How do I feel? I’m unsure of what to say or how to react.I instinctively feel her uneasiness.
With no regard to her exposure or my developing discomfort she unbuttons her shirt, dips her hand within her bra and lifts her left breast up over the cup of her bra. She reaches out for my hand. I watch, as if from a distance. She presses my pointing finger onto her skin and caresses an area to the right of her nipple. I shut my eyes but can visualise the small pea shaped lump under the skin within her breast tissue as my finger moves in a circular motion. The pea grows larger, in my mind expanding to the point it might burst. I open my eyes and peer through a mist of tears. The drops of salty liquid slide down my cheek dispersing into the corner of my lips. My lips part and I can taste the saltiness of my tears.
My friend has cancer. Her name is Janet. I have known her for almost 10 years, maybe longer. My thoughts fill with images of a painful core biopsy that led to the diagnosis, hard core truths of treatment involving chemotherapy and possible surgery to remove the whole breast, radiation treatment, taking months or longer.
Janet covers her naked breast. Instinctively I touch my own breast. Janet lays her hand on my shoulder and we walk to her kitchen. I am not a doctor but I look at the X-ray film that Janet holds up to the window pane, the one her radiologist gave to her to keep for further appointments after Janet demanded that she keep the pictures with her. I think she finds it hard to believe that the picture is really of her breast. She points to the slightly darkened spot and tells me that’s the cancer. It is a small spot within the larger outline of a breast. I close my eyes and the picture is still there with deadly tentacles reaching across, spreading infecting the whole outline of the breast.
I open my eyes and reach for the bottle of Bourbon that sits on the kitchen bench, pour the liquid into two glasses, adding coke from the bottle on the kitchen bench. Without hesitation I swallow a large mouthful. No coffee today. The house is the same. Brown corduroy lounge chair in the corner, glass topped kitchen table with six aluminium chairs with pink seat cushions. A black Ikea book shelf in the corner filled with useless ornaments ranging from frogs, varied coloured vases to hand made mushrooms her daughter made at school and the a painting of a vintage fishing boat on the salmon pink wall. Our conversation for the next hour is stunted, heavy, without direction, the weather, the garden and how dry everything is, horse racing and our children.
After two hours and three bourbon and cokes I hug my friend, kiss her on the cheek and leave not considering that the alcohol may have affected my judgement. Not considering that I will leave Janet alone. Driving along the narrow street toward my flat my hands grip the steering wheel at the recommended ten and two a clock positions. I stare through the windscreen. My thoughts stretch across sequences of pictures of peas rolling across a shaded backdrop growing bigger with long thin extensions seeking out any crevice. Ugly thin little black fingers reach through and disappear beyond the boundaries’.
I park my car at the curb facing my home and step out into the sunshine then look up thinking that it should be raining, or at least dark with thunderous clouds. A pigeon coos from the side fence and another pigeon flies down from the Jacaranda in the neighbours’ property to join in the chorus. Usually I lock the car with the key as the key button lock is broken, but today without thinking of any consequence I leave the car unlocked and walk to my front door. The toe of my shoe catches on the first step causing me to stumble throwing me off balance reaching my arms forward I manage to steady myself on the hand rail to my right saving my fall. A magpie warbles his song in recognition that rain will be coming.
The afternoon sun shines through the front windows, warming me where I sit facing the front of my flat. The magpies warning eventuated to a light shower which left dusty smears across the glass. I turn and stare out through the frosted glass to the side of the flowered led light panel. My journal lays on my lap open to the latest entry. I have tried to express my feelings but all that I see is drawings of peas. How to describe my pain, anguish, anger and self-pity is evading me. I’m angry, angry that I might lose my best friend. A friend that told it as it was. I press too hard on the paper and the pen tip makes a hole. Before too long the hole is bigger and I’m scratching the pen back and forward, faster and faster till the page has several tears.
My self-pity is heavy. I am unable to help my friend. Tears drop and I watch as they hit the shreds of paper and soak through spreading like the cancer Janet has. Selfish, yes, but I’m in pain as well. At a painful loss as to be able to stop the inevitable spread of the cancer that is invasive and which has control over my friend’s body. Folding the torn page in half I can see a stick figure with flippers for feet and circles around a stick arm from a previous entry dated at the top of the page a month earlier. Janet and I had gone to the local swimming pool. I wasn’t keen as I couldn’t swim. I had gone because Janet found that swimming was relaxing for her. I felt the opposite, stressed in the belief that I may drown. In her practical way Janet had brought along flippers for me to wear, saying that they would help to keep me afloat. My body had other intensions of going below the surface of warm water heading for the tiled bottom. The goal was to reach the fifty meters, splashing and spluttering mouthfuls of water, to the other side of the pool without getting the top of my head wet. Janet then appeared above me with yellow arm floaties. Laughing, she bent down and pushed them down over my hands and up past my elbows. “Try these, the colour suits you,” she said and then dove in gracefully, slipping under the water.
I smile at the drawing, circling it with the pen.
It’s a week since the initial chemotherapy session. Janet is feeling nauseous and is concerned about her hair. I’m telling her it looks the same but she assures me that it is starting to fall out, expressing her anguish by stroking the back of her head and then searching for hair strands across her palm. I missed going with her to the first session making an excuse about having to work. I tell her I will go with her for the second but I’m worried that I won’t be good as a support person. I need time to work out what to say and how to act.
It scares me to think of the cytotoxic drugs that will be injected into my friend, killing off the cancerous cells but also destroying good ones as well. I have searched the internet for information. There will be another session, perhaps another, who knows how many. Then the doctors will do more tests to determine if they will operate. I have removed all the carving knives from my kitchen which of course makes it difficult to slice anything. Pre-packaged food has entered my life as the sight of any large knife gives me bad dreams involving cutting skin and a lot of blood spilling to the floor.
From Janet’s house I drive home and cook spaghetti adding sauce from a jar. I eat a few mouthfuls, then, scrape the rest into the compost bin on the sink. I’m tired so lay down on my bed but I can’t sleep so I try and read a book I started over six weeks ago. It’s about a young African American woman whom had cancer. Doctors removed tissue from the cancerous area and had grown cells without her consent developing vaccines, looking at cancer development which led to cloning and gene investigation. I put the book down and close my eyes and a myriad of thoughts enter my mind ranging from doctors stealing away with Janet’s breast tissue to syringes, scalpels, hospital beds. Then the expanding pea appears with growing extensions creeping, multiplying covering everything.
Sleep finally takes hold and another night passes. I go to work feeling more tired than the day before. The phone on my desk rings but I don’t answer. My hand rests flat on the dial pad. I want to see how Janet is faring, to assure myself she is doing ok but as the computer announces with a ring tone that I have an incoming email I switch my concentration onto work. The day slides by with work related issues. The call to my friend never eventuates.
It’s Thursday and as promised I am traveling to the hospital with Janet. She’s driving. She says she still wants her independence until she no longer can do things for herself. I’m feeling nauseous as we pull into the car park and have to take a deep breath to calm myself. Janet is quiet as she walks steadily toward the double glass doors, through the lobby, down the corridor and into a waiting room. I follow behind with a pain in my temple and I’m chewing on my lip. My hands are clammy. I hold my right hand up to inspect it. My eyesight catches the nape of Janet’s neck and I see that her hair has thinned to the point of exposing her pale white scalp. As she stands at the desk talking with the nurse my gaze covers the rest of the back of her head and I can see other thinning patches within the auburn hair that Janet was so proud of.
We sit with at least eight other people waiting their turn to be poisoned, hopefully to the point of being cured of the growing alien within them. The nurse calls Janet in and I ask if I should go with her, wanting to be anywhere else but here.
The room has the aroma of eucalyptus oil. Chairs are positioned around the room, each filled with patients with tubes attached to them. Some look serene; others have dark sunken eyes with sallow skin. The nurse directs Janet to a large green chair and asks her to roll her sleeve up on her left arm. I clasp her right hand in both my hands as the nurse inserts the rather large looking needle into the vein. Janet flinches and I begin to cry. Softly at first but the sobs take over and the nurse tells me sharply to leave the room.
I walk out past the nurses’ desk, out through the glass doors and into the sunshine cursing myself and wishing I had a cigarette telling myself loudly that it wasn’t the best time to give up.
Janet never asks me to go with her again.
Janet’s hair has all but gone. She has been fitted with a wig but prefers to wear a scarf. Her face is bloated and she has lost weight with her legs looking very thin, like they wouldn’t be able to hold her standing up for too long.
It’s now six weeks since the last of the Chemotherapy and the doctor’s decision after a CT scan was that it would be best for Janet to have a mastectomy. Janet is lying in her hospital bed waiting to have her life altering operation. I’m standing naked in front of the bathroom mirror pressing my breasts flat trying to get an image of what it might be like to have none. I release my right hand and the breast falls loose. The skin is red from the pressure placed on it but the fullness is exposed. I pick up my clothes and dress in grey pants, blue shirt and black waisted jacket. No colour coordination or care just clothes to cover up to get to work.
At my desk I type, then erase, type and look at the time at the bottom of the screen. 10.30 am. The doctors will be nearly finished taking the breast tissue. Morning tea time and my colleagues are drinking coffee and chatting about weekend activities to come. They are smiling and laughing. I’m watching their gaiety with hidden annoyance secretly wishing they would all disappear. The clock on the wall ticks the minutes away while I sit chewing the skin at the side of my thumb nail.
I wait till five o’clock before ringing the hospital. The female voice at the other end tells me all has gone well and Janet is resting in recovery. I cannot be told any other information as I am not a family member. I want to shout at the unknown voice on the other end of the line and say that I am in a distant way but I replace the receiver with force. After work I stop at a café and sit just watching the masses go past the window wondering if anyone of them has a friend like mine.
Two weeks since the operation and I’m standing once again in front of my friend. Janet is seated on her flowered couch in her blue carpeted lounge room. She undoes the buttons of her shirt exposing the bandaged area on her chest, then slowly peels back the tape and lifts the bandage. I stare at the flat skin with the reddened area circling the top. I’m trying very hard to reveal in my mind a breast shape but there is no nipple, no distinguishing shape just flatness with a large scar. I mumble something like it looks good thinking that it looks wrong. Janet tells me that when it heals after four to six weeks she will have radiotherapy. Then she reveals the extent of the surgery. She slips her arm out of its sleeve and I see the scar that travels from under her arm to half way down the inside of her upper arm. She’s telling me that they had to take lymph nodes as well. I’m visualising a carcass on a butchers table and a butcher holding a large sharp knife.
August 10th – The following year.
Eighteen months have passed since the initial diagnosis. I’m beginning to feel stronger with thoughts that recovery is possible. I have watched my friend go through the torture of medications, hair loss, surgery and pain. Trying desperately but failing somewhat to understand how she felt. We have had our afternoon coffees and or bourbon and cokes and talk of family issues or the weather or non-related events to cancer treatments. Her hair has grown back and she has dyed it dark brown. I don’t like the colour. I think it changes her appearance too much. Dark shadows that once hung below her eyes are fading and she has healthy looking skin. She didn’t go for the reconstructive surgery, opting for the half-filled bra. I smile and sit back in the chair thinking how grateful I am that it is all over.
We are relaxing on her patio listening to the radio. There is a cool breeze blowing the brown, cracked leaves across the pebbled path. The music is interrupted with the voice of the race caller. Janet likes to have a bet but I don’t like losing money. That’s the difference between us she will take a gamble and sometimes has a win. I find it hard to deal with any gamble, although I do enjoy a cigarette when I think too clearly on stressful things such as a loss to my personal world. Janet tells me she is proud of my effort in trying to give up smoking. I want to say I am proud of her. I watch the magpies as they fly overhead and then perch on the washing line wiping their beaks across the metal pipe that holds the plastic line in place. Janet had thrown mincemeat out onto the lawn which they call out for every afternoon. Their feathered abdomens protrude round and full.
Today feels different from other day. Janet seems preoccupied with her own thoughts. I want to say something to interrupt. A thin piece of bark falls from the Paper bark tree overhanging Janet’s side fence reminds me of the curried prawns in flaky pastry that Janet sometimes makes. I smile at the thought that how strange it is to be reminded of a taste from the visual observation of something completely unrelated. The next door neighbour’s dog barks and Janet coughs. I turn toward her and watch as she is wipes her mouth with a tissue. She sighs and scrunches the tissue within her fist. She looks at me and I see tears well across her eyes. A cloud covers the sun and I shiver. Janet rubs her forehead. I want to leave before I hear her speak but I sit watching the strained expression cover my friend’s face. I wait listening to the stillness that envelops me thinking of the dream that had woken me during the night. I recall Janet’s voice fatedly calling me from afar. All was shaded by mist with no visible figures. Then I woke thinking she was in my bedroom but it was dark and still.
Janet’s voice is low, almost inaudible as she explains that the MRI scan she had the day before, the one I didn’t ask about, has revealed spots in her liver and lungs. The outward appearance of good health belies what grows inside. I say I’m sorry knowing that it isn’t my fault but inwardly feeling guilty. She reaches for my hand and squeezes my fingers and goes on to tell me that she has decided not to continue with treatment. No more chemo. No more radiation. No more visits to the hospital. This is the final countdown. The loss will be immeasurable.