When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I went visiting one evening with my parents. It was one of those events where all the children are shunted into a back room and left in front of a television, in the belief that this will shut them up so the adults can make whoopee in peace. (Not that my parents were great whoopee-makers. It was a one-off event.)
As the night went on, the tone of the TV programmes changed. By eleven at night, we kids were watching 77 Sunset Strip and an older man was attempting to kill a young girl by stealth. Some of the details are lost to me fifty years later, but I remember vividly the toadstools cooked as mushrooms, which the girl refused to eat as realisation bloomed hideously on her face. The scary man was fingering a noose hanging from a rafter when my mother appeared at the door and hurriedly removed me.
I was an impressionable child, and it was my first experience of stomach-churning dread. I had nightmares for months. I wouldn't eat mushrooms for decades. Fifty years later, I think of that night again as my guts contract in the throes of cancerchondria.
In my bag is a referral for a bone scan, which I'm studiously ignoring. I am determined not to fill my body with yet more radiation, just to curb an anxiety which may well be completely unfounded; I will wait a week and see if my symptoms resolve themselves. This is the logical course, but I know that I'm actually acting out of fear rather than rationality.
There are several possible explanations for the tender, swollen area over my ribs. It feels like a bruise, but there's no visible bruising. When I explore around it, pushing the thin layer of flesh up higher and palpating the actual rib area, there's no pain. It's not in the bone. Surely I don't need the bone scan.
But it's my left side, and I'm remembering Professor Power Ranger telling me that a local recurrence was the most likely complication.
In my head, the noose swings to and fro.
When I can calm myself, I can talk myself through this. The weather is already unseasonably hot and humid, and my arm and chest have been feeling fat and swollen for some weeks as the lymph has more and more trouble draining. Even my hand tingles when the temperature reaches a certain point. The swelling is almost certainly lymphoedema of the chest wall, and I need massage, not scans.
And if it's not that, then it probably has something to do with the paralysis tick which the Bear took out of the nape of my neck two days ago. It was hidden in my hair on the left side, right above the area no longer served by lymph nodes. The bite itself is swollen, seeping and as itchy as hell. Dr Rosie's guess is that the tick is responsibly for both the pain and the swelling, but she's given me the scan referral so I won't spend days winding myself up into a state about it.
I would rather she'd just said it's nothing, come back in a week if it doesn't go away. If she immediately gives me a scan referral, surely she must think it's bad?
She says not. But my brain's not hearing what's spoken. Only what's unspoken.
The Scary Man is still behind the door.
And then there's that exquisitely sore spot over my ribs. Rosie says a new cancer wouldn't be painful in itself, but it would expand and place pressure on the surrounding tissue- and that would eventually become painful.
She couldn't find a lump, neither pebble-like nor the texture of a firm jelly. That's good, right?
And I have a perfectly rational explanation; when I went to make coffee yesterday with my stovetop espresso maker, I realised with a wince that I'd been bracing it against that exact spot on my chest to open it. It's damn hard to open, but I'm bloody-minded and don't want to hunt up the Bear every time I need something done in the kitchen. So I do it myself.
I've probably given myself some sort of deep tissue bruising there. Idiot.
And then I remember my diagnosis, and how I went to the doctor because I knew there was such a thing as a coincidence.
You see, I can explain it all away, but it doesn't stop the Scary Movie in my head. Until the symptoms go away, the fear will lurk in the back of my mind waiting for an unguarded moment to attack me. Swinging from the rafters, or hiding in a plate of mushrooms.
And if I'm honest, it's a much-needed reminder of what others are going through. Not just my friends in the Pink Sisters, though so many of them stand exactly in these shoes at any given moment; no, closer to home there's someone going through this every day in silence. Someone who's only ever seen the Scary Man win.
His mother's arm shattering nine years post-mastectomy, her bones honeycombed with cancer.
His lover pushing him away with a look, too embarrassed by her disfiguring tumour to let him touch her.
My Bear is doing it tough.
There are two ways for loved ones to deal with Life After Treatment. They can become completely paranoid, hearing the constant white noise of terror as clearly as their beloved does, or they can go straight into denial.
I'm not sure which is hardest to deal with.
All I know is that it's hard for me to watch the Bear struggling with his demons right now. He has no script for this part of the movie, despite his two agonising rehearsals. I suspect he's only just realised that the fear isn't going anywhere. If I survive, it's conditional- always. There is no end point but death, and if I don't die he doesn't know any way to move on from here.
It's not like I'm back to normal. I'm way better than I was- of course I am- and I'm doing so many things that I used to do. Helping feed the turkeys, looking after the vegie garden, clearing the lagoons, cooking, even occasionally cleaning the house (make that very occasionally).
But peppering the normality there are all sorts of reminders. The morning exercise and stretches. The tablets morning and night. The occasional appointments. The massages. The frequent rests, where I can do nothing more than sit down with the laptop and play silly games or make Bitstrip cartoons.
Worse than all that are my new little quirks and my all-too-big brain explosions. My mind's all over the place, thanks to being poisoned. I can tell the Bear exactly what he said to me two weeks ago one minute, and completely forget a phone message from two hours ago the next. The other day I went to put my swimmers on and, because they were partly inside out, had to spend a good thirty seconds staring at them to work out where to start. This, from the woman who used to untangle everyone else's knitting snarls? I don't even recognise myself.
I see the Bear's fear in his eyes. Is she getting dementia? he wonders, terrified beyond words.
The Arimidex gives me odd and unpredictable moments of insanity. I am suddenly engulfed by heat, or something small goes wrong, and I plunge from completely rational to a screaming mess (or, less often, a tearful mess). Everything is too much trouble, and everyone can just fuck off and leave me alone because I've been here once already with menopause and it wasn't fun then and it's not fun now and I don't want to be here.
I have zero control of what I say at these moments. I look back later in complete humiliation, embarrassed by my own lack of compassion. Honestly, I'm not like that. I'm a very resilient, patient person.
I was a very resilient, patient person. Sometimes the Bear looks at me as if he's wondering who the fuck I am, and what I'm doing in his house.
And whether he can cope with this for a single second longer.
Of course, I can't persuade him to see anyone about his scrambled feelings.
"I'm not talking to a stranger," he says.
Useless to point out that unless we happen to have a friend who's a therapist, we all start out talking to a stranger and hoping they're the right one when we start counselling; he's a man's man, the door to his feelings well and truly bolted shut, and he's not opening up to someone he hasn't learned to trust over a period of years.
So we struggle through each day, sometimes connecting, sometimes locked in our own private hells. Times like this don't help, when I feel I have to tell him I'm seeing the doctor about a symptom but want nothing more than to keep it to myself and pretend it's not happening.
There are times when I honestly think it might be easier to do this alone.
See, I'm having enough trouble coping with my own head and keeping the Scary Man behind his door. Things just jump into my mind sometimes, and once they're thought I can't unthink them.
Like this. I finished clearing the azure kingfisher's lagoon a week or so ago, and the logical thing to do next was start on the big lagoon so the bloody salvinia doesn't wash back in in the next flood.
I've made a bit of a dent in it, with my brother's help to clear the edges and the Bear carting the drained weed away every day.
But yesterday I stood looking at that vast expanse of work-to-do and before I could stop him, the Scary Man leapt out and said you'll be dead before that's finished.
So now I'm fighting him off. Pushing him back behind the door. I went inside and found the Ixodes (it's a homeopathic remedy for tick bite) and took a dose, and took another this morning. I massaged my chest, and when I got tired I got the Bear to massage it some more. This morning I went back to the hoola hooping on the Wii, because I know it helps stimulate the groin lymph nodes into action, and I did my deep abdominal breathing while I gyrated to give those nodes an extra kick in the guts.
And yes, it does feel a little better now. There's still a sore spot, but it's not quite as tender and the swelling has receded a little. When I can manage to put the Scary Movie on pause for a moment, my instinct is saying it's all going to be fine.
But only time will give me the answer. And even if it's a reassuring nod, it'll be valid for this screening only. The Scary Man is someone we all have to learn to live with when the Freeloader comes calling.
I'll keep you posted.