But what if?....living with breast cancer
It's almost 10 years since I took up the post of Director for Scotland of Breakthrough Breast Cancer ( it's since merged to become Breast Cancer Now). My role was to set up the charity in Scotland and I found myself very drawn to the role. It was a huge decision to apply not least because it meant a long commute but I felt compelled to do it. I'm sure my own diagnosis with breast cancer almost 14 years previously was linked to the strong pull; unfinished business. But it also made me, uncharacteristically, superstitious. “What if it comes back if I take this job” I asked a nursing friend. “Well it might come back, but it won't be because you took this job” was his wise reply. It was the reply I needed to make the move.
I dived into that role with energy, enthusiasm and a deep sense of purpose. I even embraced the wearing of pink at times, something of a challenge to a wardrobe that tended to the black side of the colour spectrum! My background was nursing, where I cared for people affected by breast cancer, I had taught breast awareness and I had researched knowledge of breast awareness for the thesis in my Masters degree in Public Health.So I knew a fair amount but wanted to learn more about the complexity of the disease called breast cancer.
I admit some of what I learned was reassuring. Social research on people after a cancer diagnosis highlighted that others had experienced the disappearance of friends, as I had. It wasn't just me. I sighed deeply when I heard this. I'd carried this as a kind of shame. Had I been too needy? Maybe I was just boring when I was ill? Maybe too self absorbed? I realized it had taken up too much energy at a time when energy was a premium. I regularly advise people to be aware of this phenomenon and not take it personally but instead be open to those people who get alongside you who you didn't expect to. And to bask in the warmth of their friendship instead. I know you never forget the people who travel with you. Those who show their care and love in many ways are forever connected to your belief in the goodness of others.
I can still picture the lecture theater I was in when I learned about the risk of late recurrence. At the time it was a phenomena that was rarely discussed. In this lecture we learned about late recurrence, a particular trend in those with oestrogen positive tumours. I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck. I found out that day that shivers can run down your spine. I didn't hear much more as it was then I realized that 14 years on did not mean I was safe.
So when I was diagnosed a couple of years later with a local recurrence I was less surprised than I would have been but honestly I was not less shocked. And then four years after that when it recurred locally again- I wasn't just surprised- I was furious! So here I am one and a half years later, trying still to put it behind me. I had just begun to feel stronger when I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the third time. I haven't got back to that yet. And the back pain I have struggled with for several years is now much more acute. I'm so weary of it. I've tried so many things to help so this time I spoke to the GP and the result is that I'm to have an MRI of my back. I'm sure it's not to do with cancer but a worsening of what is now a long term condition, at least that's what I told the GP. I do believe that but now that particular can of worms is being prized open, I will be glad to have that confirmed. Years ago,after a follow up appointment at the breast clinic my husband once said, “it never goes away does it?” He was right, so here I am 23 years after my first diagnosis awaiting an MRI on my back, telling myself it's arthritic not cancerous while all the time there is a quiet, insistent voice in my ear saying “but what if?” ....