Listen to the full article here- read by Susanna Andrew
I hadn’t had a mammogram for ages. I had gone from annual to two yearly screenings and somehow dropped off the reminder email list from the clinic. I suppose Covid intervened, too.
It is a nice clinic where you are given a green cotton robe to put on after you’ve taken your top off. I always wonder whether they wash them for each patient after every 10-minute use. Hope not.
You then get a locker, put the key in your robe pocket and sit alone in the waiting room wondering whether to make a hot drink from the kitchenette. Seems a bit relaxed and casual and you wouldn’t want to be called in to the radiologist while fussing about with bags and sachets. If I made one I’d get called in straightaway. Then I’d be carrying an awkward hot drink.
Anyway, I was thinking I should get a mammogram because it felt like years since I’d had one. I had started a new job, which was intense. When I went to my doctor to get a check for melanoma and asked for a referral, it had been three and a half years since my last one.
I had the mammogram and staff told me that I’d be able to access the patient portal for results. They would call me the next day if there were any issues.
Then the call. I was working an early morning shift and saw the number come up on my phone and I just knew it was not good. Everything sort of telescoped in on that number. The brisk woman told me they had found calcifications but it wasn’t anything to worry about. Of course, worrying was all I did until I had a follow-up appointment the next week. I started bargaining with the spectre of cancer. Making deals if I’d dodged that bullet. Drink less, lose weight. . .
I had another mammogram and an ultrasound at the next appointment. I could tell by the doctor’s eyes that it was something to worry about. He recommended a biopsy. I knew I would be entertaining the worst outcome (death) until then and asked how quickly I could get one. He offered to do it right away. I leapt at it. He chopped out some flesh (the equivalent of six grains of rice) from my left breast and laid them on a strip of sellotape. I could tell he knew what it was. I pressed him and he told me it was likely ductal carcinoma in situ.
I paid the $1000 bill and went to work. I drove up the Southern motorway with an ice pack jammed into my bra and balancing my phone on my knee, speaker-phoned my partner to tell him that I had cancer.
The clinic got my results fast-tracked. The doctor said to the nurse “mark it urgent”. The news had a story about how biopsy results were taking weeks. I got mine in four days. Cancer confirmed.
I kept the news a secret. I didn’t want to be someone with breast cancer. I didn’t want my kids to worry. I certainly wasn’t putting it on Facebook. It was sort of embarrassing.
Then the meeting with the surgeon. He was kinda smooth and slightly patronising. I took my partner because I couldn’t concentrate on what was being said. My eyeballs turned into spirals like the creatures in Fantastic Mr Fox when they are paralysed by fear and confusion. He was talking about the results and I tried to concentrate but I kept getting distracted by the bad picture of a yacht on a blue sea on his office wall. I kept wondering who would have chosen it and what the point of it was. To calm patients?
Then I kept staring at his big gold wedding ring and thought about what his wife might be like. He showed me a handout with a diagram on it showing four stages. The picture of each breast had a little pocket of beans in it. The fourth and final picture had the beans spilling out of the pocket. I had the third one where the beans hadn’t spilled but the beans were bad beans. The surgeon underlined the result from my biopsy GRADE THREE in blue biro.
Then I was ushered into a meeting with a kind nurse who had sad blue eyes. It must be exhausting being so genuinely compassionate for eight hours a day.
She offered me a heart-shaped pillow for post-surgery recovery. I could choose which fabric pattern I wanted. I randomly selected a muted blue and green material then immediately regretted not going for the vibrant red one. The nurse congratulated me on my choice and put it in a bag with a pink breast cancer tag on it. It had pamphlets in it. I really didn’t want a breast cancer bag. I didn’t want to be a breast cancer person with a heart pillow. I didn’t identify as a person with breast cancer. I was fit and healthy and cancer happened to other people.
Darkly, I kept composing a list of people that I would prefer had breast cancer rather than me. I also kept looking jealously at old ladies in the street.
I was booked in for a partial mastectomy the following week. I had to tell my supervisor at work, so then I thought if he knew, then I should tell the rest of my family. My mother’s reaction was to tell me that it wasn’t from her side of the family and that she hated mammograms and was glad she didn’t have to have them any longer. The kids absorbed it but took it in their stride. I played it down to them, I guess. I joked with my sister that she should start my Givealittle page. I figured people don’t really know how to react. I think they might be secretly pleased as it lessens the statistical chances of them getting it. Or that ultimately it’s a journey you have to walk alone.
I went for the surgery. Overnight in hospital. I preferred the surgeon in his scrubs rather than his suit. There was a jolly anaesthetist who went through the effects of the general. He told me there was a thing called post-anaesthetic euphoria and to not buy any bitcoin or do any work emails when I woke up. I did buy a pair of snakeskin pants online about two hours after I roused. No regrets.
Now I have a six-centimetre grimace on the underside of my left breast. It feels sort of hard and twinges from time to time. I still have to meet with a radiation oncologist to decide on radiation but I really don’t want it. It might give me peace of mind regarding the left breast but if my body knows how to make these bad beans, why wouldn’t it go for the right breast or somewhere else?
I hope I’m not too haunted by the cancer coming back. One of the positives is that you have to confront mortality and I’m strangely at peace with that. If I have to die sooner rather than later then that’s the hand I’ve been dealt.
At least I have the sun on my face, the sea at my disposal and birds to admire in the interim.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. “Know Your Normal” is the new campaign slogan – that means getting familiar with your breasts. So give yourself a feel up and remind the women in your life to do the same. See a doctor if you notice any of the following:
• A new lump or lumpiness, especially in only one breast
• A change in the size or shape of your breast
• A change to the nipple, such as crusting, ulcer, redness, a nipple discharge that occurs without squeezing
• A change in the skin of your breasts such as redness or dimpling
• Unusual, persistent pain