Under my skin

It is one of those moments that has the potential to alter your entire life. Your hand and mind freeze. Time passes. Tentatively, you begin to move your fingertips again. Touch. Feel. You remember to breathe, but your thoughts are racing towards denial.

Finding a suspicious lump in your breasts is one of the most frightening experiences. And no matter how much you are aware of what needs to be done under the circumstances, for at least a while you live in a limbo of trying to explain the reality of the find away. It took me a few days to make an appointment with a doctor. I suspect that it might have taken me even longer if it hadn’t been for the second lump I discovered: much smaller than the first one, but so painful I could no longer put on a bra.

I made the call. In the afternoon I watched the doctor’s worried face as she examined me, finding many more lumps. I confessed that I had been too scared to touch my breasts after the second discovery. The doctor said that what we were feeling was most likely caused by hormonal changes that come and go and that I had nothing to worry about, but there was one lump – the first – that was unusual and that it was better to check it out. She immediately phoned the radiologist and made an appointment.

Driving home, it was tough not to give in to tears and despair. I have been through so much this year, but the last few weeks have been different, more stable, calmer. And suddenly I was facing another possible game changer all over again. I felt suspended, unable to grasp the options unfolding in front of me. I remembered the good advice of one of my Austrian doctors: “Karina, go home, go for a brisk walk along the Mattig, drink a glass of red wine, and go to bed,” he said. I was lying with my head down on his desk, so ill that I thought I would never get healthy again.

“But I have a serious fever, am taking antibiotics, it’s minus ten outside, and snowing,” I mumbled into the desk.

“Do as told, go!” he ordered.

I did. After the walk and the wine, I fell into a deep sleep on my brother’s couch. When I woke up hours later, I felt better. It was a turning point. After weeks of struggling with terrible infections, I began to recover.

And so, remembering the good doctor, I drove home, went for a long walk along the Liesbeek River, had a glass of red wine and went to bed with a book (yes, Jack Reacher).

A week passed in which I tried to keep the fear at bay, tried really hard not to think about the near future too much. On the day of my mammogram (my first ever), driving to the hospital, I was fully aware that this could be the day when everything changes and life is never the same again.

The examination was nothing like I heard or imagined. Painless, quick and done with a lot of care and understanding, despite the fact that apparently bony women with tiny breasts experience the most discomfort. I am both, but I didn’t. The ultrasound afterwards was more unpleasant, but also performed with so much care that I felt safe and in the best of professional hands.

I didn’t have to wait long for the results. All clear. All benign. Nothing sinister.

The relief was so enormous I wanted to jump and dance at the hospital. Instead I sent messages to friends who wanted to know my news. Two were waiting with coffee and croissants. We celebrated. The day did not turn out to be THAT DAY. I am lucky. But many other women go through the trauma of a cancer diagnosis on days like these. For them life changes irrevocably. Many recover, but not all. Moira died earlier this year. She was my age. When she was diagnosed, it was much too late to do anything. I wonder whether she had felt the threat, but was overwhelmed by denial for too long to be saved.

October is breast cancer awareness month. Be wiser than me: Don’t wait, don’t let the fear paralyse you, act. Please.

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