My journey....jpg

My journey…

By: JENNY GRAINER

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Jenny Grainer arrived in the Algarve to live, work and raise a family in 1968. She is a freelance writer and her book Portugal and the Algarve Now and Then has sold more than 2,000 copies.

OVER THE last year I have been on a long journey taking me from suspicion to surgery, through chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Now here I am at the end of my treatment on the best part – the getting back to living a normal life part and wondering how to tell you what I think of the whole experience.

I’ve spoken to many women about their own brush with breast cancer over the last year; a few were treated in Portugal but mainly in the UK. Opinions were varied about here and in Britain.

Mostly good but just recently I spoke to a lady in England whose NHS treatment makes my own seem a very positive experience.

So I have to draw the conclusion that it’s all a bit of a lottery with the only prize of possible future freedom from this hated disease, each with our individual stories at the end.

The worst part for me has been the mystery that surrounds it all and the lack of available information. There should be no need to grope in the dark and a lot more printed material available to guide patients.

A few volunteer counsellors wouldn’t go amiss either. Someone to talk to the day before my operation would have relieved so much stress, although the initial surgery now seems like the easiest part of the whole eventful voyage as treatment at the various out-patient departments since has shown me a total lack of coordination.

Each doctor for each phase has kept his own medical notes and hasn’t passed them on to the next one, at least not in my case. I have learned to take copies of all relevant tests with me on all appointments, both prior to and since I discovered my cancer, just in case. For example, my chemo consultant did not know that I had high blood pressure and a slight heart problem until I told him. It affected my chemo mixture.

Chemotherapy

Nearly all patients have 9am or 2pm appointments no matter why they are there and I really can’t see why. The receptionists have to deal with a queue of people all at the same time, which is enough to make anyone a bit snappy. Patients then have to wait, often for hours, on uncomfortable chairs or benches usually in very crowded waiting rooms with or without a TV set. Take a book. I’ve read many. I can recommend My Left Foot by Christie Brown – I read it after my first operation and wept all the way through. It stopped me feeling so sorry for myself.

After a while you seem to accept that you are no longer a person but only a blue hospital card which is your means of identification. Never lose your blue card.

Chemotherapy may be, and many think is, a life saving discovery for mankind and each patient reacts differently to whichever cocktail their doctor prescribes, but be prepared for a lengthy hibernation from public life.

Before it is administered ,you will be sent for all kinds of tests to make sure that the rest of you is in good enough shape to take it – and before each treatment your blood will be checked to see if your blood count is balanced.

Although some people complain of nausea, I luckily never had any. I suffered a variety of other side effects such as hair loss and depression but I combated this by buying a glamorous wig and took some ‘Happy Pills,’ which pulled me through.

The good side of chemo is seeing the very sick people who come in to the ward where it is administered who have survived because it has been their only lifeline with which to combat recurring tumours. The kindness and cheery attitude of all the staff that work tirelessly to help them restore your faith in humanity and make you feel a fraud for not being so apparently ill.

During treatment I began to wonder how any mutating cell in my body could possibly have escaped being zapped and prevented from causing me to have cancer again in the future. I also couldn’t understand how ANY cell in my body could function at all. And it was a source of constant amazement to me that I was still breathing.

Radiotherapy

I wasn’t given time to recover from my last chemo treatment before the consultant was arranging for me to have radiotherapy. The new unit only recently opened is quite independent and not far from the hospital itself. My initial refusal to have it was greeted with shock at the thought that a patient might have an opinion. Eventually I pacified him by agreeing to go to the consultation.

The Radiotherapy Unit, it must be said, is bright and modern and although I waited over four hours on their gaily-coloured and extremely uncomfortable chairs to see the doctor, he was without doubt the nicest and most explanatory of them all. Needless to say he talked me into it and so began the daily trek to Faro.

I shouldn’t complain – previously patients had to travel to Lisbon. I had a wonderful group from my church that formed a rota to take me each day. We learned more about each other on those trips than we had ever known before.

The Oncology Association are now trying to raise money to build accommodation for those who are not so fortunate in their friends and have to travel long distances by public transport or ambulance.

Treatment lasted only two minutes after all the measuring, positioning and marking was done. Living with an indelible X was a minor irritation and the drive each day ruled my diary. Never have I prayed more fervently and felt so upheld in my faith in Christ than the moments spent under that massive machine and even though the staff members were kind and gentle, with only one machine, I sometimes felt like I was on a conveyer belt.

I have now been offered reconstruction, something I’ll consider when more time has elapsed and I find out more about it. Meanwhile although my arms are still very painful, my strength and stamina are returning and my hair is growing like a newly seeded lawn. Most people like it short, which is just as well as I have no intention of wearing a wig in this heat.

I’d love to hear from anyone who would like to share their experience of breast cancer with me and also from women who may be in those early stages of thinking ‘this might be happening to me.’ If I can help, I will feel that what I have been through and discovered will have been worth it. From all I’ve learned so far – treatment in Portugal is no better or worse than anywhere else, but it helps if someone can give you some advance information so you’re not always groping in the dark. Get in touch – don’t be alone out there.