On Hallowe’en, my daughter shows me her beautiful tattoo: a pink ribbon for breast cancer. I am overwhelmed and speechless. Her light brown skin (thanks to her black and white heritage) is a perfect, flawless backdrop to the pastel of the ribbon, and I want to wrap her up in a huge blanket so nothing can ever mar that complexion or hurt that heart. She has been through so much in her young life, including her parents’ divorce, and I have never been confident that, through my own emotional tumult, I was good at mothering her. But now she stands here, a living testimony of hope, love, and strength, and I am filled with pride and awe at the woman she has become.
We skype with my son and daughter-in-law and their warmth and love touches me as though they are physically in the room.
At home, I notice that our Christmas cactus has bloomed a bit early: a soft pink flower emerges from a furled green leaf. My breath catches in my throat.
Sahara, who is not especially fond of being picked up, suddenly climbs onto my right shoulder and rests there, purring.
The emails and cards and calls are uplifting, inspiring, and filled with laughter. I am absolutely in good spirits, happy that I shamelessly asked for support, energized that I received it in such abundance.
We have lunch with Tanya and a visit from Frances; they are keeping me well occupied. Frances gives me a wine holder that says, “Friendship is the wine of life” and I can’t think of a better slogan!
The next morning, we arrive at the hospital at 7:22 a.m., a little early, eager to get the process going and then, over. When I sign in, they fill up a binder full of papers with enough name stickers to cover an entire classroom bulletin board. Once again I try to think of different answers other than “yes” – “you got it” confuses one of the intake people, so I don’t use that one again.
The hospital is enormous. I have grown up in this city. When I was young, it was a small town, perched on the side of the Etobicoke Creek, a little place with big ambitions. I was born and gave birth in the old hospital; it is nostalgic for me. This hospital doesn’t have a lack of personality though: in the lobby, there is almost always someone playing the piano or other instrument, singing (though not at 7 in the morning). The staff and volunteers are friendly and helpful, even stopping in the corridor to give directions when we look puzzled. This is a little stressful, though, I find: these are halls and exits and entrances that we have never traversed, in more ways than one.
In the waiting room, I am gowned up, one facing me, one on my back, thick white legs bluish in the fluorescent light. I dive back into Algonquin Bay, where Giles Blunt’s characters live, pretending I am in the midst of John Cardinale’s life instead of my own at this moment. A little girl uses her dad as a climbing apparatus as they wait for her mom to come back from a mammogram. I look up and she catches my eye and smiles; I hope her mom comes back unscathed.
Everyone who’s involved in my sessions this morning introduces themselves, gives me their first and last names, tells me what their role in my treatment will be. Even though I don’t remember most of them, I appreciate feeling like an honoured guest.
My first procedure is the insertion of a wire into my breast so the surgeon can find the tumour. This is a good thing, the nurse says, reminding me again that it’s sooo small…as she searches for it with the ultrasound, which looks like my electric razor at home.
The young doctor, thin faced and serious, blond hair perfect brackets around her cheeks, pulls down her glasses and peers at the screen. To me, it’s a series of black and white meaningless squiggles, but she finally sees the wee tiny blasted thing and pulls a long silver wire from its protective sheath. Fascinated, I watch as she pokes it into my skin, following a pinch that she has warned me about, an anorexic knitting needle through silk cloth.
As a crime writer, my mind immediately switches to knives and how it must feel to push one into a human body…
“Hmm,” she says, a little too cheerfully, “is it all right for me to put in another one? It’s just so small…”
I look down at my voluminous breast and the rounded ampleness of my stomach and wonder how something so small could cause such an upturn in my life. Ever the cooperative patient – could I really have said, no no, that was just too painful? – I respond sure, whatever you say.
This time, she nails it – “You went right through it,” says the nurse with admiration, as she tacks the wires down with a tiny bandage. Even the doctor looks happy with her work; I am thrilled to provide her a literal target for her expertise.
Back in the waiting room, I put my nose back into my book, hold Vince’s hand. I notice a sign of stress: each time someone comes to get me, I pile more stuff on top of my husband and don’t even look at him as I get up and scamper off.
When the new technician tells me she needs two mammogram pictures, my stomach does a little flip: it’s bound to hurt with these little wires in there, I think. But she’s very gentle. I tell her how the wee tiny blasted thing was caught on one of these machines and she says I must’ve had a very good technician.
Next they insert the radioactive medicine through my nipple, which they tell me is going to hurt. As the nurse bustles about, getting me ready, she tells me that, in the past, they would’ve had to yank out all the lymph nodes in order to tell if the cancer had spread. Nowadays, they put this medicine into the milk ducts and follow it out to see which nodes drain from the breast and only take those. The sentinel nodes – little guards at the gate. The procedure isn’t nice, but better afterward.
The doctor has a lovely Scottish accent. She breezes in, talking and patting my arm reassuringly, efficient and friendly. She asks me questions about my experience, how I found out, expresses shock at the glitch in procedure, all the while inserting a needle into the soft tissue, a prickly sensation, a gush of foreign liquid, but I am forewarned and find the thought of it far worse than the reality.
My stomach growls when I am back in the waiting room. I give it a disgusted look: traitor! Why can’t stress make me nauseas, unable to eat, voracious for veggies only?
One of the technicians has mentioned that tape is a technician’s best friend. I think of this as the young woman attaches a thick pad to one side of her “big camera” with wads of the stuff. I climb ungracefully onto the stretcher and she tucks me in with soft sheets, the way I used to wrap my babies so they’d feel safe. I close my eyes while the big camera swallows me up; it circles my body, a giant peeping tom, its one yellow eye blinking, encapsulating my inner image, the bones and blood and sinews and squishy insides that make up my self. Do you see any wee tiny blasted things? I want to know. Or is there just that one, the one with such great power that it’s stopped me in my tracks. Please say it’s only one. It just blinks, silent, then slides to a stop.
Now we’re in the Day Surgery section. Vince and I are aghast at the number of people being wheeled in and out on stretches. It’s a huge factory of carving, chopping, patching and replacing. My “nurse” asks me the questions all over again, ensures I have signed all the proper forms, piles my binder even higher, places more stickers on my records. The more stickers you have, the worse your situation, unlike school, where stickers mean great deeds have been accomplished. When she asks me if I’ve been “passing water all right”, she lowers her voice to a whisper, as though I would be embarrassed by this questions and not by sitting in a chair clad only in a nightie, wires in my breast, radioactive material floating through my ducts, sweat gathering under the folds of my overweight frame.
When the information gathering is over, we are marched into the room next door, filled with beds and curtains, and my nurse shows me mine. Vince hovers in the background while I lie down, strip off one nightie, get my rings taped up, have my temperature checked. Dr. Louis comes out, dressed in his scrubs, his freckles are disconcertingly cute, his smile one that belies a mischievous nature. The anesthesiologist and the OR nurse introduce themselves, fiddle with machines, then spring me loose.
I kiss my husband, tell him it will be OK, feel badly that he can’t follow me. He’s been at my side since we heard this news and now he has to be excluded during the most important action. It’s Dr. Louis and Dr. Fernandes who wheel me into the operating room; they me it’s my room and I quip, oh it’s one of those that you rent out by the hour. Dr. Louis says, yah just like the Sword and Shield, though it’s been closed down now. Not that I’d ever admit to being there, he laughs. I tell him I’d have to admit to being there in a wild and distant other life and he wants to know details. As I lug myself over onto the other stretcher (wishing I were far more elegant in my movements), I tell him I could give him details but I’d have to kill him afterward. Probably not something you should say to your surgeon as he’s about to open you up, but it’s too late now. Now I’m staring up at the ubiquitous lights, just like in the movies, and we’re still laughing as they put the oxygen mask over my mouth. It’s going to burn at little, Dr. Fernandes says, but I don’t believe him. I think about the wire and the nipple and I laugh in the face of…but oh shit, that does burn.
Have a good sleep, Catherine, Dr. Louis says, and I slip into unconsciousness, totally trusting his skill, carried by my husband, family and friends, feeling rocked by their prayer, the positive energy that feeds me.
When I blink my eyes again, I am back in the room with all the beds, and a small, high-pitched voiced nurse asks me if I want apple or orange juice. I search through the fog to see if there’s an answer to her question, think of my mother and her obsession with apple juice, so that’s the one I choose. She brings me two small cookies too. Shaking, I open the lid of the small container and gulp it down, then chew the sweets in two swallows. Once again, I curse my body for being such a hungry old bitch.
Then I see Vince. He hurries toward me, his soft brown eyes filled with tears as he leans over to kiss me. He puts his head down on the bedside, shoulders shaking with relief and terror. I stroke his soft hair, loving his gentleness, his ability to show his feelings, grateful that I have someone who adores me this way.
Later, he tells someone that I was in surgery for 52 minutes, from wheeling in to wheeling out. Dr. Louis comes by and tells us everything looks good. He’s on his way to another case, but he takes the time to mention the Sword and Shield and I tell him I’m disappointed that he didn’t have to do any reconstruction – and therefore lyposuction – so I could go dancing there again. He says he didn’t do it because the S & S is closed.
Guess it’s back to dieting the hard way.
The first thing I do is BBM (BlackBerryMessage that is) my daughter and ask her to call my son.
About an hour later, we are in the car, then home in bed. I make a bunch of calls, just to hear the voices of my children, sisters, friends, and to let them know I’m fine. Vince sends an email to the rest.
Now I fall asleep, tucked inside my own sheets, the soft hairs on my husband’s legs touching mine, his hand on my shoulder, cats curled at the bottom of the bed.