These three things I gave to my daughter, Karen, on her seventeenth birthday: a Tweety bird birthday cake specially ordered from the bakery around the corner, a jigsaw puzzle featuring a leopard in a tree and the news that I was diagnosed with breast cancer, that very morning.
I would have given anything to delay the unwelcome news as long as possible, but the surgeon insisted that I had to be admitted for a mastectomy not later than the following morning. He was clearly deeply concerned about the prognosis and wanted to start with the necessary treatment as soon as possible. The preliminary medical investigations did not look promising.
Karen was devastated.
I was angry.
I was fully aware of the fact that, due to my family’s medical history, I was deemed to be in the high-risk group for cancer, therefore, I regularly reported for my annual checkups. For the previous five years, mammography and sonar examinations revealed cysts in my breasts which the doctors classified as non-cancerous fibrocystic. Despite my frequent requests to remove the bigger cyst, which has been causing me discomfort for some time already, the doctors just told me that this problem should resolve itself. Naturally this made me feel like a five-year-old child nagging for a lollipop.
If I knew what was in store for me, I would have insisted on second and third opinions. Instead, I just made a point of turning up at the radiologists on a regular basis and each time I was pacified by the negative results. The previous week, however, the mammogram indicated that there were “hot spots” in the one breast and I had to spend a night in the clinic to have a biopsy. At first, the tests came back negative, but the surgeon to whom I was referred by my medical practitioner, was still uneasy and insisted upon a wedged biopsy. Without any doubt, this saved my life, because this time the test clearly indicated the presence of cancer.
At the time I was fifty years old, recently transferred to the head office of a big commercial bank and I’ve just started settling into the job that I have been coveting for a very long time. In my mid-forties, I decided to further pursue my legal studies and recently obtained my L.L.B. degree. Life was good … or so I thought, until that morning when I went, for what I thought to be a simple routine check. On the day that I would have attended my degree ceremony, I underwent a mastectomy. I was furious, to say the least.
Six months prior to all this we moved into a comfortable apartment in the predominantly Afrikaans speaking suburb of Florida, Johannesburg. The apartment was ideally situated, two blocks away from the secondary school where Karen would matriculate two years later, close to the shopping malls and a short drive away from my new offices in the Johannesburg central business district. As it turned out, it was also situated conveniently close to the Mayo clinic where, in the immediate future, I would spend many hours of my life.
Arrangements were made for me to report to the oncology department for treatment as an outpatient, one month after the operation. I had no idea how I could continue working while at the same time receiving treatment and I simply tried not to think about it. I spent my days in front of the television set, too despondent to continue with my life. It was difficult to bathe and dress with all the drainage tubes that I had to drag along – not that these things mattered because in the aftermath of the winter it was very cold and I did not see the need to take off my warm pajamas; I was not going anywhere. For the first (and hopefully last) time in my life, I crawled into a deep, dark hole of depression where all I could feel, was a nameless rage that made me choke on food and words. I refused to reach out to any of the support groups proposed by the hospital and did not receive visitors or take any phone calls.
I took no notice of the fact that Karen, until then a typical moody, selfish and lazy teenager, took over my role in the household. She took care of the laundry, cooked, cleaned house, ordered our groceries online and bundled her mother into the bath for a much-needed body and hair wash. Through all this, she had to study for her annual exam.
Then, one day, she unpacked the puzzle that I bought for her birthday and started to sort out the pieces. She invited me to sit with her and soon my hand started moving across the table to help her sort the pieces. We started talking about this and that, and a few days later she asked me straight off whether I would die. It was the shock that I needed to realize the damage I was causing to my child by isolating myself in silence and anger. In her, I had a wonderful incentive to live. I then and there swore to her that I would do everything in my power to overcome the disease.
Day after day the puzzle progressed (Karen is certainly better at this activity than I ever was) and after a few weeks it was done … except for one block which seemed to have disappeared into thin air. Right in the middle of the completed puzzle there was an opening. We searched high and low, unpacked and repacked shelves and drawers, but that little piece was nowhere to be found. The tiny opening in the puzzle became an insurmountable problem which made me feel sick and discouraged once more.
Three days later our weekly cleaning lady informed us that she had found the missing puzzle piece – in the bag of the vacuum cleaner. Great joy! I had the honour of fitting the last piece of the puzzle and suddenly my life felt whole again. That same day we carefully slid a piece of cardboard under the puzzle and glued the pieces in place. The friendly guy at the art shop framed it for us and the leopard took its place of honour on our wall.
While hanging the framed puzzle, I realized that, for me, it has become a symbol of a life that could be mended. Suddenly I no longer felt daunted by the months of treatment looming ahead. If we could finish an intricate puzzle, we could build a new life.
There were still many dark days ahead and I was not yet ready for other people’s “interference” in my life. I just wanted to get back to normal … have my old life back, which was obviously not possible; such setbacks leave its mark and it’s up to you whether you experience this as positive or negative. The next few months (and years) were not easy, but I now had the courage to tackle it head-on and I even found humour in the situation.
All this happened fifteen years ago. For me, life has turned out well and the dark hole is just a bad memory; one I hope I will never fall into again. A disease of the body is acceptable and manageable only if you are mentally and emotionally able to climb out of that hole.
The leopard still moves with us from home to home and is one of our most prized possessions.