Blue cheese, coke and breast cancer
Here is my account of how my breast cancer was treated here in France. Incredibly, I kind of had a dress rehearsal with my husband who had a brain tumour the year before. He survived for three years and, like me, had the best treatment possible.
The French system automatically sends you an invitation to a mammogram once you reach a certain age and I had been going for some time. They always kept a close eye on me as I had micro calcifications.
The “one day moment” came and the doctor suggested I should consider letting them do a biopsy. I can remember I asked him what I should do and he replied that if I was his wife he would tell her to do it. I didn’t argue.
The test results came back very quickly and I was given an appointment with an oncologist and a surgeon. There was no apparent sense of urgency and no heavy sessions with consultants in which they would look at me over their desk saying “it is not good news I’m afraid”. I had none of that. Just a series of professional appointments in which things were looked at and explained factually, professionally and as if it was an everyday occurrence and they were in complete control.
Yet, in the space of one week I had gone from being diagnosed with three very small but suspect areas to having had a sample taken, having three ultrasounds to make sure nothing else was “hiding” and my first operation.
After that op they confirmed that it was in the first few lymph nodes and that I would have to have a mastectomy followed by chemo and radiotherapy. Everyone was still very calm and upbeat – absolutely sure that they would “get it all”. I can remember saying I had a sick husband and two children and couldn’t leave them. The doctor said he had every reason to believe that I wouldn’t be doing that. I believed him. That belief is so important.
The mastectomy followed, again as if it just another days work for them and I had nothing to worry about. Emotionally, I honestly felt nothing but relief that they had got the cancer out of me.
After a week or so, a lady arrived for my first prothesis assessment. This coincided with my first “viewing” of my new left side and my first encounter with a “prothèse avec un soutien-gorge”. She didn’t bat an eyelid – it wasn’t that she wasn’t sympathetic, it was just something that we had to deal with, and deal with it we did. The strangest thing was how close my heart felt to the outside of my body. I still marvel about that today!
There are no MacMillan nurses here and there was no outside support apart from post operative nursing care at home. Once I had finished one regime, it was on with the next and a whole new set of people. From what I can see the French prefer to keep an air of total impartiality and shy away from becoming too “close” to their patients. The oncologist and surgeon agreed the regime beforehand and then arranged the timings between them, with appointments with each of them alternating throughout the treatment and follow-up period.
Fruit Salad in a pot
I left hospital and two weeks later went for my first chemo in a room with four other women, all at various stages of their treatment, sat in chairs with their regimental drips going into the specially inserted box in the right side of their chests. This is where I realised that things were going to be different for quite a while. I had a huge mop of long curly hair and these women were in various stages of hair loss or wearing scarves. Some looked upbeat whilst others were in despair. When lunchtime came they tucked into a pot of fruit salad and yoghurt. No way Jose! Personally, I couldn’t touch the food in there. As my treatment progressed, I asked for a room on my own with a bed so that I could lie down and “relax” in private.
As it turned out the effects of this first session were going to be my worst. Once home I was violently ill for about five hours, slumped on the thankfully cold loo floor, unable to move. At that point I really did want to die. I finished up in hospital where they gave me more anti-nausea medication and put me on a liquid drip for 24 hours. Apparently it doesn’t hit everyone this way but I am glad it did – you see to me it meant it was working!
Before the next session my sister in law told me something that I still hold dear. “When they administer the chemo, tell yourself it is your army going in to fight what might be left of the cancer, welcome it with open arms and tell it to do its worst and kill all the cancer cells it can find”.
Blue cheese and pears
During this time, I couldn’t stand the sight of food or drink and the only thing I could keep down was blue cheese with pears and a glass of coke. (I cannot stand the sight, taste or smell of them today). Not even lovely French bread could tempt me. The really bad news was that despite all this I didn’t lose weight!
Eventually the day came for the really life changing chemo. A very chic French nurse sat in front of me, stroked my hand and said “In two weeks all your hair is going to fall out. Your head will be itchy and it will start. Do you understand?” I just smiled at her and nodded. The new French word of the day was gratte (itch).
Two weeks to the day, she was exactly right, it did. I woke up, ran my fingers through my hair and they came out like a gorillas. At that point I got angry, really angry. I went to the mirror and had a “chat” with the cancer. I told it “you xxxx thing are not going to beat me. Do you hear me? I am going to decide when I lose my xxxx hair, not you. I am not going to be beaten by a xxxx coward like you who is hiding in my body and trying to make me die. xxxx you”!! I was swearing at the cancer like a trooper and it felt good!
With that, I phoned the hairdresser and went, with my husband, to get my hair shaved off and be fitted for a wig (une perruque). It was a very weird and somewhat liberating experience. I felt I was in control of the cancer as I sat there with my curls at my feet. Anyway, it would eventually come back thicker and even curlier (yes, that really does happen!!).
My husband, bless him, sat there with me and told me that I was beautiful, that my newly uncovered ears were cute and that I had a lovely shaped head. I believed he meant it.
I didn’t want to see people’s reactions or for them to worry about hiding their feelings when they saw me for the first time by appearing with a scarf and, when they were ready, and I had closed my eyes, I took the scarf off. I am grateful to them all for overcoming their shock quickly and supporting me through it.
The chemo continued for another six months. Some of the worst times were when I would have my hands in a bag of ice to try to stop the chemical concoction from attacking my nails. Boy, was that cold! As it turned out it didn’t work but it was worth a go.
As for my general health, I was nauseous, exhausted and in a bit of pain at times for two weeks after the chemo and worked from bed most days, then I had one and a half weeks where I was okay and then a few days of getting myself prepared against the dread of the next session.
After chemo came radiotherapy and my tattoos. To make sure they pinpointed the laser accurately, they marked me with a series of tiny, indelible black dots (tatouage). I am assured these will go eventually but hey, again, it was a bit of warpaint!
I found radiotherapy to be tiring, I didn’t like being in the room on my own or the noise whilst they zapped me and I soon got fed up of going every day for four weeks. I hated the waiting room too. The stiff British upper lip, of which I guess I must have a trace, is very different to many of the French people that I saw who did not worry about displaying discomfort, pain and unhappiness to those in the immediate vicinity. I guess I didn’t want to consider the fact that I was in the same boat. I don’t know, it was part of my psyche to keep upbeat about the prognosis – I had two children to think about who needed me. I was going to survive. The doctors said so!
Here I am eight years later with a prothesis which does the job but is a bit annoying at times. I may have a reconstruction one day but, because they took so much away, it is very difficult and involves three operations, one of which would be 8 hours. If having two breasts defines me what does that say about me as a person? Not a lot I reckon.
My major niggle is the anti-cancer tablets that I take – there are several different types depending on the type of breast cancer, your age, etc. The problem with mine is that if I drink anything hot, feel the slightest stress or become warm, my face (and it’s just my face) turns into a shower with no off switch! There are other side effects but, at the end of the day, I am here for my children and that is really all that counts.
So what have I learned?
• Mammograms really do save lives and the French are very good at offering them. Go for it!
• Belief in your doctors is crucial. Most of them speak English but will not do so voluntarily. If your French is a cause of concern to you, make them parlez anglais.
• Chemo is a warrior. Do not be scared of it, it is on your side.
• You can do fantastic things with scarves – très chic websites exist on the subject!
• Your hair really does come back thicker and, usually, curlier or curly (bouclé).
• Other body hair does not necessarily grow back as much (yay!).
• You can wear false nails if yours are affected like mine were.
• Radiotherapy is tiring and you have to stay out of the sun but that’s about it.
• It’s great to celebrate after each six monthly check up (champagne) – I’m on yearly check ups now.
Of course, not everyone has the same type of chemotherapy, not everyone has the same adverse reactions and not everyone has the same treatment regime. Whatever they have though, it is a battle. Is it a battle of wills, mind over matter, fate, or just luck? I have no idea.
As far as I am concerned I dealt with it the best way I could. I was very frightened but I focussed my mind on fighting the cancer, not the battle scars my hard working army had left me with. The lack of emotion but intense sense of care and confidence that I received at the hands of my French doctors and nurses was not impersonal, it was done out of necessity, for me and for them. They made me feel safe; not because they liked me or understood my personal issues, but because they knew they could do their job. Arrogance? Maybe, but they know you have to have belief in them.
I hope that some of the thought processes that I have shared here might help someone who is fighting this disease. Be positive, believe. Trust in the French health system too. I know, first hand and from other experiences, that they know what they are doing when it comes to cancer.
One day, I will have blue cheese and pears again and I will drink a glass of coke – just not yet!