The highs and lows of secondary breast cancer treatment
How it started and how it's going...
Grief is the price we pay for love – Queen Elizabeth II
These wise words from the Queen sum up perfectly what I’ve been feeling in nauseating waves for the last couple of months since being diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. That is, completely full of love and completely full of grief at the same time.
Grief is a good thing – it shows us how much we love and care. Let’s allow ourselves to feel it.
Many of you have been asking how I’m doing since starting cancer treatment, so here’s a summary of the main stuff that’s happened so far (spoiler alert: it’s a lot).
In July, I went to the Royal Marsden Chelsea for a CT-guided biopsy, where they inserted a needle through my chest under local anaesthetic to take a sample of the tumour. This was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, as I was conscious the entire time (albeit off my tits on sedatives) and was able to
chat to annoy the surgeon with constant questions.
At the end of it, one of the staff asked if I’d like to see the samples, and promptly presented me with a blood-stained jar containing what looked like little worms. (The needle is hollow, so the bits of body matter come out in spindly cylinders). The whole ordeal was fascinating. I’m in awe of the NHS and the fact that I received this groundbreaking diagnostic procedure for free.
The biopsy confirmed that the cancer in my sternum bone is indeed the same cancer that was in my left breast 10 years ago. It responds to the same things, particularly oestrogen, which is good because it means we can treat the cancer by starving my body of oestrogen. (Goodbye, ovaries).
To recap, secondary breast cancer is when the cancer cells travel from your breasts and settle in other parts of the body. In my case, I no longer have cancer in my breasts, but I have it in my sternum. This is not the same as having bone cancer – it’s still breast cancer, but is now called secondary as it’s spread to another spot.
I’ll probably have to keep reiterating this, but secondary cancer is not curable. (I will never be cancer-free.) It is, however, treatable. This means I’ll be on treatment for the rest of my life, but with a combination of amazing drugs and life-changing surgery, I will live for as many years as medicine allows. Some people think of it like a chronic illness – you can live with it, but it’ll never go away entirely.
A lot of people have been asking whether I’m having chemotherapy. The answer is no. I am not having chemo, though I may need it further down the line. My treatment now consists of tablets and injections.
I had chemo in 2012 to treat my primary breast cancer – I was 29 and the only way to try to ensure I lived a long life free of cancer was to blitz my whole body with very harsh chemicals. The reason your hair falls out and your ovaries are decimated on chemo is because those drugs aren’t targeted – they can’t distinguish between the good cells (eg hair follicles, ovaries) and the bad ones (cancer), so they simply blitz everything in their path. That’s why people get so sick on chemo.
Fortunately, I am now on more targeted drugs. The first is a monthly injection in my stomach called Zoladex, which shuts down my ovaries to stop me from producing oestrogen, which is essentially the food that my cancer eats in order to grow.
The second is a daily tablet called Letrozole, which works with the Zoladex to keep my oestrogen at bay. Together, these two drugs starve the cancer, and the end goal is that they not only stop it from growing but also shrink the tumour.
If you could all now join me in a chant of SHRINK, SHRINK, SHRINK.
Zoladex and Letrozole form the backbone of my treatment, but I then have a third, newer drug, a targeted therapy called Ribociclib, which I take in three daily tablets for three weeks of the month. It blocks certain proteins that are important for the growth and division of cells, so the idea is it slows the growth and delays the progression of my cancer. (That’s the science bit done.)
Ribociclib isn’t chemo, and it doesn’t make you sick or lose your hair like chemo, but – like chemo – it can decimate your white blood cells, causing neutropenia, which is where your body lacks enough of the cells you need to fight infection. Hence I have blood tests and ECGs every two weeks to check how I’m doing.
How it started
Unfortunately, on the day of my first Ribociclib, I woke with a horrendous migraine and spent the day vomiting. I made it to the hospital for my blood tests but immediately rushed to the loo to puke. When I bent over the loo to vomit, I felt something snap in my back, and then couldn’t get back up again.
I was taken to a room in a wheelchair, where I had the most almighty breakdown. It wasn’t just about putting my back out – it was about having incurable cancer and how my life was now going to be one long stream of hospital visits.
I hate being sick.
I hate depending on others.
I hate cancer.
But, most of all, I REALLY HATE MIGRAINES.*
*OK, in the grand scheme of things I probably don’t hate migraines as much as I hate cancer, but I really, really, really do hate migraines.
I managed to have my Zoladex injection, ECG and consultation from a hospital bed while I attempted to resuscitate my legs. The next day, because the NHS is quite simply incredible, I managed to get in for an MRI on my spine and pelvis.
There were mutterings of slipped discs, arthritis and – ugggh – even cancer, but fortunately it turned out to be none of those things. The MRI confirmed no signs of cancer in my back and within a few days I’d made a full recovery. I’m pretty sure my back spasmed from the stress of the migraine and vomiting, which in turn might have been triggered by the stress of having secondary breast cancer.
How it’s going
Two weeks into Ribociclib, while on holiday in France, I had blood tests that confirmed I was neutropenic (my white blood cells were dangerously low). However, my oncologist wasn’t too concerned and was happy for me to carry on with my holiday as normal. (Side note: he is clearly one of those doctors who really values his patients’ quality of life, and I appreciate that a lot.)
Fortunately, round three of Zoladex and the blood tests and ECG to start round two of Ribociclib went much better, and I was in and out of the hospital within a nifty five hours. I’ll be having blood tests in two weeks’ time to find out how my body is doing and whether I can continue on the full dose of the drugs or reduce it slightly.
In terms of side effects, I have horrendous hot flushes (not ideal in a heatwave), a bit of queasiness from the Ribo, vaginal dryness (make the most of your glossy vadges while you can, peeps), all-over body itching from insect bites (I’m fairly sure the drugs had something to do with it), general exhaustion, weight gain aaaaaand the big one: an emotional and hormonal tidal wave.
Every day is different and I’m trying to balance my life and work with a LOT of cancer admin, (believe me, until you’ve tried to get travel insurance with an incurable illness, you haven’t lived), but I’m getting through it one day at a time.
In other news…
I got engaged! As I said in my Instagram post, no one has ever made me laugh and cry out of happiness as much as Mark does every day. I met this man on Bumble after about 20 years of searching, so miracles *do* exist.
We had the most amazing holiday in Portugal and then another in France with my soon-to-be stepchildren. Holidays are so much more precious now, and believe me, we went to great lengths to make them happen between my treatments.
And finally, I turned 40.
Turning 40 with breast cancer was a bit like turning 30 with breast cancer, only completely different at the same time. I’ll write about that separately later. All I wanted was a holiday and a nice meal, so I celebrated with my husband-to-be in beautiful Comporta with sun, sea and … swimming.*
*This last one is important because when we were in Portugal, I was swimming with a float for my arms because it hurt to do front crawl. The surgeon said I had to be careful with certain activities because the bone could actually break (uggh).
Five weeks later, I’m swimming front crawl again for the first time in months, and the pain has dramatically reduced. I’m too scared to say that the drugs must be working, but I’m also staying positive and believing that the drugs are working. I’ll find out in a couple of months when I have my follow-up PET-CT scan.
That’s it for now - and I promise the next update will be shorter!
How you can help
Aside from chanting SHRINK, SHRINK, SHRINK to manifest my cancer away, you can support me by doing any of the following:
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Buy my book, Single Bald Female
Listen to my podcast, Life in Food with Laura Price
All of these will help me to make a living so I can focus on staying well. Thanks!
SHRINK SHRINK SHRINK 💪 You’re a inspiration
Amazing Laura. You’re an inspiration!