To start, a summary of the story so far. Late July – early stage breast cancer (DCIS) diagnosis received. August – double mastectomy and the start of reconstruction. September – reconstruction continues with weekly injections of saline into the implants. Pathology results reveal good and bad news: good is there’s no cancer in my lymph nodes which means it has not spread (in fact this is spectacular news), bad is that cancer was 95mm long, fast-growing and just 0.02mm from the chest wall (an ‘extremely close margin’). October – consultation with numerous specialists to discuss if radiotherapy, which reduces the risk cancer will recur in by about two-thirds, should proceed. While it is not normally recommended for post-mastectomy DCIS patients, if they are young (!!) and had a cancer that was long, fast-growing and with close margins, it can be considered worthwhile as these are markers of more a resilient disease. November – decision to go ahead with radiotherapy to the entire left chest. Necessitates deflation of right falsie to about half its size, as inflated it was getting in the way of the radiowaves reaching the treatment area which covers about 6″ square extending from the centre breastbone to the left armpit and down to the lower bra line. Skin gradually reddens over the course of treatment and ends up looking like There’s Something About Mary‘s flatmate.
On Tuesday 10 December, the radiotherapy I’d attended each week day for five weeks finally ended. I took about 35 selfies, finally uploading this one to Facebook with the message ‘it’s over’.
But as the ‘likes’ poured in and the declarations of ‘great news!’ mounted, I sorely regretted saying it’s over because it isn’t! I have many, many rivers to cross. While it’s a huge milestone to have finished radiotherapy – I have officially done all that is medically possible to rid myself of cancer and am genuinely pleased that I don’t have to undergo treatment every day anymore – the celebratory Verve and vol-au-vents tasted bittersweet to me.
My mind has turned to the numerous appointments with my plastic surgeon that lay ahead. Once my skin has recovered, there’ll be another surgery to exchange the saline bags with the ‘real’ fake boobs. Down the track, the irradiated tissue is likely to seize up around the implant and require yet more surgery. Also, I’ll have follow up consults with the cancer surgeon every six months.
If the practical hoo-haa was all there was to it, that’d be fine. But it’s bleaker than that and emotionally right now, I’m a dog’s breakfast. With radiotherapy requiring daily to-ing and fro-ing, I haven’t had room in my head for cancer anxiety, but it’s creeping back. What if I’ve gone through all that and it’s not enough? What if it comes back? My body’s proven it can betray me. Can I trust it again?
Experiencing this against the backdrop of euphoria is a nightmare. It’s the old expectation versus reality thing, and it’s not the first time either – once back from hospital after my operation I was on the receiving end of a flurry of congratulations I. Just. Did. Not. Want. I remember, too, being surrounded by celebratory flowers whilst nursing Amy and feeling guilty that I wasn’t on cloud nine. I was in post-partum pain, blindsided and overwhelmed by the new responsibility just at the point people were ready to leave me to it.
I have that same feeling now. Those around me are desperate for closure. “How are you feeling?!” they ask, as if they’re an interviewer shoving the mike in the face of a winning sportsperson at the end of an epic match. “Oh, very relieved!” I say, not wanting to see the smile on their face dissipate.
Still, asking me how I feel is far, far preferable to telling me. Many have declared “You must feel delighted/relieved/like celebrating/so happy!” It’s delivered in such a well-meaning, positive way, I just don’t have the heart to be honest. “Yes, I do. And tired!” I say, hoping that explains the lack of enthusiasm in my response, plus I am tired, to the bone. Inside is a hatful of hollow. Later on in the day of unwanted congratulation, I’m relieved to receive an email from a friend, who unwittingly articulates everything I’m feeling (how ironic!):
My writing isn’t sufficient nor is it appropriate I think for me to say things like “you must be so [insert descriptive word]” but it isn’t my business how you ‘must be feeling’. I won’t ever tell you how to feel, or what to do, or what to think cos it’s none of my business and if ever anyone ever dare do that to me, I would frown and tell them to fuck right off.
I was so grateful to read this. In his book C: Because cowards get cancer too the late John Diamond talks about friends who never come to terms with his illness and how he senses their impatience for him to recover so things can get back to normal. In the meantime, his reality is a thorn in their side.
I know there is true love behind the relief people feel on my behalf, but what use is this relief if I don’t feel it?
PS: Please don’t panic if you’ve offered your congratulations, or suspect we had a “You must…” interaction. I am a work-in-progress (aka big fat hypocrite) on this front, having only yesterday told my divorced friend that she ‘must’ be looking forward to Christmas with her son. She responded “No. He’s with his dad. I’ll be on my own on Christmas day.” Right then…