I had an appointment at St Mary’s hospital this morning for an ultrasound scan. Nothing unusual about that. I’m always popping into St Mary’s or Charing Cross or Hammersmith hospital or the Cromwell for a scan or x-ray or something. Broken fingernail? Quick! MRI needed!
I recently went to see West London’s loveliest GP, Dr Camilla Ducker. I’d been feeling a bit tired and, where most people would probably have a little lie-down, I opted for the full blood count. Whilst I was there I mentioned that my left breast has been feeling a bit hard and quite tender lately. “Well you’d better get it checked out”, she said. That was two weeks ago. In the interim Nick and I have been travelling in Tuscany.
Early summer is the most glorious time of the year to be immersed in the most fairytale countryside on planet earth. Hillsides of bright red poppies waver up toward ridges lined with dark silhouettes of flame-shaped cypresses interspersed with the delightfully rounded outlines of umbrella pines. The yellow stone of a mediaeval hilltop town catches the sunlight, glowing against a deep azure lake of sky. For the last twenty years this is where I’ve come to visit my cousin Gaby. With every curve in the sweeping road I think of her, throwing back her blonde head in unsuppressed laughter. Beside each lavender bush I see her angelic face, bent close, intently examining every leaf and bud. Amongst the boxes of vegetables at the greengrocer’s I hear Gab’s throaty voice lovingly praising a tomato or a cabbage. But I won’t see Gaby on this trip. She died seven months ago, of cancer. I’ve come now to mourn and remember her.
Nick didn’t know Gaby. He and I met on the second of January, In Sydney. It’s been a fabulous whirlwind romance. He followed me back to London and we’ve slipped into a lovely, easy togetherness. I’ve introduced him to all my favourite bits of London. We’ve travelled to Istanbul and Cardiff (don’t ask). At first I hesitated to take him to Tuscany. Would it be appropriate to bring my new boyfriend to such an intimate and sad family event? Now I’m glad that I did. I would dearly love for Gaby to know Nick. I would want her to laugh at his capers, to flirt with him as she flirts with all the world. I’d love her to love him, as I do. Knowing Gaby’s world: her family; her husband; her village and her garden is as close as Nick will ever get to knowing her.
When we got back there was a letter on the mat inviting me to attend the breast care clinic at St Mary’s.
I’m not normally one to miss out on the chance of a morning hanging around in a waiting room reading half a copy of Hello from September 2007 and stickybeaking at all the other patients, trying to figure out what their particular ghastly disease or disability might be. This morning, however, cuddles with Nick held me to the bed like magnetic honey. Finally guilt and a sense of civic duty prised me from our nest. All those posters admonishing the general public about the cost to the taxpayer (me!) of missed appointments have done their job with me. With many sighs and lingering backward glances I left Nick propped on the pillows reading the International Herald Tribune online and drinking a nice cup of tea. “Seeya” he said, lovingly.
A nice looking Registrar sought me out in the waiting room. “Miss Lily” he asked, “would you be willing to take part in the trial of a new diagnostic machine?” He described a device that claims to detect tumours by infra red or sonar or some such method. How could I refuse? I’d get to have a scan and advance the cause of medical science at the same time. I signed some papers and he ushered me into the presence of a white-coated consultant, Mr Hadjiminas. Over the years I have learned that it is proper to call doctors ‘doctor’ but surgeons are called ‘Mister’, don'tyaknow. After a brief chit-chat I half-undressed behind the screen. Mr Hadjiminas applied the device. It made some thrumming sounds. Then he examined my breasts by hand. He filled out some forms. “Ok, we’ll just send you up for a Mammogram and an ultrasound.” “But I haven’t come here for a Mammogram” I protested. “Oh it’s routine, everybody has one”. That statement felt unconvincing.
I have always heard that Mammograms are very painful, especially for those with small-but-perfectly-formed breasts. Well in my experience, it’s not true. There’s a certain amount of awkwardness involved in angling one’s torso so that one’s tit may be sandwiched flat between two sheets of clear plastic whilst one’s jaw and cheekbone are crushed up against the back-plate of the machine and one’s shoulder blade is wrenched backward to facilitate one’s arm being twisted around behind one’s waist. But that’s all fairly routine stuff for a yoga bunny like me. And of course there is the sartorial pain of having to wander the public corridors robed in a hideously patterned hospital gown with half the tapes missing.
Next stop was the ultrasound. I lay still whilst some chilly goo was applied and then looked at the pulsating swirl on the screen wondering, as I often do, how anyone can make head or tail of it. The doctor doing the scan was French. And a woman. That’s all I can tell you. She looked at me and said “There is a tumour here and in my opinion it could be malignant. I’m sorry but I have to tell you this now because I need to do a biopsy of your lymph node right away.” Somewhere, far away, a mind that was not my own thought the following thought: “Who on earth is she talking to?” The next thing I knew she inserted a long needle into my armpit. I don’t think it hurt particularly but I started to cry.
I dressed and returned to the breast clinic to wait whilst they emailed the findings to Mr Hadjiminas. The waiting room was now full. I looked around for a chair but somehow I couldn’t really comprehend the information. My eyes relayed pictures of vacant seats to my brain but it couldn’t figure out what to do with them. I stood in the middle of the room staring helplessly this way and that. Finally I plumped down next to a striking black lady with an elaborate hairdo. I guess the autopilot said: “sit next to the most stylish looking person in the room.”
It seemed that half the waiting room was for people having blood tests whilst the other half was for the breast clinic. Suddenly I felt too exposed. I wished all the blood test people would go away and leave us breast clinic people to ourselves. We have serious things to worry about like possible malignant tumours. Who cares if they’re feeling a bit tired? Why don’t they just go for a little lie-down?
The elaborate hairdo lady put her hand on my arm. “There’s nothing that Jesus can’t heal,” she said, “it is God’s will that you are to be well, healthy and whole”. I gaped at her like a malignant carp. She handed me a Xeroxed sheet titled with the words Healing and Jesus Loves You. She reached into her capacious handbag and pulled out a full-sized hardback bible. She opened it at one of the many pages marked with post-it notes. She began to read: “He Shall Call Upon Me, and I Will Answer Thee, I Will be with Thee In Trouble, I Will Deliver Thee, and Honour Thee...” I wanted to throw myself into her arms and weep. Of all the people in the waiting room, I had had the good fortune to sit next to someone who wasn’t embarrassed to extend a hand of kindness, someone who had the courage to show empathy. Maybe it wasn’t her hairstyle that my autopilot was attracted to after all.
“Miss Lily” called a voice.
Back in the consulting room quite a crowd had gathered. Suddenly they were all being very nice to me. I took that as a bad sign. Mr Hadjiminas did another needle biopsy, this time from my breast. “We’d like you to come back this afternoon for your biopsy results.” “Surely you mean ‘come back in three weeks and hang around for two hours and then we might see you’?” I thought to myself. “What time?” I said. “Oh, whenever is convenient for you.” I took that as a very bad sign.