“I’ve got shitty news for you.”
And indeed it was. Yet all I could think of was I’m missing Days of our Lives for this. How crazy is that? I think that was my brain trying to give me something normal to focus on. Although being addicted to Days of Our Lives is hardly normal (thankfully I’ve since kicked that habit).
The shitty news was that I had breast cancer. I had discovered a lump in my right breast in bed one night, purely by accident. My husband Michael and I were mucking around. No, not the funny kind. Just having a laugh and a bit of a wrestle. I was lying on my stomach and put my full weight on my breasts. It was then that I felt something hard in my right breast.
I rolled over, grabbed Michael’s hand and to his delight, said “here, feel this.” He groped at it, much like most men do when they’re lucky enough to have a breast thrust into their hand.
“No, not like that.” I said, grabbing his hand. “Just run your hand over that area there”. I directed his hand to where I could feel it.
“What am I feeling?” he said.
“There’s a lump.”
And of course there was. I was in shock initially. The doctor detailed the next step, another operation to remove lymph nodes, and handed me paperwork for checking into the hospital. (I do have to mention here that my doctor’s delivery of the news may have been dry and blunt but I have never doubted his ability to keep me alive.)
The next thing I remember was sitting in the passenger seat of my car, with Michael sitting in the gutter next to the open car door, holding my hand, as much for his own reassurance as for mine.
“Cry if you need to,” Michael said, squeezing my hand between his. My silence was harder to handle than the expected tears in this surreal situation.
“I’m okay. Let’s just get home. We can ring everyone and let them know. It will be alright.” I’d switched into practical mode already.
There’s one thing I remember that someone told me at the time, and it’s something I’ve repeated to many. You always handle your own illness better than the people around you. It’s so true! People around don’t know what to say, how to help, how to just be there. So instead you have to show them. “I am strong. I can handle this.” So they can too.
I decided that the only thing to do was to be positive and that way everybody around me would be too. They basically would not have a choice. If I refused to feel helpless or sad then they shouldn’t feel that way either!
After the surgery I was told I would need radiation treatment and chemotherapy. The idea of chemotherapy scared me and for one reason alone. I hated throwing up and if anyone was going to throw up it would be me. I have a vivid (or should I say technicolour) memory of me on the Hurricane ride at the Newcastle Show when I was about fourteen. I threw up my hot chips and raspberry Icee all down my pink jeans and probably on several heads below. To this day, I even steer clear of the ferris wheel.
I was also told I could lose my hair. Surprisingly, thankfully, I didn’t lose my hair or throw up. Nevertheless, I came away from that experience with a keen awareness that my body had delivered me a cruel blow but also a strong belief that I was a very lucky woman. Lucky to have made it to the other side, but also lucky to now have the chance to live a life where I would never hold back on speaking my mind and expressing my feelings, especially to the special people in my life.
Then my body failed me again. Seven years later almost to the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer again, this time in my other breast. This was a more sinister seven year itch.
Once again, numerous phone calls followed. Michael mostly made them and I spoke to a few people, mainly to reassure them, all of them commenting that they were meant to be reassuring me. I had switched into positive mode again, although still frightened.
Surgery and treatment followed again. I still remember vividly everything about my first treatment. I remember looking at other patients having their treatment, thinking they looked so comfortable there, with their knitting, their magazines, their books, their loved ones beside them, and thinking I don’t want to be comfortable. I just want to get it over and done with and get out of there.
As the first of the treatments, a bright red liquid, went through the drip and into my vein, I tried to imagine it was just red cordial, with a kick.I was assured I would more than likely be sick. Huh! I thought I would breeze through. Oh how naïve! After that first treatment it was only a matter of hours later I started to vomit. Back to the hospital for me where I was given a very special new anti-vomiting pill. The way the new pill worked was that it tells the vomiting centre in your brain (yes, we have one of those in our brain – strange but true) that you don’t really want to vomit after all. So you get the nausea but you don’t actually vomit. The constant nausea, the desire to be sick, was in some ways far worse. I survived the week after each chemo on omelettes made from fresh eggs from the neighbours’ chickens, Icy Poles and Frosty Fruits.
After the first treatment my lovely thick hair started to fall out. I went to see Michael’s best mate, Steve, who is a barber, hoping he could tidy it up. (I wasn’t going to a salon – after all, I wasn’t after a style cut.) But huge chunks were coming out in his hands, so I just said, “that’s it, cut it, shave it, get rid of the lot!” And Michael, being the devoted husband that he is, did the same! We must have looked a pair, walking out of the barber shop, with our bald heads. I hadn’t planned ahead and there was a storm brewing as I crossed the road to my car. The wind had picked up and my bald head felt very cold and vulnerable.
The funniest thing was when Dad came to see me when I was having my second treatment. I hadn’t warned him that all my hair was gone (I’d only had it shaved the night before) so he was a bit shocked when he came to visit his daughter in hospital, only to see this bald woman sitting in her bed!
I had declared that if I lost my hair I would not wear wigs. I wanted to be glamorous! I wanted to be like Princess Whatshername from Monaco when she suffered from alopecia. I would wear brightly coloured scarves and funky hats. And so I did, thanks to the donation of scarves from family and friends, and thanks to the nifty sewing skills of my wonderful Mum, who made me reversible hats to match any outfit and any mood. Of course, I also wore bright clothes, jewellery and make-up, all designed to brighten up myself. Who knew that something so simple could make you feel so good, on the outside and on the inside! And once again, who would dare worry and fret over me when I wasn’t doing any worrying and fretting over me!
I made it to the other side again, and I’m still there. There’s lots of things you learn from cancer. It is true what the doctors say. All of the things that can happen when you have cancer may not happen to you. I’ve got two very different experiences to attest to that. But there’s one thing that doctors rarely tell you. It will most certainly make you a stronger person, in more ways than you can possibly imagine. I am living proof!
Author Linda Mueller