A breast cancer patient’s journey – Blog Post 2 – “The One Stop Shop”

Ruth Taylor
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Ruth Taylor, 45, is a mum of two who was diagnosed with breast cancer back in May 2016. We are honoured to share her journey from initial diagnosis, informing her family, through to chemo and radiotherapy. She hopes to raise awareness and educate others about breast cancer, while firmly kicking cancer back where it belongs. This is the second instalment in her blog post.
Well my GP was good to her word – I saw her on the 22nd April and I got my appointment at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary (ARI) on 10th May, 3 days before my 45th birthday. So the morning arrived and I drove into Aberdeen and headed for the visitors car park.

Why do they make those parking spaces so small?  Now, I drive a Citreon C3, so not a big car by any means, but I was still not able to open the door further than to provide a gap that only a contortionist would manage to get out from!  I considered sliding across to the passenger seat but saw that the situation was just as dire on that side, so nothing else for it – I squeezed myself out of the car feeling more than a tad self-aware. 

In the waiting room at the infirmary

The next hurdle was to navigate my way through the hospital and this is where I would say, allow yourself plenty of time!  I am renowned for turning up late to everything – I think it is partly due to my obsession with not wasting time, but it usually means that I end up running everywhere!  The hospital is divided into colour zones, which certainly helped to orientate myself, as I am also renowned for having the worst sense of direction!  I wandered along the corridors admiring the art work that adorned the walls trying to keep myself calm by concentrating on any distractions.  I arrived at the correct reception desk and then my first experience of the waiting areas – I found myself surreptitiously looking at the other people in the waiting room and wondering about their lives, what were they here for? The same as me I supposed.  A number of ladies were sitting with their partners and then I started to wonder, should I have brought Andrew, would I need him for support, what did the other people think looking at me – poor lady must be facing this alone?  But I didn’t have long to ponder, as I was summoned to follow a nurse down a corridor to the mammogram department. 

The mammogram

I was welcomed by a cheery nurse who gave me a gown and asked me to slip it on and come through to the room where the machine was.  I went into a cubicle which was similar in every way to a changing room in a clothes store, apart from the lack of mirrors and the sign that said “Please keep all of your belongings with you, do not leave valuables in this cubicle” and then I faced my next dilemma – which way to put the gown on?!  Was it to be worn like a dressing gown or like the gowns at a hairdresser’s that fasten at the back?  On reflection I decided to go for the dressing gown look, particularly as I surmised I would need to open it up for the mammogram, so this way round made more sense to me – fine I thought, we can do this, but then came the multitude of tapes/ribbons to tie to fasten the gown and ensure my modesty.  I decided to go for the lot - secured at the neck, just below bra level and at waist, but I still felt that at any moment the gown would fall off me. 

Once into the room I was almost immediately asked to open my gown in order to position me on the mammogram machine for the photos.  It was at this point that I regretted the double bows that for some reason I had pulled as tightly as possible!  Grappling with these I mumbled an apology whilst the nurse waited patiently with a cheery smile on her face.  We then went through a process of me being positioned by the nurse to lean into the machine and lay my breast onto the plates in such a way that another plate from above could be lowered down to clamp me vice like into position, with the nurse bustling backwards and forwards between me and the control panel for the machine to take the required pictures.  This process was repeated a number of times so that they had pictures of each breast from the front and the side.  I was surprised that although the plates were squeezed firmly together, they were no worse than moderately uncomfortable and I marvelled at the dexterity of the nurse who controlled the panels coming down with a remote control and I chuckled to myself as she positioned me for the side-on shots, as I had to raise my arm and drape it across the machine and lean in, for what most photographers would class as a super seductive pose, as I thrust my chest forward and she merrily said “stick your bum out and lean in!”.  Then it was back to the changing room to re-dress and return to the waiting area, taking the gown with me.

I was thankful for the slackening of the “No mobile phones” rules that were in force the last time I visited hospital and tried to lose myself in Facebook and Messenger while I pondered on what was still to come, the GP words ringing in my ears “They do a mammogram and ultrasound and then if they are still not sure they’ll do a needle test – that can be a painful procedure”.

The ultrasound and “dreaded” needle test

After what felt like a long time I was summoned to follow a nurse along a couple of corridors before she led me into a room and said “Take a seat Mr Masannat will be with you shortly”.  I was in a small room with a table, couch and three chairs.  The room was very quiet after the hustle in the busy waiting room and I felt awkward siting in the chair on my own waiting for the arrival of the doctor.  I stared at the poster on the wall advocating good hand washing techniques and made a mental note to begin a new regime of meticulous cleanliness.  A quiet knock on the door and Mr Masannat entered the room.  He wore a smart suit and had a confident but relaxed air about him, which instantly put me at my ease.  He listened intently to my story, asking a few questions and then he asked me to put on my gown so he could examine me.  He located the lump with an expert hand and carefully probed and prodded, firmly but gently.  He then asked me to raise my hand above my head and he felt down along the side of my breast under my arm, “How long have you had these lumps?” he asked.  “What lumps?!” I answered with a slight lurching feeling in my stomach.  He explained that he could feel some lumpy tissue under my arm in the lymph gland area and he said that they would also need investigating.  He told me that the lump I had found was small and was more than likely just a cyst and that I had done well to notice it so early.

He then brought out a maker pen from his pocket and drew two large crosses on my breast, one where the lump was and the other on the area under my arm.  He explained to me that I would now get an ultrasound and then depending on what that found I might also need to go for the needle test (or “dreaded” needle test, as it was now firmly known as in my mind). So, back I went to the waiting area wondering about these lumps that were apparently under my arm.  Why hadn’t I spotted them myself?!  But then I reasoned with my racing brain, “How many breasts have you examined in your lifetime to know what they should feel like?!”  I know they say you get to know your own, but I have to say that I was not in a regular habit of massaging my chest!

After a wait of around 10 minutes I was on to the next stage, which was the ultrasound.  I entered a darkened room and the radiologist asked me to get into my gown and lay on the couch.  He then proceeded to explain that the gel he would be using for the scan would be quite cold, as he squirted a generous dollop of the icky, sticky, yucky stuff onto my left breast and I took a sharp intake of breath – he wasn’t wrong!  Do they keep that stuff in the freezer just for a laugh to see what reaction they get??  These guys are merciless!!  He worked the scanner across my chest in a meticulous methodical sweeping motion. 

My mind went back to the last time I had experienced this, just over 12 years ago when, rather than my breast, it was my belly that was being scanned to reveal the most amazing and comforting images of my second child, safely cradled in my womb waiting for his moment to make his entrance into the world.  How things have changed I thought!!  The radiologist was staring intently at the screen that showed swirls of grey and white on a black background.  How do they see anything from that I wondered, and I asked him what he could see.  He moved to the area where the lump was and I felt my toes curl and my whole body squirm – it didn’t hurt but I experienced the same reaction as you would to someone dragging their nails down a school chalk board – for the younger fry reading this who are only used to smart boards and white boards at school, imagine your response to watching someone pulling off their toenail and you’ll get the idea!!

He indicated a point on the screen that showed a shady area that was oval in shape, maybe 3 to 4cms in size.  “Can you see this area?  This is where the lump is.”  I focused on the shape and marvelled at how he managed to distinguish anything from the numerous shapes and swirls that were before my eyes “Can you tell what it is?”  I asked.  He replied “I’m not entirely sure, I definitely don’t think it is a cyst”.  This made my mind sit up and pay attention, presumably if it was not a cyst it must be some other sort of growth I thought.  He spent a further minute or so going over the whole area of my breast and also under my arm.  By the time he had finished there was very little of the slime to wipe away but I remember still feeling slightly sticky as I refastened my bra, getting dressed to return to the now familiar waiting area.

I watched a number of women and a few men disappear to the consulting rooms as they were called through and I was left to check Facebook, Messenger and email for the umpteenth time. I fleeting thought that perhaps I should have brought Andrew with me, but almost instantly could see him sitting next to me with a furrowed brow while we both tried to think of normal day-to-day chit chat to fill the silences while we waited. 

Eventually I was summoned back to the consulting room to see Mr Masannat.  He explained that the mammogram had not shown anything that they were particularly worried by, but the ultrasound was indicating that the lump was not a cyst, so we would need to progress to the needle test, which would extract fluid from within the lump that could be analysed there and then to see if it indicated that the lump might be cancerous.  He also said that they would do a needle test on the area under my arm.

So I was returned to the waiting room wondering what the radiologist saw in that grey oval shadow that made them so sure it was not a cyst.  I was the last remaining person in the waiting room and, fed up with my phone, I resorted to sifting through the magazines and leaflets on the coffee table.  I picked up the one about the needle test and read through it to see what I was in for.  It was when I got to the possible side effects that I started to pay more attention.  It was when they mentioned that there was a small risk that your lung could be punctured by the needle and that this was a higher risk for those people who were of slight build and with small breasts, which fitted me to a tee – omg!!  My lungs might collapse is all I could think, as I was called through to yet another room.  There were two ladies in the room one who apologised profusely for keeping me waiting so long and the other who showed me to the couch and asked me to get back into my gown.  I did as instructed and watched as the doctor prepared the equipment she needed.  I asked her in a faltering voice about the likelihood of her puncturing my lung, she looked at me with a big grin and said that in over 20 years she had never once done this to her knowledge and I wasn’t about to be her first!!  She then produced the needle and explained that she would need to insert it at least two if not three times in each area to ensure that they had extracted sufficient fluid to analyse.  It was at that point that my fears subsided – although rather long, the needle looked finer to me than a hair from my head and each time I honestly could barely feel it as she inserted it in to my breast – compared to acupuncture needles this was childsplay.  I could feel the tension flooding out from me, as my body began to relax – this was ok I thought, it was fine, it was not even a “wee bit nippy” as the locals would have said.  Within minutes I was back in the waiting room while all of my test results were analysed by the professionals in a group discussion, as they mulled over my diagnosis.  By this time I was tired and feeling decidedly washed out.  I had been the only person siting in the waiting room for some time now, as periodically I saw people exiting from consultation rooms and leaving the hospital, some with expressions of relief, others harder to read.

The results

Finally it was my turn.  I was called back through and Mr Masannat was waiting for me.  He explained that each of the tests did not give a definite diagnosis either way, but taken together they contradicted each other.  From what he explained I gathered that the mammogram had not shown up anything untoward, however the ultrasound had shown the lump was not simply a cyst.  The needle test had indicated no concern on the area under my arm, but had been inconclusive from the liquid extracted from the lump.  So, all in all he advised that the only way to be sure would be to have a biopsy done – a similar process to the needle test but with a slightly bigger needle that would be able to extract tissue rather than just fluid.  He said this would be arranged within two weeks and that it would be done under local anaesthetic and the results would take around two weeks to come back.  He asked me if I had any questions, as I processed what he had said and the niggling thoughts in my brain began to find their voice – “It’s cancer!  It’s got to be!”  When the nurse who was in the room asked if I had anyone with me with a look of concern on her face, the alarm bells got louder, but I hung on to the doctor’s parting comment that the majority of the cases that they saw for these checks turned out to be nothing.

It was as I was driving home thinking about what the future might hold in store for me that I decided the best way I could deal with this was take it one step at a time and so my life for the next wee while was compartmentalised into two week targets, as I looked to the next hurdle to get over, the next milestone to reach.

Didn’t read the first blog post in #RuthsJourney? Click here

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