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The International Writers Magazine
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FIRST CHAPTERS - Works in progress
Extract from Pair Bond by Anna Dickie

Small word two syllables
Anna Dickie

It was the day of my hospital appointment, but as it wasn’t until the afternoon, I got into work early hoping to catch up on things before leaving for the hospital straight after lunch. I was relieved that the day had finally arrived and I kept replaying my GP’s words in my head, "I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about………"

I’d agreed with Michael that I’d go alone to the hospital for the mammogram, but that he would come with me a week later, when I got the results. Michael didn’t show any signs of being worried, but then he never does until he knows he has something to worry about. The morning at work went by in a welcome haze; there was so much to catch up on. Just working through the 153 outstanding e-mails that had accumulated while I was on holiday was mind blowing enough. Colleagues had deleted the junk mail, but the remainder had to be read, prioritised, and in some cases dealt with. The research had been well received, and Ministers had thankfully accepted the "lines to take" that I’d prepared. By the time it came to leave for the hospital I’d almost put the appointment out of my mind.

I arrived in good time, and was immediately glad of this as I spent the next 20 minutes trying to find a parking place. Finally a kind man on his way out indicated I could take his place. With minutes to spare I presented myself at the Mammography Department. The radiographer had called "Erin Sinclair" and I followed her into a stark room, which had a large machine, at kitchen worktop height, in the centre of it. It looked like a cross between a bacon-slicer and a woodwork vice! The woman had explained that she would be taking views of both breasts and armpits, that this would involve getting the machine and me into various, sometimes awkward, positions and that considerable pressure would be exerted on my breasts. We’d joked about how men would feel if their "cheeky bits" were subjected to similar forces.
I remembered someone telling me that getting a mammogram was like taking part in a really complicated game of Twister. It’s not a bad description. I was amazed at how much the apparatus flattened my boobs and at just how squashed they felt. It was like having your breast sucked up by a very powerful vacuum cleaner. When it was over I was told by the technician that the results would take a week to process, and not to worry if I was directed to return to the department when I came back, as sometimes the doctors liked to have further X-rays from additional angles. I accepted this information at face value and left and drove home, relieved that it was over, and that the radiographer had given no indication that there was anything to be concerned about. I didn’t analyse why it would be inappropriate for her to offer an opinion on the films.

And now here I am sitting in this darkened cinema, brought back by the laughter of the audience. The film is "Catch me if you Can". We agreed on it, only because every other film showing was not acceptable to one or other of us. How do you reconcile the tastes of a 46 year woman, a 45 year old man and 13 year old boy, short of going to three different films and meeting in the foyer afterwards? I find it comforting that it’s set in the 1960s, as the past is currently a much more acceptable place to me than the present or future. On screen the young villain, played by Leonardo Di Caprio, is making an audacious escape from the hapless FBI agent, played by Tom Hanks. Fleetingly I think, "If only I could find a way out from all of this."

As the audience quietens down again my mind turns again to getting the results of the mammogram. I remember that the intervening week went by quickly as I continued to catch up at work, I did think about the results, but I was busy and that helped me blot it out most of the time. Then the day itself came around. Luckily my appointment was for first thing in the morning, and Michael and I set out together for the hospital. We didn’t mentioned anything to Nat, on the basis that if everything proved to be all right we would have worried him needlessly. Once again parking proved very difficulty, and to avoid being late I went on ahead, telling Michael to meet me in the Breast Unit – and giving him directions as the whole place is a maze of piecemeal building.

When I got to the desk and gave my name the receptionist looked straight at me and said in a very direct and clipped manner, "You’ve to go back down to the mammogram department, and don’t ask me why because I don’t know." The woman’s tone had struck me as a bit odd, but I reassured myself with the thought that medical receptionists were notoriously defensive and off-putting. I managed to catch Michael on the stairs, and we retraced our steps to the ground floor where I reported once again to the Mammography Department. There they explained that the doctors wanted further views of my left armpit, and an ultrasound scan of my left breast. On hearing this I remember that my stomach lurched violently and cold fear seeped into every vein and pore. I fully recognised the feeling, I’d felt it as powerfully twice before, when my unborn child stopped moving, and when I heard my brother was dying. Michael and I sat in silence in a small waiting room, the walls of which were covered with posters warning, "Do not smoke, eat or drink. Keep the new décor clean!" "How to put you at your ease!" I thought. Then I was called through to the same room as before.

On entering the room I immediately spotted an X-ray of a breast illuminated on the lightboard. It had all sorts of squiggle and circle marks drawn on it. "God is that mine?" I wondered. The same pleasant woman as before said she would be taking further views of my armpit, and she would then be passing me over to the ultra sound scanning team. There was no friendly banter this time, I didn’t have the stomach for it, and she clearly didn’t feel it was appropriate.

After experiencing the same discomfort as before I was shown across the corridor into a darkened room, here yet another pleasant woman, whose name didn’t register, explained they were going to look in more details at some areas of concern in my left breast. This information, and the additional X-rays would then be passed up to the doctors, who would see me immediately after the scan. Just like when I was pregnant some gel was put on the surface of my skin, and they started scanning my breast. Sonar whooshing sounds came up from my previously unplumbed depths. I heard them say words like "calcifications", and various measurements in millimetres, which mean nothing to me "in real money". I was too scared to speak and the darkness and the noise of the machine just added to my sense of paralysis. I thought how I’d never had much luck with these machines, once before one of them had confirmed my very worst fear, that the child I was carrying was dead.

Finally they stopped scanning and said the results would be passed up to the doctors upstairs who would go over them with me. I dressed, found Michael and we went upstairs together. On the way I hurriedly brought him up to date with what had happened.

On arriving back at the Breast Unit we again reported to reception and were asked to take a seat in the Waiting Room. The tension in this large airless room, which was literally heaving with women of all ages, was palpable and as ever in such places, the magazines were well thumbed and out of date. I flicked through one and an article headed "How I helped Mum end her cancer hell" leapt out at me. I closed it quickly and hurriedly put it down. Michael and I didn’t speak to each other, not because of some silent understanding, but just because of the oppressive atmosphere in the room.

At last my name was called, and we were ushered through to a small room. A young female doctor greeted us. She immediately confirmed that the X-rays showed some areas of concern in my left breast. Then she took my breath away, by looking directly at me and asking "Now Mrs Sinclair what do you think we are concerned about?"

I found myself mumbling the words " Well I can only think that you are worried that cancer may be present". And on hearing myself say those few words I felt instantly transported to some parallel dimension, whereby I remained in that room with the doctor and Michael, and yet some how I no longer occupied the same time and space as them. It felt incredibly cinematic, like I was caught up in a scene from the film "Sliding Doors". The doctor then said, very gently "Yes you are right, that is what we are concerned about". And I immediately recognised that very subtly she had made me own what was happening to me. In the shock of the moment I found myself wondering, in a very detached sort of a way, whether she had been trained to take this approach or whether she simply found it easier than saying "Hello, we think you have cancer!".

The doctor went on to explain that they operated a protocol whereby she would conduct a physical examination, without having looked at the X-rays, scans etc. This would allow her to check and see if what she felt in the examination accorded with the images. She’d then take a short medical history, and then she and a colleague would review all of the data.

So she examined me and then asked me to describe the events that lead up to my referral. She then asked some questions, which I answered automatically: Number and age of children? – One child, aged 13 years; Any miscarriages? - Two, one at 8 weeks, one at 19 weeks, both prior to birth of my son; Any history of cancer in family? - Mother died 12 years ago from cervical cancer, little else known about family history other than I believe an aunt on my father’s side had died of breast cancer during the War.

At this point the doctor said she would leave us for a short while, and that she would be back with a colleague. Michael and I still didn’t speak, but I remember that he held and squeezed my left hand, more tightly than was comfortable, crushing my wedding ring into my fingers, but I didn’t speak or complain because I was both numb and dumb.

After a few minutes the doctor returned with a striking looking woman, also in a white coat. This tall, dark haired, olive skinned young woman introduced herself to us in an accent that I couldn’t exactly place, but it sounded Eastern Mediterranean, maybe Greek, and in the European style she also very formally shook both of us by the hand. She told us that she was one of the breast surgeons and that she was going to repeat the physical examination. And once that was done she said in a business like, matter of fact way. "We think you have two areas in the left breast that may be khancerous". My ear immediately caught the unusual inflection and pronunciation she used on the word "cancerous" and I remember thinking. "Oh Christ how ironic, someone applies the scariest fucking word in the English language specifically to me and it doesn’t even sound like Cancer, Cancer, Cancer!"
© Anna Dickie April 2004
e-mail madick@supanet.com

*This is an extract from Anna's work in progress and any responses to it would be welcomed by the author

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