Kirsty Rice has four children, a loving husband – and breast cancer. In these extracts from her blog, she reveals her innermost thoughts as she tackles the momentous changes after receiving her diagnosis.
I can’t imagine there’s ever a convenient time for a cancer diagnosis, but mine felt particularly discommodious.
It was our last “fun” day before heading back to Qatar. I’d planned lunch with a girlfriend and for the first time in what seemed liked weeks of a grey and wet Adelaide winter, the sun came out over stunning blue skies. Saturday would be a day of packing and cleaning before flying out in the wee hours of Sunday morning. The fridge had been slowly cleared, and the last minute jobs were diminishing tick by tick from the list.
I drove into town for my mammogram reminding myself of what needed to be done in the next day. Pick up the barbecue cover from the hardware store on the way home, buy some vanilla essence at the supermarket, grab that last bit of dry-cleaning. I scored a rock star carpark at the front of the clinic and settled into the familiar waiting room, I’d been there for a mammogram a year or so ago.
The longer I waited the more agitated I became. I didn’t need to be here. I was sure there was nothing wrong. I was going to be late for lunch. And why were they making me have a mammogram when the GP had suggested an ultrasound?
As the radiographer arranged my bosom between the cold glass plates of the machine I made small talk. “So do you get your mammograms done here?” I asked. She did. Her boss did them. I thought of all the things I’d done with various bosses over the years – no boob holding.
As I stood shirtless reading the cartoons and health notices on the wall I thought about lunch, a glass of wine, and how beautiful it must be at the beach. I moved forward when asked, held my arm up when told, tilted to the right when instructed and winced as the glass plates were tightened. When it came time for the ultrasound the small talk extended. Kids, school, husbands. We found a connection, giggled at how small Adelaide could be, and then she went to get the doctor. The moment they walked back in I knew something was wrong.
A lump, 4mm, a fortuitous discovery. We’ll take a biopsy, but we’re pretty sure it’s cancer we’ve seen enough to know. Go back to your GP now she’s expecting you, I’ll make an appointment for you to see the breast surgeon this afternoon, the sooner we get onto this the better.
There were so many more words in between the sentences but I’ve lost them. I know I said something about having to take my children back to school in Qatar but the minute I said "children" my voice changed. I said something about my husband, it was the weekend for him, a bike ride, a birthday brunch of a good friend, I was about to ruin his day. And Penny, she was on her way to my house for lunch, we’d talked about it the night before, it was going to be fantastic. Can I just text my friend Penny?
Penny it’s not good, they’ve found something. Can you cancel lunch, tell them I’m sorry. I have to go to see my GP.
She got straight in the car and spent the afternoon with my kids. She made dinner. She read the paper at the table as if nothing was happening. She was there when I got home. She was Penny. She was perfect.
I parked outside the GP’s office, the same GP’s office I’d gone to at age 20 for a prescription for the pill. The same office I’d arrived at in four different stages of four pregnancies. The office I’d been in yesterday with my children and no cancer, except I did have cancer, I just didn’t know.
“Of all the cancers to have breast is the best one, and it’s small and we’ve got it early,” my GP said.
“I’m meant to be at lunch at The Star of Greece. I’m meant to be sitting in the sunshine with a bottle of wine? I’m meant to be getting on a plane in less than 48 hours?”
“I know, it’s a shock, I’m sorry.” She genuinely meant it. The next day she texted me “How are you going? Call me anytime”. I think I may have the best GP in the world.
The first tears came when I spoke to G. Should he come home? Should I still get on the plane? Should we meet halfway? What do we tell the kids? They need to get back. They need the routine. My brain began to fog. I have to go to the breast surgeon, I’m driving over there now, let me see him and then we can talk more. Talk to Kristina about flights, see what she can do with the bookings.
“We need to take another biopsy and we need to get you a MRI to make sure it isn’t anywhere else.” The breast surgeon was gentle, kind. I thought of my friend Darien and his liver cancer and started to giggle. I was going to ring him and tell him I was sick of him being the centre of attention, that I wanted my own spread sheet with radiography and chemo appointments. It wasn’t funny, but I knew he’d get it and laugh.
And so, here I am, 48 hours later. G is here, he got on a plane and came home. The children are aware of what’s going on, I told them at the kitchen table on a sunny Saturday afternoon. “We’re not going on a plane tomorrow guys, Dad’s on his way home.” They cheered at the news.
“Yesterday when I went to the doctors they found a lump, they need to take it out and Dad wants to be here to find out more about it and what we have to do next”.
“It’s not like its cancer or anything though” said the smallest voice with more of a statement than a question.
“Well, it seems like it is. But just a little bit of cancer. Nothing big, just 4 mm, tiny, just a little tiny bit.”
There were more questions, there were jokes, they were disappointed to not be going back to Qatar but excited to think that G was on a plane.
“We’ll look after you Mum”,
“We’ll buy you new boobs for your birthday if you end up needing them”.
“Did you get rid of my ponytail when we cut it off? You can have it if you like.”
We’re all okay. We’re all positive. We’re all going to do this together. I’m lucky, I truly believe that. I could have not had the mammogram, I could be back in Doha with no idea that I have breast cancer. I’m so so lucky.
It’s just a little bit of cancer.
So far the worst part has been telling people. I’m not saying the core biopsy was a walk in the park, but it’s the pure anguish in the voices and faces of those you love as the cancer conversation sucks the air from the room. Whether it’s running into a neighbour who’s perplexed that “You’re still here? I thought you were going back to Qatar on Sunday?” or having to ring the Aunt that you sat with giggling only the day before the diagnosis, you can be sure of one thing – you’re about to be a complete Debbie Downer.
The cancer news befittingly took on a life of its own. I lost control of it, while I walked around in a fog I’d somehow told the staff at the local restaurant but was yet to tell my mother. The children went on with their day completely unaware while I received text messages from the two or three people who knew and the many others who didn’t.
“Are we still on for breakfast tomorrow?”
“I imagine you’re in the midst of packing but just wanted to say it was great seeing you, see you at Christmas!”
I walked outside to take calls from G, and stood at the end of the road while the breast surgeon confirmed that the biopsy looked “sinister”. One of my best friends was coming to stay the night, I didn’t want to call her at work and knew that I couldn’t tell her while the children were around – it would have to wait until I’d put them to bed. We ate a meal, cheered through the footy game, and when the house was quiet and it was just her and I, I told her. The woman who’d stood next to me while I’d married G, the woman who’d agreed to be the godmother to one of my children. My gorgeous friend Cath. I watched her face wince, her eyes tear up and her mind resolve to be useful, funny and strong.
“You don’t have to tell people yet if you don’t want to”.
I did though. G was on his way back to Adelaide, we were no longer leaving. It was obvious something was going on. I needed to tell Sarah (my work wife), I needed to tell the school my children wouldn’t be there on day one. We were just going to have to be honest, get on with it and face it as a family. There would be no secrets.
Yesterday I met with the radiographer who’d been with me when the news was broken. The woman who I’d chatted with about kids, schools and partners while she ran the ultrasound over my chest, the woman who’d calmly said “I’ll just get the doctor” before my world changed.
I apologised for my vagueness on the day of the mammogram. She’d asked me to sit and wait for my film to take to the doctor and I’d immediately walked out of the clinic and towards the car. She’d thankfully chased after me.
“You were amazing,” she said. “Some women fall apart with the news but I could see you immediately planning, trying to work out how it was all going to work, what was best. To get on the plane or stay, to bring your husband back or not. I could see it all working away in your brain.”
This was exactly how it was. It was like having someone speak in one language while you translated it into your own language. Expat language. While surgeons and doctors explain how the process works I try and translate it into how it will work for me. While they were saying biopsy on Monday, my brain was translating and calculating the flight times to Doha with the kids, and a solo return back to Australia.
On Saturday morning less than 24 hours after the diagnosis, my children slept as I drove to the local bakery for a litre of milk. I parked in the sunshine and watched people go about their Saturday morning ritual – newspaper, coffee and baked goods. With the silence of an empty car I rang my mother and told her the news. “Mum, they’ve found a lump, it’s all a bit tricky but they’re pretty sure its cancer.”
By far, the worst part has been telling people.
I’m not scared about the lump. I’m scared there’s more than one. Which is of course completely illogical, but up until last week cancer was something that happened to other people, so logic isn’t my strength right now. My normal is no longer normal. I now have a “cancer nurse” whose mobile number is stored in my phone.
I’m okay with one lump. One lump can be cut out, removed, dissected and conquered. And while all conversation is contained on the lump, it’s pretty much all I can think about. I can now feel it, but I can’t, but I think I can. Is that it? Does my arm hurt? Is it under my arm? What’s that? Was that there before?
In a dark room with a nurse, a radiographer and a radiologist they all look at it on the screen. All I can think is that ultrasounds without babies aren’t half as interesting. There’s no happiness, no fingers and toes, no heartbeat. They measure it, poke it with a needle and then break the news that a core biopsy is needed.
“We’re going to give you a local anaesthetic, cut the skin, and then make our way to it.”
“How far down is it?”
“About a centimetre. I’ll count to three and you’ll hear a sound like this…”
I heard the sound of a stapler; a faster, louder, angry stapler”.
I wonder if we really need to upset the cancer right now? How do you take three pieces of something that’s only 4 mm long? While it has been sitting there growing I’ve left it alone. Was this going to make it angry? Was this going to make it spread? Did we really need to do this?
It felt like a punch to the boob. A precise and deliberate punch. One, two, three….wince. One, two, three…wince. By the time we got to the third I was ready to punch back.
“Do you want to see them before they go to the lab?”
Three bits of skin tissue floated in a tube of blue liquid.
“They look like little worms” I mused.
It was later when the other appointments were booked, the MRI, the X-ray, the bone test, when someone politely reminded me that we needed to check the cancer wasn’t anywhere else.
That was when logic went out the window.
That was when last week’s breathlessness at the top of the hill meant lung cancer not general unfitness. That was when the tinge in my back meant bone cancer not just the need for an ibuprofen. That was when the stitch in my side became liver or maybe even ovarian cancer. All of it obviously hiding just like the breast cancer was.
Except it’s not. It can’t be. I’m young (I know this because my surgeon who is a good twenty years older than me keeps telling me I’m young and I believe everything he says).
Tomorrow all of the tests are done. Five hours of scans, rays, dyes, and magnetic beats. Tomorrow night they will tell me that it’s just a lump, that I had nothing to worry about.
Tomorrow I can go back to being logical.
What a difference a week makes. This time last week I was devastated with the news that I had breast cancer. Today I’m elated with the news that I only have breast cancer.
Today we returned to the scene of the crime. The same waiting room I had sat in last week in a haze. The same two women behind the desk. Women who last week were strangers in grey cardigans. Last week I sat alone, confused, and shellshocked. This week G is next to me.
“Where’s the tribe?” they ask, looking behind us for the children. “They’re very well behaved, it’s nice how they play together like they do.”
We sit for nearly two hours watching a multitude of women with x-rays, cds, and pathology reports arrive and depart. I know my surgeon is going to squeeze us in when he can, he’s waiting on my MRI results, he’ll know when he sees them if I require a full mastectomy or an initial lumpectomy.
I haven’t asked G what he thinks will happen, while I know he’s practical and wants me alive, he’s also very much a boob guy. I’m reminded of Robbie Williams describing what is was like to watch his wife give birth “it was like watching my favourite pub burn down”.
“What do you think he’ll say?” I whisper in G’s direction.
G is busy reading the entire contents of the internet on his phone. He shrugs.
“I have no idea”. He’s calm, he’s always calm.
We wait a little longer. I watch young women, older women, skinny women, larger women all go before me and I realise cancer doesn’t have a type. It doesn’t care. It’s random. You can be rich, poor, fashionable or sensible. You can quit sugar, you can be paleo, you can do the 5:2, or maybe you can smoke and drink and forget to exercise on a daily basis. Cancer doesn’t care. No-one knows why it happens, that’s why it happens.
I realise there’s one person left when the doctor calls her name. He looks in my direction as he ushers her towards his room.
“Oh!” he’s smiles looking happy to see me “It’s good news! I’ll see you in a minute, but it’s good news!”
G’s favourite pub is to be modified. On Tuesday I will go in for a lumpectomy, they will remove the cancer and roughly one centimetre around it, they will also take a few lymph samples from under my arm. I’ll be in hospital for the day and home the following morning. We’ll then wait for pathology reports and find out what happens next. Chemo? Radiation? Who knows, but at this point the focus is on getting the lump out so we know what we’re dealing with.
It’s amazing what a difference a week makes.
I woke this morning with more tape on my chest than a Kardashian at an awards night. With a surgical cut and stitches under my arm and bruise across my breast I had joined the team, the epidemic that is breast cancer. I am now the holder of a saturn cushion that nestles under my arm to protect the tenderness that signals the removal of my very inconvenient case of cancer. There are way too many saturn cushions being used in Australia right now.
Jane the cancer nurse perches herself at the end of my hospital bed. I love everything about her. She runs the show at the breast clinic, organises surgeons, pathologists, oncologists and radiologists. She knows everyone’s name and makes her way with purpose from the hospital to the surgery waiting rooms with the kindest face and the brutal truth. She has been there from the first moment, from shellshocked to giggles to fear.
“Jane can you explain something to me?” she smiles a wide smile with pink lipstick, she’s older than me and I imagine there’s not much she hasn’t been asked.
“Will it come back? Why have I had a lumpectomy? Why hasn’t anyone suggested just getting them both taken off?” My fear is now obvious and open.
“It’s normal to be worried about the return, but it’s early days yet. We need to find out what we’re dealing with. Most people with a small lump when treated correctly carry on without a return of the cancer. We’ll know more on Friday, it’s early days.”
We speak about the possibilities. The sentinel nodes that have been removed. The margins around the tissue that are gone. The pathology results that will give us more answers. I realise I have more waiting, that while I think I’m lucky I’m yet to truly know. After Jane has gone and G arrives to collect me I’m speechless for the first time.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, just, I don’t know, there’s so much to this.”
“Yep” he’s calm, always calm, packing the contents of my hospital stay in my bag for me “and that’s why we’ll do this step by step”. As we drive home he offers seafood risotto for dinner, my favourite. The children bicker in between self-indulgent stories. Vegetables are cut, soup made, the dishwasher is packed. I lay on the couch with the body of a nine year old sandwiched next to me. We are back to our normal, life as us continues. They are my everything and I will do anything for the banality of dinner and a clean kitchen.
Today I added another scar, another story, another step in the adventure. Nothing wasted, no regrets, a body well used. What a ride.
It hasn’t been the best day.
Any day that begins with a 3.30am start for an airport run is always tough. If you’re not getting on the plane and everyone else is – it’s tricky. When it includes a goodbye to your husband and children it gets a little more emotional. Throw in a sobbing child and a mother with a fresh cancer diagnosis and it becomes almost unmanageable, unmotherable. Let’s then throw in the phone call from the doctor who can’t really tell you much more than you already knew. More tests? Maybe. More waiting? Definitely. “Give me a call on Monday and hopefully I’ll know more then.”
I knew it was going to be like this. I planned a day at home on my own because I knew that the moment I walked back into the house without them in it, it would feel cold and empty. I knew the moment I saw traces of them around the house, the cup next to the bed, the forgotten toothbrush, I’d be miserable. I just hadn’t factored in the movie style sobbing. The gut-wrenching wail that you hear from mothers in court rooms and cemeteries on cable TV.
I cried in the shower, at the kitchen sink, and while I paired their orphan socks in the laundry. I held on to the jacket of my 11-year-old son with my face buried into the internal fur of the collar and sleeves and wailed. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Miserable.
Arguably the most shameful of cancer on the list of organs and appendages is lung.
“Was he/she a smoker?” they ask upon hearing the desperate news. The answer dependant on whether it was just pure bad luck or just desserts.
A reader recently told me of her husband who was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of the lung having never had a cigarette in his life. Another girlfriend who is a GP had to break the news to a friend who came into her practice with a cough from what she thought was a cold she couldn’t shake; a mother of young children, a non smoker, just bloody unlucky. I was horrified.
“That’s so unfair. I don’t understand how that happens? It’s just so unfair”. When my father-in-law was diagnosed it somehow made more sense, while he hadn’t had a cigarette in 15 years I knew he was once a regular smoker. The cigarettes the culprit, a “reason”.
That’s the thing with cancer, people want a reason. They need it to make sense.
Breast cancer of course is a far more optimistic and blameless cancer. In a sea of pink ribbons we are surrounded by words of support. With my own diagnosis I was handed a booklet, immediately signed up to a network and sent information on how to connect with others. I have joined a club. Everyone it seems now knows someone who has had breast cancer. The champions and ambassadors are celebrities we can identify with. Mothers, sisters, daughters; there are great tragedies, heroic survivorship.
When I was told of my diagnosis my first question to the surgeon was based around sugar. I’d watched and read the latest spate of evil sugar movies. I’d purchased Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar. My children and I watched That Sugar Film together.
“Should I stop eating or drinking anything with sugar? I’ve read that cancer feeds off sugar? Do you think sugar is a cause?”
“No-one knows what causes cancer that’s why we still get it.” said my surgeon who has been working with breast cancer patients for 30 years.
Unsatisfied with the answer, I asked the nurse.
“In 30 years as a cancer nurse I’ve never seen anyone cure themselves with juice and green smoothies, and I’ve seen everything. Trust me.”
“But you must see a theme?” I was sure there must be a type
“Well, we know alcohol plays a part. If you’re a heavy drinker it doesn’t help. But Kirsty, I’ve seen so many people come through this door who are vegetarians, people who are fit, people who have never drank. It’s a bad luck lottery, and you just won it.”
I’ve been fascinated lately by those who feel they have the control. Those who truly believe they can heal and cure. Those who confidently tell a cancer patient what they “need” to do. People whose sole qualification is a Facebook page and a head full of opinion. Where does that sort of audacity come from?
Fear? Control? Ego?
A girlfriend sent me a note after seeing a particular piece of advice I’d received online. I’ve paraphrased, but I think it’s brilliant.
Some people need beliefs to get them through, strict adherence to a particular way of eating. Control, coupled with inflated ego leads a person to believe they have THE answers. In a way it is like superstition/religion. Many of us may harbour little rituals, but what works for one body does not necessarily work for another and it is the ‘belief’ part (scientifically proven, which is why placebos can work) rather than the actual way of eating they believe in that does the trick for them. It makes them feel like they are winning some sort of battle.
I’m not an extremist, apathy has always been my friend, tomorrow my favourite day. As my friend Carol once said, “Kirsty if you were anymore laid back you’d be horizontal”. I’ll never know the exact definite time nor reason cancer inhabited my body. It doesn’t come with an explanation, it shouldn’t come with blame.
No-one deserves cancer, nor should they be made to feel like they do. It is what it is. Let’s just leave it at that.
My mind has been completely scrambled for the past two weeks. It wasn’t just a matter of cruising down that famous river in Egypt, denial. I was heading tsunami style, gripping on to the wreckage of life before cancer. Nothing will change. I can work full time. I’ve got this. This is merely a blip.
I’d lose concentration mid sentence, find myself in a personal debate inside my mind over a turban or a wig. Where to buy one? How did they work? Google would have me spiralling into a world of scarves with attached bangs/fringes. I hate this, I hate this. I clicked in despair.
I became a hands-free parent, dialling it in via FaceTime. Not wanting to be the one who hung up I’d sit watching cheerios being eaten and listening to clarinet practice. I looked at purchases made at the mall, tried to console sobs over swimming lessons that had ended badly. I desperately wanted to hug them, wipe their tears, meet their teachers, pick them up from school.
I’d immediately regretted my tone and timing when I began a call with “I received a late assignment notice from your Social Studies teacher?” Her smile disappeared, and then I heard it in the background, just a whisper, but clear enough to distinguish. My eldest playing the role of me “don’t upset her, we don’t want to upset her”.
Perhaps my lowest point.
I hate that this is our life. I am not the lady in a head scarf. They are not the kids with the Mum with breast cancer. Back in the water, desperately clutching the wreckage. Our lives will not change.
I’m the woman who has to book an extra long appointment at the hairdressers. The woman who thanks to her father has thick dark hair that takes hours to dry without assistance. I recently went for a blow-dry “OMG You have soooooo much hair!” she exclaimed. They tell me that after chemo starts I’ll get to about day thirteen or fourteen and wake up with my hair on the pillow. My GP looked me in the eye.
“I know you, you’re a practical person, this is no big deal in the big scheme of things but it will affect you. It will upset you and mentally it’s a big challenge. There’s a lot that’s going to change”.
My lip quivered. “I’m just angry, there are so many good things going on in our life right now and this has just stuffed it all up”.
It was after I’d got the words out, had a cry and been honest with myself that I realised we were going to be okay. It is a blip, but it can’t be ignored.
Life is going to change. There are going to be some really tough days but it will end. There is a chemo plan, it will be done by Christmas. Radiation will happen, it’ll all be over in five weeks. I’ve been honest with myself and with others. “I think I can only work 20 hours a week” I nervously offered into the phone “I think I’ve been in a bit of denial”.
There was a laugh at the end of the phone “Oh, do ya think?”
It turns out I wasn’t fooling anyone.
The waters have calmed. I’m getting organised. On my shopping list, just below strawberry creams for Henry, Cherry Ripes for Lizzie, BBQ shapes for Fred and Caramelo Koalas for Annie, is a wig, for me. We will get through this. Face it, work around it, and live through it.
This post is a combination of blogs from Kristy's site kirstyriceonline.com. They were republished here with full permission.