Helen King was 37 when she was diagnosed with stage 2 Her2 positive breast cancer in her right breast in June 2018. She had a full mastectomy with no reconstruction and sentinel node clearance followed by fertility treatment, eight rounds of chemotherapy (AC, docetaxel, herceptin and perjeta) and radiation. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand with her fur child, Bebe. Before cancer she was a keen boxer, former journalist, coffee lover and e-bike convert. She shares her ride on the cancer train on her Instagram account my_year_of_cancer.
No one likes talking about bums. I learned this working for a health insurer. People were always very cagey about disclosing symptoms if they were bum related. During my first appointment with my oncologist I talked in-depth about my bowel habits, how many times a day I went, consistency, was I prone to diarrhea or constipation. I didn’t think much about it at the time as I was too overwhelmed with all the other information. Words like "high risk" and "aggressive" swirled around my head along with percentages of life expectancy.
Lying on my living room floor my boyfriend massaged my stomach. On a Saturday night this may sound like the prelude for some good times in the bedroom. In reality it was day 5 of chemo which I had discovered was when things ceased to work in my bowels. After going for a walk, taking laxatives and consuming a lot of water there was no movement. My boyfriend made sweeping motions down my stomach, trying to coax whatever was in there to leave. By this point I was frightened with the possibility of what would come out when and if my body finally decided to expel it.
Ross and I had only been together six months when I was diagnosed. Six months in to a relationship it should still be light and fun. You should be able to maintain the illusion that you don’t fart let alone go No. 2. I really didn’t want to tell him I was blocked up like a motorway at rush hour. But chemotherapy rips through your body doing all sorts of unpleasant things and if you are to get through it with your sanity somewhat intact you need to laugh and tell your partner you are constipated. Thankfully Ross is not the sort of man to run when times are tough.
“I think I have hemorrhoids,” I mumbled to my general practitioner not long after the Saturday night spent praying to be able to go to the toilet.
Moments later I’m lying on the examination table with my doctor's finger up my rear and just like that the last shred of dignity I had evaporates. Confirmation was made of the latest in a long list of side effects and I’m sent off with a script for laxatives and suppositories. I add them to the mountain of pharmaceuticals I acquired to deal with side effects. What use to be a basket of hair products and other paraphernalia was now a mini pharmacy, a mountain of white boxes with my name on them.
Chemo leaves you feeling like one big side effect, no part of your body goes unscathed. Dealing with nausea, hair loss, bum issues, violent hiccups (I sounded like a dinosaur), reflux, insomnia along with menopause isn’t fun. By the end of chemo I felt like Winona Ryder’s character Veronica from Heathers in one of the final scenes of the movie, appearing singed and bedraggled from a burning building.
I’ve been told I have handled having cancer well, with dignity and maintained my sense of humour. I don’t think anyone really deals well with having cancer. Once you hear "you have cancer" you are forced to face whatever happens next. Laughing is a short break from the relentless of treatment, it saves you from spiraling into a dark place. As I emerge out the other side I do so with a new appreciation for a functional gastrointestinal system and an ability to keep finding humour in not so funny situations.