WHAT HAPPENED NEXT... [book extract]
Thursday, 15 March 2012
TUESDAY, 26 MAY
I had an appointment at St Mary’s this morning for an ultrasound scan. Nothing unusual about that. I’m not normally one to miss out on the chance of a morning hanging around in a hospital waiting room reading half a copy of OK! from September 2007 and stickybeaking at all the other patients, trying to figure out what their particular ghastly disease or disability might be. I’m always popping into St Mary’s or Charing Cross or Hammersmith Hospital or the Cromwell for a scan or X-ray or something. Broken fingernail? Quick! Book an MRI!
This morning, however, cuddles with Nick held me to the bed like magnetic honey. Finally guilt and a sense of civic duty prised me from our nest. All those posters admonishing the general public about the cost to the taxpayer (me!) of missed appointments have done their job with me. With many sighs and lingering backward glances I left Nick propped on the pillows reading the International Herald Tribune online and drinking a nice cup of tea.
'See ya,’ he said lovingly.
A nice-looking registrar sought me out in the waiting room.
'Miss Jones’ he asked, 'would you be willing to take part in the trial of a new diagnostic machine?’ He described a device that claims to detect tumours by infrared or sonar or some such method.
How could I refuse? I’d get to have a scan and advance the cause of medical science at the same time. I signed some papers and he ushered me into the presence of a white-coated consultant, Mr Haniotis. Over the years I have learned that it is proper to call doctors 'Doctor’ but surgeons are called 'Mister’, don’tyaknow.
After a brief chitchat I half undressed behind the screen. Mr Haniotis applied the device. It made some thrumming sounds. Then he examined my breasts by hand. He filled out some forms.
'Okay, we’ll just send you up for a mammogram and an ultrasound.’
'But I haven’t come here for a mammogram,’ I protested.
'Oh, it’s routine, everybody has one.’
That statement felt unconvincing. Somehow I suspected that the National Health Service does not, as a matter of course, give out free mammograms to every hypochondriac malingerer who trips across their threshold.
I have always heard that a mammogram is very painful, especially for those with small-but-perfectly-formed breasts. Well, in my experience, it’s not true. There’s a certain amount of awkwardness involved in angling one’s torso so that one’s tit may be sandwiched flat between two sheets of clear plastic whilst one’s jaw and cheekbone are crushed up against the back-plate of the machine and one’s shoulder blade is wrenched backward to facilitate one’s arm being twisted around behind one’s waist. But that’s all fairly routine stuff for a yoga bunny like me. And, of course, there is the sartorial pain of having to wander the public corridors robed in a hideously patterned hospital gown with half the tapes missing.
Next stop was the ultrasound. I lay still whilst some chilly goo was applied and then looked at the pulsating swirl on the screen wondering, as I often do, how anyone can make head or tail of it. The doctor doing the scan was French. And a woman. That’s all I can tell you.
She looked at me and said, 'There is a tumour here and in my opinion it could be malignant. I’m sorry but I have to tell you this now, because I need to do a biopsy of your lymph node right away.’
Somewhere, far away, a mind that was not my own thought the following thought: Who on earth is she talking to?
The next thing I knew she inserted a long needle into my armpit. I don’t think it hurt particularly, but I started to cry.
I dressed and returned to the breast clinic to wait whilst they emailed the findings to Mr Haniotis. The waiting room was now full. I looked around for a chair but somehow I couldn’t really comprehend the information. My eyes relayed pictures of vacant seats to my brain but my brain couldn’t figure out what to do with the images. I stood in the middle of the room staring helplessly this way and that. Finally I plumped down next to a striking black lady with an elaborate hairdo. I guess the autopilot said, 'Sit next to the most stylish-looking person in the room.’
It seemed that half the waiting room was for people having blood tests whilst the other half was for the breast clinic. Suddenly I felt too exposed. I wished all the blood test people would go away and leave us breast clinic people to ourselves. We have serious things to worry about, like possible malignant tumours. Who cares if they’re feeling a bit tired? Why don’t they just go for a little lie-down?
The elaborate hairdo lady put her hand on my arm.
'There’s nothing that Jesus can’t heal,’ she said. 'It is God’s will that you are to be well, healthy and whole.’
I gaped at her like a malignant carp. She handed me a photocopied sheet titled Healing and Jesus Loves You. She reached into her capacious handbag and pulled out a full-sized hardback Bible. She opened it at one of the many pages marked with Post-it notes. She began to read.
'He Shall Call Upon Me, and I Will Answer Thee, I Will be with Thee In Trouble, I Will Deliver Thee, and Honour Thee ...’ I wanted to throw myself into her arms and weep. Of all the people in the waiting room, I had had the good fortune to sit next to someone who wasn’t embarrassed to extend a hand of kindness; someone who had the courage to show empathy. Maybe it wasn’t her hairstyle that my autopilot was attracted to after all.
'Miss Jones,’ called a voice. Back in the consulting room quite a crowd had gathered. Suddenly they were all being very nice to me. I took that as a bad sign. Mr Haniotis did another needle biopsy, this time from my breast.
'We’d like you to come back this afternoon for your biopsy results,’ he said. And I thought to myself: Surely you mean 'please come back in three weeks and hang around for two hours and then we might deign see you’?
'What time?’ I said.
'Oh, whenever is convenient for you.’
I took that as a very bad sign.
I don’t remember driving home. I don’t remember parking the car. I do remember walking in the door and seeing Nick, still propped up in bed with the laptop and another nice cup of tea.
'Hey darling, how’d it go?’ he asked brightly.
This morning my life changed completely and forever.
Five-thirty p.m. I’m back at St Mary’s in the waiting room. It’s quite empty now. Nick is with me. We don’t have to wait long. This time my name is called by a nurse who turns out to be lovely and named Suzy. She is the breast care nurse.
Mr Haniotis doesn’t waste my time. He confirms the worst straightaway. I have a malignant tumour. It is 31 millimetres in diameter.
'Quite small,’ says Mr Haniotis.
I hold up my fingers in an approximation of the size. It seems quite huge to me.
'We can get you in for surgery in three weeks,’ says Mr Haniotis.
I was seriously ill in my twenties and I am self-employed. Those two factors conspired to get me to do the one and only sensible thing I have done in my life — that is, to get health insurance. I don’t know how, but I managed to pay that subscription even when I was homeless and on the dole. I’ve paid it for twenty years. It’s the power of fear, I guess.
'I have Bupa,’ I hear a small voice say.
'In that case I can do you next Wednesday at Harley Street,’ says Mr Haniotis.
Now he has to do a punch biopsy. Surprise is the tactic here. I probably shouldn’t tell you how painful this procedure is in case you ever have to have one yourself. If I had known in advance I would have fled the scene and taken my 31 millimetre tumour with me.
Then we all crowd around on the chairs in the little consulting room and Mr Haniotis asks me if I have any questions. I can’t think of a single one. Nurse Suzy hands me a bunch of leaflets. I feel sympathy for the medical professionals. Although they must break the bad news to patients on a regular basis, somehow I doubt that it ever gets any easier. Not if they are human, which these two definitely appear to be. In my experience, when people give one leaflets it’s because they too are at a loss for words.
Fortunately, Nick knows no such reticence. He has gone into a sort of verbal panic, firing off questions in a scattergun kind of a way. 'Will she have to have a mastectomy?’ No, it will be a lumpectomy. 'Will she have to have radiotherapy?’ Yes. ‘What about chemotherapy?’ No, they didn’t find cancer in the lymph node. 'What about diet?’
I hope that Nick will be able to cope with the reality of what may be ahead of us. Although I’m grateful to him for doing all the talking, I put my hand on his knee to quiet him. We all look at one other in silence. Then Nick pipes up with a final question.
'She will be okay, won’t she?’
'Oh, yes, she’ll be okay,’ replies Mr Haniotis, as if he’s only just thought of it.
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