The hardest weeks of my life waiting on breast cancer tests
By Grainne McCool @grainnemccool
I, like most women never thought I would have to worry about cancer. I am one of the lucky ones thankfully – but I now have had a glimpse of the greatest burden anyone can carry.
It was Sunday night on April 3 and I had just returned home from a two-night break with my husband. We had been in Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, for some well earned relaxation and some time for ‘us’. We often do this to escape the real world and just wrap ourselves up in our own little cocoon. I firmly believe that this has helped keep our marriage alive, fun and happy, after almost 24 years.
I took off my underwear in my own bedroom at home on that Sunday night, and discovered a rather large lump within my left breast. A sensation of real fear gripped my body and mind. This had to be a mistake. I can’t possibly have a lump in my breast. It’s taken me until now to accept that my small breasts are actually quite cool Growing up I always prayed they would grow and here I am now finding a lump.
I decided to say nothing that night to Paul. I didn’t want him worrying all night over what was most likely nothing. Monday morning came and I went to see the nurse who advised me to make a doctor’s appointment. I made this to fit round my work and arranged a GP appointment on Tuesday, April 5 at 3.10pm.
When Paul came home on Monday evening I told him everything. Immediately he went on the path of caring and reassuring. “Nothing is certain until it’s examined” he assured me. I knew I had his support and that he would do all in his power to make things better. Oh, if only it were that simple.
As always I’m early for every appointment. Personal or professional and even for healthcare. I arrived before 3pm and the GP was free. I went in thinking ‘stay strong,’ and I was able to maintain this in the surgery. As the doctor examined me, I could tell he was concerned. “There’s definitely a lump there” he said. Eventually he said that I would be referred to an ‘emergency breast clinic’ where I would undergo a full breast examination, mammogram, ultra sound and most likely, a biopsy.
Casually I put back on my clothes. Strangely at no point did I feel exposed or embarrassed sitting with this male doctor, topless. I thanked him, left the surgery, got in my car and cried…and cried. This couldn’t be happening to me. As I drove home, I put on the sunglasses and cried the whole way. Me – crying? I’m the one who remains strong for everyone. I’m the one who reassures everyone that life is for living and that one must always remain positive. I crumbled.
I was determined that I wasn’t going to tell anyone about this until I knew the outcome of the next stage of tests – apart from Paul, that is. Two of my sons have important exams coming up, and my eldest son was in the process of moving house at this time. They didn’t need any added pressure and I wasn’t prepared to land them with this.
Paul got home from work that evening, and teary eyed I explained all. He had wanted to leave work early and come with me to the doctors. I was adamant that there was no need for such fuss. Again he was reassuring, and off I went to my next student to tutor.
And so, it was a waiting game to get the letter and the appointment for the next stage. But the reality was, I was staring at the possibility of travelling the road no one wants to take. I wasn’t ready for this journey. My head was a mess.
As my alarm went off at 7am the following day, I jumped out of bed as normal. I think the hug I gave my husband just before that jump was a little tighter than usual. Maybe he noticed, maybe he didn’t. I woke my son for school and then I went downstairs and sat on my sitting room sofa and cried for 5 minutes. No one heard me. No one knew. But this is how that day started.
And then I knew what I had to do . I had to text my best friend in the whole world and just tell her. It was just after 7am. I knew she wouldn’t mind. I knew she’d be here in a flash if I so needed. Her words made everything alright. Her words set me up for the day.
And then I had to force myself to get into work mode and off I went, dry-eyed, make-up on, to the lecture theatre. I taught Leaving Cert English students by night and then I attended a dear friend’s mother’s wake before bed.
I bumped in to a friend. She said how much she envied the work I was doing and the passion I brought to my work. I stood and cried. I broke down. I had to tell her. This wasn’t part of my grand scale plan. Not that I had a grand scale plan. Somehow this was a great release. She reassured me that now I was in ‘shock’. Why hadn’t I noticed this? Me, the girl who uses words for a day job. I use words for everything but I hadn’t realised the word I’d been seeking for 24 hours to explain how I was feeling. I was in ‘shock’, and all of a sudden, a great weight was taken from my shoulders.
I may not have planned on telling this lady, or anyone else of my present troubles, but this was definitely meant to be. Shortly after this encounter, I told my wee brother, my partner in crime, also my best friend. I did it via text. I knew I couldn’t tell him over the phone. I would cry too much. His words were reassuring. And then I told my sister. My one and only sister. I cried as I told her. She was strong, but I saw the tear in her eye. I saw the emotion in her face. And I saw the support she immediately offered.
As the day drew to an end I felt a sense of strength within. I felt a sense of peace. I felt a sense of contentment. I worked until after 8.30pm that night. I arrived home at 9.30pm to a wedding invitation from my little cousin, the girl I see as my little sister. It gave me a renewed sense of hope, a renewed sense of survival.
And then I saw my husband building our new bedside lockers. He spent that morning building our new bed, the new bedroom furniture he had bought for us just the previous week. It was delivered that day. As well as working his normal day, he went that extra mile and saw that everything was taken care of in a fast, fashion. He’d even hoovered and washed our bedroom floor – something I hadn’t done in weeks.
So as I prepared for bed that night, it was with a much lighter heart, one that was grateful for all that I have in life. For the family and friends that I not only have, but treasure in so many ways, for the opportunities that my life had given me. And for the amazing people that I have beside me.
And so the waiting game went on. The doctor had told me days ago that I was being referred to an ‘emergency’ breast clinic. I waited for the post everyday. The letter never came. That day, nor the next day. That week nor the next week. I wanted to tell my parents but I didn’t want them having the worry we had. So I kept stump. Surely the letter would come soon.
Almost three weeks later the letter arrived. A family friend had died. Two friends mothers had died. An old school friend had died: all in the space of these three weeks. It was just horrible.
On Thursday, April 21 Paul and I drove to Letterkenny hospital just after 8am for my 9am appointment. On arrival at the clinic I felt at ease. Everyone was so lovely. Staff were welcoming in every way and there was no waiting around. I was immediately taken to the nurse where I was made to contemplate something I hadn’t thought on over the past three weeks. Two of my aunts, on both parents sides have had breast cancer but survived and are alive and well.
Suddenly I was made to realise that breast cancer is very much in my family. I hadn’t even thought on this until I was asked. Later that day, Paul told me he’d thought about it. My sister told me likewise. I’m so grateful I was so caught up dwelling on myself that I hadn’t realised this. My worst fears began to rise. I was then directed into the consultant’s office. He examined me and proceeded to tell me that the lump I presented with was replicated in my right breast at exactly the same spot as on the left. So there it was, I was dying!!! Or so I thought.
The mammogram and ultrasound were next on the agenda. Paul was inside in the waiting room and I seriously thought about going back there and just running away. But even I’m not that silly.
It was time to return to the consultant for results. I was told I’d have a biopsy also, so I was waiting to hear when that would be done. The consultant sat me down and explained that they had discovered a number of lumps. I began to sweat. I felt faint. ‘They’re all cysts,’ he then told me and assured me that that meant nothing sinister. ‘You won’t be needing a biopsy and we’re happy that there’s nothing to worry about.’
Hang on, was he telling me I was going to be OK? That’s exactly what he was telling me. So me being me, I began asking questions. ‘Why do I have cysts? What causes cysts? The poor man said, that most people are so relieved they just want to leave on getting this news. I explained that I write for a living and I needed answers to all the questions floating around in my head.
I got my answers over the following ten minutes and eventually felt confident and elated enough to rise and leave. I thanked the doctor and told Paul we were going for coffee. The poor guy still didn’t know what was happening. As we walked out the hospital door I explained all that had happened since I saw him one hour previous. Suddenly the sun was shining brighter and the sky a very powerful shade of blue. I said a little prayer of thanks and I took my husband’s hand as we walked to the car. Hell, life was looking good. Hell, life was looking great.
But as we sat in Café Blend on Letterkenny High Street sipping coffee, I thought about those other women waiting to be examined. I thought about the women who might not leave hospital that day with the news I got. I cried a little, quietly for them.
I learned I am no exception to the rule. There’s not one of us getting out of this thing called ‘life’ without turmoil and worry. I learned that I have to start taking each day as it comes and enjoying each and every one to the best of my ability. I learned that tomorrow is certain for no-one. And tomorrow will not be here for everyone. I learned that I’m not as strong as I thought I would be when something sinister comes knocking on my door. I learned that I have the best husband in the world. And I learned that I have a life to live. And hell, I’m going to live it.
Please learn to check your breasts on a regular basis. I thought my small boobs would never get lumps. I’ve learned that big, small, round, it doesn’t matter. Thankfully nine out of 10 lumps are not serious. But there’s always that one which will be harmful. Protect yourself as best you can by checking your breasts regularly and at the first sign of a lump, go to see the doctor. I did.