Health: `Yes, I can live with my cancer'

Eight years after getting the all-clear, another lump was discovered on Elisa Segrave's breast. This is it, she decided. Then she thought again... . But then

In 1991, I'd had the works, except a mastectomy. I'd had a lumpectomy, all my lymph glands removed, and, after breast cancer was diagnosed, six weeks of radiotherapy and six months of chemotherapy. I'd had a stiff arm and shoulder - still have - probably because of not doing enough arm exercises as taught by the hospital - and, to cap it all, two months after chemotherapy a horse trod on my foot, making me lame.

Like everyone who's had cancer, I'd always dreaded a recurrence. I imagined it would be like the Bergman film The Seventh Seal, in which Death appears in a hood. That would be it.

Last November, after eight years of being "clear" apart from a scare two years ago, a small lump had been detected by a doctor. I'd had a mammogram, then an ultrasound, then a fine needle aspiration (where a needle is inserted into the lump, to draw out fluid or cells), then a core biopsy. Nothing definitive was shown. All these tests, plus the waiting periods in between each, took five months. Finally, since they still couldn't tell whether I had cancer, I was to have the lump removed. I would then know, after eight years, whether I had cancer again. I would rather not use the word "remission", which implies you're going to fall under the axe eventually.

My friend and neighbour in the flat below had offered to look after my dog and me on the day of my general anaesthetic. Ten minutes before I was due to lose consciousness - I had purposely not eaten or drunk anything since midnight - the surgeon who had done the core biopsy two weeks earlier suddenly told me that I could have just another "local" if I liked. He could erect a small sheet in front of my face so I wouldn't be able to see the surgery taking place. (I wondered if he'd made this special offer because I hadn't flinched during his core biopsy a fortnight earlier, though I had been a bit worried when, before stabbing my anaesthetised breast four or five times, the charming Dr D had nonchalantly asked a nurse to "pass the `fork' please".)

I jumped at this unexpected second "local", as I wanted to go to a party that evening. Sure enough, I was home by lunch time. But my dog was alone and instead of the chicken soup my neighbour had promised there was a note pinned to my door: "Have had to go to Yugoslavia. Sorry. Toby has been walked." Nato had started bombing and my neighbour, a journalist, had been sent at short notice to the Balkans.

Twelve days later, I was back at the hospital with my 17-year-old daughter to hear the results. That morning, we had considered placing a bet on whether or not I had cancer again. She'd pointed out that the odds weren't very good - she estimated them at 50-50.

The wait was even longer than usual, because my hospital notes had been left downstairs. My daughter, supposed to be revising for A-levels, read a magazine; I read a piece in an out-of-date newspaper about a young woman who'd had her breast removed by mistake. She hadn't had cancer after all. "She should be so lucky," I thought brutally.

Finally we were in the doctor's room. He wanted to examine my stitches, but I wanted to know at once. "Well, have I got cancer again? I've waited five months to find out."

The answer was neither yes nor no. I had had cancer, before the lump was removed, but now I didn't. Apart from that small lump, which did show cancer (Grade 1, which means the tumour was under 2cm in diameter, the lymph nodes in the arm were not affected and the cancer had not spread elsewhere in the body), there were no other traces.

He said that I should start taking tamoxifen at once and, for ultimate safety, consider having the right breast removed. But I did not have to decide immediately. He took a lot of trouble explaining various details and options to me.

After I returned home, and during the subsequent months, I have noticed how different my reaction was to when I was first told, in autumn 1991, that I had cancer. Partly because of the radiotherapy and chemotherapy, my whole life at that time had been disrupted. My children had been small and I had just got divorced. My mother had incipient Alzheimer's and had broken a limb for the third time. I had not yet published a book and felt frustrated about that.

Now, everything is different. I find I am impatient when a friend, who helped me so much when I had cancer wants me to read pamphlets about tamoxifen and see an American cancer specialist. After consulting a second breast cancer specialist in London, I decided not to have my breast removed. I take extra vitamins and other supplements, but apart from this I have put the episode behind me. Although I am writing this article about cancer, I am not that interested when friends send me e-mails about cancer cures, or when I read about the latest breast cancer survival statistics.

And my mother, who in the past had caused me so much anxiety, now has advanced Alzheimer's and, luckily for me, is looked after by a carer. Instead of witnessing only my mother's deterioration, I have access to the diaries she wrote when she was an intelligent young woman, working during the war in the WAAF.

I have published two books (one on breast cancer) and several stories and articles. And there's something else. At nearly 50, I no longer feel alone in having bad health. Among my friends, one has pericarditis (an inflammation of the sac around the heart), one has had a stroke followed by pancreatitis, two have had hysterectomies, another had a lump pressing on his lung (successfully operated on, but he nearly died), my cousin's eye haemorrhaged and another friend was stabbed outside her front door last year. She later fell into a neighbour's basement area and was badly bruised. In company like this, the sinister phrase "in remission", which I still hate, makes me feel less isolated. Of course, my cancer could be a hundred times worse.

Maybe I am living in a fool's paradise, but I prefer it. Until I had a recurrence, I'd dreaded it. I am relieved to discover that the word "cancer" no longer has the same terrifying power.

The writer's `The Diary of a Breast' is published by Faber & Faber

BREAST CANCER: THE FACTS

n Breast cancer is the most common cancer for women in the

UK, and the biggest killer. It strikes 33,000 women every year, and claims the lives of 13,500. Also, 200 men are diagnosed with it every year - and 90 die.

n Breast cancer is thought to be due to an unknown combination of genetic, environmental, hormonal and lifestyle factors. This week, the charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer opened a pounds 15m centre entirely devoted to breast cancer research.

n It is known that risk factors for women include having a first child at an advanced age, having no children, inheriting genetic faults, starting menstruation at an early age or having a late menopause.

n Almost 90 per cent of cases occur in women aged 45 and over.

n Key symptoms include: a lump in the breast or armpit; discharge from the nipple; changes to the skin of the breast; inversion of the nipple; eczema or swelling of the skin around the nipple; swelling of the upper arm or armpit; discomfort or pain in the breast.

If you are concerned for yourself or a relative, contact Breast Cancer Care's helpline on 0808 800 6000, Mon-Fri 10am-5pm

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice