One of the reasons for my reluctance to host a regular blog has been fear. Fear that the posts will be self-indulgent twaddle, or boring rants instead of relevant, helpful and interesting! Despite the impression I seem to give, like many writers I lack confidence in my own ability and nurse an inferiority complex. “Highly Strung” was the comment teachers made in the school reports of my primary years in Scotland– not sure what that means, except I can remember often feeling nervous and anxious. Mind you in the 50s when some teachers wielded the strap freely, threw chalk and the blackboard pointer, I’m surprised the majority of the pupils weren’t highly strung.
Well, today I had a good reason to be anxious. It was time for my annual mammogram and ultrasound and although they have a super new machine at Mentone Radiology, which hopefully will minimise the need for biopsies because of the intensity of images it produces, the downside is that your breasts must still be squashed as flat as they can make them, and for at least 11 seconds – a longer time than that required by the old machine!
However, I am extremely grateful to have access to breast screening because it was my birthday mammogram in 2010 that detected cancer. I may not be alive today without that mammogram! So, regardless of the discomfort and pain, please get screened!
In 1994, when Dr Carmen Lawrence was the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, Australia led the world by developing a number of innovative health programs for women, such as national breast screening and cervical cancer screening. I and countless other women are grateful to the Keating Government, and subsequent Federal Governments for funding FREE regular screening for women aged between 50-74, the age group most at risk from breast cancer.
Writing helped me cope with my cancer diagnosis and radical mastectomy. A story I wrote was published in Journey, Experiences with Breast Cancer, Busybird Publishing, 2012. My close friend and fellow writer, Glenice Whitting drove me to Eltham Community Library for the launch. I had finished chemotherapy and had been back at work almost a year, yet when I held the book in my hands and read the first paragraph of my story I started to tremble, tears pressed against aching eyes and my mouth went dry.
This room is too small. A tiny desk jammed in the left corner as we enter through the door. A four-shelf bookcase laden with pamphlets melts into the right wall and four grey cloth office chairs cluster beside the desk, silent when moved against the carpet, which is another nondescript grey. I think how crowded the room will be when filled to capacity – patient with partner or friend, the doctor and a nurse/counsellor. Or, maybe cosy – it depends on what news is delivered.
Now, there is only Deb, the nurse who has been looking after me. We are waiting for the doctor to return and already I feel claustrophobic. The Venetian blinds are semi-closed on the pencil thin window but I can feel the chill from the stormy sky threatening hail.
I don’t gasp for air, or take deep reassuring gulps. Instead, holding my breath, I almost stop breathing. Perhaps a subconscious plea for time to stop, even be rewound, will be answered. This morning has become surreal. I can sense rather than see Deb behind me, her chair close enough to be reassuring, or grab me if I lose control. I think she expected me to sit in the chair parallel to the desk, face the doctor, and her but I sit once removed, where a husband or partner should be. Where John should be. I suppress a mixture of emotions: anger, pain, sadness, self-pity, and fear.
The empty chair reminds me I’m widowed eight years. A silent voice in my head acknowledges reality – I’m 57, alone, and no man is going to find me attractive now. I tremble for a moment, an almost imperceptible jerk. Deb leans closer; I can feel the heat from her body and grit my teeth, willing the tears to stay behind burning eyeballs. The ache for John’s strength beside me is making me emotional. I must stop thinking the impossible.
When publisher Blaise van Hecke asked if I would read an extract I could only shake my head, not trusting my voice to function without breaking down. A crack was developing in my Scottish stoicism and the veneer I showed the world of the strong survivor getting on with life. This latest crisis was not a mere glitch and I was not so strong after all.
One of my daughter’s friends sent me this message after reading the book:
I just read your chapter. I thought it was beautiful. I am finding it hard to articulate what I mean – it felt delicate – in such a terrible and confronting time, I found it very positive and empowering. There is more than the actual disease, so many other raw emotions involved. It also helps put things in perspective and appreciate those who we love and care about. I really love your approach and how you express your experiences – you are such a strong and wonderful person. I think cancer is terrifying, I managed to smile and feel a sense of peace/calm, it felt like you were in control and not about to crumble. I feel so grateful to have read your story, and many more will be able to learn from you.
When Julia Reichstein, Media and Events Officer for the Mentone Public Library invited me to speak at a special forum with other breast cancer survivors about how writing can help put trauma into perspective and be a good coping tool, I accepted. If sharing my journey and knowledge helped even one other person, the anxiety and stress I knew I’d feel about speaking in public would be worth it. (Yes, I’m still highly strung!)
The day entitled Writing Through Adversity was a great success and I’ll post my notes at a later date, but today I’ll close with a poem I wrote about the day I was diagnosed and an encounter I had with a neighbour. We all cope differently with what life throws at us, but usually friends and family are only too happy to be there for us. However, there are various organisations who will also support you, with Lifeline being one of the best.
Too Close For Comfort
He stumbles at the mailbox
Our pallid complexions
A mirror match
Our anguish palpable.
Pam is dead, he whispers.
We stand together
in damp wintry silence
legs atremble, minds numb.
He confides that diagnosed
With breast cancer
His wife stood in front of
A train last night…
I cannot speak and clutch
My BreastScreen results
A coiled snake
To cope with later…
We stand apart
In damp wintry silence
An express rattles past
Bellowing a lament.