Reactions to my breast cancer diagnosis were varied. At the risk of provoking another Brickgate, I thought I had a decent pair of boobs and I was upset about losing half of one of them. But a 28-year-old American male friend immediately looked on the bright side with his considerate remark, "At least now you can get a bigger rack, right?"
One of my best friends, who was already emotional as she was about to get married (and probably thought I was calling to say I could no longer be her bridesmaid), sobbed hysterically down the phone to me before I could get a word out of her. An older, male, former colleague simply sent a one-line email that said, "Better get the box sets in then." (He has been similarly helpful and supportive ever since.)
My Mum, bless her cottons, kicked into Supermum mode and immediately began calling hospitals and cancer-stricken friends for advice and to organise logistics. She flew over to Dublin and came with me for the scans I needed to tell me whether the cancer had spread to my bones or any of my organs. This procedure began with me being told to drink a massive bottle of yellow liquid not dissimilar from Sunny D to make my insides glow. It didn't taste as bad as it looked and the scan itself took five minutes and involved a whirring machine that told me to hold my breath for a few seconds before breathing out again.
After the CAT scan, I was given a low-dose injection of radioactive material before being strapped to a bed under a blanket in a very cold room and stuck under another whirring machine for 25 minutes. Finally, the nurses told me to stay away from pregnant women for 24 hours because I was still mildly radioactive. I thought this would be a good time to dust the mothballs off my "She's Electric" t-shirt to ward off the pregnant ladies.
A few days later, I choked up when I heard the news: I got the all-clear from both tests. My cancer hadn't spread.
Computer Says No
At the time of diagnosis, I had just moved to Ireland from Argentina. I had no real friends in Ireland; just my (very supportive) ex-boyfriend and his family and my new work colleagues. My parents were in West Yorkshire and my good friends were mostly dotted around England, so I decided to move back to my childhood home with Mum and Dad.
I got a referral to the Christie Clinic, the private section of a specialist cancer hospital in Manchester, and was penciled in for surgery. Unfortunately, my Irish employer had decided to change health insurance providers at midnight on the night of my proposed operation and, to further complicate matters, my extortionate private operation in the UK was classed as medical tourism and wasn't necessarily covered by the Irish insurer. By the time we could get all the required information to the first insurer, we left them with just four hours to give the green light to a case of medical tourism that they said their board needed 10 days to approve. Enter 'Operation Computer-Says-No'.
A tense few days of negotiation and email- and phone-pestering were followed by an even tenser few hours of begging, pleading and whimpering and I marveled at the way my parents, employers, the two insurance companies and the hospital itself all pulled together. Exactly one minute after the 4pm deadline on Friday 29th June, by which time I'd already been injected with blue dye in my breast to make my lymph nodes show up in anticipation that the operation would go ahead, the procedure was approved. Mission complete.
The next day - just one week after diagnosis - I was on the operating table at the Christie in Manchester. I went under general anaesthetic for the first time in my life and was given a wide local excision, where they take out the tumour plus an area around it - it's a bit more than a lumpectomy but a lot less than a mastectomy.
In one of the doctors' referral letters, I noticed they had crossed out the 'right' breast and scribbled 'left' above it, so I was relieved when I woke up and found the surgeon had operated on the correct side and didn't make a right boob of it. (See what I did there?) I woke up in my luxurious, practically five-star private room at the hospital, drugged up to the nines on anaesthetic and painkillers, and proceeded to enjoy tea and cake with my best friend and office mascot Oops the Llama (pictured below) before vomiting it all back up and sleeping until morning.
The results of the operation were incredible. I was expecting to have a slightly deformed breast but, to my delight, I discovered the surgeon had filled in the hole with another bit of breast tissue (I still don't understand how this works and am not entirely convinced he didn't take the extra fat from my bingo wings, but I'll refrain from delving any further.) He made the incision close to my nipple so that the scar won't be visible when I wear dresses, and it's really impressive. It looks like a baby shark bite and I like the fact that I have something to show for everything I've been through.
I spent the next four weeks recovering from surgery, which was relatively pain-free and straightforward. The biggest challenge was scrubbing the sticky stuff from the waterproof plaster I'd had over the wound and I spent at least a week walking around like an invalid with my left arm stuck to my side because the adhesive was so powerful.
A couple of weeks after the operation, I received the wonderful news that the margins around my tumour were clear of cancer cells and I wouldn't have to have further surgery. The surgeon also confirmed the cancer hadn't spread to my lymph nodes and I was effectively footloose and cancer-free. This was a huge relief and meant I could focus on keeping myself well for chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
The oncologist prescribed me six cycles of chemotherapy under a regimen known as FEC-T, or Fecked, as I affectionately dubbed it, in light of how I felt about my situation and my teenage love of Father Ted and all things Irish. The letters stand for the four different drugs that go into the potent cocktail that would be injected into my veins once every three weeks, provoking a host of nasty side effects ranging from nausea to total hair loss and reduced fertility. After four months of chemotherapy, I will be given about five weeks of radiotherapy before normal life can be resumed.
During the oncologist's first inspection of my post-surgery breast, the nurse noticed I still had a blue nipple from the dye that was injected pre-op.
"Yes," I replied, "it's rather hard to get off."
"You'll still have that in another six months!" the oncologist remarked.
If only I'd known at the time that he wasn't joking...