Penumbra - © 2012 Kerrin O'Sullivan, published in anthology.
Journey: Experiences with Breast Cancer. Busybird Publishing and Design Eltham, Victoria, 2012
Editor: Les Zigomanis

by Kerrin O'Sullivan

In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present. Francis Bacon

It begins with a shadow. And in the end a shadow remains.

But I am getting ahead of myself. For there was much before that - unknown to me as it was, at the time. As the doctor said, it had to have been there for much longer. Undetected, growing. An insurgent advancing in peaceful territory. Even on an x-ray, invisible.

Invisible? Perhaps not. Camouflaged, perhaps. But there nonetheless - hidden, secretly thriving, mocking machines and medicos alike.

In contempt of regular checks and clean screening results, my cells were in anarchy. I felt vividly well, oblivious to the fact that my body was moving me into the world of illness. A clandestine yet efficient betrayal. I was slipping into the world of the unwell. Perversely, only the treatment to cure me was to make me feel poorly, not the illness.

Breast cancer. That is how it was for me.


Re-wind the footage of memory, recount the events as they unfold, seek an order from chaos.


On a bright December morning, I am in a hotel at which I have never stayed before, celebrating an anniversary. The room overlooks a lazy brown river and the city beyond it is waking. I am watching a BBC report from Afghanistan. On the screen, a foreign correspondent is speaking earnestly, emphatically, into the camera. Frowning Afghani men in striped robes and turbans surround him. Beside a tank, a British soldier in battle fatigues is perched on a miniscule camp stool, his large body slumped in a language of defeat, weeping.

I find a lump. There is no uncertainty. Under my fingertips is a hard marble-sized lump. My appetite for breakfast evaporates. Outside, the sky appears to have clouded over, ever so slightly.


No debate. The doctor agrees there is a lump. I am directed to radiology for X-rays. The room has four walls of green-grey hue, and a machine. And a therapist who attends, then leaves to shelter from the spray of radioactive rays. A pattern to be repeated many times in the months ahead. There is a gloom in the room that seems not entirely related to the quality of the light.

Waiting rooms are well-named. Time is not of the real world; the description is apt. One waits; I wait.

A nurse emerges to speak to me. She inhales deeply, looks into my eyes.

'It is essential that you keep your appointment for the ultrasound tomorrow.'

A Brechtian pause.

I nod.

'Essential. Do you understand?'

I nod again. I understand.

The ultrasound is also in a room with green-grey walls, or has my illusory memory fabricated that? Downstairs, underground. Like a cubist bunker: dim, airless, rectangled. I seem to have entered a subterranean world of artificial light. Fluorescent tubes, halogen sunlight.

The gel is cool on my skin, its texture delicious like the jellied fingerpaint of pre-school. The technician peers at the screen, brow furrowed, perplexed. Some amorphous part of me swirls on the screen. The technician leaves, returns with a specialist. Each points at the screen in turn, shadows morph into shapes that form and re-form. In hushed tones, they deliberate. There is a folding and unfolding of white-coated arms. I am an audience of one in the wings of a darkened theatre. A deferential spectator, yet … centre stage. The two bespectacled magicians perform a duet, juggling ideas, pointing, gesticulating in the twilight glow cast by the monitor. I strain to hear. It is as if someone has found the mute button and pressed it. I leave no wiser, with instructions to return to my doctor.


I find myself in a café near the hospital. A café exceptional only for its blandness. I have become a figure in an Edward Hopper painting.

The report does not sit well with the doctor. She asks me to return in the afternoon to see an oncologist for another opinion.

'It is not cancer,' he beams decisively and repeats the good news. He outlines an hypothesis about ductile inflammation and writes a script for a hefty regimen of antibiotics. His kind eyes and authority reassure me.

A week passes. I follow the prescribed regimen of medication and go back. The lump has enlarged, not diminished. I feel like a yo-yo on a tight string. Apple green leaves flutter playfully on the branches of a mighty elm outside the window. Shadows of doubt flicker in the speckled summer light.

The good doctor volunteers no hypothesis. Later I realise he has put together the pieces of the puzzle. He knows. But now, naively, I do not realise this. I ask no questions; I am like an extra in a play without a speaking part. My fate is decided. We will meet in the operating theatre. The lump must come out.


The surgery is done at an hour early on a Friday morning when I am usually at the market, eyeing watermelon, deliberating over Sicilian olives, resisting a wheel of triple cream brie. The assisting doctor talks to me as I lie on the operating table, clasps my free hand with her warm one while the anaesthetist inserts tubes into the other. An act of gratuitous kindness. It soothes.

Days pass. Somewhere, in a lab, a pathologist examines tissue. Then one morning, while trawling the CBD in peak hour, my mobile rings, sounding the belly-dancing music a daughter has mischievously installed.

It is the surgeon; the results are in. I have cancer. Proven, invasive.

Traffic lights change from green to red. Cars slow, stop, move on. A truck belches black fumes into the urban ether. A cyclist draws up alongside my window, our eyes connect. I have the sense he is a mirage. He moves forward, yet I feel as if I am rolling backwards. I am calm, vacantly mindlessly calm. My right leg starts to tremor itself into a violent shake. I try to still it, but cannot.

There is more surgery and there is radiotherapy daily for six weeks. I resolutely do whatever I am told. I become an automaton in a medical sci-fi. Obedience, submission, faith in the expertise of the experts. Raw, blind faith.

Doctors and nurses prod my body and probe tissue. Medical students peruse, engrossed. Technicians measure angles to guide the assailing electromagnetic rays. They draw on my body with blue felt pens, then tattoo tiny stars in indelible ink to define the field of radiation. Strangers, all.

Red lines of lasers illuminate boundaries on white skin in rooms painted - oh yes indeed - green-grey. I lose all inhibitions, all vestiges of the private self I once was. Any frivolous notion of propriety I may have believed I possessed over my own body is dispensed with. I have been inducted involuntarily into the world of the unwell. A Sontag-esque nightside of life eclipses my days.

At last I emerge blinking from the underworld of the ill and re-enter what a fellow traveller once called 'the unshadowed world of the well'. I embrace health with gusto and my mind curls back to a life before cancer like a whisper of smoke from a votive candle.

Still the spectre of the cancer returning, haunts. A sun-spot on the sun's surface of health. A penumbra on the future.
And yet, for a shadow to exist, there must be light.

The light draws the eye.

The shadow fades and hope conquers fear.

© 2012 Kerrin O’Sullivan