Monday 20 November 2017

Good neighbours: Suburbia, I salute you

A shock diagnosis of breast cancer gave Yvonne Joye a renewed appreciation of the importance of good neighbours

Yvonne Joye

I would like to tell a suburban tale. It is a year this month since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 41. Prior to November 2009, I was never sick a day in my life. Funny, even when diagnosed I didn't feel sick. Sick with fear, yes, sick with shock, yes, but not physically sick.

Breast cancer isn't in my family, or any other cancer, so when I felt something in my breast I really wasn't too concerned. My husband wasn't either but, thanks to all the publicity surrounding breast care, we both knew the natural step was to have it clarified. It was the day after Halloween.

I went to my GP on Monday assuming she would smile at me, congratulate my vigilance but send me on my way -- an ado about nothing. So I was taken aback when she advised that I see a specialist. On seeing my face, she assured me that 85pc of these lumps are nothing.

The meeting was scheduled for the following day, Tuesday. On feeling the lump (and that isn't even an accurate description of it), the specialist met my eyes, told me not to worry, that he was confident all would be fine -- but he had to take precautions. He sent me for a mammogram the same day and, again, indications were no cause for concern. I began to relax.

They scheduled an ultra-sound for the next day, Wednesday. I marvelled at the attention, but, at this point, accepted I was just going through the motions.

On Wednesday, however, the tide began to turn. The monitor displayed clearly a solid black mass. The last time I saw an image like that was when I was pregnant. Granted, this was altogether different but nonetheless real and alive.

When they asked if they could take a biopsy, I sat up and asked for them to slow down -- wasn't it just a cyst or something? I don't know what I meant by something, but it couldn't be more than nothing, could it? I was informed the black mass was not a cyst, they did not know what it was and wouldn't be able to tell me until Friday -- two days time.

It was around then that I knew I was in trouble.

I left the hospital dazed. Life around me continued but I was now outside of it; it was almost like I didn't belong any more. Thinking I was okay to drive home, I pulled out of the car park, but within a few yards I had to pull over. I hadn't the concentration to do anything other than think.

I called my sister. She attended every family funeral and I wanted to be definitive that nobody had died of cancer in the family. She was calm and measured. She assured me there wasn't and that I was to go and find a coffee shop and have a creamy bun. While I spoke with her, I involuntarily looked around searching for the very thing as I absently wondered if a creamy bun would make me feel better.

I had two days to put down. Two days to look into the faces of strangers I passed, to delve behind their eyes and wonder if they had troubles like me. Two days to stay close to a bathroom and two days to pray that this would be taken away from me.

I reminded myself of the 85pc category, that surely the odds were still on my side. But that black mass kept springing to mind. I did some role-play. I tried to prepare myself for how he would put it. I tried to distinguish between malignant and benign -- which was the bad one?

I tried to imagine how the two words 'breast cancer' would shape the lips of a man, this doctor, whose existence was unknown to me 48 hours earlier but who now ruled my world.

When it came to it, he didn't actually say breast cancer, he called it a tumour. My first thought: I never practised that word.

On diagnosis, I remember looking past the doctor and out the window behind him. Dense, black clouds were blowing across the winter sky. Night was coming in early.

"Omigod, omigod." I looked at my husband and I could see clearly that it was happening to him every bit as much as it was to me.

The cancer was small and early stage, and hadn't spread to my lymph nodes. I was lucky. So everyone kept telling me. I didn't feel lucky at all. Everyone kept telling me it was great I found it early. I didn't think that either. I wished I hadn't found it, I wished I could go ahead living my life the way I was.

On the way home from the hospital, we had to pull into the side of the road. This was becoming a habit. I had to call my parents and we had to prepare ourselves to tell our children. They were 14, 11 and nine at the time.

We sat them down. Very soon into our spiel, my eldest son interrupted and asked outright if I had breast cancer. I nodded. My youngest child said she thought cancer was bad. I told her 'cancer' is merely a word, much the same as 'animal' is a word. Just as a dog and a tiger are both animals, you can take a dog on your lap but you cannot stroke a tiger. I explained as best I could that I had the 'dog' of cancer.

My middle son was confused -- he thought we were going to tell them we were having a baby.

They operated and they got rid of the cancer and the fear began to lessen. We had a hiatus at Christmas while they determined my treatment and our lives went on hold. Until January 6, Women's Little Christmas, when I was told I would "benefit" from chemo and radiotherapy.

I was asked would the following week suit to start? Suit! As though it were a social occasion.

My treatment began on January 12, and on January 28 I went to get my hair shaved. I felt I should do this alone as I wanted only my own feelings to deal with. However, I got frightened and asked my husband to stay. Best decision. I had long black hair.

In a room of mirrors, she asked if I would like to face the window. I agreed. Awful moment. Moments. The thing is, my husband saw me before I saw me. He saved me from unveiling myself to him.

I asked him what I looked like. He told me he lost me for a while when they cut it short, but he got me back again when it was all gone. They put a wig on my head and I turned to him and said, "Well, we've done it all now!"

That is my story. However, I am telling it because at a time in Ireland when everyone is fearful, worried and financially strapped, we had dinner cooked and delivered to us every day of my treatment. We don't live in a small village where everyone knows everyone else. We live in suburbia. We have no family living nearby but our friends organised a rota, ensuring that we all sat down to healthy fare every night.

My energies were conserved for the school run and the routines we tried to maintain as best we could. I have been so very humbled. Never was I made to feel the victim nor was I ever compromised. The food was left on our porch, banishing any call for conversation or thanks. At a time when we were falling into a dark hole, our community made us a safety net.

Suburbia has so often been slated; me, I salute it.

They say that cancer changes you -- maybe it will, though what has affected me most is the kindness of people. Recession is the word most commonly used in Ireland today and it is synonymous with shortage. However, in my experience, the claws of the recession stop short at the doorstep of goodness -- it is alive and well and lying in abundance on this troubled isle of ours.

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you. I thought you should know.

Yvonne Joye is author of 'Ten Fingers and Ten Toes', a true story, available in paperback on

Irish Independent

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