The thing about chemo, it bears absolutely no resemblance to how it’s portrayed on the TV, which has a lot to answer for, as they over dramatise everything for the sake of entertainment. The reality is not nearly so exciting.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely not easy, and there are days where all you feel like doing is staying in bed, but it’s completely manageable and just about every side effect is mitigated by pills and injections.
Your taste buds change, the steroids can make you feel like a total stranger, injecting my stomach daily was a joy I could certainly have lived without, and you have perpetual hot flashes, but it’s not so bad really! I found that continuing to work full time was a lifeline for me, and I always encourage newly diagnosed ladies to keep working if they possibly can.
This is a battle that is won or lost in the mind, so maintaining as normal a life as possible is essential to staying strong and not letting it defeat you.
As with most women, I was quite distraught about the idea of losing my lovely long hair, and even endured the painful cold cap treatment for the first 2 cycles of chemo - imagine brain freeze for 6 straight hours, which makes you cry like a baby until you are just numb with the pain.
And for what? It’s only hair, and it grows back! What I am grateful for is that it gave me the ability to choose when to lose my hair. When I look back on those early stages of diagnosis and treatment, it was like being on a freight train that you cannot get off. Everything is happening to you and you have very few choices, you do as your oncologist and surgeon tell you, and you put your faith in them. So getting to delay the hair loss was a way of regaining some control.
In fact, one of the most beautiful moments was when my husband shaved my head and my son held my hand, sensing that this was difficult for me, and he gently brushed the hairs off my shoulders and neck. I had never felt more cherished than at that moment.”
I embraced the bald, debuting my edgy look at a glamorous work event where I had my make-up professionally done, wore a lovely new dress, and was so shocked at how many people told me how gorgeous I looked. Complete strangers came up to me and told me how much I inspired them, and people I respected told me that I should tell my story to help others – so here I am!
After a few weeks off to recover from chemo, surgery followed in May. This is when I met the wonderful Dr Jamil, consultant plastic surgeon at Mediclinic Welcare.
One of the biggest decisions you have to make when planning your surgery is which one to go for. Do I remove the other breast? Do I have immediate reconstruction or wait? Do I remove the ovaries (given that my cancer was hormone positive)? What about the uterus?
Dr Jamil talked me through all the reconstruction options, laying out the pros and the cons, and he really helped me to come to the decision that was right for me. He told me that ethically he would not perform reconstructive surgery on someone who would need radiotherapy, which seemed highly likely in my case, as he had seen too many instances of things going horribly wrong after radio, with the patient then needing another surgery to correct what has gone wrong.
Waiting was the best decision I ever made, as again I felt more in control of the outcome.
Many women have surgery first before chemo, and are still processing and feeling overwhelmed on the speeding train, so they may not take the time to research the different options. It’s a very personal choice, and as long as it is your choice and not something you feel you are being pushed into by the experts, then any decision is right for you and you tend not to have regrets down the line.
So I opted for a left side radical mastectomy with complete lymph node removal (well this part was not really an option, except that I decided to keep the healthy right breast for now), plus an abdominal hysterectomy at the same time. I was not planning to have more children at my age, and it meant that my post-surgery medical options were easier, and the risk of cancer occurring there was removed.
I decided to wait to have my reconstruction until after radiation and once I was physically (and mentally) fit enough to withstand another major surgery.
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This is a weekly blog, by Emma Rymer. Emma is a long-time UAE resident, employed in a private sector firm. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and was cleared by the doctors as completely cancer-free in early 2018. She writes this weekly blog in the hope that other women or men going through the same process can find strength and resilience from her journey. Emma lives in Dubai with her family.