I didn’t realise that diagnosing cancer is a speedy process these days. Or in any case it can be in a Western country like ours – in the Third World someone like my mother considers herself lucky to reach the ripe old age of 67, let alone have the luxury of regular checkups, gastroscopies and biopsies to reveal what it is that has made her feel rather tired lately.
It took a couple of tests over less than a week to diagnose it. First mum went for her regular check-up and casually mentioned the fatigue. The next thing you know, she’s got a camera taking photos of the inside of her digestive tract. My sister Elly went to the gastroscopy with her and they saw a doctor straight after. “It’s not good news, I’m afraid,” he told them. Then the phone rang and he said he had to take the call and left them waiting for 15 torturous minutes. When he came back he was more forthcoming. “You’ll have to wait for the biopsy results to be sure but I’ve seen enough of these to know it’s Cancer.”
The first thing to do is rule out spread so the next day there is a CAT scan. The day after that, an abdominal ultrasound. This time I go with her. Mum is still in shock. She says it is like watching yourself on TV: it looks like it’s all happening to someone else. Perhaps it is a desire to make it more real that drives her to tell the ultrasound operator, a brisk and businesslike woman with a fake smile who clearly doesn’t want to be at work on a Saturday morning. She introduces herself – Belinda – and explains the procedure. “Perhaps I should tell you why I’m here,” mum says once she is lying on the ultrasound bed. Belinda stiffens. I can see that she doesn’t want to know. I put my hand out to mum’s arm to try and warn her, but she ignores me. “I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus.”
Belinda jumps in before mum has a chance to reveal any further uncomfortable details. “Oh I don’t have anything to do with that!” Her nostrils flare and she shakes her head slightly. “I don’t do any of the air-filled organs like the stomach or the lungs. I only do the liquid-filled ones.” All we can do is smile tightly and move on. The ultrasound continues and I try to make some sense of the greyish blobs on the screen. I am very familiar with the machine and the process: it is exactly the same as for a pregnancy ultrasound, but without the excitement. There is no growing foetus, only blobs which, for all I know, could be growing metastases. What are those little spots on the kidney screen, I wonder? What about the shadow on the screen called liver? Belinda refuses to tell us anything. “No,” she chops. “Talk to your doctor.” She finishes, hands mum a kleenex, smiles vacantly and is gone. I wonder how a health professional could be so cold. Would it have hurt her to say “I’m sorry to hear about your cancer”? Or to wish mum luck with everything? The more I think about it the more I want to slap her.
I’ve been wanting to write about this, but I still feel hesitant in re-starting my blog. This will be my first post about mum’s cancer. Will there be a last post one day? When? Under what circumstances? What will be the path ahead?