It was about this time seven years ago I found a lump in my right breast. It wasn’t mega obvious and you could only feel it if you put your hand in a certain position. So having chatted to Mike we decided to wait a couple of weeks and just see if it was some strange anomaly that would go away. When it didn’t I made a GP appointment and once she’d finally found what I was describing we chatted through all the benign things it could be. But thankfully she also followed the proper protocols and made a referral to the breast screening service.
Just a week later Mike and I attended my appointment. I had a mammogram and from there was asked to go straight into see the Consultant Radiographer for an ultrasound. He decided that he wanted to take biopsies there and then and that’s when we first started to think that actually this might be something serious. Oh my gosh – in the grand scheme of things the biopsy isn’t that bad but at the time it was pretty painful and continued to be so for some days! He then sent us straight round to the breast cancer clinic that was running to speak with a registrar there. He obviously wasn’t able to tell us much as we’d need to wait for the biopsy result but when we mentioned we were about to book a last minute holiday he strongly advised us to hold off for the moment…
As there was still a possibility that this was just a benign cyst we decided we didn’t want to tell family and have them worrying for nothing. Equally it felt important to not carry this alone so we called up some wise and dear friends who lived on the island. At this point we didn’t actually know them well but we knew they were very much friends with God and people we could trust. We took our dog for a walk and then went round to their house, had a cuppa and shared with them our news knowing they would be on the case with God about it.
And then the wait began.
It was only a week but that’s a long time for your brain to run through all the ‘what ifs’. It felt pointless worrying about something that might not even happen and yet you can’t help starting to wonder about all sorts of things. I found focussing on God, telling him my thoughts and then turning my mind to praising him ever so helpful. But increasingly I was sure of what the test results would show but didn’t feel panicked or desperate about it – I believe that was God responding to my prayers.
A week on from scans and biopsies we were back at the hospital, it was Friday, and this time seeing a consultant – the wonderful Mr Babu. He broke the news that ‘the lump’ was cancer and that he wanted to operate on the following Tuesday. The whirlwind began.
We phoned my mum pretty quickly as we knew she’d still be at work and we wanted her to hear the news when she would be with others who she could talk to. We then set off to a pub for lunch as we were starving and we just wanted to eat and do something semi normal while we processed what was happening. We tried to phone my sister enroute and oops – we managed to tell her I’d got cancer and then lost signal!!!
Surgery took place on the Tuesday, into hospital at 7.30am in the morning and home again at 9.30pm. And then we had to wait again…
A week and half later I’m sat topless in a waiting room and the lead consultant Mr Sainsbury’s swans into the room. He announces that the surgery had gone well, they had achieved clear margins around the cancer, there was no sign of spread into my lymph nodes and that my cancer had tested positive for hormone and protein receptors. I would be having chemotherapy, radiotherapy, herceptin and hormone therapy. I commented that I’d read that breast cancer can be more serious when you’re younger to which he replied – ‘you’re 35? That’s not young,’ and whoosh he was gone!!
Thankfully the clinical nurse specialists were great and spent time with us going through in more detail what we’d just been told. The cancer lump that I could only feel had been just over 2cm in diameter. It was a grade 3 cancer which meant it was aggressive and it had reached stage 3 which meant it had started to invade my local blood supply but there was no evidence of it having spread to other parts of my body. We had caught it in good time but the plan was to make sure that there was no rogue cancer cells hiding out waiting to re-emerge and try and take over.
A rough few months followed.
Chemotherapy was hard, three weekly cycles with new side effects emerging with each round. There’s a long list of side effects that you might or might not experience – I think I ticked off nearly every one. My veins just wouldn’t take the damage being done to them by the drugs so I had a Picc Line put in. I got a DVT as a result so had to start giving myself daily blood thinning injections. My hair fell out but it turned out I have quite a good skull shape and wigs were hot and scratchy so I mostly rocked the bald look.
Radiotherapy was in some ways much easier but hugely tiring with a five hour round trip, five days a week for four weeks. I’d been told that radiotherapy is tiring anyway but on the back of chemo it was much simpler but still tough.
The impact of Herceptin was hard to measure as it was initially given at the same time as my chemo and later doses you’re still living in the aftermath. The hormone treatment I really struggled with – it’s medication I should still be taking but in agreement with my oncologist I’ve stopped, balancing quality of life against extending it.
Seven years on I still have regular checks but I’ve finally been signed off by the consultants and oncologist and the cancer has not returned. Against the odds I’ve had two babies (see Two Little Boys) and the memory of just how tough that time was had faded considerably.
So then why am I recalling this painful time now. Two people though have given me cause recently to pause, recollect and reflect on the details of that time. Much has come flooding back – wow, I’d forgotten just how tough it was. But I’ve also become conscious once again how fortunate I am to be here today happy and healthy and with two children.
The first is a beautiful lady called Rachel who earlier this year was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I have felt privileged to get to know Rachel a little during the past few months as we have messaged back and forth about her diagnosis and treatment. Despite undergoing a gruelling bi-weekly treatment regime, Rachel’s faith and belief in a God who is good and loves her shines through and inspires so many around her. My connection with Rachel has not only brought back many memories but has stirred in me again big questions around Gods ability and willingness to heal us physically. At some point I may have the courage and clarity of thought to write a blog post exploring my thoughts around healing!
Someone I’ve never met, but who has also given me much to reflect on, is a female singer called Nightbirde. Her name is Jane Marczewski and she’s been a contestant on America’s Got Talent. The clip of her audition in front of the judges went viral when her song and personal story and performance brought tears to Simon Cowell’s eyes and he pressed the golden buzzer to catapult her direct to the final. Check it out here.
Nightbirdes story and song have been so powerful to so many because she is a young woman living with metastatic breast cancer. It’s spread throughout her body and she’s been given a 2% chance of survival. But despite these minuscule odds and the impact of the treatment and disease that is attacking her body she shines positivity.
I think what has attracted so many people to Nightbirde is that this positivity doesn’t come from a place of denial, or gritted teeth determination (though I’m sure some days that must come into play) but is born in a real acknowledgment of how tough life can be combined with a decision to not wait for that to change but to embrace the joys that are present in the now. Even now as her physical condition takes a turn for the worse and she’s decided to pull out of AGT, something beautiful continues to shine through her. As so many people cast their eyes on the darkness of this world and in their own lives they are powerfully drawn to a story of hope, a story that offers light in that darkness.
You don’t have to look far to see where that beauty, hope and light comes from – Nightbirde would tell you herself – it comes from her relationship with God. That relationship is not dependent on Jane being healed in this world, though she fervently seeks that, her faith has been forged and proved in deepest darkness. Her blog ‘God is on the Bathroom Floor’ is so powerful – please do go and read it.
I’ve been so fortunate in my encounter with cancer, we found it early and I’ve made a pretty good recovery, I’ve not faced anything nearly as tough as Nightbirde or Rachel. However in the thick of it there were times of desperation, tears and wondering if we would get through it. However not once did I find myself questioning ‘why me?’ Or why as a Christian had God let this happen. I have never felt that being a Christian exempts you from the tough stuff of life.
A common misquote from the Bible is ‘the sun shines on the righteous,’ but Jesus actually says
He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.Matthew 5:45 NIV Bible
My faith in Jesus means I’ll encounter the same sorrows as anyone else. I don’t get an exemption certificate. But I do get to experience God’s Holy Spirit comforting and guiding me through the darkness. I do get to access His peace that passes all understanding. I do get the support and care of my church family. My faith reassures me that even if cancer takes my life on this earth that there is a new body and eternal life without pain and sorrow being prepared for me. My faith in Jesus means that even amidst the hardships of the present there is life in all its fullness on offer right now.