Octobers seem to fly past at light speed these days. I turned 50 two days ago. Two days after my 42nd birthday (Hello, Life, the Universe and Everything), I had a Mastectomy and Tram Flap Breast Reconstruction. I had been diagnosed in September with Paget’s Disease of the Nipple and Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS). Now, DCIS is considered a pre-cancerous condition, but because it can be widespread in breast tissue (it’s in the milk ducts, which are kinda like ALL OVER the place) the usual treatment is a mastectomy. DCIS is usually symptomless, it will show up as microcalcifications on a mammogram, which is why getting those screening mammograms is a good idea, people! The symptom that took me to the doctor though was a lesion on my nipple. I thought it was an old breastfeeding injury, having had a baby with a minor tongue tie, we’d had a rocky start to feeding and I’d had pretty serious blisters and cracks. The lesion appeared about 6 months after youngest had weaned, but then went away again for a few months. Then it came back, but also went away again. This went on for a YEAR. Yes, I thought I knew what it was so I just lived with it for a year. I should also tell you that I was a trained breastfeeding supporter and halfway through my breastfeeding counsellor training. So, you know, I know breasts. Duh. I also was probably one of the few people who had heard of Paget’s Disease, and who knew what the symptoms were, given that it only accounts for about 1% of all breast cancers.
Anyway, moving on, because my diagnosis included DCIS, ie a pre-cancerous condition, there was no real rush. I continued going to my brand new part time job in a primary school, life carried on as normal, with just periodic freakouts about the 10 hour surgery I was facing. But I didn’t have CANCER after all.
So my parents arrived in Edinburgh on my birthday, and the next day I checked into the hospital in Livingston, where the plastic surgery unit was for the Lothians. Woke up on the 11th and was taken into theatre where I think the surgery took almost 12 hours. But whatever, I didn’t notice. It was just the family who had to suffer through that part.
The surgery was a success (you can read about TRAM flap breast reconstruction here) and after a few days of hourly ultrasound of the reconstruction, we were down to every few hours, and finally by my last couple of days in the hospital, only twice a day. This is so nervewracking at first, the surgery involves creating a new breast shape out of belly fat (hello, free tummy tuck on the NHS!) and a new blood supply. The ultrasound is making sure that the blood vessels are surviving, so that the transferred tissue doesn’t die.
Fast forward 3 weeks to my follow up with the breast cancer consultant. I walked in expecting to be discharged, and walked out with a diagnosis of invasive breast cancer and a prescription for chemotherapy. Of course the pathologists had gone through the removed tissue with a fine-toothed comb, and it turned out that I had had a tumour of 11mm. Now, this is where the luck comes in, believe it or not. If we had known that I had an invasive cancer, I would have just had the mastectomy and the reconstruction would have waited for after all the other treatment had finished. However, hopefully now, my case and probably others like mine will have shown that recovery is just as good when the reconstruction is done immediately. The only thing is that I couldn’t have radiation without destroying tissue, but my oncologist assured me that I didn’t need it. My cancer was an oestrogen receptor and Her2 positive, which meant it was very treatable by the newish drug Herceptin. There being no research evidence of how well Herceptin worked on its own, though, I had to have the standard chemotherapy for an oestrogen receptor cancer first. Ah well. I wasn’t exactly rocking the hairless look, I can tell you.
I hadn’t planned to tell the whole story when I sat down here today. I actually came down to sew in my studio, and was just going to do my annual “It’s October, check your breasts, and Think Before You Pink” facebook post. But the whole story obvioulsly wants to come out. Maybe it’s something to do with turning 50. Which is a more average age to be diagnosed with breast cancer after all.
Anyway, after 8 trips over 6 months to the Western General for Chemo (which believe it or not I almost looked forward to sometimes because there was always a good laugh at some point. Black humour is rampant on the Chemo ward) I was ready to start taking daily tamoxifen and getting infusions of Herceptin every 3 weeks. So my hair was growing back, but my fingernails were now becoming a disaster area. You win some you lose some.
Six months into the year of Herceptin, we moved to Chile. And here we still are. And on Tuesday I have my annual checkup. With a new doctor. The fabulous oncologist who looked after me for 6 years has moved to Germany. How dare he?!
So it’s October.
Please, check your breasts. Finding a breast cancer isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you. Not finding one that is there could be though. And if you need someone to tallk to, please contact me. I am relentlessly positive, had a fantastic experience and prognosis, and will hold your hand through whatever you need. OK?
And one more thing – I really do mean it: Think Before You Pink. If you want to help put money in the pockets of breast cancer researchers, do that directly, by donating to charities like Breast Cancer Care. Buying a pink vacuum cleaner, laundry detergent, or pair of trainers might just make more money for corporate bottom lines than for research labs,