I've just come back from a fabulous few days in Switzerland, and got to spend time with my family over Christmas. This is Dermot and I in Zurich about to have a very very good hot chocolate. And we fly off to Reykjavic today for New Year's Eve, hoping to also see the Northern Lights. Dermot has seen them sailing, and I've always been incredibly jealous. So I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed that the odds are in my favour.
This time last year I was wallowing in misery, reflecting on the results from my mastectomy - namely that my breast cancer had spread to my lymph nodes during chemo, and that the tumour was much, much larger than we initially thought.
A year has passed, and it's been quite a year. I've made new friends, lost dear friends, and have lost count of the number of times I've spoken about my experience of having breast cancer as a breast surgeon. But now I'm starting to feel something different. I'm feeling angry. And this is new for me. Especially as those who know me well will know that I NEVER get angry, and will do anything I can to avoid confrontation.
The waiting game
Why am I angry? I'm angry that my life is still on hold, 18 months after I was diagnosed. I'm still waiting to go back to work. Now this is complex, seeing as I'm a breast surgeon, and I need to be re-skilled in a stress-free environment over a period of several months before I'll be mentally and physically ready to go back to work in Ipswich. Patient safety and my own safety are paramount. My own hospital has been fantastic at taking guidance and making sure that my return to work is as smooth as possible, but when several different organsiations are involved in coordinating this, it can take 2 weeks for two people just to have a conversation about planning a meeting. I was officially fit to return to work in September, but it now looks like February at the earliest.
Why am I so grumpy about all this extra time off? Surely I should be making the most of it? Well in the beginning, when I was recovering from radiotherapy and was still exhausted, it was nice. But now my brain has woken up (after chemo and the menopause) and I'm bored out of my mind. Not being at work means I have no social interaction during the day when my husband is at work. I used to love talking to all my colleagues and of course, talking to patients. Now, I often end up food shopping every day just so I have something to do and someone to talk to. I do meet up with friends regularly to walk the dogs and eat tea and cake, but there are still a lot of hours left in the day to fill.
When you're used to being a consultant surgeon and suddenly find yourself spending a year and a half being a glorified housewife (without children to look after) it is very hard to entertain yourself, and it's also hard to accept that you no longer have a role. I don't help people anymore. I don't look after people anymore. I feel I've lost my purpose in life. And there is a limit to the amount of knitting / quilting / tidying / cleaning you can do without going crazy!
I did finally finish this hand-stitched quilt though, which has taken me 2 years, so it's not all bad.
This is part of the reason why I signed up to do a half ironman (or aluminium-man, for all you chemistry geeks) in July, so the training would help occupy my days.
Will things get better?
I'm also waiting to see if my shoulder stiffness will improve. I've been left with intermittent recurrent cording and a decreased range of movement following my surgery. I see an amazing physio, Bob Grainger at PhysioFixx, twice a month who sticks his thumbs in my pectoral muscle and shoulder girdle - which I like to call silent screaming, and we are slowly getting there, but it really is slow progress.
I'm also waiting to see how much more of an effect radiotherapy will have on my implant. I've developed a capsule. This is normal, and quite common, but there are different grades of a capsule. Mine is quite bad. I don't mind the physical appearance (visible rippling and very thin skin), but it's the pain that makes it hard to cope with. I get spasms that make me swear out loud, and often have to apologise to the person I'm sat next to, and then realise that I'm groping my fake boob in public to ease the spasm - god knows what they think of me.
Will things get worse?
Another thing I'm waiting for is to find out whether my cancer will come back. Now, this may seem odd, and I hope that it never does. But that thought is always in the back of my mind. I've lost several twitter friends this year to metastatic breast cancer, and every month that passes by is a bonus.
Cheer up, it might never happen
This is what I need to keep telling myself, and it's at times like this when I really do need my Jar of Joy! Mine is full to bursting at the moment, and I can't wait to read all the cards in January and to start afresh. Good things happen all the time, we just need to be aware of them and acknowledge and appreciate the people in our lives.
So I'm hoping that 2017 is even better than 2016 for you all, and let's see where it takes us.