BREAST CANCER. THE TERRORIST WITHIN
There’s nothing quite as uplifting a bit of good news on the breast cancer front. And the statistics released this week by Cancer Council Victoria is just that.
More Victorian women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are beating it, with 89% of them still alive after the magical 5-year survival period.
Image via teenytinyturkey on Flickr.
That’s significantly up on the survival rates some 20 years ago. The message now must be: “don’t let the better detection and treatment make you complacent”.
Just like there’s nothing like a bit of good news on the breast cancer front, there’s nothing more harrowing than being diagnosed. It’s literally a life changing experience, as anyone who has been through breast cancer knows.
I am amongst them. “Complacency” isn’t in my vocab.
I was 39 when a palpable lump appeared on my left breast. Breast cancer was the last thing on my mind, with an 18-month-old baby, a happy marriage and a great job. When my surgeon told me he was fairly sure we were looking at cancer, my reaction was: “What are you talking about? I don’t have time for cancer!”
In an afternoon, the meaning of “time” changed.
Looking back, it is hard to discern what was more harrowing: coming home to the hugs of a baby I wasn’t at all sure I’d be there to care for, for much longer? Having a big bit of my left breast cut out, along with a fair few lymph nodes to make sure there was no cancer in them? Undergoing radiotherapy? Dealing with chemical and surgical menopause? Battling incurable lymphedema caused by a small mosquito bite? Dealing with wanting my illness kept out of the public domain when I was a public figure but having Crikey assert that my absence from the ABC airwaves was because I had been removed from my position as host of The World Today?
One of the biggest of the battles was having to pretend, for years after surgery, that I was “back to pre-cancer normal” when I really felt that my body had been struck by a terrorist who’s evil I would have to forever be on guard against – when I no longer knew what “normal” was.
Surgery was really just the beginning. But as I learned, the surgeon can be the beginning, the middle and the triumphant victory over a torturous mind game.
A great surgeon is like winning lotto when you’re on your last kopek. Professor David Gillett was my lucky number. If not for his skill with a knife, his gentle personality, his willing me to health, his constant availability, and that he understood the mind game cancer plays, I might have gone certifiably mad in the years that followed diagnosis. Had anyone other than Professor Gillett and his offsider Catherine Kennedy known what was happening to me, they might have offered me a ride to a psychiatric facility!
Every pain I felt had me convinced that the cancer had returned.
I can’t even recall the number of bone scans I put myself through, every twinge in my aging body ushering in a new bout of paranoia. There were a few brain scans too, along with blood tests and cervical ultrasounds, few of which I would tell my family I was undergoing. With the cancer gone, I was meant to be “over it”, cured, recovered, wasn’t I?
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