"She Used to be Mine" written by Sara Bareilles is a song that resonated best with my story below. I recorded my own cover of this beautiful song with a good friend of mine, Steve Anderson. This recording was for me both reflective and a turning point where I felt I had overcome the most difficult thing I'd ever faced. I hope you enjoy the song and if you get time, feel free to read my story below.
Cancer. It was one of those words which was thrown around daily. Countless television, magazine and radio advertisements. They seemed to go in one ear and out of the other. Don’t get me wrong, I was aware of it. I knew people were always raising money for the research to find a cure for it, I just didn't ever imagine I’d get it. Ever. Especially at 30.
I’m going to be very honest here because I think if any good can come from my experience of living with cancer, I will talk openly about it in the hope that other women might stumble upon this story and who knows, be comforted by it? Learn a little from it? Maybe readdress their lifestyle choices or even question the medication they are taking? 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, the power of intuition and a deep knowing... Need I go on? Needless to say, I was doing my grocery shopping in December 2014 when I 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 in my head said- very audibly if I remember rightly;
“Get a mammogram.”
I stopped my trolly. Poised. Confused- holding my greens. Where on earth (or perhaps more specifically “the universe”) did that question come from?
I sauntered home, by this point half forgotten the broccolli moment but in hind sight I like to recall this detail because if it had been any other run-of-the-mill, fleeting, pointless thought, I would have discounted it. As it happened the first thing I did was jump online to see how much a mammogram would cost. Answer? Too much to spend based on an airy fairy message in my head, from another world! There were other things I needed to spend money on. It was almost Christmas. Besides, and 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 proceedure is never fun. Ask any female. Its 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 brocolli moment. I asked the nurse there and then if I could have a mamogram on the NHS because I was concerned about my breast cancer . The first thing she asked me was if had I found a lump. At this point the answer was no, I hadn’t. But I explained that I had a funny feeling about them 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 messs about here, it’s boring. 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 the bottom line is; 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. And more importantly, It’s scary. If you never find a lump, you’ll never have cancer, right? If only ignorance was bliss. The first time I self examined. I lay down on the bed, as per the diagram I had found online, 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 anticlimax if I’m honest. I half expected to feel something immediately. I didn’t.
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 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. 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. I was exhausted from all the rehearsals and the nerves of opening a new show. I’d also had an emotional weekend but I will come to that later. I had a 9 o clock appointment on 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, hormone treatments and info for relatives. I sat there alone watching the doctors, surgeons and nurses checking into their respective rooms.
Finally I was seen. I was shown into a tiny sterile room by the receptionist where the surgeon sat. This guy was quite friendly in his vocal tone but every other aspect of this manner 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. Presumably for support. 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 admiting defeat and pulling out my phone. No Messages. I could check social media… My name was called.
So, guess what happened next! I finally got that mammogram. Followed by an ultrasound, which I believe, from what the nurses told me, is sometimes more effective at detecting potentially cancerous lumps than mammograms. My understanding is that it’s a lot cheaper too as there are more people trained to use this equiptment and it is much more widely used for a whole spectrim of things.. Anyway, that's another story… I digress… Back into the waiting room I went. I felt more human now. Having chatted freely with the nurses during the mammogram and ultrasound but I had left without breakfast. 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 room which seemed very small for the amount of equipment in there. I was asked to remove my top and bra and lay on the bed. As I did so I chatted to the two female nurses. I don't remember faces of anyone in this story so far but I do remembeer the way these two ladies made me feel and I’m getting tears in my eyes right now as I write this because they must see hundreds of women on that bed and they supported me in every way they could which absolutely cannot be said for a dissappointing number of people I encountered during this journey. The only reason we're on this bed in the first place is because we have gone through what feels like a very fast yet unquestionnably extensive series of examinations and tests to make sure we qualify. They know the chances of the women leaving that room having not being diagnosed with cancer are minimal. I lay on my left side. One lady 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 lady started to explain that there would be quite an uncomfortable sensation as the local anaesthetic was injected into the area. I squeezed the ther lady’s hand as the needle went in. At this point I realised there was definitely one lady there primarily for assisting and patient suppport and the other would be carrying out the biopsy. The lady whos hand I was holding asked if I had a boyfriend and 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 somewhat 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 proceedure to see if I had cancer. While we were waiting for the aneasthetic to do it’s 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 hydrolic 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 any more. 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, mixed with everything else that just tipped me over the edge. Being brave is useful sometimes but in this particular scenario I just wanted my Mum.
I started to cry. Yep. Balled my eyes out. Why was I there alone?