Now, I am putting the blame on my number phobia fair and squarely on the shoulders of Miss Jeffrey. Miss Jeffrey was my first year teacher at primary school. I was seven. She was in her early twenties. She was dark and attractive. I saw her as chic and glamorous - with her 'silky' shirts and heavy sweeping fringe. Remember, this was the mid-seventies when the Nolans were In the Mood for Dancing - the first time round. She used to sit at the head of the classroom, with her elbows balanced on her huge desk, resting her delicate little chin on her interweaved cradle of fingers. Miss Jeffrey didn't particularly like me, she preferred my friend Natalie. Natalie lived in a posh house, her parents were divorced and she took ballet lessons three or four times a week.
One day, shortly after I had started in Miss Jeffrey's class, she held a times table test. I remember, oh so clearly, the classroom with its worn wooden floorboards and large arched windows, my old fashioned lid-lifting desk, and my little blue exercise book. The test started off OK and I was answering the questions just fine ... but then Miss Jeffrey started asking the questions too quickly ... and I couldn't keep up. I knew the answers but I got flustered and panicked. As a result I only managed to answer four or five of the twenty questions in the test. We were asked to hand our books in and Miss Jeffrey made a flippant comment about my low responses. I was mortified. Humiliated in front of the whole class. So what did I do? Oh that is easy to answer ... the lower lip wobbled, and a big fat tear slowly brewed and balanced on the edge of my long dark lashes until it finally toppled down my soft, smooth and rosy cheek. Yep ... even at that tender age ... my automatic response was to cry.
Of course I look back now and smile. The knowledgeable and worldly wise Miss Jeffrey was of course nothing of the sort. She was a young and naive teacher, who has just left teacher training college. She had no experience. It was easy for her to favour Natalie who was confident and self-assured. Somebody who was older, with more wisdom, would have been a position to help the little girl who got nervous and flustered, who needed a bit of nurturing to boost her confidence. But hey ... you'd have to be pretty special to have those kinds of skills, or that level of knowledge or drive, when you are only twenty-something wouldn't you?
On Saturday I woke and just lay in bed looking up at the ceiling. It could see from the tiny ray of sunshine creeping under the blind that it was going to be a bright autumnal day. An opportunity to go for a long relaxing walk across the moor, a picnic on an empty windswept beach, or a cycle ride along a leaf strewn wooded trek. But not for me ... two days after chemo and I need to "take things easy" and just potter around giving my body time to rest.
As I lay there in my bed I thought back to the Saturday morning when I realised that there was something wrong. The day when I woke and was just lying there - just as I was there and then - and wondered what the unusual prickly, tingling sensation which had just appeared in my right breast. The feeling which was similar to the one you get when you are first pregnant. How many weeks ago was that? I wasn't sure. So I placed both hands on my honed, toned, sun-kissed stomach (OK so that wasn't the reality - but I did promise in my previous blog that I wouldn't do scary or gory) and counted the weeks on my fingers. Thirteen. Thirteen weeks. Number thirteen, unlucky for some. Surely, it couldn't be any more unlucky for me? Ironic too. If I had been trying for a baby, and if I had been pregnant, then I would now be past those "tricky first few months" and now would be the time I could shout my good tidings across the rooftops. Everyone would be congratulating me on my wonderful news. But that wasn't and isn't the case. I don't have a bump ... I have a lump. My very own Yukky Lump.
One of the things that got me when I was diagnosed was that I was only 41 years old. I knew of women who had been diagnosed with cancer - but I didn't personally know anyone that well - and the majority of women that I knew of were older than me. Another thing about my diagnosis and my lump was that it wasn't some cute little pea-sized lump that people often talk or read about - but a significant lump. An aggressive ... significant lump to boot.
Doctors divide breast cancer into three number stages. The stages take into account the size of the lump (tumour) and whether the lymph nodes around the breast or in the arm are affected. Identifying the stage is important because it helps the doctors to decide on the best treatment. Stage 1 breast cancer is the easiest to treat as it means the tumour is no more than 2 centimetres cm and the cancer has not spread anywhere else. Stage 3 breast cancer is not as easy to treat as the tumour is larger and/or the lymph nodes around the breast contain cancer cells.
The outlook for breast cancer depends on how early it is diagnosed - its stage. But it also depends on something called the 'grade'. The grade means the appearance of the cancer cells under a microscope. When the breast cancer is biopsied or removed, the tissue is sent to the lab where a pathologist looks at the cells and decides what grade they are. The more like normal breast cells they look, the lower the grade. And the more abnormal they look, the higher the grade. For breast cancer, there are 3 grades, called grade 1 (low grade), grade 2 (intermediate grade) and grade 3 (high grade). High grade cancers can be faster growing and more likely to spread.
Now, if I tell you that I have a stage 3, grade 3, 4cm tumour at the age of 41 - then you can understand why there are times when I feel pretty hard done by. Why I don't say "why me?" just once, but lots and lots of times. Let's face it, for a girl who doesn't do numbers I pretty much get these. Now ... for those of you who know me and love me ... yes, it is possible to do both, honestly ... they probably sound a bit scary. So I really should point out that my Oncologist - Dr Oh-so-luv-ver-ley - do you remember him? of course you do - is very upbeat and talks about my recovery. Which is good ... and what I try to bear in mind when I am feeling a bit low and grotty ... and, quite frankly, sorry for myself.
However ... it is actually Kris that slaps me across the face and tells me to pull my socks up. To adopt a strong, positive mental attitude and get on with it. Who on earth is Kris? Well, you may have come across Kris, as she has been getting herself out and about recently. In fact she has been earning a real name for herself. Let me explain ...
Kristin Hallenga is a bright, intelligent, attractive, witty young girl. She is just 23 years old. Now even I don't have to use my fingers to work out that Kris is indeed young enough to be my daughter. Last summer Kris was experiencing a "lumpy and painful" breast so she went to her GP to raise her concerns. Her doctor dismissed it as "hormonal", even though Kris' grandmother had been diagnosed as having breast cancer at 30. Given all the "all clear" Kris flew off on a "footloose and fancy-free trip to China". By the time she flew back last Christmas she knew something was very wrong and returned to her GP and to again raise her concerns and explain her breast was "very tender". However, she was told by her doctor that she was "fine" and that again the problem was "hormonal". Fortunately ... so to speak ... her mother decided to take her back down to the surgery and demand a referral to a specialist and the doctor reluctantly agreed.
In February of this year Kris was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. Stage 4 isn't actually breast cancer. It means breast cancer and more. That the cancer has spread. That it has metastasised to other parts of the body such as the lungs, liver or bones. Kris was told that not only did she have a 9cm x 6cm tumour in her breast ... but another one sitting snugly on her spine as well. Kris who ate well and exercised regularly. Kris who had never touched a cigarette in her life and says "I drank very occasionally ... but didn't ever give my liver a good beating." In March Kris started her radiation therapy - followed by 8 sessions of chemo which kicked off in April.
After only a couple of sessions of chemo Kris declared "once and for all to grab this bitch by the horns, slap it round the head with a block of tofu and devote my life to healing, understanding and change." And, as a consequence, in June of this year only four months after she had received her horrific diagnosis, Kris launched Coppafeel. A campaign to get people to understand that cancer not "only" affects older people but that younger people are diagnosed too. It aims to reminds those who are younger than the usual targeted aged group - ie under 50 - that they can still can get breast cancer and the earlier it is diagnosed the easier it is to treat. It explains that breast aware means you are totally understand what your boobs look and feel like, and that you check them regularly so that you recognise any changes.
Remember, you aren't necessarily looking for a little pea-sized lump. Changes can include puckering, hardening, inflammation or discharge from the nipple. It can also mean swelling or soreness around your armpit. And, if you do notice any changes, then make sure you do something about it ... if it doesn't feel right then go to your GP and insist on further checks. Sadly, Kris is not the only person that I have 'met' who was turned away by their doctor because they were "too young" to have breast cancer and as a consequence have been diagnosed at a later 'stage'.
Although I don't generally do numbers there are some that I have learnt over the last 13 weeks.
- One in 9 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer
- 46,000 women a year are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK
- Of those, 8,000 women are aged under 50 years old
- Of those, 20 women will be aged under the age of 25 - OK so 20 under the age of 25 doesn't sound like many - but then do you want your daughter, granddaughter, sister, niece to go through this?
- 80% of women diagnosed with breast cancer today will be alive in five years time
Kris has now completed her chemo and in the next week or two will be having her mastectomy. I am sure you will join me in sending her positive thoughts and best wishes. Although Kris is going through an incredibly tough time, which she could feel extremely bitter and resentful about, she remains outstandingly strong and determined. She said recently "If you believe the statistics it ain't looking good for me. So it's a good job I'm not going to be another stat. I know I'll get through this and along the way raise awareness."
Here in the UK, statistics show that the number of women surviving breast cancer is the highest in forty years. Let's keep it that way. Being diagnosed with breast cancer is not a death sentence but early diagnosis is the key to rapid recovery. Don't forget to let your fingers do the walking ... and CoppaFeel