A week after my last blog post I received a letter in the post, inviting me to attend a routine mammogram at the end of April, just when lovely Spring was beginning, a couple of miles away in an Asda car park. Asda? Never before had I associated a major supermarket with the madness that is the mammogram. But it turns out that mobile mammogram units like to frequent the dodgy bits of supermarket car parks; the bits where the rubbish bins are, and the bits where shop staff hang about in like-minded huddles, hoovering nicotine down their necks. Not the nicest place to have to turn up at 9 on a Friday morning.
My invitation had arrived just 2.6 years since my last mammogram, which had taken place at the hospital. I don’t like change. I ADORE routine. I’d been expecting an invitation in October – what were they thinking? I’d been on track to begin spiralling down into mammogram-mania sometime around the end of September but now the invisible NHS admin lot had forced a complete change in my anxiety itinerary, by announcing that the BOOB SQUISH was, in fact, going to take place in April – T S Eliot was right, April is indeed the cruellest month, boob-wise.
The letter came with an email attached, to which any queries could be sent (a new development thought I.) NEVER send me an email address because, like a criminal with his concealed weapon, I’m the sort of person most likely to use it. And so I fired off an email to the BSU (breast screening unit.) ‘HELP,’ I screamed at them through my laptop, ‘why have you done this to me? I hate having a mammogram as it is, but I hate it even more when that mammogram is completely UNEXPECTED and I’ve only got a week to the appointment! Is it safe to be radiated so soon after the last one? Are the machines in mobile units, in dodgy car parks, as safe as the ones at the hospital? Experts say mammograms are a waste of time anyway – should I still attend?’ On and on I burbled in an exasperating and patience-draining way. A reply arrived a few hours later, assuring me that zapping the boobs with 7 weeks’ worth of background radiation in one shot (I do my research) was not a problem (who are they kidding?) They understood my concerns but would still advise attending the mammogram. And, being the kind of person who appears to be constitutionally incapable of refusing any kind of medical test or scan, I went along to that Asda car park and willingly got myself flooded with x-rays, and a good many other things besides for all I know.
And thus were sown the seeds for an episode of feverish health anxiety that would just grow and grow and grow.
The woman in the unit finished my scan and told me to get dressed. On glancing at the desk, behind which she’d stood to scan the images, I noticed that one of my digital photographs was clearly visible on a monitor to her right. On that image I noticed a gigantic white blob, the rest of the image was black/grey with a few white lines. I glanced at it for a split second before she ushered me out rapidly, completely losing her motherly and caring demeanour; the one she’d displayed whilst answering all my overwrought questions before manoeuvring me into the clamp. ‘GET OUT, KEEP MOVING WILL YOU!’ her now stern and impatient face silently screamed at me, as I passed a row of equally silent middle-aged women, sitting on the long seat I’d vacated about 10 minutes before. ‘Ok, ok, I get it. There’s a conveyor belt of us to get through,’ I murmured (also silently) as I walked down the steep metal steps of the unit and escaped for home. But that wasn’t the end, it was just the beginning.
Returning home on the kind of curious ‘high’ that one can feel, when one has put oneself through the medical wringer, I rapidly came back down to earth the following day. The image of that GIGANTIC white blob wouldn’t go away. It was beginning to assume the horrific proportions of The Blob – that 1950’s Sci-Fi shocker – ‘It eats you alive!’ the film had promised. ‘Oh please don’t eat me alive, please don’t be anything nasty and sinister,’ I inwardly repeated over and over again. And then I dared to google ‘white blobs on mammogram images’ and entered the twilight zone that is the message board and forum. A few days later I was a wreck.
I now knew that call backs usually happened 48 hours after your mammogram, if cancer was suspected. On the other hand, I now knew that some people had been called back up to 13 days later. I now knew that mammogram technicians may give you a hint of a friendly smile if your images were clear; or they may give you a hint of a friendly smile if you had cancer. And the one phrase that stuck out in all of this was the words CALL BACK. Call back, call back, started ringing in my head, so I shut the message boards and the forums down.
There followed 3 weeks of agonising dread. The first week passed in a blind panic, every deadly imagined scenario flitting through my brain. When the landline rang I answered it (which I never do) in case it was somebody ringing to give me bad news. Picking up the receiver was a kind of weird, out of body experience, as my hand somehow managed to bypass my brain’s instructions to NOT answer the phone. The phone calls were all cold callers and no letter arrived, but I couldn’t relax as hadn’t that one person been contacted 13 days later? The second week passed in more of a haze of dread, which peaked until the post arrived and then abated until the arrival of the next day’s post. I was back to living on the kind of knife edge I’d experienced years ago and which, for a good 5 years, had all but disappeared. The third week passed with less dread until the letter arrived on a Friday. To open or not to open? That was the question. I opened it to find a normal result.
But there was to be no sense of relief or winding down; now that health anxiety had me in its grip it just didn’t want to let go.
Eight days before I got the mammogram result I had my annual routine eye test. For 30 years my eyesight has not changed. For the past couple of years a young and wonderfully empathic Irish lad (see The Eye Test post) has carried out my test informing me that I had enviable 20/20 vision. This year the husband made the appointment and forgot to ask for the Irish lad, and so I was faced with a slim young woman, dressed like a sort of 1950’s secretary with square, black framed glasses. The sense of cold, hard efficiency emanating from her every pore was intimidating.
The test began. I read the 20/20 line on the reading chart. I passed all the red and green circles bit. Then came the pressure test. I stared at a red light while she puffed air onto each eyeball. The puffing of air went on quite a bit. Something’s wrong thought I, but couldn’t find the courage to ask why she was continually assaulting my eyeballs with squirts of air. ‘The readings are all over the place,’ she suddenly said, in a stern and emotionless manner – it was like dealing with a female Sherlock – ‘I need to do a more accurate test. I’m going to put something in your eyes and then I’ll re-test the pressure.’ I entered a state of paralysis, like a deer caught in the headlights. Without any further explanation she put drops in each eye (which stung like hell) and then poured something orange onto the end of a stick and touched each eyeball with said stick. Panic began to clutch at my heart and still I couldn’t pluck up courage to ask what was happening.
She attached a small black box, with a small, round metal hoop on the top, to the eye test machine thingy. She then asked me to place my chin on the chin rest and to look straight ahead. ‘Do not blink,’ she commanded, just like Sherlock would if he was an optometrist. With absolutely no explanation or forewarning, she came at me with the metal hoop thing and I swear she pushed it onto each eyeball, but curiously I didn’t feel a thing. ‘What the hell is happening,’ I inwardly screamed, whilst maintaining a curiously calm composure. She then said, ‘ok, you can blink.’
(Through diligent research once back home, I discovered that what she had actually done was numb my eyeballs, without telling me! I’d never heard of such a thing, and no wonder I couldn’t feel the metal hoop. The device is also called a tonometer and measures intraocular pressure but, clearly, she didn’t feel that any explanations were required.)
She then moved to her desk and started writing in my notes, mumbling as she went. I couldn’t make out a word and remained in a state of paralysis. She moved to a chair at my right hand side and asked which medical practice I belonged to and who was my doctor. I stammered out both answers, the panic now clutching at my throat. ‘I’m writing to your doctor,’ she continued. Your eye pressure is raised (no mention of the number) and he’ll refer you to the glaucoma eye clinic at the hospital.’ I can’t begin to explain what the word ‘HOSPITAL’ did to me, or the word GLAUCOMA. ‘Right, we’ll take you through the visual field test now,’ and she led me out of the room, leaving me with an optician whilst the machine was set up, without so much as a by your leave or a have a nice day (not that I would’ve being I was now staring glaucoma in the face.) ‘Thanks Sherlock, I won’t be seeing you again,’ I inwardly murmured.
The much friendlier (male) optician offered to check if my reading glasses were still a good fit and then adjusted them while I was waiting. Suddenly my paralysis disappeared. ‘I’ve got high eye pressure,’ I blurted out in the sort of bleating tone you’d usually hear from a sheep. ‘Try not to worry about it,’ he replied, ‘I’ve glanced at your notes, your vision is very good.’ And then he guided me to the visual field test. I was in no state to perform well in any kind of test. When I’d finished he said I’d passed 100% on each eye, with a look of mild astonishment in his own (I’m assuming) non-high pressure eyes. And then I went home.
It was all too much. The mammogram followed by the eye test. Suddenly I became hyper-aware of all the possibly nasty things that could be wrong with me.
Nearly 3 years ago I contracted a nasty thing called Molluscum Contagiosum. I’d never heard of it and it took my GP, and a second GP’s opinion, to diagnose it. Apparently molluscum can look very like a form of skin cancer, hence the faffing around to reach a final diagnosis. Molluscum are also known as water warts and is a virus which most commonly attacks little kids and is, therefore, unusual in adults, especially adults my age. I have no idea where I caught the virus but am thinking it was possibly from a hot tub during a Centre Parc holiday. At the time, I researched the condition like crazy and found that the terms STD and Aids cropped up with alarming frequency, so I stopped googling it. A few of the lumps grew very big and then exploded with blood pouring out. The GP prescribed antibiotics the first time this happened, citing an infected lump. By the time the second lump grew and exploded I knew better. After careful research I discovered that it was a molluscum’s normal behaviour to go very red and look very infected and then burst, so I self-treated by cleaning the area and sticking a plaster on it every night and avoided antibiotics. So for nearly 3 years I’ve lived with a few yukky lumps appearing down the right side of my body only (weird) – monitoring the situation but not too rabidly.
But the mammogram and eye pressure changed all that. The molluscum has all but gone, leaving unsightly purple scars in its wake, and I began inspecting the scars and lingering lumps – difficult to do since they’re on my back. And came to the conclusion that the scarring was not normal, and neither were the lumps, and it all should really be looked at since it might possibly be skin cancer after all. So I went to the GP for the first time in two and a bit years. He informed me that he now had a new skin cancer detecting device which had cost £700! It was obvious he couldn’t wait to use it. Whilst he inspected the scars and any other lumps and bumps he could find, I entered that familiar state of paralysis, the one where I’m incapable of asking any questions and expect the worse. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘take it and look at that mole on your arm, see how it magnifies it and it takes photos too. It gets down to the tiny blood vessels!’ His enthusiasm knew no bounds. I couldn’t help feeling like a trapped experimental guinea pig in a cage. ‘Everything’s good, no worries,’ he finished.
The next day I found a lump on my lower eyelid. How I found it is beyond belief, since it’s tiny and my eyesight is currently under investigation. Again health anxiety whispered cancer in my ear. I took another trip to the opticians, this time requesting that I see the Irish lad. He spent the entire appointment discussing my eye pressure (‘I knew you’d be worried,’ he said…. and he’s only seen me twice.) My pressure was 23. He took it again and it was still 23. When he’d measured it last it had been 19 but, you see, they don’t tell you these things. It was NICE guidelines that it should be looked into but it didn’t definitely mean I had glaucoma. He tried to relieve my worries and pronounced that the lump was probably a blocked tear gland, after looking at it for ages and taking lots of photographs. BUT, here’s the key point. He did all this with such care, patience, understanding and a sort of highly engaging, youthful friendliness and openness that all the fears of the past 8 weeks evaporated into thin air, and the evil health anxiety, now sulking in the corner, was banished from the room.
As I left his office he pulled a card from his desk and wrote something down. ‘I’m going to give you my email address, please email at any time, if you have any worries at all about your eyes.’ This was a surprise – the female Sherlock, who had so scared me, had not offered her email address and what amounted to 24/7 eye care support. ‘Can I really email you?’ I asked. ‘Of course,’ he said and I left. He must be an incredibly popular patient choice at the practice thought I. He must also be an optometry saint.
Two days later I felt that this dazzling display of empathy should be acknowledged. I sent off an email, thanking him profusely; just for being so nice, and noted that he was one of the few health professionals who maintained direct eye contact when I stammer and didn’t make me feel like an inferior, anxiety-ridden idiot. A reply arrived the following day, which confirmed my opinion that if a virtual stranger has made a positive impact on your life in any way, then you should definitely tell them.
So, I effectively lost 8 weeks of my life to spiralling health anxiety, just because I’m lucky enough to live in a country which provides exemplary health care and free screening tests – so who am I to complain?