Remember all the commotion about armageddon a couple of years ago? Well, the world itself may not have ended in 2012, but my world certainly did.
25th May 2012 is a day that is etched in memory as the day that life as I knew it changed forever. Five days before my 30th birthday I was given the news that I had cancer.
A week before that, I'd had an ultrasound, a mammogram and a core biopsy of a hard lump in my left breast. I knew then and there that it wasn't a mere cyst. As I lay on the hospital couch, nurses and technicians bustling about, talking in hushed whispers and looking at the screens with undeniable concern, I knew. I was shaking uncontrollably. The clock said quarter to five. I was the last patient of the day. I lay there and stared at the clock, as the hands passed through ten to five, and awaited my fate.
"The images look veeeeery suspicious. Occasionally they can look really bad, then we send the biopsy off to be tested and they come back as benign, but we're about 75% sure that it's cancer."
I kept saying "OK" to everything they told me. I was given a huge green folder - the 'cancer pack', which made me think that they were were a lot more than 75% sure.
On the 25th the news was confirmed - I was now a cancer patient and life would never be the same again. A treatment plan had been arranged for me: chemotherapy, followed by surgery, followed by radiotherapy. Why not surgery first? I wanted it gone, I wanted them to cut it out, right the hell now. Due to my age and the nature of the cancer, they wanted to do chemo first to shrink the tumour as much as possible, 1) to make sure the chemo was actually having an effect and 2) to try to preserve as much of my breast as possible - having a mastectomy at any age is a big deal, but for a young girl in her late twenties, even more so. At the time I just wanted it sliced off, but I had to trust that the medical team knew what they were doing and were doing it with my best interests in mind. My life was literally in their hands.
We were due to go on holiday for my birthday, but that had to be cancelled. Instead I had a barrage of scans, CT and MRI, bloodtests. I hadn't really cried. The magnitude of it hadn't hit me. I was too busy trying to ensure everyone else was OK - my boyfriend, my mum, friends, family, colleagues...all got the same matter-of-fact emails from me, in which I reeled off word for word what I'd been told by doctors; desperately trying to find some kind of reassurance in their words, that if I said it enough times, I'd be alright. Everyone marvelled at how well I was dealing with it, when in truth I was probably in denial.
At the time, you deal with it, because you have to. There is no other choice. You fight, you crawl, you bawl and you scrape your way through the excruciating pain of treatment, the waiting, the not knowing if you'll live or die, if any of this brutal assault on your body is going to make a blind bit of difference. You do it, because what else is there?
Chemo was the hardest thing I've ever been through. Physically and mentally it destroys you. After each round I had to self inject with a substance to help stimulate white blood cell production and the pain it caused is unlike anything I've ever felt. Imagine someone drilling the very centre of your bones with red hot metal and you might be somewhere close. Some people sail through chemo, but I was not so lucky. I was so ill and weak that I could barely walk to the bathroom without collapsing. My heart was constantly racing and felt like it might rupture or explode. So many times I thought I was going to die - that the chemo, not the cancer, was going to finish me off.
It's incredible what the body can withstand. Pumped full of poison for four months, my body held on. When I was diagnosed, the tumour was a pretty huge 40mm and I had involved lymph nodes under my arm. The results of my surgery in November 2012 showed I had zero lymph nodes involved and in the sizeable amount of breast tissue they removed, only 1mm of cancer remained. 1mm. I'd had an almost complete response to the chemotherapy, which made all that hideous suffering worth it. I was cancer free.
I went on to have a month of radiotherapy as a precaution. Compared to chemo, radio is a fucking walk in the park.
So that's it, right? I'm fine now, everything's back to normal? Wrong. So very, very wrong. I could write pages and pages about the side effects I still suffer from, the ways in which my body has changed and the psychological impact of experiencing a life threatening illness at such a young age. I've touched on it before in this post if you'd like to read about it, but here, now, today, I want to focus on exactly that: today.
Today I am alive. Today I am two years on from a horrifying and traumatic experience. Today I am a different person than I was then, but also a better person. I still have a long way to go - three and half years in fact - until I can be classed as 'safe'. A whole lot can happen in three and a half years and the worry of recurrence and the cancer spreading is a constant, sometimes overwhelming fear. There are no guarantees. But today, as far as I know, I am healthy. It may not be on the same scale as most people's healthy, but I am well and to the best of my knowledge, still cancer free.
It's a lot to come to terms with. And it's so bittersweet; there is so much I miss about my old life, but also so much I'm grateful for right now, every single day.
Above all else, I'm damn proud of myself. Fuck cancer.
All images used are taken by and are the property of Tiny Grey Cat, unless otherwise credited. The use of any image from this blog without express permission is strictly prohibited.