The consultant and the breast nurse are in the room, with your notes open in front of them, as you perch on the edge of your plastic chair.
“You have breast cancer” they announce, pausing for quite a while, for effect? To let the news sink in? Maybe waiting for an emotional outburst or a reaction of some kind. I wait, internally processing this announcement. ‘Oh no, oh shit, I’m going to die, I don’t want to die, maybe I won’t die, or it might take ages, but why is that better? A slow lingering death with plenty of time to think about it before it happens, maybe quicker would be better. Why don’t they say something else? This is getting awkward now…’
“We caught it ‘quite’ early?” Quite early, what does that mean, not really that early, probably even ‘quite’ late. Panic sets in. “Do you have any questions?” Only a few. ‘Why is this happening to me?’ ‘Am I going to die?’ ‘What will it be like?’
The rest of this consultation is a bit of a blur, I’m back in the waiting room waiting to see another nurse. No time to lose. Not much time left? The tumour is malignant and invasive and it needs to be removed on Tuesday. Perched on the edge of my seat once more, I have a flashback to visiting my uncle in a hospice years earlier, a month before he died of lung cancer which had spread to his bones. He was 48. Fell over on his way to the shop to get a pint of milk and died 3 months later. Now I’m going to end up in that same hospice, my Mum and sister will take my daughter and put me in a room with the smell of disinfectant and a tree outside that I can look at, while waiting for the inevitable. They’ll visit and quote platitudes, as I waste away in a dressing gown, waiting to join my Dad who died 3 weeks earlier. And then there was my Auntie who died around the age of 40 of breast cancer, I don’t remember much about that, I was too young.
So, thinking about it, why not? Though my sister’s are both older and fine, as is my Mum. Either way I can’t die yet, my daughter is only 9 and its just the two of us. Before I know it I’m outside on a bench with various pieces of paper, detailing my diagnosis and operation in a few of days, complete with removal of lymph nodes to see if the cancer has already spread. I go to get the bus home, but in my distress get the wrong bus and end up lost in the middle of nowhere. Which seems kind of fitting.
Eventually arriving home, I turn to Google and spend many of the hours, days, weeks and months that follow researching my diagnosis, including tumour type, size, odds of death versus chances of survival based on various statistics, scholarly articles, websites and people’s personal experiences. Then on to risk of and timeline for recurrence, and a secondary spread, signs to look out for this and the prognosis if or when that happens. Leading me to the ultimate question of possible causes. Why me? What had I done wrong? What had I not done that I should have done?
Did I drink too much (definitely), take the contraceptive pill for too long (maybe), eat healthily enough (probably not), too much red meat, too much dairy? Was it because I didn’t breast feed? Should I have had more children? Was my life too stressful? Did I belong to the wrong socio-economic group, live in the the wrong place, live the wrong lifestyle? Use the wrong products? Dye my hair too much? Take too many vitamins? Not get enough fresh air? Have unresolved issues from childhood? Not have a positive enough mental attitude?
Or was it genetic and therefore always going to happen? And did any of this even matter anymore if I was going to die now anyway? Maybe as a heads up for those left behind.
Or is there still chance we could save ourselves, if we could only find out how and why this happened in the first place?
The moral of this post is simple. Don’t spend too much time scouring any and every available source of information in search of the cause. Although a certain curiosity is natural and a reasonable amount of research about what is happening to us is surely wise, my advice to you is to be kind to yourself and give yourself an easier experience in the aftermath of your diagnosis. I for one wish I had not expended so much time and energy on a very addictive, time-consuming and largely fruitless search for the answer to the question.
Why me, why you, why us?