Last weekend was mother's day, and for the last few years it has been a day my wife and I take more seriously than we ever did before. Cancer knocked on our door in 2010, and since then my wife has been through an operation, radiology, and is still on a cocktail of drugs designed to limit the big 'C's return.
Last year, while I was in the deep pit of my last big edit, Sara responded to an open call for submissions of personal stories from Breast Cancer survivors. She started to write, and with no fanfare at all, sent in her piece to the publisher. Then, months later, she found out her story was to appear in the anthology.
And with Sara's permission, here it is for you all to read.
You are going to be honest. Starkly. There is no point putting on the rose coloured glasses that everyone wants you to. Over the past year you have been hurt more than you care to remember. The pain is palpable, real, sometimes a shout but most of the time an insipid whisper that never leaves your head, like the Wiggles’ songs that your son wants played over and over again.
INT. GPs OFFICE – DAY
Dr Doctor: It feels harmless. But I always like to get a second opinion anyway.
You: Okay. So you don’t think anything’s wrong?
Dr Doctor: No, that’s the most harmless breast lump I have ever felt in my life.
You don’t really feel relief but your force yourself to. You make an appointment with the breast surgeon believing that there is nothing wrong but you had better make sure. When you enter the building, your stomach turns and you realise that nothing will ever be the same again. There is nothing overt that tells you this and you don’t know why. Is it intuition? Is it your imagination? Is it even real?
INT. BREAST SURGEON’S OFFICE - DAY
Dr Surgeon is a middle aged woman whose smile is constant and genuine. She apologises for the wait and her terribly cold hands. You see the city stretch out before you in the window behind her and feel the smog encroaching on the building.
Dr Surgeon: How old is your son?
You: Fourteen months.
Dr Surgeon: How beautiful. You can bring him in, you know. We don’t mind at all.
Dr Surgeon: Are you still breastfeeding?
She feels the lump. The fact that it hurts is a good sign that there is nothing wrong, she says. She tries to aspirate it to see if it is a cyst. Then she sends you for a biopsy. It is a simple procedure just to make sure but it seems fine.
You: If there is something wrong, what will it be?
You are hoping there are other options other than cancer. She answers you but her words are muddy and dull and don’t tell you anything. You hold onto the word fine. You run it through your mind. This time you believe it.
INT. MEDICAL SUITE - DAY
Radiologist: It looks like just a cyst.
You: Oh, good.
Doctor: Let’s take the biopsy.
You: He said it was a cyst – can you just drain it?
Doctor: No. It doesn’t look bad, though.
You hold onto the shock as the needle clicks your flesh and pretend you are fine. You don’t want the doctor to know that the jolt upset you. He is tall, sniffly and has the, ‘God awful lurgy that is going around’. You try not to breathe in his spittle. He sends you off for your mammogram.
The radiologist squeezes your breasts into pancakes, stretching and pulling them between the hard plastic panels. Meat in a sandwich. You marvel at how flat your breasts have become since breastfeeding. She tells you that they are still full of tissue unlike the elderly. You suddenly fear what will happen when you get old. She looks at the screens.
Radiologist: Any history of breast cancer? You: No.
This is a routine question, you tell yourself. Your breast bleeds profusely on the way home. You can feel it seeping through your bra on the tram. Nothing feels right but they have all seemed to think nothing is wrong. When you get home you tell your husband it will all be fine. The look in his eyes tells you that he doesn’t really believe you.
You watch as your fourteen-month-old runs and rolls on the grass, laughing. He cuddles you and kisses you and you hold him tight and smell his hair. That night, he lies close in the darkness, feeding, drawing comfort from your heartbeat. Neither he nor you know that this is one of only a few more times he will be allowed to do this.
INT. YOUR HOUSE - MORNING
It is the day of your results. You are heading out the door.
Husband: Should I come with you this afternoon?
You: No, there is no point taking time off work, there is nothing wrong.
Husband: Are you sure I shouldn’t come?
You: Yeah. All you’ll be doing is taking time off to hear her say that I am fine.
You kiss them goodbye. Confident. But there are cracks.
INT. SURGEON’S OFFICE – DAY
When you step into her office, you know immediately. She doesn’t say anything and her smile is just as wide but there seems to be a dull look in her eyes, like someone has painted a film of grey over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Dr Surgeon starts talking about your scan and holds it up to the window. Her words bumble and jump and you are listening intently, not wanting to miss a word and not at all because all you can think is: Why isn’t she telling me there is nothing wrong? If there is nothing wrong wouldn’t she have said it as soon as I walked in?
And then . . .
Dr Surgeon: So, I am going to turn your life upside down a bit now.
You feel the tears spill messily down your face.
You cover your mouth.
You knew this was coming but her words stab at you anyway.
You: Am I going to die?
Dr Surgeon: No.
Dr Surgeon hands you a book called ‘Early Breast Cancer’ and a website that she likes. She tells you to go home and absorb the information and come back for another appointment after further tests to discuss the next step. She looks genuinely sad but leaves you with the secretary anyway.
You feel there should be something more.
Isn’t there more to say? Can’t she take the pain and shock away? You know that she has done this many times and that the drama has worn off, that her real expertise is in the operating room and in a funny way you are shocked, resentful and thankful at the same time. You pay your fee quickly, trying to hold in the flood, trying to stay calm.
You hear the words mammogram, MRI, ultrasound. You know your life has changed and that every fear you ever had is living in your body now. You are sick. You have cancer. You have a husband and a son.
You feel betrayed.
You have felt this many times but this time it is your body that has betrayed you. The grief overwhelms you. It is time to say goodbye to everything that was. The future is scary, wild, quiet and sad.
INT. HOSPITAL – DAY
The day of your mammogram, your husband comes with you. He holds your hand in the waiting room and you try to joke about the shows on the medical TV channel. You are scared. And when they inject you with the blue fluid, they tell you that you cannot breast feed for forty-eight hours.
You didn’t know this but the night before when you were nursing your baby to sleep, you closed your eyes and breathed in every moment of it, thinking that this could be your last chance to hold him in this way.
You were right.
INT. YOUR HOUSE – DAY.
Your sister rings you every day. You can feel her choking back the tears. You know your mother cries when she is away from you. Her face is crumpled with worry, her mind filled with all the possible darkness that could ensue.
Over the next few days you cry. You worry about whether you should get a mastectomy or a lumpectomy. You want to hurry up and get the cancer cut out of you. You want a clear answer from someone, anyone, but it is all up to you.
At night your husband holds you while you cry and say that you don’t want to move forward, that you can’t do any of it. You can feel him breaking inside, feel his mind in despair … He tries to stay strong for you but you know him well enough to know that he is feeling the same grief. This is like death for all of you.
You are operated on, bruised, tired. You have a CAT scan, a full body bone scan, meet your oncologist for the first time. He tells you to be real, that even though your cancer was caught early that you are young and that it is oestrogen positive and that the tumour was over two centimetres so something has to be done. As your denial starts to shred away, he strikes the final blow:
INT. ONCOLOGIST’S OFFICE – AFTERNOON
Oncologist: There is no good news at the oncologist.
You feel stupid and small. You had hoped that cutting it out and having radiation therapy would be enough. Suddenly it is a lot more real.
People don’t like your sadness, your fear.
MONTAGE OF WELL-WISHERS:
Person 1, 5 and 7: Be positive.
Person 2: The glass is half full.
Person 3: At least you have your family to help you out.
Person 4: Try to think positively
Person 6: You will be okay.
Friends disappear, some stay. People have advice; give you books on natural therapies. Apparently beetroot juice works wonders. You read about a farmer who developed a vitamin cure for cancer. Too much phosphorus in the soil causes cancer, he says. The doctors are ignoring the facts. On the internet people pedal miracles and you wonder why the medical profession exists at all. You hear countless stories of friends and family members of other people who have had cancer. They were all always worse off than you, they all battled it with a smile, they all stayed strong and so very positive and never had a down day.
You want a t-shirt that says:
Just because I am sad and scared
does not mean that I am being
negative; it does not mean that
I think that I am going to die.
You always were an atheist. This experience hasn’t made you find God. You now know for certain that He doesn’t exist.
You are going to be honest. You hear stories of inspiration, of strength, of lives changing for the better, of rebirths of awakenings after cancer.
You have to be honest and say what you feel.
If someone asked you if you could go back in time and change it, would you? You know many would say no, that they have found something deep inside themselves, that they have learnt so much. You feel ungrateful when you say, Yes, you would change it; you would wish it had never happened.
You would tell them that in every photo you look at you think about whether it was before breast cancer or after it. You would explain that your mind is filled with grief every day and that you never stop thinking about it. You would tell them that even though they cut out the cancer, there is no going back, ever, and that this is enough to break your heart a million times over. You would tell them that trying to be strong only makes you weaker and that you have started to learn to relent to the pain inside you and have let it find its own place to live – somewhere where you can watch it, somewhere where you can see it every day but where you don’t have to visit. You would tell them that you are sad, that it hurts, that it kills you a little every time you think about the possibility of it coming back. You would tell them also, though, that even though you would make that period of your life disappear if you had a chance, that there is still a voice inside of you that holds on. It holds on because it has to. Somewhere inside you there is also a hope that tries to survive and that even though it is not a lot, it is enough to live by.
EXT. CITY - DAY
You walk through the buildings, your feet splashing the rain water that has soaked the pavement. You look sad, pensive. The camera pans up in a swooshing motion up to the sky, moving over the city and the river. There is a film of smog but the sun is shining on the roof tops.
Please head over to Busy Bird Publishing, buy a copy of the anthology and support a worthy cause.