Thursday, January 29, 2015

The longest blog entry I'll probably ever write

I would like to tell the story of my citizenship, but it's not going to be what you're expecting because I was distracted.

It'd been my goal to obtain Australian Citizenship since having been in Sydney one year. At that point, I knew I was going to stay. So, one day I sat down and wrote a list of goals. Not just a bucket list, but a chart. What I want, why I wanted it, how I was going to get it (what obstacles I would have to overcome).

This was an important thing for me. I applied for my Permanent Residency, filling out 25 pages of the application. I obtained letters of reference, certified copies of my birth certificate and passport, proof of residency, and FBI and Australian Federal police reports which proved that I was not (am not) a criminal. I paid $2,500 to apply and waited 2 years to get it. After the Permanent Residency came through, I had to wait 12 months before applying for the Citizenship. At 12:01am (immediately after midnight) exactly 12 months from being granted PR, I applied online for my Citizenship. Again, I provided proof of who I was and my residency. I was assigned a day and time to take the Citizenship Exam, which I passed with flying colours. And then began the long wait for the final step. The Ceremony. It took 6 months to be assigned a date. Australia Day! There is no better day to be made an official Australian. There are flags a-flyin' and it feels like the whole world is celebrating your citizenship.

Here's where the story takes a turn (small warning, I'm going to get more personal than I am usually with anyone). About a month before my ceremony, I started noticing some soreness in my left breast. It was like someone was pressing their thumb quite firmly on the outside near my ribs, on the top left or directly on my nipple. It would come and go and didn't worry me. As any woman knows, breast soreness is part of the deal. They hurt when they grow, they hurt when menstruating, they can hurt for no reason.

As soon as I noticed the sore spots, I started doing frequent breast exams. Now, the thing with a self breast exam is that you're told, as a young girl, how to do it. You lift your arm above your head and, with your fingers together, press in circles. You do this around the breast, on the chest, in the armpits. What we're told to feel for are lumps. A lump is often described as small (maybe as small as a pea) and hard. What I don't remember being told is that breasts are basically filled with all kinds of things. Ducts, glands, fatty tissue, muscle. And it's up to each of us to know what the "normal" feeling is for our own breasts, which is why we're told to regularly check them, so that we can recognise the difference. I've been checking mine regularly since I was 16, so, I've got my baseline for normal.

The mind is a funny thing. Let's say you find a hard lump on the back of your left hand. You start to panic. What the hell is that? Then you ask yourself routine questions. "Did I hit my hand against something?" You feel it, poke it, try to move it around, as if all that will help define it or make it go away. Then you start feeling the back of your right hand, to see if you have the same thing on the other hand. If you find it, and you realise it is a normal bone needed for a hand, you calm right down and feel a little silly really, but all the poking and prodding is an anxiety multiplier.

At first, I felt nothing out of the ordinary, or if I did, I felt the same sort of thing on my right breast and therefore thought, "Sure, that's normal. Breasts are full of bumpy things. This is normal."

Then, like normal, I would go about my days - which are such a blessing at the moment. Each day is filled only by what I want to do. Go to the library, write, read, see movies (a lot of movies), go to lunch or dinner with friends, take walks. I notice each incredible gift while I'm out in the world. If I take a bus or train into the city, I always take the time to notice the Opera House view as I go by. I've enjoyed taking pictures of birds on my walks.

The other day, I was walking home from the bus late at night. I responded to a friend's text message and looked up just in time to see a massive (about the size of my palm) spider building his web right across the sidewalk. I stopped (in time before being trapped forever and swallowed whole) and took a picture, admiring how amazing Australia is and that spider in particular. I really do enjoy every flower, every type of weather, every sip of coffee.

I can't remember the first time that it happened, but I started noticing some pain while doing my out and about things. I'd be on the bus, looking out the window at the harbour and all the sudden wince, my attention captured by some mild soreness. "Maybe it's a period related thing. I'll wait for my next one and see if it continues after that." And it did. I'd walk home, sit in the movies, read in bed and in the middle of it all, more and more often, I'd find myself forced to notice this 'not normal' soreness with an involuntary wince. The pain was not terrible. The wince was more of a reaction in recognition of something I didn't want to be feeling.

And then, I started to notice the 'not normal' lumpiness.

Now, here are some thoughts that cross my mind.

  • You really don't want to share this news with anyone. You'd just worry them for no reason.
  • You should get this checked out.
  • Maybe it'll go away on its own.
  • It's only been a week (then two, then three, then a month).
  • Could it be muscle related?
  • I'm leaving the country in three weeks, if it is something serious, I'd want to take care of it in Australia. I trust the health care here.
Then I called to make an appointment at the Sydney Breast Clinic, but I found a reason to "have to call back later" and hung up, not having made the appointment. At least a week went by. I decided to focus on my citizenship ceremony.

I sat on the couch, practicing the Australian National Anthem, subconsciously feeling for lumps. Breathing deeply in or out, assessing if maybe my bra was just too tight, causing all this fuss.

The day of my Citizenship Ceremony I was very excited. First of all, it was raining, so the location was moved to the Library (which was AWESOME because I love this library and go there all the time). 

Ten of my dearest friends came to celebrate and watch me become a true blue Aussie. I greeted each of them on their arrival and stood with them while a jazz ensemble played jaunty tunes. I smiled and was genuinely thrilled that they each came to celebrate this huge day with me. 

I was seated in line with all the other new citizens. The Town Crier (Bill Wallace) rang his bell and called out that we are all welcome here for this occasion. Wince. "Oh, not now," I thought. The nagging soreness was quite a distraction, interfering with my joy. I sat there in the library, staring at the guest speakers one by one congratulating us all, while a tormenting internal debate raged on, "You're going to have to get this checked out." / "After the trip." / "Really, and what if it know what?" / "Voldemort?" / "Oh knock it off. Stop deflecting. What if it is Cancer (with a capital C) and you go on your holiday without getting it taken care of or diagnosed. Are you willing to let it kill you?" / "Well, maybe that's a good way to go. To die doing what I love." / "Are you serious? / "No, I'm scared, now can I please just focus on what the Mayor is saying about Lane Cove?"

When the speeches were complete, we (new citizens) stood and swore an oath to Australia. And then our names were called, and one by one, we walked up to the podium to accept our Citizenship and shake hands with the Mayor. I saw one friend (with my camera) go to my left and two other friends (with their cameras) go to my right. Everyone taking pictures from all angles. My name was called and I went up. I shook the mayor's hand, someone to my right (some official of some variety) said, "Oh, you brought a fan club". I was so excited and nervous, standing there with my paperwork, I didn't even notice if anyone cheered. I turned the mayor to my right and we posed for a picture. 

After all the names were called, and all the applause concluded, I stood to join my friends and take pictures with them. I wanted more than anything to capture my love and appreciation for them in each snapshot. It meant the world to me that they came.

We ate lamingtons. And I was given a plant from the boy scouts (the plant type was "Eggs and Bacon"...I'm not kidding!) And I was given a baseball style cap from the local Rotary that looked like The Australian Flag.

Later that night, I went to dinner with a good friend. We were going to meet at the restaurant. I was early, as usual. Wince. "Oh God Damn it. Just call. Make the appointment." And so I called. I left a message at the clinic that I'd like to make an appointment and please call me the following day. 

My good friend showed up soon after and took me to Jamie's Italian to celebrate the citizenship. After dinner, we walked to the Opera House just in time to see fireworks. It was an incredible day, wonderful evening, spent with the people I love.

It rained all day the following day. Wednesday. Buckets of rain. I stayed home and looked over the pictures again and again of my friends and my special day. Finally achieving this goal, so long in the making. Wince. Shit. And then I got a phone call from the clinic. I made the appointment for Friday morning. I would need to get a doctor's referral before coming in.

And then Thursday morning, I called to cancelled the appointment out of sheer fear that they would find something, but I blamed it on anything else. I knew it was a private facility and therefore would cost money (could be $500-$1,000 minus 30% that Medicare would cover). I waffled back and forth about that. "I have the money" / "Yeah, but that's for your adventures." / "It's probably nothing," I'd say, not believing it, "but what is the price for peace of mind?"

Only, when I got through to someone at the clinic, it was a friend of mine. You see, months ago, I'd run into her after not seeing her for about a year. We were at a mutual friend's party, celebrating that friend's Permanent Residency (the same friend who bought me dinner to celebrate my citizenship). Well, this friend that I'd run into at the party told me all about her story. 

Now, I feel that it is every one's right to tell their own story, so I'll keep it brief and unspecific. Basically, she was working at the Sydney Breast Clinic and found herself dealing with breast health issues of her own. Her story was inspiring and a little terrifying because she had no symptoms what-so-ever and ended up with some pretty serious decisions to make. 

So, when I called to cancel my appointment, I lied to my friend about not being able to get a Dr's certificate. I hung up, feeling ashamed and no closer to being done with the discomfort, unknowing and fear. But the thing about a friend is...

She sent me a private message on Facebook and told me to get in touch with her when I wanted to rebook my appointment, that she'd make sure I was taken care of.

I hopped on a bus, went to a medical centre and was seen within 3 minutes (That NEVER happens. I've waited 2 hours at that medical centre to see someone). The doctor asked me if there was anyone in my family with breast cancer. I said, "Yes, my aunt on my mother's side." This time she winced. She said something about it being a close connection. "Do you have any lumps?" I said, "It's lumpy not so much A lump." And after a few more preliminary questions, she examined me. She barely had her fingertips on my skins when she said, "Yes, it is rather lumpy." Her bedside manner was spectacular, honestly, but there is nothing this woman could have done or said that would've eased my nerves. She said something about it being natural for some woman to have lumpy breasts, "even without a lot of breast tissue" which I remember thinking "Is she saying I have small breasts...really?" But then she said, "I am going to recommend an ultrasound." And all the sudden, it became REALLY REAL. "I know that is probably not what you want to hear," she said, "but you don't need to worry." To which I visibly and audibly scoffed. As if I could control the floodgate of emotions. I held it together, requesting that she give me a referral to the Sydney Breast Clinic, that I had a friend there, etc. While she was writing the referral, I was already texting my friend to see if she could get my appointment back.

I folded the paper and walked out. I made it 30 feet before sitting down and calling my mother. With tears in my eyes, trying to hide the emotion from my voice, I said the facts, "A doctor has recommended that I get an ultrasound." My mother's reaction couldn't have been more perfect. She assured me that it was nothing. That she's gone through it and of course they have to check with an ultrasound, but don't worry, because worrying never solves anything. My tears cleared up and I asked technical questions about our relatives with breast cancer. Again, my mother's delivery was better than I could have expected, "There is a good kind of breast cancer, the kind that doesn't spread. The good kind is the type of cancer in our family." Like, even if this turns out to be something, "meh, we only get the good stuff". No worries.

I hung up feeling relieved mentally, loved by my parents and like my blood was swirling in an emotional mess. Two out of three wasn't bad.

I made an appointment at the clinic for the following morning. Then, I went to a movie to distract myself. The Theory of Everything. The Stephen Hawking story. I cried the whole time. Yes, the movie was good, but I really needed to get the emotions out. After the movie, I turned my phone back on to find that my friend at the clinic had messaged me. She said she was going to take care of me. She sent two or three super supportive messages and then the tears really started to flow.

I got a hold of myself and decided to walk across the street to my old place of work. There I caught up with friends I hadn't seen in a year and a half. We talked about my Citizenship, my upcoming travel and how they'd been. It was just the mood lifter (and distraction) I needed.

Tonight, I ordered delivery and decided to write this. (In the middle of which, my friend at the clinic messaged me, "See you tomorrow", giving me good reason not to chicken out again). Tomorrow morning at 8:30 I'll see my friend and get this thing checked out. I'm going to wait for the results before posting this entry because I don't want to make anyone have to wait.

I've gone through every possible outcome, as one is bound to do. I've made plans in my head for the worst, but more than anything I give myself permission to cry either way. And either way, I will pick my head up and do whatever's next, do what need doing.


It's 1pm the following day. I had my appointment at 8:30am and after three hours of feeling, pressing, squishing, squashing, mammogram and ultrasound, the verdict is good. I'm in the clear. (I have written a detailed account of the day, but will save you the details).

Everything is "normal" and "lovely". And that's when I wanted the doctor to stop talking, but she didn't. 

She felt that out of the three levels of risk for familial breast cancer, I was only not in the least risky group by a technicality (I was "barely" in the second level of risk). She was not worried so much about my Aunt (and a cousin, which I found out from my mother). She would be more worried if it were my mother and grandmother, for example. Then there would be a clear link in my immediate family. She then said that there are four levels of breast density. The first two, the lowest two, are where 90% of women fall. Then there's the "dense" level 3 and then there's "insanely dense" which is where I sit. She called this, "and elite group of women". I thought that was a cute way to put it. Unfortunately, women with this type of breast density (basically my breasts have an abundance of milk glands), are more likely to develop breast cancer. For some reason, this density is a hormone haven for things like that to develop. 

What this means for me is that I will need regular (annual) mammograms coupled with ultrasounds. 

So, "All clear" were the words I wanted to hear - and I did. And though "high risk" were words that I also heard, I'm looking at it this way...More frequent and thorough checking means the likelihood of finding something earlier rather than later is also high. And I like that (though I will always hope there is nothing to find). 

Thanks for reading this massive blog post. I hope it wasn't an "over share". I felt like it couldn't hurt to express the anxiety I went through, and the repeated attempts to avoid finding out what was going on. I'm sure a lot of women feel this way, but ultimately knowing is better. Now I have peace of mind for my trip, and a clear plan of action for my health in the future.