About 10 months ago, my wife was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. It was the beginning of the school summer holidays and Vikki had been called back to the breast clinic after her annual breast screening had shown up something abnormal.
I can remember the phone call when Vikki asked me to drive over to the breast clinic to collect her because the news was “not good”. To say it was a shock would be a major understatement.
Following that initial numb feeling, your mind starts racing. It’s natural to want to know as much as you can about breast cancer – and above all else, the prognosis. It’s fair to say that there is a wealth of information out there – much of it extremely useful. But it’s also crucially important to keep feet on the ground and to take anything you read on websites and online forums with a huge pinch of salt. Because everyone is different, everyone’s body behaves differently – and everyone’s cancer is different as well.
One common analogy of the experience of cancer for the person affected and their family is an emotional rollercoaster with lots of extreme ups and downs. That was certainly our experience.
For example, following the initial diagnosis, there were some frantic days of waiting for the results of various follow-up tests – and to have confirmation that the cancer had not spread. A waiting period when it’s all too easy to assume the very worst. Having thankfully received confirmation that the cancer hadn’t spread, we embarked on a programme of chemotherapy, to be followed by surgery and then radiotherapy. But at every step along the way, there were a huge number of variables at play that might have taken us on a different path.
Explaining the situation to our children was hard – not least because there was so much we were in the dark about ourselves. Your thoughts inevitably turn to different scenarios and what these could mean for them, how you might cope, how they might cope. Such thoughts could make you really emotional at unexpected moments.
I have always known that my wife is a determined and strong-willed person, verging dare I say on stubborn. But I could only marvel at the strength with which she underwent treatment. She was particularly determined to use the cold cap during chemotherapy in an effort not to lose her hair. The cold cap is a machine that pumps freezing water around the top of the head during treatment, the purpose being to freeze the hair follicles so that the cancer drugs will not attack these cells. It’s deeply uncomfortable and prolongs each chemotherapy treatment by several hours. But I’m happy to report that it did actually work for Vikki.
Each chemotherapy treatment is administered in a three week cycle with a cumulatively bigger impact on the body’s immune system after each successive treatment. It is a hard process to have to go through – for myself and other family members, to witness a loved one having to go through such brutal treatment was hard too. But after 12 weeks and four cycles of chemotherapy, we were advised that Vikki had responded well enough to proceed to surgery.
Following surgery, the rollercoaster shifted direction again as we awaited the results of a biopsy from the surgery that would tell us exactly what impact the chemotherapy had had. On the 21st November, Vikki and I attended a meeting with the consultant where we were advised that Vikki’s cancer had had a “full pathological response” to the treatment. In other words, the chemotherapy had killed all cancer cells. The sense of elation is difficult to describe.
Subsequent to this, Vikki has undergone radiotherapy treatment and continues to receive particular drugs for her specific form of cancer on a three week cycle, all in an effort to minimise the chances of the cancer coming back. Vikki is yet to return to work. With such a positive outcome, it is easy to underestimate what she has had to go through over the past year, both mentally and physically – and the support she will continue to need.
This is the road we will continue to travel in the weeks, months and years ahead. Every health professional we have encountered along the way has been worth their weight in gold, providing universally excellent care. As Vikki herself puts it: “I bloody love the NHS!” In addition, the support, guidance and patient listening ear offered by Maggie’s Edinburgh has been miraculous – and we know from encounters at the Maggie’s Centre the absolutely vital help and support they provide to those who are travelling a far more difficult road than ours.
All of which does make you fundamentally re-evaluate your priorities in life and realise quite how precious life is – and the family and friendships that make it.
One of Vikki’s great passions in life is running and it is a pastime that she has, remarkably, been able to continue throughout her treatment. As she began treatment, I was gently persuaded (should that be “strong-armed?”) to take up running myself. Next month, I will be running my first official race, the Edinburgh Half Marathon, and looking to raise lots of money for Maggie’s as I do so. Running with me will be Vikki and our friends Paul, Jo and Nick.
If you’ve read this far and would like to make a donation, you can do so by visiting: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alexformaggies. There are so many more people out there, dealing with all types of cancer, who continue to benefit from Maggie’s phenomenal support. I can guarantee that every penny donated will be put to outstandingly good use.