When I went to see the consultant charged with diagnosing me, he asked me so many questions obviously trying to narrow down what I was suffering from. He wanted to know my medical history. To be honest, I didn’t think I had much of a medical history. I’d had the mumps at some point. I had stitches in my head from being pushed by a boy in my Primary 2 class and cracking my head open on a table. (In his defence, he was my ‘boyfriend’ and I was pulling his hair – we were together on and off for 6 prepubescent years – and in my defence it was his birthday!) My tonsils were removed when I was 18. I had my wisdom teeth out at 20 (I was one of the lucky ones, I didn’t look like a hamster after that op) and a bout of German measles also in my 20’s. Other than, that I had painful periods but I didn’t even think that was worth mentioning. However, when the consultant asked about my parents’ history and I told him my Mother had had ovarian cancer when she was just 36, his ears pricked up, alarm bells started ringing, clang, clang, clang.
He wanted to know as much as I could remember. I was 11 at the time. I always thought my Mum’s op had happened in the August but chatting on the phone the other day she said it was exactly 34 years to the day on October the 24th, 1981. I remember being told Mum was going to hospital and for an operation. I also remember she’d been quite ill fairly regularly throughout the year before but had been told, as she had, that she had ‘spastic colon’ – ‘a working mother’s complaint’. What Mum didn’t tell me then was that when the time, finally, came for her operation, she was sure there was something very wrong.
She spent a long time in surgery – much longer than we thought she’d have to. What the Dr found, was a lump on her left ovary which he thought was ‘suspicious’ and whatever else he found he made the decision there and then that Mum had to have a hysterectomy. There was no time for questions. So she woke up at the tender age of 36 to be told that she could never have any more children.
The singularly most vivid thing I remember about this time happened a couple of weeks later. Mum was still in hospital recuperating and Dad and I would visit every day and every lunchtime we would take in her mail to her. My Mum has a great deal of affection for her doctor, she believes he saved her life, but what happened one lunchtime made me hate him! My Father innocently handed my Mother her mail. She opened one letter, read it but what the letter telling her was that her cancer required further treatment and not on the island. There had been a clerical error and that letter which should have gone to her gynaecologist was sent to her. There is no easy way I imagine to be told you have cancer, nor that post surgery you require further treatment, but surely there was a better way than this? Let’s not forget than in 1981, very few people even dared to mention the word ‘cancer’ nevermind talk about it. She burst into tears, as did my Father. This was the first time I had seen my Dad cry. The doctor hearing the commotion came into the room, took me by the shoulders, marched me backwards out of the room and shut the door in my face. To this day I can still see him looking down at me, over the top of his half glasses. I had no idea what was going on. I just knew it was bad. Catastrophic. Only in recent years did my mother tell me, the reason she was so upset, was because her treatment would coincide with Christmas.
As an adult I now know that the surgeon was taking care of his patient but I don’t think, with the severity of the situation, my folks realised my despair on the other side of the hospital room door. I wanted to help but I’d been shut out.
When my Dad did tell me himself what the situation was and that my Mum was really ill, he told me at the end of the school day. My Mum and Dad were both teachers till their retirement, in The Nicolson Institute in Stornoway. My Dad was a Maths and Guidance teacher and my Mum taught English and History. I was a teacher’s kid – not pet! At the end of school day I would go to where my Dad parked our car just outside the Springfield South building that way I could get a lift home. I was in 1st year. This day, I got into the back seat of the car, as usual, and Dad while sitting in the front seat told me the news. I didn’t think that was odd at the time, the news was enough to take in, but I realise he couldn’t have wanted to look at my face as he told me. It was too much for him and of course he didn’t know how I would react. I knew it was bad, I knew it was real bad but I forced myself to cry as I figured in terrible situations that’s what you do. So I cried. I realise now, that was just shock.
Mum had cancer. Things changed and fast. After chemotherapy sessions in the Lewis hospital she was sent Glasgow for radiation treatment. She lost weight. She cut her hair so it wouldn’t fall out, her beautiful auburn hair that she’d never cut short in her adult life. She wouldn’t let me hug her at the Beatson in Glasgow when we visited; she was worried about the radiation she was harbouring. There was a big radiation sign on her hospital door. On her tummy there were four black dots marking where the radiation had to be aimed, which remain to this day. Treatment for cancer was much more crude 34 years ago, as were general anaesthetics and operation scars. She regularly vomited when we visited but I guess that’s because the treatment made her sick a lot. Christmas Day that year was the worst day of my Mother’s life, she was so ill but we were ‘holidaying’ with friends and they helped us make the very best of it. I was really too young to realise that and too young to be grateful but I remain very grateful for their support. At no point did I think Mum would die but was naivety, denial and youth. She watched other women she was having treatment with die and had to live with that guilt too. Her prognosis was not good but she’s still here. Sometimes I think she’ll out live us all. She was determined not to leave her 11 year old without a Mum. She was determined to beat cancer and get her life back.
So, 19 years after all that trauma, I relate it to my consultant and find out that I am now being booked in for a laparoscopy. I ‘jumped the cue’; I was ‘fast forwarded’. Some women go undiagnosed for years; years and years and years. Though I still hadn’t been diagnosed, the doctors had an avenue they wanted to pursue. You see endometriosis has symptoms, as I said, that are very similar to other conditions but the only way doctors can diagnose it, is to see it inside you, to see it for themselves.