Surviving the Change

I’ll not lie, this time around, recovering from cancer treatment has been a very different experience in a number of ways; in other ways not so much. So what’s actually changed since surgery and how has it been to cope with?

It’s taken me another four months since the operation to actually decide to write more about this. After the surgery I spent 8 weeks off work, sitting on the sofa with my big fat body pillow. I learnt a few things, like:

  1. If you’ve had lymph nodes removed, you can’t have a blood test or blood pressure in the arm on that side – we had to use my legs to take blood pressure in the hospital!
  2. Oramorph is better than IV morphine (for me anyway) and it reminded me of raspberry vodka shots
  3. Tummy tucks HURT (do NOT watch comedy or spend time with funny people while recovering from a tummy tuck – see (2)
  4. Mastectomies cause a lot of fluid build-up. I spent 7 days in the hospital because I was pushing out too much.
  5. I don’t actually care about nipples. Chris is doing a great job of hosting the Family Nipples.
  6. Radiotherapy really does change the skin. One reconstructed boob is definitely smaller than the other because of it.
  7. Watching people draw smiley faces is now funny (my body’s scars form a smiley face)
  8. Netflix UK’s content gets old very quickly
  9. How amazing people in the Salesforce Ohana truly are. I just did not expect SUCH a response. You all kept me smiling and I was so moved by the messages, gifts, cards and flowers I received. I couldn’t write enough thank yous.

I managed to watch Netflix for all of about a week before I got bored and fed up, so working on Ladies Be Architects, coming up with my Dreamforce content, organising study groups and even starting up the mock review boards stimulated my bored brain. I did it all (and even remortgaged my house) from the comfort of our living room sofa.

I went back to work in September when things had calmed down a bit. I was still in pain but it was more manageable then. I admit I put some psychological pressure on myself because I had just had enough (I don’t really do sick / invalid stuff). Family and the doctors had to remind me I’d had “the biggest operation in Plastic Surgery” because I was no good at remembering that.

Zoladex

Just before Dreamforce, I started having injections of Zoladex, to shut down my ovaries. As a belt-and-braces approach, I also started taking Anastrozole tablets to suppress oestrogen production elsewhere in my body, since this time, the problem was not actually HER2 receptors (thank god – that would’ve meant MORE chemo).

To prevent more breast cancer, we needed to cut its food supply off – oestrogen, so we had a chat with the oncologist and decided to run a test to see how I coped without oestrogen. This would bring me into an artificial menopause – and, if I coped OK (considering my anxiety hasn’t been under control, it was a concern for all of us), we’d consider something more permanent to throw me into an actual menopause.

The things I have noted about Zoladex are:

  1. Christ on a bike – the needle they use is MASSIVE. Not one for the squeamish. It’s a depo injection, so it’s a teeny wee pellet that sits under your skin for a month, seeping goserelin. You definitely feel it when they put it into you – let’s say I’m just glad needles don’t bother me.
  2. It has helped me with my terrible moods. I have always been affected by hormonal mood swings – with AND without hormones; I have just found it easier to deal with
  3. Hot flushes come thick and fast – wayyy more than they did with Tamoxifen. My wardrobe has changed, I barely wear coats and layers and I relish freezing cold weather! This is the real deal now.
  4. Night sweats….just, don’t. It’s a good thing we bought a new mattress with cooling technology.
  5. My weight has ballooned since I’ve been on this stuff. Couple that with not really caring what I eat and definitely not watching my alcohol intake. I’ll sort it out in the new year.
Yeah check this bad boy out

Not Stopping Though…

Towards the end of my time off, it was all systems Dreamforce. Up until then, I hadn’t realised how stressful it can be to prepare for Dreamforce – at one point I was getting anxious about parties, talks, meet-ups, swag deliveries, flights, hotel bookings – the lot. I don’t enjoy organising events to be perfectly honest, because I worry too much, yet somehow it seems to be alright on the night. I couldn’t get conference gifts ordered in time, then I couldn’t get my orders through customs and it just felt too stressful. Way more stressful than public speaking to be honest! When my boss called me to say he was leaving the business, it was kind of the icing on the cake for me.

In the end, I had an amazing week presenting with Charly and Susannah (our session was the top-rated Admin session of the day!), going to and hosting parties, meeting up with people and all my conference swag eventually came through just fine (albeit late). However, by the end of that week, I was completely and utterly exhausted, falling asleep in the mindfulness sessions on Friday morning and barely able to lift my feet after all the walking.

…Still Not Stopping…

Despite being knackered, I flew from San Francisco to London, stayed overnight in a hotel at Heathrow (trust me, I did NOT sleep!), then got up and flew to New York City for a CTA course. I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for complicated airline and expense reasons. This time I was travelling alone and I arrived early and left later, so I had a bit of time to myself to explore the city. On arrival, I made a beeline for the HBO store and on the way, happened to pass a certain company’s office (I swear, I had no idea they were there!).

Oh, it’s you again!

I also had a happy hour date at a rooftop bar with the lovely Sandi, my Ohana friend whom I’d had the chance to meet at Dreamforce – and she lives locally in New Jersey!

After the course, I spent my last afternoon in New York visiting the site of the former World Trade Center towers. The 9/11 museum was eerie and I’m very glad I went. I arrived home on Friday morning to discover that I had a brand new project to work on – a Lightning implementation that was due to start on Monday morning! After snatching a weekend of fun and rest with my little girl, it was time to get back on the horse again.

…”Just” a Little Bit More…and Why

Chris and I helped to organise a community conference (InspireEast – though Charlotte and Sarah did most of the work!), spoke at Salesforce Connected Non-Profit, Salesforce Supermums‘ birthday party and French Touch Dreamin‘ – all while delivering a client project and having a few late nights out in between. Phew! In classic Gemma style – this is an example of the welcome distraction of having to do anything BUT face what’s been going on this year with my health. It’s not even deliberate – I just get myself into the flow of behaving this way. I could say no, but I don’t actually want to, because I enjoy being busy – it feels good. The people I get to see and hang out with make the fatigue, pain and discomfort all worthwhile. Then, when I get home, the comfort of being with my family completes me.

When I am busy, I don’t have to be the cancer patient.

…Which Leads to Burnout

No matter what I say above, it catches up with you in the end. It’s not like people haven’t warned me either – plenty have, for good reason. Burnout is your destination when you’re that busy all the time and eventually, for me, it builds, then culminates in a personal meltdown where the tears flow, it all comes out, then a realisation of what exactly you’ve been through, then a second dawning that now, it might actually be time to give yourself a rest. That’s where the line is drawn. So this December, I decided to relax more, which means, of course, I didn’t. I organised the London user group Christmas party at IBM.

I don’t know why I do this to myself.

…Then a Surprise…

In meetings with the oncologist, he had mentioned a bone strengthener called zoladronic acid (we’re all about the Zola-s in this post!). It’s sometimes offered as a preventative treatment for breast cancer and it also gives support to women who are in early menopause. With menopause comes a risk of osteoporosis; in younger women, it’s a bit more of a concern, because frankly, we have longer to deal with it than your average, healthy menopausal woman.

I thought that was a long way off – imagine my surprise when I was invited to come in for my first treatment within a week or so. This magic potion is given through an IV over about half an hour – and on a chemo ward. It was also my first time receiving treatment through an arm instead of a port; I also discovered I don’t have great veins in my left arm, so we spent quite a lot of time warming them up.

Hooked up and doing okay

The next day, we could tell. Everything was bruised. They’d told me to expect flu-like symptoms, aches and pains; I hadn’t expected the fly symptoms to be quite so literal – the achy-knocked-off-your-feet-completely kind of flu! I spent much of the following day sat on the sofa listening to my audio books and watching TV because I could barely move. Though it was worth it, to force myself to rest for a day. The side effects had subsided by the next day.

The aftermath

This time, however, the most I’m doing is heading in and out of London for the odd day with my client, work meetings and Christmas parties. It’s bliss. In the 3 days since having the bone strengthener, I can feel a difference; I’m far less breakable. I’ll be making the most of this, since in the new year I plan to get back on the horse for my CTA exam and that is my priority number 1 now that we seem to have (for now) kicked the shit out of the cancer. 

It feels different this time. I don’t have the feeling of something hanging over my head. Just a few…adjustments… coming up. I wouldn’t say it’s a new lease of life, but it’s a start. It’s been 5 years since it all kicked off.

I guess there’s also something positive coming from this, which is that all these stupid cancer experiences that have made me so angry can now be channelled into something else – the support and comfort of others in a similar position. I just hope I am worthy enough.

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