This week – on the same day I heard that my dear friend, Annie Wegelius, had died from breast cancer – I got my latest scan results. Two months ago, I could not walk a few yards without assistance and didn’t think I would make this Christmas. Today I am virtually symptom free. My oncologist was innovative enough to put me on a drug that I don’t technically qualify for and doubled the dose to blast it into my brain*. The scan showed “a striking improvement”, with most tumours disappearing. Three remain after significant shrinkage (now no more than 6mm) – including that big bugger you can see on the scan, which is no longer visible to the naked eye and was the reason I lost my balance this summer. Boom! I am back from the brink again.
I am not cured and I don’t know how long this will last. These drugs have a limited shelf life. But even my oncologist was almost skipping with joy. He took a risk for me and it paid off. Moreover, I am 95% tumour free in the rest of my body. The primary in my lung is still there, but it is very small and appears to have shrunk a bit more as well. So, nine months after these latest brain tumours were discovered, I have been granted a significant reprieve. I am beyond grateful: to my oncologist, who treats me like a partner not a patient; to the person who generously paid for the first two cycles of this drug and saw me as a worthy investment; to my husband, for everything; and to That Which Is, for opening a door that seemed so likely to close.
When my oncologist told me my scan results, I welled up with tears: for Annie and for myself. We had no childcare that day so Gabriella was doing colouring in the reception area with my oncologist’s assistant while John and I read the radiologist’s report. She kept running in and jumping onto the exam table, pretending to be a patient. It was the first time we had taken her there. John and I had gone back and forth about it for a couple of days because he could have stayed at home with her, but Annie’s death tipped the decision. I did not want to go alone. Gabriella’s presence on this occasion was perfectly designed. I had just been given more time with her. For me, this is the definition of grace.
On the same day, my 83-year-old dad was in hospital having a new tumour surgically removed from his right shoulder. He also has lung cancer and is pioneering new ways to stick around when many would just write him off. I spoke to Mum that evening and heard it had all gone well. She describes herself as being “in the middle of a cancer sandwich”, so there was relief for her all round.
It’s a strange thing living close to death – my own and other people’s. Annie is not my first loss since I was diagnosed, but she is definitely my greatest. When you love people with cancer, you need to be ready to lose them. But it never gets any easier. At the same time, everything that matters most is thrown into relief and commands your attention. Grief is just seconds beneath the skin. Gratitude sparkles like water in moonlight. Life’s mercies crunch underfoot.
There are more bridges to cross – like how to continue receiving a drug I don’t qualify for under the UK license and how to adjust to its side effects, the latest of which is a very infected toe (temporarily benching me again). But these matters are small. Sometimes it is enough to stop on the other side of the bridge we’ve just crossed and take in the view. It is enough to notice that on the day I lost my friend and gained more time with my family, sadness and joy amplified my heart in equal measure while bitter and sweet tasted exactly the same.
*For those who are interested, the drug is Osimertinib. It is for lung cancer patients with the EGFR and T790M mutations, but I tested negative for T790M. This is why I don’t qualify for it, but there is increasing evidence of its brain penetration and the process is under way for making it a first line treatment. It will be second line for me so we are yet to find out if this will allow me to receive it. It could take a few months too so we are strategising in other ways. Watch this space.