By on Mar 5, 2018 in Blog Posts, Cancer | 14 comments

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“I’m afraid the next appointment the doctor has is in April,” the receptionist said.

“Well can you make a referral to someone who could see me sooner? I have a lump, you see,”

“Oh. Then I’m going to fit you in. A lump can be nothing but it can be something. You can’t wait.”

Ten days ago, you see, I found a lump. Not a convenient lump. A lump in my nether regions. It’s the twenty-first century so I took a picture of it to inspect, then worried I might post on FB by accident and deleted it. Never-the-less it was a lump both “feelable” and visible.

If I have only one regret from Joshua’s fight with cancer it is that, two years ago when he first lost a little weight and had a couple of bouts on unexplained vomiting, that I let him brush me off and avoid the boring trip to the doctor. I’m pretty sure, at the stage, they wouldn’t have picked up the problem. But I will go to my grave not being sure. So, the lump had to be seen to.

Three days later I found myself sitting in a converted period building in Houghton across the desk from my new emergency gynae.

“I am going to do a full exam but before I do I want to get a little history,” she said. And then I realised my big, giant, insurmountable problem. It wasn’t the lump. For those of you who have never been to the gynae the third question is always the same: How many children / pregnancies have you had?

 I hadn’t thought this through. I don’t intentionally make people feel uncomfortable, you see. I mean I do on this blog but you are here by choice. You can only blame yourself. In general, though, I don’t try to make people feel awkward - which isn’t to say that I don’t fail most of the time. (There may also have been an incident in Woolies where an annoying man called me “babe” and accused me of cutting the line…but apart from that…).

In that moment I realised two things:

One: I need to get better at answering the question “how many kids do you have?” without crying

Two: I need to get better at answering the question “how many kids do you have?” without making the other person cry.

I failed on both counts with the gynae.

The polite answer, the answer that will stop my gynae from crying, is easy. One.

I tried it out when I got home. If I repeated it enough, surely it will lose the power to floor me? But even if my throat would relax to let my breath pass my mouth wouldn’t cooperate. It filled with the thick paste sensation of a billion white fungus cells. I imagined my tongue lying swollen and immobile somewhere in there. It refused to shape the word.

The cost of “one” is too great. It’s a denial not just of Josh but also of me. “One” swoops in and scours away the piece of me that I don’t have word for: nothing so physical as a heart or so intelligible as a thought. I’d call it my soul if that didn’t come with theological baggage. It’s the part of me right in the centre and the part of me that has grown infinitely lonely in the last six weeks. I worry it will never heal. I worry even more that it will.

For now I’m holed up, practising different answers but mostly avoiding the question.

We thought it would be good to get away  to make some new memories as a family of three.  It just felt like one was missing.

P.S. The lump turned out to be nothing serious.


  1. Beatrice

    5th March 2018

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    Very relieved your lump was nothing serious. Thank you once again for this glimpse into your private and difficult journey. I always choose to read what is on this page. It is often sobering, and always…hmmm was going to say authentic but now I sound like a coach. So I’ll leave it at that xxx

  2. David Collins

    5th March 2018

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    Penny being dyslexic I don’t read generally but your courage to share your authentic heart is exactly what we need as humans.

    The problem I see is that it’s not the story teller but rather with the listener inability to be there as a witness to the story teller. We would rather refer defer denia.

    Thank you

      • Rohini

        6th March 2018

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        You are beautiful Penny – a tear escapes me just imagining you saying “One”. Sending nothing but blessings your way😘

  3. Renee

    5th March 2018

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    I’m saying this brutally, from experience and from the heart – Honey the answer is always going to be two and one will always be missing. It just gets easier to bear❤️

  4. Donna

    5th March 2018

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    I felt every word of this incredible piece of writing. You are truly talented Penny Castle – You will be the voice of so many who cannot capture and express the lifelong adjustment of coping without a child. Thank you for your awesome authenticity and sharing thoughts that talk right to our souls

  5. Jackie

    6th March 2018

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    Hi Penny, when your soul is hurting, just know that my soul feels that it’s a very old friend of yours

  6. Marinda

    6th March 2018

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    Dearest Penny, thank you for being the honest person you are, I really appreciate you!

    So glad the lump was nothing serious but good that you checked.

    Josh is larger than life itself. His lessons shared lingers and are shared with others often. His life mattered. I miss the regular updates and being part of a journey that changed me for the better.

    Take care Penny. Thinking of you often!

  7. Lisa

    6th March 2018

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    I too choose to read your blog, I look forward to reading them. Very happy your lump is nothing serious. Take care Penny!

  8. Deanna

    6th March 2018

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    Penny, no one has,asked me that question yet but I have thought about it. We lost our daughter in September, 6 months,ago. I’m not sure what I’ll say but she will be counted! After all she is still our daughter, she’s just not here anymore & somehow that’s what I’ll say. Live your blog, always read about your son & I know you miss him like I miss my daughter Susan! We who have lost children belong to a club we never wanted to be in!! Blessings to YOU.

    • Penny Castle

      7th March 2018

      Post a Reply

      Thanks for your note Deanna. I also don’t have the words to express the sorrow and hope for soothing and heartbreak I feel hearing about you own loss. I know that anything I can say wont be enough but I also know I want to say something…anything, really that could lighten the burden a little. Much love, P

  9. Karen

    9th March 2018

    Post a Reply

    TG the lump was nothing serious, this is the first terrorist in the bush, as my husbands dermatologist calls it whenever Ralph flies there panicked because he’s found another one (melanoma).
    But to the how many children. I would say, you have two children, always will. The one is just in your heart and your memory and as I believe, connected to you always

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