Milestones, muscles and more treatment

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Cheesy grins after having finished my final radiotherapy session!

Today I completed my 18th and final session of radiotherapy, a little over four months since discovering my tumour, and three months since receiving my diagnosis. I am so happy that this stage of my treatment is finally over. Another milestone reached and no more daily visits to hospital – yay! Since August I’ve had a lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy (breast conserving surgery and lymph nodes removed to check for cancer spread), IVF treatment to preserve fertility (traumatic enough cancer aside!), and four weeks of daily radiotherapy, resulting in at least 35 trips back and forward to hospital. Although I didn’t need chemotherapy, these past few months have really taken their toll both physically and mentally, and there have been days where I didn’t even have the energy to eat. While I realise that I have been lucky to escape chemotherapy, I’ve been really down about being made to feel by some that my cancer experience has somehow been relatively “easy”. These feelings recently culminated in breaking down while talking to a Macmillan support nurse because I felt I wasn’t being strong enough given my “easy ride”; something I’m now starting to realise is a load of rubbish. Radiotherapy has left me with fatigue to a degree I’ve never experienced before, a nasty, ugly skin reaction, and sometimes severe pains in my chest and arm that keep me awake at night. If you’re reading this as someone currently going through treatment, please don’t beat yourself up if you find radiotherapy difficult; I’m usually a sporty type and was out of breath with chest pains while walking along a flat track last weekend! This whole process has been a revelation for me in quite how individualised treatment plans are in order to meet the needs and tolerances of different patients, which extends into mental health as well as physical.

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Radiotherapy rash (unhappy boob)

Having now completed these key stages in my treatment, I’d love to say that it’s over and I can move on… In reality I’ve been told to expect the skin reaction and fatigue from radiotherapy to continue and perhaps even get worse for at least a couple of weeks, and I’m also facing at least ten years of endocrine therapy (hormone treatment) which began two weeks ago with the injection of an implant called Zoladex under the skin of my tummy. This drug will essentially shut down my ovaries and put me into an early, and hopefully temporary menopause, and I’ll have these injections every four weeks for as long as I need hormone treatment. I’ll also be taking daily medication in the form of aromatase inhibitors to further reduce oestrogen production in my body, starving any remaining cancer cells of food for growth, with the aim of preventing a recurrence either in the same breast or in another part of my body. Finally, as this lack of oestrogen might cause a reduction in my bone density, I’ll be having drip infusions of zoledronic acid every six months for the next three years to try to minimise this impact. Those of you who know me will understand why I’m finding the thought of this particular side effect quite stressful; I desperately don’t want my treatment to impact my ability to enjoy sport, not to mention my quality of life in general. The hormone treatment will also likely result in other side effects which I won’t list here, but might report back on after some time has passed.

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Recent micro-adventures in the Peak District and Dartmoor

All that said, it’s not all doom and gloom! While greatly reduced in number and intensity, I have managed to enjoy some climbing sessions both indoors and outdoors during my treatment, including exploring some fantastic new places like Rubicon in the Peak District and Honeybag Tor on Dartmoor. Physical activity is something I still frequently crave, even if I’m often too tired to do the things I’d like to, or at the standard I’m used to doing them. The same can’t really be said for intellectual activities unfortunately, as I’m finding that fatigue, anxiety and pain have left me unable to concentrate on tasks that involve any real thought. The plans I had initially to keep working on my research and manuscript drafts while off work have gone solidly out the window in favour of daily afternoon naps. Despite not being able to perform at even a fraction of my best, staying active really is keeping me sane, and I’d encourage anyone undergoing cancer treatment to do whatever you can to stay happy and healthy, whether that’s a 5k run or sitting in the park. I make sure to get fresh air in one form or another every day, escape the urban environment when I can, and keep plugging away at some easy climbing in the hope that my muscles won’t wither away too much while I’m watching every drama series Netflix has to offer. I enjoy seeing how much stronger my friends have become when I visit the climbing wall, but will admit to sometimes feeling left behind and like a bit of a weakling. Hopefully I’ll catch up with them again soon!… I’ve also found more time to enjoy a good book, catch up with friends over a cuppa, make new friends and get involved in a new community, and I’ve even started knitting!

As for the near future, I can now finally look forward to escaping the shackles of frequent hospital visits! To make up for the recent lack of adventure in my life, and the summer holidays that weren’t to be, I’ll be heading north with my lovely partner Nick to enjoy the Kendal Mountain Festival and (fingers crossed) some Lake District rock in a couple of weeks. After this much needed break I’ll begin easing myself back into work and my “new normal”, whatever that might look like. Hopefully a better work-life balance as a starting point, and with a bit of luck no more sodding hospital visits!

 

Caroline Clason

23rd October 2018

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