I touch myself

At the end of my fingertips I felt the lump – it felt like a swollen gland the size of a butter bean…the kind you get under your jaw when you’re not feeling well, only the “bean” was in the bottom of my left boob and I discovered it while doing a self-check one morning after getting out of the shower. My boobs were feeling heavy and sensitive the past few days but I brushed it off as PMS. The discomfort persisted and the lump didn’t go away. I delayed going for a Mammogram for about 2 months after finding the lump – in denial and out of fear that the cancer which took the lives of my paternal and maternal grandmothers had now been passed on to me.

Eventually I went for the mammogram – not my first mammo ever so I knew what to expect – my boob being squished and squeezed and my body a little contorted to enable a machine taller and bigger than myself to capture an X-ray image of my breast tissue. I knew what was coming before the radiographer started staring seriously at the screen with a frown on her face and walking in and out of the room to get a second opinion. The black shadow on the screen was impossible to miss, picture-evidence of what I had only felt with my fingertips. Then begins the questioning “have I had a lump removed before, have I had cancer before, do I have family history, do I have kids….an endless personal intrusion of questions but at no point do I dare say “that’s none of your business”! After the mammo it’s through to the ultrasound room where I lie down on a hospital bed, tits exposed while the Doctor puts a cold gel on my  boob and runs a small cylindrical object over it (like they do with pregnant women) and checks the images on the ultrasound screen. He does the check in the presence of the radiographer who did the mammo and they both check the images and talk to me while this is taking place. The doctor scans both left and right boobs – under the arm pit, the tissue between the shoulder and breast, the entire breast – top to bottom, left to right – and then checks again. By this time the area from my shoulder to the bottom of my breast is covered in cold, clear slime…a little gross but completely painless. On the screen again is a black blob, different to the rest of the tissue, the technology available enables the radiographer to take exact measurements of the intrusion. The recommendation I’m given is to see a breast specialist for a biopsy of the lump and I’m referred to Dr Edge, general surgeon and breast cancer specialist at Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital in Cape Town. After I’m cleaned and covered up and a short wait I’m given a cd with the images of the mammo and ultrasound for the specialist.
A few days later I’m seeing Dr Edge who does the biopsy in her rooms. I wasn’t quite prepared for the fact that she was going to stick a needle straight into my boob and straight into the lump to extract some fluid. I clenched my “everything” not to scream out in pain and was quite disturbed to see the needle going through my boob on the screen as she was doing it! That was hectic! Or I was just being a baby? Anyways I survived, and waited a while in the waiting room for the results, praying quietly that everything would be ok, but thinking of what I was going to say or do if the results were not good.
The Doctors verdict – the lump is benign, I have dense breasts and it’s normal to develop *long medical term* – lumpy breast tissue. Surgery not required. Huge sigh of relief!
Fast forward 12 months later. For the past few months I’ve had excruciating pain every day in my boob. Felt like sharp, shooting pain that lasts for a second but takes your breathe away. I’m again too afraid to go to the Doctor and spend days convincing myself that maybe I’m better off not knowing. Eventually I realise that I need to snap out of it and get real about my state of discomfort. I first go and have my pap smear with my gynae, then go through exactly the same process of mammogram and ultrasound and breast cancer specialist. This time the recommendation is to have the lump removed and an operation is scheduled for 2 weeks later, with me still checking my diary to see where I could fit it in between board meetings and monthly reviews – wtf is up with that I am thinking now? Do I value my job more than I value my health?
The day of the op arrives and I’m at the hospital at 6am. By 7am I am lying in a hospital bed, dressed in a green surgical gown, staring up at hospital pink curtains. There’s are 4 women in the ward of which I am the youngest. All of us having lumps removed that day. The number of forms and questionnaires and wavers that have to be signed are overwhelming and I can’t help but be filled with a little trepidation – fuck – if the Doctor and Hospital have to go to so many lengths to have me sign that it’s not their fault if they fuck up, you have to wonder if someone is going to fuck up!?! Thank goodness I was strong enough to not get up and say “fuck this I’m leaving”… Or maybe it was just that I was naked in a back-to-front green gown…one can’t get very far in that get up! It also made me realise that every operation is serious and life-threatening and that I could actually die! Shit maybe I should have asked my Mom to come? Too late for that now.
Once all the documents are signed, the nurses, anaethetist and surgeon start doing their rounds, each one trying to make sure that you actually know why you’re there and also to make sure that you’ve signed the forms that you were supposed to sign, and yes of course to make sure they’re gonna get paid – by your medical plan or by you. Your blood pressure and temperature is taken every hour on the hour, your finger is pricked, your urine is scrutinised, you’re asked to remove all your jewelry and I nearly forgot about my belly ring! That had to go.
At 9am I’m wheeled into theatre, staring at the ceiling while being pushed around at the complete mercy of others is so not a cool feeling at all! I’m an independent woman dammit. Now I wonder what babies and toddlers feel like?
The theatre staff are chatty and friendly, just another day at work. The anaethetist plugs the juice in the vein at the top of my right hand while admiring the pretty flower painted on my nails. Within a few seconds I am out – that juice was so good! I tried to bribe him afterwards to give me some to take home – Didn’t work sadly but I had to ask.
I woke up in a daze in the recovery room 90 minutes later. I had no pain and had to look into my gown to see if I actually had the op. Yes it was all done. I’m wheeled back into the ward again, all vitals checked at regular intervals and falling in and out if that deliciously deep and peaceful sleep. That evening the surgeon comes to sign the forms permitting me to go home and another round of form signing and tests begin before I can leave – thankfully I had a really huge wee, else they’d never let me go! I have no pain but am still high as a kite. That night, at home alone in my bed, I have a complete emotional meltdown and sob for hours. In retrospect I think it was crashing down from that blissful drug-induced high from all the drugs pumped into my body. Never talk shit to someone who has just had loads of drugs pumped into their body – you never know how they will react.
I spent 5 days at home taking it easy, with very little pain but an awareness that I gave a 15 centimeter cut in my boob, being held together by stitches that still needs time to heal. During this time, apart from the physical healing, I had so much emotional shit going on in my head “thank God I’m ok, why are there hundreds of messages on facebook but no no one here with me, I’m friggen starving – why don’t people bring food anymore to sick people, does anyone really give a shit, why is everyone so damn caught with their own mindless shit when we’re all going to die anyways”….a very weird space for me to be in since I’m normally very optimistic and positive. Thankfully that weird phase passed and a week later I went for a check up and to get my results – there is no sign of malignancy. Thank God!

It’s been 3 weeks now since my operation and my life is back to “normal”. I’ve decided I will never ever again wear uncomfortable underwire bras, ever again. Ive resorted to lightweight bra tops. They don’t suffocate me or put pressure on the scar and are comfortable. I had an allergic skin reaction to the tape that covered the scar and got small blisters all around the edge of the tape, horrible. The stitches are all dissolved now and i’m using Bio Oil religiously to help lighten the scar. I have some pain now, mostly at night when I get home from work but nothing I can’t manage with mild painkillers.

Emotionally I’m in a very different space to before the operation. Im grateful for my Mom and Sister in my life and a lot more conscious of how I treat myself. I also have a whole awareness of the people I consider close to me and the space I occupy in their lives.
The physical healing can take up to 3 months while the tissues and muscles fill up the hole left by the lump that was removed. I am struggling to give myself time to heal cos my expectations of myself and the expectations of others, ie work, has not changed cos on the outside I look good and fine. I still need to take it easy for a while and being mindful of that. The emotional healing is probably going to take a bit longer as I deal with new realities.
My motivation for sharing my story is to encourage friends, family, colleagues, to take better care of themselves, to make the time to have the preventative tests available, to get to know their bodies – touch themselves and recognize when something doesn’t feel right.
My story had a “happy” ending but it is not so for many women suffering from breast cancer.
I dedicate my story to my grandmothers – Francis Burgher and Elizabeth Norman, to my cousin Samantha and to my colleague Lana who have conquered! Cancer can be beaten.

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