You cannot talk or write about TV and cancer and not mention Breaking Bad. For the benefit for those who haven’t seen this superb series (like my parents) here is a brief outline of what happens. We follow the life of Mr Walter White. Walter lives in Albuquerque and is happily married to a beautiful wife called Skylar. They currently have one son, Walt Jnr, who has cerebral palsy.
We join the White family as they are due to celebrate Walt’s 50th birthday. Walt works as a chemistry teacher in the local high school and as Skylar is pregnant with their second child. He takes a second job at a car wash, in order to save extra money for the new arrival. During the first episode, we get a glimpse into Walt’s life and it’s clear that it’s a very downtrodden existence. Although he is a good teacher, the extra work at the car wash, you can tell, destroys him. The boss of the car wash is a horrible man. He gives Walt all the awful jobs to do and you can see how demeaning it is to such a proud man like Walt.
Then Walt’s world changes. Although he has been feeling tired and run down, he just assumes it’s down to the fact that he has two jobs. However, a trip to the doctors and a follow up scan gives Walt the news that both him and his family cannot imagine. He has lung cancer. There are treatment options but it’ll cost.
After receiving the news, Walt then thinks of another way he can get the extra money, not only for the treatment, but also for his family. He decides to use his chemistry knowledge to become a drug dealer by both manufacturing and distributing methamphetamine. He has the manufacturing side covered, by raiding the school for supplies. In order to help with the distribution side, he recruits a former pupil, Jessie Pinkham, to assist him in such matters.
The following five series follow Walt’s and Jessie’s descent into the drug underworld. Unsurprisingly, things get a bit messy. But what makes Breaking Bad stand apart is the change in personality in both Jessie and in Walt. By series five, Walt is no longer Walt but the drug lord Heisenberg who is on America’s Most Wanted. In one telling scene, Skylar confronts Walt in a storage container that is completely crammed full with money. She tells Walt that they have enough money to last two lifetimes rather than one. So why doesn’t he stop? Walt is completely passive throughout the exchange. He knows that he is now too far gone. He can never go back to the old Walt. He is now Heisenberg and relishes and devours the power that this now gives him.
I can identify a lot with Walt. When I tell this to my friends and family, they seem to recoil in horror. Although I’m not about to start cooking methamphetamine any time soon, I can identify with the change in personality. Cancer changes you. It makes you assess your life. You become more assertive. You see life with extra clarity. You know what you want and definitely what you don’t want.
You also sadly realise that cancer is not something that is beaten. Even if you have been cancer free for decades, it still has a hold over you. With Walter White it gave him an excuse for him to indulge in his psychopathic tendencies. For me it gave me clarity for how to alter my work life balance. These are life changing decisions and cancer or any other life threatening condition, gives you a weird confidence to enact on this.
Buoyed by the extra confidence from my Olympic experience, I prepared my battle plan for returning to work. All the meetings I had were very positive and by September 2012, everything seemed to be back to normal. Then one day I was having a rare thing in the teaching world which is a proper lunch break. I was tucking into some salad when a piece of rocket got stuck in my throat and I started to choke. There was no one else in the staff room. I was just about to bolt it and get some help when it magically dislodged itself and I was soon rasping for air. It was a bit of a wake up call that mouth wasn’t opening as wide as it should which meant that I wasn’t chewing food properly. I was pretty determined that if and when I was going to die it would be of cancer, not some errant piece of salad.
So began a barrage of appointments at the Maxi Facial Clinic to see if anything could be done. I had an x ray of my teeth taken. However, my mouth wouldn’t open wide enough to fit the slide in behind my teeth. The radiographer seemed to relish this challenge that had been set for him. Soon he managed to butcher a children’s x ray slide so that it finally rested snuggly behind my teeth.
I met another consultant, Mr P, who was a very jolly chap. He wasn’t keen on surgery. He thought it would create more scar tissue which could make the problem even worse. I was prescribed a weird clamp like device to put in my mouth to try and prise my mouth further apart. Finally, it was decided that I should have an MRI to finally rule out surgery once and for all.
I went to get the results in the summer of 2013. I went with my husband and we both felt pretty good. I had survived a whole academic year and had upped my teaching load for the next academic year in September. We were also going on a cruise of the Norwegian Fjords the following week. So we were both completely dumb struck when Dr B showed us in and said….it’s back.
I actually refused to believe it. My husband refused to believe it. Dr B said that when she read the report, she actually went to see the senior radiologist to query it, because she didn’t believe.
She pulled the image on the computer screen. There it was. It had reoccurred in the same place. It was no longer in my salivary gland but was at the base of my skull, right in the middle of my head. It was quite small. The size of a pea, Dr B had said.
“Can we treat it?” asked my husband rather tentatively. We both remembered the conversation we had had with Dr B after the second course of radiotherapy. She had very clearly said that if it reoccurred that would be it. Adios amigo.
“Unfortunately no. The bone in the centre of your skull, Anna, has had such a high dose of radiation, that it could cause you severe brain damage if you were to have any more.”
We were dumbfounded. I think I must have told Dr B that we were going on a cruise.
“That’s marvellous! Look go on your cruise, and we can discuss all this afterwards.”
It seemed like a good idea, so we made an appointment back in her clinic the week after the cruise.
We had a great time on the cruise and it felt that we had left what was going on in the centre of my head, back at home. The only time it was mentioned was when I was eating some peas. I said it was quite weird that something so small was creating all these problems.
The cruise also gave us time to devise some kind of plan. As Mr N had sought advice from his colleagues at the Royal Marsden in London and they had advocated the second round of radiotherapy, it made sense that we should seek them out and see what they had to say.
I ran this idea past Dr B. To my amazement, she wasn’t keen. She supported me wholeheartedly in going there, but she feared that their conclusions would be the same as her’s.
After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, we finally managed to get an appointment to see Professor M at the Royal Marsden in Chelsea. So I had gone up from doctors, to misters and now I had reached the pinnacle of professors.
There are two sites for the Royal Marsden hospital. One is in Sutton in Surrey and the other is in Chelsea in west London. My appointment was at the Chelsea one and for some reason my dad thought it would be a good idea to drive there. This turned out to be a nightmare. In the end, dad dropped me, mum and my sister off at the main entrance while he trawled the back streets of Chelsea, trying to find a parking space.
As we were in the private section, the reception area was quite plush. There was free tea and coffee and an abundance of reading matter to peruse. After about ten minutes, we were called through. Still no sign of dad. We sat in a big circular corner room that had three set of sash windows that poured light in. Professor M stood up and we made our introductions. He was quite young and reminded me a little of the comedian David Mitchell. We just all sat down again when in entered a flustered dad.
“You drove!?!” said Professor M shaking his head. It wasn’t a good start.
After we all calmed down a bit, he tapped on his computer and a photo of the inside of my head appeared on his computer screen.
It turned out to be good news. There were things that could be done. First he would test the tumour to see if there was anything chemically that could be done.
“Chemically?” asked my sister “We’ve always been told chemo wasn’t an option…”
“It may be.” Replied Professor M “It just depends on the tumour.”
If nothing chemically could be done, then I could have a course of further targeted radiotherapy. However, this would be much more invasive. The tumour would have to be a lot bigger and I would have to lose my left eye because the radiation damage to it would be too great. I would also have to have the treatment at the Marsden which would mean staying at mum and dad’s for six weeks and commuting in. We nodded solemnly. Inside though we were all cock-a-hoop. The man had a plan and that was all we wanted to hear.
I threw myself into work after the Marsden appointment to try and distract myself a bit from the seriousness of the situation. I remember rushing off while in the middle of teaching to answer phone calls confirming follow up appointments. It was becoming more of a nuisance to my everyday existence rather than a life or death matter.
Then one day an extremely important email dropped into the Junk Mail folder in my Hotmail account.
It was the news that we were dying to hear. They had tested the tumour and found that it was HER 2 positive. Basically a cancer tumour omits a whole load of proteins in order to replicate itself. One such protein is HER 2. By being HER 2 positive, my tumour could be prevented from spreading by using chemical treatment. This meant that although it wouldn’t get rid of the tumour completely, I could have chemotherapy to keep the tumour at bay.
I would also no longer be seeing Professor M at the Marsden. Instead I would see Professor I who would then discuss the treatment with me further.
The next week me, my sister and my parents were all sat once again in the private clinic waiting room, awaiting our first appointment with Professor I. I seem to remember he was about fifteen minutes late, which annoyed my sister a bit. Anyway we were called through to a small box room. In the room there was a desk with a computer on it. Opposite the desk was an examining table and a wash basin. Squeezed into this room were myself, Professor I, my parents, my sister, a nurse and a registrar. It was a tight fit I can tell you. Professor I sat at the desk and I sat on a chair at one end of the desk. Even though there were so many other people in the room Professor I focused purely on me.
“Ah… Mrs Read! Delighted to meet you.” He said as he shook my hand. It was hard to place an age on him but I would say that he was over fifty. He had short, spikey white hair, big black rimmed glasses and a noticeable gap in his front teeth. He was also charm personified.
He highlighted my treatment package. Basically I would have eighteen sessions of chemo. My chemo would consist of two drugs. The first one would be a drug called Herceptin. This drug contained the necessary chemicals to prevent the tumour from spreading. The second drug would be Paclitaxel. This was a standard chemo drug usually used in breast cancer. The idea of using Paclitaxel was that it would make my tumour more receptive to the Herceptin. After the eighteen sessions, I would carry on having just the Herceptin every three weeks. I would be monitored every three months to check that the tumour was stable. He stressed that eventually the Herceptin would stop working and then we would be back to square one.
“Would she need the treatment at the Marsden?” asked my sister.
The good news was that no; I could have the treatment in Nottingham. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
“That’s fantastic!” I said “I know I’m seeing you privately today but could we revert to NHS funding as I’m funding this appointment myself.”
Professor I’s face dropped.
“Oh… I had assumed that Mr BUPA was paying for treatment. That changes things entirely because I’m not too sure you’ll get the necessary funding for treatment. Herceptin has got funding for breast cancer and I doubt that your trust will fund it for any other type of cancer.”
I felt that the rug had been pulled away from under us. I can’t really remember much after that. My sister was bombarding him with questions and the Professor’s jovial attitude before, turned somewhat sheepish.
“Who’s your oncologist in Nottingham?” he finally asked.
I told him Dr B’s name.
“Ah…Trudy! Yes, I know Trudy quite well. Look, I’ll email her and let’s see if it’s possible…”
We then said our goodbyes but weirdly I felt quite optimistic.
The next day I got a called from Melissa. She had made an appointment for me to see Dr B that following Thursday. I carried on with work in the meantime and soon both myself and my husband were waiting for my name to be yelled out in the lovely ENT department.
It eventually was and we walked in to a beaming Dr B. Apparently she had applied to the Cancer Drug Fund for funding for the proposed treatment, and it had been accepted! This meant that I could have the treatment that Professor I had outlined in Nottingham. There would be no awful commute to Chelsea every day. I could have it and be able to collapse in the car and be whisked home. An appointment had been made for my chemo induction in two weeks’ time. Crikey! That was quick!