I found out on Monday July 9th that I was going to start my chemotherapy on Friday July 13th. I felt like I had been waiting such a long time to get started and now the time was finally here. I had made plans for my mum and sister to come up on the Saturday to help me pick my wig and was looking forward to a final girls day/night and now I was thinking – will I be feeling ok? Will I able to wash my hair? I knew I couldn’t blow dry it (see cold cap blog) so that was going to be some sight!
Suddenly, after my long wait it felt so real and I felt so unprepared. I went down home to Tipp to get my hair done one last time. On my drive back up to Dublin I had so many thoughts going through my mind and all of a sudden it all seemed so real! Because I had no symptoms before I found my lump and felt healthy and well up to this point it was hard to think of what I was about to put my body through and the nerves started kicking in.
Two days before I started I went into St Vincents for an education session where I was told all about my treatment and possible side effects. I got a prescription for a nice long list of drugs to start me off but I felt better after the session. I had to trust I was in the care of professionals who knew what they were doing and would be there to help me along my journey.
The day before chemo
I was glad to have a coaching session and college work to keep me busy and distracted the day before I started. It dawned on me as I got ready that morning that this was the last time I would be able to blow dry my hair for a few months – I could no longer use any heat/styling appliances on my hair when using the cold cap in an attempt to keep my hair. This might not matter to a lot of people but this is a girl who packed a professional sized hairdryer in her backpack when traveling around Thailand and Australia – this was going to be a challenge for me!
I did my tan the night before my first session (just so it would be done in case they told me I couldn’t put it on after, a girl has to have her priorities right!)
Adrian and myself met with the Oncologist on the morning of June 21st. I first met a doctor who went through my medical history and that of my family. I was thinking – just tell me the results! The test assigns a number between 0 -100. A Recurrence score greater than or equal to 31 is considered high and would result in chemotherapy. My results showed a score of 43 and I would need 6 rounds of Taxotere Cyclo (TC) chemotherapy over an 18 week period (1 every 3 weeks). I would definitely loose my hair but I had the option of the cold cap (see post on Cold Cap dilemma) depending on where I was to receive my treatment. So I finally knew.
I had made an appointment to look at wigs for later that morning (just in case). I have some very embarrassing photos which I might share on a separate blog about my wig search. We had another very important event in our house that afternoon, our oldest son Alec had his graduation and was playing a very important role in his crèche play. He was playing the Chocolate Cake in a performance of “The greedy little caterpillar”. A very proud moment! Then it was home and off to college.
It would be another 3 week wait before I got my start date – Friday 13th (what a great date to start! Lucky for some?!)
I was surprised at how well I slept the night of the surgery considering I could only lie on one side (I presume it was the anesthetic still in my system). I am so blessed to live where I do so the day after the surgery mum and myself went for a lovely walk on Killiney beach, relaxed in the sun and had a Teddies Ice-cream – a lovely way to start my recovery.
My boys were very good looking after me, they knew they couldn’t give me a “squeezy hug” on my right side and became a little obsessed with my “ouchy” (my scar) wanting to show everyone they met (a bit embarrassing!). My recovery was fine, more a little uncomfortable at times than in pain so very bearable. I was due back in for my post surgery results on May 21st.
I was anxious to know what my treatment plan was and whether I would need chemotherapy or not. The news I got on the 21st was mixed, the good news was the cancer hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes so it was Stage 1. The not so good news was it was a “nasty” Grade 3 aggressive tumor and for this reason, I may still need chemotherapy even though it had not spread. A test called the Oncotype test would determine this. This is a test which analyses the activity of 21 genes from a breast cancer tissue that can affect how a cancer is likely to behave and respond to treatment.
The results assign a score of low, medium or high to the chance of the cancer reoccurring. This test is done in the US so I would have to wait up to 3 weeks for the results. While this wasn’t exactly bad news it was very deflating to leave still wondering what my treatment plan was and not knowing whether it would involve chemotherapy.
In the end it would be four and a half weeks later on June 21st before I would find out the results. I found the waiting tough – the loss of control, not being able to plan anything, the not knowing. During this time I signed up with Purple House in Bray (a local cancer support centre). Visit www.cancer.ie for a list of local cancer support services nationwide. These centers can offer advice, support, counseling and complementary therapies.
My surgery was scheduled for May 11th. I checked in to the hospital at 7.30am. I was having a Lumpectomy which would remove the lump and some normal tissue around it and a sentinel lymph node biopsy to see if the cancer had spread. A radioactive material was injected into my breast so pictures could be taken in the X-ray department to help the surgeon identify the sentinel node. If the cancer had spread, the lymph nodes, (in particular the sentinel node) would be the first place it would spread to.
The sentinel node and two other nodes were removed as part of the surgery. I have been lucky enough that besides the birth of my two boys (which were straightforward natural births) I had never been in hospital so I had never had a general anesthetic. Thankfully all went well!
A few little tips to help save any other newbies from repeating my embarrassing moments:
1: When the nurse is coming around to check you before surgery don’t strip off if your bed is beside a window facing into another ward!
2: Don’t ask the nurse if you need to wear the “hairnet” they give you – it’s actually disposable underwear!
3: Once you realise it’s disposable underwear – put it on! Otherwise, you will return from surgery to find your underwear has been removed and placed in a bag for you while you were unconscious on the operating table!
This lovely surprise was delivered to the hospital for me from my fab work colleagues. They know me so well – Prosecco, dark chocolate & Tan (Organic!), some of my favorite things! #theperfectgift
Adrian and my mum came with me to get my results. I knew once I saw the consultants face that the news wasn’t going to be good. The results of the biopsy showed I had “Invasive ductal carcinoma” which is the most common type of breast cancer. My cancer was hormone receptor positive which means hormones such as oestrogen or progesterone were encouraging the cancer to grow (in my case it was the oestrogen).
My treatment plan was to include radiotherapy and hormone tablets for 5 years (to block the oestrogen). At this stage, there was still a chance I would not need chemotherapy. I first needed to wait for the results of another test to determine if my breast cancer was HER2 positive or negative. If the results were positive (meaning the breast cancer cells have large numbers or HER2 protein on their surfaces helping the cancer to grow) I would need chemotherapy before my surgery. If the results were negative I would be scheduled for surgery in 2 weeks time. I was scheduled for a follow-up appointment in a week for the results.
So, I still had a bit more waiting to do. I left the room with my mum and Adrian, still trying to process the information and how I felt about it. I had been dealt a blow and told I had Breast cancer but I was ok. My diagnosis was good – it was one of the most common forms of breast cancer with a 97% survival rate. It looked like I caught it early and the location of the lump meant my post-surgery scars shouldn’t be very noticeable. Before getting the results I had said I’d be happy once I was told it was treatable – and I was happy. To me this was a good diagnosis – did I want to hear I had cancer? NO! But I knew I could beat this and that’s all I needed to know.
I broke the news to my family. One of my brothers lives in Dublin, about 5 minutes drive from St Vincents so God love him – I rang him, broke the news to him and we arrived on his doorstep 5 minutes later!! To say he was a bit shell shocked is an understatement! We all went for lunch and I treated myself to a glass of Prosecco* (*correction – Adrian read this and reminded me I actually treated myself to TWO glasses of Prosecco, but I deserved them so who’s counting!). I asked mum and Adrian later “Is it wrong to say I actually had a nice day?”! But that’s how I felt. I genuinely didn’t feel upset about the news, I don’t know why. I asked myself if I was in shock or denial but I wasn’t. I knew it was treatable, it was going to be a tough year but so many people are faced with much worse.
I was due to fly to London for three nights on Monday with work. I had decided before my diagnosis that I still wanted to go. My team and I had worked really hard over the previous few months developing this program and I wanted to be there. We had so many exciting things planned in the Leadership Development space for this year, I was so disappointed I wasn’t going to be there to see them through so I wanted to be there for this while I could, what was the point in sitting at home waiting?
While over there I got a call from the hospital, the results of the HER2 test were back and they were negative (good news) so I would have surgery in just over a week. So things were still looking good for no chemo (of course I still had to wait and see if the cancer had spread). I’m so glad I went to London, the programme went really well and it was a lovely way to finish up. I shared my story with the group before leaving and the support and well wishes I received gave me such a boost facing into the surgery.
My cancer journey began in March 2018 when I randomly found a lump in my right breast while in the shower (Hands up – I have to admit I wasn’t examining myself but ladies please do, I was so lucky I found mine so early – If I had the big boobs I always wanted I might not have found it so easily!). But big boobs or small boobs please check yourselves!
I was a busy full time working mum, I kept planning to make an appointment with my doctor but work and life in general just got in the way and I didn’t prioritise it. It was coming up to our 1 year wedding anniversary and Adrian and I had a well-deserved weekend away planned and I didn’t want anything to put a dampener on it (as if ignoring it was going to make it go away). In the end, about 3 weeks after finding the lump, it had become more prominent and I knew I couldn’t ignore it any longer so while at the doctors with my son I mentioned it. My doctor examined me and referred me to St. Vincents hospital for a mammogram. I got my appointment about 2 weeks later for April 19th.
At the appointment, they did a mammogram and ultrasound and decided I needed a biopsy which was done straight away. The one thing that played on my mind from that appointment was the consultants comment after examining me “we obviously don’t know anything until we get the results but I am concerned about it” That set off alarm bells – she was an expert – if she was concerned that couldn’t be good.
I remember walking outside, it was a lovely sunny day so I sat in the sun for a little and listened to The Red Hot Chilli Peppers – “Otherside” (it’s a song that transports me back to driving around Australian beaches with one of my best friends – the windows down, music blaring and sun in our faces). I thought about what could happen and had a little cry. That was the one and only time I cried over the cancer (so far!). I headed to college that evening which was a good distraction and then it was just a matter of waiting for the results which were due one week later on April 27th. I spent the next week torn between thinking positively to get the outcome I wanted and preparing myself in case the outcome wasn’t what I hoped for.