Disclaimer: This blog is in no way a substitute for professional medical advice. It is based on my own thoughts and experiences and I urge you to see a doctor if you have any concerns regarding your health.
TW: Please note that mental health issues and medical procedures are discussed.
THE QUEEN AND THE CAT
Schrödinger’s Cat. A paradoxical thought experiment where a cat is sealed within a box with something that could potentially kill it. Until it is directly observed, the cat may be perceived as being simultaneously dead and alive. Much like the fateful feline, I could not move forward until my fate was revealed.
As the next morning came, so did the sobering reality of what lay before me. My puffy, tear-stained face and sore head were mere reminders of the dizzying few days I had experienced. But that was nothing compared to what was to come.
I’d be lying if I said that I could recall everything that came next in great detail. I had all but checked out at this point, and life had become a sickening rollercoaster. Going through the motions with every twist and turn hoping that I wouldn't succumb to the intensity of it all.
Before long, I was back at the GP sitting within the memory of my initial consultation. My usual doctor was back and treated me with sympathy regarding my recent diagnosis. My mental health was of great concern to her as only a couple of months earlier I had been briefly hospitalised for a severe panic attack. She also encouraged me to continue seeing my psychologist as I would likely need her more than ever now.
That same week, I was to meet with my Breast Surgeon. I was already acquainted with him as he had performed a hemi-thyroidectomy on me barely four years earlier. Back then I’d had a cancer scare when a rare tumour was found on half of my thyroid. Luckily for me it was benign, yet the surgeon’s knife was unavoidable. With half of my thyroid gone forever, I knew all too well how things might play out.
I wanted to project an air of confidence so I dressed up and donned my golden Queen Cartouche earrings. They were inspired by my love of Ancient Egypt and spelled out “Queen” written in hieroglyphics. A symbol of empowerment. As I was greeted by his Assistant, I noticed a gleaming gold cartouche necklace around her neck. Was this a sign? It was so oddly specific that I couldn't look past it!
“Oh this?” she said as I enquired about its origins. “I went to Egypt with my daughter and we both bought cartouches with our names on them. It was an amazing trip.”
Her story made me smile and suddenly romantic visions of Egypt filled my mind. Perhaps things would be ok after all. Then my name was called.
My surgeon sat me down at his large wooden desk and brought up the report from the radiologist, complete with photos of my tumours. There they were, staring back at me with all of their dark malice. It didn't seem real. It couldn't be real.
He drew a diagram of my breast and added the details of the three shadows that now hung over my head. There they were in brutal black and white. Numbly, I listened as he discussed all of the concerns regarding their appearance. Their spiculated edges and texture were hallmarks for cancer. Cancer itself was identified in the time of Ancient Greece when physicians believed the jagged tumours resembled a crab, hence being named Cancer.
Words like chemotherapy and radiation were being thrown around and I digested them with bitter resolve. However when I heard the word mastectomy, I felt myself react viscerally. No way I said to myself. No way in hell. My breasts were part of my identity as a woman and I was going to fight to keep them.
My Mum and Husband noticed me stiffen in my seat and I emotionally pled my case to my specialist. I would do anything I could to save them.
“In all honestly with my mental state, I don't think that I could look at myself in the mirror and cope if I lost them. I just couldn’t.” My eyes welled as the panic set in. He looked at me with sympathetic eyes and nodded his head.
“Yes, you are young and I can understand where you are coming from. It is a deeply personal decision. Depending on the cancer itself, we might have more options available.”
He outlined the next steps which involved an MRI and core biopsy to see exactly what we were dealing with. As quickly as the words were uttered, urgent appointments had been made. Within a few days, the hidden cat would be revealed.
Before long, we were on the road again. I could barely remember who I was anymore. Mum rode with us and kept trying to remind me that doing whatever the doctor said was the right thing to do. I didn't doubt her reasoning, but I was also going to do my own research so that I was as informed as possible. It was also my coping mechanism.
The sleepless nights were filled with the Google equivalent of Alice in Wonderland. Down every rabbit hole I went in search of answers that might never be found. I felt both overwhelmed and dismayed by the large variant of breast cancers there were. You think you have some idea of what’s out there, but reality can make fools of us all.
I was very angry at this time. I was mad at myself and mad at the world. How long had this cancer been lurking within me? I didn't want to be treated like a freak show, all I wanted was to be like everyone else and live my life.
The morning of the biopsy came and I found myself at the breast care centre. I had dressed brightly to lift my mood and encourage a positive outcome. As I hesitantly approached the reception desk, my eyes spotted a familiar sight. Could it be? The young woman sitting behind the counter was wearing a gold cartouche necklace! This had to be a sign!
“I love your earrings!” she said to me brightly. I smiled and told her how much I loved her necklace and she regaled me of her Egyptian journey. “I don't normally wear it to work but today I felt compelled to!” Her unexpected words gave me hope that this was indeed a positive sign.
I changed into a plush white robe and sat in a large waiting room with Mum for my name to be called. I looked around at the other women of varying ages and wondered if they were as nervous as I was. Next thing I knew, I was being ushered into a dimly lit room reminiscent of my recent scans. I laid on a bed and met my ultrasound technician and specialists that were to conduct the procedure.
I have a lifelong phobia of needles so I was dreading this. I gave them my usual spiel of being a fainter and hoped they wouldn't have to deal with it. They were kind and joked with me to take my mind off things. The ultrasound tech scanned my breast as the first injection of anaesthesia was administered and they made a small incision.
The discomfort was as you would expect and I did my best to breathe through it to prevent my light-headedness. I looked up at the ceiling and noticed the beautiful butterflies that had been thoughtfully placed there. As the hollow biopsy needle was inserted into my breast I heard a distinct click like a pen as they took their sample.
“Breathe Shannan, breathe…” I told myself as they repeated the process several times for the large tumour. Two more injections were given and just as many incisions made as the smaller tumours were sampled. The specialist remarked that the larger tumour appeared to be the least suspicious of the three which gave me some comfort as I wished to fly away with the butterflies.
Once the procedure was over, I was ushered into a private room to recover before leaving. As I sat groggily in the reclining chair, I looked down at my swollen and patched breast. I held an ice pack against it and took a moment to reflect on where I was. I just had multiple biopsies taken on my breast to assess their potential malignancy. This was heavy.
It was the late afternoon by the time I left, and my specialist had told me she would call in a favour from a Pathologist colleague to assess my biopsies promptly. It was the Australia Day long weekend and they wanted my results ASAP. I was due to see my breast surgeon on Wednesday.
That night I tried to be kind to myself and rest without spiralling. But yet again I ended up consulting Dr Google for its ‘sage’ advice. As usual, it lacked a reassuring bedside manner. But I had regained some hope as the cat was still in the box.
Saturday morning came quickly, and as I awoke, the memories of the previous day flooded back as my swollen breast ached. But today was going to be a good day. I was having a catch up with some of my oldest friends to listen to Triple J’s Hottest 100 countdown as we had done for over two decades. It was to be a day of music, fun and laughter and any worries I had could take a backseat until my MRI the next day.
I dressed myself like a woman who was defiant of her plight and determined to enjoy life. For a moment I felt like I could breathe again and just be me.
Then my phone rang.
I glanced at the illuminated screen and saw my breast specialist’s name emblazoned across it. I suddenly felt sick. I raised the phone to my ear and answered hesitantly. It was too soon. It was Saturday. This isn't right.
“Shannan, I have received the results of your biopsy…” my breast surgeon began. I felt panicked and numb all at once and steadied myself on my bathroom towel rack.
“I’m sorry to say but you have three malignant tumours in your breast, and you have Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. You have breast cancer.”
The towel rack came loose from the wall and made a loud clang as we both hit the tiled ground. My surgeon asked if everything was ok and I feebly replied yes. My head was spinning. This can’t be happening. This can’t be true.
After the conversation ended I pulled myself off the ground with the weight of my diagnosis heavy upon my shoulders. I glanced in the mirror and saw my carefully applied makeup trickling down my cheeks as tears stung my eyes. This was it. There was no escaping now.
I left my room and heard the voices of my family cheerfully chatting in the kitchen as they awaited me. My Dad had come to stay with us and help out with the kids due to my multiple upcoming appointments. He asked if I was ready to go to my friend’s house as he was going to drop me over there. I looked at him and asked both he and Mum to sit down.
I sat down unsteadily on the couch with them either side of me. Then I told them the news.
My Dad grew silent and Mum started to cry. I hugged them both and we sat for a moment absorbing the revelation. It was real now.
The ride to my friend’s house was filled with silence and contemplation. A million thoughts ran through my mind as I tried to compose myself. Dad was more or less quiet as he focused on the road and the numbness consumed me once more.
Dad walked me to my friend’s gate and tearfully told me to call him when I was ready to go home. I hugged him tightly and went to see my friends. Their smiles greeted me with hope as they knew what I had been through that week. I gave a weak smile and embraced my best friends as if their hugs were holding me up.
“How did it go?” they asked me apprehensively. I sat down and shook my head. “I have breast cancer.”
My friends shared in my grief and asked me questions about what had happened. I gave them as much detail as possible and opened my first beer. Despite this news, I was determined to enjoy today. I wanted to do something normal before life as I knew it fell apart.
As the day wore on, I found myself repeatedly flitting between fun and fear. As more friends arrived, I reluctantly burdened them with my sad news. To their credit they were all amazing, but they didn't know what they could do for me. But what could they do?
As I lit a cigarette I laughed mirthlessly at it. It was a comfort to me, yet a symbol of what was wrong with my life. Should I quit? Why? Am I worried that I would get cancer? The cruel irony was not lost on me.
My friends were having a wonderful time as they spoke of future plans. Then it suddenly dawned on me that I couldn't join in on this fun. I was sick now, this was my life for the foreseeable future. I bitterly resigned myself to my fate and went home to get some rest before my MRI the next morning.
Later that night, I found myself alone for the first time since hearing those fateful words. I had known deep down that I had cancer, but to actually be told was something else entirely. I cried helplessly and vented all of my conflicting thoughts and feelings to myself. There was nowhere to hide now. The box had been opened and the cat was dead.
Thanks for reading! Until next time...