Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Singing a Different Tune

So often we hear about how awful our healthcare is and it’s not hard to find someone who bitches about his/her job, employer, or co-workers. Well, I’m here to sing a different tune.

Being diagnosed with breast cancer at 26 years old has certainly turned a few heads. When I told my family doctor about the lump that I found, she assured me that it was probably nothing (based on my age and family history) but certainly took it seriously enough to order the tests that needed to be ordered. Following that, I had 2 radiologists look at 2 different ultrasounds and neither one of them were concerned. In January, my oncology surgeon assured me that I didn’t have cancer and it was in March that I was diagnosed. It took a whole medical team 6 months to diagnose me with cancer.

I have met a lot of other youngins (women in their 20s and 30s) who have had breast cancer who were faced with a similar situation. I for one do not hold any anger towards my doctors, for a few reasons. First of all, they are doctors not perfect; they are human and liable to make some mistakes here and there. My oncology surgeon told me back in January (prior to my diagnosis) that if I did have cancer, I’d be the youngest woman she’d ever seen with breast cancer. Well, now I AM the youngest woman that’s she’s ever seen and let’s hope it stays that way. BUT here’s hoping that she will not tell another woman that she doesn’t have cancer until she has the pathology reports telling her so.

What good what it do to hold any anger towards these physicians who were basing my case on their past education and experience? I won’t get my breast back and I certainly won’t be able to reverse the effects of chemo. Yes, maybe if I would have been diagnosed in September of 2010, I would have been at stage I instead of stage II OR maybe I didn’t have cancer in September and instead it turned malignant in January, we will never know but being angry at someone isn’t going to turn back the clocks and stop my cancer from happening.

Once I was diagnosed, I had incredible care. I had an MRI ordered on March 16th and I had the appointment on the 19th. I was diagnosed on the 11th of March and I had surgery on the 28th. My oncologist would call me at 7pm – well after her day was over – to see how I was feeling. Actually, she called me on the Friday of the Victoria Day Weekend to tell me that my results came back from a test that was performed on my tumour. When she said that my tumour was even more aggressive than they had thought and that we needed to be more aggressive with chemo, she used the phrase ‘Well, if you were my daughter, I would be ordering another 2 rounds of chemo, too’. I knew right then that I wasn’t a number to her, I wasn’t just another patient, she treated me (both emotionally and physically) the same way as she would treat her daughter.

The nurses, I mean let’s give a shout out to all the nurses out there, were amazing. I had one nurse approach me and say ‘My 29 year old cousin was just diagnosed this week with breast cancer, can I give her the link to your blog?’. I was very touched because she recognized that although she could support her cousin as a family member, as a friend, and as a nurse, she couldn’t provide the same support as a fellow cancer patient could and she looked to me to fill that void. The nurses calmed me when I needed to be calmed and laughed when I needed someone to laugh with. Here’s a special ‘thank you’ to all you nurses!

I guess my point is, if you were to type in ‘Healthcare Canada’ into Google, I would assume that you would get more hits about the negative side of hospitals, nurses, and medical teams but in my case I am very grateful to my medical team. During the scariest time of my life, healthcare professionals made is bearable. In my case, it wasn’t just my cancer that was treated, it was me.

Now to work – I returned back to work on March 26th, exactly one year after my last day (March 25th, 2011). I was anxious about my fatigue, my stamina and mostly I didn’t want to be the cancer girl at work. I didn’t want anyone to feel like they couldn’t approach me with an issue because they didn’t want to overload me. I am in the middle of my third week of work and am loving every minute of it. The first day that I saw my boss he gave me a great big hug and now a few times a week he very sincerely calls me ‘Trooper’ and I secretly love it. I am very aware of my limitations and as my gradual return to work progresses, I think my energy levels do too. For the first two weeks, I worked 20 hours a week and now I am onto 25 hours a week. I plan to increase 1 hour a day for every new week.

Last week, I was walking to the bus stop; the sun was shining and all I kept thinking was ‘I’m going to work. I’m going to WORK! I’M GOING TO WORK!!’. What a fantastic feeling after thinking ‘I’m going to chemo. I’m going to CHEMO. I’M GOING TO CHEMO!’. It feels so good to have a routine again. It feels so good to think about bank recs and not cancer wards. It feels so good to feel needed again. I couldn’t be happier that I am back. I couldn’t be happier that I work for such a great company (Shoppers Drug Mart) and I couldn’t be happier that my fear of being the cancer girl at work was totally unwarranted.

As I said, I took a year off and I am very grateful for all those around me who made that financially possible (friends, family, co-workers, my employer, etc.) because I wouldn’t have been ready to come back any sooner. After treatment is over, you need that time to physically heal but then overwhelming you realize that you have just gone through cancer and chemo and you don’t have a breast any more. I think once the initial shock of hearing ‘you have cancer’ wore off, I became so focused on each individual day that my plans didn’t usually go beyond that. You become so consumed with making it through the nausea of today or the appointment tomorrow morning that next week doesn’t matter and the fact that you have cancer isn’t allowed to impact your mentality at the time because you are so focused on surviving. Then, when treatment is over and your doctor visits shift from once a week to once every 3 months, the urgency of today fads away and the realization that you just had cancer starts to sink in. It’s a lot to deal with once treatment is over.

Although treatment was over, I was still trying to find energy to go grocery shopping two months later. In retrospect, I am surprised how many people told me what I should be doing with my time. For example, ‘You should get more exercise’ at the same time as ‘You need your rest’ and ‘You need to make sure that you’re relaxed and keep stress out of your life as much as possible’ at the same time as ‘When are you going back to work? When are you going back to WORK? WHEN ARE YOU GOING BACK TO WORK?’. What I’ve come to realize is that if you’ve never had cancer, you won’t get it, you can’t get it. The flowers and cards and ‘how are you feeling’ have stopped because the physical side of cancer is mostly over (with the exception of this expander in my chest) but unfortunately the psychological side of cancer is here to stay.

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