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Saturday, October 1, 2011


The hardest thing about learning about an illness is telling others about it.

The evening of my diagnosis, I am at a loss about what to do. I know I should call people, but who do I start with? And what do I say? I have no experience of this.

Those friends who have known about the biopsy send texts and I realise there is no textbook instruction on how to share the news.

I call my sister, Nicky, first. There are no preambles so I go from, "hello" to "I have breast cancer". She screams with disbelief - yes, she actually screams. What can you expect? This is the same girl who threw hysterics on the floor of Barclay's Bank in London so they would allow her to make a withdrawal (she succeeded).

My husband tells me to ring my Dad. Once again, it's like delivering the news of a death. Really, it's that hard.

Later I ring my sister, Fiona, my friend Louisa.

And I learn my first lesson. Illness is not a loaf that can be shared. Every chunk of bread you break off only makes the loaf bigger. There is a subversion of the laws of science.

By now, Al's golf mates have got the message. He's on the phone, explaining. There are emails and more texts.

"Everyone's asking after you," he says.

What to do? I'm not enjoying sharing this news. So I write a personal blog just for a small group of friends and post it on Facebook. Only a handful reply. Well, that's a bummer. It means I have to notify people individually. And I do - to a handful via email.

More well wishes follow.

The weekend passes. It's a blur. I can't really remember what I do. Mundane tasks are beyond me. My thoughts are scattered.

I write in Harry's birthday card. I tell him to honour his potential and to put his gifts to enhance the lives of others.

Monday arrives and Harry turns 18. I give him his presents. He loves the teeshirt and shorts. He laughs at the 'Guide to Growing a Moustache'. We've given him an Ipad and he is genuinely grateful. Who can believe my first child is now, officially, an adult?

The hospital rings to confirm my admission time. The anesthetist's office rings to confirm out-of-pocket expenses. The breast care nurse, Jenny rings. She's on annual leave, she explains, but she'll pop round to see me at the hospital. She's cheerful and convivial. We talk about recovery.

In the afternoon, I go for a 10 km walk with Lyndal. It feels good doing something normal. I breathe in the smell of the sea.

That evening, the family goes to the local Thai to toast Harry's milestone. George, Al's Dad has emphysema and it is great that he has come out for the evening. He seems well and I am thankful. We have a few laughs. We talk about this and that. The food is delicious.

Back home, I read and fall into a dead sleep. It's a sleep I am already becoming used to.

And now it's Tuesday, four days after diagnosis. I've checked into my private room at the Mater Private in Redlands. The staff are friendly and personable.

In my room, Al puts my things away and we kiss goodbye. What I notice is the absence of thinking.

A nurse comes in, introduces herself and informs me I must wear compression socks for the length of my stay - in case of thrombosis. She measures my calf and soon, I'm wearing long white socks up to my knees. She confirms all my details and leaves.

As promised, the breast care nurse, Jenny comes in. She gives me a welcome pack by a group by "ChicksinPink". In it are a bottle of water, a brochure, a pen and a pair of pink socks.

She gives me a black compendium full of brochures - thanks to the 'Chicks' - about all the services that are offered. There's a free yoga class I can attend across the road to get my head back in gear. There are art classes run by a breast-cancer survivor.

Jenny tells me that I'm also entitled to a free bra - and gives me one to try on. It's made of a soft, supple fabric with no underwire. "Wow, very comfortable," I observe as I wiggle into the 12DD she's given me.

She says I'll receive it in the mail. Along with a diary to map my personal journey.

At this point, I am momentarily overwhelmed. I think about the kindness of strangers, the meaningfulness of small acts.

I change into my hospital gown.

Jenny hooks me up to an ECG to check my cardiac function. Because I'm past the age of 45, it's compulsory. She confirms all my personal details again. She takes my blood pressure - perfect, she observes.

I lie their waiting. I read the brochure on radiation and its effects. I fill in the breakfast order menu. And then it's time.

Jenny leaves and shortly, two nurses walk in brusquely and wheel my bed down the corridor.

In the waiting area, the anaesthetist introduces himself. He has a British accent. There's some confusion about the location of my scans.

I'm wheeled into the operating theatre. I've had two operations before - both were emergencies and I did not have the luxury of this vantage point.

The whole room is gleaming white and moulded. There are large, stainless steel forms on the white ceiling. There is soft music playing. It feels like the set of a space age movie. I am dimly aware of my surgeon, a team. There is the clink of instruments.

I am asked to roll from the bed onto the operating table. As I do, a biro rolls out of the folds of my gown.

"Hey look what you brought with you," says the anesthetist.

"I told you I'm a writer," I quip.

"You should do comedy," he says.

"Actually I do," I explain.

"You should write him some new material," says my surgeon. "His stuff is getting a bit old". Then the anaesthetist starts telling me a joke. Something about a waiter with spoons.

In between the nurse is explaining that I'll feel a jab and it will hurt a bit.

The anaesthetist is about to insert the needle. "Not yet! Let her hear the punchline," says the nurse.

I can't remember the joke but the ending is quite funny. Dutifully, I chuckle.

As the nurse puts an oxygen mask over my face I ask, "Is that my heart I can hear on the machine."

She answers yes, and that's the last thing I remember about that.

When I wake up, I'm in my hospital room. There are pads on my legs automatically massaging my calves. There's a band around one arm hooked to a machine that automatically takes my bloody pressure and pulse. The machines make deep puffing noise as they inflate and deflate. Technology is amazing, it think. I drift off to sleep.

Al comes to visit. My mum and Dad comes to visit. It's the usual overnight-in-hospital so let's cut to the next day.

It's Wednesday when I get home and I spend the day in bed.

That evening I rouse myself. I know this is important - not to wallow.

Al and I have been invited next door for dinner with old friends. We talk cancer but make a pact to talk about other things. And we do. I'm aware that this illness is to become a frequent Topic of Conversation. The problem is, there's only so much levity one can insert. There aren't too many jokes about cancer but here's one: What did the 48 year old get for her birthday?

Over the next two days, there's only rest, phonecalls and texts. There are gifts - flowers, fruit, chocolates.

By Friday morning, I emerge from my torpor. Robert calls and comments that I haven't shared my news on Facebook. We talk about my blog.

He says I should be using my talents to empower people. Hmm. I think about that.

And so I write and post and wait for the inevitable murmurs of sympathy.

I have publicised my weakness and my vulnerability. I don't know if it's a good idea.

The messages keep coming. I realise that people are basically good. Whatever our petty grievances, they are insignificant. There is no one so callous that they may wish you badly. I imagine my friends and their prayers as if they are the feathers of a giant angel's wing. I imagine them enfolding me, about the protection they might provide: that wave of compassion that has come from friends and some who are, perhaps, still strangers.

Amongst them is a note from Alan's cousin, Karen from Sydney. I know they are expecting a baby in March but now there is new news.

It's not one baby. It's two! Twins.

And at once I know that this is what life is, an inevitable flux: of renewal and receding, the phases of a moon, a winter that will pass.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your journey and feelings with us through this blog Bronwyn. I wish you a speedy recovery. Hugs from a stranger x