Saturday, November 14, 2009

Breast Screening Saved my Life

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and like many I knew this, but it was something at the back of my mind. I have friends and colleagues and very close family members who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and all have come through with flying colours. But again, I think as a woman the thought of breast cancer was something I knew about, read about, watched the TV adverts but always suppressed the reality of it in my thinking.

How stupid, cancer is a disease which knows no boundaries, neither age, gender, colour, creed or social standing. It is indiscriminate, silent and cruel.

On 20th August I had my usual busy day and between 2 appoints I had written in my diary 12.50 Mobile Clinic Breast Screening, Bangor Community Hospital. I had no thoughts on this other than, must remember to attend as I always have every 2 years.

A few days later we visited the family in England and I never once did I wonder what my screening result would be? We returned very late because of flight delays on a Sunday evening. As always I opened my mail even thought it was 1.30am. One of the brown envelopes changed my life and neither of us had much sleep that night.

The letter was from the breast screening clinic in Linenhall Street Belfast giving me an appointment for Tuesday 1st September, while it did say 4 out of 5 appointments were given the all clear, I should being someone with me. I knew something was wrong I never had had this call before and I just prayed please don’t let me be the number 5.

We arrived at the Linenhall Street clinic, my first impressions sitting in the waiting room was, that it was small, cramped and a bit soulless. However a very kind and gentle Marie Curie nurse called me and introduced herself and spoke to me with great calmness. I was handed a wire basket thing with some sort of a gown. We then walked to an even smaller waiting area where the changing cubicles were. On being told to change into the gown, stripping from the wait up and put my clothes into the basket and wait with the others I would be called. I took one step into the waiting area, a tiny little space with seats tight together where there were about 5 ladies all sitting in these modesty gowns. I simply froze and backed out – I could not enter the room. I asked could I wait in the changing cubicle and the nurse realised I was becoming upset said to do whatever I was comfortable with.

I waited in this modesty cape; then when called, walked up and down a corridor carrying my wire basket all the time, saw the doctor, back down the corridor. Waited then called for screening and a biopsy. Down the corridor again, the biopsy was carried out twice with the second one being very painful, so much so that I cried out. Back down the corridor and at last changed into normal clothes. The nurse called me to see the doctor and when I asked her did I need my husband, her answer of yes confirmed all of my suspicions. Approximately 1 hour after arriving, we sat in silence while being told the results which were I had breast cancer. There were no violins playing in the background, no clash of thunder, just silence I just sat and cried. What do you say? The position was explained. Our journey home and the next few days are difficult to remember.

I can only say I do not know what happened to me regarding the modesty gowns, they ‘freaked me out’ I simply could not handle that I walked about the corridors, in this gown, carrying a black carrier ‘shopping basket’ containing my clothes, while others presumably staff walked about in their clothes. I felt as if I had a bell around me saying unclean. This may all sound melodramatic – but my stomach simply turns when I see that particular pattern or the gown. I would have felt much better being in my own top. In the letter for the appointment it could be asked that you wear something which could be easily removed or at least give the choice of wearing your own simple top or their gown.

The next few nights I think we averaged 4 hours sleep; I wandered about the house during the night made cups of tea and sat looking out the window. I though about my life, my husband and my beloved family, darkness brings out many demons.

My appointment for surgery was Monday 7th September and I was admitted into Ward 8 on the Sunday.

We arrived at the hospital and I was feeling very nervous and ‘uptight’. However, the nurses were kindness themselves they got me settled. Later on the consultant arrived, followed by the anethist with both explaining in detail what would happen the next morning. They made sure I understood everything quite clearly and left me feeling more reassured.

Monday morning I woke, just feeling my stomach was churning and my nerves were beginning to take over. But, again, the nurses calmed me, and I was given the pre operative pills to sedate me.

I do not remember the journey to the operating theatre nor the return trip. When I recovered I was in no pain, feeling a bit woozy and my husband waiting at my side. Apparently I was talking rubbish – (some might say what’s new). Later I was able to sit up and enjoy some tea and toast. But I have to say at teatime the scrambled egg was not quite the colour of scrambled egg I knew and was a bit tasteless. So not much was eaten.

Next day I was up and allowed home in the afternoon. Following this we had to wait for 10 days for the result of the biopsy.

On Thursday 17th September we arrived at the hospital. I felt great, tired but feeling really good within myself. The consultant sat us down and explained what had taken place during the operation and unfortunately some of the cancer had ‘escaped’. I needed to be re admitted on Sunday 20th for further surgery on 21st. I cried through this interview and was on a real down for the rest of the week. Once again, very little sleep for either of us.

At the end of the interview with the consultant, I was handed the usual letter for my doctor in the infamous brown envelope. I told him not to bother sealing it as once I was in the car I would read it and then pass on to my doctor. I feel that if the letter was about me I had a right to see what it said. But then – not everyone wants to know. I am afraid I did.

By now I knew the procedure pre the operation so Monday morning I was very tense. The seditatives I think I fought against because remember the journey to theatre very clearly. I remember moving on to the operating table and thinking – this is very narrow I hope I don’t fall off! However, later I woke in the recovery room, crying and not really knowing why. The doctor in charge talked to me wiped my tears away, dosed me with more morphine and that was me out to the world.

I remember hearing voices and it was 2 of the nurses talking to me when I was back in my bed, saying my husband would be up soon. I still had my eyes closed and was not fully conscious but they washed my face, tidied my hair and even put a little lipstick on me. I felt so much better and was deeply touched by their care.

Ten days later we return to hear the outcome of the second operation. The consultant advised that I might need chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy. Once again, the tears flowed and I was really in depression. However, I worked it out in my mind if this was what I needed to ‘lock the door’ I would have the 6 months chemotherapy, whatever I needed I would take. I visited my hairdresser who was extremely kind and understanding, and he arranged I would come in after hours to have my hair taken away and a wig fitted. For a woman this is probably the worst time during the whole process, you have part of your breast removed, if not all and then lose your hair. It needs great courage to face and over come this.

We saw the oncologist the following Wednesday and again, he very gently talked us through everything. The outcome was on his advice I would not need chemotherapy but a course of radiotherapy plus hormone tablets would be necessary.

I simply could not believe what he was saying and we both pressed him on was this course sufficient.

Once again our journey home was one of tears – but this time of relief.

During this whole process it was a roller coaster of emotions, of tears of fears of very deep troughs of depression. It is as difficult for husbands as it is for wives and at times even more so. I was lucky Stanley was with me every step of the way, he helped me through some very low moments, I think we kept worrying about each other. But I realise not everyone has a husband or close relation to rely upon and they have my deepest admiration.

From day one I have also been acutely aware of the kindness and the dedication I have received from everyone, from the consultant, doctors, nurses, who held me while I cried and the very cheerful physiotherapist who made sure I did my exercises.

This care was not just to me, I watched while in hospital the nurses handle some very difficult situations, with the same attention and care.

I am now recovering and still very tired, but when I think back to a few weeks ago how my life changed and how much has been achieved – I stand in awe and admiration of the health service. Everyone was helpful, kind and treated me with dignity and respect. The Marie Curie nurses – are simply angels. The hospital staff I could not have asked for better care. (Apart from some of the food particularly, the scrambled egg and the green soup which was ugh!) .

Another important aspect of recovery is the many who have contacted me, sent cards etc. again I am taken aback by the kindness. But overall I must thank the many individuals and groups who prayed for me again, this played a major role in my recovery.

Cancer is as I began is an indiscriminate, silent and cruel disease. But improvements have been made and continue to be made on the treatment of breast cancer. I have met many women during my procedure who have gone through the much worse than me. All have offered help and advice and I don’t think we really realise just how many women breast cancer affects, and how many women simply get on with their lives – to the full, following surgery.

All I can say is a very simple thank you to everyone, and I feel as if my life has been handed back to me.

None of this would have been possible with such good results if I had not gone for my mammogram and I cannot express forcibly enough that every women must attend – quite simply I would never have discovered the lump and this procedure saved my life.