Saturday, 28 June 2014

7. Not just your common cold

This blog was going to be of the life-affirming, uplifting kind. Honestly, it was.

I have cancer stories in my head that may be difficult, they may even be of the kind that make you wipe away a tear. But the idea was that my stories will ultimately make you want to smile at life.

Owl’s stories, for starters. Rest assured, I will post them. Soon. (That’s a promise.) But right now, I just can’t smile.

I did, earlier today, sitting in the sun with my breakfast. I have escaped to the country for a few days. Yesterday I stretched out gloriously among the long waving grass, dispensing with my T shirt and flinging Brain Fluff Bra aside, looking up at the leisurely clouds and letting the sun and breeze caress my bloated scar. It may not sound like bliss (there is, after all, still the chest fluid to contend with, despite regular trips to the hospital to drain it - it's like having a sloshing hot water bottle strapped to my front). But it felt like bliss.

Then I went from contentment to terror in just a few short minutes.

It happened because of a book I was reading.

I still haven’t managed to read anything of substance. Novels are out. Short pieces in women’s magazines, perhaps, but no more than a quarter of a magazine at a time, and that’s on a good day.

But on the train yesterday I started reading my first “I’ve got cancer and here’s my story” kind of book, and I’ve been lapping it up. Every time I think I’d better stop (because do I really want to know the full extent of chemotherapy horror?) I am compelled to read just a few more pages. And then a few more.

It was my breast care nurse who mentioned the book a couple of days ago. “You’re writing a blog? I had another patient who wrote a blog, and it got turned into a book. It’s called The C-Word.”

So I googled it and ordered it (partly out of interest to see if I might recognise any of the hospital departments or staff).

Lisa, the author, was only 28 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had the mastectomy, the lymph node check, the full lymph node removal, the MRI scan, the six cycles of chemo.

I am enjoying the warts-and-all descriptions.

I recognise the way life comes to a screeching halt, the way friends rally round (and give you hugs that tell you that you are ill because they last just a few seconds too long), the way you focus on small things because focusing on the big picture is just too scary. I recognise the appreciation for the straight-talking of doctors, and the dislike of leaflets that make the effects and side-effects of cancer sound not-too-bad-at-all.

I am reading this book partly because I want to be reassured that you can go through all this misery and come out smiling at the other end.

The introduction is promising, with talk of how Lisa’s lump spawned not just cancer, but “a blog, a book and a writing career.”

So halfway through this young woman’s tale, in the middle of descriptions of sick bowels and sick bowls, of clumps of hair falling away and wig wearing woes, I thought I’d just look at her blog to see if (a) there is a lovely picture of her with some newly grown long hair, and (b) she is now the proud mum of a couple of adopted orphans (the chemo having fried her eggs).

And here I am, open-mouthed with horror when I read the words “Lisa’s funeral”. Apparently, three years later, her cancer returned in her bones and brain, this time incurable.

Wham. There it is, back again. The sheer terror.

It hasn’t reared its ugly head for several months. Not since I’ve been cheerfully trying to convince everyone (including myself), with reasonable success, that this is an early cancer which will most definitely be cured. Once the onslaught of treatment is over, the cancer won’t come back.

I know, I know: my cancer really is an early one. It’s only 1.8cm, not Lisa’s 5 (although my pathology report talks of a 5.5cm tumour – they include all the pre-cancerous cells). I had 3 cancerous lymph nodes out of 17, against Lisa’s 24 out of 25.

I know these things. You don’t have to tell me.

But I cannot help feeling my stomach churning right now. There is the gravity-defying fear I felt when I was just given my cancer diagnosis and was waiting to see whether the MRI scan showed any further fun and games in my breasts (it didn’t). (But neither did Lisa's.)

I am reminded again that cancer is not just your common cold.

It’s easy to forget, because a cold tends makes me feel much worse than the cancer cells. Really, until I chanced upon that breast lump, I had no idea. I felt fine. I still feel fine (not counting the post-surgery slump and the grief for my mother). You cannot feel cancer growing.

But breast cancer can kill. It does, all the time, at a rate of 1000 women each month in the UK alone.

So I will put Lisa’s book away and look at the earth in front of my feet. 

Don’t look sideways, because there, in the corner of my eye, is that question looking straight at me...

What if it isn’t OK? What if my babies have babies of their own and I am not there for them?

Don’t look at the horizon, because I am imagining it bright and sunny and I don’t want to risk seeing any gathering thunder clouds.

Most of all, I must remember this: that each and every cancer story is different. It’s like hearing about another woman’s childbirth: that is not going to help you prepare for your own. My own birth stories are not going to be of any use to my pregnant friend (they include my older daughter’s spectacular arrival in the back of a stationary ambulance outside our front door, having worked her way out as I hobbled down the garden path, determined not to be cheated out of the home birth she was promised – you see, my children's births were unlike any other, and so will my cancer be).

Let me take a deep breath, therefore, and let me take another step. Onwards and forwards, if not upwards.

And do remind me to post those Owl stories next, before I burst forth with another miserable bit of blogging.


  1. Amanda Cresswell 'So I had the chemotherapy and I got better'. Prescribed reading for the foreseeable future. Much love to you, dear friend.

  2. This is a wonderful blog. But please don't feel you have to be cheerful and positive all the time. It's OK to be miserable and frightened and fearful. And your usual optimistic and cheery self will manage to burst through all the same. This is a tough time for you and your family, so do just go will the flow. We are thinking of you, and send lots of love and hugs.

  3. Don't worry Lesley, there are plenty of collapses! See today's blog (3rd July)!