Phyllis Chesler Interviews Carol Gould

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After the Biopsy
Last uploaded : Tuesday 23rd Dec 2003 at 23:11
Contributed by : Carol Gould


Last week I wrote about the experience of having an abnormal mammogram result and the ensuing investigations. (See the article at the bottom of this one.)

It has been a depressing and lonely week. God help anyone who has to endure the wait between biopsy and result all on their own. How many times this week I envied married women or single mothers, who have the company of another human being who loves her.

Here are the comments from some of my friends.

Miss X: ?Oh, for heaven?s sake, I don?t know why you bother. Why even have a biopsy? You and I have no children and no-one who depends on us. If it?s cancer, let it fester, and if it were I, so I?d die.?

Miss Y: ?Losing one breast won?t do you any harm. You could do with some weight loss.?

Miss Z: ?I really can?t listen to this. I have things to do, it?s holiday time and ?? etc etc etc

Others have shouted at me about my irritability. If anyone out there has had to endure the period between biopsy and result, one's mood changes hour by hour. I very nearly said ?I might not actually BE here next year in this time to be rude to you ? to one caller but I simply cut the call short and then took my ?phone off the hook.

However, there have been 'gute neshama' souls emerging, too. Accompanied by a neighbour whose kindness and calm demeanour I will not soon forget, I arrived early at the hospital -- a renowned National Health Service teaching hospital -- this afternoon but the doctor was late arriving. It was sheer agony watching the clock tick away as my appointment time disappeared into history. Finally, forty minutes past my scheduled time, I was asked to go in to see the consultant, who had arrived in a breathless maelstrom. He was standing by the pictures of the diseased breast but from his ebullient mood I could tell it was good news. He said, ?I am pleased to tell you that all of the biopsy results are clear. There are no malignancies. However, I still want you to be operated on to have the abnormal tissue removed. ?

From a fleeting moment of joy to a feeling of ?Oh, no,? I could feel my knees buckling. The overwhelming anxiety of the week of waiting had now been replaced by a confusion of emotions about the surgeon?s knife invading what in the end is a healthy breast. I could hear him saying,?Would you like to sit down??

As he continued to explain from a chair opposite me the reasons why he needed to operate, I began to feel angry. I said, ?Would you be cross with me if I said no??

The nurse blushed. My American spirit was showing; British patients tend to regard consultants with awe, but to me he was a man wanting to cut into my precious flesh.

He said he would not be angry at all if I refused an operation, but he said he would give me three months to decide if I wanted to go ahead.

The joy of knowing that I did not face chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and possibly the end of my life, had the abnormal tissue been growing for years and been cancerous, was palpable. I was taken into the pleasant little Quiet Room with the nurse, who told me the operation would be followed by a session with a cosmetologist. This sounded ominous to me, but I kept saying to myself: Think of the women who are told they have cancer.

Frankly, I just wanted to go home. I was given copies of my records and ran to my friend who had accompanied me and we hugged. Her eyes were filled with apprehension and a tear began to form as I told her my good news.

At this point I want to pay tribute to the British National Health Service. This much-maligned and indeed imperfect system is, to me, a marvel that has celebrated, like me, a half century filled with ups and downs. When I watch the American news, see the Democratic Presidential candidate debates and listen to the laments of my American friends, I feel privileged to have at my disposal a nationalised health system that sees me through a crisis like the one I have just endured without one penny changing hands. This chapter in my life would have had a six-figure price tag in the USA and I would have had the added stress of dealing with insurance companies. The NHS is a miracle; that the USA can put a probe on Mars but cannot finance such a remarkable system pains me.

All through this evening I have been pondering the choice that faces me. The consultant had said that my abnormal tissue was of such a rare type that he had seen 10,000 women but just I had had this ?one in a million? abnormality. My mind began to race to sinister motivations: did he want to remove that part of the breast because he wanted samples of this rare tissue? There is something about cutting into that organ, a woman?s pride and joy, that causes me great distress. It is something no-one can understand who has not lived the week I have just lived. The people who joked at me have no idea what it is like to wait for a verdict from a biopsy.

Dozing off tonight I was visited by the demons that millions of people experience in twilight sleep: that ?presence? in the room that actually touches one in bed but is not really there. It feels like a cat jumping onto one?s bedspread. Science has no explanation for this phenomenon. I like to think this was my mother touching me and showing how pleased she was that I would live a few more years in this world.

I am thinking of the thousands of women -- and men -- who have not been as lucky as I, and thanking the higher power that I have been spared the worst. I beg readers to believe that I am not being a drama queen by saying that the week of waiting for the biopsy results has been a life-altering experience. From now on, I will think twice before shouting at a waiter or shop assistant. A few days ago I had a miserably grumpy taxi driver. Ordinarily I would have got out and said ?It?s miseries like you who are giving London a bad name? but instead I reached through the cabbie?s window, held his arm and said ?You seem very sad.? He replied ?I have cancer and I am feeling horrible today but I have to work.?

This experience has changed me. If you have had cancer or a scare, please write to me at:

I cannot guarantee a reply to each letter but I would love to hear your own stories.
The following article appeared in the week in which I first heard about the abnormal mammogram:
Filed by Carol Gould
15 December, 2003:

My life has been cast asunder by a health scare. Many have gone through this ordeal, which I wanted to share...
You watch films and hear radio discussions about it and always think, ?That happens to other women.?

Today, however, I had the shock of learning that a routine mammogram had produced a picture of an abnormality that looked like a lit-up Christmas tree.

At this writing I have no idea what the outcome of this day will be, but it has left a few lasting impressions on my psyche that -- self-indulgent as they may seem-- I wanted to share with our readers.

It all started three weeks ago when I was asked by my doctor to have a mammogram now that I am well into middle age. A letter arrived on my doorstep last week telling me I had to go to a specialist breast clinic due to a result that was causing concern.

Arriving at the beautiful Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith, London on a devastatingly cold day, I was ushered without delay into the x-ray room. (In the UK we have a magical system known as the NHS -- National Health Service -- where money never changes hands but delays are legendary. To be ushered in that rapidly meant my case was considered top priority.) I was told by the radiologist that the right breast was showing something needing further exploration, hence new images were needed.

I waited for the results in the corridor, and was frozen in time. I had worn two layers of clothes this morning but was too stunned to even know what I was putting back on; I wore just my outer sweater and sat, staring into space. I was called into the consultants? room and shown the result: it looked pretty awful, the abnormal tissue looking out at me like a red-eyed fox at midnight. The consultant was particularly perplexed by unusual spots and dots. I took both doctors aback by telling them I am in the top cancer risk group: Ashkenazi Jewish, single and ?ample in girth.? As I lay down someone in the room asked if Ashkenazi was a Midwestern racial category; it made me chuckle and I was glad to be feeling so relaxed in such circumstances.

Then I began to realise the gravity of the case: the consultant said he felt it likely he would need a biopsy and then ?the committee would have a meeting? about my case later in the week. I was advised to go to the hospital caf? for an hour or so and have a sticky bun. I was in a trance. Despite an impressive array of food in the caf? I ordered something I never eat: a sticky bun, just as the consultant had suggested. In these situations one moves about in a shocked state and for this reason I will always think of jam doughnuts and caffe latte when I remember my day at the breast clinic.

It was the longest forty-five minutes of my life. Sitting alone in the caf? and thinking of various problems I have at the moment , I began to feel tears welling up. The people in the caf? must have thought me mad: I got up and walked around the place in a full circle and then went back to my seat to finish off the doughnut.

Returning to the clinic, the place was empty. I knew my case must be serious because all the other patients had long gone and it was getting dark outside. I was then taken to another room in which the female consultant, a formidable South African, and four technicians kept me laughing with a lot of kibitzing and kindness. For me, as a documentary filmmaker, the whole process was fascinating but every time I turned my head that red-eyed fox kept staring out at me from the computer and from the back-lit x-ray display boards, as instant images of my abnormal right breast were recorded. We joked that amongst the five of us just one was British-born. I dubbed us the ?TIGs? -- the International Group.

Holding the hand of one of the technicians, an incredibly warm Finn, I submitted to the anaesthetic needle that preceded a biopsy. Seven tissue samples had to be taken, and for women -- and men -- reading this, rest assured it is a virtually painless and quick procedure.

I dressed and was taken to a cosy room where I was greeted by a counsellor -- another warm and witty female. We joked that she was eligible to join The International Group, being a Welsh lass. She sat with me and chatted for a long time, unconcerned that it was nearly going-home time. She gave me her card ('Call me if you don't feel right') and explained that the doctors would meet in committee and let me know the results of the biopsy when I attended the clinic next week. All bandaged up, I went out into the perishing cold and treated myself to a taxi home . (Could you endure public transport at rush hour with your most precious attribute already feeling tender?)

This is going to be the longest week of my life. I am watching the news of Saddam?s capture from what feels like a grey bubble around me. At the moment I have many other worries in my life, and feel lost and incredibly isolated from a world enjoying the lead-up to Christmas. Tonight I blew another wad of money on a big meal out and came back to some considerable alcohol consumption. The layer of dust on my Cointreau bottle was as thick as Saddam?s layer of dirt, but I did indulge my worries with the pleasure of its contents.

I am hoping for the best. I thank God for having given me fifty years and think of all those I loved who never reached my age. Who knows what next week will bring, but if the capture of Saddam does not really engage me, the news junkie of all time, you can imagine my state of mind. When I light my Chanukah candles this week I will feel different, and will hope I will be lighting them again a year from now.

I would love to hear from others going through the same process.
If you would like to send a letter or comment on this subject please do so:

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