Sleutelwoorde

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Afrikaans version here

On my first visit to the surgeon two weeks after the mastectomy, he was very pleased with my progress. After the drainage tubes were removed, I was already able to hold my arm above my head and brush my hair. (I, nevertheless, continued to use the battery-powered toothbrush while reading or watching television, to the family’s irritation!

The good news was that they found no evidence of metastasis, however, this was not a hundred percent guarantee that there were no rogue cells present in my body, so he referred me to an oncologist. This meant that I had to spend a few more hours at the clinic for blood tests, x-rays of my lungs, ultrasound video recordings of my heart and intestines – it felt as if I were turned inside out and put on display for inspection. For me, a true control freak, it was a horrendous experience to feel so helpless and exposed. Fortunately, all these facilities were available under one roof.

Luckily, I had been a member of an excellent medical aid fund, for many years. I was really grateful for this, as all medical costs were covered by the fund, from beginning to end.

Shortly thereafter, I had my first appointment with the oncologist and he discussed the results of the tests with me: my heart, kidneys, lungs, liver and a few other organs which I have never heard of before, appeared to be in good order, blood pressure, sugar and cholesterol normal. Good news all around then.

I would, however, have to receive chemotherapy as a preventive measure, as breast cancer is known for early “broadcasting” and the treatment would be aimed at destroying any cancer cells that might still be present in my body.

“But,” says the wise man, “you are really very lucky.” Just before my lower jaw hit the carpet, he explained that I was diagnosed with a hormone-related cancer, which is easily treatable, with good results. “Besides, if I ever had to choose what kind of cancer I wanted,” he says, “I would choose breast cancer, because the research in this direction have progressed so far that the chances of survival and complete recovery are much greater than for other types of cancer. “

Thanks Doctor, now I really feel so lucky.

Seeing that there was nothing wrong with me, in a manner of speaking, we could start with the chemo treatment the next week already. The oncologist explained to me that the course of the treatment would be scheduled over a period of a few months and that I would be required to report for intravenous chemotherapy every three weeks. He warned me that each course of treatment would leave me feeling sick for a few days and suggested that I should get on with my normal activities between treatments. Then he introduced me to his competent medical assistant who set out to show me the locale where I was to report the next week.

Chemical agents were being administered to approximately ten patients seated in a ring of comfortable push back chairs – the kind in which one could have a quiet nap, which was exactly what some of the patients were doing, to my utter amazement. Some patients were carrying on conversations and having homemade chocolate cake which one of the ladies brought along. I was offered a piece of cake, but my insides were churning and I declined.

The medical assistant moved around, chatting with the patients and adjusting their drips when one of them asked about the red blotches on the back of her hand. “Oh,” she casually replied, “I burned myself last week when I was mixing the chemicals for a patient’s drip”. My cautious enquiry revealed that this was actually a reference to chemicals administered to patients. It’s the same damn kind of poison that they’re going to inject into my body; I cringed at the thought and the other patients laughed at my horror-stricken face.

Lucky, lucky me.

Oliver

That evening, back home, I tried to put on a brave face, but this effort appeared to be in vain and I just went to bed, where Oliver was waiting to comfort me. Oliver was Karen’s majestically fat tabby cat – she underwent an unexpected sex change a few weeks after she came to live with us, but still retained the name – who slept in Karen’s bed every night for the past eight years. On the first morning back home after the mastectomy, I woke up with a cat in my bed. Thereafter Ollie slept with me after every chemo session. She remained in my room on my “bad” days, and as soon as I felt well enough to get up, she moved back to Karen’s room. This became a pattern during the period that I had to undergo treatment. It was a strange comfort to feel the plump, warm little body next to mine every time I woke up.

I could not endure the thought of having to hang around, doing nothing but biting my nails in between chemo sessions and I chose the only option that made sense to me in a world suddenly turned upside down – I started working again. This returned a certain degree of normality to our family life and Karen started preparing for her final exams. My son drove me to work every morning and picked me up again in the afternoon; although we lived a mere 20 kilometers from the city center, the traffic was a nightmare. This was in the days before all cars were issued with power steering as a matter of course and I would have struggled with the steering wheel and the gearshift.

At the office, only those colleagues in the department where I worked, knew about the mastectomy and this was how I preferred it. I was not in the mood to answer questions or to discuss my prognosis, with regard to which I myself had no clarity yet. I still had to get my head around the idea of “I have cancer”; moreover, I am one of those people who hate to admit to any weaknesses and put them on display. I only wished for my life return to normal as soon as possible. “Normal” became a challenge, the goal that I wanted to achieve as soon as possible.

Going back to the office was the right decision and went a long way to start the emotional healing process. My co-workers, who all shared an excellent sense of humour, did not hesitate to make me the target of their pranks on those days when my temper got the best of me. The episode of the chain e-mail was a clear proof of that. E-mail communication made its appearance in the corporate world during this particular period and we immediately embraced it as the ideal form of communication, eliminating the use of written memos. Unfortunately, in those days, employers did not yet have the necessary rules and regulations in place to limit corny jokes, chain letters and all those types of horrors; e-mail from other departments and even external sources flowed freely in and out of inboxes. Those chain e-mails that ordered the recipient to forward the message or prayer within seven days to seven different people to avoid great misfortune were my pet peeve.

When I received another one of those chain e-mails one day, I lost my temper, totally and very audibly. The high dividers between our desks prevented us from seeing each other, but my colleagues must have heard me well enough, because just moments later, another chain-evil landed in my inbox, this time from my colleague just on the other side of the divider. The message was short and sweet: “If you do not pass this message on to seven people within seven days, your other tit will also rot and fall off”. I went into peals of hysterical laughter, with everyone peeping out from behind the dividers to share in the hilarity.

Thank goodness for these people who could dig up my sense of humour from a very dark hole. I needed their support over the next few months and they propped me up on those days when I did not have the strength to drag myself onward.

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