Me in my fuck cancer pink tshirt with the punisher on the front

Cancer the gift that keeps on giving

4 years ago on this very day, in a government hospital in the West of Johannesburg, the best breast cancer team performed the surgery that made me officially cancer-free.

I was in a state of the art theatre (for real, this place was like movie spaceships – everything shiny and chrome) with about 30 people (because Helen Joseph Hospital is also a teaching hospital – picture Grey’s Anatomy but all the people in the gallery are standing in a circle around you). The plastics team redrew my new boobs on my chest (teaching their students of course), while I sat with legs straight in front of me, arms wide open to each side so the anaethetist could also teach her students how to administer anaesthetic to someone allergic to the gas (it’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me) and commenting how perfectly positioned the nostril of my wolf tattoo is so they can’t lose the spot where to tap into my spinal cord. All the while, general surgeons, oncology specialists, nurses, techs and students from every specialty watched on and learned. Fun fact, government hospitals don’t issue you those super sexy gauzy underpants. Nope. So I sat there, fully awake in case that wasn’t obvious, and as naked as a wee baby.

The trick is to make eye contact with as many people as possible and watch them squirm! Muhahahahaha. No, I’m kidding. You just have to accept that when you’re either giving birth, or have been diagnosed with breast cancer, that your modesty has to go out the window. You get poked and prodded in all the ways imaginable (and actually there were a few I could never have imagined) and you’re almost always completely naked.

See! I told you! Cancer is the gift that keeps on giving. I mean, this scene is forever burned into my memory. And probably yours too now.

But let’s take a moment to properly appreciate – 4 YEARS CANCER FREE! Hell yeah! And also FUCK CANCER!

Pre-cancer there’s no way to prepare for it. You’re not thinking, “Oh one day when I have cancer I’ll…” or “This is my last junk food meal before I get cancer…” or anything like that. Sure, you stopped smoking in 2009 because you wanted to be healthier. Never mind that it led to gaining more than 20 kgs in the 6 months that followed… I mean which is worse really? You eat more “organic” foods instead of all the processed ones. You exercise more to lose the weight, and then also to just be healthy. These are things you adopt into your lifestyle just because you’re getting older, not because you think of cancer.

Because you never really think you’re gonna have cancer and that there’s a before cancer version of you. And once you have cancer, you never shake it. Again, the gift that keeps on giving. But wait, let me first tell my story.

In the middle of April 2019 I found a lump. Not because I did the self-exam, but because I was lying on my side in bed watching a show on my laptop with my right arm awkwardly positioned. If I put it straight then it would be in my line of sight, so I just tucked it across my body. Now, when you have boobs of a certain size, and you lie on your side, they also kinda lie on their side, like a stack of boobs. It’s not sexy naked, but you know, the weight makes them kinda melt on top of each other and just lie there next to you.

Anyhow, now that you’re imagining a stack of melted boobs, picture my right hand across my body resting on my rib cage. I wouldn’t normally feel this part of my ribs because when standing or sitting, it would be covered by said boob. The butt of my hand felt “my rib” and I was like, I’m not a skinny girl anymore, so why is my rib jutting out so far? Now my fingers find this spot and discovers, it’s a lump and quite a round one like a marble and I can move it so yeah, definitely not a rib.

Panic, message my sisters, more panic, racking my brain for when I was last examined, etc etc leading me to schedule a mammogram for the end of the month. Naturally, we try to talk ourselves out of the worst, and friends joined in with “all women get lumps at some point”, “don’t worry it’ll be nothing just tissue”, so of course I wanted to believe all of this. The last thing anyone wants, is for it to come back as “something bad”.

Finally it’s time for the mammogram, and being my first time, I was petrified. I mean, the concept of smushing your boob flat in a machine isn’t exactly an appealing way to spend a morning. Nonetheless away we go, and I can only speak for bigger boobed women, it’s not that painful but certainly uncomfortable and it’s a wonder they can flatten so much. But absolutely go and do it.

Afterward, the radiographer discussed the results of the lump with me, stating it looks like a typical benign lump measuring at 12mm and to come back in 6 months. Nothing to worry about. But. You know when your gut just doesn’t agree? So I reminded him that in February I had a check up at the gynae and this certainly wasn’t there, so perhaps waiting 6 months isn’t a good idea. On my insistence, he performed a biopsy.

2 days later, while shopping at the Checkers just up the road from my office, my gynae phoned. Afrikaans dude, delivered both my daughters, been my gynae for ages, and he says, “I don’t know why you had to go do a mammogram cause now it says you have cancer and what are we supposed to do?” Yeah. Just like that. Um OK sir, terribly sorry to inconvenience you with the news. But that’s where it started.

I lived with a dear friend at the time, and when she arrived home I was ready in the kitchen with shots. Excited she takes her glass and says, “So is it good news?” and I say “Nope, so we’re drinking anyways!” I tell her the story (I asked the gynae to send me the report so I can read it myself and not have to interpret his translated version) so I told her the diagnosis, type of tumor, and the next steps. She says, “Did you google to understand more?” and I couldn’t help it, I said, “Yes OMG I did and it said I have cancer!” We laugh-cried but what else could I have said?

That was the 2nd of May 2019. I wont go into all the detail here, cause I signed an NDA as part of a settlement (am I allowed to say I got a settlement? Maybe I just can’t tell you the doctor’s name? I will say though that the settlement was pocket change and if this had happened in the US, I would never have worked another day in my life!), but my treatment required an op which didn’t go as planned. Let’s leave that there.

Once it was determined that I still had cancer (after all the trauma caused by thinking I’m cancer free when I wasn’t never mind an unnecessary op that took out a quarter of my left boob, then being told it could be spreading to scare me into another op to cover up the mistake) I luckily got a 2nd opinion with the best breast cancer surgeon in South Africa.

Officially on the 13th of September 2019 the cancer was indeed removed and I’ve been cancer-free since then. You’re considered to be in remission only after 5 years of no cancer so we’ll be celebrating that in 2024. Big time!

But here’s the part where it gets tricky. I am cancer-free yes, but my life is never again without cancer or the risks or the worries around it. I was not on a medical aid when I was diagnosed. My dear friend paid for my op in private care after which I paid her back (yes the botched op) and also had to get onto a medical aid and pay for that for a whole year before I could use it (you know, the whole pre-existing condition crap).

Since then, I’ve been on treatment. My type of cancer (hormone based) was not a good candidate for chemo pre-op and I was supposed to have 6 weeks of radiation post-op but it was a ridiculous amount of money and I opted out. My treatment started once my year exclusion ended and my version of “chemo” is an injected implant in my tummy every 3 months. At first I was told 2 years (8 treatments) but changing my oncologist led to better care and I’m on the 5 year plan (20 treatments). I have 7 to go! Yay me cause the implant sucks. It’s basically a spring-loaded needle the size of a bic pen tip that shoots the implant into your body. The area itself bruises, is sensitive to the touch, and for a couple of weeks can hurt if that area of the torso gets twisted awkwardly. But at the same time, it’s not the worst thing to deal with so we do what we gotta do, right?

The difficult bit is probably the annual screening. Mammogram, breast ultrasound, chest x-ray, abdomen/pelvis ultrasound, blood tests, and gynae. Now and forever more I get to do these every single year in July and let me tell you it’s always the coldest day of the year when I’m half naked and putting my bits on machines. Every 2nd year I get to do bone density (not invasive), and last year I did the colonoscopy and gastroscopy which, for now, only has to be repeated in 8 years. I know these tests are to keep cancer away, and keep me alive, and I totally appreciate that, but the stress every year just about kills me anyway.

The fear that maybe this time the tests don’t come back clear. Maybe this time there’s something new to worry about. In many ways I prefer the ostrich-syndrome/effect sticking my head in the sand and pretending like everything is just hunky-dory until it isn’t. But with cancer, I need to know.

I mean, my family doesn’t have a history of breast cancer. It seems to be a fluke but it’s now put my sisters and my daughters on high alert to make sure it isn’t hereditary. So last month I did the genetic testing to determine if there are any other cancers to worry about. Considering what one has to go through, it’s best to have a head’s up on any cancers that present as high risk. I was hoping the results would be in before today so I can celebrate properly cancer-free (I’m ever hopeful), but I’ll do an edit when I do get them.

Funny enough too, the medical aid that cripples me every month to have the best plan to cover the shockingly expensive oncology treatment, pays for genetic testing once you have had cancer. So they wont test it before hand so you can minimise risk. Nope. They’ll let you test after you’ve had it. It’s like their approach to birth control – wont pay for that because they make much more money on you having the baby and forever more after that with paediatricians and all the medical expenses that come with children going forward. They approach cancer in the same way. They make much more money on you having cancer than they would if they paid for the tests upfront and let you change your lifestyle/have pre-emptive ops and potentially avoid it. The fuckers.

So where was I? Oh yes! Cancer is the gift that keeps on giving because once you have had it you can never get off a medical aid. You have to do these tests every single year and go through the trauma of potentially hearing bad news. Your life insurance is loaded forever more! If your type of cancer is like mine, then you are medically induced into menopause – yeah it’s been so much fun, like a fast-forwarded 4D movie through hell with all the bells and whistles and hot flashes (one day I’ll share all the fun around that)!

But, I’m also cancer free for another year! So at the risk of repeating myself and for extra emphasis, FUCK CANCER!

1 thought on “Cancer the gift that keeps on giving”

  1. Pingback: ADHD and the inevitable lists – Corenne Tavares

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