So I thought I’d write one from a different angle about why I’m lucky. I know that sounds a bit daft, I mean, getting cancer at 36 is hardly fortuitous, but I have so many reasons to be thankful. And here’s why.
Type of Cancer
Recently there was an advertising campaign run by Pancreatic Cancer Action which introduced us to people who had been diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer and their wish that they had been diagnosed with another type of cancer. The campaign was slated in the papers with outcries that you can’t pitch one type of cancer against another. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but I can understand why these people feel like this. Pancreatic Cancer has a 3% survival rate to 5 years1. For Breast Cancer it’s over 80%, and that’s increased from 50% 40 years ago2. Those figures speak for themselves so, yes, I’m lucky that I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer.
Stage of Cancer
There are 5 Stages of Breast Cancer. I’ve simplified it a bit, as I’m not 100% on it all, but it’s a summary of information from Cancer Research website3:
- Tis - which is a very early stage of Cancer which is contained within the ducts of the breast.
- T1 - The lumps (tumours) are less than 2cm across.
- T2 - More than 2cm but less than 5cm across.
- T3 - Bigger than 5cm across.
- T4 - The Cancer has spread from the breast into skin, or chest or elsewhere. Most likely terminal.
I have Stage 2. My tumours had a mass of 8cm with the biggest one not being bigger than 5cm across. That’s still quite big in my book, but I’m pleased to remain at Stage 2.
The N and M Stages tell you whether the cancer has spread to the nodes or elsewhere. Again more information can be found on the Cancer Research website for this3, but in my case, N1, the cancer had spread into the Lymph Glands but hadn’t gone into the surrounding tissue. My M stage was M0. It hadn’t gone anywhere else, it was contained within the breast tissue and lymph nodes.
This bit isn’t such a lucky part. Breast Cancer is graded 1-3 with one being where the cancer cells look most like normal cells4. Grade 3 cells are massively different, grow fast and are more likely to spread. The lucky part is that the specialists know what to do about a Grade 3 cancer and what Chemotherapy and other drugs will work to destroy it.
The first time I had to sign a consent form on this journey, was so they could do a biopsy to establish what the pathology of the tumours were. This would then give the specialists the information they needed to plan my treatment. It came back as ER+. This meant that my oestrogen hormones were feeding the lumps as they were oestrogen receptive5. Luckily, they are able to block those receptors with a drug called Tamoxifen and halt the cancer. I’ll be taking this for 10 years.
Another thing they learned from the pathology was that I’m HER2+. This means that the cancer cells have a higher than normal level of the HER2 protein which causes it to grow6. Between 1 in 4, and 1 in 5 of breast cancer cases are HER2+7. However, in recent years, a drug called Herceptin has become more readily available. It used to be a postcode lottery as to whether the local NHS authority would allow it8, but because it works so well, that is no longer the case. Herceptin works by blocking the HER2 protein receptors telling the cancer cells to stop growing. I have Herceptin via a drip infusion every 3 weeks over a year. I had a gap for the surgery, but I’m on course to finish in October/November time - one year after diagnosis.
My young age at diagnosis made us question how this could happen. There is no family history apart from a distant cousin, so we were confused. Was I a freak of nature, or a genetic freak? When the Oncologist brought up the idea of genetic testing we thought it would give us answers to some of these questions. And it did to an extent. We expected to be told that I had an abnormality in the BRCA1/2 gene, which is the gene that increases the risk of breast cancer the most. But I don’t. (See, lucky!) On the NHS this would have been the only abnormality they check for. However, as we had the test done privately, a whole range of other genes were tested which they know can have links to breast and other types of cancer. This brought back a problem with the CHEK2 gene which increases chances of breast cancer occurring two or three times9. Obviously, I already have a Breast Cancer diagnosis, so this faulty gene gives us a reason as to why this has all happened. It also meant that I could put up a reasonable argument to the surgeon as to why I thought I should have a Bilateral Mastectomy, rather than just removing the cancerous breast.
In the future, this has implications for Imogen and Felix, but we’ll cross that bridge later.
When Ross and I moved to Baldock, we took a punt. It was a decision based on train times and costs into central London where we were both working, and the fact that it had countryside and trees around it. We didn’t know anyone. It was a gamble and luckily for us, it paid off. When we had Imogen I met a wonderful group of Ladies who had all had babies at around the same time and are now what we refer to as The Gin Club. Not much Gin gets consumed, more tea and biscuits really, and wine on a night out. I’ve known these ladies for nearly 8 years now, and they have proved their mettle. We would not have been able to do this without their support - day in, day out.
My Dad and Julie have also been fantastic. Coming to stay for weeks at a time to look after the bairns so that I can rest, and Ross can work. Here’s also a shout out to all my Internet Weirdy friends. People that I don’t necessarily see very often in real life, but give a lot of positivity through the wonders of the World Wide Web. Everytime you click that ‘Like’ button, it reminds me, I’m not doing this on my own.
Not Always Up
This blog post may make it sound like I’m skipping around shouting, “Look at me, I’m so lucky to have breast cancer”. It’s not like that, I’d prefer that I hadn’t been diagnosed. We’ve had a really tough 8 months, with still quite a way to go. I have cried, I have wondered “Why Me?”, I’ve thought “But I don’t want to die!”. But my point is that whilst the whole situation is a bit crap, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, there’s been things that have happened that have made my cancer treatable and the situation manageable. And for that I am truly thankful.