A week ago one morning a loved one rang me and said “I’ve got a lump on my right breast and my right arm is swollen and lumpy”. Shiver making words. I went ‘what, where, when, why did you not tell me’? Very accusatory. I could hear her gasping, taken aback. ‘I only found it just now and I am telling you now’. “Ok stay cool baby, Ok? stay cool. We’ll sort it. Just be cool ok”? I did not feel anything cool at that moment. Mind racing, hand shaking I called the doctor’s surgery. I explained to the receptionist. The receptionist in her slow fashion repeated my words of dread. ‘She has a lump on her breast and her arm is swollen’? It seemed almost sacrilegious, her repeating these words in her slow deliberate way, as if she did not believe me. But then she said you better bring her in then and fixed an appointment for 40 minutes later. My ears sang gratitude. The doctor was a pretty young thing in a blue printed dress. Neat, I thought, even with my worries. Must be East European. Anyhow doc was reassuring. She said ‘it does not look nasty but let us check it out. We take all such things seriously’. She made an appointment for the breast clinic.
The arm was something else altogether. It was some sort of mosquito bite and it healed in a day. See how the least sickness makes us all irrational?
I thought the appointment would take twelve years after all the horror stories I have heard of the National Health Service. But promptly a week later a letter arrives. And today we went to the clinic. It was called comfortingly Clinic C. The receptionist smiled. We did not feel like smiling. Then an avuncular (what do you call a woman who is uncle-like?) lady came up and smiled and offered us biscuits and a choice of tea, coffee or hot chocolate. We then smiled. Wow man, are they softening us up for bad news? I could see a man I assumed was a specialist doctor standing in the corridor with a mug of coffee. He had a dour expression. All that looking at women’s breasts all day must send him queer I thought. Then he popped back into his room.
We were called before long. The nurse made us sit down and went out. Eventually the man I judged as the doctor came in. He still had his dour expression. Hang on I thought, he is doing it on conveyor belt. The nurses get the patients ready and he goes from room to room feeling the breasts for abnormality! I had to silently giggle. I was reminded of a wartime story (yes! I am that old) called ‘The Lady and Cheetah’. This lady of the night whose fame reached all of Europe serviced men at the front. She had a row of tents set up. The men queued up in their hundreds. Her assistants would get the men to undress and get ready (ready how?). The Lady would then go from tent to tent with her cheetah and spend the absolute minimum of time and the men were left to get dressed and get out.
The doctor went in behind the curtain and examined her with a female nurse. In a couple of minutes he was back and writing. Then he turned to us and with the faintest of smiles said, ‘it looks ok but to be sure we better have it checked’. He wrote a form and came with us to direct us to the scan place. How nice! Anyway more smiles at the scan place as we waited with our long faces along with other women and their partners or family or friends. It was seriously quiet there. She was ex-rayed in one room and auto-scanned in another room all within half hour. We were given an envelope and told to go back to the original clinic. There we waited to be told the result. Here was the biggest dread. This waiting to know. But it was a relief that we did not have to go away and fret for weeks.
We were called. The same doctor came with the same dour expression and sat down. I was shaking by this time. He looked up and said ‘there is nothing wrong, nothing to worry about’. He had to repeat it before I understood because his expression said something else. I smiled just to make sure and he smiled with me. My loved one bravely bore my antics and just took it all in her stride, almost fatalistically. I smacked her on the back almost fiercely in my relief. ‘Let’s go old girl’. We thanked the doctor and I even shook his hand in my relief. I make it a policy not to touch people’s hands in a hospital, having been a nurse myself and knowing what hands can get up to.
I was so famished as we walked up to the car. I said ‘I want the biggest chocolate cake and the bitterest coffee money can buy’. So that is what we did. We went and sat eating cake with insane smiles.
I got that feeling you get at the end of an exam, or at the beginning of a holiday. I felt I have now all the time to relax and read all the books and listen to some great jazz and watch violent nasty films.
And it wasn’t even my breast.
But for all those who scoff at the National Health Service, I must say “desist”. I offer one big cheer for UK Health Service. Don’t let the private contractors take it over if you don’t want to be hand cuffed at the entrance and bent over and searched with gloves.