A breast cancer patient’s journey – Blog Post 3 – “Biopsy & Results”

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 third instalment in her blog post.

After the tests on the 10th May I could not help think that it was quite ironic that this was all going on just as I hit what I officially considered as “my middle age marker”.  My birthday was on the Friday 13th and I would be 45.  Given that my grandmother and her three other sisters had all lived well into their nineties and my Mum at 88 was still very active and healthy, it had never occurred to me that I would not be blessed with the same good fortune.

Over the next few days I found it very difficult to sleep, I would wake up two if not three times every night and it felt like an eternity until I drifted off again.  During these wakeful hours I spent quite a lot of time wondering whether my future would be radically different to that which I had envisaged.  I wondered how Andrew would cope without me and what it would be like to never see my kids get married and have their own children.  I wondered if my birthday being on Friday 13th was an omen and at other times I would get cross with myself for sensationalising the situation and trying to make it into an over emotional movie script! 

And then I recalled telling my best friend some years back of a great idea I had had for a film (I have always fancied myself as an author/script write) – a comedy/tragedy where a wife finds out she has terminal cancer and decides she needs to sort her husband out with a new partner who he could marry once she was gone.  The potential hilarity I could see with blind dates and all the heartache that would go with it made for a very promising storyline and I had never really decided how the film would end – the potential twist of the wife beating the odds and finding that her treatment had actually cured her, only to find her husband had fallen head-over-heels in love with the beau she had found for him, leaving him with an impossible decision, was very enticing!!  Wow, I still think this is a fabulous idea (copyright and everything is mine, so don’t get any ideas!).

Anyway, that was when I realised that this was all it was – a story for a make belief completely fictional movie, because I was damned if I was going to end up having to play the lead role and give that storyline a life of real substance through me!  So I told myself, live up to what you admire in others, a resilience that keeps everything in proportion and that does not allow circumstance to take over.  I did not even know if I had anything to worry about yet and if I found that I did, I was determined to just deal with it.

Throughout my life I have always had a passion for literature and poetry and there are two particular poems that I consider to be my rulebook.  I am not a religious person, but I have always said that if you live by the 10 commandments you can’t go far wrong, and these two pieces of prose have become my own commandments and since being diagnosed with cancer they have taken on an even stronger more poignant importance to me.  They are ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling and ‘Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann.

I found myself often reflecting on lines from these two pieces of work and have found that they have provided me with reassurance and comfort, so when I was thinking the worst and had convinced myself I would be dead in 6 months’ time I just kept reiterating the words from the poems:

“Nurture strength of spirit to shield yourself in sudden misfortune.  But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.  Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness”

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same”

Telling my husband

So by the end of the week I had pretty much managed to calm my fears and focus on my birthday and enjoy the weekend with Andrew and the kids.  So, given that I had been told by the doc to expect to wait for a couple of weeks for the biopsy, I was surprised when I received a call on my mobile from the hospital on the Monday afternoon – “Can you come in for your biopsy tomorrow?”  I was slightly taken aback with an instant reaction of “great we can just get on with this” closely followed by “are they that worried that they have put me in for an appointment as a priority?”.  Either way I was pleased that I would not have a long wait and that things could progress quicker than I had originally anticipated, so I responded with a cheery “yes that would be fantastic, see you tomorrow” which on reflection I thought might have sounded a tad too excited and eager!

So this brought me swiftly into planning mode, checking my diary to reschedule meetings planned for the following day, emailing my boss to forewarn him I would not be in for a day or two and then I was left pondering on whether now would be the right time to tell Andrew.

So that evening once the dinner was sorted I found a quiet time to tell Andrew what had been going on and to brief him on the impending biopsy.  I tried to keep it all as matter of fact as possible and he seemed to take the news very calmly.  He asked me quite a lot of questions and I sensed he felt a bit excluded that I hadn’t told him earlier, but I explained I saw no point in telling him at that stage, as it was so early in the process there were no answers to any of the obvious questions.

He asked me if I wanted him to come with me for the biopsy and although I was pleased that he had suggested it, I declined his offer.  I thought that he would find it upsetting waiting in the hospital for me and seeing other sick people, and I would find it more stressful having to worry about whether he was coping.  On reflection I am not sure whether that was the best decision.  Andrew has said that he has felt a bit excluded and helpless so far during my treatment and perhaps just the act of being there to hold my hand would have made him feel he was more part of it and able to support me.  Personally for me, the practical aspect of making sure the kids are sorted when I’ve been in hospital and doing the domestic chores has been far more help than someone there to sit with me while I get my treatment.

So I went to bed with a feeling of relief and excitement tinged with a fear of the unknown.  But I reassured myself with the doctor’s words that the biopsy was essentially the same as a needle test, but the needle was slightly bigger, so they gave you a local anaesthetic, so I figured there was nothing to worry about.

The biopsy

This time when I entered the hospital I felt more at home as I navigated my way down the corridors to the clinic I had been at a mere week ago.  I used my time waiting to be seen by catching up on texts and emails and surfing Facebook on my phone, and marvelled at this small piece of technology that provided me with so much entertainment!

I was called through into a room where I was greeted by the same radiologist who had done my ultrasound scan the previous week.  He recognised me and welcomed me with a big grin.  He explained the procedure, that he would give me a local anaesthetic similar to the sort you would get at the dentist, (but obviously not in my gum!) and then he would insert the needle that would take a small sample of cells from inside the lump which could then be analysed.  Once I was gowned up and lying on the couch he applied a liberal dollop of the icky, sticky, yucky gel and adjusted the screen so I could see the swirling images of grey as he worked the scanner across my chest.  He located the lump and pointed out the outline of it on the screen.  He then produced the “needle” that he was going to use to take the sample.  The best way I can describe it would be to say the handle part was about the size of a stapler and the “needle” resembled a very fine hack saw blade, which was about four inches long.  The radiologist reassured me that the needle would not hurt, as he had by then numbed the skin with the local anaesthetic injection, and I could watch on the screen as it went in and he located it into the centre of the lump. 

I gazed intently as I saw the needle moving into position.  “I’m now going to take the sample”, he said and I heard a noise similar to a staple gun and felt a searing pain in my breast.  I gasped at the severity and unexpectedness and the radiologist sounded shocked as he said “Is that sore?! This shouldn’t hurt, that’s not usual” This made me panic slightly, but as he removed the needle the pain began to subside and I started to feel calmer.  His perplexed expression and genuine concern and surprise touched me and made me feel sorry for him.  He explained that because I had a small chest and I was slim, that he might have gone into the muscle, which might account for the pain.  He was profusely apologetic and I gaily said “Don’t worry it’s all over now”, at which point I noticed his hesitation and I added, “You don’t have to do any more do you?”  He looked like a guilty schoolboy as he replied, “I’m sorry, but I have to take three samples”.  “Three!  Oh my god!”  I felt the apprehension fill in the pit of my stomach, as I took in what he said.  I took some deep breaths to help to calm me and steel myself for what I knew was ahead.  “Well let’s get on with it then!” I said in the cheeriest voice I could muster.  The nurse who was in the room with us came round to the side of the couch and held my hand while Mr Dagger man, as I cruelly named him, repeated the procedure another two times.  The nurse was very sweet and tried to reassure me with comforting words, but each time was very painful and by the end I was shaking and trying hard not to cry. 

After a couple of minutes, I felt a little steadier and calm, the radiologist then asked me if I wanted to consider having a marker inserted.  I asked him what it was and he explained it was a tiny piece of metal that he could insert into the centre of the lump, which would make it easier for a surgeon or any other doctor to pinpoint where the lump was, if I required further treatment and if I didn’t it would be very simple to remove.  I remembered thinking at the time, why would he be suggesting this if he didn’t think this was cancer and I recalled him being very adamant the previous week when he said the lump was definitely not a cyst.  So I decided that if it was going to help pinpoint the problem and I’d gone through the biopsy, I might as well get the marker put in now rather than come back on another occasion.  So, I gave him the nod and said “Yes, let’s go for it”. 

He very swiftly got set up and using an implement very similar to the one he used to take the biopsy he inserted what looked to me like a flexible needle, which once he had positioned using the ultrasound screen, he released the tiny metal marker, which to my relief did not hurt this time.  “All done” he announced with a reassuring smile and I felt the relief flood through me.

“Thank God that is over” I thought, and I asked him if I could get my clothes on.  He nodded and said “Yes, that’s fine.  You will now just need to go downstairs to get a mammogram done, which will confirm that the marker has stayed in the correct spot”.  My head reeled! “You have got to be kidding?” I blurted! “After all this, you are now telling me I’ve got to get my breast squashed in the mammogram machine?!  I would never have said yes to the marker being inserted had I know that!”  I had psyched myself up to just get through that next bit of having the marker put in and then I could escape, the idea of having to stay and go through more painful procedures when I was feeling so fragile was very daunting.

The radiologist looked apologetic and assured me that the nurses would be very careful and as gentle as possible.  So, there was nothing else for it but to make my way down to the reception desk and sit and wait for my turn.  While I was waiting I rang Andrew and told him what had happened.  At this point I wished that I had brought him with me, and I could tell by his voice that he felt the same way.  I sat looking at my hands in my lap with the tears streaming down my face feeling incredibly self-conscious and vulnerable.  I tried hard to get control of my emotions and focused on breathing in and out deeply reminding myself the worst was over and that I would be out of there very soon.  And that is exactly what happened.  A nurse called me through and her patience and kindness was evident in the way that she calmly talked to me and allowed me to take my time and went about the process of positioning me on the machine in a very unrushed but deft and efficient manner, so that each time she brought the plates down into position to take the required pictures, it was never more than momentarily uncomfortable and for this I was extremely grateful.

Once outside in the fresh air I was so relieved it was over and at the same time was thinking about how I had gone in only an hour or so earlier, oblivious to what had lain ahead – how quickly things could change.  I walked back to the car and sat for a while and let myself cry.  I could feel some strength of spirit return, as the tension slowly seeped out from me and I brought my mind around to the task of driving home.

For that journey, my clutch control was impeccable and my braking smooth and controlled, with gear changes as slick as Lewis Hamilton’s in my anxiety not to jar my body against the seat belt.  I was fleetingly aware of the smug satisfaction it gave me to know that I was putting two fingers up to those silly lads at work who repeatedly claimed that men were far superior drivers to women – you can stick that where the sun don’t shine boys!

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