It’s been a little while since I last sat down to write an entry for Going Topless. A lot has happened. I did 30 rounds of radiation, was admitted to hospital a couple more times and I officially beat cancer on the 24thJanuary 2018! I’ve continued with my 3 weekly Herceptin treatment and I’m still struggling with societies view of ‘getting back to normal life’ once your hair has grown back and you’re told you have no evidence of disease.
Radiation. It was horrendous. 30 rounds, 30 days and no less than 30 minutes being spent in a cold radiotherapy treatment room with nothing but my own thoughts. It was extremely difficult to say the least. Because, as women, we are taught that there are certain parts of our body to be considered ‘private’. Parts of our body that we choose who to share them with. Unfortunately, when you’re diagnosed with cancer you don’t really have that say, you’ll simply do anything it takes to stay alive. So, that’s exactly what I did for 6 weeks. I was tattooed with markings, drawn on with pen and left to lay with my hands above my head as they targeted three crucial areas; the tumour site, underneath my right arm and also the right side of my collarbone.
The burns from radiation were surprisingly not as intense as I conjured in my mind to be. They were noticeable, but nothing that a nice ice pack and some chilled steroid cream from the fridge couldn’t remedy. However, it was my mind that I couldn’t exactly grab something out of the fridge, to fix. These ultimately damaging thoughts of ‘what if’ and ‘what next’, were exactly that; damaging. My appointment with my oncologist was looming and I simply didn’t know what my scans and blood results were going to show. Well, I did. It was either one or the other. You’ve beaten the cancer, or you haven’t. I had 2 hospital admissions during radiation. One being bronchitis, which had me incredibly nervous for scan results, as breast cancer is known to spread to the lungs. The other saw me rushed to hospital by ambulance with pains in my chest, and down my left arm. It was simply put down to the physical and emotional stress I had been dealing with over the past 12 months. I was scared and I felt alone. People could no longer see the physical effects that the cancer was having on me, but they also couldn’t see the internal effects it was having on me either. My hair was starting to grow back, I wasn’t throwing up 24/7 and I no longer had a semi permanent residence in the oncology ward. It was an isolating experience in that you couldn’t have anyone in the room to cheer you up if cancer and all its emotions tried to rush out of your body all at once.
I had completed 25 of 30 rounds when I met with my oncologist to ultimately find out what was next. I knew my scan results were in, and I was certain that I needed to do more to beat this cancer.
“Okay, so I’ll see you in three months time.”
That simple sentence allowed me to have my first sigh of relief in 12 months. Just. Like. That. I was done? Don't get me wrong. I was elated and thankful. I am every single day. However, I couldn’t help but think ‘what now?’ This life that I’ve known for what feels like a lifetime. The countless doctors appointments, scheduling my week around what days I’ll be well enough to go out in public, chemotherapy, radiation and constantly having a hospital bag packed ‘just in case’. It was all about to end. This was what I knew, what I was almost comfortable with. I gave up everything to fight this battle and now I’m about to re-enter normality and try to pick up where I left off. Just like I was scared in the beginning of what was to come, the same worrying thoughts lit up in my mind when I was told I had no evidence of disease in my body.
My oncologist gave me the incredible news on the 24thJanuary 2018. I still had to finish radiation and the worst side effects were still to come. I had 6 months of Herceptin to go, and my hormone therapy was to be continued for the next 5 years minimum. It’s better than the latter, however it still didn’t mean that I could walk out of that building to never return. Which is exactly how I imagined it to be when I was first diagnosed with cancer. In fact, it was the complete opposite.
Radiation ended, and so came the side effects of burns and fatigue. The burns healed, however the fatigue is still lingering 4 months later. I’m not sure if it was my naivety, or longing to hear those words in the beginning but I truly believed that as soon as treatment ended, I would be back to the old me. I was so wrong. This transition into normal life is bloody difficult.
Many people who know of what I’ve endured these past 12 months tell me I’m ‘strong’ or ‘brave’ and while these are all beautiful qualities to be thought to have, I didn’t have a choice. I had shit to do. At the time of diagnosis, I was 20 going on 21 a few months later. There was no way that my book was ending like this. This mentality is what kept me going, which is why I think I’d only given myself one option for life after cancer. To go back to the Bianca I was before life had other plans.
No one told me that I would be battling the anxieties in my own mind once the cancer decided to fuck off. I didn’t know that I would be unable to sleep at night, the thought of reoccurrence at the forefront of my mind. Or that I would burst into tears as soon as a part of my body ached from the lingering chemotherapy side effects and surgery pain. The havoc the hormone injections and daily tablets are causing my body and mind, starving it of oestrogen and progesterone so that the bastard of a disease doesn’t decide to rock up late to the party. Or, that I’d have so much time to think. Simply be consumed by the overwhelming thoughts of fighting for your life, feeling like you’ve lost yourself, beating cancer and now trying to get back to normality. A job, university, being social again, dating.
Fuck, even having hair is a new thing for me?!
These are all real thoughts and worries I struggle with, daily. That’s the thing. They are real. No one talks about this shit. You only ever hear about how someone beats cancer and then conquers the world. I only did at least. I wish I knew how important it was to be told that when you finish with treatment, you’d never go back to ‘normal’. Mental health and wellbeing is just as important as the other stuff. It isn’t spoken about simply because society has taught us that by putting your hand up for help isn’t the ‘right’ thing to do. I, like everybody else in this world have struggles. I’m no longer afraid to show people that I am human and that I too cry, scream, hurt and feel weak; just like everyone reading this.
This is a hard fight. The start, middle and the end. I’m slowly learning that I’ll find a new ‘normal’ and well that, is simply fine too.
All my love,
Since I last sat down to write about what this horrendous curveball life has thrown at me has done, I’ve gone through a lot. Physically, mentally and especially emotionally. It’s actually been quite difficult to process what has and is continuing to happen to the normal life I once knew as a then, 20 year old young woman. Therefore, I want to give you all an update into how I’m going, feeling and the next steps I am taking to get back to being that ‘normal’ (if I’ll ever be that again) 21 year old girl. Let me tell you, it’s been an absolute shit fight and I’ve spent way too many times in hospital beds, crying, hurting and wanting to know why the fuck life just wouldn’t give me a break.
After the loss of my hair, I was faced with the huge decision whether to have a lumpectomy and removal of some lymph nodes under my right arm or to have a possible double mastectomy. Here I am, sitting across from my surgeon thinking “you’re going to chop of what?! At 21?!... this CANNOT fucking be happening”. Thankfully, it was up to me to make the final decision as to what to do with my surgery, as more chemo and then radiation was planned. I opted for having a lumpectomy (removal of my tumour on my right breast) and to remove some lymph nodes from under my right arm. Let. Me. Tell. You. I didn’t want my nice 21-year-old boobies going anywhere if I didn’t have a 100% guarantee that this bastard of a cancer wasn’t going to return. So, for now they’re going to stay in bra’s that make me feel sexy, and confidant like a 21-year-old woman should. We can cross that other bridge shall we ever come to it.
Now, I believe to undergo any surgery is a terrifying thought. Regardless of what you’re having done. I face many fears when going into theatre. So much so, that I beg the nurses to let my Dad come all the way into the anaesthetic bay with me just to hold my hand. I’m terrified of what they will find. So many scary thoughts run through my mind constantly. The struggles that I battled most with at this time, was wondering if any more cancer was to be found and if so, what was the next step? I needed answers. Reassurance. Fucking anything to know that I’m not going to die at 21 years old.
I woke up that night after a successful surgery extremely sore from where they had removed the large tumour in my right breast and the lymph nodes. Thankfully, there were no drainage bags to worry about, just pain. Surgical pain is one thing, but for me. When I’m operated on, especially after finishing chemo, my bone pain instantly comes back. This was something I dealt with A LOT. With a huge thank you to the wonderful nurses on the oncology ward at Pindara. These women have become my friends. They’ve shut the door and sat with me as I’ve cried multiple times. They’ve listened to my worries and concerns as I look around the ward to only see people 30+ years my senior walking the corridors and wondered ‘why me?’. I am so grateful for these women who come to work every day to a job that is so emotionally and psychically taxing and still manage to make little old me feel like I can get through just one more day.
As I sat in my surgeon’s office a week or two later during my recovery of surgery, I was faced with yet another challenge. My biopsy results of the tumour and the 4 lymph nodes removed had returned. They had existing cancer cells in them, even after all of the chemo and heartache I had been through.
I’m crying now re-living this moment whilst putting it onto paper. “When will all over this be over? When can I be the 21 year old ‘normal’ girl I so long to be?” I wailed out. We now had to re-think my treatment plan, and it was something that I am still finding really difficult to accept and understand why this couldn’t just be a little bit easier on me. The week long hospital stays, the reactions to chemo, spending my 21st from a hospital room. To now, finding more cancer cells.
I genuinely felt like I’d put in all this hard work, and really pushed myself mentally and psychically only to find out that it wasn’t quite enough. I had to find a deeper strength within me to continue. So, in true Bianca form. I did just that.
The revised plan was to now have 4 rounds of EC chemotherapy over an 8 week period. This was all due to the severity of the drug and the ramifications it could possibly have upon the functioning of my healthy heart. I later found out that this was known as the “Red Devil Chemo”.
And well, fuck me. Didn’t it live up to its name.
As I sat in the chemo chair with my Dad beside me holding my hand, as he has my entire life, especially through my cancer journey. We looked towards the ‘E’ part of the EC treatment. Epirubicin. The bastard was bright red in colour, sat in four giant syringes and manually needed to be pushed through my portacath by the nurses due to its severity. I was even told this shit was that strong that it was going to make my urine bright red?! Talk about having a ‘What the fuck’ kind of moment!? I knew this next 8 weeks of treatment was going to be hard, but nothing could prepare me for the trepidation I was feeling on this particular day. It was a really strange feeling, because for me; chemo had become a normal process. I felt like I’d figured my shit out. To the point where I knew what were my worst days, and my best ones. This, however, was an unknown drug to my body and with unknown side effects.
The oncology nurse sat with me and began to push through the first syringe of Epirubicin. Towards the end of the first syringe, I began to feel quite severe chest pain and feel nauseated. A haematologist who happened to be there whilst my particular oncologist was busy, suggested that we cease treatment considering I had side effects and reactions to my previous chemotherapy drug, Taxol.
I wasn’t having that. I was so damn determined to push through this first round of chemo, because for me. I was one chemo treatment closer to being better. In being honest with you all, I felt like absolute shit and my heart was genuinely hurting. The doctor gave me 30 minutes to cease the treatment and see if I could get my vitals back to where they should be, see if my nausea had stopped and my heart was no longer hurting. 30 mins passed and I felt better! In a really strange way, I was excited to get it started again because mentally I’d be closer to getting better. I restarted my treatment only to then be rushed via ambulance to hospital where I spent the next 7 days recovering due to severe chest pain. It’s an absolutely terrifying feeling having your family shoved into a corner of a hospital room as doctors and nurses rush in to ultimately try and save your life when there is a MET call on you, after having all your vitals drop. It was scary, devastating and made me realise how quickly things can turn to shit.
After this ordeal, I was told that my heart and overall immune system could no longer handle any more chemotherapy. So, as the doctors tossed up what other treatment they could substitute in, I was left with no other option than to do a full lymph node clearance of my right arm. A procedure I was extremely hesitant about, one that would restrict me from many things and would leave me at a high risk of developing lymphedema. Although, I was left with no other option. I was to have the surgery immediately to reduce my risk of any rouge cancer cells spreading elsewhere to my body and well, you know… Give me more cancer. I kept trying to weigh out the options. Did I want to have this surgery with the increased risk of lymphedema – something that would be a permanent reminder to myself and possibly others that I once battled this cancer. Or take that risk and hope for the best, in all that the word means. Free of cancer cells in the existing lymph nodes, and a higher chance of survival if the cancer were to return again. I know it seems like an easy answer, but at 21; it really isn’t. It took me 2 weeks to come to the final decision, and with lots of encouragement; it was the better option I opted for.
So 4 weeks ago, I underwent the surgery. It was painful, frustrating and meant that I would be out of action for a lot longer than I once thought. No heavy lifting, no swimming in hot spa’s or even having a simple bath. All of which I have to be cautious of for the rest of my days. It’s a shit feeling. Having to worry about things that I quite literally, did not even bat an eyelid at prior to this bastard of a disease. The physio appointments, the drainage bags (which may I add, are really fucking awkward to hide when you’re out in public!?) Kudos to the strong individuals that battle with that alone each and every day, regardless of their situation. The late night visits to emergency because the drainage bag started leaking, the pain killers and the uncomfortable night’s sleep. To put it nicely, this is not easy.
Now, I am to undergo radiation therapy daily over an intensive 6 week period. So instead of wondering what I’m going to be wearing to all the Christmas events, or who my NYE kiss might be; I’ll continue to fight and do everything it’s going to take so that I can have those concerns next Christmas and NYE.
I honestly am so desperate for this all to be done with. To walk into a bar and not feel like every person is staring at me because I have no hair, to feel beautiful and confident as a young woman and mostly to be overall better. Unfortunately, though, like many things in life. You can’t just click your fingers and have things be ‘better’. To be better in any sense, a better person, better at your job, your relationships, your fitness, it all takes time. This is something I’m still so frustratingly learning.
Some days, I really feel like I’m smashing it. On others however, I feel like I am completely failing at this whole ordeal. I am a completely different woman to who I was when I began writing and was first diagnosed, and for that I am proud. However, I wish we lived in a world where no one had to battle cancer. It does not discriminate; it does not care of your age nor your financial situation. I’ve seen my cancer break the hearts of so many of my loved ones for the sheer fact that they cannot do anything to take the burden away.
I promise to write more. I think I needed some time to process what has gone on over the last couple of months, but there really is some major topics I want to shed some light on. The emotions I struggle with daily, the fear, and the giant adjustments I’ve had to make not only physically but mentally too.
All my love,
So I had very different plans for this post. However, the past couple of weeks have proven that ‘being positive’ is sometimes a lot easier said than done.
What describes you? Is it the colour of your eyes, maybe how toned and perfect your body is? Or maybe it’s the colour of your hair as it falls over your shoulders.
For me, before the big ‘C’ got in the way, I would describe myself as having green eyes, fair skin and dark hair. As simple as that, if I had a long think, I could probably tell you deeper answers, however, off the top of my head (pardon the pun) it’s all I could give you. However, when I sat in my GP’s office and she pronounced that I have breast cancer and I’m going to have to start chemotherapy immediately; being so physically ill that it would change my life dramatically wasn’t the first thing that came into my mind. It was losing my hair. Something that at 20 years old, was and is such a large part of my identity, confidence and femininity; and I was about to lose it all. “Don’t worry, it will grow back” she replied as I wailed out that I was going to lose all of my hair. I was so focused on my appearance and that everyone was going to look at me and know I was ‘sick’, at this point I hadn’t met anyone my age going through or had been through what I was about to endure, I guess I had no idea what was coming for me.
The incredible team of doctors I have around me, my oncologist in particular suggested that I cut my hair short to make the transition that little bit easier on myself. So, I did just that. The same day my hair was long, it was short; above my shoulders and ready to take on chemotherapy in the following days.
Two chemotherapy sessions in, and I was hospitalised due to being allergic to my chemo drug. (Now I’m sorry, but What. The. Fuck.) A week spent in hospital with nothing to do, made me notice a few more strands of hair falling out into my hands in the shower but not enough for me to really worry about. Although, between weeks 3 and 4 of my weekly chemo infusions, it started. My thick dark hair was falling out in clumps. I remember laying in my best friends bed, and after I left her bed was full of my thick dark hair. I was devastated. It was happening, and I had absolutely no control over it. (One thing you’ll learn about me throughout these posts, is that I hate not being in control of my life).
I wasn’t going to let cancer take my hair away from me, if I could stop it. My appearance is something I take pride in, therefore I decided to say a huge ‘fuck you’ to my cancer. So on the same day that I almost let it completely break me, I sat down and asked my beautiful Dad to shave it all off. Right down to the skin. With family and friends around me, we were all balling our eyes out (even now thinking about it I am crying), I felt like I was losing a part of my identity.
I was devastated. I don’t really think there is any other word to describe it. Here I am, at 20 years old not only with breast cancer, but now with no hair. I was starting to question everything and wanting to know why life wouldn’t just give me a break. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning.
After shaving my head, straight after I had a shower and just thought ‘pull yourself together Bianca, you’ve got this’. So I did just that. I pulled myself together, put on a full face of makeup looked in the mirror and gave myself a reminder that you are still beautiful without or without hair. I decided that it wasn’t my hair that defined my personality or femininity, it was the deeper things I had within me, (some I didn’t even know I had). Over the following weeks, I kept reminding myself that hair is just hair and I am so much stronger than something that’ll take me a couple of months to grow back once all of this is over.
Over the course of the next 8 or so weeks left of this first round of chemotherapy I noticed my thick, bushy eyebrows beginning to thin out. However, everyone kept telling me how well they’d held on, including my eyelashes. So for me, losing my hair wasn’t that huge of a deal because I still looked normal with my brows and lashes. Maybe people would just think that I was wearing a head scarf because it was a part of my personal style.
However, when they fell out – the week after I had finished chemo. I was absolutely shattered. More so than I thought I ever could be. I actually feel like I look like an alien. The ugliest version of myself possible. It’s beginning to make me think that losing my hair on my head was a walk in the park, because I could hide with head scarfs, caps and even wigs. However, my eyebrows, I’m not allowed to have tattooed on due to possible cause of infection, and false lashes only stick to real lashes. So I was fucked.
Some days I look in the mirror and can’t bear what looks back at me. Others, I put on some makeup, draw on my eyebrows and get on with my day. But it is hard. So damn hard.
Now I did want this post initially be about how our hair and appearance shouldn’t be what defines us, but I’ve learnt that in the society that we live in, that it is extremely difficult. I believe we should start not judging ourselves on our appearance, but what’s on the inside. Because, like me, overnight your life could change and if all you are is your good looks and banging body, then you’ll be absolutely stuffed.
I’ve decided that although these times are extremely testing on me, it’s all part of getting better. Hopefully in a few months I’ll read back on this and see it as another stepping stone to becoming better.
I now see myself not just as the girl with the green eyes, fair skin and dark hair. I am the young woman who is strong, brave and empathetic.
All my love,
I’m sitting in bed on a normal Sunday night. If it were 3 months ago I’d probably be sitting here with my best friend talking about how hungover we were and that the Sunday ‘booze blues’ had officially sunk in. Unfortunately, for me, all I can think about right now is how the hell has this happened to me.
Hold on, let me just quickly fill you in on what’s going on.
Hi, my name’s Bianca. I’m just your normal girl from the Gold Coast, Australia. I can genuinely say I love every aspect of my life after a year of family dramas, the classic ‘trying to figure out what I am doing with my life’ breakdown, a breakup and everything in between.
Oh, and did I mention I have Breast Cancer?
Yep, you read it right. Breast Cancer. The most common cancer affecting women in Australia. 17,586 women will be diagnosed in 2017 with only 1 of those women being 20 years old or younger.
I found a lump earlier in the year, went to my GP who ordered an ultrasound but assured me that it could possibly be some fatty tissue or a cyst, common in women my age. Shortly after my initial GP visit, I was hospitalised with Endometriosis (totally NOT cancer related), and after complications my stay was extended to a total of 6 days. During such time, the lump and ultrasound became second to my current health issues. * This whole time, I wasn’t even thinking about it because I’m only 20?! * Anyway, fast forward 7 or 8 weeks, and the lump had tripled in size and became very painful, even driving was beginning to be a bit of a struggle.
I immediately went and had the ultrasound to see what was happening with this lump and the surrounding areas on Friday 7th April 2017. My GP had called me in on Monday to say we needed some extra testing done with a core biopsy led through ultrasound. As you can imagine it was the longest couple of days of my life with my anxiety levels through the roof. I was scared of the unknown. I still am.
Wednesday rolled around, where the initial core biopsy was just meant to be of the lump on my right breast. However, careful observation of the sonographer showed that my lymph nodes under my right arm were now inflamed. A cell swab now needed to be done of my lymph nodes then too. And right then and there is when I knew before any test results had come back, that I could possibly have cancer.
And just like that, on Thursday the 13th of April I was diagnosed with Grade 3, Stage 2b breast cancer at the young age of 20. I can’t even begin to describe how it felt to be told those words, or how many tears I have shed from then to now. I guess I’ll write about that later on….
This past week, what was meant to be week 8 of chemo has been my hardest to date, and one I had very different plans for before I got sick. It was the week of my 21st birthday, I was so excited to celebrate and party with my friends and family. However, life had other plans for me this year. I spent my birthday ‘week’ in hospital being the sickest I’ve ever felt and watching the sadness in the eyes of my friends and family as they had the same plan that I did for my birthday this year was absolutely devastating. Although I know I can attribute some of the more emotional days to my ever changing hormones, due to the menopause that has been forced upon my 21-year-old body to * hopefully * savour some eggs for my unplanned future, this shit is HARD. However, this week really just got me thinking about why and how life throws us these curveballs, and why some more so than others?
How is it that I am sick, and somebody else isn’t? I’m sure we all think that way at some point during our lives. Why did they get the job and I didn’t? Why does she seem happier than me? Why is my life like this and not like somebody else’s? But do you see the repetitiveness of all of the above questions… They all have such a negative meaning associated with them, although they may be true. It really is the way you look at things. Some just can’t be explained, but some you can try to understand.
However, what this whole crazy experience I’m going through right now has taught me; is there are some questions we have the answers but it just hurts to much too acknowledge. The other questions we don’t think we can answer, sometimes we actually can if we look deeper. All we have to do is change our attitude towards the situation. Positivity is honestly the key. I know that phrase is thrown around so often that it has kind of lost its meaning, but truly, being positive is what is saving me in these times that I want to curl into a ball, cry and re-emerge when this bad dream is all over. But I can’t. So, I just think of how lucky I am to be in my situation, it really could be worse, and for some, it so heartbreakingly is. So my latest ‘thing’ is to literally take it day by day. Why don’t I try to get at least one thing done today that I wanted to? (Although I may not feel like getting out of bed) if I get one thing under my belt for the day, that’s an achievement. Some days, I get the one thing done and I’m crying whilst doing it and I don’t know the fuck why. Other days, I get the one done and it leads to another thing, before you know it, the tears have dried and my mind is occupied. I then congratulate myself, because I sure know that I didn’t want to/think that I could get little things done, but the positive reinforcement really does help. It changes my thinking completely and although, they’re little ‘wins’, as my brother once told me “it’s still a win”. I’ve learnt that in this life, it’s the little things that count.
The power of the mind is so incredibly strong. I acknowledge that there are going to be days where all I do is cry, but what I won’t acknowledge is allowing things to get on top of me when it starts to get too hard.
I promise to be excruciatingly honest, writing through the tears on my good and bad days. Hopefully, as I celebrate the wins and the * hopefully * very few setbacks it will all be here. Although this is a release for me, I hope that people can relate to my story or situation in one way or another. Alternatively, watch me on my journey as I kick this cancer shit to the kerb.
All my love,