October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and as someone who underwent a mastectomy and reconstruction last year and has just restarted her blog, I have absolutely no excuse for not making a few observations about breast cancer and my own experience.
I am now ‘out the other side’ which is a good place to be. I think you would be pretty hard-pushed to tell which is my original breast and which is my reconstructed one – thanks to my fantastic surgeons. I happily wear bikinis (well as happily as any woman in their mid forties does) and 90 per cent of the time I completely forget what my body has been through and recovered from.
As someone who writes largely observational pieces, breast cancer has provided me with a rich vein of material. I shall share a few with you: firstly, the mammogram machine is clearly invented by a man. No woman would devise a machine which requires you to jam your breasts in a freezing cold ‘vice’ while standing, sitting or lying in a position best suited to a contortionist. If men were to use mammogram machines for their testicles, you can bet there would be some fairly fundamental changes to the set-up. There is definitely a gap in the market for a fur-lined, pre-warmed mammogram machine which does not require the radiographer to apologise every 10 seconds for how uncomfortable the whole process is.
Secondly, once you have recovered from the initial surgery or treatment, everyone expects you to run a marathon. To be blunt, 8 hours on the operating table (albeit asleep) was enough of a marathon for me in this lifetime. I would never in a million years have run a marathon before I had breast cancer and so I certainly see absolutely no reason why I would suddenly want to do it now. Of course, I understand the fund-raising aspect and also, I suppose, the setting yourself a challenge post a major life event. However, in order to clarify my position, I shall never ever run a marathon and frankly I find getting up each morning, doing the school run and walking the dog is enough of a challenge for me.
Thirdly, when you say you have or have had breast cancer, everyone flicks their eyes to your breasts. It is like some sort of Pavlovian Response. It is, I guess, a largely subconscious reaction – well, for most people anyway – there will, of course, always be those who need no excuse for looking in that direction. It always amuses me when I see the thought process which often accompanies the glance “One, both, left or right…?” Tempting as it is to blurt out the answer, I try to refrain…oh, OK, it’s one and right.
So humour has been my ally throughout the last year and I hope humour, black or otherwise, never deserts me. However, I don’t want to sound entirely flippant and in Breast Cancer Awareness month, there are two serious points that I would like to make. Firstly, on a personal level, I couldn’t have got through all this without my wonderful family and friends – a support network is vital when you are faced with this sort of life event. They were always there when humour was on its day off, telling me I was doing amazingly and saying I looked fantastic (when I patently did not). Thank you.
My second point concerns the breast screening programme in the UK. The current policy is for all women to be screened every three years between the ages of 50 and 70 (although there is a current trial of screening at 47 in some areas). I was 44 when I was diagnosed and my breast cancer was found on a mammogram (I had no lump because it was very early stage).
The facts are clear: if breast cancer is caught early, it is usually easier to treat, probably will require less treatment and the cure rate is much higher. Who knows where I would have been if I had waited for my first mammogram at 50. In the US, breast screening is annually from age 45 and you are given the choice to start screening from 40; in Australia, women are screened every 2 years from the age of 40. I am very aware of the financial restraints on the NHS but I would question whether our screening programme is adequate and whether we should be trying to find a way to fund earlier and more regular screening. It is not fair that having a mammogram before age 50 in this country is a matter of whether you can afford it or not.
So I have probably been responsible for a spike in private mammograms in my area of the country and I certainly do not want to be a scaremonger but I’m one of the lucky ones whose illness was caught very early, dealt with very swiftly and as it was so early, only surgically. Now it’s time for me to move on to new challenges and, just to reiterate, none of these will involve any sort of gruelling physical trial. The only running I shall be doing will be running around in circles after my three children.