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  • Writer's pictureSurviving Breast Cancer


By Susan Angoy

I booked a private mammogram for 12:30 p.m. on October 20, 2021. This was just to be on the cautious side, you understand. It had been three years since my previous scan, and there was a backlog in the NHS screening program due to Covid. One of my sisters had been diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer earlier in the year, so I thought I should have a scan. I had been experiencing some pain in my right tit and underarm, but of course, everyone knows that you don’t feel pain from breast cancer. Or so I (mis)understood. A regular routine scan is what I thought I was going for. After all, it couldn’t happen to Susan. No sirree! Susan and her tits were invincible. Weren’t they?

I sat in the waiting room of the clinic, waiting for the radiologist to review my mammogram before getting the all clear that would allow me to skip off to do a spot of shopping. I had not been to Selfridges since pre-Covid days so I sat making a mental list of what I might treat myself to. I planned to indulge in some retail therapy. So certain was I that the technician would come to let me know I could leave with a report of immaculate and healthy tits, I was looking forward to my shopping trip – not an activity I normally enjoy.

I was thus unprepared for the nurse who came to tell me that the consultant radiologist wanted to do an ultrasound and physical examination of my perfectly formed elevations. Even those words failed to alert me to what was to follow. “Have you lost weight recently?” the kind nurse asked me. You’d think that by now I might be a tad anxious, but no. After all, Susan was invincible. As it happened, I had lost a little weight, but that was because I’d been experiencing a lot of nausea, headaches, and weird dizziness, so I had been eating very little for three weeks or so. I put those symptoms down to some bug I must have picked up. A nuisance, but nothing to be concerned about. I was so unconcerned that I failed to mention any of this to the nurse.

What followed was the start of the nightmare I continue to live through. Not a nocturnal nightmare confined to sleeping hours, but one that envelops my every waking moment. I don’t sleep much. In fact, I’d say I hardly sleep at all.

“I think you may have a carcinoma in your right breast, based on the mammogram, ultrasound and my physical examination. There is a palpable mass that looks very suspicious and not one for which I can immediately find an alternative explanation. I’m very sorry to tell you this. You understand, I have to tell you.” Those were the consultant’s words. He went on to explain that I would need to have a biopsy to confirm his suspicions, and to indicate the grade and stage of the tumor and to identify its receptors. I stared at the doctor. I heard the words, but failed to fully take them in. For a change, Susan was speechless. You hear stories of people being in shock when receiving bad news. Now I really understand the meaning of those words.

He realized I was in shock and gently explained my options and next steps. I could remain within the private sector; alternatively, they would immediately refer me back into the NHS. Given that my local hospital was University College London Hospital, I would be assured of excellent and swift treatment. He went on to say that if I were his relative, his advice would be that I should be treated within the NHS on the urgent Cancer Pathway 2-week referral. He advised me that his report would be with my GP within half an hour and that I should contact the GP that afternoon. I agreed that this would be the best option and left the clinic.

I left. But I was still the deer caught in the headlights. All thoughts of retail therapy had vanished from my brain. I wanted to cry but couldn’t. My only action was to order an Uber to get me home as quickly as possible. Although it was only 2:00 p.m. I wondered if I should mix a stiff gin and tonic to steady myself. But even that was impossible. The damn nausea I was having made it impossible for me to drink anything more than a glass of water when I got home.

From the moment I got back, things moved very quickly. By 3:00 p.m. my GP, Dr. Jessica Baron, rang me, having received the report. She told me that she had already sent the referral to UCLH on the Cancer Pathway, but asked if I wanted to come in to talk to her and to be examined. All props to my GP practice, the James Wigg Group Practice and especially Dr. Baron. I saw no point in any further examinations and didn’t want to waste her time going over what I’d already been told. She explained the process in a caring and gentle manner. She told me that it looked like it had been caught early and that I shouldn’t worry too much. There were excellent advances and treatments available. Only part of my brain took in what I was being told. 

If I had experienced nausea in the weeks before that date, they were nothing in comparison to what I felt listening to her words. The reality was gradually penetrating my consciousness. The unthinkable had happened. My precious tits had been attacked and a major assault would be forthcoming. The following day I received a phone call from UCH Macmillan Cancer Centre to book an urgent appointment in their breast clinic.

Immediately after taking that call, I went online and bought a series of expensive and very sexy bras. I had no impending “hot date” or specific reason for buying them that day. But somewhere hovering in my brain was the thought that perhaps time was running out for me to wear my favorite items of lingerie. Funny how such trivial things can come into your mind at the most serious moments.

A very senior medical friend and my oncologist cousin talked to me about the excellent survival rates for early-stage breast cancer, how treatments have advanced – including their side effects. They spoke of how surgical intervention could be minimal if caught at a sufficiently early stage, etc. They may be eminent physicians, but they are both men. How could they understand? I heard the words, but my brain looped back to my thoughts of decades earlier. 

I am not a young woman at the start of her emotional and sexual life, but I am a woman. I am a woman who has been a widow for two and a half years and have just started getting my life back together again, making plans for my future. I am a woman who has recently begun to take tentative steps towards breaking a long period of celibacy, hopeful of forming new attachments and having adventures. These are difficult spaces to navigate at the best of times. I feel out of step. I’ve forgotten the rules and the mystical ways of attracting and engaging with others in a romantic and erotic context. Now this. Why?

How could I ever be the same again? I might stay alive, but what would that life be like? Would I still feel feminine? Would I still be desirable – to myself, let alone to anyone else? What will my body look like when the surgeon, radiation, and drugs have finished with me? Will I still feel anything? Anyway, how does anyone know it was caught “early enough?”

At times, I rage. Other times, I weep. At times, I feel vain and petty worrying about these issues when the medical teams are focused on my survival and trying to reassure me about the curability of early-stage breast cancer. Other times, I think of women whose cancer has not been detected early. But none of that changes my reality.

A few days after that phone call, I sat in the UCH Macmillan Cancer Centre in Huntley Street, London. I sat on the same seat where I’d spent nearly three years, from 2015 to 2018, waiting with my late husband for his appointments. He had been diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer and died in the Hampstead Marie Curie Hospice in early 2019. I looked at the cheerful bright mosaic floor in the waiting area and those years came flooding back as if they were yesterday. Not only was I living my own reality, but I was catapulted back into all those weeks, months and years of anguish and grief. This time, I sat alone. Waiting.

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