I am going through a tutorial to help me get a hang of blogging and have decided to change my title as it better reflects what I am feeling and who I am. It’s a play on words, “specific” to “sPasifika” which I know is grammatically incorrect but that’s what it is for now.
I wanted to also fill you in a little on where I am at with my breast cancer journey. Take a big breath people, this will be a long one.
So, let’s rewind. I’m a little girl, living with my Cook Islands grandparents in Auckland. My papa is actually not my blood relative, he’s my nana’s partner (that’s another story) but I love him with all my heart. I know who my real parents are and I visit them from time to time. Anyway, my nana gets sick. One day, I visit her in the hospital and she doesn’t look much like herself. In fact, she looks like a Pa’apa, a white person. She kisses my hand because she doesn’t want to kiss my face. This is unusual in our custom but looking back, I get it — she doesn’t want me to be close to her illness. Then, a few days later (at least I think so, these are young girl memories), she is gone.
My world implodes. I shift in with my parents and my two siblings. Papa comes too but later that changes to visits now and then. I learned later that my nana — well, I actually called her mum because she was mum to me — had cancer. And I think to myself in my eight-year-old mind — “that’s strange, she didn’t smoke.”
Fast forward to my adult years when I have my first child. I stumbled across my nana’s death certificate which states “carcinoma of the cervix” as cause of death. This is post- the Cartwright Inquiry and so the words “cervical smears” are all over the media. That’s when I realised that my nana did die of cancer but not from smoking. I end up speaking with my doctor about it and he tells me I am a high risk patient. I have some testing done and we discover abnormal smears which get lasered off in Kew Hospital, Invercargill.
These experiences compared with a few other periphery ones, cause me to be quite pro-active about my health.
Really fast forward… to 2010 when I turned 45. I rock on up to the mobile breast screening clinic. No problemo, do the deed, great nursing and support staff, over and done in just enough time for the hubby to take the kids out for an ice cream and back again.
Then I get a call back, then comes a biopsy, then some other stuff I can’t quite remember (because that’s what happens, it becomes a stressed out, crazy blur) and then the diagnosis. “May Seager, you have breast cancer” (no drum roll).
But it’s not too bad because they have caught it early. It’s what they called DCIS (like NCIS but without the special effects). That stands for Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. Which basically means the cancerous cells are in a duct just working away at causing havoc in an otherwise perfectly healthy body.
I’m the sort of person who has to visualise things, draw pictures, diagrams or whatever, to help me understand things. So I likened it to an electrical cable, with the cells stuck inside going nowhere — yet! Once they get out, it’s “party at May’s house”. The best solution was to have a mastectomy. So I did, it was a huge deal because we didn’t know until after the operation, whether they got it all. It entailed a five-hour operation because I opted for a breast reconstruction operation too. I called it upcycling or backfilling. (One of the other things I need to add is that I have a strange sense of humour).
They used my stomach tissue to become my substitute breast tissue to give the appearance of a breast. I was quite pleased they were able to do something about that excess puku which I had been trying for years to shift after an emergency Caesarian operation. Its only real useful purpose was as a cushion for our gorgeous cat.
I had five months off work (my employers were very kind and supportive) and was clear of cancer. They had also removed a sentinel node — I love the use of that word for some reason, very heroic — which was also clear.
From whoa to go — my first mammogram to surgery — took just two months. In my experience, when it comes to breast cancer, the New Zealand health system moves incredibly fast!
Within two years, I was basically back to normal. I had undergone a few small procedures but nothing to worry about.
Moving onto 2016. I had been experiencing some pain in my left arm (same side as the mastectomy). It came to a head in September. I had gone to my wonderful niece’s wedding, pulled an all-nighter helping with the clean-up afterwards but my arm leading down to my armpit was causing me excruciating sharp pains, discomfort, lack of sleep and just plain old grumpiness, which isn’t at all like me. I massaged it, gave it hot packs, took Panadol, tried everything. In my ignorance I thought, I need one of those damned lymphodoema sleeves. However, after a visit to the doctor, it seemed there was more to my problem. Compounded by the holiday season, I wasn’t able to have a mammogram until late January and following that — you should know the drill now May — tests, biopsy, bloods and finally a CT scan.
My husband and I were pretty sure that I had cancer again, but I didn’t quite know how or why. A few years back, the health authorities and experts were saying that one in every 10 women in New Zealand were getting breast cancer. And if you had gone through it once, your chances of getting it again were increased to eight out of 10. Those are huge numbers with breast cancer being the number one killer of women in Aotearoa. I have looked on a few sites lately and they have changed their angle, saying that 3000 women are diagnosed every year. I am not sure that actually drives home the message but there’s plenty of great information out there if you go looking. eg. Breast Cancer Foundation, the Ministry of Health screening programme, Breast Cancer Aotearoa Coalition, the Cancer Society.
In all this, I need to say that we were praying to God for guidance, understanding, strength. But I never asked why me? And the simply answer to that is — why not me?
I believe that as Christians, we are not immune to the suffering and hardships of the world we live in. We are humans, none of us are perfect. Hurricanes happen, cars crash, people get cancer.
I accept my illness but I don’t want it to define me — I know a lot of people are using that phrase these days. But it is true. My main concern at the moment is to survive my five months of chemotherapy and to work out “what next”? I am quite certain there will be a “next”. For now, I really believe that God wants me to understand what it is to “rest in him”. So I will draw on his strength, look to my family for their support, look to my friends, work-mates, church family, neighbours and allow them to show me the love that they feel they wish to give me, in whatever form it takes. Because they can and because I need them.
It’s a huge lesson in humility, a bit like a concrete pill or a chill pill but nah, this one is totally different.