Tuesday, November 26, 2013

My work, my breast, my life

So, just over seven years ago, I rather mordantly announced my breast cancer diagnosis under the title "How to put bad grant news into perspective." Our research team had just missed out on a large ARC grant, but the news was overtaken in my life, at least, by the diagnosis and then the surgery, radiotherapy and five years hormone therapy that followed. In the meantime, we got the four-year grant the next year, and produced buckets of events and publications. I was pleasantly surprised when I finalised the final report, earlier this year, at how much we had achieved.

This time, everything seems different, but weirdly similar. I'm posting to say that I am *not* going ahead with my vast fellowship grant this round, and that I do *not* have breast cancer.

I put in a rough draft of an outline of my application to the faculty committee that mentors applications and the general feedback was that the project was not really ready yet, and that it might also not be the best strategic time to apply. That's really fine: I still really like my idea and am going to explore other ways of working through the material, though the prospect of building another research team was certainly intriguing. However, it's not as if I don't have enough to do.

(I did get a little frozen up about blogging and facebooking all the application as I had planned to, as a colleague advised me against being quite so public about my progress with the grant, in the manner and the tone I had assumed would be ok... but I'm over that now, and in any case it's a non-issue, since I'm not going ahead with it.)

Anyway, over the last month, I've also been contemplating the return of breast cancer. At every stage (several repeats of both mammograms and ultrasounds on the 24th after the detection of a slight change since last year, the MRI on the 30th, the ultrasound and fine needle biopsy on the 4th, the suspenseful week's holiday and return to the news of an abnormal finding, another core needle biopsy on the 14th, with its inconclusive results and spectacular bruising, right up to the surgical biopsy and removal of the lump under general anaesthetic yesterday, I've been trying to stay calm and focussed. But questions keep bounding in. What does it mean? For this year, for the next five or ten years? Will that be all I have? Did I do enough over the last seven years to prevent its return? Did I work too hard? In the wrong way? What did I learn?  I sometimes think I learned nothing at all from the whole stupid breast cancer "journey." Perhaps I'm not so frightened of death as I might otherwise have been. Seeing my child growing up and starting to make his way in the world has made it easier this time, too.

Surgery yesterday involved in the insertion (under local anaesthetic, with ultrasound), of the hookwire that guides the surgeon's hand to the exact spot. Suzanne came in, still dressed in her elegant consulting clothes, while Monica inserted the wire, and Annette watched the screen. Suzanne checked, and asked for clarification and checked again, and then drew a purple line where the incision would be. Was I ok? Yes, I said, looking down at the array of patches and the long silver wire trailing out of the needle before they cut it off. It's hard not to look, I said. Yes, said Suzanne, but it's a day to set academic curiosity aside. After that, it was mercifully quick. Back upstairs in the wheelchair, and time to read a page of Questions of Travel, before the orderly wheeled me off into surgery. A quick chat with the anaesthetist about her cat and I was away. It takes me ages and ages to come out of a general anaesthetic (lowish blood pressure; slowish heart rate), and then finally to wake up properly to have a cup of tea. Paul drove me home and I slept and slept, and this morning just watched Game of Thrones on the laptop in bed. ("What do we say to Death? Not today.")

I was steeling myself to see Suzanne tomorrow for the review and to plan the next stages of treatment, but she phoned a few hours ago to say the results were very good. There *was* a small abnormality, but so tiny and underdeveloped it might not even ever have become the pre-cancerous lesion that might have warranted prophylactic mastectomy. It certainly won't now, because it has been utterly removed and I will have another surgical scar to prove it. So, yes, I am currently feeling rather imaged and prodded and injected and cut, but have taken the sum total of one panadol, so am not complaining about pain. In fact I'm not complaining about anything. I'm fine writing, but if a friend or a sister speaks to me on the phone, or when Paul came home, it's hard not to start sobbing a bit with relief.

It has been a very long month to live in this shadow, under the threat of entering the rounds of treatment again, while also fearing the stains and imperfections of disease, to say nothing of mortality or even more, the idea that illness makes you re-assess your life all over again, which is so exhausting.

It's not just the timing of the grant cycle and the mammogram cycle that brings research and health together, of course. That's one thing I *have* learned, I suppose, that I'm not really able to make clean breaks between work and recreation. It's the nature of the work itself, of course, that it is never finished. And it's the way I work, too, which often seems to me sloppy, messy, undisciplined, always interrupting myself. But that's what it is. I'm too old to change that now. I go on.



9 comments:

Kateri said...

Thanks so much for this moving post, Stephanie. When I was young I wondered why my aunts were so fascinated with each others' health issues. As I reach the age where we all face that endless list of potential problems I understand and am so extremely grateful for posts like yours, for this generous sharing of female experience. I am so happy for your good news - may it continue.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

One of the best things about this blog is the intertwining of the personal and the professional: we need more spaces like this, where our fully embodied life is evident, explored, entwined rather than obscured.

And I'm really happy at the good news, Stephanie! The world is so much better for your being in it.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks, as always, Stephanie for your willingness to be "public" with your life, for your bravery, and for your being-here-ness. Much love.

Rick Godden said...

Stephanie, I'm so glad to read this! Though I am sorry it has been a difficult month, I am glad it comes to a good finish. Thinking of you.

And, what Jeffrey said! I encountered your blog when I was also going through a major health issue, and it helped me a lot at that time.

Mary Flannery said...

Thank you for this post, Stephanie--I'm so relieved and delighted that all is well with you, particularly after such a grueling, drawn-out process. I hope that, in between the writing, the working, and the healing, you find some time and peace for yourself. Much love from Geneva.

Nina Killham said...

I'm thrilled for you, Stephanie. You have been so gracious about what must be such an ungracious experience. Love to all three of you. x

Myra Seaman said...

So grateful for your post, Stephanie, for the news it conveys, for your many and varied contributions to the world I inhabit--and happy to be reading this in full on Thanksgiving Day here in the States. Wishing you continued wellness.

Mindy said...

Glad to hear all is well, long may it continue.

Anonymous said...

Great. On grants, I refuse to conform to Melbourne's obsession with ARC success. I would rather put my health, family and teaching first, and like Brian Martin at Wollongong, I don't need the money either to produce top of the range research and publications. My PhD students all have their own scholarships. However my view bring shudders in faculty meetings and lousy performance reviews, despite the fact that Arts and the other Faculties make way more money from teaching than from research. Out of interest, if in the humanities you only need money for some archival research, meetings and travel, what is the point of seeking ARC money vs the USA fellowship model? At Melbourne we don't have 6-7 classes to teach like at some places, so we don't really need much $$ for 'buyouts' and replacement staff (and anyway the PhD students would be terribly upset if we did not work with them but on our own stuff instead). I survive fine with small international funding, since the ARC will fund nothing based in the part of the world I work in, which is very poor and has no links to Australia.