I rarely go to the doctor. For most of my life I seem to have been blessed with good health. OK, I could bore you with a list of minor ailments that have joined me on my journey to being 70, but I don’t think that’s going to make for exciting reading. Suffice it to say the majority are in the “getting old category” ie nothing unusual or that seriously affects my quality of life.
However, earlier this year, I noticed a tiny change in one of my breasts. My left nipple had a miniscule area of crusty skin – perhaps 1mm square (I told you it was tiny!) Being of the “just get on with it” generation, I put some Savlon on it and it cleared up. Or so I thought. Then a fortnight later, it appeared again. Call it my intuition/guardian angel but I decided to make an appointment with my doctor. This was at the time when most consultations were held on the phone or perhaps Zoom – but amazingly, I got an appointment at my surgery the very next morning.
The consultation was interrupted when the doctor got a phone call from her husband. Apparently their Aga had stopped working. So when she put the phone down, I gave her my very reliable engineer’s phone number. She then organised an emergency referral at the local hospital’s breast clinic. Emergency because I would get an appointment in two weeks, rather than having to wait much longer. Not because she thought there was anything wrong she said. I left the surgery under the impression that we had both done a bit of back scratching.
The breast care clinic. At the end of March, after battling my way through traffic and the dubious architectural pleasures of Worthing, I found the hospital, parked and was soon being greeted by friendly nurses who (gently) squashed my 36E’s between two plastic plates. Several times. Both of them.
Then I was called for an ultrasound. You know, the one where they plaster you with cold jelly and you can’t see the monitor because they rather cleverly put it at an awkward angle. Even though regular yoga keeps me reasonably flexible, I couldn’t quite position myself to get an educational glimpse. “Mary will take you to see the consultant now and he will tell you what is going to happen next”. This was my first inkling that perhaps all was not well.
Calmly and clearly the consultant explained that they could see some irregularities which might be cancer. Anyhow, to be sure he injected me with some local anaesthetic (ouch) and then performed a biopsy on my left nipple (crunching noise but no pain). Sorry, that’s probably too much detail.
Shooting needles. A week or so later, I was back at the Breast Care Clinic for another biopsy. This time they were shooting needles into my left breast to collect samples of the calcification they had spotted behind my nipple. Sounds alarming but the half an hour process was completely painless. Was told I would get the results of the two procedures in two weeks.
The results. Mid April and I was back for the results. I had been seen on the dot on previous appointments but this, the most important to date, I had to wait for almost an hour before I was called. Luckily I had brought Jane Gordon’s amusing book How Not To Get Old which I can’t explain why but I considered to be a lucky charm. Anyhow kept my mind off things until I was called in to see the consultant.
The club that no-one wants to be a member of… ever. Well, he did not beat about the bush, calmly and clearly explaining that I did have Paget’s – a pre invasive cancer – but that they had found it early. Every time he said the word ‘cancer’, which he did often bless him, I shuddered inside. He said he could operate in three weeks time – a new type of partial mastectomy and reconstruction. I felt strangely calm – always one to look on the bright side, my thoughts were that at least this problem appeared to be solvable.
Ironically, I was in a new relationship. A relationship where my breasts, after years of hiding unnoticed in various sturdy bras, were now centre stage in full view of another pair of eyes. OK, not a massive consideration as health has to be top priority, but felt a little like sod’s law.
Keep it to myself? No-one wants their family and friends to feel sorry for them. Also their kind words can make the whole thing seem more worrying, tragic, all encompassing. So I just got on with life as best I could. Working hard as normal really helped take my mind off my situation. I just got on with it and kept schtum. But when I got the date for my operation I needed to ask Marvellous-Mother-In-Law for some practical help – which was to pick me up from the hospital on the day of my surgery. Apparently these days they hardly ever keep you overnight – even if you are having a full mastectomy – and you are not allowed to be on your own the first night in case you have any complications. Needless to say, MMIL was an absolute brick and hugely supportive.
The only time I couldn’t keep my voice steady was when it came to telling my son. The fact that my prognosis is reasonably good made it a little easier. It took MMIL a couple of days for her to process my news, which is fair enough, as I’d known for weeks and had had time to get used to the idea. However, I won’t ever tell my 92 year old parents as my mother worries incessantly about really minor issues – ie when the Tesco delivery man brings the wrong size milk. Shouldn’t be a problem as they don’t have a computer or mobile so won’t ever see this article.
The day of the operation I felt strangely calm. Post op I felt great (thanks to the much improved anaesthetics they use these days). My left breast was a little sore, but nothing that a few paracetamol couldn’t cure.
What does my breast look like after my partial mastectomy now that it’s healed? Well, not too bad but nonetheless will take some getting used to. At least it’s roughly the same size as the other one, albeit higher, somewhat lumpy and decorated with rather a lot of stitches.
I cannot fault the treatment I received from the NHS. It was exceptionally good in all respects. But I had to wait a tortuous month for the results of the op which, thankfully, confirmed I was now free of cancer. However, they booked me in to have five days radiotherapy – a belt and braces exercise to try and make sure it won’t come back. I’ve just had my last session.
So ladies, please check your breasts regularly. Anything unusual should be reported to your doctor, it doesn’t have to be a lump. Oh and Breast Cancer Awareness Month starts 1st October and 21 October is Wear It Pink Day. Just saying…
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