A short story by OmoobaJesu Adetunji
Written February 2020, for LAUMED Journal Club in honour of Cancer Awareness Month.
Tunde mentioned it after we made love, like he was afraid and didn’t want to say it out loud. We were laying there in the dark, under covers. Me in his arms, listening to his breathing below the melo currents of rain. “Baby…” he began. I answered him by burying myself deeper in his arms. “Your boobs… they felt different” I turned to look at him, I needed to look into his eyes. “I think I felt a lump” I got out of his arms, out of the duvet. Sat up. Lights on.
“So you’re a doctor now?” I said getting up and wrapping myself in my night gown. He sat up too. He had been away for 3 months. He had some work to do in London. He was a microbiologist, a damn good one too. He had just won a grant (even white microbiologist could only dream of winning) to work more on his hepatitis cure, or something like that. I never did understand most of Tunde’s work. I just loved the sound of his voice when he talked things he was excited about, like his work but not now. Now, his voice was shaky, worried. “No, don’t be like that.” He paused. “Look, I told you when I was leaving that I felt something there, and you said it was nothing that it didn’t hurt. But… I felt it again now and it’s hard, bigger and I could tell that it hurts…” I was just staring at the wall in front of me, my back to him. He was moving closer to hold me from behind.
I knew why he was worried. He had just lost his aunt to breast cancer the previous year. He had let his geeky instincts lead him down the rabbit hole of the science behind breast cancer. He knew the theory of it, back and forth. I am the carefree one. Never taking anything serious. But could I have cancer? No one I knew did. I was healthy, I didn’t drink or smoke and I was young. How could it be cancer?
The rain seemed to pour harder now.
When the lump first appeared, I didn’t quite notice. Tunde mentioned it the last time we had sex before he travelled, because he is Tunde, detailed and expressive. He once told me when my period was a week late. He thought we were already expecting. I was shocked, I just kept laughing in wonderment. How in the world did he master my cycle more than me? And no, we were not expecting. We had both agreed to wait till we were settled outside the country before starting a family, so I was still on the pills.
When the doctor asked us when the mass appeared, Tunde said 3 months ago. He asked upfront if it was cancer and the doctor said they couldn’t say yet. That we should relax and hope for the best. Tunde, my cool headed, calm and collected husband of 18 months, squeezed my hand in his sweaty palms. It’s made me uneasy that he was being like this. This unscrewed and chatty, all over the place, it was unlike him. I now more than ever didn’t want it to be cancer because of him.
The doctor, looking quite tired and unbothered, told us they would need to take some tissue samples from the lump to be sure whether or not the mass was cancerous. We had it all done immediately because Tunde said we had better. We were asked to come back for the results in a few days at the lab.
I took my mind of it. I went to work per usual. I was a sociology lecturer at the State university and I was satisfied for the most part. The night before the day we were suppose to go get the result, I couldn’t sleep. I keep rolling on the bed till I woke him. He looked at me with those eyes, and I couldn’t hold the tears in. “What if it’s cancer?” I managed in between sniffs. He drew me to his chest. “Wonu, don’t you think you’re jumping the gun? We don’t know yet.”
“But what if…”
“shhhhhh….. I’m here. I’ll always be here”
I sobbed myself to sleep.
Tunde went to the lab to get the results, because he didn’t think I could handle it. I waited in the car. He was walking awfully fast towards the car for someone who had nowhere else to be. He got in the car and I noticed beneath his glasses that his eyes were red. He had been crying. I knew. My already beating heart, exploded. I thought I would die. That did not happen, miraculously. I asked him for the result. He looked at me and shook his head. “I’m sorry.” He said softly, like the words were too heavy for him. I looked straight ahead, I couldn’t look at him, couldn’t think. I couldn’t believe it. I asked him again for the results. I needed proof, something to make it real. He handed me the white paper with a lot of words all over the place but only one stood out to me; malignant.
I had been reading a lot about breast cancer on the internet so by now I knew exactly what malignant meant. It meant I had cancer. It meant cancer was in my body. It meant I was sick. Very sick. It meant I might die. It meant I could die. I could die. I could die. That thought was bouncing around in my head. Tunde kept saying things, but I couldn’t hear him, or anyone or anything. I was like a piece of paper in the wind, nothing could get to me.
The doctor confirmed what we already knew and there was more bad news. I was to have surgery to cut off my left breast where the lump or as we were now told, lumps, had been growing. They were not going to stop gowing and it was dangerous. The thought of being a woman with one breast was funny to me. Tunde kept stealing glances at me throughout the consultation. I hadn’t cried yet. At least not in his presence.
“When should we have the surgery?” I asked
“A week is fine. We still need to run some tests and know if you’re fit for surgery. If you need to take sometime to think and discuss with your husband, you can have that. But not too long please, we’re worried about it spreading to your lymph nodes and other organs so please make your decision quickly”
Tunde squeezed my hand. He did that often now. I wondered if he thought I was dying. I wondered what he would do if I die. Would he marry someone else? Would he wait? How long would he wait? The slam of the car door snapped me out of my mind trail. When he got into the car at the driver’s side, I turned to him and urgently asked if he would still love me without boobs. His laughter filled the insides of our Honda. “What do you mean? Of course not. How could I love you without your boobs? Boobs are everything you know. They are the only reason I married you in fact.” His eyes brows were going up and down and by this time I was laughing too. Then I was crying. I didn’t even know I wanted to cry. He held my hand and let me cry. We drove home in silence.
The surgery was successful and I recovered easy. It was now time for chemotherapy as we were told. Those were the worst days of my life. It was way worse than the surgery. The drugs broke me in all ways possible. I had stopped working since after the surgery and my mom had come to stay with us. Tunde’s mom came too as she had lost her sister to cancer and wanted to be there for us as much as she could.
I hoped and prayed that the hospital would get caught up in flames just so I wouldn’t have to take another round of drugs. They were days when I thought dying was better, but then I would look at my husband until it looked less and less than a viable option.
I lost all my hair, weight too, joy too. We lost money as well, it pained me that we had to let go of most of our savings for a sickness. I felt like a liability but you could never feel that way long enough with a husband like mine. Tunde would stay up reading me novels to help me fall asleep at night. There were nightmares too. Nightmares that sometimes kept both of us up. You know, as they often involved me dying.
He bought me different coloured wigs and made jokes about how now that I didn’t have any hair of my own I should experiment with colours and styles. It did cheer me up, playing dress up like that. I’m sure people gwaked at me at the mall and in public spaces generally thinking I had one mental disability or the other. One day I was a red head, the next I could be a ginger, the next blonde, who knew? Some days I was strong enough to cook him a good meal and othere days all I could do was sleep. I soon learnt to take the days as they come. Like meals, some you enjoy, others not so much.
I remember the day they told us the cancer was all gone as though it were today, only a few hours ago. Tunde looked at me and couldn’t move. He just sat there like he had seen God in the flesh and was perplexed. He stayed that way, with a perplexed expression on his face that is, till we got home and he swept me off my feet any gave me the best kiss.
He look at my face and said “I thought I was going to lose you”
“Well, I’m not that easy to lose.”
We laughed as tears rowed down his brown cheeks “aww baby” I said cupping his face in my hand.
Many years have passed now and Tunde is woken by the shirll ring of a phone in our small London home, it wakes me too but I do not have enough willpower to get out of bed. He does and in what seems like hours he returns, and wisphers in my ear “I just won the nobel prize in Microbiology…Thompson and I” I can barely catch my breath. “What?!?!” My expression wild. “Congratulations my love.” I say as I plant my lips on his.
We call all four of our children and their spouses and give them the news. We plan a big family celebration dinner and smile at each other as the thought of seeing all our children again since last Christmas settles in our bellies.
The cancer never did come back. I can tell sometimes that Tunde still worries it might. I tell women my story every chance I get and how they shouldn’t over look changes in their breasts like I did, over and over again. When it comes to health, it’s better to be proactive I tell them. My catch phrase over the years had become “check the boob if you don’t want to lose the boob”. Most people never forget that. I also never forget how my life almost ended and it didn’t especially now as I sit across our dinning table having brunch with my ever charming husband. Almost as though he reads my mind, he says “Remember how us having great sex saved your life?”
I nodded while laughing and said ” Yes indeed, we thank God for Tunde, the nobel laureate’s..” I take bow, looking serious “…legendary love making skills that indeed saved my life”
His laughter crowned mine in a loud uproar I’m sure the whole of England would have heard if they listened close enough.