So not right

February 2012. Flying to New Jersey to say goodbye to Rach.

On the way home from New Jersey I find myself in a window seat next to two British women on the plane. They were sitting in front of me on the way over and I remember them, they are happy, laughing, enjoying themselves. The inevitable ‘what did you do?’ conversation ensues. They’ve done ‘everything’ in New York, having travelled over to see Barry Manilow in concert (does he still play I wonder to myself, although the women tell me he wasn’t well and the concert was cancelled.) So when it’s my turn I just say I went to a funeral. ‘Oh,’ they say. ‘My friend died,’ I say. ‘Of breast cancer,’ I say. They look at me. ‘How old was she?’ they ask. ‘Forty-one,’ I say. ‘Oh,’ they say. ‘It fucking pisses me off good style,’ I say. I don’t mean to swear but I’m so angry. And all this last week I’ve been having very short conversations which punctuate very long silences which consist of few words, ‘This fucking sucks.’ Because it does.

I look out the window. The runway, we’re moving out now. ‘American?’ they ask. ‘No,’ I say, ‘Australian British.’ ‘How old?’ they say, again. ‘Forty-one,’ I say. ‘Yes, we know a girl‘, they say, ’27,’ they say, ‘with a daughter. Yes, she left a daughter behind.’

Oh, I think, so that’s worse than Rach is it? Continue reading

There is…

1 February, the sky today.

Today the sky is David Hockney blue. An unexpected bonus. A piece of delight, of joy. Normal.

There is normal in moments, the visit to the snowdrop garden on Sunday with my friend, the joy of the snowdrops, the mooching in the kitchen utensils section together in the garden centre, the decision of buying a colander for the allotment; shall I get the dinky turquoise one, or this lime green silicone one that folds flat? It is a good feeling when you know at the time you are having a good day. There is the yellow sign flashing on the motorway as I drive home. SALT SPREADING. Are we expecting a frost? Sherbet lemons that fizz in my mouth.

Several evenings this last week at sunset the sky is clear and there is Venus appearing first, followed by Jupiter, they hang in a line with a crescent moon between them. They are where they should be, where we know they will be. I can pick a random date three weeks from now (not actually random at all, 21 February, my fifth year ‘anniversary’ from diagnosis) and I can know where they will be in the night sky. I find that reassuring. Normal. Continue reading

The N word

November 2011, me in Sefton Park. No nipple protrusion visible.

On the morning of 18 May 2009, a Monday, I am sitting on the edge of my hospital bed, wearing a surgical gown. Mr Koshy, one of the three surgeons who is going to operate on me today, is explaining the procedure before he asks me to sign the consent form. And as this is a DIEP breast reconstruction, the explanation is pretty lengthy. In short it’s the transfer of skin and fat from your abdomen to your chest to create a new breast mound. In reality this takes at least ten hours in theatre and involves complicated connecting of arteries and vessels to make sure the fat stays alive, but also skill in creating a breast mound that matches the other breast. And while he is talking to me Mr Koshy also says, ‘And in time we would like to make you a nipple as well.’

Ah. Yes. A nipple. How great would that be I thought at the time. But it also felt like such a long way off. I mean first I have to get through this surgery, for it to be a success – DIEP surgery can fail completely or partially, all graft surgery carries that risk – and then recover, then I’ll need more surgery on my other breast to match up once the DIEP has settled, and then we could think about a nipple. It all seemed so far away, so remote. And it reminded me of the day I found out I had breast cancer, back in February 2007, when I was told I needed to have a mastectomy, and I said, ‘Can I keep my nipple?’

So my DIEP surgery was a success, a few complications but nothing major. The next surgery six months later was also a success and I was, nearly three years after diagnosis, in possession of two breasts. At least they felt like my breasts to me. The decision to have breast reconstruction was not something I decided lightly by any means, and I was happy with the result and keen to ‘get my life back’, which is where I thought I was at that point. For my reconstructed breast I had a silicone nipple, cast from my other nipple and carefully and skilfully colour-matched by the prosthetics technician, Gina. OK, I hated glueing it on Continue reading

It all comes back

November 2007, picking Sarah up from hospital after her oopherectomy

Today’s guest blog, from guest Editor, Ronnie, picks up on Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic article ‘Welcome to Cancerland’. This one’s about ‘Carerland.’ It’s right next door.

So, it’s Monday evening, this week. Sarah’s just gone out boxing and the phone goes. It’s the hospital, offering Sarah a cancellation slot for her next surgery, this Thursday. ‘Do you think she’ll take it?’ I’m asked. ‘Well, I think she’ll hit the roof, blame me for the short notice, stomp around the house for a few minutes, and then agree it’s probably best to get it done now,’ I tell her. And an hour or so later, this scenario plays out, more or less precisely. Sarah takes the appointment, and immediately begins her blog about it, published on Tuesday.

Tuesday morning for me, I’m out on what’s becoming my regular run. From our house, ten minutes down to Sefton Park, once round the park, twenty minutes or so, then back up to our house – bit more than ten minutes, mostly uphill. Monday morning I’d skipped round this. But Tuesday’s different. In the end, my times are pretty much the same. But there’s a heaviness in my legs and in my heart. Skipping it isn’t. And half way round I realise I’m running through previous preparations for surgery, previous waiting rooms. And it all comes back. Welcome to Carerland. Continue reading

I just didn’t know…

Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw at the BMA Medical Book Awards in September 2011

 “I was 34; I knew people who’d had breast cancer – some who’d died. Some who’d lived. I read about it – hell, I’d even done a Run for Life. Turns out I didn’t have a clue. Working on ‘Being Sarah’ changed my life.”

says Fiona Shaw, editor and publisher of ‘Being Sarah’.

“But the messages surrounding breast cancer are so complex and contradictory I just don’t know what to do about it…”

Today’s post is by Fiona Shaw who runs her own publishing company – Wordscapes. Since working together on the book Fiona’s become our friend and she often turns up in my posts, you know doing stuff like going to Buckingham Palace and swanky book awards in London. She’s a super-smart fun person, her zest for life is infectious and I love the time we spend together. She can also spell better than anyone I know. And yup, she’s even done a Race for Life!

This is Fiona’s post:

“And so October heralds Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM), and – this year – a Being Sarah blog every day. Each and every one of which, I hope, will inform, challenge or add something to breast cancer awareness – in its widest sense. Because I can honestly say that, before I started work on Being Sarah, I didn’t have a clue about breast cancer, and the issues, debates and controversies surrounding it. They are, I guess, out there. If you’re looking. But they’re just not questions and debates that are covered by the mainstream media. If I now know just a fraction of the things I didn’t know before, then it’s down to Being Sarah. Continue reading