How did I discover that I had cancer at all? I can tell you that I was the queen of NEVER checking my breasts like we’re all advised to and shown in solemn fashion. In fact, I can’t recall EVER having done it before being diagnosed. Pretty shocking and dense, but sadly true for me and probably a lot of women.
Before I continue, ‘breasts’ is too serious a word for me (about me), and as I’m going to be using it a lot, I prefer ‘boob’. I hope that’s ok and unless I’m referring to the name of the disease, I’m going to use ‘boobs’ to refer to those parts that belong to me. Aside from the word itself, it’s just a small piece of control I was able to wrest back from the big C. It runs your life a bit while you’re involved with it, and I object to that utterly.
I was in the shower one morning, running late for life as usual, and can CLEARLY recall getting the shower gel and doing the right armpit and boob. We all have a body washing routine and order, and I always do the front of chest, right armpit, right boob, left armpit, left boob (Fascinating). When I got to my right boob, I must have put the right amount of pressure on it, because I could feel something like a pea in the right side.
Then I pushed again. Ignored it. Washed the left side. Came back to the right. Pushed the lump again. Ignored it. Cleaned the rest of me. Returned to the right side. Pushed it again. Started telling myself that some women are just naturally lumpy at certain times (something all women have heard or read). Kept mentally telling myself that’s what it was.
Even as I was saying this stuff to myself, I felt in my gut that it wasn’t true for me. At some level, I suddenly knew that this was trouble. I can’t explain how, I know the brain has an uncanny way of making you think you knew something at a particular time, but I know 100% that it wasn’t ‘normal lumpiness’ and that it was trouble.
With all of that profound and serious thought flashing through my little pea brain in a couple of instants, what did I do next? I got out of the shower, dried, got ready for work, went to work, had a laugh and ignored it.
Yep. I know.
When you read something like that from another woman, you want to beat her head in (in a gentle and persuasive manner, of course) and if it were one of my best friends saying that, I’d be trying to drag them down to the doctors by the ear. However, we are strange beasts, and the fear of acknowledging something like that was far greater (at the time) than anything rational. I sensed that if I said it out loud, then all sorts of horrible things could turn out to be true, so I blocked it.
My recollection of the number of days between first discovering and these next phases is slightly blurry, but I think it can only have been one or two maximum because the daily showering, feeling it and then feeling queasy must have made me move. I know that I was thinking about it a lot at work one day while planning a mega busy week with a day trip to Paris to see some team members, multiple meetings and things that were simply ‘too important’ to move to go to the doctors.
In a strange way, I needed the decision to be taken out of my hands and for someone to force the issue as I would if a friend or colleague told me what they’ve found and been ignoring. So, did I talk to a friend? Nope. I was messaging the CIO about something to do with the programme we were running, and at that point, although I didn’t dislike him intensely (I grew into that emotion with him), we were ‘friendly’ at that time. On impulse, I decided to confide in him, over messenger and just like that; the decision was out of my hands. Whatever I thought about him subsequently, forget about it. He immediately told me I was crazy to be at work and I was forbidden to go to Paris until I’d been to the doctors to get it checked out. End of story.
I got a docs appointment for the day after, strangely quickly once I explained to the receptionist what the problem was. She was trying to fob me off, and I stepped up and put on the serious voice. It doesn’t get used much, mainly because I like laughing and smiling most of the time, but there are times when it can be useful.
Looking back on the doctor and lump situation, I do wonder about the steps in that process. It was evident I had a piece of nastiness inside me that needed to examined by people in a hospital who handle lumpy things all the time. Yet I needed to go to the doctors, have him (in the presence of a nurse and entirely correctly) feel my right boob and say to me, ‘Yep. You’ve got a lump there, alright’.
I replied, ‘I know.’
What I wanted to say which involved the words ‘Shit’, ‘No’ and ‘Sherlock’ in any order he chose. To his credit, given that it was the afternoon, he must have acted swiftly because the letter was on my doormat the next morning, referring me to the local hospital for a first ultrasound and what they like to call a ‘Fine Needle Aspiration’.
Once I had that appointment, which was a couple of weeks away, I must admit, I felt able to relax completely and pretty much forgot about it during each day. Showering each morning was the only time the lump in my throat had to be swallowed down. I know that sounds like it just can’t be true, but I’m not a ‘worrier’ type of person, and once I know that the ‘right’ people will be dealing with me on X date, I’m perfectly fine with that. They’re the experts. And at this point, it could still have been an annoying cyst.
The Fine Needle thing was pretty painless as the needle entirely lived up to its name. It was a tiny bit scary, as anything involving sharp things near my body is, but aside from that, all good. The ultrasound was scarier, because, for some reason, it makes it more ‘real’ when someone is looking at a part of your body, in real time, and telling you that, yes, they can see a ‘mass’ in your right boob. Plus the fact that that jelly stuff they put on you before doing an ultrasound is extremely unpleasant.
I was going to ask ‘who likes it when a strange lady smears stuff on you?’, but I realised I would get the wrong sort of focus entirely from certain people reading this.
I was soon notified of an appointment to come and get my results at the hospital, and so Mum and I went and duly waited. This was a significant milestone for me. I felt that if this first step wasn’t clear and they needed to perform a full biopsy, then I was in trouble. Again, I have no basis for this feeling other than I think it was a self-protection device. I’m fairly analytical, and once I can get my head around an action or an outcome, then I park it until I need to deal with it, and I think that was the case here.
I set up defence mechanisms in my mind to cope with the worst outcome from each appointment and then try to be as positive as possible about the way forward from each of those situations.
Once we were in the waiting room, it was the first time I was getting pretty nervous, and I did feel nauseous. At this point, though, there was still the chance that this might be a cyst and would go away. We were called through by a nurse who put us in an examination room and said that the consultant surgeon, a Mr S, would be with us soon.
Not long after, he appeared, bringing with him a few students and asked if they could be present when he went through the results with me. I know it’s normal for people to need to learn, but this started whopping great alarm bells ringing inside my head! Why would he need to show students how to cope with telling a woman that the cells are healthy and that she can bugger off home and drink some more wine? Amazing the speed at which thoughts can ping around your head at any given moment or situation. I still find that fascinating.
Mr S was a short Egyptian man with a very strong English accent. He had a particular way of pronouncing certain words and its one of the most powerful memories of the entire period. Also, makes my mum and I laugh in a very childish fashion. But I’ll come back to that.
Mr S then proceeded to tell me that they weren’t happy with the results of the Fine Needle Aspiration and that they would need to move forward to a full biopsy. No other reaction or feeling than numbness at this point. What I can say is that I now thought that it was more likely that I would have a real problem and that the something would turn out to be malignant. He was clear that this didn’t mean it was *definitely* cancer, but that they couldn’t pass the lump off now as a harmless cyst.
One thing I should mention about my hospital and doctor visits throughout this experience were that while I was utterly fine during each appointment, the minute I got outside the hospital or back into my car, I broke down and cried for about 20 seconds. While doing it, I can remember wondering why I was crying and think it was because I was feeling pitifully sorry for myself. I can recall a wave of the “Why me?” sweeping over me several times and then, as is usual with me, I would get bored with the over emotional shit, stop crying, sometimes laugh at my dramatics, start the car engine and get on with my day.
Next station: Biopsy Town. A shit hole of a place.