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Discovery, Disbelief, Denial and Diagnosis

I was sure I would never get breast cancer: lung, throat, cervical or ovarian cancer maybe but not breast cancer. For a start my breasts were surely too small, I didn’t wear under-wired bras (no need to) and I used only the healthiest of deodorants. Nor were they what I considered a weak or vulnerable part of my body. Consequently I was not in the habit of regularly checking them but I was conscious of the benefit of doing so and did from time to time, more out of duty than concern.

It was one of these innocent, random occasions, while on my way to bed, that I discovered the small lump. My heart that had been joyfully expanding and rising with imminent wedding thoughts crumpled and plummeted. No, surely not! I was only checking, I wasn’t actually supposed to find anything. This could not be cancer, not a week before our wedding, that would just be too cruel.

I’m both an optimist and a realist so I pushed the worst thoughts out of my mind, focused on the best possible scenario and first thing on Monday morning booked a doctor’s appointment. I spent the rest of the week shuttling between the airport, picking up family and friends arriving for our big occasion, and various medical establishments for tests.

Beyond these necessary precautions I wasn’t going to let the lump occupy any more of my thoughts or time during my wedding. And I couldn’t have asked for a more glorious day. I loved every minute of it and I loved everyone who was there and most of all I loved DK and our kids. Our love flowed so abundantly that it seemed that everyone was infected and they all loved each other too.

When we’re not running retreats at our house we host weddings. On the wedding day the bride and groom become the centre of the universe as everyone present orbits around them, pulled like gravity towards them. It is always fun to watch but how much more thrilling to be the bright, shining orbs of light ourselves for those precious hours.

I rode high on this energy until the day came for the hospital appointment to hear the gynaecologist’s verdict. I was grateful for my friend’s chatter during the interminably long wait to distract me from my misgivings about the shabby state of the hospital facilities and my nagging thoughts. Finally we were ushered into the doctor’s office. After a laughable kuffuffle with the light box that wouldn’t work the gynaecologist, reaching out the window into the sunlight to see the mammogram images, declared that it was a cyst and would eventually go away of its own accord. You can imagine my relief. Thank you universe. I left promising I would return if the cyst grew.

I had been spared. I felt so grateful. This is what I’d wanted to hear so it was what I wanted to believe, despite a nagging doubt about the gynaecologist’s ready verdict. I continued to ‘believe’ the diagnosis over the next few weeks even though the lump grew considerably. Yes, she had said I should go back if it grew but she said it was a cyst, and apparently tumours don’t hurt and the lump did so that surely was another good sign. I let myself be distracted by the reflected joy of other people’s weddings and the flurry of activity as retreat groups came and left until Summer’s brightness finally gave over to Autumn’s subtle hues and rich smells and our season too started drawing to a close, and at last I was forced to give my attention to myself and that nagging thought: “what if it isn’t a cyst?”

Apparently denial isn’t such a bad strategy once you’re in treatment for cancer as it can help boost your survival prospects but it is not a winning strategy when you have an untreated lump growing inside you. Unable to put my doubts and misgivings aside any longer, and supported once more by good friends, I went back to the hospital with the hope that it would just put my mind at rest.

Great timing again! Literally an hour before we were about to set off for our ‘Summer’ holiday to Portugal I got a call from the gynaecologist, asking me to come back to the hospital. Informing her that that absolutely wasn’t possible she was forced to abruptly announce, “you have grade 3 cancer”. Well thanks lady, you told me it was a cyst!

What to do when someone tells you you’ve got a life threatening illness and you know you’ve had it for over 4 months, and you’re kids are excitedly chattering about beaches, swimming and ice-creams? When you run a retreat family time is precious and it was at least 9  months since just it had been just the 4 of us together. I looked at DK and I looked at the kids and I thought to myself that another 2 weeks wouldn’t kill me (happily then I had no idea what ‘grade 3’ cancer meant), and a holiday may just be what I needed rather than the hospital. So leaving the gynecologist to set up appointments I grabbed our suitcases, bundled the kids into the car and headed for the airport.

So what is the point of this tale? I guess it’s to pass on a couple of lessons. Firstly, I’m truly grateful to the breast cancer organisations that promote the need to self-examine for lumps: Coppafeel is a particularly favourite. If it were not for them I wouldn’t have found the lump when I did. I am sure they are saving lives. Nobody is invulnerable to breast cancer and if you are not regularly checking yourself then you could be at risk so please do so.

While denial is not the best strategy when it comes to having an undiagnosed lump, cancer takes a long time to form in the body and I believe that up to a point you can bide your time and wait until the moment is right to address it and you can take your time to digest a diagnosis and reflect on what are the right treatment options for you. So my advice would be don’t burry your head in the sand but don’t fearfully rush head long into treatment without taking the time to find out how, why, when and what’s right for you.

I never really felt anger towards the gynaecologist as some people have suggested I must feel. There didn’t seem much point in getting angry as it wouldn’t change anything. Perhaps, too, I felt I had colluded with her as I was happy to hear her diagnosis. I have to admit that in hindsight I did feel a bit foolish for not knowing at the time that to really be certain whether a growth is cancerous or not it’s necessary to have a biopsy. Live and learn! If you’ve got a lump get it biopsied as soon as you can. Some people argue that biopsies are dangerous because they can spread cancer, and I do believe they’ve got a point but if you’ve got cancer you’ve got cancer. I’d rather take the risk and know for sure what I’m dealing with than blindly go on being mis-diagnosed.

The other reason not to be angry was that I felt I needed to focus on what was happening right in the moment rather than dwelling on what had happened, and I wanted to keep myself in as positive a frame of mind as possible. I believe that being positive and keeping focused on what I could do rather than what hadn’t been done was a key aspect that helped me get through the following treatment as well as I did.

Having the love and support of my friends and family was the other essential element that carried me through treatment and beyond. The outpouring of love at our wedding was so strong that in that moment I couldn’t deny I was loved. Knowing this gave me the courage to reach out and share when I finally received the correct diagnosis.

More on this later.



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