I had an awesome day at work playing the X-Box with an eight-year-old patient, trying to distract him. I laughed out loud when he said, “You know the more you keep trying to trick me into talking to you, the more I’m going to beat you?”
I loved my job.
The Children’s Cancer hospital where I worked never had any phone reception. It drove me particularly crazy this day during Easter 2010, as I’d been waiting for a call back from my doctor to give me the results from the biopsy on my breast lump. He’d promised to rush the results through before the public holidays, in two days time. I’d booked a flight home to visit my family for the long weekend. When I booked the flight, life was different.
I expected my results to be unremarkable. I’d had breast lumps before that turned out to be nothing, just cysts or fatty tissue. I called for them, because that’s what you do when you have a test. Just a formality. Ticking a box.
Never one to rest on my laurels, I had to rush that day from the hospital to my private practice. While crossing the busy road in front of the ambulance station, I came back into range and my phone beeped telling me I had a message. I called the message bank as I walked to my car thinking I could tick off another ‘to-do’ list item on my way to work. Nothing could’ve prepared me for the voice-mail I heard.
“Hi Jodie, it’s Dr Bullock. I’ve scheduled an appointment for you to come in tomorrow morning to talk about your results. See you at 11am.”
With eyes and mouth wide open, I could hear my heart that now felt like it was in a tightening vice. I walked towards my car as if sinking in quicksand. What did that mean? Do I have cancer? Fucking fuck. I have cancer. I am going to die. Who the frick leaves a message like that? I called the clinic. Answering machine. Oh God. Please do not be on holidays already. Do not shit me. My head felt heavy as my peripheral vision blurred, leaving only a small tunnel of focus. I needed answers. Frantic, I called my husband. I wanted to throw up.
“Baby, I can’t breathe. I have cancer. There’s a message on my phone!”
“What? What did they say?” Dave joined me at the panic station.
“They’re not fucking answering the phone. Dr Bullock said I have to go in at 11am tomorrow to discuss my results and I can’t get a hold of them, it goes straight to the answering machine! What the hell? I’m supposed to fly home tomorrow... Where are they? Oh my God, what are we going to do?”
“You just try to stay calm. I’ll call the clinic and I will call you back. Okay?” Dave took charge of the situation, as I was left reeling in the vastness of the hospital car-park. It had only been eight years earlier that Dave had his own cancer diagnosis, from the same doctor.
They’d be expecting me at private practice. Dave told me he would take care of it. He’ll take care of it. I have cancer. I have breast cancer. But breast cancer doesn’t happen to young women. My doctor told me that. Liar. No family history. I’m too young. Breast cancer doesn’t happen to me. I’m supposed to help other people with cancer. Who’s going to help me?
I called Rachel the receptionist at my private practice, who knew I’d had the scans.
“Hi Rach, it’s me.” I started crying. “I can’t come to work. I think I have cancer.”
“Oh honey! Don’t you worry about a thing. You take care of you and I’ll deal with everything else. We’re thinking of you.” What else could she say? Relief. One less thing to worry about. As if I could sit with someone else and listen to their problems right now.
Nan, it’s amazing to me as I think about those moment that felt like hours, how my body replays the physical symptoms perfectly, as if it’s happening again.
As I sat in the car-park waiting for Dave to call, I thought about Nicole, Siandra and a young woman I’d met on my psycho-oncology placement five years earlier. People who gave me the privilege of inviting me into the end of their lives. People who taught me about living.
Dave’s phone call snapped me back to the present. “Okay, Dr Bullock is with another patient but he’s going to call you as soon as he’s finished. They promised.”
The fear of every person I’d ever worked with who’d received the news I was about to engulfed me. Now I truly understood them. Why did it take this to do it? I’m going to die.
My chest strangled my breath as I wondered who would love me if I didn’t have any breasts? What if the cancer has spread everywhere? Am I going to die? What if it comes back? I shook and my head spun as nausea wreaked havoc in my stomach. So surreal. Unbelievable. At that moment, I couldn’t comprehend a thing.
On autopilot, I drove home in peak hour traffic to where Dave and I waited for that phone call together. It came at 5.35pm.
“It’s Dr Bullock. You have a ductal carcinoma.” He sounded so distant and clinical.
“Yes, that’s cancer. It means the cancer is in the milk duct. They’re very common. Go on your holiday. We’ll schedule you to see a surgeon when you get back. A few days won’t make a difference.”
I didn’t believe him.
“How do you know that? How do you know it’s not everywhere throughout my body?” I asked head in hand, wondering what on Earth was happening to my life.
“It doesn’t work that way,” Dr Bullock explained. “These things move slowly.”
One hand shielded my eyes from the world. I couldn’t take in any more information, not even seeing what was in front of me. Dave maintained a safe distance standing in the kitchen but as I hung up the phone, joined me in silence on the couch.
“We’ll get through this together,” he offered. Promised. Vowed. He held my hand so tight I thought it might break. Like my heart.
Dave hugged me and we cried together. He brought me a cup of tea and some tissues. I felt closer to him than ever when he picked up the phone to call my parents.
“Hi Elaine, listen, the test results weren’t what we’d hoped for.”
Numb and detached, I mumbled to myself, “They didn’t even know there was a test.” I never wanted my parents to worry about me if they didn’t have to.
What a long night. I lay still, barely breathing, awake, staring into the blackness asking myself how we knew the cancer wasn’t already throughout my entire body. What if waiting a single day could make all the difference? Was I going to die? Had I somehow done this to myself? Sleep did not come to me the day I was told I had breast cancer.
I wondered how many nights I would have left in this bed. In this room. This house. This building. This city. How long would I live? My life wasn’t supposed to be like this. I’d worked so hard for a career in psychology that had really only just started. I’d waited so long for my husband, the love of my life. I’d only just thought about becoming a mum for fuck’s sake. What if I never slept again? Dave lay still but wasn’t snoring so I couldn’t really tell if he was sleeping. It always annoyed me that he could fall asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. But tonight part of me wanted him to sleep so that I could stop worrying about keeping him awake.
I gently started to feel the lump on my breast. I wanted it to be my friend. We had to get through this together and I didn’t want it doing anything rash like spreading around my body and killing me. Would Dave be there with me at the end? I did everything I was supposed to do. I had the love of my life. I ate well and exercised and never smoked.
But now I had cancer.