11 MARCH 2010
I don’t remember much about the week before we got the biopsy results.
We’d just moved; we spent a lot of time unpacking and reorganising our stuff into fewer rooms. The previous tenant didn’t have a phone line and we wouldn’t get one installed until 19th February and this added to our feeling of being in limbo.
Tuesday, 16 Feb 2010
Frank had previously bought a ticket to go see the Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Opera House because he loved Prokofiev’s music for the ballet. When we realised that the appointment for the biopsy result was for the next day, I told Frank that he should still go to the ballet, that I didn’t need him to hang around at home with me and that I’d rent some films.
I happened to have an appointment at my local GP surgery for my six-monthly review of my meds. I didn’t see my usual GP but one I’d seen once before. After having my blood pressure taken and saying that I was okay with my meds, he asked how I was feeling otherwise. I sort of scoffed and said something like “haven’t you heard the news?” while looking towards his computer screen. He mumbled something about seeing a referral.
I explained what had happened and that I was going to the clinic the next day. He asked whether they were okay with me continuing the high-oestrogen version of the Pill I was taking for my acne and reducing the thick dark hair on my face. I asked why he mentioned it and he explained that some cancers are stimulated by oestrogen. I’d listed my meds on the clinic’s form the previous week but he told me to remind them anyway. I was glad that I’d been fore-warned about coming off this pill but shocked that it might be the cause of my cancer. He gave me a repeat prescription for it and my other meds anyway. (Weeks after writing this, I found out that the Pill I was on could not have caused my cancer – but it did make my lump grow faster.)
I’d recently read The Time Traveller’s Wife and even though I’d heard that the film wasn’t very good, I wanted to see it anyway. I considered getting Benjamin Button or The Changeling as the second film but ended up getting Burn Before Reading for some much-needed laughs after the sad first film.
I bought my dinner at the small supermarket across the road, going overboard with cheese Doritos and dips for my starter, vegetarian spring rolls, noodles, sweet and sour sauce and a salad for my main followed by a Snickers ice cream bar. Further followed by port and cookies! I had a fleeting thought that this was a condemned person’s last supper…
The Time Traveller’s Wife was a pretty crappy film. Frank came home and we watched Burn Before Reading together, which was fabulous. And then it was time for bed.
I was awake much of the night with indigestion and the caffeine from the diet cola. More fool me.
Room for waiting
Wednesday, 17 Feb 2010
I got dressed in my favourite colours: a sky blue blouse and olive green cardigan bought from eBay (since losing weight in 2008), my copper Swarovoski crystal pearl and iolite necklace, and Paris perfume.
I read and replied to my cousin’s mail, posted a screen-shot on Facebook about reaching 500 feedback on eBay and getting a purple star, and I tweeted about being back online. I wrote in my diary that “I felt kinda euphoric. Unexpected. Lovely blue sky and light.”
After hearing what the surgeon had to say the previous week, I was pretty sure that I had cancer. But my GP-cousin had mailed at the weekend to say that many lumps that look suspicious later turn out to be okay. From then I wavered 50:50 in getting good:bad news. Given my experience with the GP when I first discovered my lump, I realised that it was probably false hope but I decided that some hope was better than no hope if it helped pass the time.
Frank and I were the first patients to arrive at the clinic. The staff were returning from lunch and getting themselves organised. Women and their companions trickled in. Some had appointment cards (not their first visit) whilst other were filling in the A4 sheet that first-time visitors get.
A woman and her daughter sat opposite me as the mother filled in her form. She pointed to the question about rating her stress level over the last year. Her daughter said “very stressed” and they both laughed grimly.
The brown-skinned woman with the long hair from last week sat near me with a female friend. Even though I’d arrived first with a 1:30pm appointment, she was called before me.
A few minutes later she emerged into the waiting room with a serene smiling face and just said one word – “Come” – to her friend. If this were a film, I thought, there’d be a choir and butterflies. I assumed she’d been given good news. I smiled happily at her but I don’t think she noticed me.
I was called in next and went to see Miss P, the surgeon, with Frank.
I don’t remember the actual conversation but I made notes afterwards. I had grade 2 (of 3) invasive ductal cancer, which is the most common breast cancer. The ‘invasive’ means that the tumour started in the ducts but broke out of them. (I later read that I have stage 2a [of 4] cancer.)
I would be injected with a radioactive dye at Reading hospital in the morning and a blue dye just before surgery at my local hospital to find the lymph nodes which drain my breast as they’d be removed at the same time. If I felt like it, I could go home the same day.
I’d have a pre-assessment appointment for a chest x-ray, blood sample and ‘clerking’ (form-filling).
I’d definitely have radiotherapy (a surgeon on Monday said it was to “mop up” anything left behind) and chemotherapy depending on the analysis of what was removed.
We asked questions and got answers; benign lumps were often a clump of dead fat cells following a trauma (injury). Frank helped explain the nodes and lymph system (although I still hadn’t realised the implications of infected lymph nodes until Frank’s throwaway remark at a dinner party a week later).
I reminded the surgeon that I was on a high-oestrogen pill and she told me to stop taking it. They didn’t have the hormone receptor test results back from the biopsy.
The Breast Care Nurse – a different one from last week – followed us out and invited us into a private room. It reminded me of the room in Six Feet Under where people discuss funeral requirements. It was subdued in light and had an overly-floral arm chair and sofa. I think there were some fake flowers too.
Frank and I sat on the sofa and the nurse opposite me, her knees almost touching mine. I felt that she sat too close.
She peered at me and asked if I was expecting that news. I said “50:50” and she said that I seemed to be taking it very well.
She asked if I knew about the procedure and then gave me a lot of information about the surgery and therapy that I wasn’t ready for and didn’t want to hear. I tried not to listen and didn’t encourage her to say any more. I just wanted to deal with each thing at the time and not know too much about what is in the future, because the more I knew was just more stuff in my head to worry about.
We left the room but kept talking in the corridor. I’d sat down (I’m lazy) whilst she and Frank remained standing and talking. As I looked up, I realised I was feeling uncomfortable with the dynamic and so I excused myself as I stood up, actually saying that I felt disempowered sitting down underneath them.
She gave me her card and said to call if I had any questions. I didn’t expect to call (and I didn’t the previous week). When Frank and I said we’d search online for a certain word that she’d used rather than her explain it then, she urged us to only read UK information, not American, for example, as “they do things very differently”.
What can I say, but I couldn’t help notice that she was strikingly dressed in a matching simple top and skirt in dark purple, with wool tights and purple shoes. She also had a lovely shell necklace. Yes, I commented on her outfit.
Back home, I went to the local chemist to fulfil part of my prescription from the day before. I didn’t have the leaflet from the high-oestrogen pill any more and didn’t know how to come off it safely and so asked to speak to the pharmacist. She appeared after a short wait and asked me to step into a private consultation room. I was surprised, wondering what can of worms I’d opened.
I explained that I had been advised to come off the high-oestrogen pill but that I didn’t have the leaflet to explain how to reduce the dosage at all. She assumed it was because the treatment was complete and so I had to interrupt her. I gulped before saying that, actually, I’d just been diagnosed with cancer and it might be affected by the hormone. She was shocked and I felt weird and told her that she was the first person I’d said those words too.
She explained that I just stop taking the pill, that there would be no side-effects. She then asked if I’d filled in a prescription exemption form. I hadn’t. With my diagnosis, she said, I didn’t have to pay for prescriptions, that many GPs don’t mention it because they don’t know about it. She nipped out to get the form and returned. I thanked her, got my meds and left.
The next day I filled in my part of the form. It had to be counter-signed by my GP and so I took the train to where I used to live and dropped off the form in a stamped addressed envelope for my GP (who I hadn’t seen since I found the lump, by the way) with a note. It said that I’d just been diagnosed with breast cancer but that I was handling it fine. That I had heard that I might be eligible for free prescriptions – yay! – and, if so, could she please sign the form and send it off.
Friday, 19 Feb 2010
Message on my mobile from my GP:
Hi Paola, it’s [full name] from the surgery.
Just ringing to say that I got your note. I’m so sorry to hear about your diagnosis. That’s, umm, really rubbish, isn’t it.
Do either give me a ring or drop by any time to let me know how you are coping with everything.
With all my love.
Isn’t that great?!
“That’s really rubbish” says it all, really.