Breast Cancer Blog - Episode 6 : Mad Cows and Smurfs

I promised you smurfs and now I'm a little worried that the reality of my smurf tale might let you down, but I'll build the suspense anyway and you can decide for yourselves.


Learning the Lingo

So where were we? Yes, we have a diagnosis. We know what we're dealing with and I am now starting to understand what some of it actually means. Turns out that the world of cancer is quite like education in some ways, full of jargon, abbreviations and secret codes that are only for the initiated. Seriously, drop into an cancer forum and they'll be talking a complete other language. It took me ages to work that all the codes that people have after their profile names are actually shortened versions of their diagnosis and treatments. I thought they were all very well qualified and I had mistakenly found myself in some odd multi-graduate doctor forum. But I've worked it out now, and I'm IDC ER+ HER2+. I'll get more acronym awards once I start treatment, one for every drug. I'm a total noob at the moment, but I'm planning on collecting quite the set.


I am summoned back to the hospital a few days after diagnosis for my pre-op assessment. The hospital is starting to feel quite familiar now, and whatever this appointment brings it certainly won't be a fraction of the shitshow the last one was, so I'm feeling, if not upbeat, at least able to walk a straight line and breath at the same time. Which is an improvement. I'm given a questionnaire to fill out about my general health, and I'm feeling pretty smug about answering 'no' to almost all of them. It goes against the grain to be ticking 'no', I'm used to being brilliantly capable (or pretending to be on applications forms, at least) and ticks mean prizes in my world. But in this new medical world, where you're categorised by what your body is failing at, rather than how fit you are, 'no' is definitely a good thing.


There's a section at the end that asks if there is anything else the medical team should know. I mean where to start? I once bit my dentist? I am immune to Bacardi after a wild few months in Whitechapel? I'm physically allergic to at least 12 people? I'm a recovering shoeaholic? On second thoughts, if they're such great medics, let them find out for themselves.


To Wee Or Not To Wee?

I'm collected by stern-looking lady who leads me to a consulting room and does a battery of tests without once commenting on the results. I try to sneak a look at my blood pressure and heart rate, but she catches me looking and moves the machine so I can't see it. I'm swabbing, stabbed, sanitised and sent back to the waiting room for the next phase. I look around me and there are 5 others waiting to be called. They all have a wee pot. Some are empty, some are full. I don't have a wee pot, should I have a wee pot? I bet I should have a wee pot. Damn I'm going to be asked for my wee pot, in front of all these people, and I'm going to look like a complete total arse. Long slow breaths.


Another nurse appears and calls my name and I'm led off into another room. I decide to take the Year 7 approach to self-preservation and deny all knowledge of any wee pot, if and when I'm questioned about one. But it seems I may be OK for now. We go through my questionnaire. I'm feeling smug. But just when I think I've aced it, she brings out a 10 page absolute fucking chonker of a questionnaire. The REAL questionnaire, not the warm up exercise they gave me outside. I physically deflate and put my metaphorical gold star back in the packet.


Actually, it's not that bad, it's about my family medical history, my own medical history, kids, home life, job, lifestyle (I don't lie, it's pretty obvious I'm not a gym bunny, I have very little to lose at this point, so I give her the whole shameful sedentary truth.) She asks if I've ever had measles, MRSA, Mad Cow Disease. Wait, what? Mad Cow Disease? I mean I know I can be short tempered sometimes, and I'm not always as kind as I can be, but that's bit harsh. She senses my hesitation and makes a note. I deny ever having knowingly had Mad Cow Disease. She peers at me and we move on.


She tells me that because they're not doing cancer operations at this hospital because of Covid (I do vaguely remember being told this before in the underwater conversation) I will need to come to this hospital first to have a special injection of blue dye, have a wire thing fitted to my armpit, and then make my way to another hospital an hour away for the actual operation. They'll be in touch with more details. Eventually I'm done and she says I can leave. I tell her I haven't given a urine sample; I think it's best to fess up now, rather than have to be called back again to another appointment. She looks at me slightly strangely and tells me that won't be required, but if I need to use the toilet, there is one just down the corridor. Why am I like this? Why? Why can't I just shut the hell up?


Feeling Lucky

Next day, back home, I reflect on how lucky I am. Yes, seriously. Because for every one of those questions that I ticked 'no' to, someone else ticked 'yes'. Because I have managed to get to 54 without any serious medical conditions or ever having to be hospitalised. So my operation will be pretty straightforward. Yes cancer is shit, but imagine getting cancer when you're already struggling to manage lots of other medical conditions? When you have a physical or mental disability? When you don't have a rock solid partner, a wonderful boss, great friends and family, or an army of twitter buddies to see you through? So yes, I'm bloody lucky.


The phone rings. It's the pre-assessment clinic at the other hospital. She runs through a couple of procedural things and then she asks me if I can just confirm if I've ever suffered from Mad Cow Disease, as there's a note on the records that in my previous answer I seemed unsure. FFS. Why does this only ever happen to me?


Smurftime (see, I didn't let you down)

I decide to find out a bit more about the operation and the armpit wire and dye thingy, so I read my recycled NHS letters. I'm having a tiny guide wire inserted into me so the surgeon can find the tumour easily. I'm also having a biopsy on my sentinel lymph node, the main one, that might have cancerous cells in if they have spread outside the breast. To locate that node, they inject you with a blue dye which stains the nodes bright blue so they can be located. It says, and I quote:

You might notice a change in your skin colour at the injection site. This colour usually disappears in time.

I ask around my new cancer survivor crew. Lots of them have had it. It seems the blue dye does a lot more than give you a light skin tinge. In actual fact it turns you bright blue, like totally blue, to the point that people come to visit just to see the blueness. Children gasp and wonder at this new blue creature that they've only heard of it books. And it's not just for a few days, 'usually disappears in time" means you may well still be blue for over a year, nothing we can do about it, sorry-not-sorry, deal with it. So not only will I be radioactive, scarred, punctured, probably bald, rattling and exhausted, I may well also turn into a fucking smurf.


Perfect.






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