Monthly Archives: June 2013

Surgery sucks.

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Except when it saves your life.

But it’s awful in ways having my appendix and gallbladder out 20 years ago weren’t awful. Those surgeries felt like dental procedures in comparison. Of course, there is the thing about being somewhat younger back then. And the thing about once the last stitch is taken out at the two week post-op visit the deal is done. Finito. Fini.

None of that now. I’m already at the two week mark, but listen to me whine. Talk about being blindsided. I went blithely into surgery with my previous experience, expecting more of the same. Oh, maybe I’d use my time off for actual recovery and not plan any camping trips (I mused), but I had no real thought that things would be markedly different. After all, they weren’t even opening a major body cavity. Silly me.

In the be-ribboned world of breast cancer, I’ve won the lottery in several different ways. I don’t need anyone to tell me that. I deeply appreciate having found it in time enough that I’ll likely not be another woman trying to “live” with breast cancer until she can’t any more–often for less than five years.

Because a very experienced and persistent radiologist saw something that could hardly be seen, followed it up in slap-bang fashion with a series of biopsies that proved what he thought was there, leading to an MRI that showed something suspicious in the other breast, the decision to have bilateral mastectomies was a no-brainer. Waste time fishing around on the other side just to prove the “concerning” spot was indeed concerning (and what if it gets missed–the worst of it just micrometers outside the sample, or the real bad spot is just too small to show up…yet?), no thanks.

And because of his persistence and the expertise of his colleagues–the radiologists who nailed the lesions with their fancy x-ray guided biopsies–I get to go ahead with the plan to inflate the tissue expanders that were placed under my chest muscles rather than default to chemo or radiation and let cosmetics be damned. As it turns out, both breasts had cancer, invasive sorts of different types–a veritable smorgasbord of cancers and pre-cancers–but none was in my lymph nodes, nor in the little arteries and veins that course through the breasts, nor near enough to nipple and skin that I’d need those removed as well.

So. Onward. Stiff upper lip and all that.

Waitjustaminute. Not quite yet. I’ve got drains draining and pain paining, and have hit my wall for today. In other words, I am not feeling at all like doing anybody’s happy dance. I’m hoping against hope the appointment come Monday wherein they begin expanding the expanders and (hopefully) pull out these !#%! drain tubes will relieve some of their associated discomfort.

Discomfort. Now there’s a word. The expanders are flat things that resemble the stingray that killed Steve Irwin. The edges are thick, bump into each other through the muscles over my sternum, and slice upward into my armpits. The swelling associated with all this bumping and grinding gives me a bustline like Tarzan’s and the discomfort plays hell with my attitude.

Do you a favor. I won’t even get into the drains.

Until next time. Maybe.

Fear and Its Antidote

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I’m afraid.

It’s 4 am, I’m watching Downton Abbey for the first time, and can’t keep my mind on it.

I’ve looked (yet again) at photos of breasts in various stages of de- and re-construction. I speak to people who know I’m having this surgery and watch their eyes drift to my chest. It’s OK, I’d do the same.

I’ve taken pictures of myself as I stand now, looked at various surgeons’ “outcomes,” hoped for something between myself as I am and something otherwise tolerable, yet know I have no control over any of it.

In the end, the point of this exercise is a lifesaving one. Just as I remind new parents the point of labor is not a “birth experience,” but rather the not-always-simple act of participating in renewed and extended life. Plenty of folks don’t get to enjoy that, whether they’re having a baby or facing illness.

Neil Boyle Limited Edition Bronze

Neil Boyle limited edition bronze. I’d sure rather end up with a version of these more realistic breasts than with the “rocket boobs” featured below.

I’m hoping I do. And I’m distressed to be so very caught up in fear of pain and disfigurement. In fact, I’m surprised at it. Worry about pain and its management, mostly. I wouldn’t have thought it, though I’ve always known myself for, maybe not a coward, but a wuss. Good medical term, that.

My lovely father was an artist without compare. (I can say that–he’s my dad–but it was ever true.) Much of his career and teaching was spent putting the female form on canvas. Later, he experimented with bronze. One of those is shown here and demonstrates his attitude of realism toward the female form.

I was fortunate to be influenced by this man who appreciated women in all their variety. Other than ignoring the piercings in a pregnant model’s nipples, I never saw him “improve” on any woman he painted.

I have a copy of that painting. Its original drew a fair sum in a fundraiser for my midwifery school. A copy hangs in my office at Pearl Place, where I was worried my then-employer’s mother would object, given her career as a missionary. But she never batted an eye, owing no doubt to the simple verity of the woman and the artist who painted her.

I have every hope the surgeons who work on me tomorrow have no less respect for female normalcy than did my dad. I’ve uploaded a couple of photos here. One of my dad’s work; a bronze that sits proudly on my mantlepiece. Dad’s wife was kind enough to make a gift of it to me after his death.

The other piece is by an old friend of his, whose nudes from the 70s feature breasts a lot like those contemporary women choose for augmentation. I’m not too worried I’ll end up with those, but it will be truly frightening if my so-small readership can’t tell which is whose. 

Don’t worry, there won’t be a test.

"Annie Oakley" by Ren Wicks

An example of the “rocket boobs” Ren Wicks was renowned and loved for in “Annie Oakley.”

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It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to…

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So I spent the last two days trying to take a friend’s advice. “Quit feeling sorry for yourself and write something interesting.” He was a little more tactful than that, but I got the message.

I did try, honest. He even gave me a good jumping-off point: my original mission statement for the Situational Midwifery blog–a soapbox about things encountered as a midwife. The things that piss me off about women’s health care. About how nothing has changed much under the sun. How women and their problems are often blamed for, well, women and their problems.

I’ve got half a lifetime’s worth of subject matter, but right now that’s not not exactly what’s rising to the top. Go ahead and look forward to future harangues, but for now they’ll be about my own stuff.

Participation is optional. Nobody is required to read a blog. I haven’t been a professional writer for more than half a lifetime now, so for all I know, it’s crap. Or it’s crap to men, or it’s crap to folks who haven’t faced something similar. I’m ashamed to say I’m one of those. I got so tired of my mother’s crying jags and worries and photos of grotesque surgeries that I was nowhere near as sympathetic as I might have been. At 15 years old. So I understand that point of view, too.

So read on, or not. Part of what I’m learning these days is to stand up for myself. My friend has given me yet another opportunity to do so, even though I’m afraid he’ll take this the wrong way. If I never hear from him again my husband (who loves this guy), will be really pissed. Then I’ve got two problems.

Sh*t.

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I hate having meltdowns. So I had two on Sunday. Sort of because my neck was killing me and Tylenol doesn’t cut it. And the chiropractor wasn’t in (lazy sod).  Retaliated by eating three ice cream bars. That helped. Then I got proactive and watched “Mastectomy and You”–the DVD my surgeon assigned. Like I get brownie points for  writing a book report. Or returning it on time. Like the stupid thing’s gonna help.

Should have been more protective of my mushy mind. Choose one source of information and stick to it, I say to my patients. Do I take my own advice? Noooo. The DVD pics bear little resemblance to the ones the plastic surgeon showed me. Not that they’re so bad, they’re just not so good, either. Hence the meltdown.

I swore I wouldn’t cry. Years ago Mom cried enough for both of us, wasting months wailing about which lifesaving procedure would, in fact, save her life. That she had months to waste should have been a clue. Her diagnosis was DCIS–now considered a high-risk precursor, but not cancer itself. Eligible for lumpectomy. In the 70s they didn’t know that and didn’t seriously offer anything other than modified or radical mastectomy. Didn’t offer reconstruction, much, either. If they did, it wasn’t until years after treatment, once survival was pretty much guaranteed. The fear was that reconstructed tissue and thick scarring might make a deep recurrence nearly impossible to see. Misogyny and concern rolled into a tight little bundle. And utterly believable as far as my mom was concerned. Lop off her breasts and replace them with something that could moot the whole point? No thanks.

Lord knows things have changed, and I’m grateful for it. Scoop out the offending bits and deal with the rest later. Unseen recurrence? Not likely. Leave the hospital with something that hurts, but pokes out instead of in? Priceless.

Mom and I were different in lots of ways. I guess every one of us is. After seeing those godawful mastectomy scars every day after my 15th year, the decision was made loooong before I was ever diagnosed. My best friend got leukemia. Possibly an infinitely worse diagnosis than mine. Ended up with stem cells, a stroke and a bald head. She rocked that look. Mom and her concave chest? Not so much. My aunt (her younger sister) didn’t even want to try it. Diagnosed two different times, she was stuck with two different reconstructions because silicone wasn’t on offer the first time. Her words to me? “Just do it.” No matter what the technique, just do it.

And her advice, I’ll take.