The award shortlist

I started this blog twenty-seven days after I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember testing out the idea in a conversation with my mum, before I knew I was going to do it. ‘Some people write a blog about it all,’ I said. Mum said she thought I should. I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember, and it makes sense to me to process things by putting them down on paper. I considered just writing it for myself, to keep a record, to remember the small details, but I decided quite quickly to make it public. It might help someone, I told myself. But I’m not convinced that was why I did it. I think I needed the support. And I got it, in waves.

So many brilliant things have come out of me blogging. Like me staying sane. Like a friend of a friend telling me about Mummy’s Star and Younger Breast Cancer Network. Like meeting other women in the same (bigger than I thought it was) boat. Like being told I’ve made people feel less alone. Any one of these things would have made it all worthwhile. All of them together make it a decision I’m thankful for every day.

Yesterday, I found out that my blog is a finalist in the BritMums Brilliance in Blogging Awards 2017, in the Inspire category. I found out in a strange way, after a fellow blogger announced her finalist status and I checked the link she’d posted. I had received an email to tell me the news, but it had gone to my junk and I hadn’t seen it. I’m not sure whether it’s because of that or because I feel so out of my depth in this world of professional bloggers, but I’m completely astonished to have been shortlisted.

Breast Cancer and Baby is up against seven other blogs, all of which look a hundred times more professional than mine and are full of great images and slick navigation. I’ve been sent a voting button to add to my blog, but my package is too basic to accommodate it. If nothing else, this nomination has given me the kick I needed to give my blog a bit more love and attention.

I realise the following is going to sound a little like a winner’s speech. That’s because I feel like I’ve won to get to this stage. I want to say thank you to everyone who’s read my blog, shared my posts and got in touch with kind words of support and love. A handful of times, someone has said to me that their sister’s friend or their friend’s sister or someone else who is impossibly young has got breast cancer and that they’ve passed on the link to my blog. That makes me so proud, and I wish all of those women well. I hope some of them are reading this post, and I hope they’re winning the fight.

If you want to vote for me to win this award, you can do so here (I’m shortlisted in the Inspire category). Thank you.

The first birthday

Elodie turned one this week, and my nephew, Jay, will turn one next week, so at the weekend we had our family over, ate some cake and opened some presents. Rachel came. She’s been coming home for short visits on Saturdays for a few weeks, but this was the first time she’d been to our house. She was in good spirits, and it was wonderful to have her there.

And then on Elodie’s actual birthday, we drove up to Sheffield, where she spent her first couple of weeks of life in an intensive care unit. It was Paul’s idea, and as soon as he suggested it, it seemed like the right thing to do. On the drive up, Elodie slept and I asked Joseph what he was going to say to the nurses. ‘Thank you for looking after our Elodie,’ he said. He spotted car transporters and diggers out of the window, and I was overcome with memories. A year ago, Elodie made this journey in an ambulance in the middle of the night, a dedicated doctor and a nurse on hand to look after her. And then Paul followed a few hours later, and stayed in Sheffield until she was well enough to come back to Leicester. I made the trip several times, with my parents and with Paul’s. I couldn’t stay up there with her, because we had Joseph at home and because I had to start my chemo.

We parked in the tight multi-storey car park where we once spotted Jarvis Cocker and made our way to the neonatal unit. We saw a few nurses who remembered us, and we thanked them, our voices cracking. They made a fuss of Joseph and said how great Elodie was looking and asked whether I was well. A full year later, they remembered our story. But then they went back to their work. An impossibly small baby was wheeled by, and they had to go to it. It was a strange moment, as I realised that, though their impact on our lives has been huge, our impact on theirs was tiny. They saved our baby’s life. But it’s just what they do. Every single day. It’s what they were doing then, and how could we possibly keep them from it? We couldn’t. We wouldn’t.

On one of my visits to Sheffield last year, I saw a mother say goodbye to her baby. I was holding Elodie, mindful of the tubes that connected her to various machines, and I noticed this woman having a long talk with a man who I now presume was the chaplain. She wasn’t allowed to hold her baby; it was too ill. But that day, the nurses took the baby from the incubator and gave it to the mother to hold. They drew a curtain around its cot. Suddenly, I knew what was happening, and I told Paul that we had to leave the ward, had to give this family some privacy. When we went back later, the cot was empty, the mother gone. It’s haunted me ever since, that memory. How easily our places could have been reversed. How Elodie’s birthday could be something else entirely, for us. I wonder whether that mother had another child at home, or whether she’ll go on to have another. I wonder how she remembers to breathe.

We left the hospital and walked to the park where we took Elodie for her first walk outside. It was near the end of her time there. The hospital staff lent us a huge old-fashioned Silver Cross pram, and we wrapped our little girl in layer upon layer of clothes and blankets, despite the mild June weather. And then we took her to the park. Such an ordinary thing to do. Such a privilege. This time, we sat on a bench under some trees and looked at the ducks on the pond. Joseph took his Paw Patrol figures from his rucksack and played for a minute or two. Elodie sat in her pushchair, contentedly shaking a rattle. We took some photos of the four of us, went to a pub for some lunch, and set off for home.

Having heard me say it many times, Joseph likes to ask me whether I’m a lucky mummy. I tell him that I am, because I have him and I have Elodie. He says that Elodie’s lucky because she has him, that he is lucky because he has her. He knows nothing of the recent terrorist attacks or the Grenfell Tower fire in London. He knows nothing of how close we came to losing Elodie in those days after she was born. Lucky is just a word to him. Our family has been extraordinarily unlucky in some ways and overwhelmed with luck in others. I am godless, but I whisper something like prayers to no-one in particular, thankful for what we have.

The gift of new bras

I’ve had more downs than ups recently. I’ve had tonsillitis, an upset stomach and an ear infection in two weeks; my immune system hasn’t recovered, it seems. I’m not sleeping well. Sometimes it’s the kids, sometimes it’s not. I lie awake for long stretches in the night, thinking about what I need to do the following day and how tough it will be on so little sleep.

A couple of weeks ago, dosed up on antibiotics, I went to London for a friend’s baby shower. It was an afternoon tea, and I sat next to my friend Sarah, who’s recently had her second son. We talked about our children, and then about breasts. Pregnancy ones, breastfeeding ones, post-surgery ones. How you can feel a little bit less than yourself when you don’t recognise your own body. How that can wear you down.

The following day, I received an email with a £200 gift voucher for Bravissimo, a bra shop I’d never stepped inside. I’d told Sarah that I have a drawer full of bras that don’t fit me, but that I’m putting off buying new ones in case I end up having further surgery. In the message that accompanied the voucher, she informed me that this was ‘fun money’ and that I must spend it without thinking about what might happen further down the line. I thanked her. I booked an appointment for a fitting.

I was a little nervous about the experience. I hate the way my implants look and feel, and I’m still unsure about whether I’ll go under the knife again because of that. It’s hard to take your clothes off in front of a stranger when you don’t have any confidence. It’s hard to say you’ve had a double mastectomy, by way of a warning. People don’t expect it, when you’re still relatively young. But the woman who measured me was totally unfazed by it. She just brought in bras, and helped me fasten them, and talked to me about different styles and colours and fits. I chose four bras and left feeling a little more upbeat, a little more normal.

It’s been a few days now, and the bag is still sitting on my bedroom floor with my new bras carefully wrapped inside. Out of habit, I’m still reaching for the bras that don’t fit (today, I’m wearing a 40A, and I was measured as a 36D). I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been ill and have spent quite a bit of time in bed. Perhaps it’s because I’m a creature of habit. It takes me a while to make a change. But I will. I will go through my drawer and pull out the bras from before I had my children, when I was pregnant, when I was breastfeeding, when I was swollen from surgery, because they’re not doing me any favours as I try to adjust to my new self. I’ve found a charity that sends bras to women in developing countries. I like the idea of them being of use to someone else, now they’re no use to me.

I’m so grateful to my friend for knowing just what I needed before I did. Once again, generosity and kindness have made everything I’m facing that bit easier. Joseph is forever telling me what is kind and what isn’t, and I love the fact that kindness is important to him. When I was three, it was probably important to me, too. I think I lost sight of its value for a while, as an adult, but I know what it’s worth now. And I don’t intend to forget again.

The nagging fear

Last night, I read that Olivia Newton-John’s breast cancer has returned, and spread to her spine, twenty five years after her initial diagnosis. I don’t know what to think about it, really. I watched Grease so many times as a child that she’s practically an old friend. On the one hand, I think that twenty five years is a pretty great run. Can I see myself surviving for another twenty five years? Perhaps. I certainly don’t take it for granted that I will. On the other, it makes me angry, that cancer is so sly it can lie in wait for a quarter of a century and then hit again. I imagine after twenty five years, you might have stopped expecting it. Perhaps.

Just as my body isn’t back to how it was before the cancer (and I don’t just mean the scars, I mean daily aches, stiffness and tiredness), my mind is forever changed. There’s no getting back to normal, I don’t think. You have to redefine normal, and start from there. I’m scared. It’s as simple as that. I’m scared all the time.

It’s about the children, mostly. About leaving them without a mum, leaving Paul to bring them up on his own. It’s about the potential of missing out on stupid things, like watching them splash eachother in the bath or reading Roald Dahl to them at bedtime. It’s about never finding out what they love: sports or music, sciences or arts. Never knowing whether either of them will be a reader or a writer, like me.

There’s a more selfish side to the fear, too. If I don’t get a book published, I’ll be hugely disappointed. I’ve wanted it for so many years, and I’ve worked hard. Like so many people before me, I want to leave something behind. I want something of me to live on. And before, I felt like there was still time. These days, I’m not so sure.

Yesterday, I went to an appointment at the opticians. I visited my sister. I walked to nursery and back twice to drop off and then pick up the kids. I watched Britain’s Got Talent. I listened to quite a bit of of Luisa Omielan’s What Would Beyonce Do? I did some washing. I edited a blog post for a friend. Are these the kind of things I should be doing? The kind of things I would do if I knew, for certain, that cancer was going to come back for me? Some of them. But you can’t just live as if you’re going to die tomorrow, can you? Not when you have a family and a house. Washing, for example, is non-negotiable.

I mentioned Jackie in my last post, the one about the incredible women I’ve met through having cancer. She let me know recently that her cancer has come back. That it’s in her bones. Not twenty five years after her first diagnosis, but three. In her typical fashion, she seemed more concerned when breaking the news about scaring fellow breast cancer survivors than about her own situation. She is doing what I would do: looking at her life and making decisions about what is and isn’t worth her time. She’s doing more writing. Making the most of her family. But I’m sure she’s doing her fair share of washing, too.

Life goes on, doesn’t it? Until it doesn’t. I might have fifty years ahead of me, I might have one. But that’s true of anyone. Nothing is promised, nothing certain. I will keep writing, keep reading, keep washing. I will teach my children the important lessons and try to laugh with them every day. I might be lucky. I might still be lucky.

The incredible women

When I was first diagnosed, it never crossed my mind that cancer would bring a parade of incredible new women into my life. I knew a fair number of great women already, and I was – and continue to be – grateful for them. My existing friends and family took care of me, wrapped me in their kindness and love, and it helped enormously. But there were things they couldn’t do, things they didn’t know. Having been through breast cancer herself, my mum was able to answer some of my questions, but she hadn’t had chemotherapy, hadn’t done it all with two young children, hadn’t been plunged into surgical menopause in her thirties.

But there are women who have. And I was lucky enough to find them. I found them in the amazing Facebook group Younger Breast Cancer Network (YBCN). I found them at Breast Cancer Care’s Younger Women Together event. I found them through this blog.

There’s Rachel. I saw her this week. She lives seven miles from me and was also diagnosed during pregnancy, four months after I was. We share an oncologist and our treatment plans were similar in many ways. Rachel finished active treatment the day before I saw her. Her hair is about half an inch long all over and she looks stunning. Her baby boy is a happy and healthy eight-month-old. In September, she’s modelling for Breast Cancer Care’s annual fundraising fashion show and in October she’s running a half marathon to raise money for Cancer Research UK.

There’s Emily. I reached out to Emily online after she posted a photo of a Jon McGregor book on her chemo tray table. I found out that she’s a short story writer. She didn’t tell me but it gradually became apparent that she’s a pretty successful one; the kind who wins prizes. She won a copy of Jon McGregor’s latest novel, Reservoir 13, in a Twitter competition, and she posted it to me while I was in hospital having my double mastectomy, ahead of its publication. The kindness of this gesture is etched on my memory.

There’s Jackie. Jackie’s another writer. She’s published a memoir, Tea & Chemo, the proceeds of which go to breast cancer charities, and a novel, Glass Houses. I asked her for some advice about publishing a while back, and she sent me a long and thoughtful email packed with useful information. She’s also shown a lot of kindness and compassion towards me in regards to my sister’s stroke, and has shared the story of her own daughter’s stroke.

There are others. Carie, who lay on the floor beside me during a laughter yoga workshop while tears of joy ran into our ears. Bethan, who I recognised at the Younger Women Together event and later realised I knew from my course at university but hadn’t seen for fifteen years. Amy, who lit up that same event with her green hair and her warmth, and who later set up a group for us to share our journeys back to fitness. Marianne, who has said so many kind things about my writing that have lifted my spirits, and who sent me a book, which is the quickest way to my heart. Adi, who had her mastectomy surgery a day after me and became my much-needed recovery buddy. Laura, who lives locally and who I’ve run into twice at the supermarket, where we’ve chatted over our trolleys about this shitty disease.

These women are fierce and I’m proud to know them. They fundraise, they fight, they raise children, they work, they live. I would never have met them if it wasn’t for the breast cancer that unites us. And while I don’t think I’ll ever be pleased I had it, I’m certainly pleased I have them. They’ve shown me so many things: that there’s no right or wrong way to handle this; that there is life (so much life) after a diagnosis; that there is beauty in courage and in weakness. I want to thank them for their kindness and their time. I want to wish them well. I want to let them know that I think of them often, that their stories are in my heart, that I am here if they need me.

The first cancerversary

I was aware of the first anniversary of my cancer diagnosis looming, of course, but the week leading up to it was a busy one. We had a series of friends visiting, and things were a bit chaotic. The day itself was a Saturday. We had three friends staying, plus a three-month-old baby. I took Joseph to a birthday party in the morning, where I made the mistake of pretending to be a monster and chasing a group of three-year-olds around the multi-level soft play structure, and then spent the rest of the party being asked to be a monster again several thousand times. On the way home, we called in to see my sister. She’s moved from a hospital in Leicester to a care centre in Loughborough, which is much closer to home.

And then, in the middle of the afternoon, I escaped from my life for a few hours with two friends with whom I love spending time. We drove ten minutes and ended up a million miles away, at Ragdale Hall spa, where we chatted on loungers, lazed in the outdoor pool and sweated in the steam room before heading off for blissful treatments and a lovely dinner. Living so close to Ragdale Hall, I go there every chance I get, and I never want to leave.

Back when we booked this particular trip, I imagined I’d spend the time away from my hectic daily life reflecting on the past year, but I didn’t. I just enjoyed the peace and the company and the luxury of it all. It’s funny, there is reflecting to do, and it’s important to process everything that’s happened and to feel lucky and sad and worried, but I do it every day. While I’m cooking dinner or bathing the children or walking to playgroup. I don’t need to set aside time for it. I’d thought that day would feel different, somehow, but it was just a day. I hope there’ll be many more like it.

A couple of nights ago, I was reading Joseph a bedtime story and there was a mention of things in life that can hurt you. ‘What can hurt you?’ he asked. I didn’t know where to start, or what he was ready to hear. ‘If you get poorly,’ I said, after a pause. ‘Like stinging nettles,’ he said. ‘They hurt a lot.’ He’d fallen into a patch of stinging nettles a few days before, and they were much on his mind. ‘Yes,’ I told him, ‘like stinging nettles.’ I’m glad the things that have happened to me and Rach didn’t come to mind. He’s been shielded from the worst of it.

He asked me a while ago about what had happened to Rachel. I told him it was called a stroke, and a few minutes later he referred to it as a hug. For him, the word stroke is a positive one, meaning a gentle touch, a bit like a hug. In time, he’ll come to understand the truth of it all, of course. But for now, it’s ok by me that he thinks about it all in this way.

Elodie continues to behave nothing like a premature baby might. She’s tall and strong, and although she can crawl, now, she doesn’t want to. She’s trying to walk with our help whenever she can, and she often stands for much longer than she should with no support. She’s in the process of having settling-in sessions at the nursery Joseph goes to, and will be starting there properly in a couple of weeks.

After an initial failed attempt to find the ports to inject saline into my breast implants, I’ve had two successful ‘inflations’. The process isn’t much fun, involving two doctors, an ultrasound machine and a big needle. But the breasts are starting to look and feel a little more like they should. And the next inflation will be my last.

Things feel calmer, on the whole. There are still appointments to go to, blood tests to have, medications to take. I don’t feel it’s all behind me just yet. Perhaps I never will. I feel changed. On good days, I’m positive about those changes, and on bad days I feel like a lot has been taken from me and nothing has really been gained. Rachel said the other day that all this is a test. I don’t know about that, but I’m proud of how we’re fighting, how we’re winning.

The first Zometa

During a recent hospital appointment, my oncologist mentioned that he wanted me to have six-monthly infusions of a drug called Zometa, to strengthen my bones, for the next three years. It was primarily to protect my bones from the cancer spreading there, he said, but a useful side effect was that it would help to reduce my risk of osteoporosis. Almost as an aside, he mentioned that it isn’t available on the NHS yet, and that my health insurance company are unlikely to cover it, since it’s preventative (this was also true for my oophorectomy and my double mastectomy).

He was right about the health insurance, so I arranged to have it at my local NHS hospital as a ‘top-up’ patient. I didn’t give it much thought. It was one more hospital appointment on the calendar. A couple of days before, Paul asked me whether I knew what the side effects were. I didn’t. He looked them up and read them out to me. It took a long time. I still wasn’t really fazed. I know from having chemo that not everyone experiences every side effect, and that all you can do is wait and see.

The infusion takes about twenty minutes, but for various reasons (filling in paperwork, making the payment over the phone, seeing the oncologist about my blood test results, and plenty of waiting around), we were at the hospital for close to five hours. I was wincing my way through Stephen King’s Misery, and didn’t really mind too much. The infusion itself, when I finally had it, was fine. We went home and put the kids to bed.

At some point in the early hours of the next morning, I started having feverish half-dreams. The kind where I hit upon ‘amazing’ ideas for stories and novels that I planned to start the second I awoke (and had no recollection of ten minutes later, which was probably for the best). When I woke up properly, and Paul brought Elodie into bed with us, and Joseph clambered in of his own accord, I realised that I wasn’t well. I was sweating and shivering, aching all over. I was supposed to be looking after both of the children that day (with some help from Paul’s mum) and I just knew that I couldn’t do it.

Luckily, once again, friends and family stepped in. My mum and Paul’s mum juggled childcare for the next couple of days, while I lay in bed with the door propped open so I could feel like I was involved. They kept bringing Elodie up to see me, and Joseph visited often to tell me what he was doing, and apart from feeling hideous, it was quite lovely. A local friend offered to take Joseph out for a couple of hours, and they went to the park and for a drink and a flapjack in a café, and he came back full of smiles and stories.

As all mums know, a couple of days in bed is the stuff that dreams are made of. Unfortunately, whenever you get that time, the circumstances are usually such that you can’t enjoy it. I couldn’t read, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t concentrate on anything for more than a minute or two. I just lay there, useless, often unable to reach out from under the duvet to take paracetamol, because I felt so cold.

And then it was over, as quickly as it had begun, and I felt normal again. Not normal as in how I felt before cancer, but my new normal, which involves aching joints and a lot of tiredness. I’m glad I only have to face this ordeal twice a year, and I’ve read that the first time is often the worst, in terms of side effects. Here’s hoping. If it’s like that every time, I’ll feel a bit put out about having to pay £400 a go to feel like death.

As I came out of the fog, Elodie finally took a turn for the better, too. After weeks and weeks of coughing and wheezing, she’s managed four nights in a row of uninterrupted sleep (ending at 5.30am, which isn’t ideal, but I’ll definitely take it).

When people ask me how I am now, I say I’m fine. That’s it’s all finished. But it’s not, quite. I’ve read in various blogs and articles that it’s never really over, and that’s true. I still have frequent appointments, and I’ll never be able to forget all this or stop being scared that it will come back. When I asked a breast care nurse a while ago whether I can colour my hair now, she said ‘yes, just be normal now’. And it’s easier said than done, but I’m giving it a try.

The recuperation

I came home from hospital with four drains, and after a week two were removed. I expected to be more comfortable but I wasn’t, really. Every movement felt like trapped skin being tugged. Each morning, I measured the fluid that had been drained and called the hospital, hoping they’d ask me to come in to have the final two drains removed. Finally, after two weeks, they did. And as soon as the drains were gone, I felt like a different person. I’d walked into the hospital hunched over and wincing and I walked out like myself.

In those first two weeks of recovery, Paul and his mum and my parents had handled the childcare and looked after me. From then on, I was able to help a bit. Making dinner, feeding Elodie, that sort of thing. I still spent quite a bit of time resting, but frustratingly didn’t get through as many books as I’d imagined. Gradually, I got better.

Elodie didn’t, though. She’d been coughing and sleeping terribly for weeks on end. The night before my appointment for the first injection of saline to inflate my new breasts, Paul ended up taking her into hospital in the early hours, and was told she had bronchiolitis. She was still being monitored when it was time to leave for my appointment, so Mum drove me. I hadn’t given this process much thought. As the surgeon approached me with the needle, I asked whether it would hurt. He assured me that it wouldn’t. But it did. He couldn’t find the port which sits beneath my skin, so he ended up digging around a lot with the needle, and it was horrible.

After a few tries, he arranged for me to have an ultrasound and asked the sonographer to mark an ‘x’ on my skin to show him where the port was situated. For some reason, the sonographer marked a circle instead, which didn’t give a precise location. There were a few more painful jabs, and, seeing that I was crying with pain, the surgeon gave up. He said I should come back in three weeks and he’d try again. And he left the room.

A couple of breast care nurses stayed with me while I got dressed. I couldn’t stop crying, and one of them put her arm around me. She said she understood that I’d wanted to get the inflation process underway so that I could start feeling normal again. But it wasn’t about that. I’m really not too concerned about the size of my breasts. I was just in pain and feeling sorry for myself, and worried about my daughter, and so, so tired. The nurse said that if they couldn’t find the port next time, they’d offer to replace the implants. I thought, but didn’t say, that I wouldn’t go through another surgery. That, if it came to it, I’d stick with what I’ve got.

As always, friends and family rallied round during this time of recovery. Some distant friends visited and local friends brought brownies and flowers and cards and took Joseph for playdates. Every day, parcels arrived in the post. Chocolate, tea, biscuits, books. I felt spoiled, and lucky.

Throughout this entire period, we’ve all been taking it in turns to be ill (other than Joseph, who probably brought all the bugs home from nursery). Even now, six weeks after the operation, Paul, Elodie, both my parents and I have coughs and colds. I’m hoping for more sunshine, now it’s March, so that we can get outside more and breathe some clean air and finally ditch these persistent germs. I’m looking forward to park trips without hats and gloves, to walks in the woods, to playing in the garden. I’m looking forward.

The double mastectomy

A few days before my surgery, I had to go to the hospital for my pre-op assessment. Paul was doing his final work trip to London for about a month and my parents were looking after Joseph and Elodie, so I went on my own. I didn’t have any qualms about it. But then I saw the breast care nurse who I saw just before my lumpectomy, and she asked me to fill her in on what had happened since. And somewhere in the middle of telling her all of it, about finding out I was BRCA2, about Elodie’s birth and how close we came to losing her, about the chemotherapy, about Rachel’s stroke, I just fell apart. And I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.

I don’t know how much of it was the recapping of what’s happened, and how much was the dawning realisation of what was about to happen, but I think I needed to break like that, and I’m glad it happened there. The nurse did so many important things for me that afternoon. She listened to it all. She got my surgeon to agree to keep me in hospital for a few days after the operation so I could rest. She phoned my GP and made me an appointment to talk about whether I would be a good candidate for counselling or anti-depressants. And she told the car parking team that they mustn’t give me a ticket, despite me going over my allotted time by three hours.

There followed a rough couple of days, in which we were all ill. Joseph was sent home from nursery; Elodie wasn’t sleeping. I longed for the surgery day to come, because all I wanted to do was lie down. And when it did come, Paul and I got in the car at 6.30am as Joseph and my mum used a torch to investigate all the dark corners in the house and my dad held Elodie in his arms. I was strangely calm.

I was shown to my own room, which I didn’t expect, and we were looked after by a health care assistant. When we were talking about our children, she said ‘My gran used to say, when they’re little, you could eat them, and when they get to eighteen, you wish you had.’ She measured me for surgical stockings, brought me a gown. And then the surgeon came and drew all over my chest with a marker pen. I was first on the list, he told me. I wouldn’t have long to wait.

Despite it being a much bigger operation, I wasn’t as scared as I’d been last May, when I had my lumpectomy. I was getting used to this, to how it worked. I was no longer worried about waking up mid-surgery. I expected to be sick after I came round. The unknowns were fewer. I was wheeled down to the operating theatre on my bed and I had to say goodbye to Paul in the exact same spot at the first time, and I barely cried.

The next thing I remember is being violently sick and unable to move. I think there were a lot of people around me. They wiped my skin and fetched bowls for the vomit. I remember being told I was soaked with sweat, that my skin marked very easily. And then nothing. And when I woke up properly, I carried on vomiting for hours, every time I moved. I felt like there was a very heavy piece of furniture sitting on my chest. It was worse than I’d imagined. Harder. Paul came to see me and the surgeon called by to tell us it had all gone well, and I couldn’t summon the energy to look at him. In the middle of the night, a nurse helped me to clean my teeth. I remember thinking that I couldn’t imagine recovering from this, couldn’t imagine feeling normal again.

My operation was on a Thursday, and I was kept in until the following Monday, but I had to move to a different ward because the breast ward closed at weekends. I spent the weekend on a ward with two other women, and Paul brought Joseph to see me one day and Elodie the next, and I remembered that I had so much to get better for. But I was in a lot of pain, and I couldn’t sleep, and I still felt that I was being slowly crushed and I had four drains to carry around with me and I was on strong painkillers that made it almost impossible for me to read or concentrate on the TV.

And then on the Monday evening, I was sent home. I sat beside Joseph on the sofa while he watched Paw Patrol. We held hands and he told me he’d missed me. ‘I have to be very careful with you,’ he said, his voice serious. ‘But you’re not too poorly, are you?’ I assured him that I wasn’t. ‘Can I see your poorly?’ he asked, and I pulled my top down to show him my dressings, but he’d already forgotten and was looking at something else.

Elodie’s still poorly, still not sleeping. And it’s awful to lie in bed at night hearing her cry, feeling completely helpless while Paul or his mum try to soothe her. This morning, I felt inside her mouth and her first tooth had broken through, so I’m hoping there might be a little more peace now. As I write this, the house is quiet. Paul’s mum has taken Joseph to a farm park; she’s sent us a photo of him holding a guinea pig that he wanted to call Horse. Paul and Elodie are having a nap together upstairs.

And I’m free to read or write, I have the time I’m always desperately wishing for, and I don’t really want it. There’s still some pain, and I still can’t get comfortable to sleep, and I feel pretty miserable about it all. But I shouldn’t, because the post lady keeps bringing thoughtful gifts from kind friends, and Paul’s mum bought me an enormous tub of pick and mix and Paul keeps bringing Elodie to me for cuddles. And because I’ve done it. I’ve taken the final difficult step. And now I just have to get better.

The mastectomy build-up

I decided a while back that when I had my double mastectomy, I wanted to have reconstruction using tissue from my tummy. It’s a big operation with a long recovery time, but I didn’t like the idea of implants or of having no reconstruction at all, and that’s what I was left with. I had a consultation with a breast surgeon and a plastic surgeon to discuss it, as both teams needed to be involved.

The appointment was odd. I had to strip down to my underwear and the plastic surgeon walked around me and grabbed various parts of my body to see whether I had enough tissue to spare. Tummy, thighs, bum, back. I could see that he was looking at me not as a person, but as a puzzle he was trying to solve. If we just move this bit to here… That kind of thing. He decided that, with my extra baby and chemo weight, I had roughly the right amount of tissue for the reconstruction. He wrote a letter to my oncologist, stating that I had a ‘reasonable abdomen’.

The next time I saw him, I was expecting him to check me over and talk me through the procedure again. I thought I might even get a date for the operation. Instead, he said he’d decided he wasn’t happy to do it while I was less than a year post-partum. I was stunned. I’d given this decision a lot of thought, and I believed that everything was in place. I felt like something had been snatched from me.

I saw another breast surgeon, my fourth. He talked me through the implant options, and we settled on expanders. These are part silicone and part saline. After the initial operation, I will go back to the clinic every week or two and they’ll pump a bit more saline in until I’m happy with the size and shape. Everyone I tell about this thinks it’s hilarious, no doubt imagining me going back again and again until I have comedy inflated breasts. But I’ll be sticking with a fairly modest size. I’ve never wanted big boobs. I guess this opportunity is pretty wasted on me.

So once the decision about reconstruction had been made and remade, I was given a date. It seemed quite a while away at the time, but now, all of a sudden, it’s next Thursday. For reasons that I don’t really know, I’m going to have two breast surgeons working on me, one on each side. This means it’ll all be over quicker, which is good news for Paul and my family, who will be waiting to hear that I’m safely out of theatre. A few people have asked me whether I’m nervous. I’m not, really. I’m sure I will be on the day, but I’m so clear about this being the right thing to do that it just feels like an inevitable hurdle. And hopefully, the final one.

I do wish I could talk it all over with my sister, though. She’s always been my go-to confidante. I know that, if she could, she would be sympathetic, and kind, and do all kinds of practical things to help during my recovery. Cooking us meals, looking after the children. I still have a portion of chilli in my freezer that she made in the run-up to my first breast operation. I wish I didn’t have to do this without having her by my side.

Every few weeks, I dream about Rachel. In these dreams, the stroke has happened but I visit her to find that she’s completely recovered. I used to wake up and realise that they were just dreams, and be devastated anew, but I’ve come to look forward to them. To meeting my sister there inside my mind, away from the horror and sadness that currently cloud our lives.

I remind Joseph all the time that I’m going into hospital and will be away for a few days. ‘Will you be able to run afterwards?’ he asked me, today. ‘Well, I can’t really run now,’ I said. He seemed happy with this. Things are good in his world. He’s moving up to pre-school at nursery, his sister is getting closer and closer to being able to properly play with him and he’s seeing an awful lot of all his beloved grandparents. I’m sure he’ll barely notice that I’m gone. And when I get back, and I’ve recovered, I’m hopeful that we can close the door on cancer for good.