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Newcastle, NSW, Australia
The big ‘C’ – cancer: it was always something that happened to someone else or someone else’s family, not me. That was until the 4th November 2009; the day I was told I had breast cancer. I remember being told by my GP and feeling disbelief. I am a 35 year old photographer with a beautiful husband and four gorgeous children: I am happy, I am healthy and have no history of breast cancer in my family. How could this happen to me? Since that day I have been on a very strange journey filled with weird, worrisome but also wonderful moments. I know many of you must be thinking ‘Wonderful? How can you have wonderful moments when you are fighting cancer?’ My answer is we all have options and choices and if we look for the good in people and life, we will always find it. I have created this blog to share my experiences with others, especially women who may be on their own breast cancer journey. Along my particular path, some beautiful women, who have beaten cancer themselves, have been very generous in sharing their stories with me, which has appeased some of my fears and worries. Maybe I can help others by sharing my own unique story… Love Mel xx

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Enjoying the little things...

My Dad has a saying, ‘What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing and expecting a different result’. I know that the chemotherapy is helping to rid my body of cancer, but coming into the hospital again to be dosed up with these toxic drugs that I know will make me feel like death for a while, I keep thinking about Dad’s old saying. It feels like insanity.

Today, I am sitting in my ‘injection chair’ at Lingard Private having my sixth and last hit of chemo drugs Taxotere and Carboplatin (I will keep having the Herceptin drug intravenously for the rest of the year). During the days leading to this one, family and friends in a show of positivity, love and support have commented how excited I must be that this is my last chemo treatment. I have tried to put a smile on my face in agreement. To be honest I’m not excited at all. Maybe I will be in a few weeks, but not today. I have the slippery slope of sickness coming.

Today I just keep thinking about how bad the side effects were from my last or fifth chemo cycle and so I’m dreading the coming weeks of sickness. I am so over it and I acknowledge that I don’t sound very positive. Maybe I should just take the rock band ‘Thirsty Mercs’ advice and ‘…build a bridge so I can get over myself…’. Many people have it worse than I do.

Round number five was pretty bad for me, though. For a week and half, my tongue felt burnt and tasted like a frequently used ashtray and my sense of smell became super-sensitive, and not in a good way. Food tasted terrible, my tongue was also ulcerated, and the shroud of nausea overwhelming.

One morning I was feeling particularly dreadful, so Craig took me for a drive to Warners Bay so I could sit by the lake for a while and enjoy the serenity. As we pulled up to park along the esplanade, I could smell bacon cooking and coffee brewing from a local cafĂ© and that set off the retching. Ladies, if you have had an aversion to certain smells during morning sickness, you will know what I’m talking about.

When you feel overwhelmed with sickness, even little ventures seem like such an effort. After spending a few days in bed or on the lounge, my house starts to feel like a prison. Even making the effort to get outside for fresh air can feel like climbing a mountain. It’s in moments like these, when I desperately want to feel well again and enjoy normal activities like walking outside, that I realise how I must appreciate the importance of finding the joy in the little things. Having the energy to water the garden or the strength take a walk down around the lake, spending quality time with my children or enjoying my favourite food.

People often say to me when they see me that I look well. In the third, ‘good’ week of my cycle I do feel normal again and, man, have I learnt to love and cherish those good weeks. It was that wise woman Joni Mitchell who wrote and sang those famous lines, ‘Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…’. So true!

Having chemo again today, even though it is the last time I receive the two ‘heavy’ drugs (i.e. the drugs that cause the worst side effects), I know I am on the downward slide to that foul sickness again. I just have to appreciate every day the sickness finally subsides and take the time to find the joy in those little things: they are a gift.

In my pre-cancer life, I was always busy, busy, busy. I was such a worrier and lived off stress and adrenaline. I have a great job and a wonderful family, but didn’t take the time to stop and appreciate the joy these precious things gave me.

I urge everyone to take a moment everyday to stop and find the joy in whatever little things you are doing and as that famous book by Richard Carlson urges us to do …’Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff’. Because one day you might not know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone!

For your enjoyment, check out fab Joni Mitchell in action and enjoying the moment -

Sunday, April 4, 2010

'Let's talk about sex baby, let's talk about you and me...'

Last Sunday was a magical day…it was Craig and my first year wedding anniversary! I never thought that our first year anniversary would be a momentous milestone – maybe our 50 year anniversary, but not our first. But then again, when we said our vows in the Hunter Valley before our closest friends and family last year, I didn’t think that the terms ‘in sickness and in health’ and ‘til death do us part’ would hold any real significance for us anytime soon. I certainly didn’t anticipate that I would be diagnosed with breast cancer 7 months after our wonderful wedding. It has occurred to me many times that the cancer may have been growing inside me while I was making my vows to Craig.

People comment to me often that I seem ‘strong’, coping with this breast cancer thing - maybe I put on a good front because I don’t feel that strong at times. However, I will give much of the credit for any strength that I may have to my husband, Craig. He has absolutely fulfilled those beautiful promises he made to me on our wedding day a year ago.

As with other major illnesses that people suffer, being diagnosed and treated with breast cancer can have profound effects on friends and family. Craig and I made the decision to put my photography business on hold while I recover from my partial mastectomy and am receiving chemotherapy. I have mentioned in previous blog posts, chemo can be pretty debilitating at times. As such, we have found that much of the financial and domestic responsibilities Craig and I usually share have been taken up by Craig, particularly in those ‘sick’ weeks (with four kids, that can add up to a fair bit of extra work). He never complains though.

Craig and I spent our first wedding anniversary on Sydney Harbour; cruising across the water before lunching at ‘Doyles’ on Watson’s Bay. We spent much of the day reflecting on our first year as husband and wife, especially the last five months. Craig has been really positive and supportive throughout this journey. I worry regularly that I am a burden on him, but he always reassures me that when he married he meant it when he vowed ‘in good times and bad’ and that we will get through this challenging time together.

(*WARNING: in this next section I talk about sex so if there’s a chance you might be embarrassed or offended, you may not want to read on. I am bringing this up because I have been asked how chemo has affected my sex life by another woman having chemotherapy – this information may assist other women undergoing cancer treatment.*)

So, with this in mind, I was surprised when Craig shared with me for the first time last week that he misses the physical intimacy that we had before the cancer; being able to hug me and touch me like he used to without me cringing. I know that my left armpit and left breast still ache from my breast and lymph node surgery, but I guess I hadn’t realised the extent to which I was shying away from Craig physically. He was quick to reassure me that he wasn’t necessarily talking about sex, but more that he couldn’t freely embrace me and touch like he used to.

However, side effects from the chemotherapy have also affected our sex life to some degree. There are a few reasons why, here are three: 1) I don’t feel very sexy when I am trying not vomit; 2) I am toxic for the first three days after chemo so I try not to ‘infect’ Craig with my toxic bodily fluids; 3) the chemo drugs dry up my mouth and vagina, with less lubrication there is an increased chance of getting tears or ulcers from sex, which can allow any nasty germs to enter my body and create an infection. Chemotherapy destroys a person’s immune system, so I need to avoid any germs or infections as my body can’t fight them off. That doesn’t mean sex has been off limits for us, but we need to be careful.

You can imagine this is not a great situation when you are in the ‘honeymoon’ period of your first year of marriage. Communication is the key though. Craig and I are pretty open with each other, so we have been able to talk through any issues that come up and we both know this will only be an issue for a while and then, hopefully, things will go back to normal.

When I was in hospital having my breast surgery, the hospital breast care nurse talked to me about the affects surgery and chemotherapy can have on a patient’s sex life and intimacy with her/his partner so I was a bit prepared for what was to come. This whole cancer treatment and sex thing can be awkward and embarrassing, but I found talking about it with my husband really helps us to stay close and supportive of each other.

If you are experiencing problems with sex or intimacy during or after breast cancer treatment, talk with your partner and/or discuss with your breast care nurse, counsellor or doctor.
One more thing...celebrate your anniversaries!!!! Life is short and so often we get too busy to celebrate those little milestones such as birthdays and wedding anniversaries. I will treasure the memory of my first wedding anniversary - it was a magical day.