Being flatchested sometimes has its advantages. Okay, so I could never pick up a nixer as a pole dancer, but it also meant that checking for lumps didn't exactly take up much of my time.
It was something I did on a monthly basis and it also involved checking my armpits but, take note, my arm was always in the air -- not the best position. So I was a little surprised when, over the Christmas period, on one of those freezing, snow-filled days, I put my hands under my armpits to keep warm, and found a lump the size of a large strawberry.
I mentioned it to my husband who responded by showing me the tiny cyst he has had on his arm since time immemorial. As you do when you are married for 22 years, I felt his and he felt mine. He reckoned, on size alone, mine won hands down. "Get straight down to the doctor in the morning," he advised.
"I'm a lumpy, bumpy kind of gal," I said to the doctor, referring to the numerous benign cysts I've had removed over the years. He responded to my sense of joviality by examining my breasts. "No lumps," he confirmed and I sighed with relief. "But . . ." (There is always a but, isn't there?) "Your underarm will have to be checked as soon as possible."
He wrote out a letter for a consultant that I thought I might have to steam open later, but he let me read it. It seemed to be nothing untoward -- just a review.
Luckily, I received an appointment for the following week. The worry had set in but the consultant was kindness personified and gently reassuring. "We'll do a small biopsy and ultrasound this evening and I'll give you a ring next week with the results," he said.
A doctor froze my armpit and then produced a needle the like of which I'd never seen before. It was akin to something a vet might use to put down an elephant. As if that wasn't bad enough, it also made a loud clicking noise as it secured the specimen, which really jangled my nerves. But the procedure was painless and he covered my armpit with a big plaster that I could show off were I so inclined.
As promised, the consultant rang the following week. The news wasn't exactly as I'd hoped. The ultrasound had showed up some irregularities and the biopsy would need staining for a definitive result. That would take a couple of days.
I had time to fill and, like Homer Simpson who woke up on the couch after Bart had poured muesli on his head and then turned to the internet only to self-diagnose himself with leprosy, I surfed the net.
This is a fruitless and terrifying task. Ignoring the good news stories, I concentrated on the horror stuff and, coming to the conclusion that I was about to die, I started to think of all the chips my children would eat if my husband was the only one doing the cooking.
At the hospital a few days later, the consultant explained that the cells in the lymph node under my arm were malignant and, the most likely source was my left breast. Within the hour I had a mammogram and ultrasound which confirmed his diagnosis. It was a surreal moment and I felt strangely calm. The calm disappeared when I realised that the top-to-toe check the consultant had organised for me was to test for secondary cancer.
Within a couple of days a CT scan was organised. This meant binge drinking a disgusting liquid (flavoured with blackcurrant -- yippee) over a two-hour period. The liquid hones in on any other irregularities when the body is scanned.
This was followed by an isotope bone scan which involved an injection of a chemical that needed three hours to settle before any images could be taken.
The radiologists were very kind but in the end you are left on your own as they monitor the situation from another room. I never felt as vulnerable as I did when lying in my hospital gown, by myself, being imaged by these massive machines
The following day I had a breast MRI. Unlike an ordinary MRI in which the patient is on their back, a breast MRI involves placing your breast in cups and then lying face down for 25 minutes. They had no eggcups for me so the standard cups were used.
Waiting for the results of the scans was the worst time of all. Not one for comfort eating in times of stress, I stopped eating completely and my eyes looked like that of a rabbit that had just been lamped. I lost 11lbs in three days. Friends commented on how well I looked. It's not a diet I would recommend.
Three days later I received a call from the consultant. The scans were clear. Relief washed over me like a wave and I cried for the first time.
The MRI, however, had showed up more changes in the breast. The consultant let me come to my own conclusion. "I want it all off," I said. He agreed to do it within the week. I rang my husband. "I ONLY have breast cancer," I bawled down the phone. It was amazing how my goalposts had moved.