‘Oh No – I Forgot To Bring My Breast’ And Other Stories Of A Cancer Diagnosis.

Larissa Dann

Remission. Sounds such a friendly, positive, hopeful word. And yes, it is. But the day I was told I was in remission was the day I realised the full impact of a cancer diagnosis.

The Diagnosis

Light streams in horizontal folds through the venetian blinds. Chairs back against the window and one wall, forming a neat right angle. In the corner is a table, laden with well-thumbed magazines. People sit upon the chairs in various attitudes - knees crossed, or man-spread. An older lady leans forward on her walking stick, silent, thinking. In the middle of the room, behind the high grey L-shaped counter, phones ring and are quietly answered. Hand sanitiser wafts across the room. Nurse practitioners and GPs walk in and out. Names are called and patients disappear behind closed doors.

I wait. And I wait. I am slightly apprehensive, and strangely calm. For once, I am not catastrophising. Instead, I am sure that the test results will tell me that the doctor was right – there is no need to worry.

I think back to my initial check up three weeks ago. Sitting in this same room, scrolling through my phone, waiting for my annual health check. I am there only because I’d opened the letterbox weeks ago, to find a reminder to have my regular pap smear. I decide to also have a general medical.

However, there is a niggle at the edge of my mind; but I push it away.

“Larissa?” calls my friendly GP.

Minutes later I lie back on the paper-sheeted examination table.

“I’ll just warm up my hands, then we’ll have a look at your breasts, feel your tummy, and you’ll be right to go.”

She carefully palpates one breast, smiles and we chat as she moves to the other breast.

“Place your hand above your head”, and her experienced fingers gently explore. Only now, she takes a bit longer, and she stops talking. She moves up and down one quadrant of mammary tissue.

“Have you noticed a lump at all?” she asks.

“Well, yes, but it felt like a blocked gland – sort of oblong in shape, like when I had mastitis”.

I had only discovered the lump this morning.

Her fingers continue to palpate, then move into my armpit, and I guess she is searching for any hardened glands.

“You definitely have a lump, but it’s strange – it doesn’t feel like cancer. I don’t think you have to worry. I’ll write you out a referral for a mammogram and ultrasound. It would be good to get them done, just to make sure. If I thought it was cancer, I’d be sending you for a scan today”.

I hop off the table, grab the referrals, and get on with my life. I’m too busy to make an appointment straight away. A week later, and I think I’d better make sure that lump is just a blip in my generally good health. I make an appointment.

A week later, and I am lying on another paper-coated examination table. But the environment isn’t as hospitable as my doctor’s office. I’m waiting for an ultra-sound scan. I’m cold, and I’m exposed. There is a TV screen above me, and the walls are an impersonal dark blue, with a boring poster to the side. The uniformed radiographer is a young man doing his placement. He moves the scanner slowly across my breast, and clicks the mouse on the computer with his other hand. He seems to be doing a lot of clicking, and moving an awful lot up and down in that one spot. His face looks intently and seriously at the screen, then the scanner moves on. As it moves to my armpit, the mouse clicks and clicks.

I’ve stopped trying to make conversation. The room seems cooler.

“OK. I’m just going to get my supervisor to check the results”.

Now, an efficient young woman sails in. Smiling, she quickly and expertly moves the instrument around my breast.

“Are you aware of a lump? Has anyone had breast cancer in your family?”

I look at her, puzzled and scared to answer.

“I’ll show these results to the doctor, and let you know what he says”

I wait, the white cotton gown pulled across my body. I am sure I have lain there the whole day. I begin to shiver, but I do not think it is entirely because of the temperature.

The door opens, and a white coat enters the room. I look up as a face looms down.

“That lump looks like it is cancer. I’m just going to take a couple of biopsies, and send them off for analysis. We’ll know in a couple of days”, he breezes.

The specialist is oblivious to the impact of his words. He said the ‘C’ word like it was a tissue that could just be used, and then thrown away. Light and inconsequential.

I am frozen. I have no thoughts. I am in the moment. My eyes follow the needle, and then look away as he takes first one sample, then another. A small bandaid marks the spot that could determine the rest of my life.

And now I am in the waiting room of my trusted GP. Why is she taking so long? This must be a good sign. She’s probably got another patient.

“Larissa”, she calls, and ushers me into the room.

As I sit to face her, I notice she does not smile, and gets straight to the point.

“This is not the news we wanted to hear. You have cancer, and it is aggressive. The good news is that we got it early, and . . . “ She continues, but I’ve stopped hearing.

Cancer?

Cancer.

Me.

Cancer.

My children.

Cancer.

My husband.

Cancer.

I’m too young.

Cancer.

My life.

Cancer.

I refocus, and discover the doctor is still talking, earnestly looking between me, and the computer.

“I’ve been phoning surgeons and oncologists. These are the times they can operate, and when they can see you. These are the specialists you might like to choose from, and I can phone them now if you like”

Surgery.

Cancer.

Oncologist.

Cancer.

Me.

Cancer.

My children.

Cancer.

Specialists chosen, appointments made, I open the door and step into that waiting room where everyone has a future, where they can plan.

Where, just minutes ago, I had a future, where I could plan.

I’m Not The Only One - Backstory.

Eight months before my diagnosis, I take a phone call from a friend and work colleague.

“I spent yesterday in doctors’ surgeries and imaging centres. I have breast cancer, and it’s serious. I won’t be back at work for a while.”

I sit back, shocked. The outline of the phone’s black hand-piece begins to blur as tears move into my eyes. My friend is gorgeous, she is only in her early 40s, and she had two little children. How could this happen?

Three months before my diagnosis, and a group of former work colleagues and I meet for coffee. One close friend says,

“I’m going in for surgery next week, to have a mastectomy”.

She went on to describe a torrid time of trying to convince doctors that all was not right with her breast. Finally a self-funded MRI scan validates her fears.

I look at her and cannot believe what I am hearing. She is too young (her mid 50s), and has young adult and teenage children.

Two months before my diagnosis, and one of my best friends phones me from an imaging centre.

“I’m just here for my free two-year mammogram check up, and they think they’ve found something”.

A week later and she, too, is booked in to have one of her breasts removed.

This is devastating. My friend is a late-40s single mother with two young children and a young adult child.

I don’t have that many friends. But now, I am one of four close friends that have been diagnosed with breast cancer – all within eight months of each other.

Three of us have a breast removed in just eight weeks.

All of us have different types and stages of breast cancer. But we all have cancer.

I have an instant breast cancer support group with an intimate understanding of my diagnosis. None of us choose to join this group. All of us are dealing with our grief and shock differently.

A Confession: I stopped self-examination

The news of each of my friend’s diagnosis insidiously sifted itself into my brain, compiling to become a mound of denial. And fear.

I had been fairly regular with my breast self-examinations. After all, I owed this preventative self-care to myself, and my family. But as first one, then two, then three of my friends struggle with a breast cancer diagnosis, I respond with my own unique method of coping. Rather than being inspired by their stories, and assiduously caring for my own breasts, I ignore their lessons. I will not examine myself.

Why?

Because I am petrified. Frozen with fear that I, too, could discover a lump. My rational mind (‘there is a low risk of you having cancer – one in seven have cancer in your city – you already know three people – no way would you, too, have cancer’) was overridden by my irrational amygdala. (‘Avoid, avoid, run away from the danger!!’). So I do.

Literally, not examining myself regularly almost cost me my life.

Dealing with the diagnosis

One of my involuntary ‘support group’ friends tells me about the Breast Cancer Network of Australia, and their My Journey kit. I receive the books in the mail, and read some of the material. The information is meticulously researched, friendly, and beautifully put together. There is a journal where I can record my experiences if I am to undergo chemotherapy.

Surprisingly, I find I am reluctant to read too much. I have a background in science and research, and I am a curious person. Yet, I cannot bring myself to research breast cancer. I do not befriend Dr Google, and I loose interest in my computer and the Internet, with the exception of emails from my friends. I dip in and out of the printed material, and find each time that it was helpful to read and inform myself. Then I put the books down, and am reluctant to open them again.

Each of my friends with breast cancer finds a different way to cope. One discovers solace in her Internet searches, and devours blogs of women on their cancer journey. Another will not read a thing on breast cancer, and avoids anyone who has had cancer. Many of us attend specialist cancer counsellors.

Four years down the track, and my friends and I talk regularly. While the details differ, common threads weave through our stories. Fear, survival, family, support, differing experiences of the medical system – and gratitude, that we are alive, and have each other for support.

This is part 1 in a series of reflections, written as my contribution to the Breast Cancer Awareness Month of October.

Next: Telling the Children.

Resources:

First published 10th October 2018

© Larissa Dann. All rights reserved. 2018.

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