Saturday, January 02, 2010

Tattoos and tests

Tramp stamps have never been my thing. Like miniskirts and skinny jeans I've always thought tattoos looked great on other women. But now I've got three of my own. It all happened quite quickly and fortunately did not involve choosing between a daisy chain and a butterfly. My sister K came with me to my radiation planning appointment where I was laid out on a table, and pushed and pulled into position by the kindest hospital staff encountered so far. "Try not to help us", they instructed as they manoeuvred me into the perfect position for radiation treatment. All the while, my arms were locked in above my shoulders and I wished I'd remembered to shave the one hair that stubbornly grows out of my right armpit. With words that are all too familiar the tattooing began. "Just a little prick" the radiographer announced and before I could make the obvious joke about the men who never bother to announce that when you first meet them, I had the first of my tattoos. A perfect dot right where I imagine my sternum is. The other two are on my back.

I like to pretend that a character from a Dan Brown book will discover me, whisk me away to an ancient cathedral and hold me up to the moonlight at 3.33am at which time the three stained glass windows whose beams triangulate my dots will reveal the answer to an ancient riddle. In real life I have to take myself along to the bunker at Christchurch Public Hospital for 25 blasts from the radiation machine. The staff will line up their laser beams with my three dots and that way they'll know I'm in the correct position.

With only 5 weeks of full on treatment to go, followed by another 8 (or so) Herceptin sessions, I am increasingly asked when I'll get the all clear. If only breast cancer worked like that.

For all we know, I no longer have cancer. The chemo and radiation and Herceptin might be total overkill. The cancer in my breast has been removed. The cancer found in one of my lymph nodes has been removed. But the possibility that cells have escaped to elsewhere in my body meant that at my age and considering the stage of the cancer, it was prudent to have chemo, radiation and Herceptin. Adjuvant therapy they call it. Partly just-in-case, and partly to-be sure, to-be sure. The only way we'll know it has succeeded is if the cancer doesn't come back. And the only way we'll find that out is to wait. The great thing for me, she who hates not knowing, is that because my cancer is/was aggressive, the likelihood is that if it's coming back, it'll be back sooner rather than later. And we can get on with fighting it hard, again.

Think of dropping a teaspoon full of red food colouring into a glass of water. You can see the red as it infiltrates the water. The water in the glass was my boob. The red is cancer. Stay with me here. I promise it's worth it. Now imagine the glass full of water tipped into a bucket of water. The bucket of water is my body. There's every possibility there's now red infiltrating the water that we can no longer see because it's been so diluted. But it's there. And unlike food colouring, cancer has a life of its own, and will grow and take over the other parts of the body that it spreads to.

So no all encompassing test coming up that declares the cancer eliminated, evaporated, extinct. Just more echocardiograms to monitor my heart function, blood tests to check other stuff and daily fondling of my entire body checking for lumps and suspicious bumps. The most recent lump I felt in my chest where my boob used to be had me scrambling to see my specialist, tearing off my shirt and begging her to touch my scar - now! - to confirm my self-diagnosis. She did. It was my rib.

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