I Will Survive

In the second part of her moving and painfully funny memoir chronicling her battle with breast cancer, the comedy actress Debbie Chazen is determined to face things head on.
Debbie's Diary - part two

Wednesday 11 November
I dreamt last night that I was going on a long journey that I wasn 't ready for. It doesn 't take Mr Freud to work that one out. Come on subconscious, put some effort in. My sister comes to pick us up in a taxi at 8 o 'clock, and we make it to the hospital half an hour early. We sit and wait in the MRI department. A nurse comes along and tells me to change into an unflattering open-backed gown, which, when standing, leaves nothing to the imagination. The nurse tells me that there is some debate as to whether I will actually fit in the MRI machine. I laugh, but God, how humiliating. The staff have probably all taken bets. So we go down the corridor to test it out. I lie face down on the table, my boobs dangling below into pockets, and my arms pointing forwards past my head. Slowly, the nurse slides the table into the tube. All is well until we 're up to my big fat bum, which scrapes along the roof. I hold my breath. My buttocks may resemble two space hoppers, but they 're very squashy, and the nurse decides we're good to go. She slides me out again and a cannula is stuck into my wrist, through which the iodine dye will travel along my veins. I have never been good with needles - but I suppose I had better start getting used to them now. Back onto the table I go. There is no hole for my face to poke through, like with some massage tables, so I move my head from side to side on the pillow, trying to find a channel of air for my nostrils to use for the next 20 minutes. The nurse lays a blanket over my lower half, and in a flurry of panic, I ask her not to cover my feet. Even in winter, I always keep my feet outside the duvet. No idea why. Maybe they 're claustrophobic. Luckily, the rest of me isn 't, as the MRI machine is tight, dark and narrow and I 'm not allowed to move at all during the scan. I concentrate on regulating my breathing, each intake of breath forcing my voluminous bottom harder against the roof. I pretend that I am having a bottom massage and choose to find it relaxing instead of constricting. The nurse places headphones over my ears, then retires to the safety of the adjoining room beyond the glass wall, and speaks to me through a microphone. ‘Now, Miss Chazen, you are going to hear some very loud noises ' - hence the headphones -  'Are you ready? ' I had planned to sing my way through the complete first half of Les Miserables to pass the time, but even with the headphones on, the noises are deafening. Instead, I force myself to allot a scenario to each series of clanks, buzzes, clatterings and gunshots: a man in a Panama hat mows his lawn on a hot, lazy summer day; a group of cheeky workmen are pneumaticdrilling a road and they wolf whistle my infamous bottom as I walk past; a roomful of secretaries are hard at work in a 1950s typing pool - the boss winks at one of them, and I wonder if they 're having an affair; one minute I 'm hiding behind saloon doors, listening to a shoot-out in the Wild West, the next I 'm on a beach in Ibiza, where I 'm dancing to  'Born Slippy ' by Underworld... Just as I 'm wondering how long I 've been in for, I hear the nurse say:  'Just three minutes left now, you 're doing ever so well. ' Of course, these last three minutes take hours. The sound becomes a loud drumming, and I find myself humming Singin ' in the Rain. Just as I get to the end bit where Gene Kelly hands his umbrella to a passer-by, the noises stop and it 's all over. If this is the worst thing that happens to me throughout all of this, I say to myself, I 'll be okay, a mantra I 've repeated at every stage. I feel so well that I go off to the theatre and do the two shows - I am determined not to give this cancer stuff the attention it craves.
Thursday 12 November
Our meeting with the consultant is scheduled for 9am. Lynette phones in a panic to say she's stuck in traffic and will meet us there, but we needn't have worried - we're not seen till midday. The Breast Clinic is only open for general appointments on Thursdays, and on this one day a week the doctor has to see the many women who have been referred by their GP, or are waiting for a mammogram, or need an ultrasound, or are waiting for results like us. There are so many people in the small waiting room that there is overspill into the corridor and there aren't enough chairs for everybody. The NHS is a fine and commendable institution, but it is clearly massively understaffed and underfunded. Three anxious hours tick by, until at long last we are called in to see the consultant, Mr K. It's a small room, and as well as the three of us, there's MrK, another doctor and a nice, smiley nurse making it seem smaller still.  'Hello darling, how is your show going? ' asks Mr K,  'I have been so worried! ' This personal approach is instantly reassuring, and as Michael says later, makes us feel like we have made a real connection with this man, in whose hands my future lies. I 'd thought that at this meeting we 'd be told the results of my MRI scan and given a  'treatment package ', but it turns out that we must come back tomorrow - for a biopsy on the second lump on the other side of the same breast and a lymph test, to see if the cancer has spread. The anxiety of this morning 's long wait has left me exhausted, and Michael makes me call the theatre and tell them I can 't come in for the matinee. I feel terrible - this is the first time ever that I 've missed a performance. But I know that they are prepared for this eventuality, with a lovely actress called Julia standing by daily. After a sleep, I feel much better, so off to work I go. The cast assure me they 've missed me, and it feels good to be back. One of the original Calendar Girls is in the audience tonight, and we all gather in Janie 's dressing room after the show to meet her. She comes straight over to me, gives me a big hug and says:  'I 've heard all about you - I 'm so sorry, sweetheart. I know you 'll be just fine. ' It was the death of this lovely lady 's first husband from leukaemia that inspired the Calendar Girls charity calendar in the first place, and I find her words very moving. The calendar has raised £3m for leukaemia research so far.

Friday 13 (Brilliant!) November
Back to the Breast Clinic for my biopsies, where the queue is thankfully short; it's only me and a couple of other women I recognise from yesterday, who need further investigations. We smile grimly at each other in solidarity. A charming Irish doctor with a naughty twinkle to his eye tells me to undress to the waist and lie on the bed, while a pretty Australian nurse sits next to me, hugging my knees and calling me Debb-o, which makes me smile. We chat about the weather, and what we watched on telly last night, and I am almost (but not quite) distracted from the enormous needle that is approaching my left bosom. Thanks to a local anaesthetic, I can't feel a thing, but it makes the most horrible stapling noise. The biopsy I had a couple of weeks ago was my first ever surgical procedure, and it felt weird knowing that something had been removed from my body, albeit a piece of cancerous lump with no right to be there in the first place. This time, I am an old hand, and the whole thing is over in minutes without much aggro. This afternoon I have to tell my auntie and uncle and my two cousins and their daughters. I have put this off so far because as a family we have been through so much: my aunt has lost her beloved sister, my mother; one cousin had a stroke at the age of 36 and the other has survived breast cancer twice. But my sister is finding it hard not to tell them, so I force myself to pick up the phone. My auntie and uncle take the news surprisingly well, considering - I suppose they're used to bad news by now. I phone my older cousin, who had a double mas- tectomy and lymphectomy 15 years ago and is fine to- day. Then I call my other cousin, whose stroke cut short a promising acting career. I feel humbled by the way they've dealt with their own life-changing experiences, and determined that like both of them - and Gloria Gaynor - I will survive.
Thursday 19 November
Our next appointment with the Consultant, Mr K. The nice, smiley nurse from last week calls us in. The MRI scan, lump and lymph biopsies show that the second lump is cancerous and that the cancer has spread to the lymph glands. Somehow, although this is obviously not good news, it is what I expected to hear, so it does not worry me too much. However, it does mean that I now have to have a CT scan and a bone scan early next week, to determine whether the cancer has spread anywhere else. Mr K says there is no reason to believe that this is the case, and that these tests are purely routine, but until they have the results of both scans, they can't tell us what the treatment might be. So, another week of waiting. Michael and I decide to treat ourselves to an afternoon at the movies to try to take our mind off things. We decide on the Pixar animation Up. BIG mistake. Huge. The film is all about an old man whose wife, the love of his life, dies of an illness that is almost definitely cartoon cancer. We spend an hour and a half sobbing into our 3D glasses, and, thanks to my new cancer bloody diet, I don't even have Ben & Jerry's for comfort. Next time, we'll take a day trip to a funeral parlour. I have found it very difficult to tell friends the truth about what is going on. So far, I have only told our families, and those who have asked questions about the future. For example, I have had to tell people who want to come and see me in Calendar Girls, as I don't want them booking tickets too far in advance in case I have to bow out of the play soon. I've also been unable to lie to those I've seen in person. I suppose I am really just waiting for the full picture to emerge next Thursday, so I can answer the inevitable questions there and then. And even then, I'm not sure how to tell people. I suppose a change to my Facebook status is out of the question? 'Debbie ... has cancer.' How about a text: 'Soz 2 tell u all, m8s, ive gt cncr :-( 

Friday 20 November
Michael's sister has given me a book to read, Love, Medicine and Miracles by an American surgeon called Bernie Siegel. It's fascinating. Siegel maintains that cancer is a state of mind, something I have long believed myself. I'm only on Chapter One, but his advice so far is for patients to hug their doctor, to force him or her to recognise you as a person and not a statistic. Poor Mr K does not know what is about to hit him.

Sunday 22 November
I have been invited to attend a Doctor Who convention today at the Birmingham NEC, to sign autographs with fans of the show (I appeared as Foon Van Hoff from the planet Sto in the Christmas Special 2007). Once, Michael would have taken advantage of my absence to watch footie on TV, but these days we can't bear to be apart. So off we go up the M1 at 8am. It's a long day, and my cheeks ache from all the smiling for photos, but for a few short hours I manage to forget about the bad business in my left titty. One whole day of feeling normal. Until I get home that night and check my emails to find messages from concerned family and friends. Bang, I've got cancer again. Each message feels like another nail in my coffin. Words have so much power. 'Let's hope they've caught it early' leaves room for 'They might not have caught it early'. 'You must be feeling very scared' makes me feel very scared. But I am being churlish. You're lucky to have so many people around you who care, young lady.

Tuesday 24 November
We rise early for a fun-packed day of scans at the hospital. I start by having an injection of radioactive liquid into my right hand. For some reason, I find this procedure most upsetting, possibly because for the next six hours I am dangerous to children and animals and must use a special toilet in the Nuclear Medicine ward. Will I develop three eyes, like the fish in The Simpsons? While the radioactive liquid starts its four-hour journey around my body, I'm off to have a CT scan. I have to drink a pint of water, then a cannula is inserted into my left hand. Iodine is pumped into me, and the scan begins. It only takes a few minutes and is over before I've sung my way through the whole of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. Then it's a couple of hours to kill before the second part of the bone-scan. As I have to lie still, flat on my back, for 20 minutes, it is considerably more uncomfortable than the CT scan. My hands and feet are strapped into position, and I am told to turn my head to one side. Unthinkingly, I turn my head to the right, from where I have a perfect view of a large wall clock. You know the saying: a watched large wall clock never boils. The bone scanner makes a loud whooshing noise throughout, so I transport myself to a beach, the whooshing becoming the sound of the waves lapping on the shore. After several weeks, the second hand reaches the 20-minute mark, and I am free to go. Again, as we head home, I repeat my mantra: 'If this is the worst thing I have to go through, I'll be OK.' That night, as we make dinner, Michael accidentally spills a load of round black peppercorns into the mash. 'Look!' I joke, as I pick them out with a spoon: 'I'm giving this mash a lumpectomy!' 'Well,' says Michael, 'You've got to see the tumourous side.' 'Yes,' I reply, 'We must make the breast of things, I'm lymphatic about that.' Thank God we still have our sense of humour.


In the next edition Debbie begins treatment