Last November, Debbie Chazen was diagnosed with breast cancer while starring in 'Calendar Girls' – the hit West End show about a topless charity calendar inspired by the death of a Women's Institute member's husband from leukaemia. Over the weeks that followed, the irony of performing in a role that required her to bare her chest to 1,000 people every night (and twice on Saturdays) while at the same time preparing for a full mastectomy became ever more acute, until she bade an emotional farewell to the production on Saturday 5 December. The following day – 48 hours before her operation – Debbie and her partner Michael got engaged to be married.
Tuesday 8 December 2009
So this is it. Double D Day. It seems so strange that this is supposed to be the day I start to get better – even though I am yet to feel unwell. Michael, my sister Lynette and I arrive at the hospital at 9am, and I check into my ward: 5 East B. "Miss Chazen, is it? Bed No 13, left-hand side." Bed No 13?! No. Not going to happen. "All right," the nurse chuckles, clearly used to Bed No 13 being hard to sell, "Take Bed No 16 on the right." Much better. It's in a bright spot by the window, overlooking a spectacular view stretching as far as Alexandra Palace in one direction and St Paul's in the other. I am given a hospital gown to change into, and white stockings which will help prevent deep-vein thrombosis from setting in during the operation.
My operation is not scheduled until 2pm, but the hours pass quickly, what with various nurses popping up at regular intervals to check my blood pressure, temperature and blood sugar. At midday, my consultant Mr K draws the curtain around my bed and asks to look at my breast. "So," he says, "just to check, it is the left one, isn't it?" "YES!" I reply, "Please don't cut off the wrong one." He draws a big arrow on the offending boobie in blue pen, and marks all around the breast and up into my armpit. Then he asks me to sign a form giving him consent to operate. There's no going back now.
My next visitor is my anaesthetist, a young woman called Tanya. "Have you ever had an operation before, darling?" she asks me, kindly. "No," I say. "You will look after me, won't you?" She is very reassuring. I tell her about the book I've read, Love, Medicine and Miracles by the American surgeon Bernie Siegel, in which he says that it is proven that people under anaesthetic can hear everything that goes on around them deep in their subconscious. "Will you please say nice things to me while I'm under?" I ask her. "Like telling me to get better and telling the cancer to fuck off and leave me alone?" "Of course I will, darling," she smiles.
I am Nil by Mouth, so while Michael and Lynette have their lunch, I set about composing the following:
Ode to My Left Breast
Au revoir, old chum, your end's commenced,
You lumpy old left boob –
No longer to be pressed against
Whilst crammed in on the Tube.
It's time for you to hit the road,
So farewell, sickly breast.
And so long, too, each cancerous node
From armpit down to chest.
Adieu, you naughty titty you,
So many things you'll miss:
The film "Sex and the City 2".
(Okay, I take the piss.)
Auf wiedersehen, you terrible teat!
I'm sorry for your plight,
As I will now be incomplete
And leaning to the right.
Dear dug, your time with me is ended
And I'm less than exuberant,
For now my cleavage, once quite splendid,
Won't be quite as protuberant.
My bosom bold has always been
The envy of my best friend;
So glad am I that it's been seen
On stage upon the West End.
You've served me well along the years
But you are for the chop now.
I do not wish to bring forth tears,
So maybe I should stop now?
The time has come to say goodbye,
So, sis and husband-to-be,
Please join with me as, fondly, I
Say, "Hasta la vista, boobie."
At a few minutes past two, a porter arrives to take me down. I keep a smile on my face for the benefit of Michael and Lynette, but my heart feels like 10 lords a-leaping in my chest. "What if I never wake up?" a daft voice in my head keeps asking. These could be my last few minutes of consciousness on earth. I spend them telling Michael and Lynette how much I love them, all the way down in the lift and along to the Pre-Med room, where we part company. "See you on the other side!" I tell them, grinning like a loon. And then I'm alone, and free to be scared.
The cheery anaesthetist appears by my side and rubs my arm soothingly. "I'm just going to pop a cannula in," she breezes, "So we can get the anaesthetic in. I won't ask you to count backwards from 10 – it's nothing like you see on Holby City, you know!" I remember nothing more after that – one minute, the cannula is going in my hand, the next thing I know, I can hear Lynette saying, "Oh, she's awake!" and then Michael's voice comes in with: "She looks so beautiful!" The man is clearly insane, I remember thinking. But try as I might, I cannot open my eyes. There is a fuzzy buzz of activity all around me, of various nurses' voices coming in and out. It's like someone is constantly re-tuning an old wireless.
"Are you hungry?" I hear Lynette ask. "Chocolate!" I demand. Even semi-comatose, I refuse to take things seriously. She feeds me a spoonful of what I think must be mashed potato. And then another. One more. "Sick!" I proclaim. Michael holds a bowl under my chin, just in time for me to throw up all three spoonfuls. "Chocolate!" I joke. And then everything goes dark again.
I drift in and out of consciousness all night, coming to only when Mr K the consultant comes to check up on me. I stroke his hand fervently. "Thank you!" I whisper.
Wednesday 9 December
At 6.17 the following morning, my eyes open easily and I am wide awake. I lift up the neck of my hospital gown, careful not to disturb the drainage bottle that is inserted into my armpit, and peer down at my chest. It's covered in bandages. The blue arrow Mr K drew on it is still visible, and there, peeking over the top, is the beauty spot I was worried about losing! It lives! Oh, frabjous day! Calloo! Callay! Michael calls at 7am, and I tell him the good news about my beauty spot. The rest of the day passes in a conveyer belt of friendly faces. It's almost a relief when it's chucking out time, and I am left to my own vices. "You are always laughing!" exclaims the Spanish lady in the next bed. "I'm sorry," I say, feeling guilty that I may have disturbed her rest. "No, no," she assures me, "is lovely."
Thursday 10 December
My first visitor today is Mr K the consultant again, bearing the news that my left boobie only weighed 3lbs. THREE POUNDS?! How disappointing. I had hoped for an instant weight loss of half a stone at least. I've come to realise that I used to suffer from hospital phobia. In my mind a hospital was the place my parents came to die, and every time I entered one in the past, it was always with an underlying feeling of dread. Now, I have come to appreciate the true purpose of a hospital. How on earth did they do it in the days before penicillin and pain relief and anaesthetic?
Friday 11 December
A lady comes round later to give me my NHS mastectomy bra. I am rather sore on my left hand side where the drainage tube goes in, but she is insistent that I try it on for her. My spongy falsie on the left looks ever so perky, but my heavy real right boob hangs lower by a good four inches. "Perfect!" the bra lady exclaims.
Saturday 12 December
I'm beginning to smell like a rotting fox, so today I am attempting my first shower since I got here. This involves a feat of gymnastics, as I cannot get my left side wet at all, nor do I have much movement in my left arm. I also have a drainage tube in a drawstring bag to negotiate. After 10 minutes of Mr Bean-type slapstick comedy, I emerge clean, fragrant and feeling considerably more human. On returning to my bed, I find that flowers have been delivered from my Uncle Mel and various Liverpudlian rellys, with a card saying: "With love to Debbie, You are a one-off!" Oh, the Scouse sense of humour!
Monday 14 December
At about 11am, a doctor who looks like an Asian Barry Manilow comes round to tell me they're sending me home. "But I've just ordered lunch!" I joke. The truth is, I'm a bit panicked by the thought of going home. I've had the most lovely week, in a comfortable bed that goes up and down at the touch of a button, reading, watching telly, making friends, having fun with all my visitors and generally being lavished with care and attention. I don't have an uppy-downy bed at home, and when Michael's at work I shall have to do things for myself. Will I be able to cope?
Michael and Lynette arrive to take me home, I've got so much stuff – flowers and chocolates and fruit baskets and books and magazines – that I dole it out to patients and nurses, and also give the nursing staff a tin of Celebrations and a thank you card. They really have been marvellous, and I'm very grateful to them.
And so, clutching my drainage tube in its drawstring bag in one hand and a leaflet showing me how to do my physiotherapy exercises in the other, we all make our way to the car park. Lynette drops us at our flat, and Michael and I pause on the doorstep, suddenly aware that my left boobie will never see home again. Despite my recent panic, it's so nice to be home.
I show Michael my scar for the first time this afternoon. I have not been left completely flat on one side, as I thought, but instead have a tiny little boob-shaped protrusion, divided in two horizontally by a zip of stitches. "Aah," he says, kissing my chest just above the wound, "It's like Mini-Me. So sweet!"
Tuesday 15 December
I tried four different positions last night: on my back in bed, sprawled across the sofa, reclining on the chaise longue and sitting in the armchair with my feet on a dining chair. But I just couldn't get comfortable. Uppy-downy hospital bed, I miss you.
My whole left side feels like a drawstring bag that has been drawn shut and when I inspect it, there is a massive hard ridge leading from my armpit to the centre of my chest. It looks like something out of Alien. What the hell is it? I panic. Michael asks if I want to go back to the hospital, but instead, I phone the Breast Clinic and leave a message for someone to get back to me, and a couple of agonising hours later someone does. To my relief, I am assured it's just scar tissue and will eventually go away.
Michael eventually leaves for work, just as Lynette arrives, armed with a Balthazar of chicken soup, or Jewish penicillin as it is known. If this stuff has the healing properties it is said to have, I've no doubt my left boobie will grow back in no time.
Wednesday 16 December
I have received an e-mail from an old friend from Manchester University. We lost touch for years, but got re-acquainted recently when she came to see me in a show at the Young Vic. She writes that she has just been diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid, and she wants to thank me because she only went to the doctor to have the lump in her neck examined after she heard about my diagnosis. I am so upset for her, but relieved that she discovered it now and not months down the line.
This is why I am writing this diary. Love her or hate her, the best thing Jade Goody ever did was raise awareness of cervical cancer, and after her death the number of women going for smear tests has increased hugely. My hope is that, like my university friend, if there is anyone reading this who may have ignored a lump or an unusual symptom in their body, they will be inspired to get it checked out. I promise you, the fear of having cancer is so much worse than actually having it. Stop reading this now and go and make that appointment.
Thursday 17 December
Michael and I must brave the ice and snow to go back to the hospital today for a follow-up appointment with Mr K the consultant. After submitting unconvincingly to another hug, Mr K examines my wound and tells me to go back to my ward to have my drain taken out. He will see me again in three weeks' time to tell me my pathology results and discuss what further treatment is needed.
We go back to Ward 5 East B, where a newly installed Christmas tree is twinkling away. My favourite nurse takes us into a side room and gently removes the drain from my armpit. I'm relieved to see the back of it, frankly.
Friday 25 December
It's Chriiiiiistmas! We are going to spend the day with Michael's family in St John's Wood. I haven't worn a bra since the op, but today I am determined to dress up. I forsake the NHS mastectomy bra in favour of a lacy number I ordered online. Michael helps me put it on, and with a bit of adjusting, you honestly couldn't tell which side is fake. I then realise that most of my wardrobe has been chosen with the express purpose of showing off my décolletage, not hiding it. Several changes of outfit later, I'm good to go. This is the most active day I've had in a while and by the time we get home at 6ish I'm exhausted.
Tuesday 29 December
Don't panic, Mr Mainwaring, but I've just discovered a little lump in my remaining right breast. Et tu, Boobie? Ordinarily, I might ignore it in the hope that it was just a pimple, but I know now that you can't be too careful. I phone the Breast Clinic at the hospital and tell them what's happened. As we are between Christmas and New Year, they can't see me until the day of my pathology appointment with Mr K in a week and a half's time. I am not going to tell Michael and Lynette about it until nearer the time. There's no point in all of us worrying. Just had a quick feel. It's still there.
Thursday 31 December
New Year's Eve. We opt for the comfort of our own home with our friend Dan for company. As Big Ben chimes at midnight, we wish each other a happy, healthy New Year and hope that 2010 will be a damn sight better than 2009.
To get better.
To not have cancer any more.
To eat less chocolate.
I have already broken No 3.
Monday 4 January 2010
My old university friend who has thyroid cancer is having her operation today to remove a tumour from her neck. I have realised that four out of eight of us who shared digs at Oak House while at uni have had cancer, and the other four we have all lost touch with, so who knows? This seems a very high statistic for under 40-year-olds. Perhaps there was something in the water at Oak House? I am not a big conspiracy theorist, but do we really know what effect the digital age is having on us? Microwaves, mobiles, computers, iPods, plasma TVs – are they really as safe as we are led to believe?
Wednesday 6 January
The hospital has just called to cancel my pathology appointment tomorrow, due to adverse weather conditions – the snow is a foot deep outside and shows no signs of stopping. They will reschedule as as soon possible, but there are a lot of people to fit in.
I have resigned myself to needing chemo, radiotherapy, hormone treatment – the works, and if they say I need anything less it will be a bonus, so the cancellation doesn't bother me too much. Except the lump in my right boobie is still there, and I would quite like to know whether it's suspicious or not. So, more waiting.
Hmmm. This joke is beginning to wear thin.
Friday 8 January
Michael rumbled me this morning and I had to tell him about Lump no 2. He was a bit upset that I hadn't told him before, and gently reminded me that there's no "i" in team. There is an "i" in hospital, however, and when I phoned them today to see if there was any news about a rescheduled appointment, the Breast Care nurse told me that I was a priority and should never have been cancelled. She's given us a new appointment for 9am next Thursday, and come hell or deep snow, we shall be there.
Saturday 9 January
It's the last performance of the West End run of Calendar Girls tonight, and my goal over the last few weeks was to be well enough to attend – not as a member of the cast this time, but in the audience. The snow is plummeting outside and it would be so easy for Michael and me to stay home, but I am determined to round off this chapter of my life properly. So off we go into the white night, skating our way down to the Tube and into town.
And how glad we are that we made the effort, because we're greeted at the box office by Bryan the Company Manager and escorted to the Royal Box! The show begins, and it's such a pleasure to watch all my friends doing their thing. It's especially nice to see my replacement in action – even though we have never met, we've swapped e-mails and cards, and it feels like we are already old friends. Word must have got round that we're in the Royal Box, as many of the cast play pertinent lines directly to us, and I can make out the crew waving to us from backstage right.
Watching the play and its myriad references to cancer, I am stunned that I managed to do performance after performance for six weeks, all the while acting out a cancer-themed play of my own. Come the curtain call, Michael and I rise as one to our feet in an emotional standing ovation. The cast take their bow, and wave and blow kisses in our direction. I can see the audience wondering, who are the fat couple in the Royal Box?
Thursday 14 January
After last week's appointment was cancelled due to bad weather, it's been a tense wait during the last couple of days' fresh snowfall to see if we would be postponed again. But we have heard nothing, so 9am finds Michael, Lynette and I once more in the office of Mr K the consultant. I told Lynette about Lump no 2 last night, so it wouldn't come as a shock when Mr K asks to see it. We all hold our breath as he has a look and a feel, only exhaling when he assures us that it is in the skin of the breast and not in the tissue, and nothing to worry about.
There's more good news with the results of the pathology report – out of the 26 lymph nodes removed during the mastectomy, only one contained malignant cells, meaning that I am now cancer-free. However, to prevent a recurrence of the disease, I will need, as expected, four months of chemo, followed by four weeks of daily radiotherapy, alongside a year of regular Herceptin injections (given only to patients whose cancer is the hormone-receptive type) and for extra protection, five years of Tamoxifen tablets. I ask Mr K whether he thinks I will be well enough to take up the job offer of the tour of Calendar Girls from July, and he replies that he sees no reason why not.
This is the last time we shall see Mr K until I return for my breast reconstruction in about a year's time. I subject the poor man to one final hug, muttering an inadequate thank you into his ear. This man has saved my life, and all I can offer him is two free tickets to see Calendar Girls.
We are sent down to the Oncology Department, which conjures up not-so-nice memories of our late mother. When she had chemo 15 years ago, she was horrendously sick from the side effects. I had just started at drama school, and was having the time of my life during the daytime, going home and holding my mother's forehead as she threw up for hours each night, watching her get weaker daily. I'm ashamed to admit I resented her illness at the time; over the past few months I have been only too aware of what she went through.
The Oncology Registrar talks us through all the treatments I will be having, and shows us a graph stating that 90 per cent of women on the same course are still alive 10 years later. I silence the voice in my ear whispering "What about the other 10 per cent?" by asking her about side effects. She assures me that chemotherapy drugs have improved so much since my late mother's treatment that it is possible I may not be sick at all.
The main side effect of chemo is often hair loss. From every part of one's body. When I was filming We Are Klang, I had to wear a bald cap in one episode, and I was surprised to find that I didn't look too bad. A bit Churchill-y (the Prime Minister, not the dog), but bearable. One of the writers apologised at the time for making me look so un-glamorous, and I remember joking with my typical gallows humour that honestly I didn't mind because if I ever got cancer I would know what I would look like after chemo. Didn't that come round and bite me on the bottom?! The Registrar explains that there is something called a Cold Cap that patients can try, which freezes your scalp so the chemo can't get to your hair follicles, but it's not guaranteed to work. I'm more upset at the thought of losing my eyebrows and eyelashes.
Our morning appointment turns into a day-trip, as I am sent around the hospital on various errands: to have an ECG to check my heart (no problem); to get a blood test to check chemo compatibility (no problem) and to get my veins checked for ease of entry (problem). My veins have always been very shy, and the chemo nurse decides that it would be better if I were to have a portacath fitted. This is a small port inserted under the skin of the chest or arm under general anaesthetic, which remains there for the duration of treatment via which chemo can be given and blood can be taken. Surgery is set for next Tuesday. I am to stay in hospital overnight and my first chemo session is scheduled the morning after.
As I look ahead to how my life will pan out over the next several months, it feels like the end of one adventure and the beginning of the next. Adventure, not in the swashbuckling meaning of the word, but in the sense of overcoming challenges with a strength I never knew I had. My life has changed irrevocably since July, and I have discovered so much about myself and the world around me: I have learnt that a sense of humour is vital when dealing with a life-threatening disease; I have learnt that I have amazing family and friends, whose love and support have carried me through; I have learnt that the fear of a situation is far worse than the reality of it; I have learnt that hospitals are wonderful places where quiet healing takes place every moment of every day. I have learnt that the NHS is an incredible resource which must not be taken for granted; I have learnt that the kindness of strangers is overwhelming; I have learnt that the body's ability to heal itself is often miraculous; I have learnt that laughter really is the best medicine and, most of all, I have learnt that I can cope with anything life throws at me – so bring it ON.
See you on the other side.
Debbie is taking part in the Playtex Moonwalk on 15 May, raising money for various Breast Cancer charities. Donations can be made via walkthewalkfundraising.org