It is 10.30pm. I’ve just finished packing for a week’s holiday to Spain. Pick-up for the airport is in four hours, at an ungodly 2.30am. Do I sleep, doze or stay awake?
As I lie back, my hand brushes my right breast and touches something hard. What the actual…? I sit up for a closer investigation.
Christ. I can’t just feel it, I can see it – a raised lump about the length of my middle finger. Appropriate.
The skin is dimpled, a bit like the cellulite I can’t shift from my thighs. Is this my Covid curves? I compare it with the other breast. It isn’t.
So, I push my breasts inwards. It is hard, there’s no give, no movement.
Blind panic grips me. Three hours to pick-up. Do I cancel?
I NEED this holiday. I’m scaring myself over nothing, right? F**k it, I’m going.
Ten days and one holiday later, I’m back at home and still I do nothing about it. No touching it, no looking at it and certainly no calling my GP. Denial, that’s the best option, right?
I tell a friend about the lump. She makes me promise I’ll get it checked. ‘Of course,’ I say. Yeah, right.
A routine appointment with the nurse at my local doctor’s surgery. That promise to my friend plays on loop in my head. I blurt out: ‘I’ve found a lump.’ There, the news is out. The nurse is calm and practical: I need to see my GP, make an appointment. I’m not calm. In fact, I’m in tatters and start to cry. I won’t have the courage to come back another day, I tell her.
Twenty minutes later, I’m being examined by a female doctor. I ask her if she can feel the lump, praying for a ‘no’. But there’s no hesitation. Yes. She’ll be referring me to the breast clinic at Warwick Hospital. I’ll hear from them in 10 days. I can expect a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy.
On my sofa at home, my arms round my dogs, I allow the panic out. I tell them I won’t leave them through a stream of tears. I sleep fitfully, dreaming of being locked in a very small room with no handle. Don’t need to be Freud to figure that one out.
The phone rings at 8.30am the next morning. It’s the hospital. They want to see me this Thursday. Thought 1: That’s efficient. Thought 2: God, they think this is serious. THEY THINK THIS IS SERIOUS. Blind panic ensues.
72 hours later. Stripped from the waist up, I’m lying on the couch in front of the consultant, with his hand on my breast. The last time I found myself in this position involved wine and a slightly longer introduction, I think, wryly. I then have to stand in front of him as he compares left and right breasts. I mean where do you look? Certainly not at him.
Clothes back on, I watch as he marks on a line drawing where the lump is. He explains I need to head to the Helen Clark – breast care – suite for the mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy. This is happening fast. It’s just belt and braces, I tell myself, belt and braces. My emotions aren’t listening. They are screaming with panic.
The mammogram is uncomfortable but painless, the staff expert at calming my tsunami of tears. ‘I know this is daunting, but I’m here to help.’ Top and bra off as my breasts are squeezed in what looks like a static robot with huge plates for hands. A consultant will take a look at the images, I’m told.
Now the ultrasound. Top and bra off again, gel applied and the radiologist begins. I see three blobs highlighted in red on the screen. What does that mean? The panic begins to rise.
And finally, the biopsy. Obviously off comes the top and bra (I’m getting used to this, soon I’ll be doing it at the checkout in my local supermarket if they ask). I look away as a big needle is produced. Do I want her to hold my hand, asks the nurse. I’m 56, mother of one, capable, strong and fiercely independent. God, yes, I want her to hold my hand. In goes the needle, more than once, it stings. Even with the nurse’s reassuring touch, the terror mounts.
I leave with an appointment for a week’s time, when I’ll get the results.
Don’t miss your mammogram
If Pippa’s story has inspired you to get a mammogram, please let us know at [email protected] or using #FindTheMillion on social media.
On my sofa at home, cuddled by my dogs (do they KNOW?). Seven long days of waiting. Is it cancer? What the hell happens if it is? Mastectomy? Chemo? God forbid, do I die? Enough, Pip, enough. But my stern words to myself do nothing to assuage the storm of doom-laden what-ifs that rage wildly in my head. I set myself one rule. DON’T GOOGLE ANYTHING.
The wait is finally over, and I’m with my friend Dawn in front of the consultant and a breast care nurse. Hope for a negative result is keeping me calm. This is all just a drama, all will be well. It’s not. I have cancer. I HAVE CANCER!
As I cry and apologise, cry and apologise, the consultant explains what will happen next, but I can’t process a word. Thank God for Dawn.
Somewhere among the haze I understand my only option is a mastectomy. I’m advised to come off HRT. I rip off the patch immediately, like that will cure it. Dawn interjects. ‘Can she come off it gradually? I’ve seen her without HRT and she is a nightmare.’ Finally, some laughter amongst the tears.
We left, leaflets in hand, the BCN stressing the team were there for me. I could phone anytime. I say I’m grateful. I don’t feel it.
I need a very large glass of wine. But first I have to tell my son.
It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. In reality, Dawn does most of it. I get as far as: ‘I have cancer, James’ and she has to take over. He is stoic, amazing even. A remarkable young man, I think, but my heart is breaking for him.
I have to wait about two weeks for the op. I spend the time creating order from chaos. Book kennels, tell work, arrange for my friend Liz come and stay with me post-surgery while I recover. James and his girlfriend Georgia also move in to support. And I tell friends. I create a Uniboob Update Facebook group for 10 of my closest friends, to avoid repeating myself. I want no sympathy (I’ll only cry), but I will take chocolates, flowers and wine. In fact, they may be mandatory.
And I go to work. Support, normality and some black humour. I play the cancer card to avoid my turn at the tea run, and love being me, doing what I’m good at. I’m being Pip.
The day of the op dawns. An early start to have a blue solution injected into my breast, which will highlight my lymph nodes during surgery. I’m told my skin may go grey. Temporarily. Least of my problems, I guess.
The consultant arrives. How am I feeling? he asks. ‘How do you think I’m bloody feeling?!’ I exclaim. We laugh. And then I’m gowned up and begin wheeled to theatre. Tears and fears (yes, I am an 80s girl).
Promise me you’ll get the cancer out, I whisper, before I go under.
Follow Pip on her journey
Four months ago, Pippa Chapman was about to go on holiday when she discovered a lump on her right breast. Since then, her life has been turned on its head. Diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer, she underwent a mastectomy in November and is now waiting for chemotherapy to start later this month.
Living in Warwick with her two rescue dogs, the 56-year-old will, over the coming weeks, be sharing her journey from diagnosis to operation, recovery and through the next stages of her treatment.
Her account is searingly honest, moving and laced with defiant humour.
Pippa, along with many hundreds of thousands of other women, missed one mammogram, something she now bitterly regrets. This is not, she is keen to insist a ‘pity party’. Instead she hopes that it will encourage everyone to check their breasts regularly and to ensure they are up to date with their mammograms.
‘If my story prompts just one person to get checked, it will be worth it,’ she says.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected].
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