Updated: Mar 11
It’s D Day. Well, surgery day, operation day, lumpectomy day, smurf day, shitting a brick day. Whatever you want to call it, it’s today. And I’m not welcoming the morning with my usual gay frivolity. First off, no tea. I stubbornly woke up at 5.58am to have my last permitted glass of water. I wasn’t thirsty, I just wasn’t going to miss out on the chance to push a deadline to its limits. Especially one foisted on me by Fucktard. Wait, you haven’t been introduced to Fucktard yet, have you? Apologies. Fucktard is my tumour. Fucktard, meet the peeps. Peeps, meet Fucktard.
It seems to be quite the thing to name one’s tumour, according to my new and wonderful cancer buddies, and being deeply jealous of learning of a tumour called Stuart, I decided mine needed a name too. Fucktard sprung to mind and seemed apt, so it stuck. But don’t worry about getting to know him, Fucktard won’t be around long. Today is the day that Fucktard gets evicted. The story was never about him, it’s always been about me. Start packing, sucker.
It’s a complex agenda today. I have to go to my local hospital to have radioactive something or other injected into my lymph nodes, so they show up on the scan during the operation, then have another procedure to insert a piece of wire into Fucktard’s arse so the surgeon can find him and cut him out in one piece. Fucktard is a slippery little sucker and is currently hiding, like the weasley little shit he is, somewhere hard to reach and hard to find. Can't say I'm surprised to be honest, he’s hardly covered himself with glory so far. Then, after I’m radioactive and wired up, I have to do an hour journey to sunny East Grinstead (there truly is no glamour in any of this tale) for surgery. There is smurf dye at some point, but I’m not sure when.
At 8.30 I’m whisked away and taken into a small waiting room to await the arrival of the Nuclear Medicines team. There are fake flowers and a picture on the wall. This is never good news. I’ve already worked out that the amount of furnishings there are in an NHS room, the more horrific the things that happen there. But this is a small room, and a small vase, so I’m pretty sure no one’s going to pitch up and tell me my cat’s dead or auditors are coming next week. I’m being very well looked after by the nurse crew, all apologising that they can’t get me a cup of tea (I hadn’t been thinking about tea, but now, yeah, thanks), but the Nuclear Team shouldn’t be long. Now you know me, my imagination is now in full overdrive. I’m expecting a full hazmat-suited red-light flashing siren-sounding team of 10 to turn up, with a nuclear green glowing glass case containing the syringe of power.
What I get is a lady in blue scrubs and crocs, carrying a small battered toolbox the size of your Uncle Ken’s 1970s ratchet set, apologising that the motorbike courier from Maidstone got stuck in traffic. See? No glamour. Not even a smidgeon of it. The injection itself is sadly disappointing and over in 30 seconds, much like the excitement of a trip to Maidstone, and the Nuclear Team departs, back to doing whatever it is that Nuclear Teams do.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it
The wire guided insertion thing is a bit more interesting. There’s an ultrasound and I get my first good look at Fucktard. He’s a pathetic little specimen really, and no match for Irina, my glorious and feisty russian Radiologist. She and her sidekick work like a well oiled machine and within 5 minutes Fucktard has a wire firmly shoved deep inside his core (I watched it go in and cheered a silent cheer). Irina is happy and almost cracks a smile. A mammogram later and she’s back with an envelope of film for me to transport to the next hospital. Now this is what we’re after, a secret mission, films in envelopes and instructions to hand the package over to a named individual. Irina knows the score. The drama has arrived. I ask Irina if I’ve had the blue dye yet and she cackles. “Not yet”, she tells me with no small hint of promise “you must wait. The surgeon will inject you with the blue dye when the time is right. You won’t know it’s happened until the next day, but be warned, you may cry blue tears.”
What the actual fuck? Blue tears? Here's me, expecting Smurfette singing a happy song, and now I find myself in a Tom Cruise cyber thriller crying actual blue tears. Irina tells me to leave, with a knowing glance at her wristwatch, so I scuttle out, clutching my secret envelope, scared that my radioactivity is going to start spilling out onto the people of East Sussex. I keep my eyes down and don’t look at any adverts, because I’ve seen Minority Report so I know how these things work.
We start the drive to East Grinstead. It’s about an hour away and the excitement of the first hour is rapidly slipping away to reveal the stark reality of what’s coming next. No, not East Grinstead, although to be fair, it’s a passer through, not a stopper off, no, the actual operation. My husband is trying to make lighthearted chat about something or other but I’m not listening, I’ve gone to the box.
Many years ago I worked in central London and suffered from severe anxiety attacks, especially on the Underground. At the time the IRA bomb threat in London was high and tube travellers were regularly held undergound in tunnels, with no ventilation, no information and no way out for hours at a time. Every package was suspect and tensions were high. It was a very real anxiety. The horror of standing in a packed, airless commuter train waiting to be blown up was too much and so my psyche created The Box. It was a dark deep place that I could retreat to, alone, where no one could get me. The scary stuff was all outside, I could see it, hear it and feel it, but it was outside, and I was inside. Not safe, but safer. Inside the box I calmed my breathing, shut down my senses and waited until the terror passed. It always passed, as anxiety does, and I never died, so The Box validated itself and saw me through some tough times.
I still suffer from mild anxiety occasionally now, but I recognise it for the physical reaction it is and am pretty good at riding it out. But today I’m driving to a hospital, radioactive and wired up, to have a general anaesthetic to remove a cancerous tumour from my body and, to my mind, that ticks most of the Scary As Shit boxes. So The Box has appeared from my mental Room of Requirement, and I’m sitting inside it, pulling the lid over my head as the A22 propels us forward like some shit conveyor belt to the Shitty Town Fair in Shitsville, Tennessee.
I’m still in the box as I give my husband a cheery wave, and as I find my way to the Theatre section of the hospital. I’m there as I check in and as I get escorted to a consulting room where two breast cancer-survivor nurses treat me so kindly I nearly believe it’s going to be OK. I lift the lid of the box a tiny bit as I smile and laugh at my surgeon’s poor attempts at humour, and I watch, receding backwards as he draws a large arrow on my left hand, to make sure he gets the right side. I pull the lid tight back down again as Colin the anaesthetist explains what’s going to happen next.
I’m deep inside the darkness, with my mental fingers in my ears as they put me on a trolley that feels like a crucifix. The Box becomes a deep, dark well as they put a mask over my face and I am so numb that I don't even feel the canula going in. I focus on the bright light above my head as the sounds of the theatre fade out, and I imagine that there is only me and the light left in the universe and nothing else exists.
I open my eyes and say hello to a complete stranger who is talking to me, but he knows my name so I answer back. So much for 16 years of Safeguarding training. I’m wide awake and I’m pretty sure I’m alive. Colin arrives and is beaming at me, whatever I did, I did OK, and this new nurse is my new best friend. We chat about the NHS 1% payrise and he brings me a cup of tea. I love him with all my soul. I’m sitting up and watching the world go by as other women arrive and wake up too. There are so many awakenings I’m pretty sure I’m now on the set of a Robert de Niro movie, but I’m here, there’s tea and I’m happy to let the plot play out.
Whoever this godlike being is who has adopted me and brought me tea, he now offers me a sandwich and frankly, I’m ready to move him in there and then, despite his rubbish salary. But it’s over too soon as Colin arrives and I get wheeled out of Recovery and into Discharge. I wordlessly bond with Pamela, in the bed over the way, as we are tended to by the next raft of nurses. Pamela works in a library and needs a sick note so they know she can’t carry any books. I’m tempted to give her my number as I’d really love to have a conversation with her boss. In fact, any boss who thinks a 57 year old mastectomy patient is going to need proof that she can’t lift books. But I back down, because Pamela already knows her stuff. She’s spoken to her union. She’ll be fine.
I’m monitored and checked and given another cup of tea. My surgeon arrives with the hot air and bustle of a man who knows he’s very, very important, and he tells me he’s delighted. He thinks he got it all, he only had to make one incision and the margins looked good under the microscope. He tells me I’m going to be fine. I don’t believe him, but it’s nice to hear anyway. He says he’ll see me in a couple of weeks for the results of the node biopsy, and with a whoosh of pomposity and self assurance, he’s gone.
Discharge (no, not that sort)
I know I’m pumped full of anaesthetic, but I’m starting to feel a little bit human again. Pamela and I make a determined effort to make it off our beds and onto our respective armchairs, and our respective other halves are contacted to let them know we’ll be able to leave in about an hour. The hour flies by, and I nail the First One to Pee award. Getting dressed is awkward but we get there in the end. Nurses truly are the finest people on the planet. I clutch my heart-shaped pillow under my arm, gifted to me by another cancer survivor, and I listen carefully to my discharge instructions. Properly listen, because I really am very bad indeed at following orders.
I’ve never been more glad to see anyone than I am to see my husband, worried and anxious, waiting outside in the car for me, blocking the disabled parking bay as he struggles to open the car door. He does up my seatbelt, with the gentle touch I’ve only ever seen him use with our children, those strong bricklayers hands reaching around me to keep me safe. He’s got me. I’m safe now. We’re going home.