Thursday, 12 March 2020

It's been a year...

This time last year I had my first routine mammogram. We are very fortunate here in the UK to have a breast screening program that kicks in for us women after we've turned 50 years old; a mammogram once every 5 years until we are 70.

So when I have received my letter just the other day with my appointment for my next mammogram in just a few weeks it brought back all of the emotions from the last year. I knew I would be getting a letter; in fact it had been praying on my mind; I didn't know when I'd get the letter or when the appointment would fall but I knew that the thought had been niggling at the back of my brain.

Last year, on Valentine's day to be precise, I went for my first ever mammogram appointment very much with the attitude of 'it's just routine, a minor inconvenience' and almost with a preconceived idea that everything would be absolutely fine. After all my boobs felt okay; I'd not had any cause for worry, no unusual lumps or bumps, no pains or discolouration. In fact I quite liked my boobs; decent size and shape and despite being 51 years old and having breast fed two children they weren't looking too bad and were holding up pretty well.

By sheer coincidence one of my work colleagues also had her first mammogram the day after I had mine. When she asked me a couple of weeks later if I'd had a letter, as she'd had hers saying that everything was fine and to come back in 5 years, I had the first thought that something might be amiss as I'd not had anything. Surely my letter should have arrived by now?...after all I'd had my mammogram brain tried to tell me that I was being paranoid and to stop worrying; it was probably just one of those things.

But then the letter arrived on the Friday asking me to go to the Breast Unit at my local hospital for a second mammogram the following Tuesday morning...but even the letter said 'hey, don't worry, this happens sometimes'. Again the pragmatic side of my brain tried to convince me that this was just a glitch and that a few minutes for a second mammogram would show that everything was fine!

Well suffice to say that second mammogram was not just a few minutes, by the time I left the hospital that Tuesday lunchtime I'd had a mammogram, an ultra sound and a biopsy for some white things that had shown up. A week later I was back at the breast unit being told I had Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS); thankfully the earliest stage of breast cancer and a form that is classified as non-invasive but that still needs to be treated.

With DCIS the cells in the milk ducts have become abnormal and have changed to cancer cells but have not spread anywhere. The concern is that these cells could spread at some point in the future and they could spread slowly or quickly; a series of unknown events. So with my diagnosis I was offered a choice - either be treated or undergo a further test to see if I would be suitable for a study where women have no treatment and are just observed for the next 5 years to see if the cancer develops further or not.

I took the option of treatment, I simply didn't want to run the risk of this turning into something bigger that would mean more invasive treatment than what I was already being offered. So only a few weeks later I was back in hospital to have a lumpectomy followed, a few weeks later, by a course of 3 weeks of radiotherapy. See my previous post for more details of my diagnosis and treatment - Last Day

So that brings us to now and me feeling the need to write this post. The last 12 months since receiving my diagnosis has been a bit of a whirlwind, not only because of this but other life and work events that have all added up to it being a bit of a full on year. Suffice to say I perhaps haven't coped as well as I thought I had and the letter arriving in my post box has kind of rekindled a lot of feelings that either I had quashed or simply not had the chance, or time, to fully engage with.

I think it's been easy for me to dismiss the cancer as a blip, after all it was caught early and was was almost easier to dismiss it as 'not a proper cancer'...and as a consequence I perhaps haven't allowed myself the good grace of acknowledging just what I have gone through and the knock-on effects.

I am very much a 'get-on with it' kind of person...I try not to let things that I have no control over 'get to me'; to only deal with things as and when they need me to deal with them - there's no point worrying about something that may or may not happen until it actually does happen. You can waste an awful lot of energy worrying over 'if's, but's and maybe's' and I'd rather target my energy into things I can actually do something about.

But this cancer malarkey is a 'big deal', bigger than I think I have admitted, and it has bothered me and affected me, perhaps even more than I realised. My left boob is not the same as it once was; now don't get me wrong having a little bit cut out is preferable to having my boob removed completely but it still feels different and that has had an impact on me, and perhaps more than I thought it ever would or have truly acknowledged.

From a visual standpoint everything looks great, I was fortunate that the incision and removal was towards the lower/under part of my boob and so the scar is not overtly visible. It has not stopped me wearing all my usual clothes and although I can tell that my left boob is smaller than my right no-one else would know. But it still doesn't feel like it once did.

I struggle with the fact that a year on I am still 'aware' of my left boob. The area around the incision is still numb in parts and I still get niggles and pains. I am aware of the weight in my boob when I move that I don't get in my other side. I am aware that it can feel sore or tender when getting squished. I feel surprisingly self-conscious about it. I am aware of when I've done more than I should have physically and I've been cautious about exercising and returning to the gym.

And I think it is all of this that has surprised me; the affects that are staying with me almost a year after my operation. And because it feels like it's still with me a year after it all happened means that it is always there somewhere in my brain and that annoys me. So getting my next mammogram appointment gives me a sense of foreboding; of going into the unknown once again. Will it be clear? What if they find it again? What if something else shows up? Then what?

I really don't want this post to sound all 'woe is me'. I'm simply trying to take stock of the situation and put my big girl pants on and admit that is has affected me, more than I could have expected, more than I realised and it will continue to affect me but that's okay, that's to be expected and it's okay to admit all of that.

I will deal with whatever comes my way, knowing that I have people I can rely on and talk to and that will help me find my way through. I will refocus my energies into making sure I live my best life and grab whatever opportunities come my way. Getting cancer, any kind of cancer, sucks big time and it's good to admit that, it's good to have a cry, to shout, to moan, to throw a tantrum in fact it's good to do whatever you need to do to get through it. It's my body that this is affecting and I will deal with it however I want to deal with it and I will take back the power and try to not let it control me and let me fight to be me.

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