Wednesday, October 10, 2012

My mother threw a blocksplitter at me: diagnosis

Coincidence is a crazy thing. Until yesterday I was completely convinced, with at least one part of my brain, that the lump in my breast was the result of a moment's #co-ordinationFAIL whilst thumping the bark off an ironbark.

I mean, when I lost hold of the handle of the blocksplitter and the damn thing flew back off the tree and cracked me in the mammary, it certainly hurt enough to cause a bit of swelling. I had a spectacular bruise, too. It was whilst washing the bruised area in the shower that I found the hard pebble-shaped thing under it.

Mind you, it was three days later and I'd completely forgotten about the incident with the ironbark, so I immediately had a minor heart attack. My family history on my mother's side is littered with fatal cancers. My partner has been through breast cancer twice already, with the worst results, as you'll know if you've read episode one of this blog. I was far more worried about what I'd say to him and how he'd react than about my own wellbeing.

It was the weekend, and I couldn't even ring the doctor, so I said nothing at all to anyone. That was an interesting 24 hours. By the next morning I'd had a look in the light instead of just groping around in our somewhat dim shower recess, had found the huge bruise and remembered the small accident.

Whew! What a relief!

My next instinct may have saved my life. I rang the doctor anyway, because it occurred to me that there is such a thing as coincidence.

And also, my mother (who by-the-by has been dead for 25 years) does have a habit of drawing my attention to things in inexplicable ways from the other side of grave. Like the time she screamed in my ear he's not going to stop! a moment before I swerved in time to avoid the lunatic who'd ignored a stop sign. Like the time I stopped dead on a bush track for no reason at all, looked down wondering why my feet had stopped moving against my will, and saw the venomous snake I was about to tread on.

Maybe she threw that blocksplitter at me, to stop me being so damn complacent. My monthly breast checks were, well, sometimes less than thorough and sometimes less than monthly. And I hadn't fitted a mammogram into my schedule for five years.

Thanks, Mother.

So started the three-ring circus of waiting, testing, waiting. Three weeks waiting for the swelling caused by the injury to have a chance to go down, then the mammogram.

Oh joy; as I commented to the lady behind the radiation barrier, this is a test designed by a man, and I'm waiting with happy anticipation for the day they introduce a similar test for testicular cancer.

Another week to the call-back, where I had more crush injuries inflicted on my poor mammary followed by an extended wait in a room full of women in various stages of denial or distress. I can feel atmosphere intensely. That waiting room at the BreastScreen clinic was dire. I was the most relaxed person there, because of course I just had a self-inflicted injury about which I was being over-cautious.

I really ached for some of those other women, trying to read or knit or make conversation with strangers while carefully Not Talking about why they were there. The room was full of pink ribbons and flowers and free water bottles and biscuits, and the air was full of fear.

The ultrasound gave me my first real twinge of concern. Honestly, I do wish someone would explain to that operator that rushing out of the room to get the doctor is best preceded by some sort of explanation to the patient. I felt like a side of pork lying on the table, not least because the air conditioning seemed to have been set to 'freezer'. (Did I mention how much I hate reverse cycle air conditioners?) I requested a change of setting, but was still shivering on the cool-room table half an hour later when the doctor came in and nearly expired from the sauna effect at head-height.

And then of course there was the biopsy. The actual test was less uncomfortable than the doctor's bedside manner; how I wish people would explain not only what they're doing, but why. Silence has always been more alarming than the facts for anyone with an ounce of nous.

So began another week of waiting for results. I sat outside the clinic trying to stop shaking before I drove home, unsure whether it was the hypothermia or the anaesthetic administered before they went gold mining with a horse needle in my breast making me feel so crap. Fleetingly, the idea occurred to me that I might be in shock. Phone a friend seemed like a good option, despite my loathing of telephones; some part of me needed to hear a kindly voice.

Reassured by a nice dose of sympathy, I got home in one piece, described my experience as succinctly as possible to the select few who knew what was going on, and put it all out of my mind. I had an injury. Hear me? An INJURY.

And so to yesterday morning. When the GP called me in ahead of a parent with a sick baby, I assumed it was because he knew it would be quick work to tell me the results were fine.

Ha bloody ha.

"Mixed results," said he. "They've found a cancer in a milk duct and it has started to invade the surrounding tissue."

That was the point at which I experienced disbelief for all of two seconds. I think I said something daft like "Oh, really?", which is my standard euphemism for "you can believe that if you want to, but don't expect me to queue for tickets".

And then I said to myself, "Well, given the family history this isn't really surprising."

That was the end of the disbelief stage. Wow, I thought, at this rate I'll be through the five stages of grieving before I get out the door.

"However it's small," he went on, "less than 2cm, and there's no obvious sign of it affecting the lymph nodes at this stage so it looks like a grade 1A. Prognosis is good because it's been found so early. You found the cancer instead of the cancer finding you, which is the best scenario. If you'd presented with symptoms the scenario would be very different."

I've got to take my hat off to that GP. He's only been in town for a few months, and he's handled the whole thing with great empathy and wonderful communication skills. (You rock, Dr Adnan. Please stick around. And if any redneck makes a negative reference to your accent or your dark skin, you can count on me to give them a fatal tongue-lashing.)

We chatted on for a while. The fighter in me had already been woken up. I was ready to go as many rounds as it took with the Freeloader in my breast. Just show me where to punch, and I'll be at it.

"You have an excellent attitude, and that's important for success," said the doctor as we parted.

You bet I have.

I got in the car, drove to town and did my grocery shopping as usual. My best friend phoned, concerned to see how my results had gone. I didn't answer. Telling people could wait a little longer. Right now I was going to prove to myself that this bloody thing wasn't going to rule my life. Dropping my bundle? Not an option.

By one in the morning my attitude was less pugilistic. The specialist still hadn't rung me with an appointment time; I'd discovered the sapping nature of being left in limbo, not knowing whether to kiss my mammary goodbye or to go over to my neighbour's house in the dark and start grazing on his antioxidant herb garden.

I'd made too many difficult phone calls and written too many difficult emails, and still I wasn't sure who else I wanted to tell and wondering who I'd missed out. Who would be upset if I didn't let them know? Did I care? Should I just shout it to the whole world? I'm not good with secrets. I'd rather everyone knew, so they didn't have expectations of me that I couldn't deliver on.

But I didn't want to start a flood of human contact that might break me, either. I'm not good with excess human contact. I need my space, physically and mentally.

The number of choices I would be faced with was particularly distressing. I'm not good with choices. How would I know if the surgeon was an expert in my sort of case? Even if I shopped around for a great doctor with the help of my extensive range of medico friends, how could I attain enough knowledge instantly to make an informed choice about my treatment? Should I be changing my diet and lifestyle in radical ways, or would that (a) be pointless and (b) detract from my quality of life? Should I assume that I'd get excellent treatment if I just went with the flow and trusted my doctors, or was that the height of stupidity?

And then there was the knowledge of the impact this whole thing was going to have on my Bear. He'd taken the news better that I'd expected, but he'd still been knocked for six. Because he knows. No matter how much I stress that this is a very different case from his mother and his lover, both of whom presented with catastrophic symptoms far too late, he knows so much better than I what this road trip is likely to mean for me, and for him.

He's suffering. He's angry. That's the part that will likely bring me to tears when the adrenaline wears off, not my own fate. It's just not fair.

Third time lucky, I keep saying to him. Third time lucky. This is the one we win, to heal you.

I'd been fine at bedtime; even the quirks and giggles of my beloved 'Gruen Transfer' on telly couldn't keep me awake. I fell into an exhausted coma and was woken two hours later by our little old dog, who is on her last legs and gets up a few times a night to drink gallons of water.

I couldn't get back to sleep. I played games on the laptop. I wrote emails to friends I hadn't told yet. I started reading the book another friend had given me as an early birthday present. Displace. Displace. Displace.

I went to a different bed, afraid to wake the Bear who'd also gone into zombie coma mode after such a day. I went back to sleep just before dawn, and was woken by a business phone call an hour later.

Another dear friend, whom I'd emailed in the middle of the night, rang a few hours after that. It was great to hear his voice, actually, and he cheered me up immensely, but the effect of that second call on my Bear alerted me to the need to stem the tide at once. Because I pick up on atmosphere so intensely, I need him to be calm. He was already bracing himself for chaos, encouraging me to tell as few people as possible to avoid us feeling overwhelmed.

No way. I don't do secrets.

I've been sitting here writing ever since, and setting up a Facebook page to let friends know what's happening on the Cancer Carousel. I could write a book, already. Easily. But I don't much feel like talking about it.

Talk to me here. Down there, in the comments. That will help.


  1. Hi Candy! I just got caught up on your news. I send buckets of LOVE! I know we are only internet friends, but you feel like a real friend. Anyway, I want to know that I care...and deeply appreciate you and your beautiful online voice! xo Janet

    1. Janet, I feel the same about you. Thank you so much for your love and caring. xx

  2. 'The actual test was less uncomfortable than the doctor's bedside manner; how I wish people would explain not only what they're doing, but why. '

    This struck a chord with me. Last year I had a bit of an annus horriblus with my leg.. and my surgeon, who was a lovely man said to me at one point.. 'I'm so sorry, I can't do more than one thing at once. I can't talk and write at the same time. I can't look at xrays and actually physically hear what you're saying to me at the same time. My wife pities me.'
    I guess that's why he is such a good surgeon. Totally committed to one thing. I think these folks are a different species to us arty farty types... but I agree, I want to hear what's going on and why. I just don't think they can.

    1. Perhaps you're right, Annabel. And I know they're always in a hurry, always needed somewhere else five minutes ago... but surely they could just acknowledge one's existence? This woman didn't even address me directly, other than to tell me that the needle would click when the biopsy was taken... sigh. I could never work like that.