I thought I felt a lump in the summer. It could have been gristle though and between moving house and getting divorced I didn’t have time for it to be a medically frightening lump. Surely the universe wouldn’t be so unkind to send me all those things at once? Cancer, a move, a divorce, my lovely spaniel dying all at the same time? I put it to the back of mind. Breast cancer wasn’t in my family and that was something that happened to other people, wasn’t it?
On October 21st, a day now carved deeply into me, I went downstairs in the morning to let the dogs out. A seemingly normal day, but it was to be my last care free day for a long time. As I walked into the kitchen Barney, the golden retriever who was then a puppy, jumped up at me and dragged his big paws down the front of me. It was agony and as I bent forwards clutching my breast I could suddenly feel the lump again, a solid ominous lump. Even then I wasn’t sure I should go to a breast clinic but one conversation with my sister later and she had booked me an appointment.
That same day I went to the Harley Street Breast Clinic. 3.30pm. I felt nervous as I walked in the vast heavy door and had to take the tiniest, rickety lift up to the 7th floor. The rooms were all cosy, covered in deep burgundy fabrics and wallpapers – almost a scruffy 5 Hertford – but filled with coffee machines and shortbread biscuits. Then it happened, I was called in.
We started with a chat. What changes had I noticed. Why was I there. I explained I had felt a lump, yes, and thinking about it, I had noticed other changes. My breast just hadn’t felt like my breast to me, as though the interior had somehow changed. We moved to the physical examination and he could, like me, feel a lump. He managed my expectations skilfully at each step. He would say ‘I’m expecting the mammogram will show there is something that needs investigating’ and after the mammogram he said ‘as I expected, you now need an ultrasound that I expect will need a biopsy’ until finally I was sitting back in his office only 30 minutes later hearing my life had just been hit by a nuclear bomb. He never said the words “you have breast cancer’ because he didn’t need to, we both knew. I didn’t cry. I didn’t move. I listened like a startled deer.
The nuclear detonation wasn’t only in my life. A nuclear bomb reaches far and wide and deeply hit my immediate family and friends. The first week of waiting for the biopsy results was the worst of my life. The results would tell us what stage my breast cancer was at. No matter what reassurance anyone gave me at that point I did think I had to face the possibility that I might not make it. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I was trapped in a surreal bubble (not the covid kind) and I became consumed with all the things I hadn’t yet done. I hadn’t taken Lilybee to Florence or been on our trip to Amsterdam to visit Anne Frank’s house, or just been out for lunch enough, cuddled her enough, enjoyed life enough, hung the photos I’d planned of my family on the wall in the kitchen, essentially I hadn’t finished creating the home I wanted my daughter to grow up in and not just for the next year before… and then that’s where I really started to drive myself mad. Apart from Lilybee I felt so sad at the thought of leaving my parents, siblings, nieces, knowing how sad they would be, it would ruin their lives too. My mother already needed therapy more than I did at the news. I had to pull myself together and find an inner strength. I’m not religious but at times like that you find a spirituality and belief system that just kicks in and you start to see everything through new eyes, like some kind of yogi (without the flexibility).
My sister, Sam, drove me to the appointment for the biopsy result. Sam was so strong for me and yet inside she was going through everything that I was. That nuclear bomb again. We walked through the same heavy door and up in the rickety lift. I was so sick with fear that I kept actually air retching. We went into his office to receive the news. It was worse than they had originally hoped and I would need longer treatment but the good news was if I didn’t want to be here in a years time I’d have to” find a red bus”. After hearing that I knew I could suffer anything to get through this. I would be taking to Lilybee to Florence, for walks in the woods, cuddling her, and not leaving my family heartbroken.
It started with a sea of claustrophobic scans. Days of doctors appointments and everyone wanting my blood. Sam drove me to all of the appointments and I willingly accepted, I was in no fit state to do any of that alone. Treatment began almost immediately . I had to have a port put inside my chest to feed the chemotherapy through so it wouldn’t damage my veins but there wasn’t an available appointment so my first chemo was through my hand, it’s still discoloured a year on. The chemo drug that I had every 2 weeks for 8 weeks was called AC or nicknamed “the Red Devil” and it lived up to it’s name. My mother and Sam came to my first treatment. We were in the small LOC clinic on Sydney Street in Chelsea and they have large white leather chairs, almost like flying to Dubai in Virgins Upper Class, except these ones don’t take you to the sunshine. Everything was delivered as gently as possible but in my head I was still coming to terms with the fact I was there at all. Even today I still have moments when I can’t quite accept that I had breast cancer. When they brought out the chemo drugs in giant, cartoon like syringes filled with red liquid I was shocked and I felt sad for my mother to even see me receiving it. One of the worst parts was the cold cap. Supposedly to save your hair but combined with treatment an entirely gruelling experience. It’s literally a hat that is coil lined with a water filled tube and when the machine is switched on the water freezes and you end up with icicles in your hair. It’s a long process and adds hours to the treatment day so with hindsight I shouldn’t have done it at all but at the time you’re so desperate to save your hair. I also somehow associated the cold cap with the nausea from the chemo and I couldn’t say or hear the word cold cap without wanting to vomit, literally.
Those 8 weeks were the most challenging I have ever experienced and as my cells were stripped back so was my ability to stay positive. There’s a good reason they tell cancer patients to stay positive and that’s because inside they are falling to pieces and it’s a struggle to find positivity in anything. I could find pleasure in nothing. I ached from head to toe and my head was in such turmoil I couldn’t even follow story lines to watch television or read a book. I couldn’t even remember where things were kept in my kitchen or get out of bed on some days. I had indigestion that was so bad I would wake with my esophagus throbbing. It felt like there was no relief and I spent my days on the sofa in pieces. The only things that gave me any happiness were love and flowers. As an adult I’ve never had such a need for love and affection and I couldn’t cope with being alone. Around 10 days after the first treatment I started to feel like the pieces of me were coming back together but then I was straight back in for the next poisoning.
The physical and mental agony continued and then, as if that wasn’t enough to contend with, my hair started to fall out. I was so afraid of going bald someone recommended I get a hair ‘system’ that weaves a wig to your hair but it started to come loose where my hair was falling out. Sam was with me and the only solution she could find was to cut the weave off revealing my head with bald patches everywhere. A friend then came with clippers and my head was shaved. I can’t even describe just how soul destroying that was. I couldn’t even look at my hair on the floor so Sam picked it up as it fell so I didn’t have to see it. They were so kind to me and kept telling me I had a good shaped head as if that was some kind of consolation but it was still one of the most traumatic days of cancer. I couldn’t look in the mirror and wore cotton hats even to bed so I didn’t have to see it. I didn’t want to be left alone with my baldness. Poor Lilybee saw me through all of this.
I felt like I was caught in a nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from, a leading role in a horror movie and we had to play it out right to the miserable end. There were constant panic attacks, I felt so overwhelmed by everything, blood shot eyes, eyes with the darkest circles and when I looked in the mirror the person who looked back simply wasn’t me. I would send my family photos with the caption “what have they done with Melanie?” I wasn’t in there anymore.
Treatment continued, a less strong chemo but for a lengthier time, with all sorts of issues from nails lifting off my nail beds, to daily nose bleeds. Then there was immunotherapy every third week and when the chemo finished that kept going even through surgery and radiotherapy. Radiotherapy was like a manicure compared with everything else I’d been through. Annoyingly the immunotherapy drugs damaged my heart and the blood couldn’t flow as it should so, silver lining, we had to stop my immunotherapy treatment. On one hand I was thrilled on the other worried missing so many treatments would leave me open to the cancer returning but new studies show it should still be safe. My port was then finally removed and I felt like I was finally clawing my way back to the real world.
I am now six months on since my last treatment. I have around 3 inches of hair and am feeling so much better than I did this time last year. I still have aches and pains and struggle with sleep and where my lymph nodes were removed I have limited mobility to my right arm that I need to see a physiotherapist for.
Cancer is behind me and I hope it stays that way but every scan unearths all the fear I felt that day in the rickety lift. I always thought when I heard other people had had five years remission it meant their life had been calm, they were over it so all was good but that isn’t what it’s actually like. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my cancer.
Despite all of this, something someone told me in that first week of diagnosis still rings in my ears and that is that ‘cancer gives more than it takes away’. It’s hard to see it when you’re going through the treatment and your hair is falling out but it’s true. I feel more whole now, so connected to my family, relationships have deepened, as though my true self has been revealed. I know what I do and don’t want and I have no time for anything that isn’t whole or true and I can see new beauty in everything. I am focused and want to lead a vibrant life. I’m excited to take risks in the name of fulfilling my experience of life and most of all I now know with certainty that the world is ruled by love, something I have so much of, both to give and receive from all the loving people around me. 💚