CHAPTER 1 – STRUCK BY LIGHTNING
The roses all have left your cheek. I’ve watched them fade away and die…
I don’t know where to begin. I have to get it all down now while it’s fresh. I have no shame sharing anything with you, for you are me. You won’t squirm, you can’t be shocked, and so I will try to be as free with you as I am in my thoughts. I will begin at the beginning and unfold it for you as it unfolded for me.
My name is Emily and I have breast cancer. I found out six months ago. I remember, it was my fourteenth birthday and I had planned a whole lot of fun things to do that day. I planned to go to the salon with my friend Tonia, get my nails done, go shopping with other friends, and see a movie amongst other things. I just wanted to create memories that would last the whole year through. I guess I got more than I wished for eventually.
When I woke that morning, I stood in front of my mirror examining changes in my features (yeah, I do that every year…call it ‘measuring progress’). I had grown a bit taller, not taller than Tonia yet, but I was close. My hair had grown longer and it was darker and fuller at the back, took me two years to get that. I was very pleased with my legs, slim and long…sexy! I guess now it’s not the only thing I got from my mum.
I was pleased with the results of my ‘examination’ so far and I placed my hand on my left breast to make my pledge to have a splendid day and let nothing spoil it for me, when I noticed it. It felt small but I knew it was unusual. Damn! My perfect ‘Examination score’ was about to be ruined by a mere lump on my breast. I had to get it fixed, and fast too. So I went to the one person I knew had answers to everything- my mother.
I barged into my parents’ room, they were still sleeping. It was 6 a.m.
“Jesus! Emily, what is it?” I startled them.
“We need to talk mum.” I said firmly. She recognised immediately that I wasn’t joking, besides, it was my birthday and she had to oblige. I led her back to my room, to the front of my mirror and I took off my robe, wearing nothing underneath. She cringed at first, and then regained herself when she saw that I kept a straight face still.
“Mum, there’s a lump on my left breast, and I need to get it off now. What do I do?” I asked firmly. Still dazed by my naked frame in front of her, she stood there stunned.
“Mum!” I called out loudly.
“I heard you darling. Let me take a look at it.” I moved closer and raised my left arm for her to make her observations and proceed to prescribe the proper remedy, of course I expected it to be immediate.
“How do I get it off mum?” I asked impatiently.
“Calm down sweetheart, I’m sure it’s nothing.” She said resignedly.
“Mum, I know it’s nothing, but I want to get it off now.” I insisted.
Being an only child I know the measure of power I wield. Twenty minutes later I was in the car with my not-so-willing mum driving us to see a doctor. I didn’t care about her willingness at that point; I just wanted my perfectly shaped breast back. Regardless of its tiny size, I imagined the lump revealing itself when I wear my specially made tube dress for my outing with the girls that night.
Well, the doctor got me to relax and ordered a wide spectrum of tests, including an ultrasound scan, to be done. We left the clinic for home, but not before stopping at a boutique to get me a new gown for my birthday, one with some space at the bust area. There was no way I was going to wear tubes with the lump still there.
I had a great fourteenth birthday. My friends made it even more memorable for me, but my biggest surprise and memory was lurking around the corner, waiting for me.
One evening about two weeks after my birthday, I walked into the house and met my dad doing a poor job at consoling my mum. She was crying, and nothing he was saying was convincing her to stop. The tears just kept pouring out of her eyes. As her eyes met mine the tears poured out even more.
“I know I gave it to her, she’s going to have to go through everything too”, I heard my mum say amidst heavy sobs and dripping nostrils.
Later that night, with her bulgy eyes full with tears and round like a teacup, she walked into my room and I immediately asked why she had been crying. She was silent for a while, and then she asked about the lump on my left breast. I had already forgotten about it, but I reached for it beneath my nightgown and confirmed to her that I still felt something there. Her shoulders dropped immediately and I feared they would hit the ground. She remained silent a moment longer and finally said that we will have to go see the doctor again in the morning. As hard as it was I resisted the urge to ask why and I just nodded and said “Okay”. She kissed my forehead and said “Goodnight sweetheart”.
It rained heavily the next morning, I remember. I was still lying in my bed when my mum walked into my room all dressed up with a pink silk shawl covering her hair and over her shoulders. She sat beside me and spoke softly as she said I had to get ready so we could go see the doctor. I had barely slept the night before, thoughts of whatever caused the tears to flow so freely down her face kept me awake. I was worried.
I silently got out of bed and made my way into the shower.
Forty-five minutes later I was in the back seat with my parents in front as my dad drove us to the hospital. The same doctor from two weeks ago welcomed me and assured me that everything was okay, but his colleague, a female specialist, just wanted to make sure they got the lump off my breast as quickly as possible. He smiled a lot and calmed me greatly.
His colleague, the specialist, took me to a room and we sat facing each other.
“I heard it was your birthday a few weeks ago, did you have fun?” She was smiling at me and I saw that she was quite pretty. I was sad and really didn’t feel like chit-chatting, but she seemed really nice and mum taught me not to be rude to people.
“Yes, I did, thank you.”
She smiled again, “Do you want to share your favourite part of your birthday with me?”
“Well, I would say it’s the part where I went shopping with my mum, she got me this really nice dress that I wore to hang-out with my friends.”
“O really, that’s nice, what colour was the dress?”
“Pink. It was a pink dress with really nice white polka dots all over.”
“Nice! I can imagine you looked dashing in it, all them boys couldn’t keep their eyes off you for sure”, she said, beaming with smiles as she winked at me. I couldn’t help it, I smiled back at her.
“I’m sure you’re wondering why you’re here, right?”
“Yep, especially after seeing how much my mum cried last night, I know it has something to do with me. Am I the reason she’s been crying doctor?” I asked frantically, no longer able to contain my curiosity.
“Well, your mum really loves you and she only wants the best for you, that’s why I’m here, to make sure we fix that lump in your left breast.”
“Okay, so you’re gonna make it go away and my mum will stop crying, right?”
“Well, we should be able to, but first we will need to run some more tests to know exactly how we’re gonna deal with it, is that okay?” I nodded in affirmation.
She walked to the wardrobe behind her and pulled out a hospital robe and asked me to put it on. I walked to the changing area silently and took off my clothes and put on the robe. She helped me fix the back of the robe properly and she led me out of the examination room and into another room just down the hall. I took a glance at my parents, my dad still trying hard to comfort my mum. I shut the door behind me as I walked in behind the doctor. She led me to this machine that looked like a very big microscope. It had these glass panels lying face down parallel to each other. She asked me to slide down the left side of my robe and fit my left breast in-between the glass panels. After a while she was done and said we could go back to the examination room to change into my clothes again.
When I was done she asked my parents to come into the room. She said the test results would be ready within the week and she would personally get back to us. She turned to me and smiled as she said, “Please wear your birthday dress when next you come here, I really would love to see it, and maybe take a picture with you in your beautiful dress.” I smiled politely as I walked out with my parents, holding my mum’s hand firmly.
A few days later I was wearing my pink dress with white polka dots sitting next to my mum in the doctor’s office.
“It’s even more beautiful than I thought, the dress, I really must take a picture with you today”, the doctor said, smiling as she took her seat holding a white envelope in her hand. The envelope wasn’t sealed, I knew immediately it was the results of the test from the other day. I could hear my mum swallow saliva as her hand shivered even as she held my hand tightly. I looked at her and then at my hand in hers. She got the message and eased her grip a little.
“As hard as it is for me to say Mrs Okoro, but what we have here is an incredibly unusual case, I still can’t believe it myself, I had to consult an oncologist friend of mine back in the States on this. You see, Emily has what we call ‘Invasive Ductal Carcinoma’…”
“What does that even mean doctor?” My mum was almost yelling as she cut in.
“It’s a stage IIA Breast Cancer and it is an extremely unusual occurrence in girls her age.”
I really didn’t know much about cancer. I really didn’t know much about anything at fourteen, but sitting next to my mother in that room, in that moment, I knew that her wailings were from a really deep place. The fear that gripped her was also reflective of a heightened sense of things. The doctor likened my case to being struck by lightning, rare and highly unlikely. I was struck by lightning.
For my mother it was more than lightning that struck her, there was memory. She confessed to have battled breast cancer and it really took a lot from her. She was even more embittered knowing that my case is considered to be hereditary.
The doctor went on and on about what we should do next, but I knew my mother had shut out already. The tears flowing down her face were boiling hot and I could feel the weight of guilt upon her as she sat on the chair beside me facing the doctor. I just sat there partly scared but mostly confused. How is my mother responsible for all of this? Why would she do this to me if she actually is responsible? What is she so scared of? Does this mean I’m going to die? A million questions ran through my mind at that moment. The doctor looked from mother to daughter not sure whether to stop talking or go on blabbing. She chose the former.
We left the hospital that day, both mother and daughter reborn, unprepared for the new world ahead of us, unaware of how we were going to face it, deal with it and most of all, win this battle that life has so thrust upon us. If for anything else I have to win this battle for my mother’s sake. She is broken, after already suffering a similar break and only my victory can heal her this time. I am fighting not for me, but for her recovery.
Iweka Kingsley is the author of DAPPLED THINGS and the Founder of Africa-OnTheRise.com which won the 2016 African Blogger Awards for “Best Blog about Africa” and the “Best Social Issues and Active Citizenship Blog”. He is a creative writer and communications consultant based in Lagos. He also volunteers as a Grant Advisor with the Pollination Project in the United States, an organization dedicated to making daily seed grants of $1,000 to development projects across the world.