“We’re going to take the catheter out now, alayne,” or at least that is how I remember my morning wake up on DAY ONE. Glory life officially over and now the work has begun. The good news is that they had mercy and at least didn’t remove the catheter and the morphine in the same swoop, there was indeed a God.
Removal of a catheter was no big deal. I think I had been hearing so much about this over the years as it relates to men that I got myself all worked up, but after years of tampons and a baby and of course the joy of sex, removal was a piece of cake. Now came the getting out of bed, sitting up, getting into the bathroom, not falling, not looking down under the johnny because I wasn’t ready to face what wasn’t there just yet. Oh and then there were those blasted drains that I was also afraid to face, but since they were going to be four tentacles attached to my body for at least a solid week, I realized I better suck it up and make friends with them.
There is a lot of adjustment on DAY ONE. Never mind the fact that I had little appetite and even smaller appetite for disgusting government approved hospital food. Despite all of this, once I got up and moved, went to the bathroom with lots of help, got my bearings, I felt pretty good. I mean I just had seven hours of pretty extreme surgery only the day before and I felt way better than I had ever thought I would feel. The amazing nurses on the fourth floor at Women and Infants were patient and kind, like good old fashioned nurses of yesteryear despite the mandate to walk around with a ridiculous computer attached to them like my drains recording every damn thing because someone in some ivory frickin tower thought it was a great idea to treat them like kindergartners. The best nurses are the ones who were trained twenty — thirty years ago and for some reason stuck it out despite the nursing profession’s slow slide into administrative hell. But I digress. My nursing care was stellar. And my nurses were the veterans I speak of. They landed in my room like guardian angels and my healing was a peaceful transition because of them.
Dr. Hottie (aka my plastic surgeon) walked in looking like he was headed to the yacht club for a quick sail around Narragansett Bay. He inspected his work like the artist that he is, but also like an engineer and mathematician, a unique combination of linear and creative necessary to create breasts from nothing because in case we all forgot I just had them removed, (pesky breast cancer, fucks with cosmetic perfection). Did I mention that he only had a loose piece of gauze on each of them and decided that it needed to come off? I mean when I woke up there was no dressing, no wrapping except for this loose gauze. I would have to look down at some point so after we conversed about what to look for and he confirmed his great work (my words not his, he is a humble surgeon, confident with humility, a winning combination), he left and I decided to take a peak, albeit brief. To my great surprise and relief I looked down at actual breasts. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The irony is that if I had decided to just take them off and not replace them, I could right now be sitting on my couch shirtless, camera in hand ready for a selfie that I could put up right here on this very story. But because I have super small kind of fake breasts, if I were to do this, there would be pornographic outrage and I would probably be booted off of all of social media. How odd. I was so relieved that I actually think this first view on DAY ONE sped up my healing and moved me on my path to recovery.
I actually felt so good that I called a few people and had a semi coherent conversation. A few people even came by for a visit and my son and aunt came after my son’s rugby game where he actually scored! DAY ONE was moving in the right direction. DAY ONE has lots of expectations because DAY TWO is right around the corner and the hospital staff needs to get you ready to vacate.
I realized something once I went through the mastectomy and my friend pointed it out last night in our recap conversation. A mastectomy really isn’t cutting or taking your breasts off. Now that I have the visual on my own upper body, I can see what really transpired. Picture a Cat Woman mask, your nipples are the eyes and the scars are the sides that go around your ears. Those side scars are where the breast surgeon goes in and then scoops out all of your breast tissue leaving behind the shell of your breasts. I know if you are squeamish this sounds disgusting, I was once you and I can’t believe I can actually discuss this without vomiting. Leaps and bounds, progress.
That shell that is left if you are like me and decided to move to Step 2 aka reconstruction (which is totally elective as Dr. Hottie reminded me several times after reviewing the what could go wrong segment of paperwork pre surgery) is what the second Doctor in the second half of the surgery has to work with so Doctor 1 and Doctor 2 better be best buds. Doctor 2, plastic surgeon, then uses, in my case, his artistic and mathematic skill set to create a base of breasts using a combination of that skin, your original nipples and if you can believe it the latissimus dorsi flap, muscle, fat and skin from your back, brought around to the chest, to create a new breast. Yes your original nipples can be used if they are healthy. So picture this, 2 lines from nipple to underarms, and 2 lines like where your bathing suit strap would lay, some women call it their angel wings, I call it my wonder woman wings, (like the wings on her invisible plane discussed in previous writings) and for an added bonus another incision under the left arm just to be sure that the early stage cancer did not spread to the lymph nodes. And the pièce de résistance, are the 4 drains each with 12–16 inch plastic tubes sewed into your back and then taped (the only dressing by the way) each with their very own grenade shaped plastic containers hanging for at least one week, but maybe two.
Holy shit, how did I get here and more importantly how am I sitting upright to write about it only five days later? This is the amazing element of all of this, though, not only the psychological resilience, but the beautiful reminder of my body’s ability to repair and deal immediately and rally towards recovery. I am in awe of its progress to adapt to its very new surroundings in less than a week and to deal with all of the changes I have brought to it. and I am really grateful for all of the physical work I respected it with over the past years so that my repair is on the mend at the speed of light without the setbacks that typically happen to bodies uncared for.
The four questions I was asked over and over and over by everyone from the time I have been diagnosed to now is “Do you smoke and have you ever smoked? (no) Do you exercise regularly? (yes)How much alcohol do you drink? (well… can you be more specific?….) and Do you feel safe where you live?” (yes) There were so many more questions I wanted them to add to their consults. What is your outlook on life, what is your diet, do you have help and a support system, how do you sleep, what is your stress level, how will you handle the financial strain that this surgery could bring because of the amount of time you will need to spend pre surgery and post surgery at an unbelievable amount of doctor’s appointments and time off of work, do you have young children at home, do you have a partner who is available and unconditionally supportive to you or are you in a relationship with someone who will judge your new upper body with disdain, do you have pets at home that you are responsible for, what do you need, or even better, we know you have no idea what you need right now, but based on our lengthy experience with this we have some idea so here is a list to consider along with some incredible local free resources for you.
As I sit here in the comforts of my beautiful home in the town I love looking out at my garden on this bright sunny day, I am listening to Chet Baker with my very supportive partner next to me drinking my freshly ground organic coffee, I realize my good fortune. This life has not been bestowed upon me, I sowed the seeds, I chose the way I wanted my life to roll by choosing to be self-employed and live the life I wanted. I chose to do a lot of work, but I also know I was given a great head start by an educated and supportive support system. I don’t know how I would be coping if I couldn’t answer the questions I posed above with the yes or no they require. Maybe the health care profession is able to weed out people like me realizing that based on my sunny disposition, I am not in need of this postop care I feel is missing. Frankly, if it were offered, I would turn it down because I am good. I have resources. But if this is not happening then this female cancer experience is still a bit in the dark ages if you ask me. Follow up questions are usually, “is there redness, is there swelling, how are you feeling,” but the emotional ramifications of this experience is often left out of the follow up care. What concerns me in the sixty years since my grandmother’s mastectomy is though we are no longer encouraged to move on in silence, the follow up care has such physical issues to deal with and the time restraints in dealing with this part of the equation, we may be overlooking the very significant post traumatic stress that this has the potential to cause.
As I moved through my DAY ONE with the fierceness and bravery I knew I had, my boyfriend, I actually like to refer to him as my pretend husband because boyfriend sounds so juvenile and non committal) kept reminding me that this was only temporary. Sometimes these one liners are the words that keep you moving forward. As the nurses removed the morphine and replaced it with the next drug, as I learned what my body was capable of in just one day, I really knew that this was all about time. The phrase, “Time heals all wounds,” is wondrously simple and spot on. The wounds are physical and emotional and the only thing moving them forward was in fact time. Patience is not one of those words that I connect with, but in my intense need to get lessons from all things, I decided on DAY ONE that patience is my life lesson for sure and I welcome its teachings it has already offered me on a lovely silver platter.
Me today on DAY SIX which hasn’t been written yet.