Today I have my first year check up since my op. I’ll go to the hospital, have a mammogram on my good breast and my onconoplastic surgeon will look at my reconstruction and assess what more can be done. Easy.
I don’t want to go.
As I drive round the city by pass I’m slightly panicky about how late I left the house, I keep watching the clock, calculating how much time I’ll need to walk from the car park to the clinic. When David asked about the appointment as we lay in bed this morning, I cried quiet tears. He offered to come with me but there’s no hand holding during this interminable Pandemic.
I’m not alone in dreading this appointment, it seems many women dread the first year check up but most are anxious because they fear cancer coming back. I feel strangely disengaged from the idea that my cancer could return, it feels so far beyond my control that I’ve not really given it much thought. It might, it might not, it’s the luck of the draw. In part I don’t want to go to the appointment because I don’t want to return to the scene of so much emotional turmoil. However warm and caring and gentle the staff, there’s no getting round the fact that the breast clinic is not about good news, even the good news I did get there was set against the context of the fact that it could have been much, much worse news. Learning something isn’t as bad as it could have been doesn’t make it good, it just makes it a bit less bad. Being braced for terrible news leaves a residue, the walls of the hospital clinic are sticky with it.
As I sit and wait to be called I study the plastic pot plants and re-read the notices on the peachy wall about mammograms that I sat here and read a year ago. There’s four of us here, each sitting alone and I briefly wonder what page in their story I’ve come in at, then turn instead to stare in disbelief at the chocolate bars and crisps in the vending machine. When will Scotland and the NHS stop putting this shitey food in their hospitals ffs? I tut but mainly because the sight of them makes me conscious of how much weight I’ve put on since I was here last. My personal Covid spread has been considerable and it adds to my angst about what’s coming.
I can cope with waiting in rooms where the walls are dusty with dried tears, what I can’t cope with is having to undress and present my poor, scarred, battered and unsightly form for inspection within those walls. I keep wondering why it feels so hard and there are many reasons but the main one is I’ve looked in the mirror. I know what I look like these days and I’m still not able to look without flinching.
I was listening to a Radio 4 programme the other day where poets talked about their response to the body’s metamorphosis throughout life and I became spell bound. A poet described seeing her reflection and not recognising herself, feeling so dislocated that she was consumed by the idea that if she raised her arm the reflection would not. She saw an old woman, a stranger, and she was suddenly aware of the ‘slippage’ that happens between body and soul.
I wonder when that starts? When does the mind part company from the body? At what point does our body unshackle itself from those feelings of eternal youth, go its own way and tell its own story? Is there a precise day when officially you feel younger than you are? And is it a different day for each of us? I suddenly want to name it, surely its of significance, that day when you both continue to age but don’t feel it.
In the wreckage of the cancer car crash something happened to me, for some reason my soul and body collided once more, were re-united with hideous crunching clarity. It’s an event which is profoundly shocking. For the first time in my life I both look and feel old. I’ve crash landed into a body and sadly it fits how I’m feeling inside. When did this happen? When did I morph into this old woman?
I suspect this is all just part of the messy business of acceptance. When a friend asked me how my body was doing the other day, I said we should change the question to ‘how is your acceptance coming on?’. Acceptance of what’s happened, acceptance of the physical impact, acceptance of the rearranging of your entire personal landscape and acceptance of your own mortality. It’s a long list to pick your way through but I suspect a big chunk of it is also about accepting what I now see in the mirror.
It’s also about accepting that in order to be checked over by the consultant I need to undress. So I do. When he comes to look at my reconstruction he frowns as I knew he would. ‘I don’t look at that one’ i say, taking a stab at levity, ‘that’s right, make me feel worse’ he jokes back. He says it can be improved but we’ve still no idea when in the current climate. He suggests I reconsider an implant. It’s my turn to frown. We agree to meet again in a year and regroup. A year.
Later in the day, washing up after tea, I start to tell David that I can’t imagine ever having any more done to my reconstruction, even though it’s so small and flat, not after what my body has been through, but part way through I lose the words and choke up. I continue the conversation in my head, I say I won’t ever change it because it would be vanity and vanity got me into this mess in the first place. I’m paying the price for vanity. I feel all this has been my fault. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asks, but I shake my head, still speechless, knowing I’ll write the words for him to read here when I find them.
Then I remember my friend Deirdre’s words earlier in the day as we walked for a coffee. ‘You don’t have cancer, that’s all I care about, you don’t have cancer, that’s a win‘. And she’s right, no one else cares about my reconstruction, in terms of how they see me, it’s invisible. What if, in practising the art of honestly, openly gazing at ourselves, we can start to see ourselves as others see us? What would we see? My friends don’t see a woman with half a breast, they see me as brave, strong, determined, stubborn, inspiring, I know because they tell me so. If I can just get past the rawness of what’s happened, gaze past the bruised and broken bits and see those scars as nothing more than evidence of a life thoroughly lived and loved, maybe then I could truly inhabit those qualities, really embrace them, see that person when I look at my reflection instead.