Tomorrow is not promised

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I was sitting watching “The Greatest Showman” last week while editing this for the 100th time and a part of a song came on that I found was so apt to my current situation. The words go like this:

But I won’t let them break me down to dust, I know that there is a place for us, for we are glorious. When the sharpest words wanna cut me down, I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out. I am BRAVE, I am BRUISED, I am who I’m meant to be, this is me. Look out ‘cause here I come, and I’m marching to the beat I drum, I’m not scared to be seen, I make no apologies, THIS IS ME.

My name is Rozwyn Sawyer. My friends call me Roz. I am a 38-year-old wife/mother/woman. I was born in a small town called Boksburg on the outskirts of Johannesburg in South Africa. In October 2014 we were given an opportunity almost too good to be true to move our little family across the world to Wellington. So, we sold just about everything that we owned and climbed on an aeroplane. We landed in New Zealand at midnight on the 29th October. With nothing but the clothes on our backs, a suitcase each and 2 car chairs, we were ready to start our new lives. We moved to a little village called Eastbourne which we now call home.

The twins were 5 when we moved so naturally weekends were spent out and about investigating parks and playgrounds. One particular Saturday afternoon in May 2015, while playing on the children’s playground equipment – emphasis on children’s playground equipment – I jumped off a moving hamster wheel and tore all the ligaments in my left ankle. This was my first ever ride in an ambulance, my first trip to hospital for anything other than having children and my first taste of the New Zealand health system. A few hours later I was released with crutches and a really tight bandage.

Fast forward 7 months. It was a Friday. The morning of the 4th of December - my 36th birthday. My Hubby and I were lying in bed chatting about the day ahead when I placed my hand under my breasts for a scratch. That’s when I felt it. It was small, soft and squishy. But it was definitely there – under my left breast. My first thought was that I was imagining it. I got my hubby to have a feel as well just to make sure I wasn’t entirely screwball. He confirmed that there was definitely something there. At that moment I knew that life as we knew it was going to change in a massive way. Earlier that year I had lost my maternal cousin to breast cancer so panic was nothing short of an understatement.

I called that day for an appointment to see my GP who could only see me on Monday. So, Monday morning arrived and Hubby and I went off to see her. She had a good old feel about and said that the lump I felt on the left hand side was probably nothing but she did feel a couple of bumps in my right breast which she was more concerned about. Off I went for a mammogram and ultrasound – which I thought was the scariest thing I had ever done. The radiographer was wonderful and explained everything as she was going so I had little to worry about. The Ultrasound confirmed the lump that I had felt the week before on my left breast. I then needed a biopsy to figure out what the heck that lump was. The biopsy was done on the 21st of December. I had both breasts biopsied and it was the left one that turned out to be sick.

Waiting for the results of the biopsy over the Christmas break was excruciating. 3 weeks of not knowing and wondering. I guess I already knew, but I needed it to be confirmed and a plan put in place. But of course, everything is closed over Christmas and New Year so I had to wait till the 12th of January to get the official diagnosis. Listening to the specialist say those words, “I’m sorry to tell you but it is cancer” was like a kick in the solar plexis. Suddenly I couldn’t breathe properly and the tears were flowing like Niagra falls. We left with a surgical plan and sat in the car and I cried for ages while my hubby held me and shed the odd tear himself.

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Right…so we had a diagnosis and we had the beginning of a plan. We could do this. I say we, because I was not alone. I had my first surgery to remove the lump. My whole life I had wanted smaller breasts and this was my chance to start the ball rolling. I could not bring myself to ask for a mastectomy. After the surgery I saw my specialist again to find out if they were able to get all of it. Unfortunately, they were not able to get clear margins. This meant that I really had no choice but to have a full mastectomy. This was scheduled for a few weeks later. I got home boobless but thankful that the doctors were able to get me in as fast as they did to get rid of all the nasties. The pathology from the mastectomy came back with clear margins. There were 4 more tumours but they were gone. What a relief! Now the start of the next part – chemotherapy!

Once the shock of the initial diagnosis was over, we had to inform our family and friends on the other side of the world. The love and support that we felt on this side was truly something to behold.

Gosh! So much happened in such a short time it is hard to differentiate what happened when. I saw the oncologist for the first time in the middle of March. I had my first round of chemotherapy on the 31st of March. There was nothing that could have prepared me for the onslaught and assault that chemotherapy brought with it. It was absolutely brutal!! The day started pretty early at the hospital. Check in and wait to be called. Once called I got to be weighed for 600th time in 3 months and sent to wait to see the oncologist who then discussed everything again. Then it was off to be allocated a bed and nurse. Because it was my first round, I got an actual bed just in case something went wrong. After warming my hand and veins to near boiling point, they inserted the first needle and the first drug was administered. After an hour and a half, the bag was changed to drug number 2. An hour or so later I could not take the pain that the needle was causing so the lovely nurse tried a new vein. No luck. Another go…still no luck. 3rd time lucky and I was ready for the 3rd and final drug to go in. My hand was so badly bruised and incredibly painful. My oncology nurse was not amused and arranged for me to have a central line or port – a – cath inserted in time for my next dose of chemo.

The whole day at the hospital was exhausting. Once we got home I collapsed and slept through to the next day. That’s when hell was unleashed on my body. I hurt all over. My joints, my eyes, my thighs. But that was nothing compared to the next 4 days. I had cramps like I have never experienced cramps before. I was literally rolling on the ground trying to find a comfortable spot to sit in. I had no taste. Food was foul. Drink was vile.

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I lost my hair 2 days before my second round of chemo. Again, there was nothing that could have prepared me for the actual event of shaving my hair off and being bald. I had no idea how cold the next few months would be. Never mind itchy! But the silver lining there was my trusty wig which I lovingly named Jenny. Jenny became my rock and I would not leave home without her, even if I was just popping to the 4 Square. However, Jenny wasn’t permanently stuck to my head. Even though she was nice and tight and I felt secure enough that she was straight, one fateful Wednesday at the end of November, I took myself off to buy some milk. Everything happened perfectly. I drove to 4 square, bought the milk and as I was climbing back into my car, Jenny went flying. The wind had taken her. There I was sitting in the car bawling my eyes out as I had just lost my best friend. I drove around for a while to see if I could spot her anywhere. No such luck. I phoned my hubby in a panic and he came home from work to see if he could find her. Also, no luck. I was mortified as I had to fetch the girls from school and then get them to dancing. My trusty little Macpac farmer hat was my headgear choice for the rest of the day. Later that evening a wonderful friend and her husband were out walking and they just happened to be in the right spot at the right time to see Jenny on the roof of 4 Square. They were kind enough to retrieve my rogue wig and return her to me.

After chemotherapy I had a short break before starting radiation therapy. It was 5 days a week for 5 weeks. 25 sessions of roughly 3 minutes of treatment. At the start, it felt like nothing was happening. After 2 weeks I started wondering whether this was worth it. At least with chemo there were side effects that I could actually see and feel. After 4 weeks, with only a few days left, my skin started to break down. It was a tiny patch just above my breast. That tiny patch turned into the entire patch that was being treated. My skin started to peel but it was red and raw and incredibly painful, especially under my arm. When radiation finished, it took about 2 weeks for my skin to heal and I could walk around without dressings stuffed in my bra. But I was tired. So so tired. My body was done with being treated. I needed a rest. That is a side effect of treatment that no one seems to speak about. it is so unbelievably taxing and most days all I wanted to do was sleep. I guess it could have been a combination of the treatment and depression.

My treatment was completed in March 2017. I had my final round of Herceptin. In total I had had 6 rounds of chemo, 25 rounds of radiation treatment, 17 rounds of Herceptin and I am currently in my 2nd of 10 years of Tamoxifen. Due to my high risk of recurrence, on the 4th of April this year I underwent a prophylactic mastectomy on the right-hand side and bilateral reconstruction. I was fortunate where my plastic surgeon saw me as a person and not just a number. Our first appointment with her was like having a casual chat with a long-lost friend. We were so comfortable that my husband felt it was the right time to use his “boobs without nipples are pointless” joke. It was reassuring seeing someone who understood the importance of having breasts for both self-esteem and self-acceptance. When we got the pathology report for the right-hand mastectomy my surgeon asked how I felt. The clear result was so overwhelming that I burst into tears. She wrapped her arms around me like a mother would her child and let me cry. I was the most important person in her office at that time and it was important to her that I was OK.

At the beginning of treatment, we were told that I would most likely become infertile and was offered the opportunity to freeze eggs if we didn’t already have children. We had the twins so we didn’t feel it was necessary as we really had already decided not to have more kids. However, we were happy with leaving the option open and if it was meant to be, it was meant to be. Being told that the treatment would almost guarantee no more kids was heart breaking. The choice was taken away from us. I was secretly hoping for a boy. In May that year we took a trip to see some friends in Tauranga. I didn’t know that there were 2 reasons for that trip. The first was to see our dear friends and the second was to pick up a puppy. He is fondly referred to as my “chemo – dog”. He, together with our other little dog, kept me company through those long days when all I wanted to do was curl up in a hole.

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Being diagnosed with any form of cancer is a life changing experience and it is a deeply personal one for each person. Some people choose to hide their illness, other choose to share it. We find out who our true friends are and communities come together to support. When I was diagnosed, I suddenly had so many friends. And each one of them wanted to do something. Not because they felt they had to, but because they wanted to. We also had our fair share of the nastiness that rears its ugly head when something like this happens. I was told by someone pretty close to me that having cancer was “character building” and that my treatment plan was “not that gruelling”.

As soon as your name is handed in to the oncologist, your life is taken over. Appointments are scheduled on your behalf and all you have to do is turn up. You come to know the people who are poking and prodding and scanning. They become another form of support and I used to feel at ease being there with them. For almost a whole year I was going from one appointment to the next. My whole life was planned and mapped out for me. When I had my last dose of chemo, I was sent out the door and that was it. There was nothing else. No next appointment. No follow up – apart from those with the breast surgeon and the once yearly appointment with the oncologist. Now I had to try and get some sort of semblance of a normal life back. But what was normal? Treatment had become my new normal. My days were consumed with what ifs. Every ache or slight pain and I was convinced that the cancer had come back. My confidence and self-esteem had taken such a knock that I was afraid to even look for a job. So how did I come to be here, where I am now?

It took a whole lot of soul searching and encouragement and not hanging on to the past to get here. I have had to grieve for my past life. My old body. My old self. I had to accept that my body would never look the same. For 2 years I had 2 different sized breasts and looking in the mirror it is a constant reminder of what had happened to me. But, it was also a reminder of what I had overcome. It took me a long time to accept the fact that I had beaten this invisible demon and I was going to live and life was continuing with me in it. I learnt that a positive attitude is vital for survival. Laugh at everything that you can. Laughter really is the best medicine. To find humour through all of this is a feat on its own because there is nothing funny about having cancer. Cancer has taught me to love like I have never loved before. It is deep and raw and passionate. I am not afraid to say I love you 100 times a day. Because the person I am saying it to needs to know that I love them and that I mean it. I have a new appreciation for the little things. It doesn’t matter if I don’t have the fancy house and car. I have my husband and the twins and that is more valuable than anything money can buy. I have come to actually understand what is meant when someone says tomorrow is not promised. It is not. We need to make each day count. Live in the moment. Don’t look too far ahead. Love. Be crazy. Buy that dress that you don’t particularly need and dance in those expensive shoes in the rain.