1 Every 10
By Charlie Smith-Knight
LIFE & LIVING
ISSUE NO: 155
One woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every 10 minutes. On Wednesday 28 September 2022, one of those 10 minutes… it was me.
I was 37 years old. I have no family history of breast cancer. But cancer just is, it doesn’t get bogged down in details. My feeling about it has always been why not me? Maybe that sounds blasé but for context my beautiful friend, Lauren Beckett, died when she was 28 years old and, on that day, I stopped believing that things happen for a reason. Lauren didn’t deserve what happened to her. People don’t deserve to get cancer. But I, at least, had an opportunity she wasn’t afforded, and therein lay some perspective.
Of course, being told that you have cancer is like a punch in the guts. I have no intention of downplaying it because when you’re sat in the chair with the whole room looking at you, hearing that you have a Grade 3 invasive ductal carcinoma in your left breast, you don’t know how you will actually feel. When I had found the lump, I told myself to expect the worst because if it wasn’t that, it would be a relief and if it was, well, I had mentally prepared myself for it. It helped. I accepted it like a deer realising there’s 3,000lbs behind the headlights racing towards you. I called on generations of British repression to walk back out through the waiting room with my stiff upper lip firmly in place. But in those ten minutes, I became a statistic. A cancer patient. And my life BC (before cancer) was over.
Everything moved pretty quickly after that. I was told I needed to have chemotherapy to reduce the lump, surgery to remove it and radiotherapy to make sure there were no cancerous cells remaining. They pre-warned me I may need to have a mastectomy or double mastectomy, dependent on the results of a gene test. So, I took my boobs out for a farewell tour to rival Elton John’s, celebrating an excellent 37 years of health before the treatment kicked off. Then I handed them over, literally, and metaphorically, and put my trust in the Gods of the NHS. I nodded, and signed, and accepted there would be side effects to all the treatments. Do you know that leukemia is a rare side effect of some chemo drugs? But do you want to live long enough to maybe get leukemia? Not so much choices as negotiations. My vision of the future narrowed to just making sure I had one.
Chemo started in October and turned out to be words that likely can’t be printed here, but I couldn’t bear pity so instead I made jokes. I tried cold-capping in an effort to keep my hair but when that abandoned me faster than my common sense at an open bar, I joked that I had always wanted to look like Britney Spears, just not the 2007 version. And that not having a hairline would cost me a fortune in foundation because I wouldn’t know when to stop putting my make up on. When I got oral thrush and I could only handle soft foods, I told everyone I had only got cancer so I could eat ice cream for dinner. I made more jokes than you could shake a wig at.
In reality, I woke up nauseous, I went to bed nauseous. I cried through New Year’s Eve, laid on the living floor because my joints hurt so much, I couldn’t bear my own weight. My husband shaved my head, administered injections into my stomach and on occasion, helped me get to the toilet. There were days I wondered if I could do it again tomorrow.
I slalomed through four months of chemo like a beginner who found themselves on the black slope and headed for surgery in March. The results of the gene testing confirmed I was not a gene carrier, so I only needed to have a lumpectomy, not a mastectomy. One surgery turned into two surgeries, when they found cancerous cells in my lymph nodes. The first surgery left me with a breast that looked like the one made earlier by an eager Blue Peter presenter. The second, I came home with a drain hanging out my side and a bag to carry round the homebrew being expelled through my armpit. I wore surgical stockings and couldn’t wash properly for weeks. But my leg hair returned and the bald patches on my head started to resemble a Primary school project where children grow cress out of an egg. I was delighted. After 196 days, I went back to work.
In July, I started radiotherapy, the setup of which is much like a virgin sacrifice in a B movie. Every day for three weeks, I lay topless on a bed, with my arms above my head, in the middle of a cold room, while people moved around me shouting numbers like a surreal game of Battleships. Thankfully, I had left my dignity behind somewhere in January when I had shown my breasts to more people than I had fingers and toes to count them on. They radiated me from the inside out and left me to rest like a fillet steak. I walked out of my last radio appointment on 1st August rather unceremoniously, disbelieving that a parade wasn’t being thrown in my honour.
The truth is, it’s hard to condense the experience of the last 12 months. There is a gulf of things not being said but the result of them is that I no longer have cancer. They call it no evidence of disease, which feels ironic when the scars, short hair and weight gain, are all constant reminders of the disease. Yet I know I am a lucky girl. I was lucky I found it early. I was lucky it wasn’t in an organ – if they had to take my breast, functionally I would have survived. I was lucky I only needed a lumpectomy. I was lucky I had the most common form of breast cancer- the most researched, the most curable. I didn’t fight harder than anyone else, I was just lucky.
Life is moving on, and thankfully taking me with it. The fear of recurrence is real. I think of it as Schrödinger’s cancer; I will both have cancer and not have cancer between every checkup, until I am told otherwise. But equally, I strive to choose happiness. I find myself intensely happy doing very mundane things, simply for the fact that I am here to do them. Sadly, my story is more common than you might think so I hope it encourages you to check yourself. If you’re concerned, get someone else to check. Preferably a medical professional. And whilst I sincerely hope they never are, if ever those 10 minutes are yours, just know that it isn’t always a death sentence. Cancer is a part of my life but, for now at least, not the end of my world.