ABC of October – Anniversary, Breast Cancer, Check-Up

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I can’t believe another year is nearly over, but my annual mammogram reminds me, as does the city drowning in pink. To have a mastectomy in October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month can put you off pink for life!

However, I am extremely grateful to be alive and to celebrate five years survival – hooray!

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A big thank you to my two daughters for their unswerving, unconditional support and the beautiful flowers they bought me to add to their message of love and gratitude for yet another year.

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The memory of being picked up from Cabrini etched like a tattoo. The foyer of the hospital, fences of the local sports ground and numerous businesses festooned in pink,  courtesy of the McGrath Foundation or the plethora of organisations belonging to an extensive breast cancer network. So many women and men working hard and doing an excellent job keeping the disease in the public eye.

Pink balloons, ribbons, posters abounded – even pink buns from the bakery –  as I left the hospital with a drainage tube and plastic bottle where my left boob used to be.

I suppose psychologists will have a name for my word/image association and all the emotions triggered, but I’ll stick to a good old Scots word – scunnered. And I try and avoid all the hype and pinkness I can.

And so, yesterday, like other years, I went for my mammogram and ultrasound at the local radiology centre, which, as usual was decorated like a pink Christmas. However, no joy or excited anticipation for me – the only present I wanted was to hear ‘all clear for another year.’ Thank you, God, I whispered you’re a longer-lasting, caring entity than Father Christmas!

All the happy smiling faces and bunting in the world couldn’t suppress the fear lurching from my stomach and squeezing my heart and throat while I waited for the test results to determine whether the cancer is active.

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I’m aware I’m in the lucky 90% who survive five years, but the constant reminder that in Australia,  seven women a day die of breast cancer always dulls the joy. This year I lost my dear friend Margaret and another friend, Jillian had the shock of her cancer returning after 13 years. Vigilance and that little gnawing fear ever-present along with the mantras – count your blessings and one day at a time!

I often feel uncomfortable with the pinkness of breast cancer advertising and the endless walks, runs and other events seeking donations. When I saw the film Pink Ribbons Inc in 2013, I knew I wasn’t alone feeling disquiet about the corporatization of breast cancer.

I regularly donate for breast cancer research because I’m truly grateful for the excellent treatment I received, but target my donations. I want to help but shy away from the morning teas, lunches, dinners and the seemingly endless pink products.

As a writer, I can donate my skills. I was thrilled to have part of my story published along with others in a book to raise funds for research and practical assistance to those diagnosed with breast cancer. The book can be purchased from Busybird Publishing and is usually for sale at conferences or events organised by the Breast Cancer Network Australia.

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There are so many physical and mental ailments that people struggle with daily.  My wish is for people to give generously to whatever cause and not expect kudos or a toy/ribbon/trophy in return – and that big pool of medical research will keep expanding and being successful where and when it can! People live with a disability, illness and pain from birth – what courage that must take and many don’t have the collective power of a group!

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My diagnosis was in August 2010 – my birthday mammogram – and although there have been discussions about the benefits of regular testing I can only speak about my journey. I’m blessed to live in a country with access to affordable medical expertise and choice of treatment.

Long live Medicare, bulk billing, public hospitals and government funded research – and access to information so I can think for myself.

Yesterday, one of the women employed at the radiology centre greeted me like an old friend. She has given me mammograms and ultrasounds over the years and even attended a series of writing workshops I did to write up stories of her childhood in Ireland. Her welcoming smile always appreciated, and it beamed even brighter yesterday, ‘It’s been five years? No! How wonderful!!’

When I read some of my journaling from the early days of diagnosis it is indeed a wonder:

September 7th. 2010
I am feeling very poorly– ‘1’ in the rating toolbar of the journal gifted by the Breast Cancer Network Association should have a few minuses. Following diagnosis by BreastScreen, the book arrived by Express Post, accompanied by four other tomes. I only registered online that day!  Efficiency plus but 4 volumes of information: too much, too soon, and too confronting! Talk about information overload…

However, the journal is fabulous with sections for appointments, keeping track of expenses, contacts and personal observation. A practical companion for consultations, hospital visits, and to use as a bedside confidante.

It is the morning after the night before – the drama of my second operation yesterday looms large. Icepacks renewed all day on what remains of my left breast. More breast than I thought I’d have – hooray! I am obsessed with checking my wounds and fear another haematoma but Surgeon Peter assured me, ‘Mairi, I have a patient develop a haematoma once in ten years. You’re the second in as many weeks – the quota is complete until I retire!’

Vigilant and with extra diligence, the nurses check my breast and vital signs. I try to relax, repeating the mantra, ‘I’m in the best place. I’ll be okay.’

The girls’ visit full of last night’s emergency. They both look so young and vulnerable. I hate putting them through this. They explain how my breast and neck merged to burst from my pyjamas; a bright blue balloon because of the dye from the sentinel node biopsy.

‘You were turning into a female version of the Incredible Hulk, Mum,’ said Mary Jane.

‘Except you were blue not green,’ interrupted Anne, ‘and your face was whiter than that cover.’ She pats the cotton bedspread.

‘Actually,’ said Mary Jane, ‘your face was a horrible ashen. I never want to see you look that way again – especially the look in your eyes.’ She shudders, her hazel eyes glisten tears. An anxious flutter of fear ripples across my chest.

‘I knew something was wrong,’ I say quickly, ‘but didn’t know what. I’m glad you ran for a nurse. I don’t think I pressed the buzzer.’

‘You did Mum because I bumped into Hue coming in to ask what was wrong.’

‘My goodness, didn’t he get in a flap? Literally!’

We giggle at the memory. Nurse Hue is male but when he came through the doorway and took one look at me, he threw his hands in the air, flapped and squawked like a frightened bird and ran out of the room, his Vietnamese voice pitched higher than normal  yelling for assistance. Images of the distressed maiden in Victorian novels having ‘a fit of the vapours’ spring to mind and I smile at the memory despite discomfort…

A gaggle of nurses crowd my bedside, checking the swelling, hard and the size of a football. The last nurse to take my blood pressure and temperature assures the Sister-in-Charge everything was fine when she examined me. ‘That’s right, ‘I agree sensing reprimands and guilt trips, ‘I only started to feel unwell after dinner.’

Surgeon Peter materialises by the bed, the nurses part like The Red Sea. Thank goodness he was still doing the rounds of his patients. He holds my hand, his soft voice comforting. ‘You have a haematoma and the operating room is being prepared. Staff cleaning up after the last operation of the day have offered to stay on.’

I murmur appreciation, apologise for the fuss.

Barely nine hours since the last general anaesthetic, my full stomach and collapsed veins a concern. Peter assures an excellent anaesthetist has had his dinner interrupted and is on his way. The subliminal message, ‘you are in good hands,’ designed to allay fears.

I smile thanks, wrack my brains for knowledge about haematomas. Judging by the reaction of the nurses, Peter’s sombre demeanour, and the horror in the girls’ eyes, it’s serious. The phrase ‘deep shit’ springs to mind. I see the popular poster of a cat clinging to a tree branch by one paw my sister has in her toilet. I want to be a cat and have nine lives!  I recall the various crises my brother George survived as he battled leukaemia and relaxed into the pillow. What will be will be…

I watch Peter’s face as he explains the emergency to the girls. Anne pales, tears bubble in ice blue eyes, she looks about to faint. Peter directs his calm voice at Mary Jane realising that although the youngest she is handling the situation better. He leaves to prepare himself for theatre just as a nurse manoeuvres my bed towards the door, requesting help from the girls to push it to the lifts.

We gather speed; I sense the pushers are trotting, hear heavy footsteps along with squeaky wheels. The faces of the nurses and patients we pass beam uncertainty… pity from the tea lady as she squeezes her trolley out of the way.  Hue’s whispered, ‘good luck’ sounds more like ‘good bye’. Am I going to die?

Fear claws at my throat, I grip the mattress until fingers ache, I want to see my daughters’ faces but have lost my voice. The lift doors slide open, the bed bumps over a metal strip. Inside the claustrophobic space, I meet John.  His wraith-like presence is beside me, bending over, reaching arms out to gather me up. Without moving my lips I plead, ’Please darling, I can’t come yet, the girls need me.’ He smiles, understands, dissolves…

The harsh lights of the operating theatre startle me and the near empty space echoes with voices, footsteps, indeterminate noises. Everyone has gone home except for the cluster of nurses waiting to begin preparations: my vital signs monitored, inflatable white leggings attached to protect me from blood clots. Michelin Man again. Protective hat and socks fitted.

Nurse Pam introduces herself and mumbles about my full stomach, shakes her head. A portent of death.

The young anaesthetist struggles to find a vein with his portable ultrasound machine. Three attempts leave me bleeding and wincing before success and a stent inserted.

Mary Jane squeezes my hand, smiles assurance; Anne strokes my face, forgetting to wipe the tears dribbling down her pale cheeks. She bravely remains close despite her paranoia of needles. In a silent pact the girls and I ignore Nurse Pam’s voice of doom, keep fear under control, the  girls joke that the leggings make me even more like the Incredible Hulk.  I close my eyes and smile Michelin Man from an era before their time… so many memories

‘I drained a litre and a half of blood from that breast,’ Peter’s incredulous voice a wonderful sound.

I am back in the ward; the girls sit grinning at the end of the bed. The clock whirs, the small hand clicks as it leaves midnight and a ‘breast cancer complication’ behind.

September 6th disappears into the stuff of legend. The first day of the rest of my life begins…

I love this text my daughter sent me yesterday:

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With support and attitude like that how can I not feel positive!

Happy writing indeed!

6 thoughts on “ABC of October – Anniversary, Breast Cancer, Check-Up

  1. Your writing should be put before every woman who doesn’t believe ”it will happen to me” and don’t take any preventative measures Mairi.
    It put the fear of (whomever) into me and I DO take those precautions that I can.
    Scary stuff from your journal but your daughter was entirely right, cancer chose the wrong one when it took you on – and long may your successful fight keep on going.

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    1. Thank you, Kaye, but I was very fortunate to be in a place where everyone was on the ball and that crisis actually saved my life. When they cleaned up after the haematoma they discovered cancer ‘sprinkled like icing sugar’ in other parts of my breast and advised the mastectomy. That ‘icing sugar’ or ‘sand’ cancer isn’t usually picked up in mammograms and it could have metastasised like my friend Margaret’s and I definitely wouldn’t be here to tell the tale! So to coin another cliche – every cloud has a silver lining!

      Liked by 1 person

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