Sandra Coffey is a writer from Galway. She has been published in Crannog, Honest Ulsterman, Incubator Magasine, Silver Apples, Galway Review, and ROPES. In 2015, one of her stories was longlisted for the writing.ie Bord Gais Energy Short Story of the Year award. Also in 2015, one of her stories was chosen for ‘Around the Farm Gate’ a collection of farm stories published by Ballpoint Press, RTE and the Farmer’s Journal. She works as a journalist for the Galway Independent. Follow her on @SandraCoffey
By Sandra Coffey
A car slows up beside me, close to the footpath. I immediately think I’m being kidnapped. I’m very jittery these days. Temple Street is up past the playground, and over the bridge I say pointing to the green and doing a squiggly turning motion with my finger.
I’m not sure if it’s the lump in my breast or that my sister’s lump has cancer. That has me all jittery. She is always ahead of me, my sister, and now her lump has decided to be ahead of mine and my lump doesn’t know what it’s doing. Inconclusive. We need to send you off for tests, to know for sure, the doctor says. The for sure part really hits me. Those words I just know will scratch into every spare moment and won’t let go.
I’m standing just down the street from the doctor’s surgery and with no specific direction in mind, I head for a charity shop to gather my thoughts. I don’t feel like sitting in a café drinking tea by myself, trying to box the worst scenarios out of my head until they find their way back in again. I hide behind a stand full of shoes I’ll never try on as someone else’s foot has already been in them. That to me is a no-go.
I’m supposed to be feeling my breasts every time I shower. I’m not a shower everyday type of woman so for me that would equate to three times a week, maybe four in summer. I showered the night before my appointment, having scrubbed in all the appropriate places. No lump did I feel but I wasn’t on the look-out either if I’m honest with myself.
I feel for my breast. It’s tingly and sore from all the prodding and pulling from the doctor. I feel it as though to comfort it, and to comfort myself. I cup it in my hand, hold it, relay to it that it and we will be okay.
“You shouldn’t do that in public,” says the shop assistant, who I hadn’t noticed is shielding me from other customers in case I offend them. Pointing, she says ‘stop that or I’ll have to ask you to leave.’
Me and my tingly breast leave the shop. I pause on the street outside waiting for direction. A group of young teen girls are on break from school and far be it for me to give them a bad example by feeling my breast on the street. I wonder about their breasts, if they have any and if they are getting teased for having none or having ones that grow too slow or too fast. I imagine being a woman with just one breast. Would I be imbalanced, would my walk be funny, would anyone even notice?
Now standing at the taxi rank, I wonder how many other women have done this type of walk. Then, it occurs to me that there are are types of walks. The ones you see in movies, woman after being dumped walks in the rain, woman walking out of a cemetery after burying her loved one, woman after leaving husband, woman walking out of the hospital with a newborn baby in her arms.
I ask, is it right of me to compare mine to these? I’m over panicking with this whole thing, surely. I look down the path and picture hoards of women, walking, walking away or walking confidently towards, I can’t tell which but they are all walking, walking. I walk home, make tea, and hold my hand protectively across my chest.
They say that everyone should face at least one major test in their life. I wonder if this is mine. Despite attempts to stop it or at least pause it, it replays over and over.
The bastard thing would not come up for me. My lump.
“You have to feel really hard for it, press right down,” the doctor says as she pokes around making sure she needs to send me on to the specialised breast unit. I can still feel her hands on my breasts, the good one is done first and then the bad one. The good one so she had something to compare it to when she goes on to the bad one.
It’s definitely a lump. One woman to another – you have a lump.
“I’ll write you a letter to bring with you.”
With a few clicks the notice of my arrival and my symptoms, age, and family medical history travel across the ether and land in a computer two miles away.
“They know about you now,” she says, happy with her capabilities of being able to use the online ticketing system.
“Breast cancer is the most common in women and it doesn’t pass you by because you’re a young one.”
Fair enough, you need to be 18 to have sex and to get a drink but cancer, sure it didn’t know a thing about age, why would it.
“Won’t it be just great if the two of us lose our hair at the same time? We can both go bald. Together,” my sister says when we meet.
Part of me really wishes she would shut up. Her positivity is driving me around the bend but I desist with my negativity. She has cancer and I don’t. Yet. If she needs to do this, then she needs to do this.
“We can help each other if we get sick. I’ve yet to get diarrhoea,” she says. This will come along with the avalanche of other physical attacks the treatment will bring. I say that again to myself, the treatment will make you sick, have you on the toilet non-stop and make you lose your hair. But after this and worse, you’ll get better. Okay. Makes sense.
“Sisters can face anything together,” she says holding her hand out for me to take. I take it knowing that this moment means the world to her. It means little to me as we’ve had our differences before and I’m not sure I’m over them.
Two weeks later and I stand in a tiny dressing room, the size of a tall dog kennel. I strip to my waist. A blue gown is hanging there. I place my arms into it and tie a knot as best I can to the back. Jesus, it’s freezing. A knock on the door signals for me to get out. Down I go along the corridor which has pencil drawings of cats, dogs and snakes framed on its walls. Unnerving but provides a talking point when I reach the waiting area.
I succumb to being led around, I don’t fight it one bit. I get asked to go here and go there and wait here and wait there and I willingly do it all. Other women, some much older than I, are doing the same. The yellow line is for the mammogram, the red line for the ultrasound. I’m heading for the mammogram first. I’ve heard this is excruciating. Excruciating in a way that brings the tears to your eyes and makes you fart uncontrollably. My boobs are handled by a lovely lady, I mean she is so gentle and makes sure to warm her hands up first. She speaks in quiet Church like tones as she goes about preparing me for the scan. It can’t be easy, this job she has. There are no boundaries in this room. She asks can she touch me and I nod. From now on, I must let her wiggle, jiggle and press my boobs into place in order for her to get the right picture.
“I once had to get an elderly lady to lie on her side on the floor and I managed just about to get the machine into place so I could get the pictures taken.”
I stand there, smiling politely with my boobs out. My nipples are rock hard.
“If the picture isn’t right, it must be done again and again until it is.”
She once had a lady in whose boobs were too big to do in the one scan. If she doesn’t get the right picture or fucks up your scan with another, god knows what could be next.
“We don’t want fuzzy pictures,” she says standing behind a huge screen. The back lighting in the room highlights the blonde tips of her hair. I imagine her as a photographer of sorts, a boob photographer.
My right boob is first, the good boob. It has a beauty spot on it, which she smiles at when she sees it.
“Not ideal for bikinis and lots of sun, it being in that spot,” she says. She lifts it up and out away from my chest and lays it out across a metal plate. Boobs are meant to hang straight down not lie flat. This sensation is totally new. The skin underneath is pulled taut. She points to the top part of the machine, which I’ve only now seen. The top part of this machine must meet the bottom part and in the middle sits my boob. She asks if I’m ready and I reply affirmatively.
‘Think of this as an MRI for your boob,’ she says as she steps away.
I can’t move an inch while this is happening. I wonder who came up with that phrase and how did they decide on an inch, why not a millimetre? The lights go down and I’m thinking the music must be next. Some Chopin piano stuff, he has good piano stuff, it would be good at a time like this. But there’s no music just her voice, which feels distant now and echoing coming from behind the huge screen. When the coldness of the upper plate presses down on my boob, it’s initially bearable in that cool refreshing way when the air conditioning covers your face after a roasting hot day. But then, she presses it further down and it grips around my boob and I picture its eyes penetrating into my boob, now a flattened omelette on a silver plate.
This is laugh out loud type of pain. I count from 10 backwards. I reach five and pause and continue from 5,4,3. She’s done. She’s got the photo. She releases the upper plate quickly and I step away from its grasp. My boob flops back down. I look down and feel a wave of pity building behind my eyes. The lights come back on.
Next up is the bad boob, the left one. Here is where the lump is. In the next few moments, these pictures will determine the next six months of my life at least and maybe longer if things don’t go so good. She senses my nerves and presses gently down on my left shoulder.
‘We’re halfway now, love,’ she says like that’s any consolation. Now I wish I’d done the bad boob first. If I didn’t manage to get through it the first time, at least I’d have got what I came to get. And they could let me go.
“So, here we go again,” she says with her gap toothed smile. I momentarily stop to wonder how I hadn’t noticed her teeth until now. I worry about the pressure going down on my lumpy boob. Would the pressure cause the lump to burst inside me? If it bursts, will all its cancerous juices seep into my blood, my milk ducts and up and out of my boob into my chest and down my left arm or wherever it has the freedom to go. If it bursts, what will happen then, I wonder. But this doesn’t cross her mind, only mine. I’m the only one who is worried about this and it feels foolish to say it out loud. So I don’t.
The metal plate is a little warmer this time. She needs to leave my left boob in for longer. I sense this would be the case so I start counting back from 30. As I reach five, she congratulates me on a job well done. Lots of women can’t go through with both boobs at once and have to take a break.
“They go have a cuppa in the middle and wait until they have the courage to come back, so well done,” she says. Her name is Rita she tells me and it was nice to meet me and “good luck with everything.”
I don’t congratulate myself. I feel a madness within myself, itching to release itself. I don’t feel like I’ve just achieved something.
Next, I follow the red line. Anyone for the red line? Anyone for the yellow line? Questions that go round and round in the clinic, I picture them bumping into each other in the air above my head. My boobs feel different, slightly removed from the rest of me. I don’t care what they do now, take them off I say if they want them that bad. Anyway, the ultrasound isn’t meant to be at all painful. Even unborn babies get this done to them in the womb.
“Have you ever been pregnant?”
No I say in a voice that’s comes from that place where answers come from to questions that are a bit unnerving.
“Ever watched One Born Every Minute?”
“No.” As wonderful and all as birth is, I’m not one for watching babies make their entrance into the world.
Are nurses given topics of conversations to discuss with patients or do they make them up as they go along. Does the look on my face make her think it’s okay to have such a conversation about babies and wombs. Is she trying to get pregnant herself? Then it hits me. I would have had an ultrasound before I’d had a baby. The ultrasound is a breeze, which is nice to know for whenever I do decide to visit the maternity section.
I follow the blue arrows back to the dressing room and dress. I can go home now. More waiting. Results will be in one week.
“Your lump is benign,” the nurse says. “Congratulations.”
I’m by myself when I receive this news. I put my phone down and fall silent. It’s a silence that falls in on me and I welcome it strangely enough. I know why that is. The chance is gone; the chance I had to regain a level of closeness to my sister by being sick. She will take this journey by herself. The gap between us is sure to lengthen.