I have just had my final dose of Herceptin. It’s a momentous moment topped off with a parking ticket because our permit had the wrong date on it. Sigh. I don’t know how I feel but looking through some files on my laptop, I find a piece I wrote a year ago – almost to the day – about the moment I was first diagnosed with cancer. It feels appropriate to post it as it never got an airing elsewhere.
‘I sit and wait in a coffee shop in Hammersmith station. I am sipping from a bottle of water and pretending to read my book, waiting for my friend Emma to arrive. I have asked an incredibly difficult favour from her – that she is to come to the hospital with me to see the consultant on what I am pretty sure will be confirmation of my diagnosis of Inflammatory Breast Cancer. It’s only been a few weeks since I saw my GP who thought there wasn’t a problem but suggested I was referred to the breast clinic just to be on the safe side. There was a hiccough in getting the referral but here we are, at the beginning of March, waiting to see what they have to say.
I am just texting Emma to say where I am when I receive another saying “Look up” and there she is, outside the coffee shop eating a McDonalds as fast as she can so we won’t be late. I go outside and join her and we set off down Fulham Palace Road to the hospital. I can’t remember what we talked about on the way or what the weather was like. It’s all a bit of a blur, to be honest.
We arrive at the hospital and try 2 departments before we eventually find the right one. Sitting down and listening to the easy-listening music being piped through the waiting room, Emma asks “Are they really playing ‘I Died in Your Arms Tonight’?” and we giggle. I think we read some trashy magazines and then I was asked in to see the consultant. He is old school – handmade chalk-stripe suit, silk hankie. He examines me and I venture that I think it doesn’t look too good. He is non-committal and I am told I am to have a mammogram followed by an ultrasound scan. Back in the waiting room, I tell Emma the name of the consultant. “Really? He saved my mother-in-law’s life” she says. “He’s really good”. We decide to like him.
I am called through for my mammogram while Emma waits in reception. The lady doing the mammogram is very caring and says “Oh, you poor thing” several times as she tries not to hurt my swollen breast as the machine is squeezed down onto it in a variety of poses. I say it’s OK and not to worry. Back to the waiting room and ask Emma to tell me about insurance problems as that is her area of expertise and I feel it will take my mind off things. I am just getting interested in a problem of a client who has a large wall painting he wants to leave in a house which is being totally renovated when I am called for my ultrasound.
The radiologist is young and very, very nice. He is just bright and breezy enough while the nurse keeps rubbing my arm and telling me I am doing ‘marvellous’. Her poor grammar grates but gives me something else to focus on. I tell the radiologist I think it looks like Inflammatory Breast Cancer. I just want someone to tell me something but know I have to go through the whole series of tests first. I just want to know. He says “We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it” and takes infinite care in measuring the lump and taking biopsies. He also tells me I have very young looking breasts so I begin to think I might ask him to repeat it so I can record it for when I feel low. Towards the end of the session, the nurse asks me who has come with me today and where is she? At this point it is abundantly clear, as if I didn’t know already, that there is some bad news coming.
I am walked back to the reception to find Emma and we are taken to another corridor to wait and see the consultant again. I begin to feel tearful and upset so Emma continues the story of her clients and insurance problems and that helps. After a while, we see the consultant emerge with a cross look on his face. “He’s asked for tea and a bourbon biscuit and they haven’t brought him anything” she says. He stomps off and returns ten minutes later. “He had to make his own and there was only Nescafe and a Malted Milk”. We agree this is why he looks so thunderous. Eventually we are called in.
I sit next to his desk while Emma sits in a chair behind me. I feel I am not going to take it all in. He looks at me with a very serious look on his face and says “I am very worried about you. The radiologist is very worried about you. We are all very worried about you and I think you should prepare yourself”. At this point, I begin to cry. I know he’s telling me I have cancer but I don’t understand exactly what he’s saying. When he says to prepare myself, I think he’s saying it is terminal and that there is no hope. I have no experience of this and don’t know what to expect. Emma is on her feet in a flash and puts her arms around me. I struggle to ask him “When you say I should prepare myself, what exactly do you mean?” His response blows me away. He looks straight into my eyes and without a shred of compassion says “Well, when you came in here earlier, you said you thought it didn’t look good and I thought you had prepared yourself”. I swallow hard. My head is swimming. I don’t think I am asked if I have any questions. He says “Do you want to read a copy of the radiologist’s report?” I don’t know what I should answer to that. “Should I read a copy of the radiologist’s report?” I ask. His response confirms that although this man may be a brilliant surgeon, he should not be let within a million miles of conscious patients. “Well, it doesn’t make very nice reading” he replies. At this point, I decide not to like him. No, I do not like him at all.
Emma is on her feet. “We’ll take it with us” she says and fairly snatches it from the desk. We are told to make an appointment for the following week and leave the room quickly. Emma is furious and I am shocked and angry. My first thoughts are that I don’t want to see him again. I ask at the desk if I have to see the same consultant again and fortunately am told I don’t have to and anyway he will not be there the next week. I am booked in to see a different consultant. The receptionist assures me she is very nice.
There is a coffee shop in the hospital and, although we have been promising ourselves coffee and cake before the visit, we don’t really feel in the celebratory mood. Emma had seen a good number of magpies when she left home that morning and was sure it was a good omen. She sits me down at a table and says she is going to get coffee. Before she leaves, she slides the folded radiologist’s report for me to either read or not, as I wish. I want to read it and I don’t. I decide to be brave and pick it up although I notice my hands are trembling and tears keep falling from my eyes. In films and on tv, when people cry they look pale and interesting. I turn into a red, snotty blob and think life is unfair.
The radiologist’s report is detailed but mentions IBC so I am now sure this is what I have. I have checked things out on the internet and know the next steps will be chemotherapy followed by a mastectomy and radiotherapy. I can’t take it all in. Emma comes back with coffee and we sit and try to smile at each other. She says “I have never felt worse in my whole life” and I realise what an immense thing I have asked her to do for me.
We drink our coffee and leave the hospital. Emma tells me she is getting me home by taxi but it is around 5pm and Fulham Palace Road is full of traffic. I insist I can go on the tube but she insists she will come with me, even though she lives a few miles away. We get on the train and it’s busy. It’s hard to know what to say and I don’t remember much of the journey although I know I phone Mark a couple of stops before mine so he will come and pick me up by car. Emma insists she is going to get off the train and put me personally into the car and this is what she does, even opening and closing the car door for me. Mark and I drive home, talking about inanities. How was your day? Did the dog have a good walk? What’s for supper? We are so polite and so careful not to talk about anything until we’re safely indoors. Even then, we get into the kitchen and it’s like there is a chasm to cross. I have to say those words and I can feel Mark wants to hear it but doesn’t want to hear it, all at the same time. I say “It’s not good news” and we hug and I begin to cry. I begin to reassure him, “It will be OK” and he says “You’ve got there early” and we don’t know what to say. I don’t know what else we say. Sometime around this point my son arrives home from work and comes into the kitchen. “What’s up?” is his first question. I go to hug him and hang onto him and say “I’ve got cancer” and he hugs me hard and strokes my hair and kisses me. Mark tells me he knew it was bad news when I called from the train and didn’t say it was all OK. The evening is a blur. I don’t know what we ate. I am sure we talked about what had happened and I tried to be as clear about what I’ve been told and what I know about my disease. I feel it’s very important to speak about it, to name the disease as cancer. I feel in shock and am pretty sure my boys do, too.’