Highs and lows of the C-word

It’s been one month since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and a little over two weeks since I had an operation to remove the tumour and test lymph nodes under my arm for cancerous cells. After an initially groggy and uncomfortable first few days of recovery I’m slowly starting to feel like myself again. Removing the dressings was the most difficult part of the past two weeks, and initially a shock, but as the wounds heal I’m increasingly happy with how they look (nothing like the images I had in mind when the surgeon told me before the operation that I would unfortunately have a “visual deformity”). My only real gripe is that I have a blue-stained nipple due to injection of dye during surgery, which is fading VERY slowly, and has led to some friends giving me the affectionate nickname of Blue Tit!

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One of my teeny tiny scars!

After a two week wait for post-op results I was finally given the good news that my lymph nodes are clear and my consultant is confident the full tumour was removed during surgery. This has been a massive relief, but unfortunately I still don’t know whether I’ll need to go through chemotherapy, since more aggressive treatment is sometimes recommended for younger women, and I have another wait ahead to be referred to oncology to receive my treatment plan. To make sure that any previously undetected cancerous cells are destroyed, and to reduce my risk of this particular cancer coming back, I know I will have a three week course of radiotherapy to look forward to, followed by 5 to 10 years of hormone treatment aka drug-induced early menopause (yay!). I’m also waiting to be tested for the BRCA gene mutation which will give me an idea of whether I have a significantly higher-than-average risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

An unexpected but very serious component of my cancer story so far has involved making the decision to go through a cycle of fertility treatment and embryo freezing to ensure I have some chance of having children, should I want to, once my treatment is over. If I need chemo there’s a strong possibility I could end up completely infertile, and even without chemo I will be older and could struggle to get pregnant naturally by the time hormone therapy is complete. There’s been so much to think about in terms of both fertility and cancer treatment that I’ve had little room in my head for anything else; it’s hard to believe I only discovered the relatively small, but life-altering lump only two months ago. While I’m not looking forward to the self-injections over the next two weeks, or having ovaries the size of satsumas (a very pleasant description from the nurse!), I am incredibly grateful that fertility treatment is offered free of charge via the NHS for young cancer patients.

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The mountain of fertility medication and my very own sharps bin!

Since I’m healing well from the operation and have a few weeks before chemo/radiotherapy starts, I’ve started working again full time in the hope that I can find enough headspace and distractions to concentrate on anything other than the C-word. In my previous post I mentioned that I was having to give up a funding proposal to start a new research project in Peru. I’m very happy to report that my incredible colleagues and collaborators in the UK and Peru decided to crack on with it anyway, and made a herculean effort to pick up where I left off and finish the application while I was out of action. Who knows whether we’ll be successful (I certainly hope so!), but I’ll be forever grateful for that support at a time where I felt heartbroken to have to give up on my research. Only time will tell how many of my normal academic duties will be possible over the next few months, but for now I am massively over resting (dying of boredom) at home.

I have a house that smells of flowers and contains enough chocolate to last until the end of the year, and more support from friends, family and colleagues than I know what to do with. I’ve also made friends via social media and the breast cancer care forum who provide an invaluable support network I had never imagined would come to be so important. I woke up around 4am today with the C-word on my mind, and haven’t been able to shake it for most of the day, but if nothing else, writing this has helped me to remember that it really isn’t all bad, and will be even better when I’m back on the climbing wall in a fortnight!

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Enjoying a shandy two days after surgery, proudly sporting my “Climbers Against Cancer” top

Caroline

18th August 2018

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