real life

'Hair is overrated': A pragmatist's guide to breast cancer.

Mia Freedman wrote an article a fortnight ago about the fear she experienced when a lump was found during her annual mammogram and the relief she felt later that day when she was eventually given the all-clear. The article referenced the 15,000 women that don’t get that result.

Vicki Connerty, 41, is one of the 15,000. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in January. Here’s the other side of the story…

“It’s not good news, I’m afraid”.

Six words uttered by my almost-apologetic GP Jacqui before she proceeded to diagnose me with breast and lymph node cancer, just two days into 2015. My immediate reaction, albeit a nervous one, was to laugh. So I did. She hesitated, clearly wondering if I’d gone mad, then grabbed the tissues. I think they were mainly for her.

It hadn’t been the greatest of starts to her day.

Vicki before being diagnosed. Image via fellowshipoftheringlets.com.

It's certainly something of a life-defining moment when someone you barely knows wheels their squeaky chair towards you and drops the C-bomb without warning. I'd only met my GP Jacqui for the first time three weeks earlier for a reluctant smear test (is there any other kind?). She'd suggested a breast check at the same time. Partly from curiosity, and partly because I was enjoying the extended rest on her surgical bed, I agreed and off she went.

I remember her asking me if I checked myself regularly. I said yes - not entirely true but shamefully, I didn't really know how to check my boobs properly, let alone feel able to identify a rogue and potentially cancerous lump. But she found something pretty quickly ... and at that point the wheels of fate started turning, with me remaining blissfully unaware that a cancer-y storm was brewing. An ultrasound came next, then a mammogram, then a biopsy and finally came that squeaky chair in Jacqui's little room that turned the carefree, hedonistic life I knew and loved on its head in an instant.

I've now been on the mind-boggling cancer carousel with a largely 'what the devil is going on?' look on my face for nearly five months and my treatment is due to finish at the end of August.

Since January, I've had a partial mastectomy, lost the use of my entire right arm for a few months due to surgical complications, given myself 30 hormone injections, frozen my eggs, cut all my hair off and bought a wig.

ADVERTISEMENT

I'm halfway through 18 weeks of chemo, with 6 weeks of radiotherapy to come. I then have the prospect of taking a delightful hormone drug for a few years, just in case I haven't gone mad enough by then.

Vicki is halfway through 18 weeks of chemo. Image via fellowshipoftheringlets.com.

Looking at that summary of the last few months blows my mind a little bit. If someone had told me on New Year's Eve that 2015 would bring me that little package of joy instead of the usual yearly stresses about work and life, I'd probably have strapped myself to an enormous Sydney Harbour firework instead of attending that fateful GP appointment on January 2.

But something quite odd happened that January day. Once I'd regained my composure and reassured Jacqui I wasn't teetering on the brink of a breakdown, I went outside, phoned a friend (who, thankfully, arrived in a heartbeat), had a good old cry on him for 5 minutes, called my family in the UK to break the news and then sat in the Botanical Gardens watching a busload of tourists with selfie sticks take pictures of the Opera House for the next hour.

Life changed from 'what if it's cancer?' to 'what now it's cancer?', and with that inevitably came a whole new set of questions.

But other than that, it was just another ordinary day. And that in itself was really quite odd.

The thing is, the mere notion of a cancer diagnosis is enough to send us all screaming for the hills in fear. It's sadly rare nowadays that either we or someone we know hasn't been touched by cancer. We still imagine it to be the worst thing that could ever happen to us or people we love. And in some ways, when it happens it absolutely feels like it is.

ADVERTISEMENT

But more often than not, like anything in life, the fear really is always worse than the day-to-day reality. Being able to now speak from first-hand experience rather than from an imagined position, and being one of the 15,000 women Mia mentioned who don't get to walk away from a mammogram with an 'all-clear' ringing in their ears, I thought I'd share 6 of the many lessons I've learnt so far throughout this cancery tale...

1. Fear is utterly pointless.

Believe me, I've had a good go at giving into it. I've done the whole 'woe is me/why me/life's so unfair' thing, but after I've had a good wail (a good wail is good for the soul) and kicked a few things round the room, I've realised the cancer situation remains the same, the treatment plan remains the same and all that's changed is that my face is puffy and my flat now needs tidying up.

Fear is cancer's best mate and listening to it for too long will drive you mad. I'm not sitting here wearing a kaftan and chanting 'stay positive, kids' in my tranquil Garden of Blind Optimism, but I am saying that fear turns good days into very bad days and bad days are terribly boring for us cancery folk. And if you don't actually have cancer but your own paralysing fear of it is making you scared FOR us, then that's ok, we get that. But do calm down ... unless we tell you we urgently need hot chips in gravy, in which case you should stop crying, get up, go out and buy them for us immediately.

No 'woe is me' for Vicki. Image via fellowshipoftheringlets.com.

2. Knowledge is power

One minute I didn't know the name of my GP and the next I had a veritable entourage of eight different specialists at my beck and call. I felt like Mariah Carey. We may not understand what the hell those eight specialists are talking about most of the time but there's a certain comfort in knowing there's a team of people all striving to save your arse.

ADVERTISEMENT

While those guys spend years at medical school honing their skills and expanding their minds, I, by contrast, had about 13 seconds to get my head around more medical jargon than a series of Grey's Anatomy. So I took my amazing friends to each big appointment so they could take notes while I drowned in a sea of cancer chat and boob drawings. It meant I didn't have to take everything in at once, it gave my friends a way to feel useful and involved and it meant my surgeon could draw as many pictures of boobs as he liked without fear of judgment.

3. Get insured

Boring I know. But somewhat prophetically, six months before my diagnosis I was overcome by a sudden urge to get on top of my finances. I'd had a couple of friends who'd recently had to go through cancer treatment and it had made me a bit paranoid that in the event of something happening to me and with my whole family back in the UK, only my cat Bob would be physically on hand to lend financial support. And like most cats, he's enormously selfish and would be more likely to just eat me to save on food bills.

So, in an exceptionally dull but as it turns out, extremely fortuitous, moment I took out income protection insurance. Thankfully, I'm lucky that I work for a great company who have been extraordinarily generous and supportive, but knowing I have financial back-up if my treatment drags on or if I can't go back to full-time work when planned helps me sleep easier. And keeps hungry Bob from scratching at my door. For now.

4. Hair is overrated

I'm told the first two questions women ask when faced with a cancer diagnosis are 'will I die?' and then 'will I lose my hair?’

I'm ashamed to say I was no different on diagnosis day, despite desperately wanting to fly in the face of predictability. Once I'd badgered my specialists enough to realise that the loss of my trademark blonde ringlets was inevitable, I decided to take control and get them cut off just before my first chemo session. Not an easy decision, but definitely one of the best.

One of the worst things about cancer is feeling utterly powerless in any kind of decision-making and so sometimes just the ability to take control of a situation makes us feel a lot better. I got to rock a cool crop for a few weeks (oh the low maintenance joys of short hair!) and I threw money at a damn fine-looking wig, which, irritatingly, seems to now be more popular than my curls once were. I may even keep wearing it once my hair starts growing back. If it's good enough for Beyoncé...

Vicki's hair journey. Image via fellowshipoftheringlets.com
ADVERTISEMENT

5. Do not Google. Ever.

Self-explanatory. The internet is a wild and wonderful thing and people love to over-share, but you remember the eight specialists I mentioned? Any burning questions, just ask them instead. Controversial I know, but they probably know a little bit more than 'Clive, 44, from Idaho' in that cancer chat forum.

6. Get. Yourself. Checked.

I consider myself very lucky that I had a vigilant GP. I consider myself very stupid at 41 years old not to have possessed the knowledge, time or inclination to check myself properly sooner. I thought I was invincible. I assumed it wouldn't happen to me. I thought there would be more obvious lump-related signs. I thought if I had cancer, then surely all sorts of cancer alarm bells would go off. I just went for a smear test and ended up with breast cancer.

Bonkers.

But I'm lucky that I get to have nine months of treatment and I'm lucky they diagnosed me when they did. So I don't really care about losing my hair or feeling rubbish for a while because this treatment is supposed to cure me and kill my cancer. Sounds like a decent deal to me.

Mia's original article addressed her overwhelming fear around a potential cancer diagnosis. It struck a nerve with me because if there's one thing I've really learnt over the last five months, it's that early diagnosis is critical - yet this massive fear around receiving cancer news sadly plays a big part in both hindering early diagnosis and, more crucially, saving lives.

So if you've found something - anything - get checked.

If you haven't found anything but like me, you're secretly not really sure what you're looking for, then get checked.

And if you've found something but you think it's probably nothing, then go and get checked anyway.

As I wrote in my initial response to Mia’s article, no breast cancer survivor ever said 'I wish I'd never got that lump checked out'.

You can follow Vicki's journey at fellowshipoftheringlets.com