My mother had breast cancer. One day to the next.
She wasn’t feeling entirely right, so went to see her old doctor, who had looked after the family for too many years. He examined her and assured her it was not cancer. It had not crossed her mind it might be cancer. He thought she should have a further examination though.
She went to another, even older, doctor. “Cancer!” he said. “And the entire breast should be removed.” She remembers leaving his office stunned. Cancer?
Her sister, my Aunt, had been blown up by an IRA bomb, and survived, so as a result was on intimate terms with many a younger London doctor. She produced one who said, “Nonsense, only part of the breast should be removed.”
My mother and I are speaking about this again. Thirty-five years later. “Was there any other family member who might have had breast cancer?” I ask. “No,” she replied, “I managed to do this all by myself. “
She went into hospital alone. She had decided not to worry anyone about it. I came home from boarding school to discover my mother not there. Our housekeeper explained what was happening. It was all very British. Very calm. Very matter of fact. “Your mother has cancer. She is in hospital.”
I found a friend and took a train to London. I went to see her in hospital. She was surprised I had come. Such a waste of my weekend. And even more so for my poor friend, she said.
All these years later I ask her what the recovery was like “I was tired and slightly cross and scratchy.” In those days Chemo was rare. She had to go through a course of radiotherapy. For months on end. Everyday. My mother lived a peaceful, private life, deep in the Oxfordshire countryside. Driving to a hospital was a bore.
As her lymph nodes had been removed her defense system was now compromised. She needed to take extra care to never get cut or infected. “And certainly not get scratched by an enthusiastic dog greeting you,” she tells me.
It took eleven years for the Lymphedema to arrive. “My arm swelled up dramatically over night.” It was protesting, as a result of the breast cancer. The blood was no longer pumping correctly. The arm had to be drained and a super tight, shoulder to cuff, arm-bandage had to be worn daily, and for life, to help pump the blood.
“Yes,” my mother sighs, uncharacteristically “cancer is a complicated business.”
My mother was lucky. Wesley’s mother was not. Checkups are crucial.