*LIFE AS I KNEW IT*
Stand in front of a mirror, raise one arm high overhead, with four middle fingers flat, move gently in small circular motions over the entire breasts….
That was the instruction on the leaflet. They had been sharing those two page leaflets around my office for days. The cancer awareness people who brought them left a pile sitting at the receptionist desk.
As Mimi and I walked past the receptionist desk at the close of work that Friday,
she snatched one and handed it to me.
I received it with a scoff. “Mimi, I’ve told you before, I don’t have cancer, shebi it’s me that have my body? ”
She checked hers the very day the leaflets came and hadn’t stopped pestering me to do same.
“I’m sure you don’t,” she commented, trudging tiredly in her heels “but still check. These things are just routine”
“Oya no wahala” I agreed. “At least if I do this one now, by Monday you won’t have to wave it in my face again”
We were nearing our cars parked under a mango tree.
“I will even call you to remind you sef”
“Ah no oo!” I rejected, fiddling into my purse for my keys.
“You too dey fear” she chuckled. She found her keys first and unlocked her car “Enjoy your weekend,” she said, “we’ll talk”
“Okay no wahala” I responded, retrieving my own keys.
I got home that day and honestly forgot everything about the leaflet until a call woke me up on Saturday morning.
Groggily, I felt my hands around the bed for my phone, groped it and squinted my eyes open to discover that she was the caller.
I dropped my head in an exhausted sigh, instantly remembering the leaflet.
“Babes I never check” I muttered into the mouthpiece.
“Good morning” she sounded amused. “See as your morning voice dey like person wey don high. Oya go and check”
I grumbled a response, dozing off.
My head jerked upwards. “Okay okay! I’m awake”
I sat up straight and skimmed the floor for my slippers, still holding the phone to my ear.
My daughter must have kicked it under the bed, I thought.
“Let me know” Mimi was saying.
“Okay” I replied and hung up, dropping the phone to my bed.
I glanced over my shoulders at my five year old daughter sleeping peacefully behind me. She didn’t have to worry about phone calls jolting her out of sleep.
Hissing mostly at my desire to still be asleep, I dropped to my knees and scanned my eyes under the bed for my slippers. It was there at the foot of the bed.
Grunting, I stretched out my hand and uneasily collected it. I slapped it to the floor, got to my feet and slipped it on. I began to lumber towards the bathroom, yawning as I went.
Mimi was like a buzzing mosquito that just won’t go away. Having worked side by side for six years, she was the closest friend I had.
She was there when my daughter’s father decided out of the blue that he was no longer interested in marrying me.
I was shattered: pregnant and shattered.
I made the decision to keep the baby and pick up the pieces of whatever was left of my broken heart, and Mimi was there supporting me, even though I had only known her for a Year.
I got in front of my bathroom mirror with a sigh. I planted both hands to my hips and looked at my messy hair and tired eyes, staring back at me.
Arm high overhead, with four middle fingers flat, move gently in small circular motions over the entire breast.
I lifted my arm and began to feel around my right breast.
I told Mimi this was pointless, that breast was just fine.
Dropping that arm, I lifted my left arm and repeated the same examination.
My brows flinched at the touch of something odd.
I moved my fingers over that area again, the thing stayed immobile, and hard.
Chills ran through me.
I dashed back into my bedroom, straight for that handbag I had taken to work the previous day.
The leaflet was seated in there. I snatched it out, my chest pounding frantically.
I breezed back to the bathroom and skimmed through the paper.
My hands were shaking, causing the paper to tremble in between my fingers.
It said to look out for lumps, dimpled skin, nipple discharge…
I dropped the paper and squeezed at my nipple.
There was no discharge of blood or anything, that was some relief, but when I felt the area next to my armpit, the lump was still there.
An exhaustion I haven’t felt before overwhelmed me.
I slid to the floor of the bathroom and all just went quiet.
Everything stood still, except for the lub-dub sound of my beating heart.
I don’t know how long I sat there, but when the door squelched open and my daughter peeped her head through, she said “mummy?”
I spread out of arms to her, she ran into my embrace and I just engulfed her small frame, tighter than I’ve ever held anything before.
Mimi’s hand held mine as we waited on the doctor. We sat there in silence and watched patients troop in and out of different sections of the hospital.
It was a large hospital with many ailing patients, noise, and arguments. There were wheel chairs and cries of babies being injected. People sneezing, some too tired to sit up straight.
I thought about how a singular event could alter one’s life completely. I had a good life- a brilliant daughter, a job I actually liked, loving family on the other part of Lagos, Mimi, nice clothes, shoes and a cute apartment I had made sure to furnish to the comfort of my daughter and I. I was thirty, doing just fine until my fingers found something I never could have imagined would happen to me.
Now here I was, in a peach dress with matching sandals, curly hair falling all the way to my back, looking healthy and even pretty, yet probably the one worst off amongst these sneezing and feverish looking patients…
“It’s our turn” Mimi announced, lightly tapping my arm. “Lets go ”
I stood up with her and we waited for the patient at the door to completely step aside before going in.
The air conditioner in the office welcomed us in. Mimi shut the door and we took the empty seats facing the doctor’s desk.
“Good morning Sir” that was Mimi speaking.
“Good morning” the doctor replied. “What’s the matter?”
Mimi looked sideways at me and the doctor’s eyes followed her stare.
“I found a lump in my breast on Saturday” I muttered. “I just want to know what it is”
I was still in that stage of shock and disbelief. I had thoughts of maybe, just maybe this may be nothing, after all, the leaflet said not all lumps are cancerous, it could just be a benign mass.
“Could you lie down over there? Let me take a look”
I stood to my feet obediently and offed my dress from the shoulders, letting it settle on my waist.
I took a few steps to the side and climbed on his examination bed. Mimi rose to my side and took my hand into hers.
The doctor slid on some white gloves and tenderly, began to feel the sides of my breast with his fingers. He started with the right breast just like I had done. I was watching his face for a reaction and I could feel Mimi watching too.
The doctor’s face stayed unmoved.
He moved on to the left breast, feeling me on the sides. He got to the upper area, next to my armpit and he just stopped, his brows narrowing.
I jerked my head to Mimi to see if she had caught his reaction too and she just stared down at me compassionately, and gave my hand a big squeeze.
I looked back at the doctor who was feeling it for a second time, to be sure I guessed.
“Get dressed” He demanded, lifting his hands off my body and pulling out the gloves.
I obeyed, again as he went back around to his desk.
Mimi and I followed suit as soon as I was dressed.
He was scribbling something in my card. I wanted to ask him what happened back there but my lips were too heavy to convey the words that were tugging at my heart. And Mimi, joined me in fluent silence.
“I’m scheduling you for an ultrasound to help us ascertain what the lump is”
Just like that, he confirmed that there was indeed a lump.
I swallowed hard. It could still be nothing.
Mimi reached down for my hand and I glanced over at her, half smiling gratefully.
I made sure to wear a jean this time, and no deodorant – that part I was instructed not to. They said the substances from the deodorant could show up on the x-ray as white spots and they didn’t want that happening.
They also didn’t let Mimi in, but she was out there, waiting, which left me alone, with the technician.
I waited for the technician who thankfully was a woman. She got ready, and we proceeded from where we were which was like an office with a desk and chair, but still a part of the laboratory, to an adjoining bright room that held nothing but this large machine.
“Let’s begin” she said and I understood that to mean ‘undress’.
I removed my top, then my brassiere. She collected the items from me and placed them somewhere I wasn’t even looking. All my attention was on this x-ray machine before me.
“Step closer” she demanded, coming around to stand before me.
“Closer, we have to get your breast here” she pointed at a flat surface on the machine.
I swallowed and moved closer into the machine.
She held my left breast and placed it on the machine’s plate, flattening it.
She lowered the upper plastic plate of the machine and compressed my breast.
It was discomforting, painful too.
“It will take only a few seconds” she assured, taking a picture.
She took more pictures, focusing especially on the area where I had found the lump.
I went back in three days– that was the day they asked me to come.
I dropped my daughter off at her school and zoomed to the hospital. I didn’t go with Mimi, I needed to do this one by myself.
The technician approached me with a brown envelop. I received it, trying to read her expression but she had what one would call a poker face.
“Take it to the doctor” she ordered.
I stared at her more intently, hoping to read the answers from her face, but it was no use. I rose to my feet and made my way out of the laboratory to the waiting section of the doctor’s office.
As I sat there, waiting on my turn, I wanted to open the envelop to see what my fate was. But it was sealed and I just thought it was rude to hand the doctor a tampered envelop.
My phone chimed, it was Mimi texting. “Hey, how is it going?” she wrote.
“….about to see the dr” I replied.
The door pushed open, someone walked out and I lifted my body off the waiting chair and walked in after him.
“Good morning” I greeted, handing the envelop to the doctor.
“Good morning. How was your night?” he inquired as he tore the sealed top open.
I didn’t respond, only because I was on pens and needles. He must have understood because he dropped his eyes down to the paper and began to read through.
I was waiting, watching him.
When he lifted his eyes from the paper, the smug smile that had been on his face when I earlier on walked in disappeared, but worse, he peeled his glasses off his face and dropped them down to the table.
That singular action said it all. I squeezed my eyes shut and for the first time since Saturday, tears trickled down my face.
“Stage II cancer” I informed my family.
My parents were gathered around me on my bed. My siblings were there, my daughter and so was Mimi.
I had refused to go to work after my results. I stayed in bed, refusing to do anything or talk to anyone.
Out of concern, Mimi moved her things into my apartment and began to care for my daughter and I. I was cold to her, I was cold even to my daughter.
I was mad at the world. Sad and angry, all at the same time. Who gets cancer at 30? I kept wondering. And why me?.
When my family walked into my room that afternoon, I wasn’t surprised. I had known it was only a matter of days before Mimi would make the call.
“Hei!” my mother reacted to my disclosure, flinging her hands over her head. “Who did I offend?” she cried. “Who did I offend ooooo”
My father squeezed his eyes shut, you could see the pain spread across his face.
Mimi was leaning against the door way. My daughter was in my mother’s thighs and my brothers just looked confused.
“Sandy, what does that mean?” the twenty year old asked ad midst my mother’s wails .
“It means she’s sick dumb head!” the twenty-four year old retorted.
I buried my face in my palms and began to sob. My mother was crying and that made me even more sad.
My father pulled me close by the shoulder and he just held me.
“Come home with us” my father said to me the next day.
“Daddy I really want to be on my own..”
“Sandra listen to your father ” my mother interjected. “Ehn? This your friend has tried for you but she can’t remain with you here forever, o? Let us go home, I will personally take care of you” She slapped her chest.
“How about my daughter’s school?” I was looking at my dad. “We can’t be coming from the mainland to here everyday”
“We will find her another school..”
“You say that like my life is over. Is my life over?”
“No darling, we just want to take care of you”
I let that sink in for a second.
“How about my checkups? I need to be coming for those..”
“I will sort it all out” my father assured me. “Let’s take care of you first”.
I tearfully hugged Mimi goodbye the following day. We stood in each other’s arms and we just wept.
“I’ll text you everyday” she spoke into the crook of my neck.
I nodded against her shoulders, not wanting to let my best friend go.
“Eiyaa” I could hear my mother commenting behind me. She was standing by my father’s car with her hands crossed and my daughter fidgeting at her feet.
My brothers were punching at their cellphones in the back seat of the car and my dad waited behind the wheels.
Finally, I pulled back. “Come visit me” I demanded, suddenly feeling sorry for how cold I had been to her the past three days.
She nodded, sniffing. And then engulfed me in her arms again.
My father honked at his horn and I didn’t blame him, we would have kept going at the hugs if he didn’t do that.
“Bye” she waved, as I turned around to walk away.
I smiled sadly over my shoulders. “Bye dear”.
The very week we got home, dad found me an oncologist. He was an aged man with really kind eyes.
He walked me through my treatment plan and almost immediately, got me started on neoadjuvant therapy. This type of chemotherapy was meant to shrink the tumor so it could be removed with less extensive surgery.
Surgery! I was going to have surgery.
Dad assigned a driver to me. The driver would drive mum and I to the hospital and she would sit with me while I underwent chemo.
It was just like I had seen in the movies – a young girl in a blue hospital gown, lying on a hospital bed, sometimes sitting in a sofa with needles plunged into her veins.
It was painful and boring too.
I would lie there for about six hours, waiting for it to be all over, for that day at least, only to be back the next day for the same routine.
Mum always sat in the sofa, reading a daily paper. She never left my side.
Mimi made sure to text, it helped. I would text back until I became too tired to keep up.
My brothers brought my daughter to visit, dad came too, everyday bringing snacks I was too nauseous to bother eating.
I was really grateful for my family, but I was hurting and mad at why any of this had to be happening to me. I didn’t want to be around them either, or anyone else for that matter.
Every day when I got home after chemo, I would mount the stairs straight to my room, ignoring everyone’s plea to sit and watch a movie. I was in no celebratory mode, I was fagged out, nauseated with sores growing in my mouth and flesh fast fading from my bones.
Chemo, my bed, and sometimes my daughter, was all the life I knew now.
Three weeks into my chemo, I woke up at night to pee.
I returned from the bathroom to notice something black on my pillow, I shone my phone light over it and it was my hair. Clumps of it.
I lifted my hand to my head and the hair just came right off with my fingers.
Nauseated and weak, I trudged to my parent’s bedroom, squatted at their door and just began to cry out for my mum.
She opened the door, looked me over inquisitively and I handed her a chunk of the hair.
My dad rushed to the door and mum wordlessly opened her palm to him.
He pulled me off the floor into his room and let me cry on his shoulders.
That night, I slept in their bed, in between them, like the baby I had become.
The rest of the hair come off really quickly after that. My brother did me the painful honour of shaving the rest off.
I came home from chemo one day to find Mimi in our house.
She stood up as soon as I walked in and rushed to hug my now skinny body. I was too weak to do anything but smile.
That night as we both retired to my room to sleep, she pulled out a polythene bag and handed it to me,
It was a wig. A long beautiful curly brown wig.
I completed my treatment exactly six months from the day I started and I was booked for surgery.
I had my entire family by my side, right up until the moment I was wheeled into the theatre.
I was given an anesthesia that made me fall asleep.
Hours later, I woke up in a bed with part of my breast gone and a sympathetic family hovering around.
I stared down at my breast, it was a lumpectomy yet it scared just as bad.
I was cued in for radiation therapy after the surgery. 5 days per week for 7 weeks. And the routine checkups after that were constant.
When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you don’t ever really recover. Your body may do better like it did in my case but you carry the scars wherever you go.
I hated my breast! They were scarred and I thought they looked just terrible! But more than that, I lived with the constant fear of the lumps reoccurring or any other type of cancer for that matter.
And then they were the side effects of the chemo still weighing me down.
It was a long haul, a painful one that took four years of my life.
To this day, I still thank God for Mimi whose pestering helped me discover the cancer before it spread through my body and took over my entire cells.
written for http://mumsaloud.com