Most stories are a memory of the past.
Some are the hopes and fears for the future.
This story is writing now.


I think I'm writing this to keep myself occupied. I have too many things I would rather not think about, and it fills in a void where other thoughts might intrude. If you have a story to tell, they said, you can tell it here. So here I am. Though I have no idea how this story will end.
As a child, waiting for Christmas was an eternity of sleepless nights. What would Santa bring? Had mum and dad read the note before you set fire to it, and watched it rise up the chimney? Exciting days. Tiring but wonderful.
Days long gone, and much more sensible now. Christmas coming, and my children now have children, and one day soon, they will have children of their own. I would like to see that day.
Early in December, and mind on other things. Work. Bills. Join the Shop Early rush, or wait till the Shop Late rush? A very grown up Christmas. Unloading the car. Bags and bottles. Tins and boxes. A big, awkward box in particular. Hold it tight. Struggle through the front door, catching the box on the door jamb. Ouch! Must have jabbed the corner into my chest. Think no more about it.
Till later. Still a little tender. Just under the right nipple. Tender to touch. Must learn to carry a box properly. Or even better, get someone else to carry it. Much better idea.
That night, I'm standing in front of the mirror. Trying to see the bruise. There isn't one. Not that I can see. Look a little closer. Still nothing. It is still tender, though. Right here, where my left hand is touching. Just under the nipple. The little lump. On my breast.
No. Can't be! The mind closes like a sprung trap. Don't think about it. Just don't think about anything.
Christmas was an eternity of sleepless nights. Smiled and did the festive cheer. Counted the days. Not till Santa, and the known surprise of Christmas. Just till when the doctor's surgery would be open, again. Do the sensible thing.
God! I'm scared.

Count the days
   and make them precious

I have been to the doctors. Now I want to scream. Something is wrong. I know it! Yet the doctor's examination was so normal.
Lump? Mmmm. Let's see. Prod. Mmmm. Yes. Fine. You can put on your top. I'll make an appointment for you to see a consultant. Was there anything else?
He must see cuts and bruises, coughs and sniffles every day. Does he see so many suspect tumours every day that they just merge into another humdrum day? It's me. I'm the one with the lump! I don't do this every day. Till now.
And now the waiting.
Not too bad the first few days. It's hospitals we're talking about and they always take forever. Try not to think about it. Try not to think. Only a few days, and there it is. Big red franking stamp on the outside. Dear Mr Postman - this is another hospital appointment. What does it say inside?

Dear .............

An appointment has been arranged for you to attend the Following:
On 17 Jan 2006
At 14:15
If you are unable to attend at the above date and time, Please contact the hospital as explained overleaf.
Please inform the receptionist if your address or post code is incorrect.
Yours sincerely

Appointments Officer
Appointment Centre

Everything in the garden is rosy. My address and post code are correct. What is there to be concerned about?
I'm a person. Tired, worried, in need of a little reassurance. Who is MR J CHANDRESEKAR Clinic? What happens next? Where do I go? Who do I turn to? Was it really so difficult to put one tiny little human touch in? Did no one care enough to even scribble a signature on the letter?
I looked up the consultants at the local hospital. On the Internet. In every department, in every position, they all had the same name. Everybody was called 'CONSULTANT'. Very informative.
I tried the National Health Service Telephone Advice Line. I listened to the 'Hebridean Overture' for five minutes, then, as a phone started ringing, was cut off.
I have nearly three weeks to wait. Every day, the screw tightens. Every day, in many small and subtle ways, I am reminded of the thing that I cannot forget, no matter how I try. Try not to think of the word 'Hippopotamus'. A once amusing line from an old children's book.
You can think of the word. I'm trying not to.
And I have three weeks not to think about it.

Live the hours
   as though they were your last

At last, we come to it.
Weeks of waiting. Dark nights and long grey days. Somehow, they have passed and this is the day.
Whatever happens, I feel that the day's pronouncements - no matter how grim - cannot be worse than the past few weeks. At least, I will be certain.
After waiting so long to see a doctor, I now have two appointments. Another letter has arrived. It seems that I have another appointment today. To see another doctor. Long forgotten, a trivial matter in comparison. Same day, but in the morning. It will help to fill in the empty hours.
Like buses! No doctor for weeks, then two come at once. I seem to have acquired a darker sense of humour. Why am I not laughing?
I will not speak much of the first appointment.
Abrupt. Rude. Someone who talked at me - not to me. I tried to speak, but I was only the patient. They were the doctor. I should have felt anger but there was no fire in me.
I travelled to the afternoon appointment, feeling worse than I could have believed possible. Would this be another trial? Or just a long wait in a dusty corridor, shuffling to my fate. Was I just a number? I handed my letter to the receptionist.
Sat down.

Spare a minute
   to ease the fears of others

Someone called my name.
I was lost in a derelict collection of magazines. Filling my mind with meaningless lifestyles and middle class illusions. Do people buy these magazines purely to leave in waiting rooms?
I looked up, and a woman was standing in an open doorway. She looked across when I stood up, and spoke my name again. She must be grindingly familiar with the blank nod, the discarded magazine, the slow trudge towards the door. Another candidate for classification.
And yet, she smiled!
Come in. Please take a seat. Tell me about your problem. Ask me any questions. She apologised for any embarrassment. She smiled.
Numbers don't get embarrassed. People do. I felt like a person. And people can feel hope.
She explained the possibilities. The most likely causes of my problem. My lump. With my situation, my symptoms, it was almost certainly benign. I could not have clung tighter to a rope over an abyss than my mind's grip on that word. Benign. Benign. Don't let that word go.
The examination was swift but thorough. Lots of prodding. All around my chest. Both sides. Omit nothing.
Any lumps in the armpit? I knew there were none. I had checked them daily, ever since the first. One lump was bad enough. Another would have been crushing. Ignorance would have become certainty.
Everything looks fine. You can get dressed.
Fine? To me, it looked bloody marvellous. Now I was smiling!
As she filled in the report, I just sat there. No thoughts. None necessary. I watched her draw a little picture of my upper body. To my certain knowledge, no-one has ever drawn me in the nude, and never with such a full bosom. I suppose she draws all her patients the same way, and it seemed rude to make comment.
Soon, we were chatting. Discussing alternative ways of dealing with the lump. Minor surgery if it proved awkward or painful. Medication, and possible side effects. We were agreed that most of the possible side effects were unlikely in the extreme. We were both smiling.
I arranged to come back in three months, and check on progress. I must have said thank you. Probably many times. I felt relaxed for the first time in weeks.
I had a lump. But I did not have cancer. That is a good feeling.
As I walked away from the waiting area, I suddenly felt guilty. The solitary islands of misery were still there. No communication.
Had we talked to each other, it would have been like joining a club. The Cancer Club. None of us wanted membership. Mine had been turned down, and I was truly glad. Some would still be waiting to know. And some would be carrying the membership card. I slipped quietly away.
Some day, the answer may be different. Who knows? It matters not a bit.
Today is my day!

In a moment
   all of this will pass

When I started writing this story, I had no idea how it would end. For me it ended well.
This time...
It could have so easily have been the other way. Then this might have been an epitaph! I never expected to write my own, but, like many writers, I have ample vanity, and a belief that another person might just get things wrong. Miss out the awkward bits. I never wanted a eulogy.
I tried very hard to explain what I felt during this time. The misery. The appalling loneliness. You feel like the only victim in a terrible conspiracy. A dehumanising process.
Perhaps the constant exposure to suffering can inoculate doctors, and make them resistant to the pain and worries of their patients. If so, then perhaps they should try walking in the patient's entrance.
There are many wonderful doctors who care. I met them as well.
Breast cancer is a story with many assumptions. People will cling to these, rather than ask questions and find the truth.
If you have a lump - don't assume. Get it checked.
If you wait, it will NOT go away. Early is better! If the answer is OK, then that is how you will feel. If the answer is your worst fear, then you can stop worrying, and get something done. The odds are good - and getting better.
The waiting is a very lonely time. Talk to somebody. Admitting the possibility does NOT make it a fact. But talking helps.
While writing this story, I heard readers make more assumptions.
"She must be a very brave lady!"
No. Not brave. Scared, lonely, worried for the future? Certainly. But not brave.
I tried very hard not to describe myself in my story. Only what I felt and experienced. If anyone reading this finds themselves in a similar situation, then know that other people understand how you feel and what you are going through. It's not so lonely, that way.

And no, not a lady. Men get it too.

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Original story © Dave Sloan 2005
Layout, editing and additional material © Dave Sloan 2016
'tachras' and 'Winding Yarn' © Dave Sloan 2005, 2012, 2016

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