Mum – August 1981

It was on a Thursday just before the end of the summer term that I noticed a swelling in my right breast. Sports day and a lot of the other activities that make the Summer term so hectic were already over but this year we had the Royal Wedding to celebrate and we were determined our 190 infants were going to remember it.

Checking my diary I realised it was nearly a year since I had visited our local BUST unit so I phoned and was fortunate enough to get an appointment on the following Monday. Our local BUST unit was provided in the hospital grounds by the efforts of many local people and is run entirely on charitable funds – the demand is such that on application there is quite a long wait but once you are on their books you can attend on a regular basis. The ‘check’ is in three stages – the first is the Thermograph – you sit stripped to the waist in a ‘cooling cubicle’ for approximately 15 minutes and then the special machine is used – this indicates any suspect area by a heat detecting process.

The second stage is with a qualified sister who palpates or feels the breast to identify any suspect areas – she also teaches you how to check for yourself on a monthly basis.

The third stage is an X ray procedure called a mammograph (?)

It was whilst checking in front of a mirror at home that I noticed a difference in the nipple line and looking down I could see the swelling – this set in motion a series of events that carried me on in a cool emotionless way

The BUST unit could see and feel the swelling but there was no other indications to worry them and when they heard I was due to go on holiday on the Saturday they said -go ahead have your holiday -the doctors will check the X rays within the week.

We had a hectic week at school followed by a lovely relaxing 2 weeks away in our caravan.

On our return home there was a letter from the unit asking me to contact my doctor. My own doctor examined me and said he thought it was probably mastitis but in view of my concern and the letter from the unit perhaps I should see a surgeon and duly gave me a letter to send to our local hospital.

To try and speed things up I took the letter along to the hospital on the same day (Wednesday 12th August) -I phoned Thursday and Friday and eventually got an appointment for Tuesday 18th August at 8.45 -the time itself indicates the concern and emphasis that surgeons put on haste in these matters.

The surgeon was a calm and precise gentleman – impossible to panic when he was so calm! He stated quite cool-ly that he would like a “slice of the cake” to check -the area was not suitable for a needle biopsy so he would like me to come into hospital next Monday and he would operate on Tuesday 25th August. As it was under the week I was dispatched to the office to name the arrangements there and then.

I was beginning to get used to hospital queues -this was my first real brush with the NHS since the birth of my last child 24 years earlier!

My family could not believe that Mum who “was never ill” was going into hospital – no children at home now so Dad and the two dogs would be alone but our daughter decided to come home (she teaches in London and has her own flat but was fortunately free to come) -our two sons both live and work locally so we see them fairly frequently (usually with washing,  sewing or extreme hunger!)

As a family we laugh at everything and this was no exception to the rule so the humour of every single moment was highlighted by one or other of us.

Monday morning came and my husband came with me to the hospital – he took one look at the overcrowded waiting room for “admissions” and said he’d wait outside. I eventually got to the room where to quote “I’d be fed into the computer” -it did have a hiccup on my place of birth Ashby de la Zouche. I was told to make my way to F ward – which was quite simple once I had found my husband again!

I arrived on the ward about 11:15 and was told to go to the day room – my husband looked rather daunted when he saw the bevy of old ladies and beat a hasty retreat saying he’d come and see me that evening.

The next few hours were very boring. Fortunately I had taken a novel a puzzle book and my small patience cards as it was three hours before I was allocated a bed and was told to undress as the doctor would be coming soon. The monotony of those three hours was broken only by a lady should came and took some blood and a nurse who took me away to be weighed.

My daughter arrived to visit me at 2:30 and within minutes a young woman doctor arrived. She told my daughter she could stop if she wanted to -she looked a little taken aback when Gill replied “Mum walks around naked all the time at home so I won’t see anything new” (not true I might add).

This set the tone for an hilarious 15 minutes or so while she filled in a variety of forms and investigated parts of my anatomy. Having declared me fit apart from my ‘lump’ and ‘pallid eye balls’ she drew an enormous rectangle on what my family indelicately refer to as ‘the boob’ and went away.

It was shortly after this that I discovered that the lady in the bed opposite was grandparent to one of the pupils in my school -by then it was too late to be dignified!

F ward consists of a complete floor in a modern 11 storey block. This is broken down into small units and I was in a six bedded ward. The ladies of mixed age – one lady had been there for 2 months, she had had an amputation just below the knee. She was a retired sister tutor and was charming and cheerful. ‘Grandma’ opposite me (only 8 years my senior) had gad a big operation but was recovering well – once she found I was human she was fun. The two ‘middle’ ladies were both very sick but friendly -the remaining bed was occupied by a youngish mum who’d come in to have her ‘veins done’.  She went to theatre the day I arrived.

My first night in hospital was rather unsettled –I refused a sleeping pill as I hate using any pills if it can be avoided – one of the two sick ladies became very ill in the night and the place was a hive of activity until about 4am. At 6 am I was presented with breakfast – my op was to be in the afternoon so you have a last meal at 6. I don’t normally eat breakfast and I don’t wake until 7.00 so the whole thing was against my natural rhythm!

The morning was livened up by the arrival of my Lady Doctor with a bearded Australian doctor – I was introduced as ‘the lady who never stops laughing’ but they wiped the smile off my face when they started discussing the size of my lump and that a bit in the middle was “tethered” (they didn’t notice thqat I’d stopped laughing!) – they showed too much concern for my liking and they kept assuring me that there was no question of a complete mastectomy.

I was issued with a white opening gown and a pair of elastic stockings and detailed to go and “take a bath”.

On my return – having done a caper in my new attire – the “veins lady” said “Do you know what they’ve done to me?” – the mind boggled. She went on to explain that under the anaesthetic they had needed to shave her pubic hair – they’d taken a neat half away and left her looking like a punk rocker that had slipped.

Shortly after this my “Surgeon” swept in, to the dismay of the nursing staff who were obviously not expecting him – he had another look at my lump, drew his own smaller circle inside the rectangle, remarked that I was certainly lumpy, told the nurse not to wash the mark off and departed saying “See you in theatre in half an hour.”

Then my lady doctor arrived again looking anxious – said they’d lost my blood and she wanted some more, she extracted it with a rather shaky needle which made me hope, silently, that she wasn’t operating. The staff nurse was told off for not giving me my pre med, there was a short, sharp discussion between them which I would rather not repeat and I duly received ‘the needle’ 5 minutes before the trolley arrived.

I was far from sleepy and rather enjoyed the trip to the theatre with a charming lady nurse and equally charming chatty lad of about the same age as my own boys. It was interesting to see the corridor with several theatres ‘off’ then I was taken into a small room where the anesthetist was waiting – his assistant had a dreadful cold in the nose and I remember thinking “Bet I get that!” The anesthetist put a silver pad under my back    – a little put out that I was wearing pants until I explained that my period had chosen that moment to start. I later found out that the pad was a ‘conductor’ for the electric ‘sealer’ they use on the blood vessels as they cut. The anesthetistput a needle in my hand – gave me the count down and I don’t remember any more until I woke briefly in a large room with a number of trollies in it and heard a loud voice saying “It’s alright dear, you’re in the recovery room”.  The remainder of that day was a little hazy – the other bed mates told me that I insisted on transferring myself from the trolley and waved and smiled on and off all evening but I don’t remember very much about it!

About midnight I woke up to a very great panic in the next bed where our other very sick lady was vomiting continuously – the two nurses on duty were very busy with her – I needed the loo so I wandered out used the loo – was promptly sick – and returned to bed feeling better. About 4:00 I woke up again to a soaked bed – the drain in my wound had been working overtime! The nurse who came to check took one look and went away to be sick (I later learned she was pregnant and it was nothing to do with me!)

Come the morning I really felt rather well and a bit of a fraud so was rather disappointed  when the Australian doctor pronounced the wound “too wet”  and I must stay another 24 hours. However everything went smoothly from then on – I was comfortable, well fed and rested – the op had caused me very little discomfort and I was able to do ‘odd jobs’ for the bed bound folk on my ward.

Thursday morning my lady doctor came along and said I could go home but not until I’d given them some more blood as my ‘pallid eye balls’ were giving cause for concern. She also mentioned some more tests and departed. The blood lady came and took my blood (no wonder I was anaemic they’d far more of my blood that I had!) then Sister arrived and presented me with an appointment to see the surgeon the following Tuesday and an appointment for a Barium enema on the 9th September – I said surely this was a mistake, it was a breast lump I’d come for – she said “Take it up with the surgeon”.

On Tuesday – exactly a week after the op I returned to see the surgeon – he was pleased with the way I had healed he explained the need for the enema as he wished to check there was nothing in my bowel causing the anaemia – he also said he wanted me to see a gynecologist. He asked me to dress and go to his office and it was here he dropped the bombshell. In his quiet controlled voice he said “I’ve spoken to the pathologist your lump was active and I want you to go and see Mr. H – in our radiotherapy department he will explain the treatment you need”

The only question I managed to ask was “Do you think that I might have ‘it’ in my bowel or womb then?” His quiet “We can’t rule it out” shut me up most effectively – I don’t think I looked as stricken as I felt when I smiled and said my polite thanks.

Sister followed me out and gave me a series of instructions – appointment with surgeon in 2 weeks, appointment with gynecologist as soon as possible, go immediately to Mr. H at radiotherapy.

A new phase – I arrived at the radiotherapy department and was shown into a cubicle.Mr. H walked in with a ‘box’ said “Put your arm over your head” – put his box on, drew a line and went away. (That was my explanation!) I was taken to the therapy room and there and then had the first of 12 sessions three a week for 4 weeks. The girls were young – pleasant and very patient – they were very efficient and unemotional, just right for what must be a harrowing job at times.

I pretended to myself that I had never heard all the awful tales of side effects that so many people tell and throughout my twelve sessions I endeavoured to drink more than the minimum 5 pints of fluid they had told me to drink (no hardship really because I found I needed it)

I kept as busy and involved with my job as possible – I was strong minded and didn’t wash as told. and made up my mind to smile and chat as much as possible. Luck was on my side and I was fortunate enough to sail through the treatment with very little problem.

The barium enema was nowhere near as unpleasant as all the ‘doom and gloom’ merchants had made it out to be and once again all the staff were kind, considerate and helpful. My return visit to the surgeon for the results of this test was reassuring – he was pleased with the way my therapy treatment was going and assured me there was nothing to worry about on the bowel X rays.

On completion of my month’s therapy I was given another appointment with Mr. H. I arrived with a list of questions in my head whichI was going to try and ask. In the event I was so annoyed with Mr. H. and he was so clinical and brusquethat I even forgot to ask if I could wash!Mr. H. has tyhe regrettable habit of reading out everyone’s notes at the top of his voice having first announced the name to his three clients in the room each discretely in their own cubicle. I was somewhat shocked when he reached the result of my barium enema and announced that I had the early stages of diverticular disease – that’s the only question I asked “What’s this about diverticular disease?””Oh that’s nothing” quoth he “come back in a month”. He departed. Nurse returned with an order to go and give yet more blood and then I returned home not sure whether I should be pleased or worried.

After this I had a whole two weeks when I was not required to attend the hospital – after the last few weeks I almost suffered withdrawal symptoms!

Come Monday 19th though I made my way back to the hospital to see the gynecologist. I had rather a long wait – I had obviously been ‘fitted in’ on the end of his list and the accumulated backlog of the day meant my 3:30 appointment didn’t actually take place until 5:15.

As usual I became the ‘listener’ to all the ladies who were feeling rather nervous – I was able to reassure the 43 year old lady that she was quite right to seek an abortion in her circumstances and that although she had heard that Mr. W. was ‘very hard’ I had heard quite the reverse – then there was the lady whose period had not stopped for 7 weeks – and the elderly spinster who marched up and down in heavy shoes wielding her stick.

Eventually I was taken in to give ‘details’ to an Indian doctor who was rather serious and inclined to be deaf (me too!) He asked many questions, some seemed relevant and others not so. (How can one say if one’s periods are normal if they’re the only ones you really know about!)

When I went into the great man himself I was told to remove pants and tights and climb on the bed – this was the bit I was apprehensive about. I had not been examined ‘down below’ since the ante natal check after Nigel 24 years ago!
Foolishly I had not had a smear teat either. The first question from Mr. W., a very nice man, was “Why haven’t you had a smear test?” – my answer “because I’m a coward”. He said we’ll take one now – after 6 unsuccessful attempts to ‘find’ my cervix he said “You won’t come again!” Following the examination he said he would like to have me in for a day to remove polyps under an anesthetic and ‘have a good look around’. He said I would hear within the month.

Another 10 days went by and I returned to see Mr. H – the radio therapist. They were unable to find my notes so he couldn’t read them out! He was pleased with me and said he would see me in three months – I returned home very elated. Only one more hurdle now and I could return to relative normality.

Time moved on and the month being nearly up I phoned the hospital – they were unable to give me a date as yet and I commenced worrying ‘inside’ – rarely outwardly. I though of all sorts of reasons, good and bad, for a delay. However some sensible person said “Why don’t you check the smear test result, your doctor will have it.” I phoned my doctor and the ‘lady’ checked my records and reported my smear ‘OK’. I now felt far less worried, not only about having the ‘check up’ but also about the need to have it quickly.

Had the ‘scrape’ op just prior to Christmas – upset Sister by letting an Indian doctor examine the ‘breasts’ without her permission! Walked to theatre, came round during the op! Home, all OK!

6 responses to “Mum – August 1981”

  1. What a brilliant account of her time & treatment. She sounds like a fab,lively lady. Thank you for sharing. At the time I was a reception child (although in Devon) enjoying the royal wedding celebrations!

  2. Really interesting stuff. I wanted to read on. Never read about the treatment insuch an honest straightforward way. Yes Gill you are your Mothers daughter!

  3. What a lovely as well as fascinating read. You write with much the same style Gill, I expect you already realise that! Wonderful to have kept this. I will occasionally re read letters from my mother, kept for the 34 years since she died. The letters tended to be quite newsy and chatty It is like having a conversation with her once more.

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