I was rocked by the news that I needed another surgery. Even though the doctor had told me that 20 – 30% of women require a second lumpectomy and a friend had shared her experience of having two lumpectomies I never thought it would be me.
I had 2 lumpectomy surgeries in 8 days.
I wasn’t dragging this out. All of my appointments the week after my first surgery were tentative anyway so I moved them to the next week and tried not to worry about how I was going to pay the bills.
My second surgery was scheduled for the following Monday. That meant I would have surgery two Mondays in a row.
I was really starting to dislike Mondays.
I woke up from my first surgery wearing what they call a binder. Think white tube top with a wide Velcro strip down the front to hold it together. When I first saw it I had a flashback to my teenage years when tube tops were popular and I was thinner.
When I found out that I needed a second surgery I still hadn’t seen anything but the bandage over the surgery site. There was gauze over the incision and a clear waterproof bandage covering a large portion of my breast. I had tugged opened the Velcro to look at my breast when I got home but it hurt without the binder so I tightened it back up and left it alone.
I only took the binder off to shower and after a couple of showers the waterproof bandage started to peel around the edges. Even though my breast was still swollen and tender I began to gently pick at the edges of the clear bandage to see if I could get it off. The more I pulled at the bandage the more my hands shook.
I was scared of what I would see under that bandage.
The clear peeled away easier than I expected and the gauze suddenly fell away from the surgery site. I gasped and stared at what I saw in the mirror.
Once I got over the initial shock I could appreciate the skill of what my surgeon had done. The incision followed the very edge of my areola on the side closest to my arm and 9 steri-strips radiated inward, terminating at my nipple. I smiled faintly as I saw the similarity to a flower in the steri-strip pattern.
My left breast looked like an art project gone wrong.
There was a blue line around my areola where the surgeon had drawn on me to mark her cut, a faint outline of the yes she had written on me before surgery, a half daisy pattern of steri-strips, two holes from the guidewires and multicolored bruises on either side.
And it hurt.
After a few minutes I began to breathe deeper and remind myself be present. I know I can handle this. I look at my breast again in the mirror and start to appreciate the complexity and precision of what my surgeon had done.
My fascination with how the body works took over and I headed out of the bathroom. Over the next few days I kept my husband and my girlfriends up to date on the breast art project. It was like being a teenager again…just ask and I’d pull up my shirt and show you.
Each day I got a little healthier and a little closer to another surgery.
From a physical standpoint I felt like it was better to schedule the second surgery quickly. I want my body to have the best possible healing so I consider things like scar tissue, anesthesia, stress and the fact that I want to get it over with.
My second surgery was scheduled for 1:45 in the afternoon. That sucked. I couldn’t have anything to eat or drink after 3:45am so I set my alarm for 3:30am, got up and drank a crazy amount of water. I didn’t want to be dehydrated when the nurse went looking for a vein the next day.
I was scheduled to coach a client on the phone that morning and I was so grateful for that appointment. We worked well together on that call and the hour flew by too quickly.
Again I had to focus on me.
My family was thoughtful and wouldn’t eat in front of me. I looked at the clock way too many times and tried to keep busy. The car ride to the surgical center was quiet and the walk into the building had an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu.
The woman at the registration desk said I looked familiar. I told her that she had checked me in last Monday for the same surgery. She said something intended to comfort me and wrapped another stylish white plastic bracelet around my arm.
I sat nervously waiting for the nurse to call my name. A shiver jolted me and my husband reached over to hold my hand. I felt my emotions starting to take off and I drew in a deep breath. At least this time I knew what to expect.
A nurse came through the door and called my name. She checked my bracelet to make sure it was me and told my family she would come and get them once she got me ready. They hugged me as tight as possible and reminded me that everything was going to be okay. I gathered up my courage and followed the nurse back through the door.
Again I hit the jackpot when it came to nurses. She was very kind and shared my feelings of injustice at having to come back for a second surgery. My vitals were good and nothing had changed since last week.
I was close enough to the computer to see my information on the screen. I was watching her put in my blood pressure numbers when I noticed a little red check toward the bottom of the page. It was the only red on the page and it was right beside the word cancer. I felt my eyes well up.
Before I knew it the idle conversation between the nurse and I had turned to my work as an herbalist. The more she heard about my training and the Peaceful Spirit Enrichment Center the livelier our conversation got. She was interested in herbs and shared with me that she had ordered some Arnica oil for the pain she was having from a recent tooth extraction. I shared my thoughts of some other herbs that she should use with it; she pulled out a pen and started writing down their names.
Another nurse came by and asked if she needed any help. She replied no but excitedly told that nurse about my herbal background. Her eyes widen and she asks if I teach any classes. Why yes as a matter of fact I do. She gets called away but promises to come back.
Talking about herbs kept me from caring about the needle she stuck in my hand for an iv or the hairnet and socks that meant another trip to the operating room. The second nurse comes back into the room and shares how she met Rosemary Gladstar at an event in Maine. By the time my family comes back to join me in preop my room is filled with women and we are sharing stories about plants.
My surgery is scheduled for late in the day and the doctor is running late. She is surprised that the room is so full and a little smile touches her face when she feels the lightness in the room. Again she whips out that sharpie and writes yes on my chest. I tease her about how long it takes to get that shit off.
The doctor says this will be a short procedure and because it is so late in the day not to expect any pathology report until Thursday. She will call me when she gets it. Both nurses come by to see me before they take me to the OR, one to say bye because her shift is over and the other to tell me she will be waiting for me in recovery. Oh yeah…I almost forgot why I was here.
As they roll me down the hall I have that déjà vu feeling again.
I wake up much better this time and don’t have the violent shakes. True to her word my nurse friend is there and helps me make a smooth transition back. A little apple juice and some help getting dressed gets me out the door in no time.
I already know how to stack the pillows and gently place ice on my breast so I can quickly start down the road to recovery. I eat something light and go to bed early. I have to get up during the night to take some pain medication but the leftover anesthesia helps me fall back asleep easily.
I remember how Tuesday is going to go. Regular pain meds and lots of naps. I keep the ice close by and tell myself that I am already getting better faster than last time.
I was startled awake by the phone ringing just before 4:00pm and was puzzled when the caller id showed the name of my surgeon. My husband handed me the phone and I answered it.
As soon as she started talking I knew this was too much for me. I fumbled with the phone trying to put it on speaker so we could all listen at the same time. She wasn’t supposed to call until Thursday and my medicated brain was trying desperately to understand what she was saying.
She told us that the pathologist had called her already. Not only did we still not have clear margins but there was also evidence of a micro invasion.
The cancer is trying to spread.
I will need a 3rd surgery and this time they will have to take a lymph node out.
It feels like all the air has been sucked out of the room. I struggle to breathe as she tells me I may want to consider a mastectomy. I’m shaking so hard I drop the phone.
I listen silently as she tells me about the test results. Her words are hard to hear over the voice in my head screaming “No, this isn’t fair”!
I tried to catch everything she said but at the same time I desperately wanted to hang up the phone and pretend it hadn’t happened. Finally she tells me to keep my appointment with her the following week and says goodbye.
I slump to my knees and cry uncontrollably. A deep heart wrenching cry that makes my whole body shake. I cross my arms over my chest as wave after wave of emotion crashes over me.
When my awareness returns to the room I can feel arms wrapped tightly around me, holding me in the floor while I cry. I look up and see two faces filled with the most compassion and love that can flow between beings. And I see their tears.
It reminds me that I’m not in this alone.