Covid, christmas and cancer
‘Sam, Sam! Breathe! You stopped breathing.
We will get through this. Whatever it is, we will get through it.’
As my consultant’s face comes into focus, holding my hands tightly, I stare back at him. In some ways it feels just like the first time; the sinking stomach, the heavy sigh, the dread and nausea. I had had a gut feeling all along that something was not right, but when it is confirmed, it is still just as distressing.
As I write this, we now know it was localised, caught very early and is most likely out, and I wont need any invasive treatment going forward, however, this situation has been far from normal, and in an already abnormal world, I need the space and time to wrap my head around it all. The process never gets any easier and if truth be told, I have had to dig deeper than Rishi Sunak’s spade in Her Majesty’s treasury, for the tools and mindfulness to navigate my way through the last few months’ and the recent waiting and holding patterns!
As the radiographer smiled at me reassuringly that night, she rolled the camera over and over, apologising for the increasing pressure, but she was having trouble locating ‘it.’ While my mind had flashbacks of lying on this same bed, in the same room, three times before, picking at my mind, like a blackbird looking for worms, I closed my eyes and surrendered to yet another instalment of an already very long and tedious cancer story.
I waited in the now deserted waiting area, eyeing the clock as it neared 8pm, listening to the heavy tick as it synchronised to that of my heart. Phone in hand, I sent the text to my family ;
‘The results show, and I quote, ‘soft tissue with hyper metabolic focus (showing up with glucose) deep to the medial end of the left clavicle’. Just had ultra sound and waiting to see consultant again. Will probably have a CT scan in next few days. I can’t bl***y believe it.’
While everyone has been fire fighting their own personal blazes, on top of the huge smouldering global one, we have been saturated with ways of looking after ourselves and doing what we feel is ‘best.’ However, since none of us have lived through a global pandemic before, and our leaders are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, we have realised there is no right or wrong way to deal with something that we have no experience of. The irony is, I hadn’t lived through this diagnosis before either.
So, as our area sank begrudgingly into a Tier 4 and family Christmas plans were abandoned to keep everyone safe, I hibernated in my own personal limbo, as other specialists were consulted about my case. On December 10th, I met with an ENT surgeon. The issue we had was that where this ‘hypermetabolic tissue’ sat, was really hard to get to accurately. It was glowing up in the same area as my secondary in 2012, only this time was not presenting on the sternum bone but close by it. However, this specialist had looked at my scans closely, believing she could operate by going in on my original scar and removing as much tissue in that area, as she could, thereby bypassing a biopsy as such. I already had so much scar tissue that would be beneficial to remove, but it was exactly this scar tissue, from my previous breast cancer surgeries, that could prevent her from removing anything, if it was too thick and stuck.
During the consultation, the date of 23rd December was offered for surgery. It seemed bonkers to do it so close to Christmas, but with that wonderful gift of hindsight, I am so relieved we did! My husband, ever the realist, pointed out that if we did go into another lockdown, it might be wise to get it out of the way, bunk down over Christmas while the pressure was off and move into a new year without it hanging over us. Crystal ball anyone?!
We told our daughter I was having a mole removed, to manage ongoing anxiety, and the surgery went smoothly. The NHS were exceptional. Even with Covid and the medical chaos, they were kind, patient and looked after me brilliantly. I wasn’t even sick after the aneasthetic!! What a Christmas gift! I hadn’t been expecting a drain post surgery, but I was allowed home later that day with it disguised in the plastic bag with all my medication, and in pjs, slippers and beanie hat, I caught myself looking like a warped David Williams character from The Midnight Gang, only rather than a teddy I was hugging a portable drip of mulled wine, in a hazy festive daze!! Just the look I was going for!
On arriving home, I was promptly given a blow by blow account of the day my daughter and husband had had while I was out for the count. Our poor labrador had been diagnosed with pancreatitis, but not before suspected pancreatic cancer, and my husband being told she had very little time to live. Needless to say, my ten year old was more than a tad traumatised and it had been the final straw for an already anxious time. Christmas, in her eyes, was most definitely cancelled!
Despite all of this, I felt such relief. To be in my own bed, with my family around me, Christmas lights twinkling and decorations up. I felt safe. The Christmas spirit had taken on a very different tone this year, for everyone, but we were doing our best and we were together. Gratitude was my painkiller of choice that day.
So, when my doctor called me last week to give me the results of what was removed during the surgery, gratitude became my safety harness as the rabbit hole opened up again. The results have, so far, indicated that there were breast cancer cells in one of the lymph glands that was removed. I am currently waiting for an appointment to speak to my team to make a plan, but there are still lots of questions and conversations to have.
In some ways I feel so well practiced in all of this but in others, I am just as clueless. When I was wheeled into the operating theatre, the surgical team couldn’t believe how well versed I was, bringing my own hot water bottle to help bring my veins to the surface for the cannula, (either that, or they must have thought I was the biggest diva ever) but hearing this news, took me right back to the edge of that rabbit hole and though it might not be as deep, I can't see the bottom just yet.
I am grateful the results are not worst case, but I also acknowledge they are not best case either. It has all been a bit discombobulating. To have had breast cancer three times is unusual. To have had it four times?! I confess, this time, despite further scans and appointments, I feel more vulnerable and I feel even more responsible. What more can I do? Am I eating the wrong things? I have a check list an arms length long of the 'right' anti inflammatory foods to eat, the 'best' exercise to do! Half of me wants to consult every holistic practitioner on the planet to do what I can to prevent this from happening again and research the causes of breast cancer until I am blue in the face, the other half lies horizontal, confident that I have been doing everything I can and it is just another blip! The mental onslaught is exhausting!
And as my mind battles on, breath-work, yoga and journalling have become my daily self care rituals over the last few months. I have written a diary and practiced yoga on and off for years, but it wasn’t until all of this kicked off, that my yoga teacher mentioned ‘satya; ’our truthfulness.’
There is a time and a place for everything and this word really resonated. Being truthful to ourselves, is to validate our own story, our feelings and personal thoughts, but having the courage to own it, for me, is the only way to process it. Every experience is different. Every person is different and each diagnosis unique to them. That includes this one. In the last few days I have swung like a pendulum between natural feelings of relief and gratitude to frustration, fear and just sheer irritation.
Blogging plays a bit part to this, writing helps me lean into a vulnerability that Brene Brown has lectured me on (from my audible app) regularly over the last few years. I have realised it is the courage that comes with not needing to feel clear on everything in order to talk about it, and perhaps, more importantly, not feeling bad if I can’t give clarity to other people, so they feel better.
Being faced with adversity, not only rocks our stability as a human being in this world, but it shakes our mindsets and our own self reflection. This experience (however brief or localised) over Christmas and in a time of Covid has been like a snow globe. It has unsettled a lot, brought up old traumas, feelings and experiences, messed with routines, normality and caused confusion and intense emotions.
However, as it settles, I recognise a sense of equanimity; a calmness and surrender to everything happening in my immediate experience. I am navigating all the unknowns in my own time, trusting my instincts and staying truthful to myself and others.
If it wasn’t for my previous cancer experience, I would have ignored these instincts. The anxiety and apprehension around Cancer can be a dark and oppressive place, and I am happy to exercise my ostrich neck as and when necessary, but if there is one thing that stands out from all of this, it is the gratitude for my previous cancers and for the body awareness and intuition they have taught me.
So as I stare up at another mountain, all be it smaller, I remember how I climbed others before, while reminding myself that this time, it is a different season, a different route. I have the strength and experience to climb it, but the truth is, there is still so much to learn, adapt and adjust to. I have my backpack full of tools and useful gadgets, but, this time I might climb a little more mindfully, taking frequent deeper breaths, and letting my instincts and my 'satya' guide me, with gratitude for every step, every rain cloud and every blister, because as the world slowly begins to heal and recover, so do we all and it all takes time.
Over the course of all my cancer experiences I kept a diary. These are the blogs I have written from the thoughts and feelings I recorded there. xx