Thursday, May 03, 2007

I think I may have got my life back...

... although I am not sure yet.

Please take note that this is an honest account of my experience and sometimes the truth is harsh.

It has been almost two months since I found a small lump in my right breast, and less than an hour ago it was confirmed as being a polyp, not malignant and, as it was removed two weeks ago, no longer a threat to my physical and mental wellbeing.

I left the clinic, used the loo, left the hospital, turned my mobile 'phone back on whilst observing the beauty of a drift of bluebells in the hospital grounds and returned to my car, all the time thinking to myself "If I can just get out of this room, this hospital, get to my car, get home, then I will let the relief hit me."

This has yet to happen and so here I am, writing what Nige said I should have written from the beginning. Perhaps I simply need to metaphorically 'get it off my chest' too.

It began on a Sunday evening. I was sitting in bed and found the small lump during something vaguely resembling self-examination. It was really quite small, but definitely there. Again in bed, a couple of days later, or maybe as soon as the next day, I asked Nige if he could feel it too, and he said that he could. That was when my world first shifted out of orbit.

"You didn't want me to say that, did you?"
"No."

A conversation followed that involved the suggestion of leaving it a week and then making an appointment with our G.P. We went to sleep. We awoke and went to work, yet the only part of that day I remember was telling Paul when we were having our usual chat on MSN.

Fortunately I find myself propelled to sleep and work by stress, so I have, I think, performed both activities rather effectively, albeit from within my asynchronous reality. For the first few days I was only slightly out of phase: the G.P.'s confirmation of the existence of the lump (the size of a small pea) and all that followed granted me this full-on alternate existence.

I can not convey how wonderful and true Paul's friendship has been. I have been able to share with him some of my darkest thoughts, although I haven't told him, or anyone else, everything, and sometimes his kind reassurances inadvertently transformed themselves into warning flags. His initial assertion that the G.P. would have made an urgent appointment for me at the hospital if she was worried became the truth when the hospital telephoned to inform me that she had faxed a referral to them.

After visiting the G.P. I had returned to work - it was after the school day had ended - and I sat at a computer using music notation software for an hour or so before the first tears fell. I regained my composure and left school, a journey during which I reached my first major decision based on a number of possible, well-reasoned outcomes:

a) If it's nothing, then all is well, and I go back to my life. I make some big changes.
b) If it's cancer and it's advanced then I only have to manage a few weeks of this hell and it's over.
c) If it's cancer and it's not advanced then I have to find a way to end this without anyone realising it is actually suicide.
d) Perhaps I should just drive straight off the road now and it will be over and done with.

Needless to say I chose to drive home. A new chapter begins here.

I passed the days between G.P. visit and hospital appointment one in the usual fashion: sleep, work, repeat to fade, but with an occasional peak, well more than occasional, at online pages about breast cancer, breast lumps, procedures, statistics and advice. Some of the information was new; none of it was helpful. Having played the odds with cervical cancer and more or less lost out all the way until the end, I wasn't hopeful. I had concluded that if I could play the National Lottery with the same odds I would get five and the bonus ball at least twice a year.

Still, I sat in the clinic waiting area silently chanting "almost always nothing" and pushing out the echoes of "G.P.s can usually tell you if it is just a cyst", "I saw blood in the sample", "there's some swelling in your glands" etc. And yes, now I recall a weekend of repressed hysteria when it was Mother's Day (will this be my last?) and my glands hurt so much I was convinced I had advanced lymphoma:

"They didn't hurt till the GP said they were swollen!" Nige said.
"How have your sinuses been? Only when mine are bad my glands swell too." Paul said.

"OK, so it's psychosomatic", I thought. Ignore the glands and focus on the rest. Easier said than done. So, back to the clinic...

After a fine needle aspiration (rather painful), a mammogram (nowhere near as painful as the anecdotes of others implied) and an ultrasound scan, the results were inconclusive. The lump was too small, the cells were too few to say for sure, but there's an eighty per cent chance it's a simple cyst - a 'C3'. There go those odds again.

Appointment two: a different hospital and what was planned as a different procedure (biopsy) turned into yet another fine needle aspiration (extremely painful) with simultaneous ultrasound scan. Afterwards Paul and I sat in a coffee bar and ate food we didn't want, went to another bar and chatted about our concerns for the wellbeing of others then went home.

Appointment three: results are inconclusive; it has to come out. I was glad of the excuse of going to see Howard Jones live as a means of avoiding surgery on Friday the thirteenth without confessing to superstitious beliefs, although it has to be said that I had already left them far behind. This was no time for second guessing, wondering if putting it into words would somehow tempt fate. For when Nige rescued me after the first inconclusive result and suggested I document all of this, I tried, but I just could not. It was too much like writing my own obituary.

I think by this point I was so exhausted that I almost couldn't worry anymore. I say almost: at school we had been covering the psychology of health, so it was all pretty close to my experiences, which made those lessons the hardest to give. One of my students had broken up with their girlfriend, and I found a little solace in our shared misery. One night I sent him a reply to his MySpace bulletin titled 'Application to be my Girlfriend', offering for his consideration a (fictitious) incontinent, blue-rinsed, bingo-playing biddy. He replied with gratitude for my attempts at cheering him up and an apology for the relative unimportance of his plight. On the contrary, my friend: it is neither unimportant nor without purpose.

And so appointment four: day surgery. This is when a patient is admitted for the day, spends four hours reading the Daily Mail whilst everyone else is admitted, treated and lies on their beds recovering before said patient finally undergoes an hour of unconsciousness and probably ten minutes of surgery. I recall the poor snoring women, and the anaesthetist's entirely unnecessary focus on my being an overweight smoker. It has taken me five years to lose four stone, maintain the weight loss and extensively adapt my eating habits. Smoking comes next: if I survive this I deal with it. And if it's cancer please make sure I don't wake up.

There was a strange relief in having the lumpectomy. It was out, so it couldn't do any more damage and there was every chance that this time I would actually get the conclusive result that had evaded me, putting my life on hold for almost eight weeks. I amended my decisions accordingly:

a) If it's nothing, then all is well, and I go back to my life. I perhaps make some big changes.
b) If it's cancer and it's advanced then I only have to manage a few more weeks of this hell and it's over.
c) If it's cancer and it's not advanced then I can probably cope with radiotherapy. Chemotherapy and I have to find a way to end this without anyone realising it is actually suicide.

...

Finally, here I am. Appointment five has been and gone. The result is conclusive. I don't have cancer. I get to have my life back. I don't need to plan a get-out that will make sure the mortgage gets paid. I do have to reconsider my earlier resolve to quit smoking, which slipped further and further into the fading abyss that represented reality in my realm before today. I also have to address my dissatisfaction with my employers.

Apparently I still have to wait for my life and the rest of the world to re-converge, and I'm beginning to think it may never happen. I also believe that this has been life-changing, although not in an obvious way that would stand out to everyone else. I know what it is to really not care if I live or die, but I do care to live now. For Eileen and Kath, God bless you both for you were braver than I could ever have been and I will never know how you found the strength to fight to the end.

And I'll settle for never winning the lottery.

Addendum

Within hours of finishing this blog post I received an email from one of my friends at school to tell me that we got five numbers on the Lottery syndicate! It's only £55 each, but as I add this two days later I can confirm that I have my life back - I am covered in tile adhesive...