This proved to be one of the hardest parts of the book to write, which surprised me. I tried several times to approach this chapter and several times I had to defer and continue on with a part of the story which didn’t bring me to tears – or threaten to, every time I started to type. When I began the process of organising chapter headings and correlating research I immersed myself in the nuts and bolts of writing, the fact that I had had cancer became just another part of the story. As a songwriter, I understand the process that can engulf you when your creativity fires; that is what happens when the practicalities and working routine takes over. The process and necessity of putting down the words becomes a normal thing – a routine which lulls you into the familiarity that a habitual activity brings. Diagnosis shook me and brought me back to another place – a vulnerable and uncertain place that I never wanted to return to. Piecing together the events and emotions as precisely as I could recall was very tough; re-living those weeks had to be done but it took time before I was able to face it again.
Although the doctor had not been overly worried when he had examined me at the end of July, it had still been a ‘rush-job’ to get the tests done.
It was a sunny day on the 1st of August 2008 when I had my appointment to see the consultant to discuss the results of my tests. My family were with me. I had an ultrasound and I was fairly upbeat while the whole process took place. With hindsight, I can see that when the oncologist saw the results – there was a quietness about her – that’s all – she was a professional. When she looked me in the eye and told me I had a large tumour – almost 5cm in width, I stared at her incredulously – despite what all my instincts had been telling me. In those seconds, you still don’t want to believe it…and it felt as if was someone else sitting in that chair – like an out-of-body experience. Denial was dead!
My girls, my husband – and me, all cried – what else are you going to do? We were taken to a kind of ‘bereavement room’ where we were given time to take it all in and process things. Again, I can’t remember what we said but when the MacMillan nurse, Sue (a wonderful woman) came back in, she said: “I have high hopes for you” I asked her why she said that… she replied: “Because I’ve never heard laughter coming from this room before”. This was confirmation of
something that I instinctively knew; that I had to take come control – at least control over how I handled what was happening to me – that’s all the choice any of us really has – whether we like it or not. We can CHOOSE how we respond.
Shortly after my diagnosis I had to go to hospital for a procedure known as a sentinel node biopsy which would tell us if the cancer was in my lymph nodes – important as at the time, it was thought to be an indicator or whether the cancer had spread. The lymphatic system works a bit like a ladder network and the sentinel nodes are the first to receive lymphatic drainage from the tumour; this makes it the first place cancer is likely to appear if it has spread from the original site. The assumption being that if it is not present in the sentinel nodes then it is unlikely to be further down the ladder in the lymphatic system. There is some debate now as to how accurate this is. So, it was thought to be a pretty good indicator none-the-less. The bad news is that this procedure involves injecting a radioactive dye near the site of the tumour and the dye flows through the lymph ducts to the lymph nodes. Photographs are taken to identify the first lymph node to receive the dye. This lymph node is then removed. In total, I had five lymph nodes removed because it is a ladder system and the thinking is, that if cancer has not spread to the lower ‘rungs’ of the ladder, then it is a good sign that metastasis has not taken place. Having lymph nodes removed means that you are slightly more at risk of lymphoedema and it also means that you must not lift very heavy objects after having and recovering from this procedure.
The picture, they said, was one of the clearest they had ever seen. My new- found ‘cancer sister’, Jane, who was with me for the same thing (we’d been diagnosed at the same time) unfortunately, had to have the procedure done twice as her pictures were not clear enough. The radioactive dye had travelled through my lymphatic system really well and the identification of the sentinel lymph node to be removed, would be easy. Again, I say, laugh whenever possible…..because that is the reason my picture was so clear. My husband and daughters were with me when I lay statue-still for the twenty minutes that it takes for the dye to travel through my body. I can’t remember now what we laughed about – only that we did. Laughter is a release for awkward situations; I know this because as a five-year-old, I laughed when I was told that my grandfather had died – it wasn’t that I thought it funny – it was just an instinctive response – not socially appropriate – but a natural attempt to limit the damaging hormonal response of high stress levels.