You know what? I think I’ll blame Tom Hiddleston. You’ll see what I mean.
I had a mammogram last week. It wasn’t my first one since we moved here: France operates wide-ranging cancer-screening campaigns, offered to all citizens according to age and sex. It’s one reason why the death rate from cancer here is one of the lowest in Europe. I get a reminder every two years for a boob-squish, with a follow-up nudge if they haven’t had the results at HQ after three months. It’s not the most enjoyable activity, and as with a lot of medical care here, the staff at the radiography clinic are quite detached and no-nonsense, but it is simple to do, and free.
Yes, I’d put off making the appointment. I should have gone last November, but we were in full lockdown then, and I wasn’t sure if a) they would be doing routine examinations, or if b) I wanted to risk a crowded waiting room. But those were just excuses. In fact, I think I was just putting it off because I was a bit scared. We all cope in our own ways with our fears about serious illness and death; I’m usually fairly sanguine about it, but with all that’s happened in the last year or two, I think I felt, deep down, that I couldn’t bear another blow. Not right now. So I just kept kicking the can up the road. Until the reminder letter arrived and I knew I just had to bite the bullet.
There was some genuine cause for concern on my part. While I always worried a little in the time coming up to the appointment, as anyone does about any kind of cancer check, everything had been fine until November 2018. There’s a family history of breast cancer, so naturally, as the years passed, I had begun to expect something might happen, eventually. And on that day, it did. Even I could see on the screen that there were some bright white splodges in my left breast that looked, well, unusual. And when the radiographer came back in and said they wanted some more pictures from another angle, that confirmed my suspicions. Next, I was asked to wait in another room before going to have another examination, which turned out to be a sonogram.
In retrospect, I can see that I was already quite depressed at that point, even if I didn’t see it myself. It meant that I didn’t have any emotional resources to call upon. As I sat alone, trying to ring my partner who was waiting for me in the car, my phone died. Of course it did. I felt dreadful; terrified. I began planning my funeral… then I had the sonogram with a quite cheerful radiologist who immediately told me that it was – almost certainly – nothing to worry about, but that they wanted me to come back in six months, just to be sure. When I finally got back to the car, I was a wreck, shaking, on the verge of tears. But it was very hard to convey how bad I felt. As I often do when I am upset, I remained quiet, unable to express the full extent of my anxiety. Picking up on the positive, which to be fair to him, was what I had been told and passed on, Geoff did his best to jolly me up.
When the report came (in France you get your own medical letters, including X-rays), I looked up the technical terms, and the internet seemed to confirm the likelihood that it wasn’t going to lead to anything serious. But that didn’t really help much: I was in full-on anxiety mode. But I didn’t talk about it, to anyone. That was stupid, because as a result I began to feel that nobody cared. How could they? They didn’t know how I felt! That was, of course, all part of the problem, a sign of the seriousness of the decline in my mental health. I can’t believe, looking back, that it still took me over a year from then to ask for help. Only when we were away on a trip, I nearly had a panic attack in a busy indoor market in Valencia, and couldn’t face going to the crowded MotoGP circuit the next day, did I begin to accept that something needed to change.
Before all this happened I had mostly overcome my youthful fears about my health – gone are the days of thinking every pain in my leg was a DVT, every headache a tumour – but given my family’s history of early death, some of my anxieties are not without foundation. I have good healthcare and I am generally pretty rational about these things. I know the risks, I know what to do to minimise them. But when your mental health is poor, it’s much harder to flex those rational muscles. By the time I had the six-month check, which was fine, I was already well down that long descent into depression I told you about in my first post. And I think I was by then at a point where it was impossible to crawl out without help. I didn’t know that yet, and just felt worse and worse. The good news should have been a boost, but it was merely a blip.
Did the worry of this scare make me depressed? No, I think I was on that road already, before that November day. I do feel that it might have steepened the slope a little. I got stuck into a way of thinking and feeling from then on which seemed to spiral downwards. I don’t believe that depression is caused by external factors, but in my case, anxiety definitely worsens it.
The lead-in to last week’s mammogram was a bit uncomfortable. There were a couple of nights when I didn’t sleep well, waking up early and lying there, fretting. But that’s part of getting older, part of being a woman, part of being me. And by the way, the news this time was, according to the radiologist, “Tout est bien!” I will get a confirmation letter and my X-rays in a week or two.
But hang, on, where does Tom Hiddleston come into this, I hear you cry. Well, a month or so before the fateful day, I was in Chicago with a group of wonderful friends, all of us queueing up to have our photo taken with the above famous actor at a Comicon. As you can see in the picture below, my left boob was up against that charming, beautiful, talented man. Now I think about it, I’m pretty sure all that charisma sparked some kind of reaction in my tissues…