At the hospital on Tuesday, I waited for mammogram and ultrasound in a special waiting area with other gowned women having the same tests. There were usually 5 of us, although the individuals changed as we were called for one test then another. Everyone – including me, I suspect – looked nervous and a little bit agitated. We chatted, about the gowns and the tests and the hospital and the weather.
At one point, a brave soul said the unsayable and talked about feeling anxious; everyone else piled in. Hands twisted in laps. There was a tear or two. I thought: they all think that they are going to die. They all think that a diagnosis is going to be the end of them. So I did what, really, I’m here to do now: I identified myself as someone who had had a breast cancer and lived to tell the tale. I said:
Well, I’ve had breast cancer, and even though it wasn’t a lot of fun, I’m still here and I’m really well now.
It went down, my friends, like someone eating toasted kitten on a stick at an RSPCA conference. Everyone looked a bit embarrassed and grabbed the nearest magazine, apart from one woman who said something along the lines of, ‘Well, you look very well on it’, and then dived for a magazine as well.
I couldn’t work it out. I thought maybe I’d sounded as though I was showing off, or trying to get one over on anyone else. But I’ve talked about cancer to a lot of people, and…..the penny dropped. I realised that was it.
I’ve talked about cancer to a lot of people. I say ‘cancer’ like I say ‘toast’ or ‘wardrobe’ or ’supermarket’. It’s not a word that holds any fear for me, any more: it’s part of my life, part of what I am, and part of what I do. But when I replayed the conversation I’d had with that group of women, I realised they’d used phrases like, ‘if the worst comes to the worst’ and ‘if they find anything’ and ‘if it is bad news’. No-one had said cancer. No-one was ready to. And that’s fair enough.
I’m still not sure whether I should have said anything or not, though. I hope that if any of those women had a diagnosis of cancer – and statistically, at least one of them will have gone home clutching a bunch of leaflets and a soggy tissue – they will remember me, and take heart.