Anxiety has been building for the last couple of weeks. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. On Friday I completely deconstructed my book and began at the beginning again – with two months to the deadline. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. This morning I woke up with an imaginary tiger clawing at my chest. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. I’ve meditated. I’ve been for walks. I’ve watched countless old episodes of CSI. But the more I try to distract myself the more I think about it: today I’m having my follow-up mammogram and ultrasound scans.
As I’m meditating away: breathe, one, breathe, two, breathe, three... the phone rings. I forgot to switch it off. Don’t answer it. Breathe, four... ring. Breathe five... ring! It’s May. May is coming to the hospital with me. One of the life skills that I’ve learned in the past fourteen months and twenty-two days is how to ask for help. The old Lily would have just toughed it out and gone to the hospital alone. That is what I did on the day I was diagnosed. I remember my feelings of bafflement as the ultrasound doctor said “There is a tumour here and in my opinion it could be malignant. I’m sorry...” and my confusion as I stumbled from the room. I sat alone on a plastic chair in the corridor and tears sprouted from my eyes. I tried not to look at the people passing by. I desperately wanted a hand to hold.
If I think about it I may have had some kind of unacknowledged notion that enduring the hard moments alone was somehow courageous. I now regard such bravado as foolish.
So I asked Iris and Flossie and Tessa and Wanda and May. I wasn’t discouraged when any of them said they couldn’t make it. I didn’t assume that nobody loves me. My friends have lives and commitments. I knew somebody would say “yes.” That somebody was May. And what woman wouldn’t want a talented artist and trainee Shaman like May by her side when visiting the breast clinic?
I leave May in charge of the car for a few minutes. “I’m just going to zip into Pret-a-Manger and get us some coffees. Here’s the key, in case a parking warden comes.”
“Is it difficult to drive?”
“No, it’s an automatic.”
As I’m standing in the queue at Pret my phone rings, “How do you get the car out of park?”
My tests today are being done at the Harley Street Breast Clinic. Confusingly, this is different to the Harley Street Clinic where I normally go. Meg and I are shown into a miniscule waiting room. There are two other women sitting on a sofa about eighteen inches away. We and they conduct our conversations in low tones, trying to pretend that we can’t overhear everything that the other pair are saying. A nurse comes in. “Please complete this form.” It’s the usual you agree to exonerate the clinic of any responsibility for everything and pay through the nose should your insurance company fail to cough up contract. I notice that the insurance pre-authorisation number is missing from the form. I fish out my iPhone and call Bupa.
“Hello, I’m just about to have my follow-up mammogram and ultrasound but the hospital don’t seem to have a note of the pre-authorisation number. Could you check it for me?”
“Have you been seen by our medical assessment team?”
“Eh? No. What are you talking about?”
“Please hold the line.”
I spend an uneventful five minutes listening to the annoying Bupa music. Radiographer Jane comes in. “We’re ready for you Miss Lily.”
“Won’t be a minute,” I mouth and point to the phone. Another five minutes passes. I feel my shoulders rising ever so slightly.
“Miss Lily, when were you diagnosed with breast cancer?”
“Fourteen months ago”
“You only joined Bupa in May so this is a pre-exisiting condition. I can’t authorise treatment at this time.”
In a strained voice I tell Valerie, that is her name, that I joined Bupa in 1989. I explain that I temporarily transferred my policy to Bupa Australia and then transferred it back on my return to the UK, in May. I note, through gritted teeth, that although Bupa guaranteed me that my cover would be continuous I have had several hiccups of this nature in the last few months and that on each occasion I have been assured that the problem would be fixed.
“Well you should have called us earlier for authorisation.”
“I did. I called you fourteen months ago and was given authorisation. I’m just calling you now to check the number.”
“I cannot authorise treatment at this time.”
Suddenly I am in melt-down: “Listen Valerie, do you appreciate that I am at this moment in the hospital? Whilst you have kept me on hold for ten minutes the radiographer called me in for my mammogram. So you’re not only keeping me waiting but also the radiographer and all the other patients. Now you’re telling me that the treatment that was authorised last year is no longer authorised, seemingly because Bupa, despite repeated requests, have failed to correct a mistake on my computer record. And what I and the radiographer and my friend May and the other patients are all waiting for is to find out whether or not I have breast cancer. Do you have any idea HOW STRESSFUL THIS SITUATION IS FOR ME?”
The two women sitting on the sofa eighteen inches away look totally absorbed in their magazines.
“I’m sorry I don’t like your tone of voice. I may have to terminate this call.”
I terminate the call.
I stand before the mammogram machine, uncovered in more ways that one. No clothes. No medical insurance. Jane inspects my breast “Wow,” she says, “Where’s the scar? Who was your surgeon? You must be very pleased with it.”
Squash. “Ow!” “Don’t breathe.” Zap.
I rejoin May in the waiting room clutching my very own CD of my very own mammograms. The CD has a big fancy ‘H’ on the front of it, along with my name and hospital number. I wave it in front of May’s face: “Lily’s greatest tits.”
Next up is the ultrasound. By comparison it’s positively relaxing.
“Come along Lily.” May and I grab our coats, bags and empty coffee cups and follow in Mr Hadjiminas’ wake to his consulting room. Pictures of my breasts are already plastered all over his light box. Without any messing about he gets straight to the point. “Everything is fine.”
I’m not really taking it in.
Next he examines my back. “That’s settled down well.” Since the last steroid injection a month ago the swelling has not returned. All of my crossing of fingers and knocking on wood seems to have done the trick.
“So, come back and see Suzy Cleator in three months. We will do another ultrasound in six months and your next mammogram will be a year from now.”
Before I know what’s happened I’ve shaken hands with Mr H, kissed nurse Tara and May and I are out the door. I stare about me at the elegant town houses on Harley Street. My body begins to tremble. I start to laugh. Then to cry. “How do you feel?” asks May. “I kind of want to lie down here on the pavement,” I reply. “Lily, I think you’re in shock.”
Since there’s still half an hour left on the parking meter we leg it down to Being Content. “Hello,” says Imelda. “Imelda!” I say, “I’ve just come from the clinic I had my mammogram and ultrasound scans they’re ALL CLEAR I need some nail varnish remover and an eye pencil.”*
May and I are recovering with tea and tomatoes on toast at Lowry & Baker, my local cosy café. I text everyone I’ve ever known: All clear!
“You should mark this day Lily,” says May, wearing her Shaman hat, “Go out onto your balcony tonight and light a fire in a saucepan. Write down all the things you are now leaving behind and burn them. Then get three sticks to represent what you want for the future and put those on the fire too.”
“I will do that May.” As I speak I upend my plate, spraying olive oil and sliced tomatoes all over my famous breasts. “How big do the sticks need to be?” I ask, indicating sizes with my fingers. I lower my hands and they crash hard onto the table, upsetting the teacups. It seems that in the overwhelming shock and relief of learning that I’m not going to die I have lost the comprehension of where my body is in space.
“Actually Lily, I think maybe you should forget about the fire. You might burn your flat down.”
*Reviews to follow.