Breast Cancer Blog - Episode 3: Zone C

Updated: Feb 28, 2021


Cancer in a Pandemic


Getting cancer is really shit. Getting cancer during a global pandemic is really a whole other level of awful. It’s possible the loneliest and scariest thing you’ll ever, hopefully never, have to do.


My husband and I have been married for 18 years, and we’re pretty independent people. We work well as a team because we have different skills, different interests and we let each other do our own thing. But when it matters, we’re rock solid. We laugh at the couples with matching cagoules who hold hands in Tesco, and we’re happy to head off on different nights out and meet up at the end of it. Back in the days when nights out were a thing, of course. But there is no one else I would rather have by my side when things get tough. To coin a truly terrible phrase, he is my rock.


So it’s really, really crap when you read on an hospital appointment letter that you can’t bring anyone along with you. Not even to an appointment for a potential cancer biopsy, when you need a rock to sit alongside, just in case you start to wobble a bit. But Covid has stripped us of that comfort. Walking into the clinic alone, being directed to an isolated seat by paper signage, and sitting waiting for a masked stranger to take you into a freezing cold room for an ultrasound is pretty goddamn awful.


The AK47 Prodecure


Of course, this is the NHS, so the masked stranger is the most wonderful kind and caring nurse you could hope to meet. I’m a right stand-offish cow with new people, so I do the whole eyes down, closed body language thing, give one word answers and offer only cursory “yup”s when I’m asked if I’m OK. But when the doctor/radiologist (not sure, didn’t ask, probably should have) brings out a needle the literal size of a sharpened AK47 and points it at my heart, the nurse takes my hand quietly. And I let her.


AK47 woman tells me I might feel a sharp scratch, and the gun (she actually called it a gun) would make a loud clicking noise. We all know that ‘sharp scratch’ is NHS speak for ‘fucking big ouch’ but I can handle that. ‘Loud clicking noise’ is a new one on me though. I await the click.


What I get, instead of a click, is the sound of a rifle in a cavern, close to my head, and a sensation (painless admittedly) of a cold metal spear entering my body at high speed. I’m over-dramatising, of course, but bear in mind I’m lying supine on a bed with my arms above my head, like a walk on extra in a war movie, so I think I’m entitled to play up the trauma. But I haven’t been shot, I’m alive, and like a bizarre Ealing Comedy, we smile and make small talk like nothing just happened. AK47 woman leaves, with an actual piece of me, and lovely nurse repairs my dignity, puts me back together and sends me home with an aftercare letter and an extra dose of compassion.


Diagnosis

Six days later I get a letter summoning me to the hospital. At this point you have an inkling. In lockdown, anything that can be done by phone or video call is done by phone or video. You don’t get brought into the hospital unless you need a physical examination, or they have something to tell you that they can’t do over the phone. Good news happens in a phone call. Bad news happens face to face. Husband drops me off outside the entrance and I take a deep breath, sanitise my hands, take a mask, and join the socially distanced queue for Outpatients.


I’m directed to the Pink Zone, to section C. Now I’m no expert in symbolism - I mean I’ve read the Da Vinci code and we did DH Lawrence at A level, but even I can tell that PINK signs with big Cs on them are pretty much going to be the breast cancer section. Heck they should give out pink ribbons just in case anyone missed the clues. The fact that it’s full of middle aged women pretty much cements my theory. Interestingly, B zone is full of middle aged gentlemen. My mind is already whirring away trying to decide what the B stands for. I decide it stands for ‘Bollocks’ and I play on my phone, trying to avoid the kindly meant eye-contract from the lady sitting opposite me. A nurse calls my name and I check out her name badge (after AK47 woman I decide I should take a bit more interest in anyone who might potentially ask me to take my top off). The name badge says


Katy

Macmillan Cancer Nurse Specialist


Fuck. Fuckity Fucking Fuck Fuck.


Katy takes me into a room where the consultant is sitting reading his messages. He asks me if we’ve met before. I’m pissed off that he doesn’t remember me but I let it pass. He starts talking and time suddenly distorts. I feel myself moving at a different pace to everyone else. I’m there but I’m not there at the same time. I’m underwater and I can’t hear anything. Sometimes I catch a word or two.