In 2007 I was forging ahead – not having a clue why, with all the “extra curricula” activities I had taken up and felt driven to do; even though on some days I felt as if I could go back to bed by early afternoon – I was so tired. Of course, I felt some benefit from all this exercise, especially the walks I would take up on Bryngwyn Hill either with my husband or the dog – who was a black lab rescue dog with the most unfortunate name of ‘Butch’; a name I could never have saddled any dog with – however many masculine traits he displayed – but that was what he knew and as he now had a different family and a different home I felt it was too much to try to change his name as well. So, despite my embarrassment when I had to call him back – ‘Butch’ – he remained. Many people will tell you that animals have a very well developed sense of negative emotions where their owners are concerned. On some days, when I felt very depressed and the sense of being lost was overwhelming, he would seem to know and lay down beside me. When the children were at school and my husband was away working, Butch really was a great comfort to me. If you are a pet-owner you will know that they give you so much back and in stressful or difficult times their close presence lowers your heart rate and relaxes muscles. He would also do things which were funny and made me laugh. These are real, physical benefits as stress hormone levels will also reduce – and this is a help in staving off any disease. So, if you are an animal lover, I don’t need to tell you what you already know – but I’ll say it anyway – your pet is good for you.
This feeling of darkness, or depressed state, was not continual but it was a recurring and persistent thing which grew worse as time went on. Night-time became particularly bad; perhaps due to tiredness at the end of the day but I remember the look on my husband’s face sometimes as we lay in bed when I would try to explain how I felt. I would say to him that I felt ‘under threat’ – it wasn’t anything specific that I could point to but that was the only way I knew to even get close to describing how I was feeling. I felt threatened! He, or course, felt completely useless and didn’t know how to resolve this. I had been to see my doctor and tried to explain and get some perspective. My exact words were: “I’m aware of something”. I knew it might not be a good thing but I had no firm idea of what that awareness meant. I can only imagine what my poor doctor thought….and he is a very good doctor but really had very little to go on. I couldn’t be specific – there was no real pain and all my symptoms were common in women my age and were often put down to pre-menopausal activity in the body. It’s also worth noting that another doctor I saw at this time told me that women my age are known to be in ‘the sandwich’ stage of life. That is, we have school-age children or teenagers to look after – a job or career and often, we have the added responsibility of ageing parents which means we have to find the energy and time to fulfil that particular commitment. This can mean very stressful times……
In November 2006, my mother had been admitted to hospital in very distressing circumstances. I live a good two hours and more away from her home town in the Midlands and I had had a phone call from my sister, who was in floods of tears, at around 4pm. My mother was in intensive care and it didn’t look good. I cancelled my pupils for that afternoon and my husband and daughters travelled to the hospital with me where my mother was lying unconscious. It was uncertain as to whether or not she would regain consciousness at all, at first but thankfully, the worst outcome was not to be. The point of this is that women of middle age are particularly at risk of NOT looking after themselves; other pressures and responsibilities that cannot be put off will often take precedence and the niggling little voice which is your body telling you that something may not be as it should, can be lost in the business of life.
I feel a great sense of relief when I think of how my instincts took over when I was threatened by cancer and didn’t even know it in any conscious way. Instincts are there to protect and keep us safe and well – we ignore them at our peril.
It was in America in July 2008 that I eventually realised what could be the exact nature of this threat that had over-shadowed my life for so long. We were having a family holiday in New Jersey – staying with a musician friend from the band my husband was with at that time. I had been tearful and unsettled for months beforehand but it had become particularly bad and was straining my relationships with the people I loved most. I remember having to leave a supermarket because I was about to burst into tears and I didn’t know why! I was picking fault and seeing sleights that were not really there. The threat had become oppressive and had made me paranoid; I was jumping at shadows.
Later, I was in the shower and in the course of my usual ablutions, felt the thickened area which had been a part of my right breast for years and was, according to my medical records from nine years earlier, “scar tissue” from two biopsies I had had when pre-cancerous cells had been discovered at that time. But now it was different. I could feel it more prominently – not a great difference – but a difference nonetheless. It had been there for some years and I had grown used to it being slightly different at different times of the month and put this down to the normal hormonal activity of my menstrual cycle – but there was no set pattern that rang any alarm bells. I stood under the water feeling it from all angles and suddenly, the tears began to fall. Realisation hit me like a ton of bricks – this could be very serious and I was miles from home and any means of having my fears confirmed or my mind put at rest, were days away until we went back home to the UK. It would seem like a lifetime.
That evening, I asked my husband, Phil, to have a meal with me – without the girls. I told him that I had a real sense of foreboding about the thickening in my breast and that I believed that this was the reason for my feeling threatened for so long. This was what it was all about. I struggled, unsuccessfully, to fight back the sting of tears. Phil’s concern was palpable but he did what any good partner would do in the same shoes – he tried to assuage my fears and asked me to wait and see what the situation was when we got home two days later – when a doctor could take a look and run the necessary tests. I appreciated his words but my fears had been awakened in a more conscious way than before – it was no longer just a sense of fear, that dark awareness that I’d had for some time. What else could I do – but wait and try to enjoy what was left of our holiday in America. I have to say that it was an uphill struggle and the worry was never far from my mind. Our daughters were blissfully ignorant of any concerns we had and that was just fine by me.
Somewhere over the Atlantic ocean, on our way back home, a strange thing happened – I began to talk myself into thinking that it was nothing to worry about, these lumps usually turned out to be cysts or non-malignant lumps of tissue that wielded no real threat at all. I have no way of knowing whether this was positive thinking or just that I was ‘in denial’. Whatever it was, I still booked an emergency appointment to see a doctor at the surgery the very next morning – my usual doctor was on holiday. As I undressed for the examination I was still in a kind of protective bubble. I had given myself many reasons why I shouldn’t have cancer;
I looked after myself pretty well – (or so I thought)
My diet was good – most of the time (or so I thought),
I exercised regularly – especially since taking up my new activities in the last couple of years
Cancer was not prevalent in my family history – or was it?
My maternal Grandmother’s sister had had breast cancer and a subsequent mastectomy but I was told that this was not of particular concern – at least, that was the opinion when I had the all-clear from my second core needle biopsy in the Summer of 1999. The first, in December 1998, had shown that some of the breast tissue cells were pre-cancerous. Not an uncommon occurrence and apparently, it can be misleading, which is why you have a second core needle biopsy a few months later – to see if the pre-cancerous cells have been dealt with by your immune system, or whether they have developed into something more sinister.
There is something else which I only discovered later in the course of my research during the year I spent studying Bio-Medicine. It’s a process is called *apoptosis which occurs when a cell (cancerous or otherwise) follows the programming in it’s DNA and commits, what can only be described as, cell suicide. Normal cells do this as a matter of course, naturally; in fact, every cell in your body is remade after a certain length of time depending on what function it performs in the body. Skin cells take 2-4 weeks to completely renew depending on where they are in the body and red blood cells die after 100 – 120 days. Cancer cells NEVER DIE – unless something changes at the cellular level. I now believe that it could have been the trauma to my breast tissue of the core biopsies that helped the cancer take hold – simply because breast tissue is so sensitive and first year medical students are told that breast tissue must be treated with care and gentleness. To my mind, sticking long, thick needles into it and then wielding it a full 45 degrees now seems unthinkable – but at the time…..I allowed it to happen because I was ignorant of the facts – scarring breast tissue is obviously not a good thing. I have since declined to have another core needle biopsy – even when, in September 2014 I had concerns about my other breast – which is a more common occurrence with lobular cancer. This turned out to be a cyst but it was a traumatic time as when anything happens after you have had cancer, the spectre is always there, lurking. I now believe that this is part and parcel of pre menopausal activity and I also had an ovarian cyst. At 54, I was a late-comer to pre-menopause with the average in the UK being 51. This, I have learned, can also have an impact on how susceptible you are to cancer – as can beginning menstruation at an early age – although I was 13 and a half – not nearly as young as girls today.
Meanwhile, behind the curtain at the surgery, with much trepidation, I was ready to be examined; something I never minded or felt embarrassed about….as I’ve said. there are worse things and people die because of embarrassment and inaction when there are clear signs that something needs to change. The doctor carefully examined both my breasts, paying particular attention to the slightly thickened area in my right one. After some time, he said: “I don’t think it’s anything to worry about but we’ll get you checked out anyway.” Still in my protective bubble (denial), these were words I had been longing to hear. It would be another seven weeks before the full and devastating truth would emerge.