"ENJOY each day as it comes from God". This was the sound advice given to me repeatedly by a priest friend of mine. Before being able to fully appreciate what this meant I was to have breast cancer. It is now one year since I completed treatment at St Bartholomew's Hospital London, where the science of medicine has been taught for centuries.
Nowadays, I have to search the dark labyrinths of my mind in order to recall the expression on the houseman's face as he examined me . . . . and I knew. I lay waiting for what seemed like hours for Mr Gilmore, the consultant surgeon. I felt utterly alone. "Father, let this chalice pass by me, not my will but Thine be done". Unexpectedly these words sprang immediately into my mind accompanied by a knowledge that it was His will that I go through the ordeal ahead in order to recover.
At last the sound of voices, Mr Gilmore entered: he examined me "You have a little cancer", he said forthrightly. He then told me that I would be sent for tests to see if the disease had spread. He left, and in came Nurse Brady, the breast counsellor. She comforted me as I thought aloud and upon leaving told me that I could ring her at any time.
I was encapsulated in my own thoughts . . . . supposing this silent killer had crept its way through my system to other parts of my body. Death suddenly took on the character of a frightening amputation.
I had to wait a week for my results. During this traumatic time I went to see Nurse Brady. Immediately I looked upon her as a friend and the comfort she gave me was like a sudden oasis in an empty desert. From that moment on I thought positively. If the tests proved that the cancer was confined to the breast I would thank God, and regard it as any other illness — have it treated and then recover.
The day of my results arrived. I felt positively elated when Mr Gilmore told me that everywhere else was clear and that I would have a segmental mastectomy with radiotherapy to follow. I was so grateful that those who were going to treat me, especially Mr Gilmore, a lovely
Twelve months ago Mary Jane Franks underwent surgery for breast cancer. One year later 'the word cancer no longer strikes terror in my heart'
man, a Catholic, whose very presence demanded respect and total trust.
I entered hospital with confidence and determination. I was so impressed with the marvellous team work and the way in which everything was explained to me before it happened, down to the last detail, thus allaying all my fears. My family and friends were there at my hour of need, their smiling faces like guiding stars in the dark night.
A few days after my operation I was told that Mr Gilmore and his team had come to a decision on the completion of my treatment. As I had done the right thing and gone to the doctor immediately I had discovered a lump, there were no traces in the lymph glands that had been removed. However, as I had only had a segmental mastectomy I would have to undergo a six week course of radiotherapy.
"Doesn't it make you sick and your hair fall out?" people had asked me when I told them I was going to have radiotherapy. Nurse Brady warned me not to listen to old wives' tales. She explained that people thought of this treatment as it was 20 years ago, basing their views on hearsay — the bad experiences of others with different cancers.
My first visit to the radiotherapy department was spent planning my course of treatment with great precision with a specialised team. On my next visit I entered into the world of high technology. I was fortunate in having "Varian II" to treat me — one of the most up to date radiation machines in the country.
In the treatment room I was carefully positioned on a couch and asked to remain absolutely still. The normal lights were turned off and lazer beams switched on, preparations were made. The large machine was manouvered over me so the X-ray beam could be rotated around me allowing a high dose of radiation to be focused on my chestwall and neighbouring lymph glands while doing minimal harm to normal tissues.
The lights were turned on again when treatment was to begin. The radiographers and staff left the room; the machine was switched on. I was watched on a television screen in an adjoining room. All this was quite painless, each actual treatment lasted 30 seconds taken in doses of three or four.
Throughout my six week course of treatment I had regular check ups with Dr Plowman, the doctor in charge and his team. They showed such compassion and never tired of answering my questions. Side effects were minimal.
I thought a lot about the facts that one in four women develop breast cancer, some 12,000 die of it a year and about 70 per cent delay reporting their symptoms from a few months to several years, out of fear. Half the breast cancers that are seen at the clinics are at an incurable stage.
The word "cancer" no longer strikes terror in my heart. It was a stepping stone towards my development. I experienced the wonderful feeling of recovery when my inner self slowly emerged from a twilight world, devoid of beauty and thought, into a world which brought with it new revelations of the deepest and highest things in life.
I met Christ in the doctors and nurses who tended the sick with unstinting love and care. I encountered such absolute kindness in my family, friends and colleagues. I saw intense suffering . . . I reasoned that all humanity shares in suffering owing to mankind's departure from God — Christ Himself was not exempt — he not only suffered the horrific physical torment of the crucifixion but also the emotional stress of Gethsemane. This was a comfort to me. Contrary to some opinions cancer, or any other illness, in itself, is not due to any sense of divine retribution but to humanity's mismanagement.
I'm not going to worry about a recurrence. Its possible, but unlikely. Worry only eats away at the mind and spirit. Positive thinking not only improves the quality of life but actually increases the chances of survival.
All women should be made aware of the importance of regular examinations and immediately they suspect anything suspicious should contact their GP. Should breast cancer happen they should be informed of the care and support available in the form of Counselling and Self Help Groups.
For information on Counselling and Self Help Groups, contact Mary Jane Franks clo Catholic Herald.