It's been a very long time since I last wrote in this blog. I have sat down at my keyboard numerous times to write, but nothing came. No words materialized. I want to tell you all about my surgery. I want to tell you about my recovery. I want to tell you everything I've been through and everything that is yet to come. But it's surprisingly hard to find the words to describe the things that break us.
And I am broken.
As anyone who has read this blog knows, I had a double mastectomy with axillary dissection on September 22nd – three and a half weeks ago. I went into the surgery feeling surprisingly strong. Chemo had been physically exhausting, but I was mentally tenacious. I was optimistic about having the worst behind me. Sure, chemo was a pain in the ass, but I was proud of myself for having made it through. Heading into surgery, I felt a tiny bit invincible.
On the day of my surgery, the operating rooms were backed up, so my surgery started two hours late. I didn’t mind too much. I was in no hurry, really. I laid in my bed in pre-op and listened to Ruanita make ridiculous jokes as she paced back and forth. She was much more nervous than I was.
The surgery itself lasted two seconds – at least from my perspective. I remember scootching from my bed onto the operating table. That is the last thing I remember. I woke up in recovery a few hours later wrapped in large gauze pads and an Ace bandage with drains dangling from either side of my chest. I was oriented x3 and almost immediately taken to my room for my overnight stay. I was not in pain. Surprisingly, I felt no pain at all. To the dismay of both the evening nurse and the overnight nurse, I never once asked for my “as needed” pain medicine. Of course, I felt stupidly overconfident. I was convinced surgery was going to be a breeze after what I had been through. I didn’t even need pain meds, after all.
The next day, I went home and the fun began. For two weeks, Ruanita emptied my drains twice a day religiously. She changed my gauze. She ushered the kids away from me. She helped me in and out of the shower. She dressed me. She tucked me into my daughter’s twin bed at night before heading upstairs to sleep in our big queen bed all alone. I could only lay on my back. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t grab another blanket when I got cold. Getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I broke out in a cold sweat. Getting back in bed resulted in tears every time.
The drains became my worst enemy. Sewed into my sides and dangling down to my knees, the drains were in the way at all times. I never realized how much I move my torso on a daily basis. Every tiny move I made pulled on the drains or twisted the drains or bumped the drains. I would cry out in pain and Ruanita would come running.
“Are you okay? What’s wrong?!”
“Nothing,” I would reply. “I’m fine.”
“I’m fine” became my mantra in the weeks following surgery, but it was far from the truth. It’s just easier to say that I am fine than trying to explain how I am anything but. It’s hard to put into words how pain wears on you. How a body can betray you. How you start to wonder if you can ever trust your body again. I lost myself there for a while. It’s something that few understand and that’s nearly impossible to explain.
My chest is not my own. I didn’t think I would miss my breasts. I was never a great fan to begin with. They were always too big. Too in the way. Too…just too much. And I don’t miss them, believe it or not. I was never one of those women who thought my breasts made me. I don’t define myself in that way. So no, I don’t miss my breasts.
But I miss my softness.
My chest is hard. Lumpy. I feel as though I am wearing an iron breast plate all the time. And with every move, it pokes me. It prods at me. When I lay on my side, there is nothing soft about me anymore. When I try to snuggle against Ruanita in the night, it is my hard chest against her hard spine. Bone bumping against bone. No softness. No suppleness. Nothing that I recognize as me.
The surgery is over and done. My incisions are beginning to itch – a sure sign of healing. I had my drains removed a week and a half ago, but I still have a large amount of fluid pooling in my chest. I had an ultrasound aspiration done last Thursday and will likely have another one on Wednesday of this week. My surgeon is talking about putting in a smaller drain on the left until my body is able to absorb the fluid on its own. At this point, I no longer seem to care.
I am cancer free today. My surgeon removed all of the cancer they were able to see with clear margins on all sides. I should celebrate this fact, but I find myself crying instead. Of the 14 lymph nodes removed from my left armpit, 7 were still cancerous. Though not tragic, this was not exactly the result my oncologist was hoping for, so we are going on the offensive. We are choosing to be aggressive in our efforts to keep the cancer from coming back.
Beginning in November, I will undergo 6 weeks of daily radiation treatment. After radiation, the plan is to completely shut down my ovaries – either chemically or surgically (we have yet to decide). My type of cancer needs hormones to grow, so turning off my hormones will, theoretically, stop the growth of any future cancer. I will then receive a medication called Anastrozole and another drug whose name escapes me at the moment for ten years to suppress estrogen and progesterone in my body. I will also be participating in a 5-year clinical trial for a drug called Palbociclib that is currently approved for use with women who have stage 4 breast cancer. The trial is to determine if there are benefits for women with stage 3 breast cancer. The clinical trial will include plenty of additional office visits and lab work. But hey, advancing scientific research is a good thing, right? All of this will take place in the hopes that cancer will never rear its ugly head anywhere near me again.
Long story short, we are nowhere near done. My oncologist told me that, although he considers me cancer-free right now, he will not call me “cured” until I have gone ten years without a recurrence.
Where will I be ten years from now? WHO will I be? When all is said and done, I can’t be the same person I was before. Physically. Mentally. Chemically. Hormonally. I am a different person altogether. I will never again be the woman I was in March of 2016.
And I miss her. Every day I miss her.