Breasts! They’re funny things, really, coming as they do in all shapes and sizes. Mine suddenly appeared when I was about 10½ or 11. I went to bed one night oblivious of the changes in my body and woke the following morning to a pair of 34C’s. In my teens, I was very popular with the boys although not many of them knew how to work female breasts to their advantage. Wincing with discomfort I’d ask them if they’d found Radio Luxembourg yet as they twiddled and fiddled with my feminine attributes.

Now each breast hosts a jagged scar, a constant reminder – as if indeed, reminders are needed, - that I live with leukaemia. I have a little incision just under the collar bone on the right side where the Hickman Line was inserted. It made its exit part of the way down my right breast. For 5 weeks, through that line, I had a daily cocktail of chemotherapy to zap the leukaemic cells into submission.

The line split one day as a nurse administered an antibiotic, spilling the precious contents all over me and the floor, rendering the potency useless. The following day, with just lignocaine hydrochloride as the only pain relief, the Hickman Line was removed. In an operation which should have only taken 20 minutes it lasted a gruelling 2 hours as the layers of skin which had grown around the line were carefully cut away. Neatness was not an option and four stitches held the ragged outline together.

Although I had finished the chemotherapy, I was still having various other treatments that had to go through the Hickman Line, so another was inserted in the left breast. This time, the incision was made slightly lower down on the left side exiting further down. The surgeon who performed the operation was a jolly chap who laughed and japed all the way through. Pop music played in the theatre and he sang along to Chaka Kahn’s “I’m every woman”, which had us all in stitches – me included, as once again I was awake during this minor operation. 

A month or so after this operation I was up in King’s Hospital in London about to have a stem cell transplant. Contrary to most people’s ideas of a transplant where an organ is removed and replaced with another, a stem cell transplant is given intravenously. It’s quite an anti-climax really as it looks like a blood transfusion and takes about 2 hours to go through the line.

I was very ill afterwards and when I came home I had to live in the downstairs part of my house as I didn’t have the strength or energy to make it upstairs. Fortunately, my bathroom is downstairs and I had a large L-shaped sofa on which to languish. It was also necessary to have a carer wash and dress me each day and prepare my breakfast and lunch; all I did each day for months on end was throw up continuously in a bucket which was permanently by my side.

One morning when I was at my local hospital, something was being administered through the Hickman Line and I screamed in pain. There was a blockage in the line and the liquid was forming a huge lump under the skin of my breast. The nurse jumped back with fright – it was a loud scream - and another nurse came running to see what the problem was. I was rushed down for a scan where a blockage was revealed. Once again, I had to have the line removed. And once again, with only lignocaine for pain relief, I endured 2 hours of discomfort while the Senior House Officer tried to get the line out.

As before, the layers of skin had grown around the line. They had to be carefully cut away before the line could be pulled through which left another ragged scar with four stitches emblazoned on my breast. The scars were not quite a matching pair, though.

On holiday in Cyprus in June, two years after diagnosis, I was acutely aware of these scars, pale pink and shiny in their comparative newness as I braved wearing a bikini for the first time in over 6 years. I expected people to gawp – as they do – and gasp in horror but there didn’t seem to be any reaction whatsoever. I had also prepared an eye-popping story should the question be raised as to how I’d come by such ugly scars.

In 1970, there was a film called “A Man Called Horse” which starred Richard Harris. He becomes a Sioux Indian warrior after he survives a horrific sun-vow ordeal – the Indians insert animal bones through his chest and string him up for a few days to test his ‘manhood’. My version was going to be that when I was a Brownie, all new recruits had to go through a similar initiation ceremony whereby we were strung up from an oak tree overnight using knitting needles (while Brown Owl and Tawny Owl got up to other things out of sight). Now, of course, both are serving a long sentence behind bars in Holloway and all Brownies are spared such initiation rites of passage. I have to confess that I was very disappointed to not pique anyone’s curiosity so that I could spout my gruesome tale. 

More recently I celebrated my thousandth day after transplant. ONE THOUSAND DAYS!Who would have thought it? Not me, that’s for sure. My 1,000th day was a day to celebrate. Thanks to my younger brother, Tony, who generously shared his stem cells with me, I am here today.  There had been a time, however, when I didn’t know if I would ever get better. And when I caught the flu and MRSA while in hospital having treatment for a virus in my blood, I didn’t think I would make it.

I can’t say how I felt at having arrived at this incredible milestone in my life. It’s not everyday you are suddenly and acutely aware of the importance and significance of 1,000 days. I can only think of this in terms of the film, “Anne of a Thousand Days”, and we all know what happened to her! Fortunately, I didn’t lose my head, but I did lose my heart to the most loving and caring, most gentle and kindest of men – now my fiancé. 

Sometimes, we have to go through unspeakable tragedies, hardship, loss, and it seems so unfair. I am reminded of a piece of embroidery. ‘How ugly!’ cries the pessimist when looking at the reverse side of tangled knots, dangling ends, and untidy bits.

‘But look what happens when you turn it around,’ observes the optimist, revealing the true beauty of the intricate embroidery – ‘see how beautiful it is!’

We need the tangled knots, dangling ends and untidy bits in life to remind us of the beautiful things we get when we don’t expect it.

My jagged scars are a reminder that despite the often painful difficulties I endured, something beautiful came about as a result. Sometimes when tragedy has struck, out of the deep sorrows of the heart, love – like a tender bud – can take root and grow again when we least expect it. 

Pauline

Dogs Come when Called

"Dogs come when called. Cats take a message and get back to you."

"Of course, every cat is really the most beautiful woman in the room."

Edward Verrall Luca (essayist)

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