Friday, July 30, 2010

The Big Step

So as many of you know, last Monday was THE big day. The one I've anticipated throughout this entire journey with a whole range of emotions. A little fear, a little excitement, and a lot of anxiety. Reconstruction Day.

I had planned to write something before Monday about the surgery and my decision to have it. Because it was a crazy, big surgery. Ten hours long. Five days in the hospital. Six weeks of recovery. And some people (*cough*mom*cough*) kind of questioned if I should really put myself through all that. But of course a generation ago women didn't often get the opportunity of putting their bodies back together again. I consider myself very fortunate to have had my plastic surgeon on my team right from the beginning. It has never been a question of whether he would do anything, just what he would do. He has always been respectful of the second-place position of his role to my care. The first concern is always to save my life. His job is to give me my life back - which is never allowed to interfere with the first, but both jobs are way important in my opinion.

I love this quote from PJ Hamel on HealthCentral:
"Outwardly, reconstruction is all about looks–which doesn’t mean it’s all based on vanity. Any guilty thoughts you have about making this decision purely for “vanity’s sake,” get rid of them right now. Reconstruction (or no reconstruction) is really about feeling normal and healthy...It’s about being able to take your life back because you feel good about yourself, both emotionally and physically. It’s about looking in the mirror, and not wanting to look away because you see a wrecked, disfigured body, a body that makes you feel sad and ashamed."

PJ goes on to say that any decision - whether to reconstruct or not reconstruct can be the right one, as long as a decision is made and the patient feels good about it. So I made my decision, with my plastic surgeon's help, to go for a diep-flap, which is considered the gold standard in reconstruction. It is a biggie upfront (as I mentioned) but when you're done, you have all your own tissue - since they take your abdominal tissue to form breast mounds. Sweet, isn't it? The reason for the length of the surgery is that you are both a tissue donor and a tissue recipient. And frankly, what woman doesn't like the idea of donating her belly fat to a good cause?

In the days before the surgery, that ring of fat around my belly started to really bug me. Like a house guest that had worn out its welcome. And those expanders I've been wearing for the last eight months? You know, the ones I refer to "fondly" as my coconuts? Let's just say that my first thought upon waking, every single morning for the last forever, has been "one day closer to getting these out of here."

I'm not sure why I never got around to blogging all this before my surgery - I kept thinking it was because I was too busy getting things organized for me to check out of life for a few weeks. But also, I think I hadn't quite put my thoughts in order - I was having such a pull of emotions.

If my life were made into a movie, the last few weeks could be a cheesy montage of me growing my hair, growing stronger, and getting ready for the re-do. I felt so confident going into the hospital. I knew it was going to be a rough few weeks afterwards, but that after that I would be so grateful I'd done. I joked with the doctor when he drew lines all over my body, told him to make me beautiful. And it would have been a beautiful montage--I could just picture the ending, with me and my smoking hot new body running of into the sunset, my inch-long hair waving in the wind.

But sadly, the music came to a screeching halt Monday afternoon. One o'clock to be precise. I remember because the scene was with the patient in a hospital gurney, struggling to wake up from sedation, and trying to focus on the clock. It looked like it said one o'clock, but that couldn't be right. The surgery wasn't supposed to end until closer to six or seven o'clock at night. The patient (me) called to somebody walking by, "what time is it?" When the answer came back, "one o'clock", I grabbed for my belly, and realized it was still intact.

"What happened?" I croaked. "What went wrong?"

"What makes you think something went wrong?" The poor, naive little nurse-person said. "Everything's fine."

Well, I happen to be known for getting a tad bit emotional when I wake up from anesthesia, even when everything has gone according to plan. And this was NOT according to plan. I'm pretty sure I did my reputation proud.

Another nurse came rushing over to tell me that my doctor was in another surgery, but he would come talk to me when he was done. ANOTHER SURGERY??? My doctor is in ANOTHER surgery? This one was supposed to last all day!!! He CAN'T be in another surgery!!!! The nurse rushed off and returned moments later with the news that she had read my chart, and all she could tell me was that they weren't able to complete the surgery as planned, but that I still had the opportunity to go back another time, and in the meantime they had reinserted my implants.

Did you catch that? Because I did. They had reinserted my coconuts. Just put them right back in. As if that was okay!!! As if I wouldn't mind that they put them back again! As if that was even a possibility!

I'm not sure exactly everything that happened after that. I do remember being extremely unhappy that they not only couldn't produce my surgeon, but they couldn't even provide my husband. Something about rules. And I remember the nurse lady saying, "You do realize don't you, that your body is full of narcotics and that you're not behaving rationally?"

And I remember thinking right about that time that if my incisions were still fresh, maybe I could claw them open myself and take out those stupid coconuts.

That's about the last thing I remember. Apparently they decided I didn't have quite enough narcotics in my system.

The next thing I remember was waking up in another room with my husband sitting sheepishly in the corner. He explained as best he could how the surgeon had tried for hours to make the surgery work, but I had too much scar tissue from my open-heart surgery. The doc had warned me that might be an issue, but there was a back-up plan, which was blood vessels on the side. Turns out mine are unusually small, too small to graph with the bigger ones down in my abdomen. It's a fluke, The surgery almost never fails like that. But as you know, I tend to do fluke. My anger was gone, but I cried piteously.

The nurse in the room gave me this pep talk about how I needed to keep a good attitude. How's it's all in the attitude. I ignored her as best I could. After she left, Rob just sat quietly. He'd had a stinky day. Maybe not as bad as mine, but he could remember it all. And he's been through enough of my waking up from surgery's to know that the best tactic is probably just to stay quiet.

Only problem was, this was now officially my pity-party, and sitting quietly wasn't in my script. I wanted to him to fall all over me telling me how sorry he was. And he was just sitting there.

So I asked him to leave. He didn't even question me, just got up to go.

That wasn't in the script either, so then I asked him where he was going. (Don't you love drugged, disappointed women?)

"You told me to leave."

"Only... because...only because you're being... judgmental."

"Judgmental? I'm not saying anything."

"Exactly. I can see it in your face," I continue, partying hard. "You think I should be strong. You think I'm being a baby."

"I didn't say that. I didn't say anything."


The conversation went on like that for several minutes. I'd write it all out, but then some soap opera writers might just rip me off and use it in an up-coming episode.

I do owe my sweet hubby big time though. Poor guy.

The pity-party continued into the night and most of the next day. I was not a good patient. I am usually the queen of good patients, but I ripped off my leg-squeezers and my oxygen tube. I ignored my breathing exerciser. I even slapped an orderly who tried to take blood pressure on my bad arm in the middle of the night. One nurse did her level best to shake me out of it. Kept holding up a picture of my grandbaby. Telling me I had to keep up the fight. She kept the pep talk going right up to the moment that she loaded me in the car.

But I showed her. Showed 'em all.

They think they can send me home with coconuts and have me smile about it? I don't think so.

Funny thing is, I did know she was right, even while she was talking. It just felt like I would be a failure if I admitted it before I was ready. Now that I'm at the end of the week, most of the pain has gone, and I'm ready to start talking about my other options. I'm still not wild about the coconuts for three more months, but it could be worse. It could be way worse.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sisters in Battle

In the last couple of days I've been introduced to two different women who are related to old friends of mine. Women who are battling this breast cancer beast--not that I've met them personally, just that I've learned their stories.

And while I've heard a lot of moving stories of people touched by cancer, tonight I'm thinking especially of these two. I'm told that once you get the diagnosis, you become part of a pink sisterhood. I'm just starting to appreciate that.

One of the ladies is on her second go-around with the disease, and it's not good. She's resigned herself to the horror of it all and is just happy for the year with her family that she didn't think she'd get.

The other just got the news and is still grappling with how to make sense of the insensible. How to accept the unacceptable. She doesn't know how to tell her children. Or her father. Or how to say goodbye to a part of her body that she really wants to keep.

I look back on my own experience of gradual acceptance, and I want to cry for that woman, for what I know she's going through. I look ahead to what the other has had to accept and pray I'll never walk in her steps.

The best I can do tonight though is to pray for them. For all of us girls in pink.

Monday, July 12, 2010

And the Losses Continue

This week I have learned that the loss of a trust-worthy fifteen-year-old washing machine is not anywhere near as traumatic as the loss of a beloved dog. In fact, the two shouldn't even be compared. BUT when both losses occur in the same short span of time. And when a bunch of other crud (that I don't think I have to re-hash) is going on at the same time, can begin to feel severely picked on.

Especially when there are six people living in the house who all wear something like three outfits every day and all those outfits are piled in great smelly mounds in the laundry room so you pick the first repair person who can make it to the house and spend over a hundred dollars to get the machine fixed only to learn that isn't really fixed and you'll need to spend a couple hundred more to get it fixed right and then you'll end up with a very used machine that cost about the same as a new one and you have to decide whether to pretend you threw that first investment out the window and buy a new one or keep throwing money into the wind to fix the old one and you don't have time to give it a whole lot of thought because people keep poking their head into your room saying in a panicky voice, "No washing machine yet?" And then they laugh at you in that way that means they think you've really lost it this time when you remind them that we have running water and sinks. Whew. It makes for a really stinky day. Or several days, as it turned out.

Don't get me wrong. I haven't lost sight of how truly blessed I am - I have an amazing family, a wonderful husband who has a steady job, we live in a comfortable house surrounded with beautiful trees that sway in the breeze all day, I have wonderful friends who truly care about me, and most of all I get to be alive to enjoy it all.

However, I have also learned this week that it is possible to feel utterly picked on and utterly blessed at the very same time.

By the way, I picked door number two: the new washer. And I love it.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Thing About Support

One of the questions I am asked most often, when one learns I'm battling the Big C, is if I have a good support network. Which seems like an odd question to me. I mean, what would they say if I said no, I ain't got nobody. Would they volunteer to be my friend? That could be scary, volunteering to befriend a person who hasn't managed to make any on their own. Or would they just shake their head and say they're sorry and leave us both feeling awkward? I for one have made a mental note to never ask that question, just to be safe.

Fortunately, I have a great, overwhelming, phenomenal number of people who support me and cheer me on, so I get to say that yes, yes I do. And then they get say that's great, because that's so important.

To be honest, whenever that question comes, before I make that mental image of all those fabulous wonderful examples of support, I always think of the one glaring example of lack of support from someone who should have been close. Funny how that works. The thing you want to put behind you most just sticks around like a big ol' elephant in the room. (And by the way, if you heard the one about how I just made up the cancer for the attention, well...yeah. Sometimes it makes me laugh, sometimes it makes me cry.)

Anyway, after that little rumor comes to mind and I brush it away...again...I then picture all those other faces. Even packed in tight together in my mind they take up more space than that stupid elephant. There are so many that they make me choke up and I can barely say yes to the person asking about my support system.

And today I've been thinking about how I don't thank them nearly enough. By them I mean you.

There's the person who sends me a text every once in a while to see how I'm doing. Or comments on my blog. Or sends me an email. Or calls. The many, many who have brought meals. And treats. Sent cards. Made hand-made happy-thought books. Bought me hats. Stopped by for no reason. Driven my son to school every day. Had him over for play dates. Met me for lunch. Helped clean and organize my house. Listened to me whine. Lied to me about how good I look bald. Hugged me. Cried for me. Cried with me. Prayed for me. Taught your children to pray for me.

See how many there are? How they fill up that space in my brain to the point that it pushes the tears out of my eyeballs?

And if you didn't see yourself in the list that was my fault, because if you're reading this I bet anything you belong there. So thank you for helping to make such a big, wonderful net. I don't know how I could have gotten through without it.