The Diagnosis No-one Ever Wants to Hear

This entry is part 3 in the series Victory in the Valley


—Victory in the Valley – Chapter Two—

Start at the Beginning of the Story

ultrasound scanner

Ultrasound Machine (Credit: The Facey Family) via Flickr

Now read on to chapter two:

About two weeks after my appointment with Dr. Prinsloo, I presented myself at the x-ray department for my mammogram. (I have heard this aptly described as an attempt to turn a bra ‘cup’ into a ‘saucer’.)

I waited to hear when I could leave the room. The radiographer came in to collect an x-ray plate and turned to leave.

“I’m afraid you can’t get dressed yet,” she said, avoiding my eyes. “Doctor wants an ultrasound.”

“Oh yes I know,” I replied cheerily. “Dr. Prinsloo ordered it, because this is my first mammogram.”

“No, that’s not why. . .” she said vaguely and left the room.

First glimmer of fear

What does she mean – that’s not why? Why else could it be? It couldn’t be – no of course not. 

I knew they wouldn’t have found anything sinister. And yet, for the first time I felt a twinge of fear. I attempted to push it from my mind. This isn’t happening to me! That girl doesn’t understand. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Dr. Prinsloo said he wanted an ultrasound purely as a baseline.

After what seemed like an hour, but was probably only a matter of minutes, the young woman returned, and led me into the cubicle where I was confronted by the angry radiologist. Why is he angry? This isn’t my fault. Then I saw it from his point of view. Because of my apparent neglect and failure to have a mammogram, the tumor now appeared to be out of control. His words rang in my ears.

“You have cancer and I don’t think they’ll be able to get it all out.” I chose not to believe him. He wasn’t a surgeon. And he didn’t know me. My surgeon said I was fine. He should know. This man was talking nonsense.

Looking at the ultrasound

Following my request that he explain the ultrasound to me, the radiologist moved the transducer (a small probe) over the area of concern. I could clearly make out a ‘beast’ far from the position of the lump that had bothered me. It lurked deep within my left breast, buried among dense tissue.

“This tumor,” explained the radiologist gravely, “has been growing for about two years. If we had done a mammogram two years ago we would have found it when it was still tiny. Now. . .” His voice petered out as he shook his head.

“So what do I do?” I was astonished at my calm voice. “You say you don’t know if they’ll be able to get it out?”

“Well they’ve obviously got to try!” he exclaimed. “You’ll have to get back to Dr. Prinsloo as quickly as possible, and he’ll have to see what he can do!” As he fiddled with the dials on the scanner he said flatly, “You’re going to need the best surgeon, an excellent oncologist, and a lot of faith to get you through this.”

The last statement surprised me. He hadn’t struck me as a man who believed in the importance of faith.

“I have plenty faith,” I said stoically. “My husband and I are in the ministry. I know the Lord is with me.”

Don’t leave me!

As he turned to sweep from the cubicle I suddenly felt panic. He mustn’t leave me. He had been so rude, almost cruel. Yet deep down I sensed concern; and right at that point he was the only person in the world, apart from me, that knew I had cancer.

“Doctor,” I called uncertainly. “Please can I ask you something?”

“Yes, what?” He looked annoyed at the delay.

“Well, I know this is not an ethical question. But it’s important to me, and there’s no one else I can ask. If I were your wife, would you allow Dr. Prinsloo to operate? I need to know if I should go for a second opinion.”

He glowered at me for a moment, then his features softened as he replied slowly, “If you were my wife, I wouldn’t allow anyone other than Dr. Prinsloo to operate.”

An hour later my knuckles hesitated in mid-air before tapping out a quick tattoo on the metal and glass door to the X-ray department. I requested to speak to the radiologist once more. He came out of the room, obviously irked by the interruption.

Time delay

“Doctor, I’m sorry. I have tried to get an appointment with Dr. Prinsloo. The receptionist won’t give me one for several weeks, and they won’t allow me to talk to the doctor himself on the phone. What do I do now?”

He looked exasperated as he turned on his heel and marched into the room full of staff.

“As if this is my problem!” I heard him mutter to his colleagues as he reached for the telephone. Several pairs of eyes stared at me. He stabbed at some numbers, and within minutes was speaking in rapid Afrikaans. He put the telephone down and returned to me.

“You have an appointment for two o’clock tomorrow afternoon. Make sure you take all your x-rays with you.” As I thanked him and turned to leave, his eyes caught mine.

“Good luck!” he said softly as he turned away. “Good luck!”

Was it luck?

I knew it would take more than luck to get me through a cancer diagnosis. Click To Tweet

I had never faced a challenge like this. I had nursed plenty cancer patients. I had even nursed terminal cases for hospice. But this was different. This was me. Cancer happened to other people.

“Lord?” I asked, as I headed back to the pathology laboratory where I worked. “How did this happen?” I still hoped there was a mistake. They would soon realize they were wrong. Yet, I had seen the beast for myself. Deep down, I knew it was real.

I slipped into the laboratory through a back door. Mariette, my colleague and friend, glanced up as the door swung noiselessly closed behind me. Her busy fingers abruptly ceased to dial; the telephone receiver thudded down on its cradle.

“Shirl! What’s wrong?”

Life-changing Words

For the first time, I said the words that would change my life forever. “I have cancer!”

She paled—then came around the counter, put her arms around me and held me tightly. “Oh Shirl—this can’t be true!”

I felt myself starting to tremble, as she supported me. I stammered out the bare facts of the past few hours. She stood there, holding me, massaging my shoulders as I spoke. After I stopped she started to speak, slowly, but urgently.

“Shirl, listen to me. This guy had no right to speak to you in that manner. You know that too. But in any case, he has nothing to do with your future. In fact, nor does Jannie Prinsloo.

The medical staff are only instruments in your fight against cancer. Click To Tweet

Only Instruments

She shook me slightly as she spoke. “Your life is not in their hands Shirl! Before you were even born God knew how many days He was giving you.[1] And I don’t believe they are finished yet!”

She held me at arms’ length as she studied my face. “Listen, my friend! You are going to fight this thing! We are going to fight it! We’re in this together. Somehow we’ll fight it and we’ll win!” She turned to put on the kettle. “Come, while we’re waiting for the kettle to boil, let’s pray.”

[1] Psalm 139:16

Read on: Chapter 3:   No Easy Way to Share

These events occurred between the years 1997 and 2000. 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 “The Diagnosis No-one Ever Wants to Hear

  1. I was standing with you through everything you wrote Shirl. An awful time. News of cancer flattens us and we can’t seem to think of anything else. Very moving explanation – which will help others too. Well done, my friend!

    • Thanks so much Val. I hope it will reach others. That’s the purpose behind this exercise. I know when I was going through this, I so longed for a book that told it like it is, but it had a positive outcome. I used to look at the back page and if it included an In Memoriam I put it right back on the shelf. 🙂

  2. Very powerful, Shirl. I love how you have taken your experience and are using it to help others. For me, just having someone ask me how I’m doing and listening to my answer helps tremendously.

    • Yes Lisa, you’re right. I wrote this story way back, before Strength Renewed, but I haven’t done anything with it. So I’m now posting it as a serial, and when it’s finished my plan is to publish it as an e-book. Thanks for the encouragement!

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