The room felt like a bunker as the sonographer charted my interior. Outside, in a muddled Melbourne autumn, the wind buffeted the building edges. The air shifted, warm and shaken. We were buried away, with the heavy blinds down, in the dark. The gel was warm as she wiped it across my chest in preparation for the ultrasound. Her stiff hospital jacket felt clean as it pressed against my arm, the dark blue fabric starched and fresh. One breast, click, click, click with the images, then the other. She slowed, and lingered, and the clicking of her images stopped for a while as she searched the screen.
She readjusted her instruments, moving the transducer to a new angle. I also readjusted, my breath and my mind, feeling some sort of depth charge lightly glimmer, an implosion in my chest wall.
When she left the room, with barely a backwards glance and a lack of eye contact, I did wonder. The scan image was still up there on the screen. I looked at the blurred swirls of white, grey and black: landscape, seascape, substrata, shifting sands. I saw eddies and currents, depths and sand masses. I thought of home, and the sand dunes that were no longer there, of the seabed moving, water rising, light moving through different depths, bodies twisting, fish passing. I thought these things as I looked at the ultrasound of my breasts. I thought carefully about taking a photo of this mysterious scene. I did not. I did not want to own that scene.
Too bad. It owned me.
I know we have no claim on any days, but it’s one thing to be wiped out by a car at the lights and another to face the dwindling days consciously. It’s hard to know, to be so suddenly conscious of our mortality, and within that, to not know.
The mammogram and ultrasound reports came back a few days later: ‘highly suspicious for primary breast malignancy’; ‘hypoechoic irregular spiculated mass’. The printed words threw me into the swirling sea of my day in the bunker, when I had still been safe from knowledge, to now, adrift in my own topography.
In the car, I did a quick internet search. I did not want too much information. What does spiculated mean? How malignant is malignant? I learned that in Australia ‘the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer by age 85 is 1 in 8 for women and 1 in 651 for men.’ I also read that 80% of lumps turned out to not be cancerous. I quickly swiped away the browser. That was enough to focus on: the odds were with me; I would be okay.
The next day, the punch biopsy doctor drew out slices of cells in another darkened room. My
hand was gripped hard in a fist.
‘Clip, please,’ he ordered his assisting sonographer.
‘What are you doing with a clip?’ I managed to mangle from my rigid jaw. He told me he had
placed a clip in my breast tissue for the surgeon to track back to, if necessary.
‘Think of it like a buoy in the ocean,’ the sonographer said. A buoy in the ocean. I clung fast to the image, nursing the deepset metal staple, the life buoy that these words had given me. There was a period in the next hiatus–between the probing nails of the biopsy and the results of the pathology report–where I felt suspended in possibilities and not yet truly scared. I began to read fiction in a frenzy, with what felt like a naive trust in words to hold me safe. If life is unknowable, how can I make it feel known to me? Fiction anchored me as well as freeing me to dream.
The core biopsy report came back with the flag: high grade abnormal ductal carcinoma in situ, it said. Once the cells had been identified, the surgeon told me the growth and the ‘sentinel node’ of my lymphatic system would have to go. A bent wire would be needled into me, the lymph node would be injected with dye and then removed to analyse whether there had been transit of any cancerous cells – what story would it tell?
‘Sentinel node,’ I breathed aloud into his consulting room. Like a lighthouse, I thought. The sentinel node signalling transit, from one zone to another, alarms and currents across the body’s pathways. The metal clip, the needled wire, the nuclear dye all marking a path to the mysterious growth.
I was bobbing with my life buoy, just holding on.
In that time before surgery, I gulped air, grabbed friends, drove across town to eat my favourite pasta at Mario’s, drank wine at lunchtime, devoured books, hunkered down, celebrated those I love, gathered my girlfriends around me, saw my footy team play. It was a time where I felt love and hope and happiness–not dread or fear or ‘why me?’ but yes, this is me, and this stuff is what matters to me. Good days of fresh air and free life: fiction, footy, friends, French Champagne, cheeses, guacamole, quiche, red wine, open fire, open hearts, warm nights, candle glow, books, images, the thoughts of stories.
There was a period of days in the hospital after the surgery where my path was uncharted, not yet clear. Would there be more surgery, metallic chemicals and thinning hair? What would the sentinel tell us? Days passed waiting for pathology results.
I watched from my hospital window as cranes worked at building another wing to hold more patients; more operating suites where surgeons would carve their art, and stitch and repair, and send their mended wares out to wards for care. The crane lifted huge cement boxes, chains, sheets of iron, metal beams, all swinging across my view. Up high, in the cabin, the crane drivers monitored whistles and signs. In the room, the nurses took measurements and monitored lines. Who knows when we will be forced to meet the notion of our mortality? I had become part of a strange new universe, a world apart.
The nightmares that came one night trapped me flat, with my mouth opening and closing, like a fish mouth gaping, trying to grapple a sound from within. I had no voice; no sound came from my submerged throat. My body was then ripped under the bed, as if being assigned to the underworld, as if life would roar on above me. I lay rigid under the train tracks that were ploughing through a landscape of life, with me, buried, deep down and dark below, even below the ocean.
I slept then, for only a few hours, waiting for the surgeon’s words to knife me, one way or the other, the next day.
The results show we got it all.
There was no invasive cancer detected.
No cells have ‘jumped the fence’.
The lymph node was clear.
As he left the surgeon said: ‘You’re lucky. In 95% of cases where we see a lump like that, it’s
already invasive cancer.’
I came to the surface for air.
The CD of ultrasound images was sent back to me by the surgeon–post operative, post mapping. This landscape and these shifting sands had now been sliced open, dug out and stitched up. The sea and sand inside, the dark and the grey, the white and the wavy, the clear and the blurry. When I feel like it, I shall take a look at the images, see that world where I was immersed for the month of May. The month I may have had cancer.
There was still radiotherapy to get through, frying my breast and chest wall, right close to my heart, my lung, my ribs. I wonder if I’ll panic as the radiotherapy irradiates my flesh, as it wipes out the future plans of cells looking to flex their abnormal dark magic.
Meanwhile, I need to cling to the gentle hope and infinite gratitude of each day, knowing that others may not get the escape route that I have had. Now I want to make connections over the shifting landscape, the ultrasound topography of dunes and seabeds; I want to hold close those I treasure and look out for strangers around me. I want to hold hands with myself, the girl standing surveying the unfolding stratas, feeling sea winds and mountain breezes swirling around me with the memories of my past and the outline of my future. I want to grab that buoy in the ocean, extend my hand to others, dive under the next wave and emerge into the ocean and air, gasping.