First, a blockbuster blossom: last Monday I got the results of an MRI scan taken after my fourth chemo session, and it showed NO CANCER in my breast. Why hasn’t she mentioned this before, you may ask? Well, like Bob Dylan after his Nobel Prize announcement, I was speechless. Even though my surgeon had been confident my tumour would shrink rapidly under Herceptin, its disappearance, two thirds of the way through my chemo treatment, was an extraordinary result.
The news was so incredible, in fact, that I couldn’t quite believe it. Maybe, I thought, cancer sort of comes and goes during chemo . . . Certainly, as the oncologist said, it wasn’t an official all clear – to verify what is known as a ‘complete response’, leaving not a trace of disease, the tissue has to be examined in the lab, which can only be done after the surgery to remove the titanium marker in my breast and clear my lymph nodes. My joy was also tempered by a barrage of treatment updates: while I might be well ahead of the pack, the SAS marathon of orthodox cancer treatment is only just beginning. In addition to the five years of hormone blockers I was expecting, I’ll have to have radiotherapy every day for at least three weeks in January, and a Herceptin shot, delivered at home by a nurse, every three weeks for a year. That Herceptin needle is big, and it hurts!
Still, although arduous, all that is infinitely better than having cancer. I celebrated quietly with a few friends, and planned to make an announcement after my final chemo on Oct 27th. Then came a setback. I bounded into the chemo unit last Thursday only to be told that my white blood cell count was too low, and I’d have to come back in a week. This was deflating, to say the least. The delay would set back my surgery date, perhaps interfering with Christmas travel plans. And perhaps, a small part of me worried, the delay would allow the cancer to start growing again. Frustrating also was the fact that I wasn’t given much information on how to help my white blood cells rebuild. I went back into research mode, and over the week, various people sent dietary information – citrus, selenium, zinc, all good – and the NHS dietitian recommended eating a lot of protein and washing fruit and veg extra carefully. And, because introducing new bacteria into the gut isn’t necessarily a good idea when one’s ‘infection fighters’ are low, she advised against probiotic yoghurt, in favour of the pasteurised ‘non-bio’ variety. I hadn’t been aware there was a difference, and having examined labels in the Co-op am still none the wiser. Anyone interested in keeping their red blood cell count high, by the way, may be interested to learn that the tannins in green tea can rob the body of iron, so it shouldn’t be drunk for two hours before or after iron supplements or iron-rich food.
Altogether, it was a lot of strange information to absorb. I felt a little low at times, to be honest, and got inordinately angry with the acclaimed Adam Curtis documentary HyperNormalisation, which started by blaming Patti Smith for Donald Trump’s conquest of NYC, and only got more sexist, shallow and West-centric from there on in. (Syria’s Hafez Assad was quite a decent dictator until Henry Kissinger hurt his feelings, apparently.) I was too tired to post a review, but was glad to find this Theatre of Noise post, which articulates all of my criticisms, and more. Generally, I managed my fluctuating mood by reading, watching and writing more nourishing fare – more on my reading in a future post, I promise – and was especially happy to make a breakthrough in thinking about a character in Astra 4. I also rested, bought flannel pyjamas covered with foxes, birds and rabbits, was grateful for some gorgeous meals cooked by friends, listened to hypnotherapy tapes and Meredith Monk’s ancestral echoes on Composer of the Week. And before heading to the chemo unit again today I heard Jenny Murray interview Bryony Kimmings and Judith Dimant, the writer/director and producer of A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, a new – wait for it! – musical about cancer I’ve got tickets to see at the National Theatre in a couple of weeks. For, as Women’s Hour discussed, and I’ve reflected on before here, when confronted with the barrage of challenges that is cancer treatment, how do we move away from the martial metaphors that imply those who die of cancer have lost some great battle with themselves?
Today, for example, the chemo nurses told me that while my white blood cells had rallied, they were still considered too low to risk more drugs. Was that my fault? No: I ate well, scrubbed my veg, and the rate of recovery is something I have little to no control over – though that’s a challenge to accept too. Should I have taken the news serenely, instead of wrestling with disappointment, frustration and worry for an hour as the nurses waited for the oncologist’s verdict? Perhaps I can just reassure myself those feelings are perfectly valid and normal, and be glad I had a dear friend with me to talk with about poetry and, not warfare, but his relationship with the blood-thinner Warfarin. In this way and others, I am trying to say ‘farewell to arms’. In that classic novel I have yet to read, Hemingway wrote, ‘The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.’ Stronger and more flexible, that is the way I’d like to emerge from this period of my life.
Fortunately, the oncologist said I could proceed today, prescribing a higher dose of steroids over the next ten days to help the white blood cells recover. So in this season of fizzing, bursting, banging surprises, one thing is finally certain, my chemotherapy treatment is over! Oh, and in case you’d forgotten after all this complaining – it very much looks like my tumour has vanished into the night! Huzzah!! And thank you again to everyone for your support, love and prayers. There will be a post celebrating all of you too soon, that’s is also for sure.