Breast Cancer Awareness Month

What Cancer Looks Like

breast cancer awareness month

Welcome to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, where breasts are actually optional. Over the coming weeks I’ll be sharing this blog with some other writers, but I’m going to kick off the month with a post of my own, because after all, it is my blog and therefore all about moi.

This is what someone who has cancer but doesn’t yet know it looks like:

before cancer

September 2012, on holiday at Noosa. The week before I’d had a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy which had come back as ‘atypical cells’ which the GP told me usually meant normal cells which were squashed in the process of taking the sample. I was sent for another ultrasound and biopsy three days after this photo was taken. No, they weren’t normal cells that got squashed, they were high-grade aggressive cancer cells.

This is what someone who has had a mastectomy looks like:

during cancer 1

Yep, pretty much exactly the same as the before cancer shot. By this stage my right breast and all of the lymph nodes from my right armpit have been removed, and I am waiting five weeks for the surgical site to heal before starting chemotherapy. I was so terrified for those five weeks. Terrified at the thought of having to have chemo and terrified at the thought of not having it soon enough. Oh and in case you’re wondering, no, people with cancer aren’t forced to wear the same shirt every day like some sort of uniform.

This is what chemotherapy looks like:

during chemo 3

Pretty unimpressive, isn’t it? The green sign attached to the bag on the right says ‘Neulasta’. That was put there each time to remind the nurse to send me home with the vial and syringe which I had to inject 24 hours after chemo. Without the Neulasta, I wouldn’t have been able to have the chemo regime I did. One word typed on a green sign = reason I am alive today.

This is what someone who is having chemotherapy looks like:

during chemo 2

I took this on Christmas Day 2012, to get a photo of the gorgeous earrings Dave bought for me. I thought I looked pretty good at the time, but looking at this photo now, I can see that I looked pretty dreadful. The terrible blackness around my eyes, the mottled brown pattern on my cheeks and jawline, the puffiness of my face and of course the baldness of my head were all testament to the poison that was fortnightly being pumped into my poor, beleaguered body.

This is what someone who is having radiation therapy looks like:

during radiation

Woo hoo, look at that hair! I felt sheer delight when the peach fuzz started appearing on my head. Under that shirt and scarf there were extensive third degree burns which had to be attended to multiple times daily, but I had hair!!

And this is what someone who is 1 year and 361 days on from diagnosis looks like:

julie finger

This one’s for you, cancer.

Looking Forward

Happiness is pretty simple: someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to.

I saw this posted on twitter last week, and because it came from someone who I admire, I didn’t respond with my first thought, which was  that’s bullshit. I’m a bit sycophantic like that. I didn’t respond, but I did ruminate for a long while on what it is about that quote (which, incidentally has been incorrectly attributed to about 400 different people, including Elvis Presley and Immanuel Kant) that irks me.

It’s true that those three things are pretty awesome, and I have written about many of them here. I have lots of someones to love – husband, boy, extended family, friends, my dog Roy, George Clooney, and I have plenty to do including a full-time day job, this blog, and binge-watching tv series from the US.

Having something to look forward to is where I get a bit stuck. There was a time, before cancer, where I constantly thought about the future and what my plans were. I had short-term plans for things like my boy starting school, my husband finishing his degree and me taking long service leave from my work and maybe doing some creative writing. I was also looking forward and laying plans for the longer term, for things like where Hugh would go to high school, whether we might move for Dave’s job, preferred destinations for overseas holidays, and whether when we retired we should buy a caravan and do the ginger and grey nomad thing. In the before, I was all about looking forward.

Then came cancer, and suddenly I felt that there was nothing to look forward to, absolutely fucking nothing. Initially, my feelings were based solely on fear, and then when I sat down with the medical oncologist who delivered my prognosis, my feelings about having nothing to look forward to became more solidly based in medical evidence. My chance of living five years past this diagnosis was exactly the same as my chance of dying within that five years.  Think about how many trashy movies and tv shows you’ve seen where some handsome doctor in a white coat tells the assembled family that the patient (who is usually in a coma) has a 50/50 chance of pulling through. The wife faints and the children all sob uncontrollably. Now imagine having same conversation, except in real life. The doctor isn’t wearing a white coat (although he is quite handsome) and he’s not talking about someone in a coma, he’s talking about you. He’s telling you that your chances for five-year survival are 50/50. Then try to marry that up with the idea of having something to look forward to.

I could write pages and pages about what it feels like to live under the shadow of a diagnosis like that. How you mentally make sense of 50/50 being bloody fantastic odds if you’re talking about winning the lottery, and shatteringly terrible odds if you’re talking about still being alive in 2018. How you learn to care about trivial things like what’s on tv, and the cost of petrol, and how much of a dick Christopher Pyne is when you have a stabbing pain in your ribs that has no explanation. I could write pages, but I’m not going to, because I’ve discovered that giving those fears and paranoias oxygen just makes them grow, and they are far more easily managed if they’re kept locked away in the dark.

denial

I can honestly say that these days, I don’t think too much about my diagnosis and prognosis. I obviously think a lot about it when I’m writing these blog posts, and that just serves to confirm my theory that blogging is very cheap therapy. But here I am, 23 months on from being told I have breast cancer, and I am again able to look forward with hope. It’s true that I no longer think about my retirement plans, but I have become confident again at making plans in the short-term.

One of my current short-term plans is to use this blog to host a series of guest posts during October, which in Australia is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I was diagnosed during this month two years ago, and I have been thinking about the ways I can mark the significance. Breast cancer is still the most common cancer amongst Australian women, but every single story is different. Lumpectomies, mastectomies, axilla removals, oestrogen positive, BRCA1/2, triple negative, herceptin, radiation, reconstruction, devastation, triumph, loss, love. There are endless permutations and combinations; for every woman who gets the diagnosis there is an individual story. I’ve put the call out on the Boob in a Box Facebook page, and I’m putting it out here again. If you’re a breast cancer person, I want to share your story. You can be out and proud, or you can be anonymous. If you’re not a confident writer, I’m happy to help. All you need to do is email me at cosmocat42@hotmail.com or message me via the Facebook page.

As for the quote that started this post, well to be honest I think I found it annoying because, for me at least, it rings true. Cancer couldn’t take away my somebodies to love or my somethings to do (and in fact it gave me a big something – this blog), but it did take away many, many of the things to which I used to look forward. I’m slowly rebuilding my trust in the future; of course that trust is built on the shakiest of ground because the future is a guarantee for no-one, and particularly not for those of us in remission. I’m doing it though – planning for next month’s blog, booking a holiday to Thailand, talking about Christmas plans, thinking about how embarrassingly loudly I’ll hoot at Dave’s graduation ceremony next year, and wondering about what will happen on the new season of The Walking Dead.

walking dead meme