Susan drifted the mile or so back home in a complete daze. Her basket was heavy, her heart even more so. It had started to sleet, but she barely noticed. Didn’t pause to tug her hood over her head. Just kept trudging along, one foot in front of the other, oblivious to everyone and everything.
‘Watch out, missus!’ hollered a teenage lad on a skateboard, weaving his way in and out of the pedestrians. She’d almost walked into him. Muttering an apology, she stepped up her pace. Another five minutes and she’d be there.
In the warmth and dry of her little cottage Susan dumped her groceries on the table. She shrugged off her coat and draped it over a chair. Slumped down and rubbed her hand across her still-damp cheeks. She should have been expecting it. Should have been more mentally prepared. But still the news had sliced through her like a razor-sharp knife. Or a scalpel.
‘I’m so sorry, Susan. The biopsy has revealed you have breast cancer. But the good news is we’ve caught it early. So, it’s eminently treatable.’ Dr Adlington gazed at her computer screen, pearly-pink manicured fingers tip-tapping away at the keyboard. ‘First things first, we’re going to book you in for a small operation. As quickly as possible, although I’m afraid with the NHS things don’t always move as fast as one would like.’ She tapped away again, her pretty little nose scrunched up in deep thought. ‘OK. I’ll get a letter out to you as soon as I can with the date and time of the surgery.’ She looked up and smiled at Susan. Who tried but failed to reciprocate. Her lips felt as if they were made of firmly-set concrete.
‘Will I need a … a … mastectomy?” She could barely speak, her mouth as arid as the desert.
‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Susan. One thing at a time, eh? You’ll need a pretty intense course of radiotherapy to follow up. Please try not to stress too much. I know that’s very difficult but it’s important to keep positive at times like these.’ She stood up, signalling the end of their session. Susan picked up her basket and left, the doctor already preoccupied with the arrival of her next patient.
She’d discovered the lump a month ago. Had never really bothered too much with all the ‘examine your breasts regularly’ advice. To be honest, Susan wasn’t really comfortable with scrutinising her body in great detail. She knew she was overweight. She always had been. A chubby child, a plump teenager, painfully aware of her size alongside her slim and svelte classmates. Never able to dress in the latest fashions. Hiding her flab beneath loose-fitting tops and elasticated-waist trousers. Into adulthood she’d sought refuge in her job and – behind closed doors – the comfort of food. Enormous slabs of cake devoured in one sitting. Mouth-watering pies and mounds of chips demolished as she flicked through the channels on the tv, tray on lap. Sometimes, in her darkest moments, she wished she was an alcoholic instead. A functioning one, who guzzled glass after glass both socially and privately but who could at least present an acceptable face to a harshly judgemental society.
Susan knew that people sniggered at her behind her back. She could feel their eyes appraising her as she forked food into her mouth.
‘Doesn’t she know when to stop? Doesn’t she have any sense of self-esteem?’ No, in fact, she didn’t. She loathed herself, envied her friends with their trim figures and ability to decline dessert at the end of a meal. She’d tried diets, many different ones, over the years but always the siren’s call of food lured her off the path of redemption.
It was her fiftieth birthday in just a few weeks. She hadn’t planned a big party, maybe just a few friends round for cake and champagne. Not that she had very many close friends. She could probably count them on the fingers of one hand. Maybe – no, probably – because she came across as a gossipmonger, always at the front of the line when it came to scandal and salacious chitchat. What they didn’t realise was that this was her feeble way of feeling connected in a world that seemed callous and indifferent to her inner demons. By being the first to impart knowledge she felt some small sense of power. Ridiculous, she knew, but it instilled in her a feeling of being at the centre of something. When she so often felt side-lined and alone.
Would she have lost all her hair in six weeks time? No, that was with chemotherapy, wasn’t it? She really should read up on what lay ahead. Then again, did she really want to know? Maybe she should just forget about celebrating that so-called milestone birthday. Susan was quite sure most people didn’t even know her age. Anyway, fat and fifty? Why rejoice in that double-whammy of despair?
She’d often wondered if her life would have been different if she’d met someone. A nice man, who’d treated her with kindness and respect and made her feel loved. She’d had a few boyfriends in her late twenties and early thirties but she always sensed their repulsion at her size. Or did she simply project her own self-hatred on them? Force the decision before they even had a chance to get close that she simply wasn’t worth it? There had been one man – Jonathan – who’d almost broken down her barriers. She could picture him still although it was almost twenty years since she had last laid eyes on him.
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