I can highly recommend going on vacation just before a surgery. Just four days after returning from one of the most relaxing weeks ever, I did just that. Of course, I felt a tad stupid going in for cancer surgery with a serious tan….but I really did inherit my father’s dark complexion….and I do tan very easily….excuses, excuses. My mother and Heather showed up at my door at 8:30am on Friday, 7th July and I certainly appreciated the civility of the time that I had to show up despite the fact that I was starving and oh so thirsty especially as it was about a gazillion degrees that day. Chin up, buttercup. Time to get this tumor out.
It’s quite the rollercoaster getting diagnosed with cancer although I’ve now definitely got used to the idea and quickly realized that it wasn’t necessarily a death sentence. I’ve heard from so many people with similar, very encouraging stories, with great outcomes. I’ve also noticed that on my Facebook newsfeed, I’m inundated now with cancer center ads and articles about the subject. There’s so much research and new findings that you can’t help but question how you should be treating it. There’s talk of freezing out tumors like mine, or even leaving them alone. When I was in my serious 48 hour period of perhaps believing I should go a more holistic route, I was snapped out of it by sister-in-law Heather who said “get it out and treat it conventionally and THEN start your plant-based diet and more healthy lifestyle”. My longtime best friend Alex, a doctor in England, agreed. As did a Surgeon friend of my brother’s who has also had breast cancer. I think it’s healthy to question it all and there are doubtless many merits to all of it. I just decided to go ahead with convention and then sharpen up my lifestyle big time.
We arrived at the Surgery Center at Johnston Willis, early. There’s a nice big airy waiting room where the seating is arranged in groupings so that families and friends can wait comfortably. My mother and Heather settled in at a table by a big window, equipped with iPads and magazines, ready for a several hours-long wait. They have a shared love/addiction/fascination with The Daily Mail app (oops, they may kill me for revealing that…) so I hoped there would be plenty of celebrity gossip to keep them entertained! A nice tea/coffee volunteer came by, saw my wristband and lamented the fact that she couldn’t serve me. I would have given anything for a nice cuppa….but I was soon called back by a very nice nurse and my vitals were taken. I had come in two days beforehand for pre-admission testing so didn’t need much done initially.
My next stop was the Nuclear Medicine department….yikes, that sounds really intimidating, doesn’t it? I was accompanied there by a hospital volunteer who was a delightful retired elementary school teacher. I asked her why she did this and she told me that she had spent 18 months at home after retiring before deciding to volunteer, and had now been doing so for 6 years. She enjoys helping out and meeting people. I’ve always been a little fascinated by hospital volunteers and think it’s pretty darn awesome that people choose to do it. There’s something quite charming and calming about being taken care of by someone who has chosen to be there rather than being paid to be there. The waiting room in this particular department was small and overseen by another volunteer who fascinated me. He sat at his little desk with his Reader’s Digest in the corner, but meticulously dealt with and organized my file. I couldn’t help but wonder what he did as a career and wished I had asked him. When the tea and coffee volunteer lady came by, I could swear that she was flirting with him. Love it. My companions in this very small waiting room consisted of a man who looked like he had just stepped out of Margaritaville, obviously waiting for his wife, but passing the time talking to another patient about fishing. On my row, there was a man whose skin was yellow and when called back, it was agonizing to watch him try and get up and shuffle back there. Right next to me, was a man with such a pronounced stoop who was taking a snooze while holding on to his wife’s wheelchair, who was also doubled over. They both had to be in their late eighties or nineties. While they both looked like they could be patients, she was the one on this day and despite being faced away from him she instinctively knew he was asleep. “Jimmy, stay awake until I’m done, please”, he immediately stirred and responded “yes, yes, of course I will”. For the few minutes that I was there, I couldn’t help but feel completely humbled by them. They were once young, healthy, vibrant people but yet in their latter and clearly toughest health years, remain utterly devoted to one another. I hope that doesn’t sound condescending, I truly find it heartening. When it was time for me to be called back, I was there for just minutes. The first of many needles that day was poked into me, this one injecting blue dye into the side of my breast. Ouch.
I had to find Mammography myself, it wasn’t difficult and it was kind of nice to have a bit of freedom and a walk for a few minutes. I was ushered straight in and given one of the lovely soft gowns to change into and then waited my turn. I was distinct in the fact that I had no make-up on, everyone else was there for a regular Mammogram, just as I had been just a few short weeks ago. An HGTV program was on the TV, about a couple trying to decide on their second home in the Caribbean. My heart bleeds…. they had a budget of $650,000. I both reveled in the fantasy and abhorred the first world problems of a pool feeling a “little crowded by the walls around it”, while sitting waiting to deal with this annoying disease.
They warned me it wouldn’t exactly be pleasant. But it wasn’t as bad as the original biopsy. This time they injected a metal wire into my breast, down to the tumor which already had a marker from the biopsy. They tried to do it from the side, but it just wasn’t working. My tumor was really deep and far back. So they went from above, I should also mention that my boob was squished into that bloody contraption again. “Wow, what a great patient you are”, said the Radiologist. “Yes, she’s great” said the technicians. “Definitely wouldn’t have found this without a Mammogram, would I?” I replied. “It would have taken a few years before it was big enough to feel, most likely”, they responded. I did see the original Nurse Navigator in the distance at one point who gave me a thumbs up and asked if I was ready to get it done. “YESSS….I am”!!!
With the wire finally inserted, my transportation changed to a wheelchair with warm towels and a trip to my pre-surgery room. The anesthesiologist met with me and then a series of three nurses attempted to insert the IV needle in me. I think this was the most stressful part of the day. As someone who takes blood thinners all the time, and who has had three DVTs, I take my blood management seriously! The first attempt resulted in hitting a valve, the second, something that caused blood to spurt all over the floor (sorry!) and then a warning to my posse, at this point, Cherry, Heather and Cindy, that if anyone was going to faint, we didn’t need any trips to the Neurology Department today…. The third nurse was the winner and finally I was ready.
During all of this, we were informed that Dr. Cox was running late, luckily enough, at which point Cindy started to worry that she wouldn’t have had time to eat lunch which wasn’t good if she was going to perform surgery! When Dr. Cox arrived at around 1:00, Cindy, never one to hold back, asked if she had eaten lunch because it was important to do so before operating on me. “Um, I had breakfast?” she responded. Cindy replied, “Well I have a granola bar in my purse if you need a snack”. I love me some Cindy. Dr. Cox explained what was going to happen and put us at ease, then told us she was going to get changed and get started, gesturing to Cindy that she would eat something too.
When the anesthesia nurse arrived, we joked that a glass of wine would do, and she let me know that she was about to give me a double pour of a top shelf Cabernet that I would feel instantly. A quick farewell to my posse was followed by my feeling the hit before I had even fully been wheeled out of the room. “Whoa!!!!” I loudly exclaimed. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel awesome. I remember reaching the operating theater and moving onto the table and that’s it.
I came to, in the recovery area, drugged up to the nines. It was 3:10 and I was so thirsty. Thankfully I was eventually offered a ginger ale which tasted like the best drink ever. When I was considered stable, and after having taken up the offer of the remaining pain medication in the syringe, I was moved to outpatient recovery where my mother and Heather were able to come and see me. Dr. Cox had visited with them right after surgery and declared it a great success, that she had only had to make one incision to get the tumor AND a couple of lymph nodes and that the nodes had absorbed so much dye that it was looking like cancer was unlikely to be in them. Fingers crossed!
Armed with pain meds, I was discharged and wheeled out to the car, just as loopy as I could be, and starving. They had a leftover cookie from the delicious lunch that Cindy had kindly toted to them, and I devoured it. We were home by 5:00 and I sat on my porch immediately. Cheese and fruit were produced, friends arrived and I sipped on chilled water in a wine glass while everyone else enjoyed stronger libations.
The following couple of days were a bit of a blur, part of my boob was electric blue, as was my pee which was both alarming and amusing! I took the pain meds and rested but really made an effort to walk around the circle to get my blood circulating, accompanied by a string of lovely friends. It’s amazing how walking one circle can seem like the biggest challenge….but check out the sights….the huge crepe myrtles are in bloom and are just lovely.
And who couldn’t be cheered up by a visit from the cutest twins around??!
Wanting to spare my own boys seeing me groggy and incoherent, they went and spent the surgery day and subsequent weekend with Steve, although I was thrilled to have a visit from them all on Sunday as I know they were anxious to see for themselves that I was fine.
For some reason I had googled “recovery time from a lumpectomy” at some point and read about a woman who went grocery shopping straight after hers and I stupidly stuck that in my head. Guess what? It takes a couple of days just to get over anesthesia. Then you really have to be off pain meds for a couple of days too. My recovery was rudely interrupted at about day 3 with the worst case of sciatica I’ve ever had. I imagine it must have been from the twisting and overcompensating I had been doing with the other side of my body. It hurt like hell and suddenly my incision seemed like nothing. I graduated to Oxycodone which thankfully I only needed for a couple of days. I will also be eternally grateful for the arrival of Silvia, one of my yoga teacher friends who rescued me by showing me some great pain alleviating poses. In fact I think she’s checked up on me on a daily basis. I remember one morning her sitting on my bed getting teary-eyed, talking about how hard this must be to go through alone. Agreed. I may not have a spouse at home anymore but I’ve got an army of support that can deploy within minutes!
So how do I feel now? Extraordinarily lucky to be surrounded by so many of the best kind of people you can imagine. Happy to have got through this big first step. Suddenly intimidated by the likely 33 days of radiation that seemed like nothing at diagnosis. But, also revitalized by my newly adopted “mostly” plant based diet. Ready to get this over with. Ready to pre-order the new Lonely Planet Morocco Guide available on Amazon on August 15th. Ready to practice yoga again. Ready to be able to lift more than 10lbs. Ready to go back to the Y. Ready to be something other than a cancer patient.
To end this on a funny note, I have to report that I was happy to discover that my 3 inch incision was thankfully under my arm, or so I thought….take my bra off and it’s a wee bit lower than that. Darn gravity. I’ll spare you the photographic evidence.