Before I start telling my story, I want to share with you a track that I recorded shortly after my recovery from cancer. "She Used to be Mine" written by Sara Bareilles is a song that resonated with me and my experience and the emotions I went through, as well as how I viewed myself. This is the first track from an upcoming album I am currently working on with the incredible Steve Anderson. I'd love for you to listen to it, and if you have time, feel free to read on.
Cancer. It was one of those words which was thrown around daily. I saw advertisements on TV and read about it in magazines, but it all seemed to go in one ear and out of the other. Don’t get me wrong, I was very aware of cancer, I just didn't ever imagine I would be diagnosed with it. Ever. Especially at 30 years old.
I’m going to be very honest here because I want something good to come from my experience of living with cancer. I hope that other women might stumble upon this story and, who knows, be comforted by it? Learn a little from it? Whatever the outcome, I had some rough times and some amazing times, all because of cancer.
I guess I should start by saying this; I have always been fascinated with the power of the mind, the (scientifically proven) power the mind has over the body.
My story begins in December 2014 when I was doing my grocery shopping. I suddenly had this weird urge to get a mammogram. I mean, it happened like it would in a cartoon. I was picking up broccoli and something very clear and assertive in my head said: “Get a mammogram.”
I stopped my trolley. I stood in the middle of the shop holding my broccoli, wondering where on earth that thought had come from. Did my body know something I didn't know? When I got home, I jumped online to see how much a mammogram would cost. The answer, of course, was too much to spend based on a strange message in my head. There were other things I needed to spend money on. It was almost Christmas. Besides, I had just turned 30. No one gets breast cancer at 30!
Cut to January 2015, I went along for my annual smear test. (I told you, I’m not missing anything out!) The procedure is never fun. Ask any female. It’s intrusive and uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary. We were all done and I was on the way out of the door when I had a flash back of the broccoli moment. I asked the nurse there and then if I could have a mammogram on the NHS because I was concerned about breast cancer.
The first thing she asked me was if I had found a lump. At this point the answer was no, I hadn’t. But I explained that I had a funny feeling and also wasn't entirely sure what to look for. I asked if she would check quickly before I left. She said “Nurses don’t do that. You have to find a lump first and then we check for you.” She gestured to an old laminated poster on the wall with an illustration of a pastel pink woman with a hand on her breast. I’m sure there were instructions dotted around that image, but the only thing going through my head at that point was how ridiculous the situation was. My body was trying to tell me something and I needed to listen.
I went home and researched correct techniques for breast examination. I won't mess about here, it’s a chore. There are many reasons why women don't detect breast cancer sooner and I believe the primary reason is this, it takes time. There are all kinds of lumpy bits in the breast tissue and we aren't doctors or biologists. We don't have a clue what we’re feeling for! It takes practice to even get to a point where you start to recognise your boobs. More importantly, it’s scary. If you never manage to find the time, you'll never find a lump- and if you never find a lump, you’ll never have cancer, right? If only.
The first time I self-examined I lay down on the bed, following a diagram I had found online. I put one arm above my head and with the other hand attempted to slowly examine, with my index and middle finger, inch by inch, the tissue of my boob! It was odd. A bit of an anti-climax if I’m honest. I half expected to feel something immediately. I didn’t. There was nothing more I could do, so I tried to put it to the back of my mind.
By May 2015, I was in the final week of rehearsals for Miss Saigon. I was playing Ellen, a role I had had my eye on for almost a year. I was in the West End cast and we were almost ready to open. Everything was great! Oh wait - that broccoli breast cancer thing… A few days before opening night I tried a different technique in the shower. It sounds pretty obvious now I realise, but it was a revelation then. That was it. Right arm up over my head. Left hand examining… F*!k, a lump. All I could think was how weird it would be if this was malignant.
I called my doctor and told them I thought I’d found a lump. They made an emergency appointment for me the next day and after a very brief examination they sent me along to see a specialist. I opened in Miss Saigon a few days before my first appointment at London’s Charing Cross Hospital so I was exhausted from all the rehearsals and the nerves of opening a new show. I’d also just had an emotional weekend, but I will come to that later.
I had a 9am appointment on a Monday morning. I rolled out of bed, threw my warm comfy clothes on, left my empty, stark flat in Fulham and onto the 211 bus… I was early. I sat there on my own surrounded by piles of pamphlets and brochures about how to cope with hair loss and hormone treatments.
Finally I was seen. I was shown into a tiny sterile room to see the surgeon. He was quite friendly in his vocal tone but something about it all unnerved me. The words he used seemed over used and insincere. He examined me and I was sent back into the waiting room. By this time a few more ladies had arrived with partners and other female friends and relatives. I scanned the glass table in the centre of the tired waiting room for a magazine that looked like it might have been printed at least within the last 5 months before admitting defeat and pulling out my phone. No messages.
My name was called.
You may not be surprised to hear that what came next was indeed a mammogram, followed by an ultrasound. I went back into the waiting room. I felt more human now after chatting with the nurses, but I had missed breakfast and I was starting to get hungry and impatient.
The surgeon invited me back into his room. He was a little concerned and wanted to carry out a biopsy of the growth in question. I was sent straight into a tiny room with a lot of equipment and asked to remove my top and bra and lie on the bed. As I did so, I chatted to the two female nurses. I don't remember many people in this story so far, but I do remember the way these two ladies made me feel. They must see hundreds of women on that bed and they supported me in every way they could. The only reason you are on this bed in the first place is because you have gone through, what feels like, a very fast yet unquestionably extensive series of examinations and tests. These nurses know the chances of you leaving that room without a cancer diagnosis is minimal.
I lay on my left side. One nurse asked me what I did for a job. I told her about Miss Saigon. I remember her being impressed and saying she'd love to come and watch. The other nurse explained that there would be quite an uncomfortable sensation as the local anaesthetic was injected into the area. It seemed clear to me at this point that one lady was there to carry out the procedure, and the other was there to support me.
As the procedure continued, the first nurse held my hand and asked if I had a boyfriend, I told them we had broken up two days prior. I had moved all of my things out of his place over the weekend. Yeah, you could say the timing could have been better.
I was facing the wall which made all of this feel surreal. I was having a conversation about opening in a musical, breaking up with my boyfriend, moving into an empty flat, the whole time never once making eye contact with these two lovely women while I was having a procedure to see if I had cancer. While we were waiting for the anaesthetic to do its thing, they explained what the biopsy would feel like.
All I can say is I see where the term “feels a bit like a stapler” comes from, in that it sounds and feels like an industrial hydraulic staple gun piercing the skin and extracting tissue with it. Bang! That kind of pain is tricky to deal with. It was at that point I could just sense the ladies behind me communicating silently to each other so as not to worry me or upset me anymore. I felt their helplessness in the way they assured me that everything would be OK. Then there it went again, the second staple gun. Bang!
I guess it was the pain, along with the “I might have cancer” thought, mixed with, well, everything else that just tipped me over the edge. Being brave is useful sometimes but now I just wanted my Mum. I started to cry. Yep. Balled my eyes out. Why was I there alone?
This is the first part of this post. I will be writing another post shortly to accompany it. If you'd like to be notified when it is posted, please feel free to subscribe to my newsletter.
Love - Siobhan. x