I found a lump in my breast on 19 December 1999 but due to Christmas and New Year it was 10 January before I saw a specialist. That was hard, as I didn’t want to tell my husband or family, in case I ruined Christmas without good cause. As soon as it was confirmed as malignant I was given the choice of a lumpectomy or a mastectomy but no discussion of the pros and cons – just “You choose!” I chose the lumpectomy with axillary clearance, to be followed by radiotherapy and five years of tamoxifen; chemotherapy was deemed not necessary.
Unfortunately the wound became infected after two days, and I had to have a further two operations, one to clear up an abscess and the other to remove more tissue. The third operation was followed by yet another infection: back in hospital on a drip. To make matters worse, the stitches didn’t hold, so I was sent home with an open wound for the GP’s nurse to deal with; it resulted in bad scarring. There followed a year with episodes of painful, infected lymphoedema as the infection lingered in my body. With hindsight I should have made more of a fuss as we shouldn’t put up with dirty operating theatres but the doctors were all such nice people – it makes it more difficult to complain when you are feeling fragile.
After all of that I got on with life, did more of the things I wanted to do and took care to take time to think. Thankfully I had a job I enjoyed, working from home, and lots of loving friends and family. I was examined every year for ten years for a hospital trial which I found very reassuring.
In 2013 my lymphoedema arm suddenly swelled alarmingly and went red, so knew there was more trouble. I also had hard lumps between my neck and collarbone. A CT scan showed that I had two small tumours in my right lung and a biopsy proved it was breast cancer. The cancer is oestrogen positive, so I am on hormone therapy with aromatase inhibitors which stop the body manufacturing oestrogen to feed the cancer. Having lived (without thinking much about cancer) for fourteen years since the first diagnosis, the enormous strides in cancer research since 2000 mean that there are drugs available now to keep me going for longer.
The Living Tree has provided new friends, great information and people to talk openly to about cancer without worrying about the emotional response of close relatives. I find it very calming, and we laugh a lot too. I go to Julia Williams at the Garden Studio for Tripudio exercise classes which keep the lymphatic system in good order and are fun to do. Julia has also massaged the original operation scarring so that I have full movement of my right arm again after fourteen years, which is miraculous!
I am over 70 now and I have had a fantastic life, married for over fifty years to a loving husband, with four children and five grandchildren and a large supportive family. I continue to paint and I grow things; ‘painting’ a garden with cuttings and seedlings makes me look forward – it is about life renewed and very therapeutic.
I read this particular William Blake poem when I was about thirteen and I have tried to live by it all my life:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wingëd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.
Life is a joy, but when the time comes to die, I shall try to ‘kiss’ it goodbye.