If you are squeamish or do not like dark humour read no further.
One of the leaflets I received, produced by Breast Cancer Care is called Understanding Your Pathology Results, but most of us can only glean the meaning of some of the main terms. After all, the surgeon, oncologist and anonymous people in the laboratories have spent years studying human cells and what can happen to them.
When we went back to the Ladybird Suite ( pink zone ) to see the surgeon three weeks after my operation, the first item on the agenda was an examination. She pronounced the work of her colleague to be excellent; she was hardly likely to say ‘Oh my God, what on earth has he done!’ The whole area felt like a water bed, but this is normal, all those lymph fluids that were going into the wound drain bottle had nowhere to go, but eventually are absorbed – unless you are unlucky and have to have a bit of plumbing work done!
Then through the magic door into the consulting room where my daughter-in-law joined me as another pair of ears and moral support. The consultant said ‘We made the right decision to take everything away’ – she did not word it exactly like that. In layman’s terms there were lots of bits including quite a few lymph nodes. ‘So all the cancer is gone BUT you Must / Need / We Recommend chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy and then hormone treatment.’ WHAT!
Just because your aunt had a mastectomy years ago followed merely by tamoxifen for five years and your friend is just having radiotherapy, does not mean you will get away with it. Everyone is different and there are all sorts of tumours and grades. Basically our useful lymph nodes are also good at spreading cancer anywhere so the chemotherapy is a preventative attack. Next on the agenda was a CT scan of everything except my arms and legs to check if any cancer cells had turned up elsewhere.
No problems finding the CT place; I had already been to the blue zone for my MRI, not far from Costa Coffee and the main entrance. But somehow I couldn’t find CT. I asked at the MRI reception and she said We’re minus 1 you need to be on zero. Follow the green wall and turn left at the end, then go up in the lift. LIFT! I don’t do lifts, but luckily there was a set of stairs. There is not much drama for the CT, except you have to drink lots of water and have a canula put in your arm so dye can be injected. The scan doesn’t take long fortunately after all that water.
By the time the oncologist appointment came round it was the school holidays and Team H came to stay for the first part of their summer holiday, so my daughter could come with me. We went to town early so we could go to Marks and Spencer, actually try clothes on in the new ‘post Covid’ freedoms, though still wearing masks. Lunch out, still a novelty for me, then a stroll up the road to the hospital and back to pink zone. Oncology outpatients is down on Minus Two Floor, but strangely we were on ground level with a pleasant courtyard outside.
Our temperatures were taken ( Covid reasons ) and I was weighed and my height measured.
Warning cancer jokes…
When my aunt was receiving treatment for secondary cancer ( yes it came back years later ) she joked to the nurse ‘Well I have discovered one thing, if you don’t eat you lose weight’ then realised the nurse was a very big girl.
The waiting room was quite nice with the usual relaxing seascapes; I thought it would liven things up if they had darker paintings like Edvard Munch’s The Scream or a few Hieronymus Bosch paintings of hell.
We didn’t have to wait long to see the oncologist and my breast care nurse was also there for support. No one can force you to have treatment of any sort; it’s at this stage celebrities go off to live on a diet of raw vegetables and try alternate therapies. The rest of us do our best to make an informed choice and writer me likes asking questions.
The CT scan was clear, excellent news. But chemotherapy was still recommended. I asked about the base line of doing nothing; fifty fifty chance of cancer returning in the next ten years, the odds only going up by 8% with chemo. That didn’t sound much, but radiotherapy added another 7% and the five years of hormone treatment another something or other. Cancer could spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, which is exactly what happened to my aunt, though she had made it well into the new century and her eighties by then… My daughter was trying to read the indecipherable charts on the screen … Statistics don’t mean a lot, they could say forty % of patients who had no chemo died within five years, though some were in their nineties, others had heart attacks, a few got run over by a bus and one fell in a volcano doing his bucket list.
I had hardly any of the risk factors for breast cancer, so we can never make assumptions and you can never know for sure the alternative outcome. Nor can they tell you how the chemotherapy will affect you as everyone is different, except, annoyingly a guarantee your hair will fall out! What would you decide?
Yes, might as well give it a go. After I signed the consent form we went into another little room with seascapes to chat with the nurse about all the downsides and I had to decide if I wanted to book the cold cap, which may or may not stop your hair falling out.
Next on the agenda is the ‘group chat’ in the church hall opposite the hospital; learning about chemotherapy. Also a home visit by the community oncology support nurse and then start treatment on 23rd August. Everything is very efficient.
In the meantime I have been swimming in the sea and gardening and walking.