Surgery, radiation therapy, miscarriage, depression, pregnancy, endocrine therapy, post-natal psychosis, hysterectomy, menopause, carpal tunnel, osteopenia and several terrifying suspect lumps. The Fear.
The ‘magic’ number. That day seems at once both a distant memory and an ever-present trauma. Being diagnosed with cancer doesn’t diminish after five years, I still flinch at those memories, but it does feel further away with each passing year. So, what does five years mean, and is it something to celebrate?
For the medical profession, it means they can scale down their monitoring of your progress, decrease your contact time with consultants to every other year, discharge you from the breast clinic and remind you to be ever vigilant. They discharged me on my birthday in November, when I found another lump and the only appointment they could give me was on that day. Nervous doesn’t describe it. I was so ecstatic to find the lump was benign, probably scar tissue around a dislodged marker clip they use to highlight the original tumour bed, that I didn’t consider the implications of not being able to call my breast care nurse and wail down the phone at her anymore. I was very happy. It felt like a significant milestone to reach, and it is. Because cancer patients are told it is, and this is because the medical profession need a marker, and with costs to cut and targets to reach, the NHS needs a milestone.
I pretty much ignored the report later in November from Oxford University and Cancer Research UK which found that there is no reduction in the risk of a recurrence for twenty years after diagnosis. I saw it, but I didn’t want to see it. I was busy, because working and doing a masters part time while looking after children and maintaining a household takes a fair amount of your waking worry time. And having just been discharged I didn’t want to think about it, but it’s been lurking about in the back of my mind, though, so I’ve finally looked it up and digested what the meta-analysis of eighty eight clinical trials means.
There is no reduction in the risk of recurrence at five years. None. It is the same at twenty years as it is at five years.
The grade and size of the tumour, along with the number of lymph nodes involved, increases the risk of a recurrence, but that risk is not diminished by years. It is exactly the same.
So I’m not celebrating five years as a huge milestone, but I am counting my blessings I’m here to have dinner with my mother and my children, and finally watch the new Star Wars film with Holly. We go to see a movie on our own every year the week before Christmas, this is our tradition and we’ve been doing it since she was two years old. I am so grateful to be doing it again this year, and I will feel thankful every year that I get to do this. Hopefully till I’m in my nineties and she’s in her seventies and we can be batty old ladies at the cinema together, drinking Rose and adjusting our whistling hearing aids in our cheap OAP seats.
We often don’t consider how fragile our existence is until it’s too late. Maybe the thing cancer gave me was an appreciation of life I didn’t always have before. I am certainly calmer, more self-aware, less intolerant, and make more time to stop and see the beauty in the world instead of rushing around trying to achieve everything in a flurry of stress and pressure and missing life as it passes me by. This didn’t happen overnight. It was more than four years before I reached a place where cancer no longer defined me, where I was happy to look at my body in the mirror, and where I felt at peace with accepting that cancer happened – and could happen again any day.
I’m looking forward to re-launching Feel Yourself Campaign in the new year, with a brand spanking new website and animation by local boys, Phil Shenton of Fidgety Pixels and Simon Jacks. I don’t know if Feel Yourself will be doing festivals and events again, I need to consider that for the future. It might not be something I can stretch myself to because I’m going hell for leather for that masters, a PhD, and a career in writing. I’d also like to look into the possibility of doing talks at colleges and universities, and use that teacher training for spreading the word on awareness. But while I work it out, FYC will have an online presence with the new website and a bloody brilliant new animation. Watch this space.
I want to say a huge thank you to Lisa-Marie, who ran the original website in her spare time for me when I started the charity, created a WordPress site, and then realised I didn’t have a Scooby what I was doing. She came and rescued me and ran it all in her spare time, but since then she’s done a social work degree (and got a first, boom) and is working her arse off in a thankless profession. Everyone who has supported the charity, from running events, to trustees and members, to raising money through sponsorship, the radio show, to local business support, have at times made me cry with gratitude. People have bent over backwards to be there for me, to support Feel Yourself Campaign and to get the word out there to men and women on the importance of self-awareness. Whatever form the campaign segues into now, they are the backbone, and have been responsible for more than one person feeling themselves and going to get checked out at the doctor’s.
One of the main reasons I’m not celebrating today is because of all the others who didn’t get to see five years, those recently receiving this devastating news and those doing their best to live with metastatic cancers. Can you imagine what it takes to get up each day and keep going knowing that you are dying and that any day the news could get worse? And for the family and friends supporting people dealing with this disease, the pain of watching a loved one suffer is immeasurable. I’ve seen people diagnosed since me not make it, and I’ve made friends through social media who have travelled this journey alongside me, and been there when I’ve wobbled and picked me back up when I’ve fallen. I’m also lucky that I have amazing family and friends around me who have lifted me up and carried me when I just wasn’t able to do it myself, through the depression and the fear and the crushing awakening that cancer brings.
I’m not celebrating today, but I am so, so grateful to be here to hug my children, see the mothership, chat shit to my friends, read another book, clean my house, take my cats to the vets, and clutch my oldest child’s arm with excitement at the beginning of Episode VIII. It’s not an important milestone in terms of cancer, it doesn’t mean I’m home and dry, it doesn’t mean it’s never coming back. But for now, I’m still standing. So to cancer – and to my husband – who have both threatened to kill me in the last five years, here’s a little something that always puts a smile on face…