Continuing the saga of what happened after my mastectomy: I woke up from surgery to find that I couldn’t move my left arm. It was numb and paralysed from the shoulder down. The surgery had resulted in damage to the brachial plexus, a very complicated branch of nerves that control movement in the arms and fingers. I knew of no one who had been through what I was going through. This series of posts is dedicated to anyone else out there who is going through a similar nightmare and is feeling like a boat shipwrecked on a deserted island … you are not alone!
I thought I was coping well, several weeks into the post-mastectomy period. Physically, I was doing fine, recovering from the surgery and anaesthesia. I was well enough to rush from one appointment to another. I even travelled to my appointments by public transport: the Tube and bus.
I pushed myself, to convince myself and everyone else that I was coping. But an incident occurred one day to show me that there were hidden wounds that still needed to heal.
I’d always thought of myself as mild-mannered and a considerate person, the sort who would stand up and offer my seat on the Tube or the bus, to someone who was using a crutch, or had a broken arm, or was pregnant.
So I was hoping that my good karma would get me the same sort of treatment on the Tube and the bus.
The Tube is not the most comfortable mode of transport, even if you have two arms and are not recovering from surgery. Apart from a few vertical poles to grab onto, most of the hand grips are overhead. Before the accident, I had no problems with balancing without needing to hold onto anything, often reading a book. Now my sense of balance and spatial awareness was askew because I couldn’t feel my left arm which was trussed up in a sling. I felt very vulnerable and unprotected on the side of the mastectomy.
I usually avoided rush hour so that I could get a seat. However, there were times when the Tube was crowded, and I was left to stand in the middle of a carriage, arm in a sling, seeing the glances of the people who were seated, slide surreptitiously off me as they tried to pretend they hadn’t seen me.
Pregnant women on the Tube are given a badge that says: Baby on Board.
Maybe I should have been wearing a T-shirt with: “Breast cancer. Just had a mastectomy. Paralysed arm. Give me a seat before I die.”
The funniest moment came when I was seated on the Tube one day, and a man struggled in with a pair of crutches. Guess who was the only person who offered him a seat? Yes, me – muggins!
The worse encounter for me was when I was caught in the end-of-day rush hour about a month after the mastectomy.
The Tube platform was packed and I got shoved to the front of platform, just in front of the Tube doors. There was nowhere to move, it was like the proverbial sardines in a can.
The doors opened right in front of me, I tried to move to one side, but couldn’t move very far because everyone was shoving me to get into the Tube. There was a person standing inside the Tube carriage, pressed against the doors, trying to get out. When the doors opened, he saw me and deliberately swerved so that he was directly in front of me. He shoved me aside hard, as he came out of the train.
It didn’t hurt, but I was shocked and I could feel where he had pushed me.
Suddenly, a red mist came over me. I was fed up of everything, the cancer, the mastectomy, the paralysed arm, being prodded and poked, trying to be in control. Without thinking, I took off after him.
“Stop!” I shouted at him. He didn’t. He ran up the stairs to the ticket hall. God knows where I found the strength, but I ran after him.
“Stop! How dare you push me! Go on, say you’re ‘sorry'”. He didn’t.
So with my last bit of energy, I grabbed hold of the sling of his laptop and dragged him down the stairs. And then the words poured out of me: “Look at me! I’ve only got one arm! I hope you’re ashamed of yourself. Apologise!” He stared at me with his sullen, puce face and ran off. “I hope you get cancer!” was my parting shot. At that moment, I wanted him to understand what it was like to live with uncertainty, fear and yes … in my human weakness, I wanted to teach him a lesson.
[Let me get this clear: I do not wish cancer on anyone. But if I had been 6-feet-tall and a man and not a slightly-built woman with an arm in a sling, this man would not have tried to shove me aside.]
Yes, I know Life in London is Dog-eat-Dog and you’ve got to ride with it. Maybe that man had had a bad day at the office and hated work and his wife was about to divorce him and his pet dog had died, and his pet hate was people who stand in front of Tube doors, but that was no excuse for bad manners and being a bully and pushing a woman. Bullies take it out on people who they think are weaker and smaller than them and they think won’t fight back.
I had to have counselling to get over this incident – I actually felt bad and guilty for asserting myself and shocked by my anger, and worried I had given him cancer!
If you’re reading this, please please give up your seat to anyone who has their arm in a sling. You never know when you might be in similar predicament. Life is unpredictable like that.
It seems to me that I must come across as a very uptight and hysterical person. Cancer blogs are supposed to be full of positivity and sweetness and light and humour and I’m sure that it makes for better reading; however, when you’re up to your neck in shit, it is hard to smell the roses. This post is dedicated to the cancer patients who’re having bad days, but daren’t express themselves because they’ve been told to “be positive”. Positive be damned – be authentic.