Battle Commences

This entry is part 8 in the series Victory in the Valley

—Victory in the Valley – Chapter 7—

Start at the beginning of the story

Now read on . . .


Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

I lay back on the hard bed, still bewildered. Why was I here? Suddenly, everything seemed to speed up. A voice called urgently across the curtain.

“They are waiting for Mrs. Corder now in the operating theater!”

The Radiologist’s young assistant moved into position above my head, and asked, “Local?”

No time for a local anesthetic.

“No time!” muttered the Radiologist, lifting a long, very fine, silver wire from a nearby trolley. “Now just hold nice and still Dear—this won’t take long.”

“What won’t take . . . ?” Before I finished the question, the assistant gripped my arms in a vice-like hold. The radiologist inserted the point of the wire into the side of my breast. I had no warning, no explanation. The pain! 

The whole procedure probably only lasted a couple of minutes. But for me, it seemed to go on forever. He seemed to twist it a few times as he threaded it through my breast tissue. The point then came out some inches lower. I later learned that the wire encircled the tumor to assist the surgeon to find it accurately.

I have since spoken to a number of people who have had this procedure and they have experienced little or no pain. Perhaps, if I had been prepared for it, I would have handled it better. I wasn’t a coward when it came to pain. Perhaps if I had been given the local anesthetic . . .

No time to explain

I emerged from the cubicle, sitting awkwardly in the wheelchair, feeling traumatized. My breast felt on fire. The wire, taped in position, stuck out from under my gown like two antennae. Each time the chair wobbled or bumped, the pain seared through my breast again. The hospital corridor that had been so smooth on my way to the X-ray department now felt more like a dirt track full of stones.  Tears streamed down my cheeks, and I just wanted to call the whole thing off and return to the sanctity of my home. Poor Rob could only walk beside me, looking worriedly at the wire, not knowing what had happened in the cubicle. I wasn’t able to tell him, I was too busy concentrating on not crying aloud.

Arriving back at the ward I encountered a scene of controlled professional panic. Dr. Prinsloo could not be kept waiting—and I was late. I should have been in the theater minutes ago. As I was hurried into a clean theater gown, I caused a minor upset by stubbornly insisting on wearing the garment that’s designed to be open down the back, the other way round. Somehow, in my pain-filled and petrified mind, I thought, They are going to take it off to operate, so I might as well have it open down the front.

It didn’t strike me at the time that I would be asleep when they took it off anyway. Once I had clambered, most awkwardly, onto the stretcher, I finally realized how ridiculous, not to mention indecent, this open gown looked, and I allowed them to change it around. More pain. More time. More tension. I had to put my top teeth in a cup. I felt totally vulnerable.

No time for pre-medication

I turned to the nurse and implored “Premed! Please, I haven’t had my premed.” The pre-medication should have been given 15 minutes before my operation. It was meant to calm me and dry my mouth. Well, my mouth was already so dry that I could hardly speak. But I could certainly have used a fresh dose of calm!

“Sorry Dear—no time.”

I was assisted back onto the trolley, and we tore off to the theater without even a chance to say goodbye to Ria. Worst of all, there wasn’t even a chance for prayer with Rob. Tears of terror trickled down my cheeks as my eyes met his for one last moment. He attempted to keep up with me as far as the operating room. Just as I arrived at the big double doors, two ladies from our congregation came over to greet me. They had come to keep Rob company, not realizing Stephen was on his way. I could only stare back at them, wide-eyed and terrified.

No time to explain

What had gone wrong? I had arrived at the hospital totally in control, outwardly and inwardly calm. By the time I arrived at the operating theater I was in the deepest sense of panic I have ever experienced. Why didn’t someone take the time to explain? Why did we run out of time? These were the questions I would have liked answered, but there was no time. 


Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

It seemed only moments later when the stretcher jerked. I opened my eyes, startled. Ooh, the pain! As I squeezed my eyes shut again, I registered that my friend Ria herself was escorting me back from the theater, a task usually delegated to a junior nurse. The charge sister as she was known as in S.Africa, never fetched patients. Through the thick haze of anesthesia, I saw tears running down her cheeks. Vaguely I thought, This is not good! Weeks later I remembered that her mother had died a traumatic death from mouth cancer a few months before.

I came around again lying on my bed, with Rob whispering urgently in my ear.  

Unwelcome news

“Shirl, Shirl, it’s okay. They’ve got it all out. You’ll just need Chemo—you’re going to be fine.” At the word Chemo, I lost consciousness once more.

Poor Rob. Before I returned to my bed, Dr. Prinsloo had been to the ward and spoken to Rob and Stephen. He told them they had the tumor out, but I would need Chemo. Rob thought this would be good news for me. I just heard the word, and I knew I was in deep trouble. No one had mentioned chemotherapy before.

As soon as he saw for himself that I was alright, Stephen left the hospital for work, so he could phone my mother, sitting alone in her small flat glued to the telephone. He would phone other anxious family members and e-mail Debbie in Venezuela. David wrote the last test of his final examination at the very moment I was in the theater. As soon as he got home, he phoned Stephen for a report.

Time to change

Once I awoke, Ria and a junior nurse appeared next to me and announced they had come to change me into my own clothes to “make you feel better.”

“No! Not yet! I’m fine!” I slurred. I didn’t want to even think of moving. The pain! Besides which, Ria was my friend. Let the nurses change me. I didn’t want Ria there. Even in my drugged state, I tried to hang onto modesty which, unknown to me, belonged to my past.

They ignored my protests, and I found myself quickly and efficiently stripped of my surgical gown, and slipped into my pajamas with the buttons down the front. I caught a glimpse of bandages over my left breast . . . my left breast . . . I still had a left breast! They had not done the expected Radical Mastectomy.

Two thick plastic tubes emerged from the mound of bandages, leading to concertina-shaped drains tied to the side of the bed. After easing on my nightclothes, the nurses encased my arm in a heavy navy blue canvas sling and strapped it firmly to my body. I lay back on a mountain of crisp white pillows. Aaah! They were right. I felt so much better.

Shortcut to next chapter.

These events occurred between 17 and 20 years ago. I have tried to recreate events and locations as accurately as possible, but in order to maintain their anonymity, in some instances I have changed the names and identifying characteristics of individuals and places.

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6 comments on “Battle Commences

  1. I love you’re writing. You made a hard experience for you entertaining and interesting to read. I can’t imagine you’re struggle.

    • Thank you for your visit and our encouragement Heidi. It’s always hard to know whether what you’re saying is worthwhile to others. Your visit and comment is so appreciated.

  2. Ah Shirl, reliving it could not be easy. I was feeling the pain with you as I read.A true life story in every sense. You are extremely brave to write it all out.

    • Thanks so much Ann. I wrote it some years ago and finally decided it was time to do something with it. I’m having to edit it for publication obviously.

  3. Really gripping. You’ve written this so well I can “feel” your pain. This book is going places. BTW I’d drop the second “as” … The charge sister as she was known as in S.Africa…

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