Shrödinger’s Breast Lump

Shrödinger’s Breast Lump
Real-size cat figure in the garden of Huttenstrasse 9, Zurich, where Erwin Schrödinger lived 1921–1926. Depending on the light conditions, the cat appears either alive or dead.
Real-size cat figure in the garden of Huttenstrasse 9, Zurich, where Erwin Schrödinger lived 1921–1926. Depending on the light conditions, the cat appears either alive or dead.

Trapped in a box with a radioactive particle that would inevitably at some point decay, triggering the release of a fatal poison, until the lid was lifted, Shrödinger’s cat was infamously (and ridiculously in Shrödinger’s mind – his thought experiment was designed to critique a branch of quantum physics) both dead and alive. The indeterminate feline was much on my mind earlier this summer, when I spent two weeks wandering the ravishing streets of Prague, in full view and undeniably alive, but psychologically in a state of impossible simultaneity: feeling both gloriously healthy and terminally ill.

In May I had discovered a lump in my left breast. My GP said it was mobile – a good sign – but also large and hard: worrying. An ultrasound revealed the lump was definitely not a cyst, and also discovered swelling in a lymph node. On the verge of a teaching job in Prague, I asked if I should cancel my trip, but was told no, I could get the results when I returned. The doctor at the screening clinic also breezily announced that the worst-case scenario was a lumpectomy, so I left the UK feeling dazed at the prospect of surgery, but relieved that the situation didn’t appear life-threatening. I told colleagues and a handful of friends. In Prague I bought a notebook with an Albert Einstein quote on the cover: Life is like a bicycle: to keep your balance you must keep moving. But I wasn’t expecting the travels that would be demanded of me.

A week into my stay in Prague, the clinic called to strongly advise me to come home early. The armpit biopsy had proved inconclusive and another sample from the lymph node needed to be taken; the nurse also wanted to schedule an appointment with a consultant surgeon. She wasn’t allowed to give results over the phone, but reading between the lines I deduced that the breast lump was malignant. Still, though, the delusional mind is a wondrous thing. Perhaps they were just being extra-careful, I told myself. I arranged for a replacement tutor for my class, and booked a flight to the UK, returning to Prague the following day. If I did have cancer, I reasoned, I wanted to spend as much time as possible in a beautiful city doing what I love before a summer consumed by some horrible treatment. As the week went on I surprised myself with how calmly I was responding to the unfolding situation. My dreams, my friends and the Tarot all said not to worry. But then came Sunday night at the airport, waiting for hours in a long corridor as no news appeared on the departure boards, and ominous text updates from EasyJet culminated in the cancellation of my flight. Prepared to sleep at the airport, I searched desperately online for early morning flights, but none would get me to the clinic on time. With the opening of a hole in the Gatwick Airport main runway, the ground was shifting underneath me, and panic bubbled up.

I made it to the appointment in the end, a day late, to hear the news everyone dreads. I had cancer, it had most probably spread to the lymph nodes, and my liver and lungs would have to be tested as well. And far from simply requiring a routine removal, the tumour in my breast was now too big for a lumpectomy, and unless chemotherapy could shrink it I would need a mastectomy. To top it off, I learned that my lymph nodes would probably be ‘cleared’ – all 30 in the area removed – putting me at risk of lymphodema, a chronic, painful swelling of the limb. My friend Lee who attended the diagnosis with me said I took the news calmly, but in fact I was paralytic in the face of a slow-motion avalanche. My mother died of colon cancer at the age of 52, and ever since I turned 47 two years ago – the age she was diagnosed – I’d been aware that part of me was waiting for this verdict. Although beautifully cushioned by friends, for the 24 hours after receiving the news I was frankly a complete mess. It also didn’t help that I had to get up at four am to catch a bus to Heathrow and a flight to Prague via Frankfurt, an airport itself beset by storms . . .

That was almost two months ago. Emotionally I’ve traveled a great distance since then. As well as the deep support of friends and family, without which I don’t know where I’d be on this journey, writing has been crucial to restoring my equilibrium. Finally, having cleared Frankfurt airport and secure on the plane back to Prague, I picked up my pen and Einstein notebook – and the fear that had gripped my guts since the diagnosis magically lifted. I realised at that moment that terror was not a mandatory response to my illness, and no matter how much time I had left, I didn’t want to spend it seized by the physical pain fear causes. I was of course nervous before the results of my MRI scan two weeks ago, but by then I also knew that whatever the verdict, I would have to keep living in the same way – establishing healthy habits, and maintaining a positive outlook. Very fortunately the scan confirmed that the cancer had not spread to internal organs, and my final diagnosis remains primary breast cancer, Stage 2, which is curable. That sounds good to me.

From the date of the diagnosis I have taken an integrative approach to my treatment, embracing both orthodox medicine and complementary therapies. I have conducted safe juice fasts when appropriate, though now I’ve started chemotherapy I am eating to keep my weight up – a balanced diet of plants, nuts, grains, pulses, and a little animal protein. I am also availing myself of therapies provided by Macmillan and the NHS and local charities: hypnotherapy, counselling, and even a personal trainer, courtesy of Albion in the Community, my local football club. Educating myself about the disease has been important to me, and now after telling as many friends privately as I could, I’ve decided to go public about my condition. For one thing, in this era of sharing, it felt fraudulent to maintain an ‘AOK’ online persona; but also, I’d like my readers to know why I won’t be as active as usual on the arts and politics scene for the next six to nine months.

The chemo is making me very tired, but at the same time I can’t maintain the sedentary lifestyle I had fallen into as a writer – I have to get out walking for a couple of hours a day, and take far more breaks from the screen. Sadly I’ve had to put my Palestinian poetry anthology on hold, and the final book in The Gaia Chronicles will likely be somewhat delayed. While I still read as much as I can about politics I won’t be able to take as vocal a role in debates as I usually do. But I am still as interested in culture, the environment and social justice as ever, with a new focus of my disease: I’ll be incorporating my research about cancer into my world view and my future work. I would also like to avail myself of the big love that’s out there on social media, and as well as occasional blog posts I will be starting a FB page tracking my recovery, checking in and updating people as often as I can.

I have realised already how blessed I am, in particular to have so many people offering me every possible kind of support. I just ask for people’s patience, as everything here is happening a little more slowly than I intend. But although she might be napping in the sun, do not fret – this Brighton cat is well and truly alive, and wearing a pedometer clipped to her tail.


Dear friend – yes it’s a strange demanding time for you, but you’re lighting up the summer & your writing & all those who love you will help you through the stones & heather. With admiration & love Rob & Keith x

Thank you Maria – I’ve always liked challenges, I guess! And I have to say that changing my diet has been very empowering. Even though I’m getting a few mild chemo side effects, now I’m off alcohol and fast-release carbs & sugars, I can feel that my mood has stabilised, which makes maintaining a positive attitude much easier. Thank you also for the mango, and here’s to meeting up next at some gala poetry event! xx

Thank you dear Rob & Keith – and for being my stalwart companions in those hard early days, and my hand-stitched Bloomsbury cushions after Chemo 1! My ability to cope with this all is in no small part down to the care you have shown me. xx

Oh bless you darling Niomi !
I m just reading this now and think back to all our healing journeys together . The tarot , your dreams – your deep inner guidance , all the love and support of friends and loved ones , your positive outlook , creative expression , courage and a regime that nurtures you on all levels will see you through this difficult time .
I hold the vision of you – happy , vital , healthy and strong surrounded by light .
I m back on 15th Dec in Brighton from the seas for a 3 week break and look forward to celebrating with you together with champagne ( or whatever is allowed ) just as we did before I left …

much love to you my beautiful and amazing friend !

Magdalena xxx

I am so sorry to hear this Naomi. Will be thinking of you. Take great care of yourself. Much love, Pam xxx

Thank you so much, Magdalena, for keeping me in the light of your mind’s eye! This new journey is a rough stretch of my path, but it will only take me deeper into healing. I so look forward to raising glasses of champagne (or kombucha!) when you return, and celebrating another year of growth and adventure for both of us. Naomi xx

Thank you Pam. Taking care of myself is proving very nurturing, and I’m very lucky to have so many other people taking care of me too. xxx

Naomi, I’ve just come to this from your page on Facebook. A shock, but after a moment not so much of one. A friend of mine died a year and a half ago of lung cancer (diagnosed late). Another one, a really great Canadian writer, is probably dying of a brain tumour. There’s so much of it around. I’m very pleased that your case sounds much more hopeful than these. I also think you’re better placed than most to deal with the current challenges and fears, because you are a person of calm wisdom and wide sympathies. Still, I’m sorry you’re going through it. I’m sorry for all of us, that we are subject to such things. I hope you’re recovered and back to writing, editing, activism as soon as possible. Enjoy the time off, and the different perspective, if that’s at all possible. (I can see from what you’ve written here that it is, although I’m sure there’s plenty of anguish too. Strength to you, and lots of love. Robin.

Thank you for this empathic response, Robin, and I’m very sorry to hear the sad news of your friends. My personal prior experience of the disease, involving several family members, was mainly of terminal conditions, but not exclusively, and I’ve also learned just how far treatment has come, in particular for breast cancer. So my own worst fears have been largely allayed. Still, this illness remains a formidable foe. Lung cancer, I know, is one of the most difficult to treat, but although tragically too little and too late for your friend, even here immunotherapy is offering hope. Big pharma is a whole other political issue, of course, but I’m having to take my researches there slowly and balance them with, yes, joy, poetry and frivolity. Though I still do occasionally feel overwhelmed by the mountain that has suddenly thumped down on my path, those moments are rare and overall I do feel equipped to scale it. This is in no small part due to my community – friends and family are taking wonderful care of me here in Brighton. I know I will return to all my work a stronger person, and look forward to striding beside you and my fellow activists again on the endless road to justice. In the meantime, love and all power to you too, and please take good care of yourself. Naomi

I wish you healing and peace Naomi. I am sure you will soon transform this minor scourge with your very own Foylian Alchemy resulting an irresistible feast of creative juices cooked up with a pinch of Mírth. Lots of love and hoping to see you soon. xxx

Danke Lisa. It’s a long, slow simmer, but the creative juices are indeed bubbling gently away in the crucible. Some chunky bits of horror and morbid humour probably won’t quite dissolve, but where would the alchemical gold be without Frankenstein and mirth?! xxx

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