Our reporter Phyllis Mbanje has extensively written about breast cancer, the second highest killer in Zimbabwe, accounting for over 10% of all cancers.
A couple of weeks ago she was challenged during a cancer discussion at the Cancer Association of Zimbabwe (CAZ) and decided to conquer that fear of getting tested. Below she explains how she underwent an examination that is dreaded by many women:
I had never done that before despite having written extensively about it. I had even chronicled true life experiences of breast cancer patients but not once did I feel the slightest inclination to take that first step to get a physical breast examination by a professional.
As soon as I made my decision I quickly made a booking for testing at CAZ. It’s a free service. The kindly lady at the reception took down my details and told me to come the next day which was a Tuesday at 10am.
That night I had all sorts of weird dreams, the kind that make you wake up feeling like you were digging trenches the whole night.
It dawned on me the morning of the test that what I was about to do would be the tentative step in knowing if my twin peaks that had always defined me as a woman and had suckled two babies were harbouring my worst nightmare.
I purposely turned up late for my appointment hoping they would cancel it. I was a bundle of nerves. A quick glance in the mirror and a pale, ashen face looked back at me. I appeared to have lost weight in a matter of hours.
I called a few trusted friends who all encouraged me to go for it. Their support and the fact that one or two people pledged to also take the test if I took mine, was all I needed. If not for me then for my friends and every other woman who was just as scared as I was.
Before the test I was asked a few questions on breast cancer. The lady said the idea was to identify any information gaps, misconceptions in order to correct them.
She explained how critical it was to do the physical test and also the more sophisticated and efficient mammogram.
After our chat I felt relaxed a bit but when I was laid back on the narrow bed, the fear returned. I could feel myself smiling and answering whatever questions but cold, cold fear coiled itself around my heart threatening to snuff out my breath.
I did not want her to see just how scared I was, after all I was a health journalist privileged to have access to information and research.
And so it began… She placed her hands on my left breast and as she gently pressed she explained what she was doing. I battled with two things, latching on to the lessons so that I could also do it at home and secondly waiting with batted breath for that moment when she would find some lump or something.
She explained the simple signs like the puckered nipple and said the key was to know one’s breasts so that if ever there is a change in shape or size one would be able to pick on it.
And finally she was done with the left one. I let out a hushed sigh of relief but for just a moment. She swooped on the right one. Now on this one I was extremely worried because I always thought it looked different from the other one. Bigger and differently shaped.
She went through the same process, quietly explaining options available if ever one was diagnosed with cancer. She talked about mastectomy (removal of the breast or part of it) if it could not be saved. I swallowed hard and imagined myself without one or both breasts.
As I lay there, it dawned on me just how important this test was, surely a stitch in time saves nine.
After what seemed like a very long time she was done, well so I thought, until she told me to lift both arms at the same time.
“Both breast should go up at the same time, if say there is a lump, the affected breast will not go up like the other one. Also, there will be creases on the skin to indicate the area around the lump,” she explained.
Then it was over… at least for now. She said I could go for a mammogram which was more thorough and would pick on what the physical might have missed.
I breathed a sigh of relief but what an immense lesson. A simple test could be all that scores of women out there need to know their fate.