In the internal waiting area at BreastScreen – the one out of public view – a young woman is weeping.
She has the face and hair of Botticelli’s Venus, but she is alive and real, wearing a blue medical gown, and sitting outside a Mammogram Room.
My impulse is to cross the three metres between my chair and hers. I notice, though, that she’s holding a Smart Phone to her ear. Whether there’s actually anyone talking to her, I don’t know – but something about her gesture makes me feel she’s protecting herself with the phone, and doesn’t want anyone to intrude.
This woman is younger than most of us at the clinic. For her to be here at all is probably not good. She was in the public waiting room earlier with a youngish man and two quite boisterous early-teenaged children. When she was called in here, just before I was, the rest of the family left.
Now, she’s alone. In this room which is superficially bright and cheery, but which gave me an irrational chill when I first saw it – I had a mental flash of Limbo, some place suspended in time – she is visibly distressed, but at the same time putting a wall around herself so that she cannot be comforted.
This strange conflicted state – on the verge of collapse, but at the same time wanting to stay private – is one I’m about to enter as well …
What happened next to the young Venus? I don’t know. If this were fiction, there’d be uncertainty in the telling of my story, too. But this is real life I’m writing. For some of my family and friends, this blog will be an unexpected news bulletin, so I’ll hold back on suspense.
My story has a happy ending. It could be told as a simple, short version. I went for a mammogram. The results were worrying. I was called back for further tests. Again, the results were worrying: not devastating, not clearly showing cancer, just spots of abnormal growth that might be ‘precancerous’.
Surgery to remove the abnormal tissue and an area around it was recommended. So I had a lumpectomy. The pathology results for that were good: no cancer. No further treatment required. Just vigilance with mammograms every 12 months.
All of this took 6 weeks. Now it is over, life should go back to normal. Shouldn’t it? Even to write any more than that short, reassuring version might be considered melodramatic.
But writing is how I make sense of my life (and of other people’s lives, too), so although part of me does want to tuck all this experience away into a corner of my mind where I am no longer aware of it, my mind doesn’t seem able to keep that corner locked.
One of the most puzzling aspects of the last 6 weeks was the dilemma: do I tell people about this? While I wait for test results which could be utterly life-changing – or could be nothing to worry about at all – do I worry anyone else?
Like the young woman at the clinic clutching her phone, do I retreat into my own world of fear? When people learn they have cancer, this seems to be a common, protective response. And it makes sense, on an emotional level, because illness itself is such a robber of personal dignity. We don’t need to add to that intrusion on our privacy, especially not if our instincts are that people’s responses (however well-intentioned) may be harmful.
Some people would happily tell everything on Facebook. Give day to day accounts of the treks to the clinic and the awful anxiety of waiting to know the worst.
I couldn’t do that. My choice was to cautiously tell only a small number of my very closest friends, and the nearest members of my family.
I was lucky. Amongst those few were women who understood what it might feel like to be in my shoes: women who had had scares themselves; or who had had cancer and survived; even one who’d recently been down an eerily similar path and was now recovering from what she tried to lightheartedly describe as “having grains of sand removed” from her breast.
Apart from the calm, sanity-saving support of those very special people, what made my waiting time bearable was the occasional eye-witness report from someone else who had already been through this. I didn’t trawl the internet in search of blogs or articles, although I sometimes chanced upon them, in that spooky way in which things we’re worried about do suddenly appear before us – articles in magazines at the hairdresser, reminders of interviews and previous stories that have haunted us …
I was grateful to the women who had shared their experiences. They made mine much less lonely.
So that is why I want to follow this first post with the longer story of my last 6 weeks. I am going to post it in short episodes, because that seems to be the only way I can write it. I’ll be back with the next instalment shortly.