Blog: The Big J vs The Big C

Making the breast of a bad situation ...
On 4 October 2016, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This blog will chart my progress through treatment, and continued enjoyment of life, love and friendship.
​Expect humour, irreverance, occasional sadness, and staunch defence of the National Health Service.
​Btw, that picture is not me. :-)

Whipping it all out

This morning, I was at Homerton Hospital preparing for surgery next month. So, what's occurring?

Back in January, the medics discovered something dodgy on my cervix. It turned out to be a cervical ectropion - nothing too serious, but it would need some investigation and treatment. (It's probably related to my having had endometriosis for many years, though fortunately, much more mildly than many women do.) Well, I pondered to myself, what's the point of treating this ectropion thing? Aged fifty, with all my child-bearing done, I don't even need a cervix any more anyway. 

Then I remembered the long list of Tamoxifen side effects, and that it included increased likelihood of uterine cancer. That's annoying, I thought: I don't even need my uterus any more.

And then I found out that having your ovaries removed reduces your chance of breast cancer coming back. That's interesting, I mulled: I don't even need my ovaries any more.

You can see where I'm going here, can't you?

Responses

Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that.
How awful.
I don't know what to say.

At least they caught it early.
Oh, they didn't?
Well, I'm sure you'll still be OK.

My friend's got that.
She's having chemo -
Head down the toilet all day.

My mum had that. They gave her a year.
That was sixteen years ago -
She's still here!

Hot Boobs and a Weekend in Hospital

I haven't blogged for some time, I suspect because I have been trying to see myself as Woman Without Cancer, ex-cancer patient, person with a past problem. Then when that delusion blew up in my face (well, down my side, actually - gory details to follow), I was too knocked out to sound off. 

So, what's the story (morning glory)?

Disinfected Middle-Aged Women

The Disaffected Middle-Aged Women are having a spell in hospital ...

A ward where women fight cirrhosis
Cysts or endometriosis
Battling germs with hourly doses
We're Disinfected Middle-Aged Women

Sutures, dressings and a clip
Special socks so we don't slip
En route to the loo with an IV drip
We're Disinfected Middle-Aged Women

Behind the Headlines: Tories' Cancer Drugs Fund Exposed as Rip-Off

Today’s headline is that the Cancer Drugs Fund, which was announced by the Tories in 2010 and ran until 2016, was a ‘huge waste of money’. The Annals of Oncology journal has published a study led by Professor Richard Sullivan of King’s College London, who also described the Fund as a ‘major policy error’.

The Conservatives thought they could pick up a few votes in 2010 by promising to fund expensive cancer drugs that the NHS was not funding, and the CDF was the result. It funded cancer patients to receive medications which had not yet been approved by the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Launched in 2011 with a budget of £200 million, the Fund was supposed to be a stopgap while alternatives were developed, and was initially scheduled to run until 2014. However, the government did not pursue its alternative policy, the ominous-sounding Value-Based Pricing, and instead extended the CDF until 2016, by which time it had been denounced by the Cancer Taskforce and the National Audit Office as unsustainable, and some doctors - including Richard Sullivan - were calling it an ‘unethical fix’ and a ‘waste of public money’. Still the Conservatives promised in their 2015 election manifesto that ‘We will continue to invest in our lifesaving Cancer Drugs Fund’ and issued the poster pictured, only to scrap the CDF a year later, absorbing it into NICE.

Back at Bart's

Today I was back at Bart's for my radiotherapy follow-up appointment, to check how I coped with the treatment and any problems I have had since. The appointment can be summarised thus: Hi. How are you? Show us your boob. Oh, that looks great. See you in December. Bye. (I may have had encounters like this in the past, although not with doctors.)

Please do not infer from this summary any dismissiveness or rush on the part of the doc. Rather, feel free to infer the splendid news that I am heading at a rapid rate towards the light at the end of cancer's tunnel. The marvellous oncologist Doctor Wolstenholme checked me over, reassured me that everything was healing just as it should and that the oedema is on its way out. She was mightily impressed with my tales of my randomly-leaking nipple and squirting antics. I have the feeling that oedema does not usually happen this way. Once again, my breasts function in a very different dimension to the average mammary.

Mind the Gap: Cancer and Class

... or 'The Lumpen Proletariat' ...

Over recent decades, UK cancer death rates have fallen significantly. They began falling in the late 1980s, and by 2006 had fallen by 17%. More people than ever before are surviving cancer, with 78% of women in England and Wales still alive ten years after their breast cancer diagnosis (2010-11).

But there are still big differences between cancer outcomes depending on how wealthy you are. Economic inequality - the polite term for 'class divisions' - is linked to 19,000 cancer deaths per year.

Overdoing It?

Since resuming my membership of the sports centre five days ago, I have visited every day - and no, not just to check the timetable or use the vending machine. 

Two days ago, I reached untold heights of pleasure by swimming for the first time since before my breast ceased to be watertight and fully encased in skin and began its six months of being pierced, sliced, stitched, infected, creamed, irradiated, peeled and cooked. The wounds are still sore but they have sealed themselves up, so there is no risk of swimming pool water and/or germs getting in through fissures in my skin, nor of bits of my boob leaking out into a communal, municipal facility. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water - it is!

Working Out Towards Recovery

Six months after I 'froze' my sports centre membership when I was too biopsied to work out, today was the day that I felt thawed enough to unfreeze it. Yes, I returned to the gym.

And oh yes, it was good to be back. The familiar smell of foam mats, body odour and attempts to disguise it; the row of TVs with subtitles; the queue for the drinking water; and the motivational tunes: Skepta is going to get me exercising. It was good to get my muscles moving and endorphins flowing, and it was good just to get back to another thing that I used to do before cancer so rudely interrupted my routines.

Returning to the gym after six months' cancer treatment gave me measurements of the deterioration of my physical fitness that I was already aware had taken place. Where I used to pedal at level 7, I could only now only sustain level 3. The stretching machine which would hold my leg at a 100-degree angle could only take it to 80. And even without a way of precisely measuring it, I could feel in my bones that my bendiness was significantly less bendy, and my flexibility was down to about the level of a stick of rock. It's a very good job that the clientele of the gym I go to is very diverse, from the greek gods bench pressing to hone their already perfectly-honed figures to the noticeably out-of-shape doing a bit of light movement to stop themselves seizing up altogether.

Back to Work

Last night, I returned to duty in my proper job, as a London Underground 'Night Tube' station supervisor. These days, the official title is 'Customer Service Supervisor', but I prefer it if you have some idea of what I actually do ie. supervise a station, rather than imagining that I'm some kind of whip-cracker in the complaints department.

The last shift I did was on Halloween weekend, when one of the toughest challenges was distinguishing the passengers who were actually injured and bleeding from those who were simply wearing gory make-up. I have been working on London Underground stations for 20 years, and I would not have stuck at it if I did not enjoy it and value it. But cancer surgery and follow-up treatment were not compatible with the demands of the job, so since the start of November I have been either off sick or carrying out 'light duties' (in my case, planning a new set of hosted visits by autistic people to London Underground). As recently reported, I have not yet fully recovered from said treatment, but I have recovered sufficiently to make a start at returning to work. And working in a job which has - thanks to the past efforts of the union - 100% sick pay, I have been able to decide when to return to work on the basis of my condition not my income.

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