Last month breast cancer loomed large in my life again when an annual mammogram and ultrasound detected a small tumour.
If the worry about bushfires and climate change wasn’t enough to shatter equilibrium, here was a personal crisis requiring me to face pain, grief, loss and other assaults on happiness.
Supposedly, the season of goodwill, quality family time and holidays – I had a list to complete:
- putting up a tree and decorations so the glorious smell of pine resonated throughout the house confirming Christmas
- celebrating the successes of the year – my daughter and I published four books for people wanting to leave a record of their life or a legacy for family
- publishing a class anthology – an annual event to crown a year or semester of writing for my students
- shopping for presents for loved ones and friends and writing cards or emails for those annual catch-ups
- planning outings for visitors from overseas and looking forward to returning a little of the hospitality I received when I travelled to Europe and UK 2017
- cleaning and decluttering and other rituals associated with Hogmanay – the traditional Scottish New Year, which since childhood signals clean sweeps of cupboards and wardrobes
- writing a final blog post for the year to share my poems published and play shortlisted in 2019 enabling me to lay claim to the title ‘creative writer’ …
The best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley
Diary of An Unwelcome Diagnosis
Monday, December 2 Mammogram and ultrasound at Mentone. The radiologist said nothing but her body language; the time spent on the ultrasound, the check of x-rays just completed … a tiny fear formed in my stomach …
‘When are you seeing the breast specialist?’
‘Good. He’ll get the results and report.’
Thursday, December 5 the annual check-up with breast surgeon Peter – nine years since my mastectomy. I could tell by his body language this visit was not going to end with Happy Christmas…
‘Not great news… something there, probably a cyst… how do you feel?’
‘I’ve had pain, on and off … thought it was coming from my neck … too many hours at the computer…’
Ever solicitous and kind, Peter asked if he could examine me,
‘Where is the pain… Good, not about the pain but I can’t feel any lump, can you?’
He showed me the mammogram report and the ‘cyst’ causing concern…
Conclusion: New right breast 8 o’clock lesion 50mm from the nipple. This can represent complex cyst or fibroadenoma, ultrasound guided biopsy will be helpful.
‘I’ve arranged for you to have a biopsy tomorrow at Mentone – a fine needle aspiration, and, if necessary, a needle core biopsy.’
‘Needle core biopsy? Oh, that hurts… I remember…’
‘Probably won’t be necessary and I’ve requested Dr Ron Sher do it – the top man!’
Friday, December 6 I spent the night convincing myself and the girls it was a cyst. Routine follow-up biopsy. Peter being cautious. Rather than have my daughters miss work, I caught the train to Mentone and arranged to text my dear friend Lesley when finished.
I’ve had several needle aspirations and knew it would be uncomfortable but did not realise how rough that day would be.
The small room filled quickly with ultrasound equipment, two radiologists and a nurse who with Florence Nightingale compassion held my hand and stroked my arm as a fine needle aspiration became 5 core biopsies.
I received some local anaesthetic permissible for the procedure and remember stilted snatches of conversation as I fought back tears to survive the torture. Everyone was thoroughly professional and empathetic, apologising for the pain being inflicted and allowing me to catch my breath between ‘shots.’
With a collective sigh of relief almost an hour later, I took my bruised breast and instructions for care – and left.
‘You’ll get the results Wednesday at the latest.’
Again, a reading of the body language started foreboding… Lesley took one look at my flushed face and asked if I wanted to go straight home rather than have the coffee and chat we planned.
‘No, if I go home, I’ll curl into a ball and cry – let’s go to Truly Scrumptious and overindulge. I’ll buy you lunch and promise not to cry in public!
Truly Scrumptious lives up to its name; the ambience, food and service always great. And Lesley, my oldest and dearest friend in Mordialloc, was the most understanding and ideal companion for the start or was it the continuation, of my breast cancer journey.
‘Can’t believe it’s nine years,’ we said in unison as we sat down facing each other.
Later with a heightened sense that life is finite, I admired how window boxes outside softened bricks and mortar, beautifying ugliness.
Lesley shared her knowledge of plants, explaining the popularity and usefulness of Star Jasmine. (She bought this plant for me a couple of days later. Bless her!)
I’m greeted at home with a ‘pamper pack’ from my daughters: Vera and Shetland DVDs, massage oil, Bio-oil, a crossword book, chocolate, butter menthols, Rescue Remedy, calming Lavender oil – no pretence, memories of years before, a fear voiced and unvoiced – suppression of mild panic?
Lots of spontaneous hugs and expressions of love.
Monday, December 9 Sitting at the computer, completing the final edit of a class anthology, Peter rang to say the pathology arrived.
‘I need to see you tomorrow and you’ll be in the hospital next week.’
It was after 8.30pm. A little voice inside commended his diligence for checking the pathology results and letting me know straight away but I blurted,
‘I can’t come tomorrow, I’m working. It’s the last class for the year… I can’t miss it…’
‘Well, come to my rooms as soon as you can after finishing work. I’ll tell my secretary to expect you when you can make it.’
Concentration weakened and no ‘good’ night’s sleep ahead!
I made stupid mistakes editing the class anthology – thankfully, my work (always the last included) and not a student’s.
The copy since corrected – bless the digital world! But the news of cancer returning was the beginning of a month of inner turmoil and ‘putting on a brave front’, the shrivelling of any desire to write or have confidence in what to write.
Read the anthology here – some fine writing from the students and always interesting to see the varied reactions to same or similar prompts: Longbeach place anthology December 2019
Tuesday, December 10 while preparing for the final class of the year radiologist Ingrid from Mentone rings, ‘How are you feeling? How is your breast?’
I’ve never had a follow-up phone call before and thank her while explaining I’d be seeing Peter that afternoon. I got through the class with a tight knot in my stomach and tears burning the back of eyelids.
After sharing the disconcerting news and showered with love and concern for what lay ahead, we played some fun writing games.
Would this be the last class I teach?
Late afternoon, daughter Mary Jane came in with me to hear Peter explain the result of the biopsies. He showed me the report – a paragraph of scientific gobbledegook swimming before my eyes but the last line, in capitals and underlined:
RIGHT BREAST 8.00 5CM FROM NIPPLE CORE BIOPSY – FEATURES CONSISTENT WITH ADENOID CYSTIC CARCINOMA.
‘This is a rare cancer, but we’ve caught it early. You may need some radiotherapy but no chemo…’
I glanced at Mary Jane who was taking notes (always have someone you trust with a notebook!) in case I mishear or forget the conversation.
Tears glisten and she struggles to keep it together while I surprise myself at feeling so calm. I joke to break the tension,
‘Of course, it’s a rare cancer, I’m a rare person!’
Amid the laughter, Peter explains I’d have a blood test before I leave and his receptionist will explain the arrangements for a sentinel node biopsy and hospital booking.
In a room down the corridor, Jack draws blood – an unusually pain-free experience. Well done Jack!
Many people struggle to get blood from my veins – and it’s not because I’m Scots and we give nothing away!
While Jack worked, we discussed taste in movies – he was young but didn’t like Sci-Fi or Marvel movies, preferring Realism.
Then he expressed his annoyance with computer technology – a new program recently installed by IT made his life more difficult not easier. Ah, a familiar story – just hope whatever details of mine fed into the machine arrive where they’re supposed to!
In the evening, daughter Anne stays the night – there are tears, cuddles, cider, a favourite funny DVD that has us laughing…
We’ll get through whatever lies ahead – we’ve done it before. There’ll be disrupted sleep patterns ahead, inappropriate food choices (who said chocolate is bad for you?) and a rollercoaster of emotional energy including outbursts, tears, withdrawal and fear.
We cancel our holiday to Port Campbell booked months ago. We were to leave on Boxing Day but with the operation scheduled for Tuesday 17th, I probably won’t feel in holiday mode, nursing a sore boob. Nor will I be able to walk the dog and the attraction of Port Campbell was the dog-friendly cabin.
Wednesday, December 11 I receive a call from Brightways, a breast care nurse cancer service. They want me to come to Cabrini on Friday morning and talk about the operation, what to expect and how they can support me.
Beautiful flowers arrive from Tash, a dear friend who claims to be daughter number 3:
Joy and Fun lighten the mood…
At 10.00am my friend Jillian picks me up and we attend an end-of-year concert by Silver Blades, the Olympic Ice Skating Group of Oakleigh.
Jillian’s friend Rosey one of the group that is a mix of ages. However, the majority retired and/or aged pensioners. Seniors skating on (thin?) ice – haha!
To the strains of Abba’s Mamma Mia and other upbeat tunes, the Silver Maids (and a token male) glide around a skating rink I hadn’t visited for 40 years.
The solo displays of skill, fun, themed, team displays, glossy and glittery costumes, and a grand parade delightful and impressive.
Suddenly, it’s home time. Thank you, Jillian, for a bright spot in a so so week!
On the drive home I reminisce about teenage years in the late 60s.
A carload of excited adolescents looking for romance and excitement or just freedom from the mundane travelled from Croydon to Oakleigh on Friday or Saturday nights.
We spent most of the evening clinging to the barrier, bumping into each other or on our bottoms before returning home sitting on towels to protect the car upholstery.
I remember a lot of laughter, cold numbness of hands and feet and the discomfort of wet jeans!
Jillian is my walking buddy, a good friend, and an inspiration. A patient of Peter’s who survived breast cancer – twice, she shared that her second cancer different too and occurred thirteen years after the first!
I imagine Jillian has experienced the tangle of thoughts coursing through my mind. A FB post makes me think Google is listening not just to my spoken words but thoughts!
Wednesday, December 11 News is spreading to dear friends and family. A close friend and writing colleague, Lisa turns up with a beautifully worded card, a box of sunshine, plus empathy and support.
I can unpack the contents one by one or all at once – I do it gradually but here are pics of the wonderful, thoughtful, organic products – what a box of loving sunshine!
Another friend Glenice pops in with ‘fun’ presents for under the tree and words of love and encouragement. Her husband’s health is frail yet she’s taken time out to visit me and I know she is supporting others through health crises.
Emails from friends and relatives in the UK and those living here also cards form ex-students. The cliches ‘no news is good news’ and ‘bad news travels fast’ spring to mind.
Maureen calls and continues to do so regularly, also sends texts and emails. She visits with chocolates, DVDs and buckets of love.
Barbara calls and later visits with a gorgeous orchid.
All the support and love is humbling… and a sharing of the collective strength of resilient women memorable.
‘I bounce – we bounce!’
Thursday, December 12 Longbeach Place staff break-up lunch at Chelsea RSL. A nice meal and we cover various topics while not dwelling too long on stories about breast or any other cancer!
I learn that the State Government funding body has decided not to fund writing classes in neighbourhood houses – not enough employability outcomes for the demographic attracted to the classes. Not surprising since many of the students have retired that’s why they have the time to study non-Accredited courses in community houses. But surely improving skills and education access doesn’t stop – whatever happened to a commitment to lifelong learning?
I’m disappointed we seem to have moved far away from the initial concept of why community houses developed and that wellbeing and social capital don’t get a look in nowadays.
Yet, so many studies and reports talk about the challenge of our ageing population, combatting loneliness and depression, cultivating belonging, easing the tragedy of mental illness, the need for ESL students to learn the nuances of English, the importance of recording personal histories.
Ah, well, interesting timing…
Friday, December 13 Superstitious people say the day is unlucky but I have already compromised my luck! Anyway, Dad always said 13 can be lucky – he was thirteenth in his family, was born on 13th March and had thirteen letters in his name. He always chose 13 as his lucky number.
Bronwyn, the smiling face on the Brightways brochure meets us at Cabrini. She explains the role of breast care nurses and gives me a lovely floral pillow to use post-op.
There is not an available bra in my size but she promises they will post a free Berlei bra to me. I’m advised to register for My Journey Kit from Breast Cancer Network Australia. The kit available online.
‘Thank goodness – I remember when the hard copy arrived by express post last time.’
‘Yes, the size of a couple of house bricks,’ Bronwyn said with a smile.
‘Overwhelming too – at least online I can choose what to read, download or skip.’
Thank you Berlei – funding My Care Kit is an altruistic, much appreciated financial commitment.
Estimated number of new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in 2019
19,535 = 164 males + 19,371 females
Estimated number of deaths from breast cancer in 2019
3,090 = 32 males + 3,058 females
Chance of surviving at least 5 years (2011–2015) 91%
People living with breast cancer at the end of 2014 (diagnosed in the 5 year period 2010 to 2014) 71,943
I’m not special – just one of many living with a breast cancer diagnosis – I acknowledge how entitled and fortunate I am to be in Australia with a network of professionals and access to excellent medical care…
At Cabrini, there were reminders of Christmas and the spirit of giving:
On the way home, we discuss the information about the operation – a lumpectomy this time – and the logistics of getting to and from the hospital.
We’re aiming for upbeat.
I notice a car parked by the side of the road and we giggle about alternative business names after Anne googles the company…
The girls drop me home and pick up a Christmas tree. We spend a lovely couple of hours decorating the tree, discussing arrangements for Christmas Day and leaving all Christmas shopping to them.
I almost feel normal!
Monday, December 16 On this date, 57 years ago, nine-year-old me arrived in Australia with my family. This bit of sentimental trivia sprung to mind as I prepared to go to I-MED Radiology Moorabbin for a Sentinel Node Injection before surgery.
They sent me a video to watch to prepare – this is not a pain-free procedure you’d volunteer for!
Jess, the young lass who injected small amounts of radioactive dye around my nipple apologised for the pain and said I was very brave – often people cry or baulk at the procedure.
After the injections, I had to massage the breast to make sure the fluid distributes evenly. ‘Positively erotic,’ I joke, ‘if it wasn’t so painful!’
Jess and Mary Jane laugh.
The next step, a scan and gamma-ray photo to show the radiation has highlighted the tumour and lymph nodes. Apart from a dull ache in the breast and the beginning of a tension headache, I feel fine. Alas, no turning into the Hulk with super strength!
Tuesday, December 17 The Blue Moon rose growing outside my window, vibrant and beautiful as I got into the car to head to Cabrini for 10.30am. Both girls were with me and in true grief/loss reaction, I feel guilty they are going through this trauma a second time.
We don’t voice our fear – will things go pear-shaped like last time? (A lumpectomy, haematoma, more cancer discovered, mastectomy, mistaken chemo dose and pneumonia… ) Please no ‘Oops.’
Flashbacks to John’s death and feeling his absence keenly. None of us slept well – me least of all – it was after 1.00am when I drifted off, before waking at 2.00am. John’s sister, Janet rang from England, sending love and wishing me luck.
How lovely to hear her voice, know her genuine concern but she’d forgotten how many hours difference between zones so I was the dopey – and then couldn’t sleep much afterwards because many memories stirred.
And then one of those inexplicable experiences occurred – did I imagine, dream, hope? There’s a shadow in the doorway of positive, loving energy – John, Mum… the little girl whose spirit lives in the house?
Will I get through this latest health hiccup? Is this a primary or secondary cancer? What is death like? What is life about? What have I achieved? Does it matter? What is my legacy? Will the girls be okay?
Wide awake I didn’t need the alarm to go at 6.30am so I could have a light breakfast before fasting at 7.00am!
The operation was super successful (a huge thank you Peter!) and although Christmas cards were late; I sent them out with this ditty:
An Excuse of Sorts…
Please pardon this generic computer note to explain
how plans derailed when breast cancer struck again.
Mammograms, scans, doctor visits, biopsies,
hospital trips, lumpectomy and opinions galore…
this whirlwind treatment left my only boob sore!
But the surgeon triumphed, ‘I got all the tumour -‘
I smiled thanks from my drug-induced stupor,
Therefore, if he’s that happy, why not me?
I’ll also revel in being again cancer-free!
Now this health hiccup came at an awkward time
so please, accept my apologies in this twee rhyme.
I’ve been otherwise busy to muster the usual cheer
but rallying like a true Scot, ’Here’s to a guid New Year!’
Mairi Neil 2019
Another Facebook meme doing the rounds seems appropriate.
I’ll get back to writing about important happenings not centred around me in the next few posts. Finish the ‘to do’ and partially written list!
Meanwhile, to all those who read my blog. Belated best wishes for a productive, prosperous and most of all peaceful 2020