My cancer snuck up on me.
It started innocuously enough. An abnormal mark on the sole of my foot that was changing. Observation, a reluctant excision twelve months later, further testing and then a phone call that it was malignant and I’d need fairly urgent surgery. So I spent a week or two dealing with it as best I could - chasing referrals, emailing surgeons, scouring insurance policies. I was imposing order, grasping at control.
The idea of being off my feet for a month seemed easy enough. I’d always wanted to watch Twin Peaks, I told people. I could get so much reading done, clear my emails. Harris Farm delivers now. You know you’re too busy when a small amount of cancer seems like a good chance to rest.
The surgery itself was fine. An overnight stay and strong painkillers for a few days. I had well enough pathology and some aggressive poking around behind my knees, at my groin and under my arms and then the all clear. I had a nurse come to my house each day to change the dressing and felt reassured by my doctor and my surgeon and my specialist. That I couldn't walk or leave the house for a month was the least of my worries. I’m fine, I told people, just very lucky. I enjoyed the autumn light from my couch and read lots.
In the month following, I sat through endless tests and long lectures from professionals. What to look for, not to miss my mandatory three-monthly checks. I understood that my likelihood of getting cancer again was / is quite high. My particular cancer was not due to external factors, no sun damage on this peachy skin. Just a very rare melanoma that is at once bad luck, and a sign - a sign my body knows just how to turn on itself. Perfectly healthy cells getting up to no good, and likely to again, I am told. The thing about a fact like that is that it eats at you. My body started to feel like an unknown room, dark and no longer trustworthy. But it was something I tried not to think about, glass half-full and desperate to busy myself with life.
So finding a lump in my left breast, less than a month after my surgery was like a punch in the stomach. It brought with it an immediate and sickening fear - I knew in an instant that it was not right. My heart lodged itself firmly in my throat, seemingly for weeks. In my mind I carefully tracked my lymphatic system, head to toe, or foot to breast as it were, noting the ease with which the cancer had crept quietly and quickly to my glands.
I couldn’t cry, for fear I wouldn’t stop. I felt alarmist and dumb for worrying, and at the same time, very certain this was my undoing. I made an appointment to see my GP who, after 12 years as my doctor, is about the best person I know. Through all this I am so thankful for her patience, her dedication and the consistency of care you get with someone who knows you. ‘I’m probably just being dramatic’ I warned as I took my shirt off, ‘just over-thinking it after everything, but you said to be cautious, so’ I trailed off. As she warmed her hands she looked me right in the eye and said ‘Meg, you’ve had a very traumatic time. I take this seriously’. I’ve noticed lately that people don’t tend to look you in the eye very much. We’re all halfway to the next thing, not present, not willing to get too close to things. She was direct and warm, ideal qualities in a doctor.
It turned out I wasn’t being dramatic. The lump was sizable and abnormal. She referred me for a mammogram that afternoon, saying they ‘may’ need an ultrasound, but she hoped not. When the mammogram, a few hours later, was inconclusive and they sent me next door for an ultrasound, I started to quietly well-up. I’d never had an ultrasound before, but felt sure that twenty minutes was too long to be looking at one breast, at just the inch below my arm, so intently. I knew that saying ‘I’m just going to get another doctor to check on this’ was a bad sign, and worse yet when the other doctor said ‘is there anyone with you today Meg?’ as she sat me up and handed me some rough paper towel for my chest. She knew my history, and advised I’d need a core biopsy before the end of the week. I asked if it was related to my foot, if the lump could be cancer. ‘That’s why we do the biopsy’, she said flatly, and as an afterthought ‘I know this must be hard for you’ as I tried not to sob. I read the words ‘highly suspicious’ on the report when I got home.
A core biopsy can best be compared to a spearfishing gun, in my experience. It’s very loud and aggressive and it goes very quickly in then out, tearing a piece of the lump with it as it does. I had a friend to hold my hand this time, and she asked the questions I didn’t have the mind to. I bruised heavily and was sent home to wait. The next day at work my friend reassured me ‘there’s a very high success rate with breast cancer’. It was a relief that someone was acknowledging it properly, not just saying ‘you’ll be fine’. But I wasn’t scared of dying, I was scared of treatment. In my head I’d counted away two years of chemo and radiotherapy, and two years of hormone treatments that would make a mess of my body. Thirty-six is a very inconvenient age to get cancer when you are a single woman who wants a baby.
In the end, the biopsy was benign, but surgery was still advised. With my history and the nature of the lump, monitoring it every three months would be expensive and emotionally exhausting. It was my GP’s preference to have full pathology, and I just wanted it gone. ‘Out, damned spot’, I kept saying to myself, feeling again the drama of the situation. My surgeon saw me a week later. While it ended well, I was quietly wrought by this second surgery, my emotions taking months to settle.
The new year came and I went home and drank wine and saw friends, revelling, and all the time ignoring the nerve damage in my left knee. But what felt like pins and needles a year ago was now permanently numb. Always with the left side, I thought as I waited for yet another specialist I had been referred to. He was young and had a very nice suit on, easily the best I’d seen in the year of consultations. ‘I’m in the business of worrying’, he said, ‘and I’m not worried’, which was a nice thing to hear except that he referred me for a PET scan anyay. ‘Given your history’, he added as he made the call. A PET scan is designed to show up any tumors or masses of cancer in the system. By this stage I was past worry - I wanted to know the entirety of it, to have a full picture of my body. The day before the scan a nurse rang me to ask the last time I’d had sex. ‘Given my age’, she explained as I got up from my desk at work. I spoke quietly and counted backwards the days between seeing Ian and my last cycle. For a PET scan, they inject you with radioactive fluid, not a thing suitable for pregnant women. It wasn’t a problem for me, we decided, and I was booked in for 7 AM. The needle for the PET scan was substantial and I was reminded again of how emotionally and physically exposed you feel in a starched hospital gown. In bare feet. The scan takes 40 minutes or so, suspended under and inside a large MRI-like machine, slowly back and forth, the machine clicking away just centimetres from your nose. All I remember is noticing how glorious the morning light is in hospitals - something about all the clear surfaces and the pale lino floors.
The news was, again, good. Just a twitchy, clumsy knee and a reminder that this is how things are now. I was so brilliantly relieved by the fullness of the test I smiled for weeks on end. The good fortune of good health, and the care of a tired but very generous public health system.
And so again I go back to my old life, hoping I’m done with all that for a while.
The thing about this stuff is how alone and at the very same time how loved you feel. Alone, because as a single person, you don’t have that immediate, intimate, always-other to go through it with. To worry with you and hold you at night, to be there at the hospital and to help you shower afterwards. I’m rather fiercely independent, loathe to ask for or allow help, always ‘fine’ and going it alone. It’s part-defence, part-necessity after long periods alone. These few months put all of that out the window and I think, probably, for the best. Allowing yourself to be helped is allowing yourself to be loved.
My family were amazing, as always. My sister was by my bed the whole time and the only person I could have needed or wanted. Paddy and Melody booked me a massage and my parents sent money for flights and endless love every day. Lucy and Flynny and Bethy, and all the aunties really, making sure I was always OK. Katie came to appointments and called constantly to check results. Duncan brought hot cross buns one afternoon and roasted a chook the next. Friends in Adelaide sent flowers, friends in Victoria sent books. Liz drove me for dumplings more times than is healthy while Kara cried down the phone to me and sent soft chimes for my window. Craig came by with lattes and much-loved films and Sophie listened patiently, the whole time going through her own hell. Meg brought me, daily, whatever in the world I asked for - she’d moved in only a week before and turned out to be the kindest heart I could hope for, then and since. People halfway around the world sent me thoughtful messages, old boyfriends and very dear work friends and the girls at the local cafe wrote with love.
It’s a beautiful thing to be opened up and reminded of all the goodness around you.