Thursday, May 03, 2007

Erase and rewind

I’ve officially had breast cancer for more than a month now. Or rather, I was diagnosed with breast cancer a month ago. As my oncologist told me, now I’ve had the lump out, I am allowed to talk about it in the past tense... but it still feels so very present.

The strange and alien world of the first days after diagnosis quickly became reality and I am now into phase II – the chemo – so we’re moving through this thing rapidly enough.

But there are vivid and horrible memories that come from those first few days and they playback in my head again and again.

I have had more than enough memories for this month, these are just a few from the very first day – the day of diagnosis.


The Professor, having examined my breasts for the first time, still claiming it all feels benign but we should do a biopsy in case. This is all fine. It’s when he sticks the needle in and for a split second a dark shadow passes over his face. He regains his composure almost instantly and then explains himself. “The lump just felt a bit gritty when I put the needle in so I’m going to recommend you have a mammogram and an ultrasound just to check.”

Suddenly, my mantra de jour that ‘90% of these lumps are benign” feels threatened.


The moment I saw the tumour on the Ultrasound screen. It appeared as a big black hole looking like some ominous planetary eclipse in the solar system of my breast. To my un-trained eye, it looked, just simply, quite, quite wrong.

Another subtle shift of tone, and the radiologist is suddenly singing the Professor’s praises in an unsolicited way that unnerves me, “You know, the Professor is one of the top breast surgeons in the country”.

I knew then it was cancer, and dialling R’s number five minutes later I found my hands shaking and my fingers so weak I could hardly grip my phone. All I wanted to do was hit last number redial and yet everything had turned to jelly.


I was in the Professor’s office again, 30 minutes after the ultrasound had taken place. During this time I had been on the phone to R, in pieces, convinced I was about to be diagnosed with cancer, terrified of the health implications, and devastated by what it would do to our plans and our lives. R was still trying to gamely persuade me that the diagnosis had not been confirmed and it might still be benign when the breast care nurse came out and asked me in for my results.

The shades were drawn and x-ray photos from the mammogram and the ultrasound scans were on the light box, casting a blue light across the room. The Professor was standing so that he could reach over and point things out. The nurse was hovering on her feet to the side of the desk. I was asked to take a seat but all I remember is standing. Somehow it made me feel more in control of the situation, putting me on the same level as the experts surrounding me with grave faces.

He started to explain what they thought they might have seen in the lymph nodes and how they would get the biopsy results back for this tomorrow. This seemed to go on an age. The scan of my right boob with the massive black blob in the middle of it hung to the right of the more innocent looking pictures of my nodes. “What about the lump? Get to the point!” I wanted to scream. What I didn’t know then was that the state of the lymph nodes was in fact crucial. It would tell them whether or not the cancer had definitely spread around my body. What they didn’t know is that my mind was desperate for confirmation of the first facts. Did I or did I not have cancer?

Finally, almost as an afterthought, he’s out with it. “And yes, the lump is, we believe, malignant. It will be confirmed by the biopsies but we think you have Stage 1 Breast Cancer.”

I finally sat down.

I spent a further ten minutes or so with the Professor talking surreally about percentage chances of me ‘surviving’ and possible treatment courses – all dependent on biopsy and surgery results.

My mind is fixating on one thing, whirring away in the background in their talk of lumpectomies, chemo, hair loss and radiotherapy. “Uganda? What about Uganda? How long does all of this take?”.

Dates for surgery were discussed. The Professory goes on holiday for a week on Sunday so would I like to be rushed into a remaining slot on Saturday or would I prefer to wait until the Tuesday after Easter.

Wait? Waiting is not something you do when you find out you have a malignant tumour in your breast. Saturday it is.


The Professory says his goodbyes (until tomorrow when I have an appointment to see him in advance of the surgery the day after that) and I am kindly shepherded out of his office into another room by the Breast Care Nurse.

Her name is Anne. She is Scottish with a lovely lilting soft accent, and a sympathetic head angle.

She talks to me of some of the realities of the coming year. Everything has changed in an instant yet I am still muttering about Uganda. She is calmly telling me I have to put ‘me’ first now. I think to myself ‘Uganda was about putting me first too’ but I don’t think that’s what she means.

All this time, I am hearing her words float in and out, yet my eyes keep getting drawn back to the desk. On the desk is a boxed bra designed for people who have mastectomies. All I can think is, did she put that there in preparation to show me? Is that the extent of the surgery I need on Saturday? If not, will I need one like that one day, if it comes back and I need to lop the whole tit off? The stigma rises to the surface. Am I going to have to be reduced to that?

Suddenly I need to know answers. Feigning embarrassment over the vanity of such a question when this is about cancer, not how good your cleavage looks in a summer dress, I ask her. “How will my breast look? How much will he take out? Will it be mis-shapen? Will it be smaller than the other one?”

Apparently I have little to worry about. It is a small lump, and although there is a chance of a small dent in the texture of the breast, the Professor is an expert at rebuilding and reconstructing breasts from the surrounding tissue. And, as I apparently have a fair bit of surrounding tissue, I should be ok. It is harder to rebuild the breast for women with smaller cup sizes. But I should expect some shrinkage during radiotherapy, though not enough to warrant any special bras.

I am relieved, in an embarrassed way, that my breast will essentially remain the same. And my eyes are no longer drawn back repeatedly to the bra on the desk. We can now talk of fertility threats, hair loss, hormone treatments and other such niceties.

The next time I see her is with R, the following day. By then we have progressed to discussing housing prices and favourite beaches on the West Coast of Scotland. The mundaneity of which is strangely comforting.

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