NOT SO HARD;NOT SO BAD
By Chioma Iwunze
“Mama, I felt them –spherical-like masses – under each breast. Yes, while I was having a bath. My friend checked too. Kahdijat. She’s a doctor at the University Teaching Hospital. She made me put my hand over my head until it touched the earlobe. Exactly how the cancer awareness flyer directed. With my other hand, I felt my left breast and the right, felt the lumps. It was painful.”
I didn’t tell her but Kahdijat had said that the pain might be psychological. I was fighting back tears in the toilet from where I phoned my mother.
“Oh sorry,” Mama said, “But how are you feeling now?”
“Scared. I’m afraid I’m going to die. You know what the adverts say, ‘Check your breasts for lumps and should you find any, race, leap, fly to the nearest medical center. And God help you if you don’t race, race fast enough…’ Mama, oh, do you think I’ll die?”
Mama laughed a weak laugh: high-pitched but spiritless and ineffectual. The kind of laughter she let out when she got news of her only brother’s passing. A short he-he-he that meant, ‘What a stupid joke!’
“Don’t be silly, Chy. Of course, you won’t die now: Ah no! At twenty-two?” Mama cooed over the phone. I didn’t believe her. She was stuttering, her voice quivered as though she had live coal hissing in her throat.
The next morning she called to say that she’d consulted this and that doctor; and that she had been to this and that prayer house. I wouldn’t die. Did I believe that? She asked. “Yes, of course I knew I would survive”, I replied, even though I didn’t believe it.
Every morning, I unhooked my bra, put my hand over my head and checked to see if the lumps had disappeared. Disappointed by their solid presence, I would dress up and go to work feeling depressed. Too embarrassed to mention it to anyone else, I concealed it even from the middle-aged nurse I was living with. Until one Saturday morning, I summoned up the courage to tell her. She listened; then she checked the breasts, confirmed the lumps and said,
“Well, there are lumps in both breasts but it’ll take only a minor surgery to take them out…”
I cut in: “A doctor said the lumps will be taken for histology.” I rattled off. “If it’s benign then I’m lucky; if it’s malignant then I’ll have my breasts cut off. That’s the kind people hardly survive. Can you tell just by feeling the lumps –if it’s benign or malignant?” I asked as I hooked my bra.
She snorted and said, “I can only guess. But it’s safer to assume every lump is malignant irrespective of its physical nature. Since you’re asking my opinion, I’ll say, go to the hospital, book a date and have the surgeons take them out.”
I looked up from the shirt I was buttoning and asked, “What if they’re malignant?” I was fighting back tears now. I already knew the answer. But I wanted some sort of counter. I imagined what kind of funeral I’d have; what kind of coffin I’d be lowered in; what my epitaph would read, if I passed on, if I died of breast cancer. I imagined I’d be buried in a spongy wig (because I’d lost all my hair) and a white billowy gown. I would look like a serene bride.
“You’ll survive,” She said and sighed. Then she sunk her weight into the soft, bouncy bed. “Let me tell you something I rarely tell people.” She said, her hand wrapped my shoulder. “Seven years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt so horrible that I thought I should end my life before the cancer got me. But I thought better of it when I met women who said their nipples had peeled and fallen off like buttons.”
“Seriously?” I asked. “But you don’t look it.” My eyes searched her chest for signs.
“Ha! Yes I went through chemo, my hair fell off.” She paused, stretched out her hands and said, “I haven’t always been this dark-complexioned, you know. It’s the one of the side-effects of the chemotherapy. But that cured it. No one had to chop off my breasts. ”
“But I survived and my hair grew back and I decided to grow my kinky hair in afro style. I felt stronger afterwards. Don’t worry. Your load will be lighter.”
Having resolved to have the lumpectomy, I decided to live as though I was dying. With two lumps in my breasts, I gallivanted around the country: mountain-hiking at Obudu cattle ranch; attending Miss Adichie’s creative writing workshop; picnicking with my friends at Ibeno beach. I even worked so hard that I got a promotion as features editor of the local print media firm I was working with. Then I felt for the lumpectomy.
The lumpectomy was as simple as they had promised it would be. They cut me open, removed the bloodied lump, and sewed me back. Simple, right? Wrong. Nobody warned me of the emotional discomfort that usually accompanied those processes. True, I had conquered the fear of death. I had told myself that if I died, I would rejoice that I’d lived a reasonably happy and contented life. For me there was no need to fear. I steeled myself to watch them cut me up and sew me back. It made me feel somewhat immortal –no, I wasn’t high on anesthesia. But on the other hand, I felt weird and helpless as though my privacy was being invaded and there was nothing I could do about it.
The nurses rolled me out of the theatre to my ward. The first thing I did was to glop yogurt down my throat and to chew on crackers. But I vomited everything almost immediately. Then I curled up on my hospital bed like a foetus and thought about it all while trying to distract myself with Ben Okri’s Star Book. My mother scuttled about the ward making sure she’d cleaned the vomit, making sure I had all I needed. Just seeing her made me feel loved. I was so weak, I could only smile at her and squeeze her palm. Occasionally, I touched the bandage and plaster which wrapped and held up what was left of my breasts. And when the anesthesia began to wear off, I opened my diary and wrote, just like my friends had predicted I would, “Dear diary, I finally had the lumpectomy… And I’m not dead… yet.”
Two weeks later, the histology results were out. The lab scientist noticed the horror on my face and smiled: “Congrats. And smile, it’s benign.” He said.
With a stern face, I collected the paper and thanked him. In a blast of sunlight, in from of the hospital, I stood and read through the squiggle, the medical jargon. When I saw the word, Benign, I screamed made the sign of the cross and bounced off in sunshine.