The air around the temple is clear and blue. The sound of birdsong floats in and out of the columns, and the water in the fountains is crystalline. The priestess summons you into the inner chamber, and takes you through the preliminary mysteries. Then suddenly the goddess appears. It is bright-eyed Athena: statuesque, yet kindly. She asks you about your life. What have you learned? How have you put her gifts of wisdom to use? How will you answer?
A few days ago, my friend Paula took me to radiotherapy and then for my three-month “review” with Suzanne, my surgeon. I like it when my friends and family come with me for a radiotherapy session and see me being lined up under the different machines. And I was pleased for Paula to see the breast clinic, in line with my perpetual message to my women friends: don't be afraid.... We check in at reception: Helene, as ever, is wearing a very chic suit and pearls, with her blonde hair piled up in a stylish chignon. There are jelly beans in a glass dish, and a bowl of apples further along the dark wood counter. The waiting room is light and airy, and has interior design magazines, Vogue, literary journals and art books to look at. The paintings and sculptures are original and interesting. The herbal teas in the jars look fresh and inviting. At discreet intervals, the soundscape of birdsong echoes through the large room. Middle-class women sit reading, or talking quietly with friends or partners. One is wearing a close-fitting hat, though it’s 38 degrees outside. A man walks in carrying x-rays. Is he a supportive partner? or one of the 1% of breast cancer patients who are male?
I won’t beat around the bush, here. This is an expensive practice in the private system. I’m here because my GP, Barbara, has been practising in Melbourne for many, many years, and is deeply networked into Melbourne’s medical and surgical elite. Mitchell, the oncologist, serves on the Victorian Medical Board with Bernadette, the surgeon who delivered my child (a complicated footling breech), with Barbara’s assistance, nearly twelve years ago. This service doesn’t come cheaply, and I know how fortunate I am to be here under Barbara’s introduction, and with the capacity to pay for apples and birdsong. And Suzanne.
I have written earlier about my admiration for this woman, and for the things I am learning from her, as well as for her care of me. I’ll be the first to admit I am a little besotted with her. It’s partly the bourgeois process of “choosing” a specialist, an architect, a doctor, a hairdresser, or an academic patron who is fabulous, and hoping their fabulousness will reflect well on us. And I have always loved a good medical melodrama where patients and doctors discuss metaphysical and existential questions in moments of quiet reflection. And after all, Suzanne has saved my life.
Today her first question is about how I am coping. She wants to know what I am doing about my work, my writing, my feelings about all the committees I was struggling with last year. She is pleased when I say I am learning to turn around my priorities: to answer emails later in the day and work in the mornings when I am fresher; to anticipate only a gradual return to full strength and public duties over the next year, once this acute phase of treatment is over, and when I am ready to emerge from my hibernation. She asks how Paul and Joel are coping, and is pleased when I say Paul cancelled all his travel for the rest of the year and has spent as much time at home as possible; and when I report that the three of us have spent more time together as a family over the last few months than for a while.
Only then does she examine me, looking mostly at how the wounds are healing, and asking about the residual numbness in my arm and the back of my shoulder. To my great surprise, she examines the healthy breast carefully, but barely touches the wounded one. I ask when I should begin to start examining my own breasts again, since I know the chance of recurrence is higher in the first few years after the initial diagnosis. Not for about a year, she says, since people are just too nervous to do it properly. She and Mitchell will take care of it between them; and in fact she doesn't need to see me again until October, when I will have a mammogram and ultrasound on the same day. Her complete and utter confidence that she does not need to reassure herself, or me, that there is no discernible lump in my breast, confirms my great faith in her. I feel this is going to be a crucial moment to revisit when I am ready to start building my confidence again. I can see that once visited by the disease, it will be hard to set aside the fear of its recurrence.
Suzanne is charismatic for me because of her quiet authority and stillness in her workplace, in a phase in my life where I feel fragmented and divided from my own. It's no wonder I seek to channel a little Athena-like strength through her.