Writer, mother and grandmother DIANE TREMBATH lives in Exmoor. After being given the all-clear three years ago, she has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time.
She has agreed to write a diary about her experiences for Live Better With - sharing her observations and insights, both practical and emotional. Here's part 4...
Thanks to all the helpful information I received from Eve, the specialist nurse via the Breast Cancer Care helpline (0808 800 6000), I went to my pre-opp assessment appointment with a much clearer sense of the what, why, when and how of my diagnosis and treatment plan. It was also good to see some familiar faces: several of the nurses whom I knew not just from recent appointments but also from my previous bout of breast cancer in 2010.
There was Kaz, for example, best giver of hugs, who carried out all the routine pre-opp tests (ECG, height, weight, blood samples) and who is adept at weaving wonderfully distracting conversations that help you forget why you are there.
And J, now a senior breast care nurse, whom I first met nine years ago – the epitome of calm reassurance and, like so many of the breast cancer nurses I have met, blessed with an open mind in terms of how complementary therapies can help at every stage. But very practical too…
‘Would you like to see the drain you’ll be fitted with after surgery?’ she asked. “So you know what to expect.’ A drain is a plastic bottle fitted to a tube that carries fluid from a wound after surgery, such as a mastectomy. I must admit I did have a brief ‘Tony Hancock as blood donor‘ moment ("A pint? Have you gone raving mad? … that's very nearly an armful.") when I saw the size of the bottle. I had assumed that it would be a small bottle that would be changed regularly. It is, however, one single large bottle, with a vacuum seal, that I will be wearing 24/7 for a week and its contents have to be monitored – a nice steady flow is what is required, any sudden rush means a similarly sudden dash to hospital.
But at least it comes with its very own accessory, a cotton shoulder bag, known as a Drain Dolly.
And all patients are given a satin covered armpit comfort pillow that fits under the affected arm, between the incision or drain and a car seat. These are another 24/7 accessory but a very welcome one as they can make such a difference to comfort, whether one is moving around or resting in bed. The satin-covered pillows provided by the hospital are made locally by a former patient.
My final meeting of the day was with S, the breast care nurse practitioner, whose experience, professional knowledge and skills, compassion and empathy were outstanding. I could not have asked for more in terms of the information, support and reassurance that S gave me.
The faraway friend – now under the same roof
Away from the hospital, all my other preparations are plans were falling into place. One of my closest friends, J, flew in from Portugal and is staying with me for almost two months, to be by my side before, during and after. I could not wish for a better companion during this time: we know each other so well; we were students together; we have travelled many miles in different parts of the world together; we like the same food, music, and films, and share many common interests including books, photography, animals and wildlife, nature and walking. And we laugh at the same jokes.
She will also be the chauffeur for the three weeks when I’m not allowed to be behind the wheel, the resident chef, the gardener, and the chief dog walker for as along as needs be. J also happens to be a highly experienced classical homeopath (we trained together), so I know how fortunate I am that she has chosen to take time out of her own life to be with me. I could not be in better or more caring hands.
This is not the case for many people who live alone and are doing their best to cope with cancer, especially if they are going through gruelling treatment, as this recent hard-hitting and moving article in the Guardian shows.
In the meantime, as we move – surprisingly swiftly – to surgery day, we have tried to fill our days with good things too, just as we would if J were here on holiday. These have included a trip to a superb art exhibition, deep in the heart of Exmoor, followed by lunch at one of the national park’s best tea rooms, where I consumed enough Earl Grey tea and coffee and walnut cake to last a lifetime. (All medicinal, of course.)
Anxiety spikes that take you by surprise
But if this all sounds a tad rosy, as we were finishing lunch, I had one of those sudden anxiety spikes about what a mastectomy actually means and the profound changes that accompany such radical surgery.
‘It’s brutal, isn’t it?’ I said to J.
‘It is, ‘ she replied, ‘very brutal.’
I thought, not for the first time, that despite all the advances that medical science has made, a diagnosis of breast cancer might still mean, as it done has for hundreds of years, that many people must face losing one breast or possibly both.
Welcome and uplifting distractions
Despite the anxiety spikes, there have been plenty of walks with the dogs (my own and two guests) in the countryside that surrounds my hillside home, and time to catch up with some wonderful concerts, available online, such as Tower of Song: a Memorial Tribute to Leonard Cohen, recorded in Montreal in 2017, and this year’s BBC Proms Homage to Nina Simone.
My daughter made the 400-mile round trip to spend my birthday weekend with me; she is a very busy mother with a demanding career and it’s a good while since we had the luxury of three uninterrupted days with each other. We met another dear friend for birthday drinks in the walled garden of a nearby restaurant on a day so hot that even I had to retreat under a parasol. And we enjoyed a birthday vegan supper courtesy of an excellent Vietnamese restaurant a few miles from home.
There is no better way to spend a birthday than being with people you love and, despite what hovered on the horizon, the day was full of joy and laughter.
The other total distraction has, inevitably, been the current state of the nation and the doings of Westminster but I’m not sure that either is conducive to good health, so I’m quite looking forward to having a brief respite from them.
As I write this, surgery day is almost here; we have a busy weekend ahead, which includes packing the dogs’ food, beds and toys, as the canine members of the household will be going to stay with their favourite carer for a few days, while I am otherwise engaged.
There are domestic instructions to be finalised, my hospital bag and appropriate post-surgery clothes to be sorted out, emails to be sent to friends and family, a new knitting project to be started, some writing to be finished, and one mentoring session to be run, not to mention a few items of the tedious but essential admin that accompanies everyday 21st century life. But I am almost ready. More or less…
The last thing I will do on the night before my surgery will be to settle down, listening to the gentle, calming tones of Trevor Silvester’s voice. Trevor is a cognitive hypnotherapist and training director of the Quest Institute and my daughter introduced me to his work back in 2010. At the time, Trevor kindly sent me a tape that helped me cope, far better than I could have imagined, with 15 rounds of radiotherapy. Three of his tapes are currently available free online here and I have been listening to Your Healing every night for several weeks.
I have a deep commitment to doing everything that I can, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, to support my recovery and this six-minute tape has been and will continue to be a very important part of the journey. So, thank you, Trevor, and everyone who has been here for me since the Massive Inconvenience put in a most unwelcome reappearance this summer.
To be continued
Diane with her beloved canine companion Pumpkin
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