Health Diligence

In August this year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I don’t usually get explicitly personal in my blog posts, but I believe there is value in sharing my experience. Cancers are extremely common and for good reason people are afraid of it. I was lucky. Mine was detected early. The health care system in Australia encourages us to get regular testing that will alert us to disease. My message is, USE IT!

I went for a routine mammogram. I was called back for a second one. I wasn’t alarmed. I was irritated. I would get a second boob-squashing and waste a lot of time. When I booked the appointment, I was asked to allow four hours even though I might be out in one. Exasperated, I delayed my hairdressing appointment.

I turned up at St George Public Hospital Breast Screen Clinic and donned the white cotton gown. Sitting in the waiting room, pulling the gown across my bare breasts, I felt vulnerable and patient-like. Opening my Lonely Planet, I distracted myself, researching my trip to India. I tried to ignore the banal Morning TV show. When it was my turn, the radiographer was admirably friendly and empathetic, despite the hordes of complaining women she would deal with every day. She recommended I breathe out through the pain. It helped.

Back in the waiting room I observed an older Mediterranean woman talking on the phone in a panicked voice. I was then called for an ultrasound. The radiographer chatted pleasantly with me as she looked at the screen and ran the wand-thing over my gel-covered breast. Then she  called in the radiologist – the specialist doctor. I felt indulged. One of my closest friends is a radiologist at St George and I wondered if I was getting VIP treatment. At no point did I think the worst. The radiologist told me she was going to take a biopsy. She took four. She told me she was going to mark the concerning spot by inserting tiny metal pellets into my breast. The nice radiographer held my hand.

Back in the waiting room I asked the kneeling Mediterranean woman if she’d lost something. She glanced at me with a look that silenced me. She was praying. I found a brown paper carry-bag next to my chair. It contained a sandwich, apple and water. When the woman got up, she apologised. She’d been crying. I talked to her about her husband and where she lived.

A woman in uniform came to me and introduced herself as a counsellor. I followed her to a room where she explained I had to wait for a doctor and I can’t remember what else. How tedious, I thought. I dressed and went for coffee, the doctor being an hour away.

When the doctor, a breast surgeon, met with me, he explained there was some calcification in my breast. Until they got the biopsy results, they couldn’t say what that meant. Calcification was quite common in women of my age. He felt my breast but there was no palpable lump. I told him I didn’t want to come back the following week – I was going away – and requested I be told the results over the phone. He raised his eyebrows, smiled indulgently, and said, maybe.

The next week, I phoned in. As happens in many large organisations, there was a Protocol slip-up and I was told, without obscurity, I had a cancer and had to see the surgeon. I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t possible. That kind of thing doesn’t happen to me. I went for a walk with some friends and shared my shock and disbelief. They were more horrified than me.

The next week, my radiologist-friend accompanied me to the meeting with the surgeon. She insisted. Apparently, I wouldn’t remember or understand everything the surgeon said. She was right. She explained it all again to me later. I had a 9mm invasive ductal cancer. Small. It didn’t sound small to me. With the margin required to make sure it was all gone, the surgeon would be taking out a golf ball chunk out of my small breasts. That sounded huge. They would also take out a lymph node to see if there was cancer in there. I remembered the surgeon’s drawings: the golf ball with 9mm centre and lymph node, a bit bigger, with lines drawn through to demonstrate the slices that they would biopsy. I was horrified by its enormousness before my friend explained it wasn’t to scale. A lymph node is only the size of a baked bean. I’m glad I took a friend to listen and remember.

Two weeks later I was back at St George, this time at the Private, getting prepped for surgery. Once again, I shunned company because I’d be fine, and why should someone else have to suffer the boredom of the day. It was like two people suffering the grocery shopping when only one needed to. I started to cry as the check-in nurse asked me questions. I wiped away my tears, feeling foolish. Up in the Radiology Department, I had an ultrasound. The radiographer didn’t chat. She did her job and then went to get the nuclear physician. A kind looking man appeared at my side and apologised in advance because he was going to hurt me. He gave a few anaesthetic injections and fed a wire in to meet the tiny metal pellets.

I cried but the pain wasn’t too bad. I cried because for the first time in my life I didn’t have my husband with me, reassuring and overseeing. And I’d chosen not to have a friend by my side.

Over in the Nuclear Medicine Department, radioactive dye was injected to mark the cancer and node for the surgeon. All this takes time and I felt very alone. While waiting for the surgery, I picked up my phone and checked my messages. There were plenty. Messages of strength and kindness and concern. Family and friends were with me in spirit and I knew I was far from alone.

The surgery was over before I knew it but I was groggy for some time. The news was good. No cancer had shown up in the biopsy of the removed lymph node so the other fifteen were left alone. In a week they would be able to tell me if they had found any cancer cells in further slices.

I was lucky. Mine was all clear. I recovered well from the surgery and went skiing six days later. My scar healed well and was a very neat 6cm long straight line. I did have radiotherapy two months later but I’ll leave that story for another day.

I encourage you to have routine tests and look after your health. We have very good hospitals and doctors in Australia and many diseases can be treated. There is no point in being too afraid or busy to have a test. If problems are discovered early you could save yourself a lot of trouble, heartache and suffering. Better a little pain now than a big regret later. Have the test. Talk to your loved ones. If you need it, lean on them for support. Take the professional advice and keep well.

Memo to a Younger Self

Toastmasters has been a fun activity for me for the past few years. I tried it out because I’d heard great things about it from friends and I thought it might help my writing – you have to write your own speeches. Speeches are essentially stories about how you feel (an opinion like wildlife conservation), an experience you’ve had (like travelling solo), or something you know (like floristry). Quite often you end up researching something you’re curious about and becoming even more interested.
There are lots of other opportunities too. This week I’m presenting the Salute to the Theme. For two minutes I’ll talk about the theme, What advice would you give your younger self? There are plenty of ways to tackle this and I could talk about studying more, listening to your father or backpacking through Europe. Maybe don’t get a perm. But I’m going to talk about doing things that build self-confidence and self-reliance and being part of a group or team.
Learning new skills gives you a sense of achievement which makes you feel good about yourself. Mixing those skills with other people makes you feel integrated, useful and joyful. Toastmasters includes all these things.
The group encourages you in every task, whether it be a speech or preparing morning tea. Everyone has a role on the day. There’s plenty of praise and evaluations involve the sandwich technique: point of praise, point for improvement, point of praise. So, you get better all the time.
I’ve read that one of the key indicators of longevity is sociability. People who talk to their neighbours, volunteer in community activity and join clubs, live longer.
My advice to my younger self would be Join in! Have a go! Learn something, don’t be afraid to make mistakes or worry what people will think. If you’re mixing with like-minded people, they’ll want you to succeed as well. Not being reliant on others, emotionally or physically, but being happy to give, share and accept help, as in a team, means you’ll be a stronger happier person; one who’s achieving what they want in life and who others are attracted to.
When it comes down to one line, I’d say join Girl Guides.