When something has upset me I find it almost impossible to get it out of my mind. Idle remarks that seem snide, work snarl-ups that mean rearrangements, unexplained silences from people I care about, these kind of things can revolve around and around in my brain. I like to get things fixed and sorted and it troubles me to be forced to tread water in ignorance. It’s not surprising, then, that the impossible choice between six months of uncertainty or a procedure that seemed horrific took up every available inch of my head space. I couldn’t read or write or think, sometimes I felt barely able to move, my mind was so full of a choice I couldn’t make. ‘You of all people should be able to distract yourself,’ my husband told me. ‘Read your books, write about something. Take your mind off of it for a while.’ It was as likely as the lump disappearing overnight. But the difference between adults and children is that we have resources, and that means we can find ourselves a measure of control. When the terrible fears come, the ones that remind us what it felt like to be so utterly vulnerable, we might not have the child’s pure courage any more, but we do have knowledge and experience and a whole range of support. I told a few more of my blogging friends, who instantly sent me the kind of messages that strengthened my moral fibre, I rang the clinic and spoke to one of the care nurses who described the biopsy in less lurid tones and assured me its great advantage was that it was over very quickly, and I went back to my GP and asked him for some sedatives for the day itself. But oddly enough, the one resource I most needed, and the one I would never have anticipated being so valuable, was simply time. As the days passed, days I spent doing small, easily accomplished, mindless tasks, following the patterns of a life that was not mine but something borrowed and rather ill-fitting, so the extreme anxiety receded to the margins, to the early mornings when I awoke groggy but full of tension, to the dying of the light when my heartbeat quickened. But gradually I won back the passage of the day itself and found within it enough perspective to view the procedure as unpleasant but not necessarily traumatic. And so I booked myself an appointment.
I wish I could say that the newfound calm I experienced over those days lasted until I had to go once again to Addenbrooks. That it sustained me through the anticipation, held me in the waiting room, carried me through the procedure. It didn’t. The morning of the biopsy found me almost incapable with terror. I had to break the event down into its component parts. If I could just get to the hospital, I told myself, I’ll talk to the doctor again. I don’t have to do this, I can say no. This time my husband took the day off work and drove me there, but when they tried to usher him into the treatment room too I vehemently waved him away. My husband is, if anything, more squeamish than I am, and I imagined that the sound of the thud as he hit the floor was hardly going to calm my nerves. This time I had a young, Chinese doctor, very jolly and exuberant with the kind of English that is not perfect but seems somehow more expressive for the faults, and a Sri Lankan radiologist. I was determined not to regress to that awful child’s place of passive horror and so to begin with I sat on the couch and we discussed exactly why this biopsy was necessary. ‘We think you have a fibroadenoma,’ the doctor said. ‘If you were teenager or in 20s we wouldn’t dream of having a biopsy, but at your age… there are some cancers that mimic the shape, you could be extremely unlucky. You could come back in three months time, when you’re young the cancer grows fast, and we can monitor. My wife, she had the same thing, and she’s a doctor so she really didn’t want the biopsy. She waited the six months and then she still had it done because the level of anxiety never went down.’ ‘It’s quick,’ I said, swallowing hard, ‘right?’ They both nodded vigorously. ‘Very quick.’ At this point I was tested again, with a new piece of kit the doctor was very pleased with (‘you’re only the fourth person to have this done!’); it produced a three-dimensional image of the lump to help doctors check for the tell-tale hooks of malignancy. ‘It looks fine. It’s a tiny chance for you,’ the doctor said. ‘But if you have the biopsy you wait a week, get the results, it’s fibroadenoma, happy, happy, you go home.’ I tell you, I almost left again, but I couldn’t bear the thought of having to go back. Saying ‘yes’ was incredibly hard, I could barely get the word out. But I did.
There was a move to change rooms, but something in my eye, some spark of pure fear that must have hinted I might make a break for it if I saw an exit made the radiologist suggest we could go ahead in our current location. ‘This is our new wing,’ she said proudly. ‘You’ll be the first person to be biopsied here.’ I tried to feel suitably thrilled. In the event, of course, the procedure itself was not so bad. The doctor told me afterwards he’d doubled the anesthetic and I certainly didn’t feel any pain. But it wasn’t exactly pain I was afraid of; it was the symbolic dimension to the act that had dominated my thinking about it. Over the past few weeks I’d been obliged to recognize how much I live in my imagination, how much meaning I layer onto every event. My mind embroiders so thickly over the material world that it is quite hard for me to experience reality in an immediate way. The event itself was not much, but the thought of a doctor piercing my breast, directly above my heart and extracting my flesh while I lay passive and conscious had seemed intolerable. After all, the word ‘trauma’ means, originally, the breaching of the skin. As it was I lay with my eyes screwed shut and my MP3 players clamped to my ears, gripping the radiologist’s hand and trying to be elsewhere, I felt very little, except a trickle of blood running down my ribs, once, which I had anticipated with awful trepidation might tip me over the edge but was not so very terrible. Then I had the doctor’s face leaning over me ‘It’s over,’ he said. ‘All over.’
Well, it sort of was. The doctor left, the radiologist explained about the dressing, and when I went to get up, I realized I couldn’t. I felt absolutely awful, dizzy and sick and completely unable to get onto my feet. ‘You stay where you are,’ the radiologist commanded gently. ‘I don’t want to have to pick you up off the floor.’ I tell you, that woman was a star. She then sat with me for the best part of half an hour while I tried to pull myself together; she chatted to me in a calming, soothing sort of way, fetched me water, lifted up the head of the couch a few notches at a time to get me accustomed to the horizontal, found my husband who was not particularly surprised by my state of collapse, sent him off for the car and helped me on my still unsteady legs to the main doors. I looked about ninety years old, which evidently made me a great curiosity to the waiting room full of elderly folk we had to pass through on the way out. ‘I’ll never forget you,’ I said to her as we inched towards the doors. ‘I was lucky to have you there today.’ She looked at me with a truly lovely smile. ‘Latch,’ she said, ‘my name is Latch. You won’t forget that.’ And tenderly she helped me into the car, as if I were recovering from open heart surgery rather than the tiniest nick in my chest.
And so it was back to waiting again. ‘If you were my wife,’ the jolly doctor had said, ‘I’d say forget it! Let’s go to Paris!’ I did forget it for about 48 hours, while I calmed down and allowed myself the sheer relief of having got through the procedure. Without much grace, it had to be admitted, but I’d got through. I managed not to worry too much, not even the day before. But the morning of the results, surprise, surprise, my adrenaline levels were into the red and it was difficult once again to breathe. I kept repeating to myself that I was being unreasonable, perverse. Everything was on my side, all the tests I’d had, my diet, my family history, my age… but it seemed as if I wasn’t on my own side. Perhaps I couldn’t believe I could pass a test I hadn’t studied for, perhaps I couldn’t shake off that narrative sense of a twist in the tale, perhaps I just didn’t trust in the possibility of a happy ending for me. But I couldn’t shake off the sense that I still didn’t know and that uncertainty was equal to dread. And I was so tired of anxiety, so very weary of manning the barricades in my mind and battling negativity day after day. I wasn’t sure that I could face any more ordeals. Back in the waiting room of the clinic for the third time, I struggled to keep a hold on myself. A few rows of seats away a white-haired lady sat reading a Wordsworth classic edition. I don’t know what the novel was but she read it so serenely, with a constant smile on her lips and I concentrated hard on her, mirroring her posture, trying to soak up her calm. My name was called and I went into another of those multi-purpose rooms. A nurse came in and sat up on the bed and it felt like a bizarre sleepover rather than a serious interview. You know the answer by now, don’t you? Even though I didn’t until I finally heard it. ‘You’re fine,’ she said, ‘let’s get that out the way quickly.’ At that point I really astonished myself by bursting into tears; I never cry before strangers. Instantly the woman abandoned the bed and came to sit beside me and pat my hand. She gave me a leaflet on fibroadenomas because ‘you’ll be trying to remember what I’m saying and knowing that you’ll forget it all!’ I had the same sensation as I’d had before after the biopsy, my head reeling and my knees weak, but no way was I staying another half hour in the clinic. I walked out into the fierce sunshine, a free woman. My husband was waiting in the car and I got in and burst into tears again. Another surprise because I don’t normally cry before him if I can help it; as a good Englishman he finds emotional women very scary. But later on he said he though it was sweet because he knew it meant I had finally found closure.
Although of course I still carry the lump in my breast, a material reminder of how life sullies us, of how we become more and more impure as the years pass, how our bodies begin to fail and our minds are cluttered with disquieting experiences we don’t know how to assimilate. I wonder a great deal at the moment how to label this story, which drawer of which mental filing cabinet I ought to place it in. Is it a tale of survival, or is it a story about excessive anxiety? Is it a moral lesson in which I learn that the reality of experience must be distinguished from the fantasies that surround it? Or is it a practical lesson in containing fear, a task at which I have never been skilled? All I know is that I need to extract some sort of positive kernel from the mess of feelings and emotions, because this, or other events like it, could easily happen again, and if I have been through it once it must be to ameliorate and inform the future, not to fill it with nameless dread. But I’m not sure how to do that just yet. After the tsunami of relief I see just a lot of floodwater and a great deal of rebuilding to be undertaken. One thoughtful friend suggested a book to me, a recent release by Dr David Servan-Schreiber entitled Anticancer, which is a plan for lowering your risks of cancer written by a doctor who survived a brain tumour. Diet and exercise are the main ways we increase our chances of staying healthy, but there are other, more nebulous if powerful factors. He describes how, extraordinarily, some cancers were healed when their owners sorted out the conflicts in their lives, when they removed their unnecessary stresses and found peace. These are the guidelines that I take with me as I look uncertainly ahead and wonder what to do for the best. I feel as if this whole episode flung open a Pandora’s box inside my mind and for six long weeks now I have been struggling against the horrors that were unleashed. But like the myth, when all the ugliness and pain and misery have long dispersed, there may still be one small voice left that will crawl, blinking, into the light, and it will be called hope.