Ruth – Living with cancer through a pandemic

Turning 42 was supposed to be the best year of my life. A lifelong Douglas Adams fan, this was supposed to be ‘my year’. Instead not only do I get a life-threatening health condition, but I also have to go through treatment during a pandemic. I must really have upset a higher power in a previous life. 

It’s not just cancer I’m facing during this coronavirus lockdown. A few weeks before my diagnosis, I was made redundant. Unemployment, with the subsequent job search process, mixed with cancer and in a pandemic. Yep, I’ve really upset that higher power.  

December 2019. I’m in a packed pub having a Christmas meal with friends. When I talk about my planned surgery of double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery, my friends immediately make me howl with laughter ‘you can have my back fat. I’ve got some tummy fat to spare, what about fat from my thighs?’

February 2020. I’m again in a busy pub screaming at the TV as England score another Try in the Six Nations, then followed by ‘Baywatch for girls’ as the camera does a slo-mo on one of the players getting their shirt ripped off during a tackle. These are the things in life that make cancer bearable. Cancer isn’t so scary when my friends laughed at it. Cancer is an experience you can overcome if it is shared. The burden is too big to bear alone. Yet, for the last nine months, that is exactly what has happened. The biggest challenge anyone can face, and I’ve faced it more or less alone. My friends and family have all been amazing and done what they can, but given the rules we have to follow with COVID, there is only so much anyone can do.  

I’m one of the few people in the country who loved lockdown, there’s no FOMO. However, as soon as places started to open again, missing out become unbearable at times.

My Breast Friends family has really been amazing and there is no way I would have made it through treatment without them. Online stories, mindfulness sessions, coffee afternoons. Just knowing that someone who understood was there for me at the end of my iPad really helped. The world felt a little less lonely. 

The fear of re-occurrence is never far from your mind. If it does re-occur, it is most likely to be within the next 12 months. To say this thought has shaken me to the core is an understatement. If I only have 12 months to live (and I might not, I plan on being around to annoy everyone for the next 40 years), then I want to party as no one has before, except that I can’t. 

Covid-19 has meant that all reconstruction surgery has been postponed. One implant had been removed with infection, so I was living with a completely flat chest on one side covered by a load of rolled-up skin, and an unexpanded tissue expander implant on the other. And this went on for nine months. It broke me. I couldn’t look down, wearing nine bras a day just to cover up this truly horrendous sight of the body I have looked after well for so many years. It felt like I’d been raped…. but by cancer. In November 2020, I had the surgery I needed, and I can’t help but say that I have the world’s most cracking boobs (something that I thought I would never say). They are truly magnificent. 

The other big effect on treatment was the impact on post-chemo injections. Normally a district nurse would have visited me at home, but that service was cut. My husband had to do the injections instead; a trauma for us both. Seeing my husband come at me with a needle in his hand was truly terrifying. He also found it traumatic having to deliberately inflict pain on me. He had to have three G&Ts just to get the first one done. And there were 20 of these all together. When the last one was done, we clung to each other both crying. I hope I never have to go through anything so traumatic again. That was truly horrific, but we got through it together and it’s done. 

All support functions have been cut. I’ve seen one Breast Care Nurse once in nine months. The BCNs are supposed to be my support and lifeline, but they have been transferred to other services. All the holistic therapy services have been cut; a way to improve my mental health and feel like a person again, and not just a specimen in a gigantic petri dish. Nope, non-existent.

The hospital staff has been amazing. I have been truly humbled by nurses putting their lives on the line, just to save my life. 

There are some positives to the situation. In an attempt to improve my mental health and make up for the fact that I miss going to the gym, I’ve undertaken a self-imposed challenge. I’m trying to cover as many walks on the Northants Walks website as possible and absolutely loving it. A challenge that, without cancer or Covid, I would never have undertaken. I didn’t realise just how many beautiful places there are so close to home. Absolutely loving the new experiences. 

I would urge anyone reading this to check for lumps. Without me checking for lumps, I would be dead right now; it is that simple. Please, please, please, if you are invited for a test or scan, please go. The alternative is worse.

Please make sure you #knowyourself.

Ruth Hemmingway on a walk