Two days until surgery.
I’m due to see the surgeon today to plan it all. I keep having the thought that I’ll walk into her office and she’ll say “I’m so sorry, Meg. We got your pathology mixed up with someone else’s. You don’t need a mastectomy after all!”
It’s been two weeks since I got the bad news. Invasive aggressive cancer has come back in my left breast in spite of the best that modern medicine has to offer. Hypothesise include radiation resistant breast tissue and dormant DCIS. The treatment should have worked (and please be reassured that it works for the overwhelming majority of people) but in my case something went wrong. Or the cancer is just one of those rare, nasty ones that’s resistant to treatment. Cancer can be like that.
I spent the first week following the news just recovering from the shock. My mind set up camp in the land of denial and disbelief and stayed there, living on hope and grief, until it was ready to return to reality.
I spent last week moving towards acceptance.
Friends and family have lovingly organised visits and distractions. It’s helped, but I feel hollow. Bereft.
I walked around the house with my arms folded, cradling a breast in each hand and trying to imagine what it will feel like to not have them. I pulled the bottom of my jacket straight to simulate a flat chest and looked at my reflection. It will be okay.
I contemplated the irony. Only a few short weeks ago I was worrying about the impact of a second minor surgery on my left breast and whether or not the cosmetic result would be good. That doesn’t matter now.
I went back over my decision. The left breast has got to go but there’s a sense of betraying the right one which, after all, has sat quietly and beautifully on the sidelines through all of this. Should I keep it? It would mean having one nipple. Then I remember that the dense breast tissue is in both breasts. I imagine my body with one large breast and decide I’ll be more comfortable with neither. I’m sure I want a bilateral mastectomy. And then I’m not.
I wanted to make love because next week I won’t have breasts. I didn’t want to make love because next week I won’t have breasts. Too sad.
I thought of my friend with a seriously disabled son and what she deals with every day, and the children in Gaza, and the children in detention camps, and the adults in both of those places and recognised that there are millions of people in the world in worse circumstances than a middle class Australian woman in her 50’s facing a mastectomy. Perspective. It helped a bit.
I looked at my face in the mirror and noticed how one piece of news can transform me from vibrant and healthy to drawn and ageing. I danced with the rising panic and avoided thoughts of staph infections and people dying under anaesthetic.
I made lists.
I have a list of questions to ask the surgeon and a list of things to pack for hospital. I’ve let people know that I’d prefer if they wait until I’m home to visit me. I might be in hospital for anything from three to seven days and I know I’ll be feeling upset and tired. I’ll also have bandages and drainage tubes and all that goes with this type of surgery. When I get home I’m going to be confined to the couch for a few weeks and that’s when I’ll need visitors.
I’ve also asked people not to send me flowers. Flowers are lovely when you’re at home and you can easily change the water and keep them looking nice, but vases of slowly dying flowers in stagnant water are not a cheery sight in a hospital. I’ve asked people to donate money to one of the cancer charities and to send me a card with a copy of the receipt. I’d much rather the money that would have been spent on flowers goes to helping people with cancer.
I worked hard to find a bit of humour, a trace of a smile, a hint of a giggle. I posted this to my Positive3negative Facebook page:
Eleven fun things to do with a size 14F bra:
1. Double barrelled sling shot
2. Make rather disturbing looking puppets
3. Cut the cups out and use them as baby bonnets
4. Hanging planters for strawberries
5. Puppy beds for actual puppies
6. Sew the cups together and turn them into very comfortable possum houses
7. Mushrooming (because mushrooms will eat anything)
8. Tie them together and use as colourful windsocks on boats
9. Use the black ones to make suspicious looking evening bags
10. Join them all together for jaunty, humorous bunting
11. Become an internet sensation by dressing cats in them and posting photos
The best thing about this post was discovering that there are charities that pass bras on to women that can’t afford them. Today I boxed up most of my bras to mail off to them. I cried. I also felt anxious. Looking at the cups of a 14F bra made me realise that I’m about to have a significant portion of my body cut away. My breast tissue extends all the way under my arms. This is not going to be anything like the last two surgeries.
I loved my husband for telling me I would look ‘svelte’ and for saying that he was glad I wasn’t having a reconstruction because my life and my health are the most important things and he wants me to feel well as soon as possible.
I had moments of profound gratitude for the wonderful people in my life and all of the things they’ve done over the last couple of weeks. I had great advice and support from fellow breast cancer survivors. I was grateful for the friends that manufactured opportunities to laugh and forget all about it. I was grateful for the friends that cried and helped me grieve.
I remembered why my husband had told me to stay out of chat rooms and forums. My post about reconstruction was reblogged to the Breast Cancer Network Australia site. Someone commented that she thought having reconstruction was Frankenstein-ish ( with an accompanying apology if she offended anyone) and explained she’d had a double mastectomy following a DCIS diagnosis because she had nursed her mother following breast cancer and her mother never stopped thinking of herself as freakish following a single mastectomy (with an accompanying apology if she offended anyone).
People were offended.
They were probably also offended by my response to her; that while I had avoided words like ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘freak’ for fear of offending anyone that had chosen reconstruction I could certainly relate to having those feeling myself, about my own body, in my darkest times.
While both comments were clearly self referential, some people chose to take them personally and expressed their offence. The woman making the original comment contacted me and admitted that she’d received several nasty private messages, including some that were abusive and threatening.
I spent about an hour apologising to anyone that had taken offence. I tried to explain that nobody had been calling anyone else anything. In my experience, many of us have thoughts about ourselves that use language we would never use to refer to someone else. This woman had been commenting on her own opinion about her own body, and the feelings of her dying mother. I knew there were comments on the reconstruction section of the this site that were far more disparaging regarding reconstruction, but because we were part of the group choosing not to have it we were judged for our negative attitudes.
I resolved to stay away from the site until after surgery. I may not go back there.
For me, part of having a happier life involved recognising my propensity for self bullying. In times past I would have responded to my grief about having my breasts removed by telling myself not to be such a baby; not to be so stupid; to toughen up; to build a bridge and get over it…….
I don’t talk to myself that way anymore. The last two weeks have been and exercise in acceptance. I have let my negative emotions rise to the surface like dead fish. I have recognised the unhelpful thoughts and I have let them float away. I was due to see the wonderful psychologist that recommended this technique and I missed the appointment. I’m very distracted at the moment. This isn’t like me. I’m really sorry I didn’t get to see her before surgery because I know that would have helped.
Yesterday I had a massage with a woman that specialises in treating cancer patients. She helped me to settle back into my own body. To relax. To exhale.
I’ve managed two yoga classes and some meditation, along with a little bit of home yoga. It’s grounding.
I also fretted over the wound from the surgery three weeks ago. The wound looks weepy and infected. I’m seeing the surgeon today. I’m having the whole breast removed on Friday. I don’t suppose it matters all that much.
Worry is not helpful. Let it go.
Today I’ll go and find another front opening nightie, because I don’t think one will be enough. The surgeon is an hour and a half away so Graham and I will get to have another drive down the freeway together. My daughter and her partner are coming home with us and we’re all heading out to dinner. Distraction.
I’m hoping my surgeon clears me to do one last yoga class tomorrow. Then I’ll be heading out for lunch and a walk with a good friend.
Tomorrow night I’ll have liver for dinner to get my iron up and I’ll drink two litres of water before bed so I’m not dehydrated when I have to fast on Friday.
I hold on to this thought. No matter how difficult, horrific, frightening or painful this is, it will pass. The research on happiness shows that around three months after a traumatic even (or having something really great happen) we are just as happy as we were before the event. It’s okay that I’m not feeling very happy at the moment. I am still grateful and hopeful.
This too shall pass.