The day for biopsy results came. It was mild and sunny in Perthshire so I carried my bike down the two flights of stairs and cycled uphill through the city to the hospital.
In an unconscious quest for security and solidity I secured my bike to the railings with both a solid horseshoe lock and a lighter-weight combination lock. Safety is paramount and a stolen bicycle is a drama I do not need today. I met Suz in the foyer as arranged. I went to the toilet and climbed out of my fluorescent yellow cycling jacket.
We went up flights of stairs and along corridors, past the spiritual centre and a 'no entry – radiation' sign, more stairs and more walking and reached the desk of the ward. You do not need the conversation that then sent us scuttling to another ward and back again until the consultant was found in a small office that lacked his name on the door
I kept my temper under control because when I am very afraid I behave in such a way as to alienate those who are trying to help me, becoming sneering and sarcastic, and so I do not get help and so my rage is then justified, so I didn’t do this. In this way I knew I was very frightened.
Instead we sat in the tiny office and the consultant began to speak but I could not see him as he had a window behind him. 'I can't see you properly,' I said so he closed the blinds. I turned my head to look at him again and saw an open blue folder. A nurse came in and stood against the wall as there was no space for her. The consultant spoke and said two words that began with 'c'. One was cancer and the other was chemo. The second scared me more than the first as it had not been in my imagination's vocabulary over the past two weeks and he caught me off guard.
The lump was cancer he said. Two centimetres. Suz put her hand on my leg. One biopsy, the lymph nodes, was inconclusive and he wanted it done again. Today. He phoned somewhere and it was arranged. He would remove the lump in a couple of weeks and I would receive radiotherapy and perhaps chemotherapy. But more cells needed, today, lymph nodes, go now for this and come back on Friday for results
Numbly we followed the nurse to the lift and she guided us to the biopsy suite and I put on a silly gown and waited. One of the nurses was the same as the first time and when she asked how it was going I told her that the lump was cancer and this test was to see if it was in the glands too. She looked a little pained and I knew I had broken a rule. She was the first person I told. The same doctor as last time did the same tests only more of them under my arm and as she did them we discussed our favourite French cheeses.
She mentioned the one called Comté and I said I liked strong camembert most of all and she continued saying 'Three Two One' and clicking her machine as we chatted. I was on automatic pilot and could have discussed anything under the sun if required. Afterwards Suz went back to work and I cycled home via Aldi and I pushed a small trolley round the shop as the word cancer span round my head. I bought a seeded brown loaf, two packets of frozen wild atlantic salmon and a bottle of Shiraz and wondered who else in the shop had cancer as well. Latest statistics suggest one in three.
Can that be right? I cycled home slowly, thoughtfully, carefully, and carried my bike back up two flights of stairs to our top floor flat.
The next few days were spent dismantling my life. I am self-employed, working with social care students from different universities as they undertake their work placements.
Four students were due to start at the end of August but as I could not guarantee being well or even focussed they had to go. I also supervise and cook for a very successful weekly lunch club as a volunteer and so I cancelled that too. I play in a music group, a recorder ensemble, and I told them that I would be absent for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps I cancelled too much too quickly because very swiftly I felt as if I had cancelled my entire life.
I am a small fish with the Inland Revenue. I do not have sickness insurance so now I had no income. For fifteen years as a social worker I had local authority protection, six months off on full pay had I needed it. But I had left that in order to
take my chances alone and now it seemed my chances were all used up. Add it to the list of reckless life choices.
The Friday for Results of Biopsy Two came and again I cycled. Again the long calorie-burning walks and stairs. Suz and I did breathing exercises in the corridor as we waited and I hoped we would not faint from hyperventilation. The consultant had the results and he said that he would remove the lump and do a 'full clearance' of the lymph glands on a date two weeks away. He will have said other things too but neither of us can remember. The nurse gave me a few leaflets.
Suz and I had a roll and a paper cup of tea in the WRVS cafe and it was the worst lunch I have ever had.
Suz went back to her work, I cycled straight home, and this time I cried.
So this is what I hate about cancer. You feel fine and accidentally find something utterly painless that is less troublesome than a broken finger-nail, and then they squash you into a machine and stick needles and medical staple guns into you (not really staple guns, just that's what it would feel like if your breasts were stapled. I think.) They find things they don't like and leave you in discomfort. They treat you for your diagnosis with major surgery and then you feel ill and sore. You start to feel better but then a side effect from the treatment emerges from left field and then you feel more ill and then they treat the side effect with drugs that have side effects.
Yadda yadda yadda. What would have happened if we had just left the small almond shaped intruder inside me? The official answer is (because I asked), 'Your treatment options would be dramatically reduced.' Does this even make sense?
Perhaps it would have left only one option – a vastly reduced number indeed –but it would have been effective and would have saved my life at a future time when it seemed in danger. But something the size of an almond sounds so benign, like a sugar almond or a toasted almond or a flaked almond on top of a biryani that, apart from all the experts and the tests that prove the opposite,
I was struggling to believe that I was even ill.
EDITOR: Episode 1 can be found here.
Read Episode 3 here.
Read Episode 4 here.
Read Episode 5 here.
Read Episode 6 here.
Read Episode 7 here.
Read Episode 8 here.
Read Episode 9 here.
Read Episode 10 here.
Read Episode 11 here.
Read Episode 12 here.
Read Episode 13 here.
Read Episode 14 here.
Read Episode 15 here.
Read Episode 16 here.