An inspiring long read for you
How long could Teresa keep pretending things were normal when Dr Casey had said the dreaded words, “There’s a lump.”
Author: Aoife Clifford
Teresa noticed a spot under the collarbone of her reflection. Toothbrush in one hand, she tried to brush it away with the other. A crumb of toast she thought, but it didn’t wipe off either herself or the mirror.
‘Is this new?’ she asked her husband, Alan. He was huddled over a cup of tea after a long night shift.
She repeated her question and then wondered why she was bothered. Like a new stain on an old sofa, he was hardly going to notice something so minor. But by the time Alan had finished drinking, he was certain the spot was new. Looked bad as well.
Something worse than a blemish.
‘You better get it checked out,’ said Alan. ‘Could be serious.’
Jack, her eldest, stopped spreading jam on his toast and looked at her. Behind Alan’s back, Teresa caught Jack’s eye and then touched her forehead in that ‘tap-tap-curly-wurly-cuckoo’ way her youngest, Charlie, thought hilarious, because Alan was a paid up member of the worried well. Jack went back to his toast.
After Alan had gone to bed and Jack had headed for the bus stop, but before she walked the younger children to school, Teresa studied the spot again in the bathroom mirror, this time with her glasses on. How could something so small be dangerous? If you blinked, you’d miss it. Maybe she had. Maybe it had been there for years without her noticing, one in the constellation of other freckles she had accumulated back when she was a teenager and summer time smelt of coconut oil.
She wasn’t going to spend fifty dollars for something like that. She’d save it up for when the kids got sick and see if they’d look at it then.
But the next day Alan found the letter saying her smear test was overdue and insisted she make an appointment for both.
“Arm above your head”
Dr Casey, a tiny no-nonsense woman, older than Teresa, did the pap smear and then took a nano-second to decide the spot was fine.
‘How about we do an overall skin check and breast exam while you’re here?’ asked Dr Casey.
Might as well get maximum value, thought Teresa and she stripped down to her underwear behind the curtain. They began to chat about her children which was one of the reasons she always tried to get in to Dr Casey rather than the other doctors in the practice. Dr Casey remembered Jack’s concussion, Amy’s asthma and Charlie being born.
The conversation slowed as the doctor went into work mode, pulling back hair to check Teresa’s scalp, lifting up her arms to check the underneath. As she bent across her to check out the left side, Teresa noticed a badger stripe of white running along the doctor’s parting. Too busy healing the sick to get to the hairdresser. Teresa dyed her own hair at home every six weeks. She always made sure Alan was asleep before starting. You had to have your secrets, even from your husband. It kept the romance alive. He probably thought she still was a natural brunette.
“You’re all clear,” Dr Casey said. “Bottom half on and then breast exam.’
She turned back to write file notes on the computer as Teresa got dressed and lay back down on the examining table.
‘Arm above your head.’ Dr Casey’s hands were cool and smooth on her skin. She imagined describing the sensation to Alan tonight and maybe spark something different from their usual television watching in companionable silence. But then she glanced down at her breasts, splayed across her chest like one of Dali’s melting clocks pictures. She couldn’t understand what Alan saw in her breasts, they reminded her of raw chicken which in turn made her think of dinner. To distract herself from the doctor’s kneading she began to work out when she would make lasagne that night. She could do the mince when she got home and then the béchamel sauce while Charlie did his reading, and then it would be ready when Alan woke up.
“There’s a lump there”
‘There’s a lump here,’ said Dr Casey and for one confused moment Teresa thought it was a reference to her béchamel, which was prone to lumps. She tracked where the doctor’s hand was. Her left breast looked even more deflated.
‘Can you feel it?’
Teresa’s hand was guided to the top of her left breast and then moved sideways to nine o’clock.
Teresa squeezed. It was yielding, slightly squishy with a hardness underneath. Just like always.
‘Now, feel the other one. They’re quite different.’
Teresa dutifully complied. They felt the same to her but she nodded anyway.
‘Get your clothes back on and we can talk.’
Dr Casey did most of the talking.
Teresa tried hard to concentrate but the information kept scrolling past like television news ticker. She found herself staring at Dr Casey’s hair and imagined looking in the mirror and seeing herself bald. You’d save a lot of money on hair dye for starters.
The printer spat out a referral to a medical clinic in the next town.
‘Ring me a few days later for your results.”
Four days later, Teresa rang in sick to work. She pretended she had the flu, because she didn’t want everyone gossiping about the state of her chest. Her boss made pointed remarks about how he never got the flu and if she couldn’t be reliable, well she was only a casual after all. Teresa stayed on the end of the phone thinking if I have cancer then you’ll feel guilty. But she knew he wouldn’t really, instead he’d be complaining about the hassle of finding someone who would work the deep fryers over summer.
She made it to the clinic with time to spare and found herself circling the block hopeful for a parking spot to magically appear. A disabled one was free. Suspected cancer could be a disability, she thought, trying to pluck up the courage to park there. But what if a genuinely disabled person came to the medical centre? What if she was caught? She’d be wanting breast cancer just so she could use it as an excuse.
When she eventually found a spot in a back street several blocks away, she tried to put in a pin in her Google maps to remind herself where it was. Her kids would be impressed with her technical prowess, she who had been known to mistake a school calculator for the television remote control. In the end, she couldn’t get the pin thingy to actually work, so she wrote the street name down on the back of her hand instead.
“They’ll call me a hero”
Teresa had scheduled the appointment for midday so that Alan and the kids wouldn’t know. That way she could keep pretending that none of this was real. That her breasts hadn’t become two traitorous lumps with the ability to morph into something deadly without her knowledge.
How would Alan react if she had told him? Worried, she expected. Worried in an annoyed kind of way, like all this had been done on purpose to inconvenience him.
All the same, she wished someone knew how well she was coping, having to put up with her boss and thinking of pins in maps. If I end up with cancer, they’ll call me a hero, she told herself. Still, they never would because the idea she had cancer was ridiculous. Cancer was for other people.
“She didn’t belong here”
Walking up the stairs, Teresa half-expected that the receptionist would look at her paperwork and tell her that that there had been some mix-up and she didn’t belong here. That she should get out of the way for people who were genuinely sick. But the receptionist offered no reprieve.
‘Shouldn’t be long,’ she said in a voice that implied time was a relative concept.
The waiting room was functionally drear with rows of fixed seats like an airport terminal. Trying to distract herself, she picked up the only magazines in the place, which were sitting there next to a forlorn bible.
The first magazine was one for fitness freaks and had Lance Armstrong on the cover when he still was in his Lord of the Universe phase. She looked at the second, Cosmopolitan – the Breast Issue. Flicking through it, she came to a pink-bordered lift out amongst the bikinis, bras and Kardashians. How to do self-examination! What does a lump actually feel like?
Had someone deliberately put these magazines out in reception thinking that would inspire sick people? Or was it more meant as a joke? Teresa swallowed a snort of laughter and put the magazines back for someone else’s future amusement.
She was still smiling when the radiographer, all tanned and teeth, called her name. She introduced herself as Corrine and said it was good to see someone looking cheerful. Teresa almost told her about the magazines but suspected you had to possibly cancerous to appreciate it.
“Does it hurt?”
Corrine took Teresa down the corridor to a little cubicle and handed her a hospital gown.
‘Openings at the front, everything off except your undies,’ she said.
The hospital gown had that clean worn smooth feeling from multiple wearings and washings. Following Corrine into the examination room, Teresa had to shuffle past nurses and another patient, clutching her clothes, hoping that she didn’t drop her bra.
‘It looks like a Storm Trooper’s sewing machine,’ said Teresa, taking in the room.
‘Haven’t heard that before,’ said Corrine. ‘Mixmaster usually.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked Teresa. She’d heard mixed reports and it looked like it could slice her in two.
‘Depends on how sensitive you are,’ said Corrine. ‘I only have to touch some peoples’ breasts and they’re already complaining. Now open your gown and take your right arm completely out of the sleeve.’
Teresa slipped out one breast, feeling like she was about to be sacrificed to a futuristic god.
‘I’m going to get you into position,’ said Corrine. She angled the machine into place and then gently scooped Teresa’s breast onto the glass plate. ‘Boob wrangling,’ said Corrine. ’They didn’t mention that in my training.’ Teresa could tell it was a line as worn as her gown.
‘There’s probably someone in Hollywood with that as a job title,’ she replied.
‘Official breast handler. Have to look for that in the movie credits,’ said Corrine. ‘Your boobs are actually quite symmetrical. Most have one noticeably bigger. That’s why buying a good bra is such a challenge. Every pair is different.’
‘Fingerprints and boobs,’ said Teresa. ‘Imagine inking and printing them.’
Corrine laughed and lowered the press further. ‘Might make police work more exciting. Now don’t move.’
“What if she did have cancer?”
It was all over in a few minutes.
‘Now, the doctor may want extra pictures,’ said Corrine. ‘Don’t panic if he does. Means he just needs a closer look.’
She left Teresa sitting on the chair alone in the room wondering what he would need to look at more closely. It was a bit like the slice of salami technique that her children used on her all the time, wearing her down so that you start off saying yes to them going out with friends to the movies and the next thing you know it’s midnight and they’re still not home. Maybe each professional takes small steps along the path, so that by the time they actually get round to telling you it is cancer, you’ve already planned your funeral.
What if she did have cancer? The question seemed less ridiculous than it did an hour ago. She was turning into ‘other people’. Still, she had dealt with hard times before. A couple of nasty miscarriages. The time police rang the doorbell because Alan had been in a car accident. The six months afterwards when he couldn’t work. Standing on the sidelines watching Jack crumple on the football field after a head high tackle. Her first response always had been to bargain, with the doctors, police, God, the world, anyone walking past. Sitting by bedsides thinking that she would do anything, give up anything, if only they would be all right. Light candles. Say Hail Marys. Be a better person.
But she didn’t feel like negotiating now. There was an odd kind of inevitability about all of this as if she had stepped aboard the cancer train without even realising.
Corrine stuck her head around the door, ‘Your lucky day. No more happy snaps.’
Before Teresa had time to absorb this, she was being handed over to Stephanie, the sonographer. Stephanie was a smarter dresser but colder person. She looked like one of those posh flight attendants, not a hair out of place.
‘You have a lot of lumps,’ she told Teresa, as she squirted gel all over her left breast. ‘Did you find them yourself?’
‘No, the doctor did.’
Stephanie gave her a look like didn’t she read Cosmopolitan and know how to self examine properly.
Teresa lay on the examining table. The room was dark and warm. She thought back to the last time she’d had an ultrasound, when she was pregnant with Charlie. Alan had been there even though he should have been sleeping. A screen right in front of them showed exactly what the examiner could see. Together, they had looked at a beating heart, the growing brain, four limbs and ten fingers and toes. A perfectly formed baby. An every day miracle. Here, the screen was directly behind her so she couldn’t see the every day disaster that had been growing in her breast.
Stephanie kept rolling the probe over and over the same spot, clicking her tongue with annoyance like she wasn’t happy with what she was seeing.
‘I’m getting a second opinion,’ she said.
“I think you should get a doctor”
The colleague who returned with her took over, squirting more gel on Teresa and pressing the probe in the same spot. Teresa listened to what they were saying but couldn’t understand it. Calcification was mentioned a lot. Teresa didn’t know if that was good or bad.
‘I think you should get the doctor,’ said the second.
Minutes masqueraded as hours until the doctor arrived. A man. Good looking, Teresa decided, with cropped hair, angular face and glasses. She lay there topless with gel smeared everywhere and he didn’t acknowledge her at all. Only the second man to see her breasts bare in the last twenty years and he didn’t even look. Then she realised that no one really looked at her properly any more, certainly not a stranger. She was being overlooked by a world that wouldn’t notice if she disappeared. It suddenly seemed so terrifying. In that moment she was certain that she had cancer and was going to die.
The smallest tear leaked out of Teresa’s eye. She let it trickle down her cheek, hoping that no one noticed.
The doctor was busily concentrating on the screen and watching what Stephanie had discovered with her paint roller of a probe.
Teresa looked at the pink dimpled puddle of flesh that lay sagging on her chest and the flash of fear passed. She couldn’t possibly let her hair go gray but she could lop off her left breast. What would Alan think of a flat chest and massive scar?
She turned her head and watched the doctor. He had the kind of screwed up face you make when you’re trying to work out a magic eye picture.
‘Papable lipoma,’ he said, or at least that’s how Teresa deciphered it. He left the room.
‘Well, the doctor’s satisfied,’ Stephanie said to Teresa, in a way that sounded she wasn’t. You’re finished.” She began to mop up the gel with windscreen wiper shaped movements using rough kitchen paper.
Teresa was left alone to get dressed which seemed ridiculous seeing they had all seen her half-naked.
She still wasn’t sure what this all meant. No one was smiling at her saying congratulations, you have a pair of healthy breasts to take home. As she went back to reception she wanted to grab someone and make them answer. A simple yes or no. The only question the receptionist was interested in was how much to charge for the mammogram.
“It’s the doctor”
Teresa told no one while she waited. It was easier to put the incident into a little box, separate from her family and friends and her life, mentally marking it not to be open except in cases of emergency. She took all the shifts she could just in case there was going to be a time when she couldn’t. She dutifully rang Dr Casey the day the results should have been available, but she was seeing patients.
‘She’ll ring when she can,’ the receptionist told her.
It wasn’t until just before dinner that Dr Casey rang back. It was Jack who answered and held out the phone to her.
‘It’s the doctor.’
She could see a question forming on his face and her mind ticked over for a lie to tell him. Instead, she took the phone. She hoped Jack would leave the room but he didn’t budge.
As Dr Casey told her the results and what they meant, Teresa had a feeling of weightlessness as if she might float up and have a bird’s eye view of herself talking on the phone and Jack sitting there pretending not to listen to her conversation.
‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘Thanks very much.’
That night after dinner Jack remained at the table, though he usually left as soon as he had shoveled down the food.
‘Doctor phoned,’ Jack told his father.
Alan looked up from his plate, ‘What’s that?’
‘The doctor called today for Mum,’ said Jack, and then left.
Teresa was pinned by a pair of tired eyes.
‘You told me that freckle was nothing.’
She put her fork down slowly.
Dr Casey must have made all sorts of phone calls today. There could have been other people waiting to hear good news and didn’t. But that wasn’t her.
She told him everything. Her boss’s complaints. The magazines in the waiting room. The sewing machine. The asexuality of the examination. How the doctor didn’t even look at her but spoke to the sonographers instead in medical terms that she didn’t understand. And then the call telling her that everything was all right.
Alan listened without moving. He didn’t try to comfort her, though she’d started to cry. Instead, he waited until she had finished talking, and stood up. He put his hand on hers and pulled her to standing.
‘I look at you,’ he said, before kissing her gently on the lips.
His fingers began to unbutton her shirt.
‘The children…,’ Teresa began, but he kissed her quiet.
When her bra was exposed, he slid his hands under her breasts and cupped them, bending down to kiss the rounded flesh.
‘I could have told you they’re perfectly symmetrical.’
As he buttoned her back up, he kissed the newly acquired beauty spot for good measure.
Read a review of award-winning Aoife Clifford’s debut novel All These Perfect Strangers
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