It was 6 p.m. on a Friday. I had bolognese sauce boiling on the stove and the aroma of its red meatiness was in the air. The telephone burred.
When I answered, my GP didn’t waste words. Josie, your results are in: you have ductal, invasive breast cancer. I’ve gone ahead and booked you in to see a breast surgeon on Monday.
I sat down at the kitchen table, my world now the size of its rectangle of silky oak. A tremor ran from my hand to my feet. A few days before, I had shaken uncontrollably as a doctor dug into my right breast with a fine needle, its journey guided by an ultrasound machine. I remember her authoritative voice warning me, this will sting. She pushed and the needle slid deeply into my breast. The sonographer, a well kept woman in her early 50s, assisted. Something in that sonographer’s manner and voice made me trust her immediately.
It turned out I needed both types of biopsies that day. The needle that poked in and out of the tumour to capture its adolescent cells, as well as a core biopsy, where a thicker needle shunted in and out to take tissue–like getting your ear pierced.
A support person, someone from the front desk or a training doctor, I never found out which, had stroked my hair back. She had a brown bob and a plump figure. You wouldn’t notice her in a crowd unless you knew her and then you’d gladly rush over to share a confidence.
You’re doing well, Josie, she’d said. I wasn’t. Not really. I’d wanted to say, I’m scared, I can’t get a grip. My mind raced, looking for a way to escape what I knew then was coming.
Here you go, honey. She pressed a tissue into my hand.
I’d sobbed throughout the entire procedure, thinking of my mother, wave upon wave of memories lifting off my chest. Like me, she’d faced this painful procedure alone and later, like me, was alone when she heard the news. Did she think of her own death then, as I did now? The future and the present colliding, like the words of that faux Buddhist phrase on café walls: Live like this is your last day on earth.
That’s what I read now in the aged, honeyed grain of the wood in front of me. I’d be dead in ten years, like my mother. And younger than she was, the flame of fate turned up high to reduce my lot.
I phoned my partner, B, at work and told him the results.
There was a pause and then he said, I’m on my way. He told me later he’d left his computer on with all his sustainable building projects unfinished. I pictured him like a missile on a radar screen, making his way closer and closer to our home.
While I waited I phoned my father without checking what time it was in England. When he answered I burst into tears. I don’t want to die like Mum, I sobbed. My life is only half-baked. There’s so much I want to do.
Two sisters share how a breast cancer diagnosis turned their lives upside down. Post continues after video.
My father’s faint Nottingham accent calmed me. I know, he said gently. I know, darling. But listen. Your mother’s fate doesn’t have to be yours.
I barely let him finish. But what if it is?
My father couldn’t answer that question.
Celso stirred in his bedroom, pulling me out of myself. My nine-month-old boy had strawberry blonde curls and a cherubic face, the high colouring only Caravaggio knew how to paint. I was still recovering from his traumatic birth, which we’d both only narrowly survived. His tiny body struggled, but he maintained a sunny sweetness. Would I live to see him grow? How would Celso, who so relied upon me to literally survive every day at this point in his short life, cope without the unconditional love of his mother? A similar question arose when my mother was dying. How would I cope without her unconditional mother love?
Celso’s movements rustled the sheets around him. I went to him and plucked him from his cot, careful to avoid tugging on the tube that went up his nose. His skin still radiated the narcotic new baby smell of fresh, warm straw. It’s a powerful drug, designed to keep mothers bonded to their babies. I breathed him in and wondered if my mother might have made different decisions if I’d been an infant when she was diagnosed.
I placed Celso on his domed play mat and returned to the stove to stir the bolognese. The window above the kitchen sink shone a rectangle of sharp light onto my hands.
B hadn’t arrived home yet, but he was close. I saw myself as the large target on the screen with B about to connect.
When were you diagnosed? asked the paediatric surgeon.
Last Friday, I said.
Celso was on B’s lap with the blood pressure cuff ’s black cord in his hand. He was tugging at it. I was taking off my faux Burberry trench coat and feeling businesslike. We’re here to talk about my son’s undescended-testicle operation, not my cancer.
My lumpectomy’s tomorrow, I continued.
His head reeled back. What’s your treatment going to be?
I told him my plans. We got onto the subject of chemotherapy baldness; he relayed the story of a colleague’s wife who had alopecia and how people often mistook her for a cancer patient, so she wore a real hair wig at home when guests arrived.
I think she looks great bald, he kindly added. So the operation’s called orchidopexy. I’m basically moving the testis into the scrotum and sewing it in place. He looked at Celso: If all goes as planned I won’t see you again until you’re 16, buddy, and we have a man-to-man conversation about how to check your testicles.
B and I turned and smiled at one another. At this point in the reaving hell of it all, our son turning 16 was moon landing material.
Before my diagnosis, I’d had a dream I would not forget. I was in a long room with iron-framed windows high up and neat rows of single beds, like a military hospital in the world wars. I looked at one bed, empty and firmly tucked in, a white sheet folded over a grey blanket. A line of writing looped along the seam: Hospital Ward. I looked around. In the other beds sick people lay and watched me. One of them asked me what I was doing.
I have breast cancer, I said, still staring at the sheet.
This is an edited extract from In Danger: A Memoir of Family and Hope by Josepha Dietrich, published by UQP RRP $29.95 available in stores nationwide.
Breast Cancer Trials, the largest, independent, oncology clinical trials research group in Australia and New Zealand, is hosting a Q&A event at The Art Gallery of NSW, to discuss The Past, Present and Future of Breast Cancer Research on Tuesday 24 July 2018. The event will be moderated by Sandra Sully, and will feature a panel to discuss and answer questions about the history of our research group, key milestones in breast cancer research and clinical trials, current research trends and developments, and what can we expect in breast cancer research in the future. The event is free of charge to attend but registration is required to secure your seats. You can buy tickets here.