast cancer has taught me:

1. Let people in
Being open about my cancer was the cue my friends and family needed to get involved. No they weren’t coming to my home to do the housework (which is a shame really), but they kept in touch every month by phone, card, letter, email and the occasional visit; they even ran races for me and had prayers said at Mass. By deliberately externalising my feelings, they knew they could show theirs, and we were all the better for it.

2. …especially your kids
My children were eight, ten and 14 when I first had cancer, and I decided that keeping them in the loop from the beginning was the best way of avoiding a bigger problem later on. The best thing I did was to appoint my sister as the official sounding board so they always had someone else to turn to and, crucially, they could ask her everything they felt they couldn’t ask me. They were with me too when I had chemotherapy, so could see it wasn’t remotely scary.

3. Shock your taste buds…
I didn’t lose my sense of taste exactly, it’s just that chemo makes food taste odd, metallic, unpleasant. My way round this was to choose comforting food that reminded me of childhood, like fish fingers and mashed potato; or that went kapow! on my tongue, like lime juice and soda water, and gingernut biscuits dunked in tea.

4. … but don’t gain weight
You’d think you’d at least lose weight but, first time round, I gained a stone which took 12 months to shift. This year when I was having treatment, I decided to see if gentle exercise would stop the weight gain before it started. I began walking, then jogging very, very slowly around the block, eventually building up to three miles a day. I didn’t gain weight; I lost it, but all the time feeling healthier and more energetic. So I haven’t stopped.

5. Get your beauty sleep
After a few weeks of looking and feeling like a zombie, I nipped the chronic insomnia that seems to accompany chemotherapy, in the bud and took sleeping pills. I was prescribed Zopiclone, which is a hypnotic drug (which means it induces sleep without affecting your mood or your sensitivity to pain), and it’s non addictive. I’d wake up feeling and looking refreshed and more than able to tackle the day ahead. When the treatment was over I weaned myself off the pills.

6. Go hippy
I didn’t know very much about reflexology but had heard it had been helpful to others in handling the side effects of treatment. To be honest anything involving having your toes fiddled with for an hour has got to be good, so I gave it a try. In fact I had reflexology the day before every chemo session and regard it as a major contributory factor in helping me cope as well as I did both physically and mentally.

7. Embrace the grey!
When my hair started to grow again, steel grey in places, white in others, I decided NOT to reach for the hair dye. As much as I wanted to go back to the security of medium-golden-brown-with-caramel-highlights, I thought I should take advantage of my situation and turn a potentially ageing hairstyle into a short, funky look. Yes, there were a few double-takes initially, but I’m happy with my new style and there are no roots to retouch; bliss.

8. Even the eyebrows?
Sadly my eyebrows didn’t grow back and this made me look tired and washed out all the time. After months of pencilling them in, I decided to get my eyebrows tattooed on. It’s a semi-permanent procedure and will need to be refreshed once a year, but it’s made a big difference to me and I mentally thank my tattooist every morning when I look in the mirror.

9. Don’t let employers get you down
When you’ve got breast cancer, the last thing you should need to do is “watch your back” at work but, as I found out first hand, not all employers behave with integrity. Some will exploit every opportunity to undermine you at the most difficult time in your life and, although it will seem hard, you have to fight back. I found the very act of making a stand and confronting my employer, despite being petrified, made me feel stronger and more confident.

10. Nothing’s THAT important
An experience like this changes you on the inside. I’m definitely more at ease with myself now. I can cry in front of strangers and not feel ashamed; I can handle difficult situations with calm; I can lean on those who used to lean on me. But, most of all, I’m just glad that I’m still on this planet and can continue to embarrass my kids and, occasionally, make them feel proud of the journey we’ve been on together.

If you’ve got to have chemotherapy, did you know you could have it at home?

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

One of the perks of my job was private medical insurance; in fact I’ve always had it, but never needed to use it until I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  As you may know, medical insurance cover has many benefits; for me it meant choice as to when and where I had my treatment.  What I have been amazed to learn since then is that many patients can now get the same choices on the NHS!

This choice meant I could have chemotherapy in the comfort of my own home or I could have it in hospital with several other patients, at the same time, in the same room.  Being with others in the same situation can be a real help for some people. You can chat about the changes to your body, exchange views and even have a laugh, though you may still get chance to do this at patient group meetings or when you go for your check-up.  For those who’d prefer more privacy during their treatment, just don’t want to talk, or don’t feel well enough for company, this is torture.  I opted for home treatment.  I’d feel at ease and, more importantly, my children could see chemotherapy in action.  It’s common sense I know, but understanding diminishes fear and I believe that being able to watch me having cups of tea, chatting to my wonderful cancer nurse Elaine, and generally being relaxed during each session was an enormous relief to everyone. Me too.

When the day arrived for my first chemotherapy session, I had no time to be apprehensive, as I had to attend a client meeting that morning. (I had been told to have a very peaceful day before the treatment to prepare my body for the drugs, but circumstances at work made this impossible.) The meeting ran on and I had to race home to be there before Elaine.  We arrived virtually at the same time, and then a procedure began that would be replicated over the next six months.  I would sit in a comfortable chair with a drip next to me, a hot wheat bag, straight from my microwave, placed on my arm to warm it up before the drugs (which had been refrigerated) were administered.  While I was being warmed up, Elaine would ask me all sorts of questions before showing me the drugs and confirming the dosages with me.  She would then insert a cannula into my hand, through which all the chemotherapy drugs would be infused (which means the drugs were very gradually introduced into my body).  First though, a saline drip was set up. This would dilute the drugs as they were injected into my veins; a necessary precaution as chemotherapy drugs are, literally, poisonous and would seriously damage my veins without dilution.  Your veins may be damaged – you’ll know if this has happened because your arm will become too painful for intravenous medication – so you’ll have to change arms.  It did to me and I had to keep changing arms after my fourth treatment.

In addition to the chemotherapy drugs, anti-sickness medication and steroids were also injected, so the whole process would take between two and three hours.  The first session passed off without incident, and the children were home from school in time to see me “plumbed in.”  Once Elaine had left, the children and my sister kept checking that I was still OK.  I actually felt no different, but nevertheless we all waited for me to spontaneously combust.

After my first session, I felt no apprehension or fear.  Of course, I didn’t always feel on top of the world, but I could at least face the world.  And, as this was going to be my regime every three weeks, for the next six months, and it was helping me get better, how could I resent it?

If you’d like to know more about having your chemotherapy at home, you should contact a wonderful organisation called Healthcare at Home (www.hah.co.uk) who looked after me.  Their expert nurses give chemotherapy to thousands of patients each year in the comfort of their own homes, and most of this treatment is actually paid for by the NHS rather than private insurance. Strange but true, drugs administered in the community, in other words ‘at home’, are exempt from VAT, so that alone begins to make home treatment financially attractive for the NHS.  Add to that the resulting reduction in waiting times in outpatients and the pharmacy, the freeing up of valuable nursing staff and fewer patients needing hospital transport, there is no wonder that more and more NHS Trusts are taking home treatment more seriously.

If a home service is not offered to you by your doctor, whether you are an insurance patient or an NHS patient, just ask; there’s every chance that he or she is unaware that home treatment is available.  Your doctor should contact Healthcare at Home, and they will be able to give advice as to what is possible, so that you and your doctor can then decide whether home treatment is the best option for you.