With my special thanks to the friend who trusted me with her story and whose name has been changed in this article, with an open heart to support other women facing the cruel reality of breast cancer.
In 2008, in a sophisticated country, Mary’s screening tests were up to date, with a clean bill of health. But two months after her mammogram, she felt something strange close to her armpit. Not painful at all. Mary went to her family doctor, who said everything appeared normal and there was no medical reason to go through all the screening again. But some time later, she could undoubtedly feel a lump on her right breast.
Back to her doctor, Mary heard she needed a biopsy with complete removal of the lump. So, she was referred to a specialist breast clinic, where shockingly, she found about 10 to 15 women waiting in a room, some of them very newly operated on, without any signs of breasts, which had been wrapped in bandages under their clothes. She had to wait in another room for hours, dressed in hospital clothes, when the doctor came and said “You can keep your breasts, but when would you like to be operated on?” She felt like a number, not like a human being. So, Mary asked to see another doctor.
The second doctor gave her better care and attention and she decided to be operated on by him. He said “You can wait for the surgery, but not too long.” Mary answered: “At the moment, I have been standing in for my chief as the company secretary; it’s better to wait until she comes back from her holiday.”
When her chief came back, Mary told her “I have a suspicious lump on my breast and so an operation has been booked for the next weekend.” The chief reddened angrily “All of us women have lumps in our breasts. If everybody decides to use little things like this to get away from their jobs, our company will break. You seem very healthy to me and won’t leave your office without finishing your job!”
That chief, with whom she shared the same office, harassed her, asking in front of all her colleagues; “Haven’t you finished yet?” One trainee dared to defend Mary against such unfairness, but in doing so, lost her place there.
During that same week, Mary rang her mum to break the news, but found her cold and distant. That reaction made her more depressed and so Mary contacted her psychotherapist, asking for an increase in her antidepressants. Her brother, a doctor, was brilliant, as he spoke with her doctor in the hospital and said reassuringly “Don’t worry about mum. I can handle her.”
On the eve of the operation, Mary stayed in the office working until 9.00 pm, when her mother rang and told her “You’re going to surgery tomorrow morning. So, you leave your office right now, or I’ll fetch you myself, even if I have to walk over your chief’s corpse!”
Mary answered; “Mum, don’t come here. I can’t afford to get in trouble with my chief. I need this job. Anyway, I’ll be moving to another company soon.” Hanging up the telephone and rushing to the toilet, she hid the tears already running down her face. Her mother had finally understood the situation and responded like any mum would.
On the day of the surgery, two of her brothers came to hospital with her, providing support and sympathy. When recovering from the operation in her room, she had the same bra size and was also told that her lump was cancer, needing both chemo and radiotherapy sessions. She was shocked. How could it have happened to her? Still in her early forties, healthy, exercising regularly, never overweight and only having alcohol on special occasions… Besides, breast cancer didn’t run in her family!
Mary ‘s chief learned about her cancer, saying twice that she would visit her, but obviously gave up the idea as she never came, probably because she was ashamed of her abusive actions.
At her first chemotherapy session, she was interviewed by a psychologist, who asked her intimate questions, in front of other patients in the waiting room. Mary said to that psychologist; “If you don’t have a private room, I refuse to answer your invasive questionnaire.” The psychologist responded with “Calm down. Everybody here has got the same problem as you.” That first session had dreadful effects on her body. Mary threw up so many times and had such a migraine, that she rang the doctor later, but was recommended paracetamol and nothing else. So, fearing dehydration, Mary ended up in Accident & Emergency.
Talking with her female friends who had previously undergone chemotherapy, Mary was told that actually there was a medicine that could stop all the vomiting. So, she asked her doctor why she hadn’t been prescribed that medicine. His answer; “Because it’s much too expensive.” Startled, Mary asked him; “You haven’t prescribed that medicine to me because it’s too expensive? Am I in the 21st century?! Could you please give me the prescription?”
Feeling very unhappy with that clinic, Mary was referred for further sessions to a very good hospital. In that new place, she was given star treatment, whilst facing hair loss. One friend advised Mary to get a wig. Despite wigs being uncomfortable and much too hot on the scalp, she decided to have one, to avoid her nephews and nieces seeing her totally bald.
Mary went to the best wig shop in the city, where she ordered a natural human hair wig. But Mary became disappointed when she went to collect it, telling the shop assistant that she no longer wanted it. The saleswoman reacted very firmly pointing out its qualities. After a long argument, the saleswoman agreed to refund her money. It was distressing to realise that that shop wanted to take advantage of a sick woman. So, Mary went to another shop, where she bought two identical artificial hair wigs.
When visiting the previous clinic for the final time, she was already wearing her wig, but very aware that she seemed sick and pale. To leave that building, Mary asked the parking valet to bring her car round, whilst sitting on a bench as she was very tired. The security guard said to her that “Patients aren’t allowed to wait in front of the building.” Mary stood up and headed to the reception, where she sat on a chair. Once again, the same man spoke to her; “Patients aren’t allowed in reception either. There’s a back room where patients can be out of sight whilst waiting for their cars.” Even though the situation was discriminating, she decided to do what he had asked. It seemed that sick people were “harmful” to the good image of that commercial building.
In the new company where Mary was working, the boss, also her friend, recommended her to be discreet about her health treatment, to avoid rejection. Although following her new chief’s advice, somehow Mary gave herself away and two weeks later most people in the office knew about her chemotherapy. One morning, unintentionally, she overheard the following argument between her boss and the strict female head assistant. “I don’t understand why you employed a cancerous lady here, putting the reputable name of our company at stake, when there are so many healthy and efficient people around looking for her position.” The boss stood up. “I employed a ‘cancerous lady’ because she gets the job done! Anymore questions?”
This argument made Mary decide to work without breaks, so that her new boss never regretted employing her. Becoming exhausted, Mary had to postpone several chemotherapy sessions. Years later, she was in her flat on a Saturday morning, when the bell rang. Opening the door, she saw that same head assistant with a bunch of flowers. “I came to apologise. My mother and my sister had cancer and went through hell with chemotherapy sessions. I had no idea it’s that hard and that I’d been so unfair with you.”
Mary replied; “It takes a lot of bravery to do what you’re doing now.” “If it takes a lot of bravery, in this case I think we have something in common; I always admired your bravery.” replied the head assistant. After that, they became firm friends.
Mary also had more problems during the 30 days of her radiotherapy. She felt harassed by the doctor, always asking her personal questions; “How is your sex life? Any pains during intercourse?” For invasive questions, evasive answers; “Everything’s fine.” On another occasion he asked “Are you still having periods?” She said no more, one of the consequences of chemotherapy and the doctor replied with “Congratulations, you’re now in menopause!”
That difficult stage of Mary ‘s life also brought her some rewards; the warm comfort from family members and true friends, who came to her house for visits and even took her out and about. Some doctors got very close to her and Mary also rethought some ‘friendships’, not out of pride, but because some people had nothing else in common with her.
What was most hurtful in all this experience was premature menopause. Mary had been always a workaholic singleton and had lost her dad in childhood, so to have breast cancer was so harsh on her. It made her stop believing in God. When Mary felt as though she was going to pieces, her psychotherapist said; “You are still a young woman, so don’t let yourself go. There’s an efficient weapon right now inside your handbag that you can wear against breast cancer.”
Mary was speechless and showed her bag to the doctor, who said; “Your lipstick. Never stop wearing it, even to feed pigs. A woman must be always presentable, with make-up and nice hair. Why don’t you get yourself new clothes? It’s all about your morale. Keeping positive is key for a quicker recovery. Your lipstick may not beat cancer, but will help you to feel better.”
So, she put on her lipstick, looking in the mirror and said to herself: “I’m a woman and that’s it.”
All her health costs were covered by her medical insurance. If Mary could go back in time, she would have continued working through all her medical treatment, because her job gave her the motivation to get up every morning and stay alive, but she would have worked less, not until late on the eve of her surgery and not getting so exhausted that she had to postpone some chemotherapy sessions.
Nowadays, Mary has five swimming and two pilates sessions weekly and is still working. Cancer changed her lifestyle, chemotherapy saved her life, making her feel older now, but her inner beauty remained intact. Mary feels upset when some people ask her bluntly “What have you learned from cancer?” Do they expect her to tell them a hero’s life lesson? She thinks she just got over a terrible disease, which doesn’t make her a hero. Actually, she thinks of herself as being an ordinary woman, like me and like you. So, nowadays she would like to be seen by others without stigma or prejudice.