herald

Saturday 25 October 2014

Just six weeks after a routine check-up, I went under the knife for double mastectomy

I UNDERWENT a routine mammogram on Friday November 2, 2012. "Hello"? I answered cheerily, when the phone rang at 2.20pm on the following Tuesday. "Mary, this is the breast clinic. We are recalling you ... "

Instantly and most uncharacteristically, blood draining right out through my toes, I wept unrestrainedly -- desperate, despairing tears which continued, unabated, for almost 24 hours.

In hindsight, I know that my total breakdown was a premonition. Some primeval instinct informed me immediately.

The dreary November dawn saw me weeping forlornly. How could my familiar kitchen appear so normal? How could my cat sleepily stretch and slowly rise as usual, front paws firmly extended, his glorious, green eyes greeting me?

I realise that the Sacrament of the Oils is not for everyone. However, my local priest administered it that first, frantic day and, as in previous similar experiences, calm, peace and acceptance descended like balm and has remained and sustained me through what is unquestionably every woman's worst nightmare.

A terrifying, mind-numbing roller-coaster of mammograms, ultra-sounds and biopsies followed.

"Is it surgery?" I inquired of the doctor performing the biopsies. Gazing at the screen, she nodded. "Radical?" I asked. "No."

She shook her head emphatically, adding that a small lump would be removed from the right breast, similar to one extracted four years ago from the left. Relief!

The relief was short-lived. All results proved inconclusive. Following more extensive procedures, the double-axe blow was finally -- but strangely unsurprisingly -- delivered on November 23.



Joyous

I am susceptible to "calcifications" -- potential cancer spots. (For the record, I should point out that my parents or seven siblings have never contracted cancer).

A cluster on the left was invasive. A mastectomy was required because radiotherapy was not possible, having had that four years previously. The spots were scattered on the right, plus a definite lump.

The surgeon, and the entire team, felt that a double mastectomy was necessary rather than removing spots here and there.

Age matters to some people, but is immaterial to me in all circumstances. Although in my 60s, I am vibrant, joyous and feminine. The horror of what was to befall me was as shocking as if I were 30, although I appreciate others may view it differently.

My lifetime's practice of living in the moment -- whether of joy or grief -- enabled me to take one day at a time.

CT scan, bone scan, cardiograph, blood tests and all pre-op procedures were done as an out-patient in advance. All were perfect. I checked in at 7.30am on the day of surgery, Thursday December 13. Amazingly, I remained serene.

Following three-hour surgery, plus an hour in recovery, I experienced no pain, merely soreness. Not brave enough to shower the following morning, I washed quickly, asking the nurse to bathe there. Next morning, I bit the bullet and ... surprise! No shock/horror descended as I gazed at what I anticipated would be absolute mutilation.

So, that's it, I thought: simply a neat line. I figured psychological trauma would pole-axe me, but it hasn't. Acceptance, for me, includes honest acknowledgement of occasional feelings of loss.

Although a public patient, my treatment was excellent. Because of various health issues, I've been in the system for 17 years and am unfailingly accorded the highest respect, with superb treatment.

Prior to discharge on Monday, I was fitted with a temporary soft bra until prosthesis-time. Surprisingly, I looked decidedly 'normal'.

Reconstruction is an option, but I don't fancy further complicated surgery. Plus, anecdotal harrowing stories abound. Maintaining correct posture is vital, as is exercising the arms to prevent fluid build-up.

My brother-in-law's funeral was three days later. Relatives and friends thought I was an apparition, that I had invented the entire episode. My recovery was truly remarkable.

Friday was D-Day: results. For 15 minutes beforehand, I lived in the moment of frozen, speechless fear.

The surgeon entered and immediately sang out: "Mary, it's all good, good, good. No follow-up treatment required."

Those words sounded better than any symphony and then came tears of pure joy. And a big hug for him.

Draining residual fluid continues weekly. Within three weeks, I was driving again. So, rock on!

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