Life is becoming less and less about my breast cancer. Each waking moment is no longer overshadowed by it, but I am changed by it, and the process of recovery, adaption and acceptance continues.
A year ago I was just about to start radiotherapy and had a bald spot which made me look like monk. This year I have thick, curly hair and have just cycled 120 miles in a day. Both those things are related to my cancer, and are joyous. But recovery is not all plain sailing.
Symptoms receding, recovery progressing
My hair regrowing gives me so much pleasure, even if it does now look like I have a bad 80’s perm as the chemo curls grow out. The day it was long enough to put in a (very short) ponytail was a very happy one.
My fatigue is definitely improving, helped by making adjustments such as going to bed at 9:00pm most days and working from home one day a week. It does mean that Monday to Friday are now basically just work and sleep, and my social life now is very different – but I’m trying to accept and adapt to this rather than fight or ignore it.
The hot flushes (thanks to Tamoxifen which puts me in menopause, but should keep any cancer at bay) in this heatwave are simply horrendous. On the tube the other day, the sweat was already running down my face, scalp and back when a hot flush decided it was a good time to call. The flushes always bring with them a delightful wave of nausea, and I felt terribly claustrophobic; a new experience. I left the tube at the next stop to calm (and cool) down. It’s good that menopause is becoming less taboo, but we still need to talk about it more than we do.
My bag now always contains a hot flush emergency kit: bottle of water, a fan and a pack of tissues.
I had been wearing these badges, which work well – provided fellow passengers looked up, I would always get offered a seat. But, I’d then get pitying looks, and I’d find the kindness of strangers made me want to cry every time, so I stopped wearing them.
When I reflect on this year, I’ve undoubtedly made progress. But at times, it feels like two steps forward, one step back. My confidence is still rebuilding, and I’m acutely aware that my brain is not as sharp as it was. At times this really affects me at work, and I find that the usual stresses of work become much harder to cope with – my resilience is not what it was. And I didn’t get through cancer treatment to then be consumed by stress and anxiety. So, after discussing with my counsellor, I signed up for an eight week course in mindfulness based stress reduction. I’m two weeks in. It’s a considerable commitment, at least half an hour a day on mindfulness for eight weeks, but it’s brain training and creating a new way of being. Learning to be in the moment. I can feel its benefits already.
Sharing my experience
Based on the talk I gave at the Whittington Cancer conference, I was really chuffed to be asked by my oncologist to talk about the patient experience at the annual breast cancer education day in July. The audience was 150 oncologists, consultants, breast care nurses and others involved in treating breast cancer patients from north and east London. Not intimidating at all, then. But it went well – I hope doing such talks will improve the patient experience for those who come after me.
I am still floating on a cloud of euphoria having completed Ride London last Sunday. Not only that I cycled 100 miles in the foulest of weather, but that I did it in my fastest time ever (6 hours 36 minutes). Oh, and I actually cycled 120 miles as I cycled to the start at the Olympic Park, and then home from Green Park afterwards.
The event was simply amazing. The evening before, I met up with a holiday/Facebook chum who was also signed up for the madness, for a serious carb loading dinner. Then on the day, the rain started as my wave of cyclists crossed the start line (to Bat Out Of Hell). The rain didn’t stop for the next six hours. My padded shorts were soaked through by mile 20. Don’t talk to me about chaffing.
At Hampton Court, a work chum was one of the brave and drenched spectators, and we shouted joyously at each other. In Kingston and Dorking, there were fabulous live bands – I got goosebumps and found myself crying tears of elation. But the ride was tough. As I was battling up Newlands Corner (the first of three big Surrey hills), with squalling winds, horizontal rain pricking my face and debris blowing from the trees, I thought “this is the toughest thing I’ve ever done” then I remembered the toughest thing I’ve ever done is have chemotherapy. And the reason I was riding was to raise funds and awareness for Breast Cancer Now so that fewer women have to endure cancer treatment in the future. I’d pimped my jersey with the names of all the wonderful women I now know with breast cancer, and I thought of them as my thighs burned, my bum hurt and my lungs gasped.
The ride finishes on the mall, in the shadow of Buckingham Palace. It’s a truly life affirming experience. As I cycled under Admiralty Arch, I heard “Go Alison!” “Go Alison!”, and there were my brother and his family cheering me on. Wow, what a moment.
After collecting my medal, I then bumped in to another old friend who’d just completed the ride, and a new friend from my Lanzarote cycling holiday who was also cycling for Breast Cancer Now. Here we are.
Thank you to everyone who has sponsored me. For anyone who’d like to here’s the link. I chose to cycle for Breast Cancer Now as their research is so important – their ambition is that by 2050, everyone diagnosed with breast cancer survives the disease. I want to help make that a reality.