Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Helicopters, Dr Goodguy and why I hate Christie Brinkley

Yesterday morning was the bottom of the rollercoaster for me. The waiting was becoming unbearable. I'd had little sleep, again; from the moment I woke (again) for the day, the butterflies in my tummy had become airforce helicopters shooting bullets of adrenaline every few moments.

So much for my perfect attitude.

Perfect attitudes are overrated, actually. From the moment I started to drop my bundle, my friends started holding it up for me. I had messages of love and support from all over Australia and all over the world, most of them from people I'd never met in the flesh. Such is the power of the internet.

Every one of those messages helped. For at least a few seconds. Until the next adrenaline bullet.

Tired of even trying not to think about the prospect of the Freeloader's little mates already being in situ, I sat and wrote a stupidly long list of questions for the surgeon. Then I test-drove them on my medically-brilliant and amazingly empathetic best friend. We managed to strike off a third of them at once.

"Reading between the lines," said she as I reached the middle of the second close-typed page, "you're trying to find the outlines of this thing so you can project the course of it. It won't work, darling. There's no certainty with this."

As usual, the truth was helpful; there's no crystal ball supplied with the diagnosis, much as we might wish for one. Bless you, Jools. I stopped trying to chisel the edges of my disease in stone and started to accept my complete lack of control. Ironic, really, as I'm the one who has always known that control is an illusion. I've even written about that in my poetry, and you can't get closer to my true beliefs than that.

I mean, here's part of my description of the Bear as he stood on the riverbank at his old hometown, struggling to come to terms with the loss of his last partner to this same bloody disease.

Downstream, the river's studded with good-timers

who ride the sweet illusion of control.
You stand upon the pier, staunch as the pylons,
your face whitewashed and still. The pleasure boats
roar past, their dizzy burden of joyriders
spraying plastic laughter on the wind.
The wake comes like a serpent. 

I have no control of my diagnosis. Full stop. Staying in the moment, stopping this constant shoring up of what is with the terrifying what might be is the only sane course- yet it's the hardest strategy of all for me, with my constant tendency to project and analyse and prepare.

We talked about beauty, too, and my difficulty with the concept of looking in the mirror and seeing my head transformed. God knows I haven't really 'seen' my body since I hit menopause and started turning into the Michelin Lady- I block it out; unlike many women, I've not been particularly perturbed by the thought of losing part or all of a breast to save my life. But I've always relied on my pretty face and lovely wavy hair to help me through social situations. 

The thought of chemo is the elephant in the room. I do NOT want to lose my hair. Do you hear me, Freeloader? That is MY hair. I NEED it.

The morning limped by in its little leaden boots. The afternoon crawled after it, scraping its nasty scaly little belly on the floor. I packed my appointment bag and got in the car, with my heart banging out its heavy metal riff in my chest. 

I turned up an old Billy Joel tape- yes, my car is that old, and so am I- but I wasn't hearing it. I longed for Brahms. Brahms got me through my mother's death. I needed Brahms, not some cheery soul singing out his love for bloody Christie Brinkley. Christie Brinkley has hair.


The presence of my friend and neighbour Christine in the waiting room was transformative. Everyone needs a Christine to get through this illness. I wish I could bottle her essence and auction it on eBay- I'd make a fortune for breast cancer research.

She's one of those people whose attitude is so unrelentingly positive that you can't help but be swept up. And damn, can she take good notes. She was there to be my scribe, writing down what the surgeon said and asking the odd question herself. In this time of fluster and overwhelm (don't tell me those aren't nouns- I'm the patient and I can make up words if I damn well want to), someone to be a second set of ears is invaluable.

Enter Doctor Goodguy.

I think I just won the breast cancer lottery. I got a surgeon who knows how to talk to his patients. I got a surgeon who looks holistically at outcomes for women, not just at curing a disease. I got a surgeon who (OMG) doesn't charge a gap fee.

Thank you, Dr Rosie. Your referral rocks.

And so Dr Goodguy put me at ease at once. He showed me my pretty pictures on his lightboard, and pointed to the Freeloader. He showed me a swollen node in my armpit, and said it might just be a reaction to the biopsy- but it might not, too. He showed me that there were no Christmas tree lights in my liver or kidneys. 

He told me this looked eminently curable, and the day got a whole lot better.

Of course, there was a but. I'm starting to see that there's always a but with this disease. The Freeloader may not have actually welcomed his little mates in the door yet, but he's made some beds ready for them. Dr Goodguy showed me the calcification spots, close by the larger white blob in my left breast, that were just waiting for some more gatecrashers to lob.

And so to The Plan.

Surgically, I was given two options. To explain them, let's just think of my left breast as a luxury hotel where the Freeloader has wormed his way past reception and taken over a room or two. He's squatting in the east wing.

To get rid of him, we could just demolish the whole hotel, including the lobby (let's not get too carried away with the analogy- I'm talking about the sentinel node that drains the area of the tumour). Remove the whole building, then look around the general area of my armpit for any other compromised outbuildings and knock them down too.

That would leave me with a vacant block to the left, and given that I'm not exactly lightly endowed up there, the remaining hotel on the right would probably ensure I ended up walking in right-hand circles for the rest of my life. 

(Or at least until Dr Goodguy could supply me with a new construction on the site.)

And of course, the remaining outbuildings would have to be nuked or poisoned, just to be sure. There doesn't seem to be any way around that.

The second option is to demolish just the east wing, complete with those made-up beds. That's about a third of the hotel, which is a significant amount to remove, but it leaves the possibility of immediate reconstruction so the place still looks like a hotel.

Just a smaller hotel.

Then we start making sure that the offsiders haven't started sneaking in. We analyse the rubble and choose our best course of attack.

Maybe we poison the drinks. Maybe we nuke the place. Sadly Dr Goodguy doesn't own a crystal ball either. (Damn.)

The worst case scenario with option 2 is that the rubble shows signs of the Freeloader's dandruff around the edges when they check it at close range. If so, I'd have to have a second round of surgery hard up against the first, and go with option 1- total demolition. 

The best case scenario is that once I've recovered from the option 2 surgery, I pop off to have the nuking or poisoning done. Then when I'm through it, Dr Goodguy gets me to breathe the good gas again and (get this!) reduces the hotel next door the same size, so I can walk in a straight line.

That would give me a nice pair of D cups again, and I haven't seen D since I hit menopause. 

The thought of having a decent choice of underwear off the rack again was so alluring that I jumped at option 2 straight away. As you do.

I signed the forms to get the chop on Monday week. I thanked Dr Goodguy very much for squeezing me in at the end of what must have been a very busy day.

"Oh, this isn't the end of my day," he said. Laughing. "I'm due in surgery now."

It had to be 6pm.

Bless you, Dr Goodguy. You are one hell of a guy.


  1. love this! I'd have a quibble with the "medically brilliant" bit, but that would just be churlish and egotistical. I love what you say about control, it reminds me of a bit in Winnie-the-Pooh, when Pooh & Piglet are walking through the wood in a very high wind. Piglet says to Pooh (as I remember it) - "Pooh, supposing one of these trees cracks in the wind and falls on top of us?", Pooh thinks for a while and says "Supposing it doesn't?" - It took me being suicidal over one of my patients having a complication of a procedure that I couldn't fix, to start me on the taoist path - I still aspire to Pooh's level of mindfulness.

    1. Haha! Brilliant is as brilliant does. More about how you use it and what you confess to not knowing than about climbing a theoretical ladder to the top, methinks.

      I love that line from Pooh- one of my all-time favourites. "Supposing it doesn't", indeed. Perhaps I should re-name you Winnie.