Why I seldom check(ed) my breasts
I’ve watched two very good friends die of breast cancer. Up close.
So close, in fact, that I held the hand of one when she drew her final, ragged breath. For years, I’d watched her fight for her children and her life — most definitely in that order — while pain dictated its harshest terms. While nausea rack her body over and over with relentless tenacity. I saw her hair go and come. And go again.
Until she was warned her days were numbered to within a couple of weeks. They were right. It took ten days. She didn’t slip away. She struggled until released. I watched her pain-free, emaciated body welcome death and relax.
Yet her death terrified me. Not because I was there, that was a privilege — but because breast cancer could happen to me, too.
At that time, I was newly-married but childless. The luxury of irrational panic was all mine. There is no breast cancer in my family, but so what? I could be the first to visit the wigmakers. Or shuffle to the bathroom attached to a drip, a puking shadow of my former self. For the sake of my mental health, my gynaecologist signed me up for biannual mammograms. Bless him.
Ten years later, the here we go again began with a distraught call from a good friend. Her children were roughly the same age as mine. She, too, fought with every short breath left. Two days before she died, we nattered in the chemotherapy ward while she received the liquid poison that had prolonged but ultimately did not save her life. On that summer’s day, hooked up to oxygen and suffering from deathly cold feet, she talked about her plans for the following week and the coming autumn. Neither of us thought to say goodbye when we said see you soon. We truly believed that we would.
And my well-rooted breast cancer phobia morphed into a greater fear of rendering my children motherless.
Since then, another ten years have passed. My children are grown but still need their mother. Heck, I still need mine. And do I want my daughters to check their breasts? Absoboobylutely.
But truth be told, I’m still terrified of checking my own. Of being shattered by discovering the unspeakable. The moment I attach a mammogram appointment letter to the fridge, the fear sets in. What if? Eventually, a white envelope marked Oncology Department arrives with the results and a rush of relief. I shove all breast responsibility to the darkest recesses of the ostrich enclosure. Until next time.
I’m not stupid. I know I should check myself between mammograms. No intelligent woman living in the western world could possibly remain unaware of the huge rise in the odds of survival if the cancer is detected early. I know all this. I even know several breast cancer survivors. Personally.
But when standing in a hot shower, breathing in the bliss of a favourite shower oil and planning my day, I could never risk the horror of finding a lump or pucker that could put me in harm’s way and possibly six feet under. I’d rather enjoy another carefree day and check tomorrow.
Which is stupid. Short-sighted. Dangerous. And arguably irresponsible.
Yet completely understandable. Because the fear of breast cancer is one which I suspect I share with many women. Because we’d all rather enjoy another carefree day.
Last week, I received a mammogram appointment. It’s on the fridge. And in the shower this morning I had an hallelujah moment:
The road to breast cancer survival or death is the same road. But the earlier we set off, the greater the chance we have of arriving in daylight not darkness.
In other words, procrastination won’t save me from the outcome of the diagnosis. Not unless I refuse treatment, which as a mother I feel I have no right to do. But early action might save me from the outcome of the disease. It’s my new way of looking at an old fact. I’m screwed either way. But if pain and nausea must be endured, I may as well tip the odds in my favour by setting off early.
So this morning, I decided to grab my fear by its lady balls and score a win for self-esteem and common sense. To prod and feel my way to higher survival odds by learning what normal feels like and thereby equipping myself to recognise change or abnormal. And earn the right to look my daughters in the eye when I urge them to develop a breast-checking routine.
So, fellow fearful. When did you last check your breasts?
Asking for a friend.
Who might be you.
So we all have a greater chance of living to tell the tale.