A Lifetime of My Breasts... and Other Things
I originally wrote this post for Sally Cronin of Smorgasbord.
I’ve always had a strange relationship with my breasts. They seem to have been a separate part of me since they started to grow–unwelcome–at the age of twelve. I was still into climbing trees, playing football; being one of ‘the boys’. The only thing they didn’t interfere with was my reading and writing, unless, of course, I chose to read or write lying on the floor on my stomach.
They were painful arriving. (I thought of them as appearing as an unwelcome and unexpected invasion in my body, (much, I suppose, as I thought of the cancer, thirty years later). I left it as long as I could before asking my mother if she thought I needed a bra. She looked surprised; I suppose I was on the plump side and she hadn’t noticed. Anyway, off she went to buy the most boring, white cotton bra she could find for me. (I made up for it in my later teens by buying the most colourful and exotic bra and pants set I could find).
Those swellings on my chest grew to a size 36D by the time I was fourteen. Sport, my great love at the time, was curtailed by the bouncing around of those bloody boobs until I had the wit to fasten them in with two bras. Away from sport, the next two years saw me wearing the baggiest jumpers and all-encompassing coats I could find.
It wasn’t until I left school after my GCEs and was in the Civil Service that I found out what an asset my now 38DD breasts could be. I didn’t dress in a provocative way (with a father like mine I wouldn’t have got away with that, even at the age of eighteen) but I made the most of fashion in the early seventies and, except for my breasts, I was slender. I passed interviews, gained promotions, without many an all-male board looking higher than my chest. I doubt some of them would have recognised me if they passed me in the corridors of those Government buildings. I knew what they were doing, but in those days girls had to put up with such Neanderthal behaviour; those to whom you could complain were some of the ones on the boards. It angered me, but as far as I was concerned I gained my promotions justifiably: I was hard-working, efficient, organised; quick-thinking in every grade as I progressed. And I wasn’t going to change.
Such behaviour would have them drummed out of their jobs now.
Even at that age, and working, my father didn’t allow me to date but I did manage to sneak out sometimes on the occasional date. But I was adamant; my breasts were mine; nobody touched!
Until I was married David. My breasts became fun! And, for five years I revelled in my shape.
Then I had my eldest daughter. During the pregnancy my breasts ballooned; I felt a little bit like the figurehead on the front of a large sailing ship. After the birth, determined to breast feed I struggled for days until one of the nurses on the ward declared I was one of those mothers with ‘large boobs and no nipples’. My breasts were useless; hopeless in the function for which they were intended. They’d let me down. Within days I developed mastitis. The treatment was pain relief and to bind them. Tight. I was a failure. After a fortnight there was the grand unveiling of my chest. The health visitor pronounced she was satisfied. I wasn’t; these flattened breasts were someone else’s, not mine.
However I came to terms with them.
Then, after two years, I was pregnant again. This time, I’d be prepared; I knew what to do. Two months into the pregnancy, the midwife gave me nipple shields, hard rubber covers whose purpose was to extend the nipples to enable breast-feeding after the birth. In the end they didn’t work but, boy, were they useful when pushing through crowds.
The twins were unexpected; we only found out I was having them six weeks before they were born. The mastitis came back. And so did those damn crepe bandages.
It was eighteen months afterwards that I found my first lump. I was terrified. I had three children under three, my husband’s business was just taking off so he was working all hours of the day to keep our heads above water, and the rest of our family lived over two hundred miles away. My father forbid my mother to come and help; it was his opinion that we’d chosen to live in Wales, over two hundred miles away, why should she have to go all over the country to visit us; to help? We’d made our bed; we’d have to lie in it.
We did. We managed. I had an operation to have the lump removed. The lump was a cyst; benign.
As were the lumps I found and had removed on a regular basis over the next ten years.
Until ‘the one’. I knew it was different; it followed on from an abscess I’d had in the other breast. After two operations, a month of walking around with a drain in the abscess and daily visits from the district nurse, I’d taken my eye off the ball, so to speak.
So that morning, during a belated check when I found the lump, I knew. It wasn’t painful; it wasn’t hard; this was different.
Off to the doctors, then to hospital. I think the specialist was fed-up seeing me. ‘It’s the same as always, Mrs Barrow,’ he said. ‘No more needless operations. Ignore it, go home, enjoy the rest of your life.’ I tell no lie, those were his exact words.
Going home, we were stunned. But in a way, relieved.
‘He must know what he’s talking about,’ I said to David.
‘What do you think?’ he said.
‘It’s different.’ But I wanted to believe it wasn’t.
After days of argument he persuaded me to go back to the doctors.
It was round about the time that doctors’ surgeries first held their own budgets; our doctor agreed to send me to Cardiff University Hospital. There was money to pay for another check-up. But only a for second opinion, nothing else.
I remember that morning so well. I think what I noticed most was the quiet, the hushed whispers below the hubbub of the clinic; the rattle of trolley, the constant ringing of the telephone, the rustle of the nurses’ uniform, their voices confident as they went about their duties. We were a motley crew, those of us sitting on the grey plastic chairs; all at different stages of our breast cancers. Or potential cancers. There were the women–and two men– some accompanied by anxious relatives, others alone, who were quite obviously, like me, waiting for a verdict, a diagnosis of what they most dreaded. Then there were the others, some clad in headscarves, others unselfconsciously devoid of all hair. Some frail- looking, some, glowing with health. All with that air of waiting.
I’d forgotten to bring anything to read; to take my mind off why we were there; to take my attention away from my husband and his constant nervous drumming of his fingers on his knees.
The only magazines I could see were either about rock climbing or windsurfing. I kid you not. Someone had either donated them in the belief it would be something for us poor benighted souls to look forward to–or those publications had found their way from another ward. Perhaps the Orthopaedic ward? That thought gave me an unexpected inward laugh.
Eventually we were called in to see the specialist for an examination and then I was sent for a mammogram. After an hour we were taken to the specialist again and I was told I would need to have a biopsy. This had never happened previously; I’d just found the lump, had it confirmed as a lump, and had it removed. I suppose I thought it was different because we’d asked for a second opinion. They took a small sample of the lump out for examination. We waited for the result for hours. I can’t describe how I felt: it was as though it wasn’t really happening; I worried about the children, who we’d left with friends, I worried about David and how he would cope if the test came back positive How I would cope.
It did. I did. We did.
Thankfully the hospital ignored budgets.
I didn’t want to labour over the operations, or the follow-up treatments and procedures. We got through them together, David and I, we were made stronger. Are stronger.
What having cancer did do for me, was to tell me that I should be brave enough, determined enough to live as I’d wanted; to share some of the pieces I’d been writing, secreting away, for years. So I did. And in those early years, I had poems, short stories published. Then I went further; I took a degree in English Literature, then a diploma in drama and, finally a Masters in creative writing. I wrote four novels. Almost ten years ago I had the first of my trilogy published by Honno, an independent press for women. Quite apt I think.
Now I run one-to one workshops for creative writing and classes for adults with the local council. I also help to organise the Narberth Book Fair
My breast and I have called a truce. I agree to check, they agree not to produce any lumps.
And I have celebrated every day of these last forty years.
I hope all of you, diagnosed today, can do the same.