…..…I’d tell you that today is exactly one year since I had a routine mammogram that flagged up that something was amiss. I’d mention when you asked that no, the mammogram didn’t spot the cancer that was growing inside me but it did pick up a cyst and that was enough to raise the red flag and fire the starting gun that brought the medical world to invade my every waking moment and sometimes my dreams.
As we sip our coffee, people watch and continue to talk you want to know what it felt like when I went back to the hospital for another mammogram which in turn led to a core biopsy to investigate another suspicious area that became more evident as the errant cyst was about to be drained.
‘Did you know right then that you had cancer?’ you ask, your face failing to hide your anxiety at the question but also your curiousity. ‘I can’t imagine what that must feel like’ you add and trail off. Your voice just a whisper as you wait for me to respond.
I can’t respond immediately because I’m lost in the memory of it, some of it crystal clear and some of it so hazy I struggle to recall the events that in many ways are deeply etched on my consciousness, memories that I can replay like a bad episode of a soap opera. I remember a sense of disbelief, disorientation and bewilderment; a focus on the shift from one life to another as the Radiologist sensitively but assertively told me that she was very concerned and wasn’t ruling cancer out at that point even though diagnosis was a couple of weeks away, but she wanted me to be informed and prepared. The voice in my head remarked that a Radiologist wouldn’t mention the C word if they didn’t have a pretty good suspicion but I batted that thought away and tried to focus on what was happening in front of me.
‘They gave me a cup of tea and a folder’ I say in response to your question. ‘The folder was called Primary Breast Cancer and I guess in its innocence that was the clue to future conversations and my eventual diagnosis’. ‘So you still didn’t know at that point that you had cancer even though you had “the folder”?’ you comment incredulously and I shake my head and smile. I smile because looking back I still find it strange that at this point I wasn’t upset or tearful, just stunned into a complicit silence.
How did your husband react you wonder out loud and again I smile, only this time with love at the mention of him. ‘He wasn’t there at that point’ I say and your eyes widen in disbelief that I was on my own at this stressful time but I’m quick to point out that actually it was my fault that I was on my own. I’d misread the letter summoning me back to the hospital and thought that this appointment was taking place in an area that is for women only and so had declined his offer to accompany me due to the ‘rules’ I believed were in place. Of course, this appointment was in a different area of the hospital and virtually everyone there was part of a couple in some way.
‘I’d be in bits’ you say leaning forward to give me a hug that suddenly you feel the need to give me, as if to take away some of the horror of that day. A year late but very welcome. These hugs help me to reflect on this past year through a lens of love and compassion and as always reconnect with the people who bubble up in your life at times like this to scaffold you and break your fall as you hurtle downwards into a dark place.
Our coffee is cold by now and we’ve talked for so long that 2 new sets of people have come and gone on the table next to us. The current incumbents are spreading out their shopping bags and diving into each one to squeal at their purchases; I’m indifferent to their mindless spending and materialistic lifestyle knowing that what we value should always have a human element.
‘Can I actually ask you about the moment when you were told you had cancer?’ you venture, ‘Yes fire away’ I respond and somehow realise that’s not the answer you wanted. You wanted me to just keep talking and tell you how it felt, what went through my mind at that moment, what words were used to describe the significant tumour the biopsy had found, what medical intervention would follow, how hard Steve held my hand and the feeling of the ground swimming beneath me. What you didn’t want was to ask specific questions, fearing that you are treading on still delicate egg shells that may at any point crack and shatter but I’ve had to recall this moment so many times over the past year that I’m almost immune to the emotion of it. I tell you that your questions won’t upset me and even though you pull a face that suggests otherwise I encourage you to say what’s on your mind. This time it’s me that leans forward to initiate a healing hug, a connection that says it’s ok, really.
And exactly a year down the line it’s getting to be more ok, really.