Stage 4 Diagnosis – A Blessing in Disguise!
Yes you read that right. A stage 4 diagnosis actually saved my life. How the hell is that possible? Well bear with me and I’ll enlighten you!
I’m going to skip back a little bit here. Back to a family holiday in Italy in May 2016. I was in the bathroom in our chalet getting ready to go out to the pool and was putting on a bikini top when I felt a lump in my right breast. It was about the size of a small grape. I told Paul and he felt it too. There was definitely a lump there. We joked about how I might have cancer and how I’d leave him to be a single parent. We actually joked about it for a few weeks on and off until the truth became apparent and it wasn’t so funny anymore.
When we got home from Italy, I went to my GP in Dublin. I didn’t wait around, which would be something I might have normally done. I think we are all guilty of putting our health concerns on the long finger. My GP reassured me that it was probably a fibrous adenoma, very common in women my age and the lump seemed to be nice and round and moving freely so she wasn’t overly concerned. Her manner was calm which was nice, it didn’t make me panic, that came later in the form of an oncology nurse with little tact. She referred me to the breast clinic to have it checked out anyway.
That was the beginning of June. I didn’t hear from the hospital for about 6-8 weeks. By this time, another lump had formed, this one was bigger. I rang the hospital and they said the waiting list was 14 weeks before I would even get an appointment. I was worried so I returned to my GP. She found something in my lymph node, which she didn’t share with me but it was written all over her face. She said she would contact the hospital and that I might get an appointment sooner than 14 weeks. I was barely in the car when the hospital rang me. My GP obviously knew that it was urgent that I was seen soon. That was a Thursday, I was in the breast clinic in the Mater Hospital for an appointment less than a week later on the following Wednesday.
The breast clinic was a bit of a weird experience. I had worked for years in hospitals as a care assistant when I was in college so it was a familiar environment for me. But the breast clinic was different. It was eerie. It was full of women waiting to hear their fate, surrounded by pink posters and leaflets. Do I have cancer? Am I going to lose my hair? Am I going to die? You could just see those questions running through the minds of everyone there. I was the youngest by far. Even at this stage, I still thought it might just be a cyst. How could I be in the same boat as all those women, they were all older. I hadn’t been very worried at all up to this point. It was an unnerving and uncomfortable feeling but I didn’t think I had cancer. I didn’t feel sick, how could I be sick and not know?
A lady doctor examined me initially. She said she thought it was a fibrous adenoma too. My mind was at ease. She sent me through to the next room for an ultrasound. Two women were looking at the screen, moving the probe around. I heard them say it wasn’t a fibrous adenoma. What is it then? A cyst? They wanted to send me for a mammogram to get a clearer picture. So myself and Paul went downstairs to the mammogram area and waited. It was then that I turned to him and said I think we’re in trouble. We both sat quiet, no joking this time. I had a mammogram, which was very uncomfortable and painful. After that, I was sent back upstairs where the ultrasound ladies were waiting to perform a biopsy on me. This was the most painful experience of my life, and I have given birth to a child! Biopsies are very invasive and I was left with a scar and inner breast pain for a long time after. During the biopsy, I shrieked in pain. I said ‘fuck this is sore!’ The oncology nurse said ‘don’t worry, it will be over soon’ to which I flippantly replied, ‘sure there’s worse to come’. What she said next confirmed that I was in trouble. She said ‘well at least we’re getting everything we need now’, referring to the amount of samples they took for testing. The tears started to roll, it was uncontrollable. I was now sobbing, lying on my side on a hospital bed with a gown barely draped over me, calling for Paul. They stitched and bandaged me up and they went and got him. We just hugged and cried and we knew it wasn’t good. There was a feeling of death in the air, they knew it, we knew it. It was doom and gloom. We met with the medical oncologist next who said there was something suspicious in my breast. Best not to worry about it until we get a clearer picture of what is going on inside. He told me not to google anything, not to worry myself. The nurses in the room nodded along as if it was the worst thing I could do (more on googling, researching and empowering myself with information later). I’ve since learned from a doctor friend of mine, that the ‘suspicious’ comment, was a parting shot. Something to prepare me for worse news the next visit. And it did get worse. Much, much worse…
Coming up in Diagnosis Part II… Researching prognosis and survival rates, hearing that an initial stage 3 diagnosis was now stage 4, surgery is off the table, and hearing ‘you’re going to die of Breast Cancer Mairead!’ Buckle up for a rollercoaster of emotions next time!