Claire in her garden, September 2016
After my summer of chemo in 2015, what I considered to be the worst part of cancer treatment was over. However, I still had two more steps in my treatment – radiation and Herceptin - before I was completely finished.
In October 2015, I completed 21 rounds of radiation. These were needed because I had breast-conserving surgery and therefore the potential to have remaining cancer cells in my breast. I had mild skin redness and itchiness with the radiation treatment but otherwise I did not find it difficult. Some women experience extreme tiredness. I was a little tired, but nothing that stopped me from my regular activities. The only obvious signs of radiation still left are the three or four tiny permanent tattoo marks put in place to guide the precision radiation beams.
By December 2015, post-radiation, my hair was starting to grow in. I was so glad to see it coming back! At first, I felt as though it looked weird. Friends said they liked how it looked – describing it as artsy, the “Pierrot” look, a fun haircut. Having finished my chemo and radiation, I was now approved by my oncologist to travel and I made plans with Jim to fly to Arizona in late December. My biggest worry was that people would stare at me at the airport. In the end, no-one gave me a second look.
Claire's hair growing back in early December 2015
I had Herceptin treatment every three weeks for a year. With the Herceptin, I had no significant side effects other than mild flu-like symptoms for a couple of days after each treatment. I had echocardiograms every three months. Herceptin weakens the heart muscle in a small percentage of women. Fortunately, I was not one of those.
I would be remiss if I did not comment on how marvellous the nurses were on the chemo unit - caring, super-efficient and willing to the take time to take photos of patients ringing the bell of hope. The nurses celebrated with loud clapping and cheers as each patient did so. They soothed every anxiety I had about the logistics of chemo and Herceptin treatment. I rang the bell of hope a second time in June 2016 when I finished my Herceptin. By then my hair had grown in quite a bit and to my surprise it was initially curly. The “chemo curls” were a short-term side effect of the chemo that I actually enjoyed since I had always had straight hair.
Ringing the Bell of Hope: Claire's final Herceptin treatment
It has now been almost two and a half years since my diagnosis of breast cancer in April 2015. So far, I have had mammograms that are normal and nothing else has occurred to suggest recurrence. At my last check-up with my oncologist in May 2017, I was told that I was being transferred to the Wellness After Cancer Program at the Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre. I will have ongoing monitoring by a specialized nurse-practitioner who will refer me back to the oncologist if anything comes up. I will have annual mammograms for the next few years as part of the monitoring. That is not to say that I don’t worry about recurrence because I do - like every cancer patient. I also worry about odd aches and pains from time to time. But these are so far the random aches and pains that everyone has at various moments in their lives.
Every cancer patient develops their own perspective on cancer so mine might not be the same as others. Mine is based on my reading and research, experiences with conventional and complementary medicine, conversations with other cancer patients, as well as my own intuition. I do not see my cancer as an alien entity within my body that I must fight. Rather I see my cancer as having occurred from a breakdown in my own body’s mechanisms to deal with normal cell processes. I see it as a failure in my immune system stemming from a synergy of multiple factors coming together over a period of time.
At one time, I would have itemized the many potential causes but now this does not seem that important to me as I may never know or be able to prove what combination of things put me over the edge. I am convinced that the best path for me is working on bolstering my health and immune system through diet, nutrition, exercise, and the psychological and spiritual sides of my well-being. This does not feel onerous; it feels good and normal. Complementary therapies at the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre have continued to be a vital part of my ongoing efforts to stay healthy.
Claire's trip to Venice with Jim in June 2017
I do not personally like the battle metaphor for dealing with cancer or its potential recurrence as using it would mean that I am battling myself. Rather, I want to settle in to being the best possible version of myself, come what may. As I reflect over my adult life so far and what a diagnosis of cancer has taught me about it, there are some things I would change. Foremost, I wish I had learned earlier in my life to be more fully present instead of worrying about the past and the future. I now realize that I missed opportunities in life being stuck in the past or anxious about the future. I was on automatic pilot quite often, just moving on to efficiently complete the next project or task, through happy or difficult times, at work or at home. My intention these days is to try to be more present.
Where in the past, I might have retreated into my introverted self, I now feel free to open up and talk to other people, initiate conversations with people that I might never have talked to in my earlier life out of fear, anxiety or simple shyness. Perhaps this is part of aging, as I am now 61 years old, but I think it is also an outcome of my cancer diagnosis, learning to live life more fully. This is a gift that cancer has given me.
Article written by Claire McCaughey, breast cancer champion, wife, mother, master gardener, Ikebana practitioner, serious introvert, good listener, and believer that it is never too late to try something new.