I was diagnosed with breast cancer in July, age 41. And I’m so damn lucky.
Here’s why. I’m lucky because my medical clinic sends out letters to patients around their 40th birthday prompting them to have mammograms. I’m lucky because even though I’m young and have no history of breast cancer in my family, I decided to go and have one anyway. I’m lucky because I could afford to pay for it.
I’m lucky because even though my mammogram came back clear, my GP called to explain that because I had “dense breast tissue”, was I aware that a mammogram might only be able to see about 80 percent of what was there? (I wasn’t aware). I’m lucky because when she suggested to have an ultrasound, just to be sure, I did. I’m lucky because when the ultrasound showed three small solid masses that I was told were almost certainly nothing to worry about, but did I want a biopsy or wait six months and come back for another scan? I chose the biopsy.
I’m lucky because the radiographer who was performing yet another ultrasound before starting the biopsy procedure saw a tiny little mass with a fuzzy edge (that looked different from the other three). I’m lucky because he decided to biopsy that as well. And I’m lucky because that tiny little mass turned out to be cancer that did not want to be found.
“We don’t usually like to do this over the phone,” sighed the doctor. But because I’m a pain in the ass and had been leaving her messages, she was reluctantly returning my call. It was a Thursday and we were supposed to be having a face-to-face meeting on Monday, but I wasn’t prepared to wait.
“We found cancer in your left breast from the biopsy,” she said. “We’ve caught it early, it’s small, it’s 7mm.” I looked up 7mm on my kid’s ruler. It didn’t look particularly small to me, especially when you begin to picture a cluster of deadly cells, multiplying under the surface of your skin.
I read that by the time a lump is detectable by hand (which mine was, just) it’s already been growing inside you for two to five years. This blows my mind. I’ve been walking around growing cancer this whole time. I had cancer in the ocean over the summer, I had cancer in the snow last winter. I had cancer on my last birthday and almost certainly the one before that, when I’d turned 40.
Because I’m young to have breast cancer (around 6 percent of breast cancer in New Zealand occurs under the age of 40 years), because it’s aggressive and because of the type I have, I am to have breast-conserving surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and hormone therapy. There’s more scans, tests, injections and hospital gowns that open at the front. Lots of people have seen my breasts now. Well, the left one anyway.
Trying to process my diagnosis in the weeks and months afterwards is hard, made all the worse by a Delta-driven Auckland level four lockdown and a six and an eight-year-old who are at home with me day in and day out.
Because we weren’t ready to tell them in the beginning, I take calls from surgeons, oncologists and family members while sitting in the car around the corner from my house. I speak in confusing code and urgent hand gestures to my husband. I sob in the shower. I cry in the corners of rooms and behind doors. We order a juicer from Noel Leeming.
Telling people you have cancer blows. It really does. How do you begin that conversation? How long do you make small talk before you say? How much do you overcompensate the tone in your voice to contradict the news you’re about to deliver? It’s all so clumsy and inelegant.
People ask so many questions, because they’re curious and because they don’t know what else to say. Lots of people tell you about other people they’ve known who’ve had cancer. I’m almost certain I’ve done this very thing myself. This is not helpful, especially when that person is dead from cancer.
The Waiting Rooms
I’ve been in a lot of waiting rooms lately. There’s a lot of sad ones, with old calendar pictures that have been stuck on the wall to add a little colour, and there are others that are positively fancy. Like Auckland Hospital’s oncology ward where there’s nice light fixtures, a zesty green splashback behind a mini fridge, a thriving plant that reminds me of a proboscis monkey, and a TV mounted to the wall that is always, always playing the game show The Chase, no matter the time of day.
You can pick the seasoned chemo pros a mile off. Usually sporting a striped beanie tugged down over their bald domes and a resigned expression as they wait for their name to be called. I get some rueful smiles delivered my way; could be my age, could be my mane of long, thick hair, could be my terrified expression.
Later, once my chemo begins, I join them. Together we shuffle down hospital corridors, a slow, poorly choreographed ballet of hairless dancers tethered to IV poles.
Lots of people freak out about losing their hair. Which, in a way, is weird because it’s one of the few things that doesn’t actually hurt.
I had been trying to hold onto mine, but it turns out that it’s way more distressing having hair falling into my dinner, into my kid’s peanut butter sandwich, all over my pillow, the back of the headrest in the car, all over my clothes, and fistfuls of it coming out in the shower.
I shaved what was left of my long hair on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the front yard. My six-year-old fortified himself with snacks like I was about to put on a show. Face-masked people walked past on their daily laps around the block both fascinated and horrified at the spectacle.
I felt immediate relief once it was gone. I realised as I watched my hair literally blow away in the wind – it was gusty that day - that I had been holding onto it for my husband and kids. To keep things normal. The thing about not having hair as a woman my age, is that your cancer becomes desperately visible. I wear it now for everyone to see.
I’m tall and thin and look like a pencil with a grubby rubber on top, thanks to the combination of bald spots and patches of hair. My friends are very kind saying I am an elegant pencil, that I have a great shaped head from the side, but we all know there’s a big dent on the top. So as long as I never sit down, or take a flight of stairs, I reckon I can pull it off.
The best thing about cancer is the kindness. I expect this is not specific to cancer, but given I haven’t experienced any other life-threatening illness, I’ve only got cancer to go on. People are so damn good. It’s also the thing that gets you right in the guts. It’s the kind words, messages and gentle ways.
Because I was diagnosed not long before lockdown, people’s expressions of love have largely had to be limited to calls, texts, emojis and little deliveries. A breast cancer survivor from Wellington whom I’ve never met sent me a handwritten card and a silk pillowcase (which I now know is soothing on a bald head).
My neighbour three doors down has lent me her necklace to wear on my chemo treatment days, which she herself had worn on her chemo days three years’ earlier. A dear friend contacted wig suppliers to help me find a wig in the middle of lockdown when nothing is open.
And the lasagnes. So many lasagnes. I could write a book on lasagnes.
I can’t tell you how this story is going to end. Hell, I’m not even halfway through it yet.
As I write this, it’s the day after my second chemo infusion and I’m lying in bed with my laptop balanced on my belly. Everything hurts. Even my teeth. It took a lot to write this story, but if sharing it encourages even just one person to check their breasts and better yet, go and have a mammogram, then it will have been worth it.
You could wind up lucky, just like me.