So, here I am, in hospital, again. No unwell daughter at my side this time round. No scrunchy plastic mattress; no shared amenities, no troubled teens two beds over.
Today it’s just me, in a private room in a comfortable, private north shore hospital. It’s all very private, very quiet. Just me and my new companion: cancer.
“You’re over 40,” my diligent GP said two years ago, “time for a breast check.” She did what all diligent GPs do, and wrote me a referral. I diligently ‘filed’ it in the back of my 2013 diary, and forgot about it.
Then four weeks ago, during a routine visit, she rolled her eyes and wrote me another referral. Knowing I’d be back at work soon after having been off looking after the girl, I made an appointment at the private clinic and went.
“I’m at your boob shop,” I said to a friend on the phone from the comfortably-peopled waiting room on the morning of my appointment. “You know, where you go to get your boobs checked?”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “You should be done by about 11 I reckon!” Great, I thought, just in time to nip out for some dumplings and a flick through UK House & Garden.
“It’s such a funny place,” she continued. “There are loads of women in the waiting room at the beginning of the day, and gradually they get whittled down until there’s just one poor sucker left – the sucker who gets the bad news.”
That day, at that clinic, that sucker was me.
No family history. No palpable lump. No symptoms of ill health. No pain. No real reason to be checked. No reason to believe I’d get the bad news.
As the doctor sat me down and used words like “nasty cells”, “lesion on the left”, and “radial scar on the right”, all I could think was, no, you must be mistaken, not me, not yet. We’ve had our cancer.
See, when our girl was one, Seriousimo had testicular cancer. He’s had myriad other woes since. I’m the well one; I’m the one who ribs him about my good health and his wretched health. It’s our schtick. Suddenly, the world was upside down.
Before I know it, I’m approaching the breast cancer production line, about to benefit from its well-oiled machinery. All those pink ribbons, biggest morning teas, rose-hued cricketers: it’s led to processes and technologies that mean Australia is really good at breast cancer.
How good? One in nine will be diagnosed; 95% will make a full recovery.
To be on the right side of that statistic, I meet with Dr Rippy. Not an encouraging name for an obstetrician, but thankfully she’s a breast surgeon. She speaks kindly. She talks to me about “your cancer”. The last time a medical professional spoke to me in the second person possessive it was about “your baby”. I think incongruous thoughts all the time now, and this is no exception: how short the timeline from “your baby” to “your cancer”. From me as a fecund, breastfeeding new mother, to me as a breast cancer patient.
She tells me I’ll be fine. She places me firmly on the production line.
The day before surgery I’m lying in an ultrasound room, breasts akimbo, being ‘marked’ by Matt. ‘Marking’ is a hi-fi, lo-fi combination of techniques designed to help surgeons ensure they’re removing what they’re supposed to remove (see earlier mention of no palpable lump). Radioactive isotope is injected around the lesions (that’s the hi-fi bit). A fancy German machine takes lots of pictures. (Another incongruous thought: we always feel better when the machines are German.) I’m told that when Dr Rippy operates, she will use a Geiger counter to make sure she’s removing all the bad cells that have been marked by the isotopes. On top of that (here comes the lo-fi bit), the girls are covered in marker pen hieroglyphics indicating where the knife needs to fall.
Into the ultrasound room sweeps Bruno. In hospitals, the air shifts when a consultant enters. They rarely need to introduce themselves for you to know they’re the one with the answers, the wo/man with the plan, the one to whom everyone else defers.
“Oh, you poor old sausage!” Bruno wails, squeezing my hand. I like him immediately.
“You’re in good hands, you know. Dr Rippy’s done the right thing, she’s called in the A-team. You have Bruno,” he says in an affectionately self-referencing way, “and you have Matt. This is all new to you, but we do this all day, every day. You’ll be fine.”
As I change back into my clothes in the cubicle, newly injected with radiation and covered in texta, I have a little cry for all the women in the world who have lesions and nasty cells, but who aren’t lucky enough to have Bruno and Matt bringing their A-game all day, every day, and Dr Rippy, and private clinics and quiet, private north shore hospitals. And diligent GPs, and sympathetic employers, and Medicare safety nets, and private health insurance, and quietly humming German machines.
Yesterday, for all intents and purposes and pending pathology, my cancer was exorcised. I should say excised, but I prefer the terminology one would use for Satan or a random demon. Cast out. Some sent off for testing, some dumped in a path waste bin. Good frigging riddance to it. Bon f*cking voyage. It was never supposed to be there, anyway.
“It isn’t unfair,” said Teresa in the movie Calvary, commenting on the death of her husband in a car accident. “It is just what happened.”
Is this fair or unfair? Rationally, we know there’s no such thing. In moments of smallness, I wish it was happening to someone else. But: one in nine? It’s safe to say it is. It’s happening to lots of women, all the time.
“You’re so lucky they found it! So lucky!” I am told this often. I want to slap the well-meaning people who say it. I don’t feel lucky that it was found. I feel like my little family has had rotten health luck. Seriousimo’s father is being treated for bowel cancer. Our girl’s been unwell for months. Oh, and did I mention that WE’VE HAD OUR CANCER. Sh*t luck, thus far. We’re being served a meal of more, and I’m supposed to eat it and feel lucky? One day. Not yet.
If I feel at all lucky, this is why: I am a woman of means, with otherwise good health. I live in an affluent country with a robust healthcare system. I live in a big city with my choice of excellent hospitals and doctors. I live in a country where people have raised money, run marathons, bought ribbons. Where dedicated researchers work overtime. Where sick women have offered themselves up to participate in medical trials, and skilled, dedicated doctors and nurses have run those trials.
Collectively, that adds up to 95% worth of luck. I’ll take those odds to the races.