The last day of school. The mums stand around in knots, discussing camping, the weather, the holidays, the new ‘no-extra-holiday’ policy. I am with a few who are discussing the Big Forty. Yes, quite a few of us this year are turning forty. Which means we need to do something special. One suggests jumping out of a plane. Sky diving. The Dartmoor Challenge. Something big and daring. Something to remember for the rest of our lives.
I stand there, not really wanting to participate. I’m not sporty enough or daring enough to jump out of a plane. I’m planning a quiet birthday. No party. Probably just a meal out with friends. I have no idea that I too will do something very big, very very big for my fortieth.
The Unhappy Breast
It’s been a while that I’ve noticed something different about my left breast. The first time was when I finished breastfeeding my firstborn in 2007, my breast shrivelled up. I used to joke about it, how it puckered like a prune while the other one looked so cheerful. Breastfeeding changes the body, I was told. Slowly, she came around and stopped looking so sad. She geared up for the second round of breastfeeding. I found it odd that both of my babies never really took to the left side, always preferring the right one, leaving the left angry and envious once again. But this time she didn’t sulk in a corner. She decided to internalise, and soon there began changes within that weren’t apparent to plain sight.
Fast forward to 2014, and I am busy, so busy I don’t notice anything unusual. There’s the children to look after, the debut novel to polish and finish for publication, summer school teaching Chinese undergrads at Plymouth University and usual arguments with husband. But in the midst of all this, I notice my left breast has gone into a sulk again. Not a sulk, she’s quite upset. The nipple appears darker, sunken and puckered. There are no lumps. No matter how I poke and prod, I don’t feel anything. And yet, I feel her unease. I feel her anger.
So one morning, on my way to work, I call up the GP surgery. Of course I know I won’t get through. They are always so busy, and my class begins at nine. I give up and go to class. We are doing a project. We are discussing Scotland and cutting up cardboard boxes to build the Edinburgh Castle.
We eat lunch at the cafeteria. Chicken curry and rice. Naan and salad. Brownie. Very nice. I have to gobble my food so I can get my bus back home.
My bus is late. As I wait around, there is an urge from inside. Something inside is telling me to call the surgery again. I resist. I feel fine. The curry has made me feel warm and satisfied. The bus isn’t here still. So I make the call. I mention a lump so that I am seen to quickly.
Within a couple of hours, I am at the surgery. There’s a new GP and she examines me. She says she can’t feel any lump. There’s nothing untoward, but yes, I am right in saying this breast looks a bit different. It’s completely normal to have this differences. Breasts change with age. With motherhood. But she still refers me to the hospital. Just to make sure. Just to cross out any probabilities. Armed with the referral, I return home.
Abnormalities of the breast are looked into very quickly by the NHS. On my way home that very afternoon, I am offered an appointment at the hospital ten days later. It’s on a Friday morning. Damn, I think. I’m going to have to miss class. I’m also going to have to miss the full English breakfast provided on Fridays for the teachers and students of the summer school.
My husband will be away on an important conference the week of the scan. I don’t tell him what’s happening. My mother is here for the summer. I don’t tell her either.
The 15th of August. Such an irony that on India’s 67th Independence Day I am told such news that will take away my own independence for a while. Or for life. I’m not sure yet.
I make my way to the hospital on Friday morning. It’s a beautiful summer’s morning. The sun is shining. The sky is clear, and people are happy and smiling on the bus. I feel that’s a bit odd as it’s the bus that goes to Asda and to the hospital. Soon I am there. I dodge past the smokers who stand ceremoniously by the ‘This is a smoke free site’ and enter into the bowels of Derriford Hospital. I am no stranger here. I’ve given birth to my second child here. I've been to the fracture clinic. And visited the ENT with my firstborn. I admire the knitted patchwork quilt that has forever adorned the charity shop on the way to the lifts. The cafe smells good and reminds me again of the full English I have missed.
I have to go to the Primrose Breast Care Unit. I like that name. It sounds delicate. It also sounds sturdy, a place for survival. I know this from the abundance of primroses that grow through the cracks of paving at the front of my house. They survive in spite of my vicious attacks on them. It feels good to know this.
But still, I don’t feel anxiety. This is a routine test. I will come out feeling relieved. I will go on with the rest of my life. I even contemplate lunch with the students if I finish the examination early. The room is very busy this morning. Women of all ages sit around the comfy orange and green chairs. There are lots of magazines strewn across the various tables. Mostly women’s. I wonder how a man will feel if he has to come in for a check up. There is a man who’s come in. He looks worried, and he doesn’t have a magazine to disappear into. There is a lot of chatter, coming in and going out. Names being called. Some take longer to come out. Some come out looking like they’ve let out a deep, long breath and now rushing to catch up with their morning. Some come out in tears.
I wait. I want this over and done with. I flick through Good Housekeeping and remind myself to get lots of colourful cushions for the settee. They make a house a home, I’m told. My name is called. I always know when my name will be called because the person always comes out with a file, looks at it and hesitates. They probably say it once in their mind, by which time I know it’s me. By the time they stammer out a ‘Mrs B-Bh-’ I’m up and walking towards them. I feel sorry to give them such a hard time. My name is not easy to say even after a few drinks.
I’m seen by a breast surgeon. He examines me quickly and deftly. He marks a few circles near the nipple and says I need to go back and wait for the mammogram and ultrasound scan. I ask the nurse if there’s a long waiting period. She says yes, perhaps a couple of hours wait. While I settle back in my orange chair, the only man comes back out. He smiles at his partner and says its all clear. I feel happy for him.
Within twenty minutes I’ve had a mammogram and am ushered in for a scan. The ultrasound technician makes me comfortable and smothers cold gel on my chest. She peers into the screen and says there are no lumps. I exhale. But wait, can you see the little speckles all over the breast tissue? I look. Yes, there are tiny spots all over. It’s called calcification. It’s an indication of cancer or pre-cancerous tissues. She does a biopsy. Suddenly, everything’s changed. The C word has entered the vocabulary. I’m not enjoying this conversation anymore.
What do I tell at home? I ask. What should I tell my husband? He’s away and I don’t want to freak him out. Tell him the truth, the technician tells me. It’s serious enough. But yet, we are not sure until the results. She leaves the room, and the nurse attending cleans me up. A little white lie won’t help, she smiles. There’s no need to tell him everything now. He can’t do anything about it. I feel better. Yes, it won’t help anyway.
I wander back to the cheerful waiting room and hide inside a magazine. My eyes roll back into the head for a split second and I find myself trembling uncontrollably. This is unreal. This isn’t really happening to me. But it is. I square my shoulders and walk out the door. I don’t need to panic yet. The results are not out. It could just be pre-cancerous and that can be taken care of. I make my way to the exit. I meet the mammogram technician on the way out. She’s finished her shift probably. She walks beside me, and I can see she wants to hold my arm. Or pat my back. But she doesn’t. She tells me instead to sit down and have a cup of tea in the cafe. It’ll do me good. I nod and say goodbye to her. But I don’t stop for a drink. I just want to go home to my children.
Too much chocolate is a good thing
The days pass in a whirl. The university course is keeping me grounded, occupied. I don’t think much about my condition. I haven’t even cried since the time at the hospital when the nurse asked me how old my children are. When I said three and seven, she replied ‘oh, then we must take care of you and make you better.’ That’s when I cried, briefly.
We had planned a holiday with the family once my husband was back from India. Bristol Zoo. The London museums. Cadbury World. Battersea Home for Dogs. And then I get a call that the surgeon would like to meet us on the 27th with the results of the biopsy. So we need to cancel one of the places and go home a day earlier. Battersea is the unlucky one.
It’s a good holiday. I love London We do the Natural History Museum. Science Museum and a bit of the V&A. Not one to pose for pictures, I find myself taking a lot of photos with the girls, selfies even. I think I’m trying to keep images for the girls to look at later. Maybe I’m preserving pictures of myself when I am whole. I may not be very soon.
At the science museum, Miku drags me to the exhibit of the human baby and says in her usual loud voice, ‘mummy, that’s me in your tummy. When I was being born, I was peeping through your belly button and saw Baba. Then I popped out and flew straight out to him.’ Everyone smiles. I tell her to talk softly. They are fascinated by the container full of human blood. The dinosaurs are a bit of an anti-climax. The children don’t care about the bones. They like the ‘real’ one roaring and stomping at the end of the room.
London is great because there is such a huge choice of Indian food. After the educational and cultural hunger is satisfied at the museums, we rush to Southall to satiate the needs of the stomach. Dosas. Idlis. Indian Thali. If one has not eaten these delights, I urge you to do it immediately. I might even cook for you in exchange for lifts to the hospital!
Cadbury World is a chocolate lover’s delight. We gorge on so much chocolate that for that day we are oblivious of everything else in this world. We have to return to the hospital tomorrow. I suck on the spoon full of warm, melted chocolate. Life is so good today.
So we meet the surgeon on the 27th. She’s got the results and I’m afraid it isn’t so good. The tumour is definitely cancerous and because of the large size, a mastectomy is the way forward. Lots of technical terms fly about. I cannot make sense of anything. Grade 2 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. That’s what I have. Somehow I feel better it has a name. I wonder how I never got a feel of its present beneath my skin? Sitting there quietly all this time. What did it have in mind?
There is a date free on the 4th of September. I am offered it for the surgery. We say yes immediately. Just three days before my 40th birthday. At first, I am devastated. But then I think, what a lovely birthday present. A cancer free body for my 40th. I think I am good at psyching myself, and I feel proud of myself.
There’s lots of phone calls and discussion at home. My 7-year-old can feel something is going on. We haven’t told the children anything yet. What do we tell them? I cry at the thought of breaking the news to them.
Ro is tearful and being difficult. I know it is playing on her mind. So my hubby gets the book Mummy’s Lump and we sit down to tell the children a story. It’s a family story telling session, with my children, my mother, my husband and me sitting together, eagerly listening to the story as I read it out.
The story is about a lump that grows in Mummy’s breast, and she needs to have it taken out. I tell them one of my breasts will be removed in a surgery in a few days time. Little one asks, you mean, they’ll cut it off and it can run away on its own?
Yes, it will be removed but it cannot run off.
Then who will take your tete? She asks, cuddling up to me. She squeezes is reassuringly.
Older one says, The tete man.
That’s a good idea. The tete man will take it away, and keep it safe.
Then there’s the one about chemotherapy and losing the hair. Ro is reassured because she knows about this.
So you will wear a scarf like X, and then when you are better, you will come back to school like her?
Yes, I say.
That’s alright then. Will you wear a wig?
Yes, I might.
What colour would you suggest?
Mummy, I want you to wear a different colour on every day of the week. Rainbow colours. (By now you should know who’s suggestion this is!)
By now, we are all laughing and imagining me in funny wigs.
But that night, as I tuck them into bed, Ro has a question she wants to ask, but can’t.
Mummy, are you going to -? Are you going to-?
I look into her eyes. No, sweetheart. I’m not going to die. I’m going to be alright, just like your friend. And I’ll come back to school.
I see the relief wash through her body. She closes her eyes and goes to sleep.
I have a pre-op assessment. The nurse says I am very healthy, and I find that such an oxymoron. I pass the tests with flying colours, and on the 4th of September, I am scrubbed and ready for my operation. We get to the hospital at 7am. The assistant surgeon meets me for a chat and reassures me my lymph nodes are fine, they’ll take only a couple out to test. He draws an arrow indicating which one to operate on and then we wait.
Finally I am called up. For my Indian folks, NHS is very different from Indian medical system. This is like a conveyer belt. Everyone is in a queue and we keep rolling from one procedure to the next. I am second on the list for surgery that day, which is good as by 9 am I am in, ready for general anaesthesia.
The anaesthetist asks me all sorts of questions, which he says is normal for them and weird for me. Like, what is my name? Are you sure I am the same person as my name? He asks the other nurses is she sure she is the same as on this form? I am made to point to my correct breast, they check the arrow. They ask me to sign I am not pregnant and again, indeed I am the person who needs to have the mastectomy of the left breast. Yes, yes yes. I am given a prick of the needle and then, I sleep.
When I wake up, I am aware I am probably missing a part of my body. There’s an oxygen mask on my face and a nurse by my side. I want to see my husband, who I know is pacing up and down some corridor somewhere and tell him I’m back. Soon, I am whizzing through corridors myself towards the recovery ward. It feels like a Formula One race, manoeuvring through tricky bends and all, and I feel quite motion sick.
I’m in a ward with three other women, and I am groggy, and want to sleep. But I cannot. I feel if I fall asleep I won’t be aware of what’s happening to me, I’ll pull off the drain, or some such thing. So I fall in and out of sleep. I’ve made a whatsapp group for my family and friends. I text them that although a bit asymmetrical now, I am fine.
I stay in the ward one night. And what happens there deserves a novel not a mere few lines mention on this blog. Two women on opposite beds discover they were opposite each other two years ago when they had their babies. They talk non stop throughout the day, trying to up each other on everything. They start with their medical problem, then their babies, then their partners and finally at midnight, when I am contemplating telling them to shut up, one of them says: I have a ghost in my house who sits on me some nights. My daughter can see him and it freaks her out.
The second one says: oh, that’s nothing. I have a poltergeist in my previous house. It flings my boyfriend’s training weights around the room and we have to dodge them. We’ve sold that house and moved to another one.
I lie back and listen. This is better than paying for TV.
Another funny coincidence. Most nurses on the ward could pronounce my name correctly. Bhattacharya is not easy to say. But did so proudly and I thanked them for the accuracy. They asked if I am related to Dr Bhattacharya at the hospital. I’m not, I say.
Much later, I get to know Dr Bhattacharya, and I jokingly thank her for making my life easier at the hospital. She says that one colleague of hers had got confused that she had been admitted to the ward and asked her how she was doing?
She realised there is another Bhattacharya around (we are a rare breed in Plymouth) and she wanted to come up and meet me. But I had already been discharged.
Bhattacharya has left the building.
Next ... As my mother thinks of each procedure as a stage, this is the end of stage one: The Surgery, Stage two is what happens after surgery and before the chemo. With a fortieth birthday thrown in for entertainment!