I tried to keep a diary when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2010, but I was quickly laid to waste by the treatment and never managed more than a few lines. Once I was out the other side I wanted to forget about it all and get on with my life. I was a rather shabby cancer ‘survivor’ and buggered if I was going for a jog in a tutu … ever. The two years I’d spent worrying about it and being treated for it was enough of an investment in my view.
The treatment never really stopped though. For the past seven years I’d been taking an oestrogen inhibitor every day which thwarted my hair regrowth, caused numerous aches and pains and slowly siphoned away my bone density. I was also still struggling quietly with my body image. The cover illustration, Great Tit, was made at a time when I was quite frustrated by my massacred left breast – creating the work somehow helped make that part of my body separate from me. In the early days, post treatment, I did loads of sketches of ‘breast’ pieces, I suppose in a bid to put it all to bed or give the ordeal some purpose, but only a few were ever realised. Apart from the annual mammograms and visual reminder I had every time I undressed, I’d begun to feel quite distant from the disease itself so making work about it became pointless and other events further diluted this. However, my newfound single status caused a resurgence of body angst, so last year, to up my chances in the dating game, I decided to have my reconstructed breast further enhanced. A ‘reconstructed-reconstruction’ or perhaps a ‘deconstructed-reconstruction’ in ‘artspeak’. Or could it be a ‘narrative of the reconstruction as part of the feminine construct’? Hmmm. Anyway, I had the work done in November last year and returned to see the consultant this June for a follow up, which consisted of a mammogram and all the usual chit chat followed by questions of ‘anything concerning you?’ I mentioned I’d been having some major on and off pains in my hip/leg/groin that had left several GP’s and an A&E doctor nonplussed and finally admitted, out loud, that I was worried about secondaries – then I cried! My consultant cheerily offered me a bone scan, expressed his confidence that it was unlikely to be secondaries, suggested a change to my drugs and sent me off feeling quite chipper.
I received a letter within a week asking me to return for two different types of scan on my right breast. I didn’t understand, I’d been expecting an appointment for a bone scan. After a frantic call to my breast care nurse, I was told that they had found micro-calcifications in my right breast during the routine mammogram, probably nothing to worry about but with my history it required further investigation. Within a week I was back at the hospital (with friend Skipper in tow this time) and subjected to 4 mammograms – all of which made me cry – and an ultrasound. They were unable to get close enough to the ‘target’ zone so decided this dilemma would be discussed in their weekly meeting and they’d get back to me with a plan. Still in a state of mild anxiety (complete with the ever patient Skip), I was ushered off to another part of the hospital for my bone scan.
Two days later I was back in hospital and knew, instinctively, that it wasn’t going to be good news. (I’ve learned over the years that when a nurse walks in with a doctor it’s usually a sign of trouble.) My consultant doesn’t muck about with sharing information, just comes straight out with it. “We’ve got the results of your bone scan – it’s not good. You do have secondaries.” Boom! All the air was sucked out of the room in an instant and every sound was amplified. Very weird. I didn’t cry, at least I don’t think I did. I know I said ‘thank you’ a lot. How British of me. ‘Thank you, thank you so much’, ‘yes, of course, thanks’ WTF? It’s hard to describe the shock of hearing news like that. I remember thinking it was odd that they didn’t seem bothered with the stuff they’d found on my right breast anymore. I did ask, but I can’t remember what was said. I cracked a sweary joke about it that made my mate Beth laugh out loud and then feel instantly guilty and inappropriate, but we needed that release. Without her, I wouldn’t have made it back to the car park, never mind through the rest of the day. I drove home (Beth following) and over a coffee we planned what I would do next. I was in the middle of preparing for an exhibition and still had two stages of a lino print to complete so I decided to focus on that. Keeping busy is usually a great distraction for me. I drove off to the printmaking studio, set up my gear and printed like a robot for about 2 hours. It was probably one of my most successful printing sessions yet. I didn’t want to speak to anyone, I couldn’t. I felt sick and cold, despite the heatwave, and though I desperately wanted to lie down, I felt that if I stopped I’d never start again. Every now and then I had to duck my head to hide sudden tears, as all manner of thoughts were drifting in and out of my mind. How would I tell my kids? How will I tell my parents? What will I do with my stuff? (yes, that mattered) Will I even make it to my exhibition? What would happen to my pets? And there it was, the thought that finally tipped me over the edge: I’m going to be outlived by the cat!
With the bloody cat dominating my thoughts, I made my way to my own studio to carry on with some monoprints I’d started days before. The drawings were all hanging by strips of tape off my shelves and when I saw them I realised that they were eerily prophetic. It’s another moment that stayed with me. Really struck a chord. There, finally alone in my sanctuary, I texted the news to my ex-husband and my sister-in-law and cried. Beth and Skipper came and sat with me for the afternoon to keep me company while I worked, but I didn’t do anything. I was bizarrely obsessed with thoughts of the cat, so much so Beth began compiling a list of ‘insanely inappropriate jokes’ that I made, while Skipper sat in a chair in the corner, wearing a pair of sequinned Minnie Mouse ears, crying quietly. It was a surreal tableau. I kind of wish it had been filmed. That whole day felt like a movie. One of those gritty, British, dramas – none of your syrupy Hollywood nonsense. It was also long. Truly, madly, long. I’d put off going home for as long as possible; I knew two of my children were coming over with their dad and I felt so guilty. I know that sounds odd, but I really felt like I’d failed, let them down somehow. Explaining that, this time around, I wasn’t going to get well, was far from easy but I managed it without creating a scene and I’m grateful that humour has always been our ‘go to’ coping mechanism.
I slept well that night, I guess I was wiped out, but when I woke up the next morning everything hit me like a tidal wave. I was totally overwhelmed by shock and fear and being on my own was suddenly terrifying. I suppose I was having a panic attack as I couldn’t breathe, I shook uncontrollably, and I couldn’t stop crying for a good few hours. I’ve since learned that all my reactions were normal, including the terror of being alone. I’m pleased to say that I’m fine on my own again, most of the time, but it took over two months of nightly babysitters to get me here.