The third operation for a skin graft went well. I was somewhat taken aback at the size of the skin graft donor site on my thigh and how much more uncomfortable it was than the abdominal wound they were repairing. However, as with many pathways the track was not smooth – two weeks later it was clear the skin graft had not taken.
At this point I began to feel very battered, somewhat lost as to what the next steps were and a bit fearful.
My surgeon, Mr Adams came to see me and asked me if I felt I could handle one more bout of surgery (my fourth in eight weeks). I took a big deep breath and said I could. He felt that overall the improvement was sufficient for him to close the breast and the abdominal wounds. A few days later I was back in hospital for what was to prove to be my final surgery. I remember lying on the operating table, looking up at Mr Adams and saying “Can you fix it this time please Chris?” The last thing I remember him saying to his team was: “Right let’s get this fixed” and I went to sleep.
I quickly felt better and after two nights in hospital I came home. The most important thing Mr Adams told me was that there was a 50/50 chance of the new stitching holding. This really mattered to me so I was very careful. I did nothing for the next seven days until my next hospital appointment. The dressings on the wounds required my showering twice a day as they had to be kept moist – such a nice change from earlier ones which had to be kept dry and showering had been difficult.
After 14 days the stitches were taken out and yippee the wounds had held! I still had to be careful for a little longer but over the last few weeks I have begun to feel really well. I have been out riding my bike and for some long walks.
I had my follow-up appointment with Mr Adams, my plastics surgeon, June 12 and he did not want to see me again until November! At that time we will discuss the final stages of the breast reconstruction – creating a nipple and tattooing that area to match the colouring with my other breast.
I do not have to see my cancer specialist until September. These distant dates feel really good; I am well, the breast reconstruction is excellent, I find the constant hot flushes from Tamoxifen a little trying but I believe I have had the best result even given the side tracks and rocky pathway.
I have started doing some paid work. My philosophy now – I will only take on the work I want to do and only as much as I feel I can handle. I am sub-contracting to others who wish me to assist them, not re-starting my own business. This has already led to some small jobs and allows me to retain my skills and interest.
Your health is important – We must recognise how important our health is. I believe that after all the bouts of ill health while I was in Samoa, perhaps because I was already fighting cancer, my immune system was compromised and this was instrumental in my body not being able to fight the post-surgery infections.
To support my immune system, I have now made some changes in my diet recognising that there are things we can eat that really do help to keep you well. My changes result from discussion with others who have been down this pathway – more and more vegetables especially green ones. Very lightly cooked vegetables and be generous with ginger and garlic. I have always had vegetables but have now increased the quantity. I make a green smoothie: fresh kale, cucumber, celery, ginger, fresh lemon juice, apple, orange juice, blueberries, banana, kiwi fruit, almonds, linseeds, sunflower seeds and water or ice. You have to like the taste, so adjust to suit to ensure you will drink it, so I have added a small amount of tinned fruit in fruit juice to sweeten it a little. I have returned to making my own bread and, of course, since it’s winter here, lots and lots of fresh vegetable soups.
Strong recommendation: make dietary changes now while you have no known health issues, so that if you do run into health problems your body is ready to fight.
Support is critical – The value of support for me and my giving support to others has been bought into strong relief through my recent experiences. The support I have received over the past six months has been wonderful, especially keeping me going when I faced some dispiriting times. Very often we believe that asking for help shows weakness or “it is too much to ask that person, they have so much on their plate already”. It is not our decision as to whether they can or cannot help, that is their decision. Often people want to help but do not know how – being asked to do something by you, helps them too.
Remember: not asking for help is more often a problem within us, not the person we are asking.
Recognise our own strength – We as individuals are far stronger than we ever imagine. I had many people say to me “How well you have coped with it all.” Within that statement is an implication that they think they would not cope so well. In fact when something like this happens we all cope, largely because we have no option. Keeping yourself buoyant mentally is critical and you need a few strategies to ensure that happens.
Note: The best self help is to recognise that dealing with cancer is a process you go through and to heal well it must take the time required. Additionally, focussing on short and long-terms goals is extremely helpful.
Have a celebration – It is recommended that those with cancer celebrate various milestones, the completion of chemo- and/or radiotherapy for example. My fantastic result of no chemo- or radiotherapy was overwhelmed and forgotten due to my ongoing infections. Now I am well we need a celebration.
Set some goals – I have re-learnt the value of having goals, both short and longer term. Having goals helped me focus on the positive and it provided something outside of my health to talk about with others. I got very tired of the focus being on how I was feeling today; it had to be, I know, but I got sick of it.
For me the short-term goals were simple things; my brother is coming to visit next week, my next Dressings Clinic appointment is in four days and we will see good progress, I will walk for 20 minutes today. My longer-term goals related to travel plans over the next few months. So my longer term goals are:
Goal 1 Spending time with people you care about: Lucy Brazier on her visit to New Zealand late July.
Goal 2 Our celebration: Our daughter Clare has lived overseas for 18 years and has not been home to New Zealand for 6 years. At the end of July she is visiting us from Washington DC with her children and husband. We are so excited. When we checked the dates we realised they coincided with our 45th Wedding Anniversary. We are taking our children and grandchildren that weekend to a winter resort (Hanmer Springs) in the South Island of New Zealand to celebrate. We invited my brothers and their families to join us and we have 40 people celebrating with us. It could snow, it could be cold and miserable but we will be full of joy and warmth, in the heart of a large and wonderful family.
Goal 3 Travel: In late August we have a week’s holiday booked in Samoa, visiting friends from our time there, getting some warmth away from the New Zealand winter.
Goal 4 Travel: In September we fly to England, spend 10 days in France with Charles’ sister and brother-in-law and a further week in Ireland on our own.
Goal 5 The BIG goal: Presenting at ExecSec LIVE Johannesburg, February 2016 – Charles and I will both be there, bring it on!