Call it a strength or a weakness, but because of its very nature, this blog is inconsistent.
It is here so that I may record what the world looks like through my cancer lens. In the first year, pretty much everything I saw, felt and did had cancer at its core. In the second year, I slowly edged back towards a fragile sort of normality. And now at the start of my third year since my diagnosis, I can honestly say that I have gone whole weeks without feeling like I’m viewing the world through the eyes of someone who had, or still has, cancer.
I say this as a means for accounting for my long silence. It’s been a happy, busy, eventful silence. I think in this blog’s case, the silences are the periods I should be aiming for.
Right now, the thing that keeps me coming back here is my breasts. Or lack thereof, really.
When we last spoke, my surgeon had dropped the bombshell that he didn’t think that much could be done to rebuild my breasts. What was left was just bone and scar tissue. And we were trying to treat it with injections of fat to build it up and reconnect it to my blood supply as best we could, but we thought my skin was stretched too thin to allow real breasts to become a possibility.
Because I remain a staunch believer that everything is a process and that nothing is finite, I kept on going with the fat grafting.
Along the way, I had a nasty incident where my body rejected that grafted fat and I wound up on a new surgeon’s operating table just before Christmas. It sounds bad, but it was good really, because Dr Hyphenated (my name for him, not his) looked upon me with fresh eyes and told me not to give up. He is my “second opinion guy” and long may he remain so. He is a very good man.
And then in January something nice happened. The fat settled and my flesh turned from thin pale purplish grey to soft warm pink and my first surgeon Dr M looked again and said maybe we can slip a small implant in and that takes us up to pretty much now.
We’ve done it and they’re in – two smallish implants that are so far looking grand. They are much the same size as my breasts were to begin with, although more gravity-defying of course.
I am sending all the love that I can muster their way. Telling my body to nourish and accept them. It will be another two or three months before I can give a sigh of relief and say girls, you’ve survived so for the meantime I’m just trying to be good.
Take my antibiotics. Wear my hideous oversized compression bra. Don’t lift heavy things. Send love.
The last one is my own initiative, but I stand by it. Apparently if you think healing thoughts about a body part, you actually send more blood supply in that direction. Someone’s scientifically shown that. So that’s good enough for me.
Which takes me to today’s metaphor. It’s about sending love.
I know a whole lot of you have been waiting for the big wedding post. March 15 was the day. And it was pretty much perfect.
Coming up to the wedding I kept wondering what I should say. And I kept coming back to the same thought. That there are really only two times in life that all the people you love most are around you.
The other one? It’s your funeral.
In the end I couldn’t say much, I was too overwhelmed. But basically what I said and meant was that every single person who attended our wedding was now family.
I felt like, just as I am now concentrating all my love on two teardrop-shaped lumps of silicon resting under my pectoral muscle in my chest, for one beautiful evening the love of 120 people was concentrated on Charlie and I.
It was the best therapy and treatment I could ever have.
I love you all more than words can ever describe.
These incredibly gorgeous photos were taken by the extremely talented Brent Winstone who attended as a guest and could not have captured these candid and emotional moments more perfectly.
It’s been so long since I wrote that people have been asking me if I’m all done.
I’ve been telling people that my silence has been caused by the perfect storm of work, surgeries every 5-6 weeks, and trying to arrange a renovation and a wedding at the same time.
But the truth? The reconstruction process has actually been a bit heartbreaking. And I actually didn’t feel like blogging about it.
I’m now in for round three of the fat grafting process. Round three? I told myself there wouldn’t be a round three. But then, I also told myself that I’d have great (fake) breasts at the end of it.
There have been a lot of lies floating around.
After round two, I went to see my surgeon. The plan: to say right, Sir. We are done with fat grafting. Give me my implants pronto because I want nice breasts for the wedding next March.
And his response. Sort of squirmy. Awkward.
Something along the lines of your scarring is worse than we thought. Your chest wall skin is stretched too thin to accommodate breast implants. But the good news? The “experimental” fat grafting seems to be going well and we’re confident that you can get a good A cup out of it.
Fricking A cup? A CUP???
I’ve been through this many surgeries and this much treatment and this much bullsh*t and you’re offering me an A CUP?
It was all I could do not to collapse in a blubbering heap on the surgeon’s floor.
I know I should feel lucky just to be here at all, but bloody hell, I promised myself breasts. Good breasts.
The little girl inside of me had her red balloon, her teddy bear and her lollipop wrenched off her all at once. My bottom lip quivered for two days.
An A CUP!!!
But then I did what I always do, and rationalised. And compromised. And I bought myself my first ever WonderBra (A cup!) so that maybe, just maybe after round 3 I could take my crappo little A cups and squeeze them into some pubescent notion of cleavage?
So far, by the way, I’m not filling the A cup. I’m aspiring to the A cup.
And my fake foam breasts still fool everyone into thinking everything’s OK. And now they are the carriers of false hope. When I wear them it’s like they’re mocking me. They’re saying like them? These are the fake breasts you can only dream of!
And then you know what else has been happening? Pink Fricking October. Pinktober. Shudder.
I’m here to tell you that the breast cancer community (or at least the ones I know) don’t bloody like Pinktober.
It’s not that we’re not pro fundraising or awareness. No, no. What pisses us off is that Pinktober is the month of platitudes. Where big corporates donate peanuts to a charity, turn a product pink, some idiot buys the product and everyone feels like they’re somehow saving the world. (I can see my advertising brethren backing away from me right now saying that’s our clients you’re panning. Keep your voice down, angry lady. Sorry, but it’s true. You’re helping the economy, yes. But curing breast cancer? Doubtful).
Or, worse. Some idiot decides to create some Facebook meme where women write something cryptic on their wall… Like where they put their handbag… And it’s meant to be some “all us chicks are in this together and those silly boys just don’t get it”… And I guess maybe they think some donation fairy somewhere flicks a few bucks into a research charity? Maybe?
GAAAAHHH!!! There is no donation fairy!!!
Sorry. Control the righteous indignation. Control it.
But guess what? There’s an even dumber event on the calendar. Ladies, meet No Bra Day.
Yep, you guessed it. You can forego the bra in celebration of your fabulous titties and again, that magical donation fairy will flap her shiny wings and breast cancer is cured!!!
So I’m here to tell you, oh pack of loose titted geniuses, that your no-titted post mastectomy brethren are plotting to hurt you.
Get a clue, brainiacs. Flapping your perfect love bags in our faces is not making us feel loved, or supported. It’s just rubbing in our faces what we don’t even have.
Wow, I feel so much better. This blog is way cheaper than therapy!
So, yeah, that’s where I’m at. I’m sitting in a day surgery waiting room during Pinktober dreaming of my new A cups. Someone will knock me out cold any minute now (and charge me $800 for the privilege) and maybe, just maybe, I might look a little less like a ten year old boy when I wake.
Wish me luck. And boobs.
P.S. Why the photo? These are a few of my favourite things right now. A mighty fine little skull-shaped bottle of tequila and a little Day of the Dead bride and groom, lovingly bought for me by the wonderful Mark and Kara in Santa Fe. I thought they might cut through the grumpiness of this post a little!
I’ve always liked a bruise. They are the daytime soap opera drama queens of the injury family.
All flamboyant colours, spectacular visual representations of pain but very little actual substance. The kind of injuries you can proudly show off to a friend without them gagging in disgust, and boast of the “dangerous” situation by which you acquired it, all while sipping a latte and reading the paper.
Well, my friends, this bruise is not one of those bruises. And this is a G-rated photo of said bruise. If you want the full bruise experience, you need to ask me sweetly to show you a picture of my swollen naked arse and bloated purple thigh (or you could forego the photo and ask to see the real thing, I’m usually happy to oblige). And yes, I am wearing bike pants. Doctor’s orders. Ho ho ho.
OK, Niccola, what gives? Aren’t your medical mishaps normally in the breast department?
Why yes, kind reader, they are! Let me get you up to speed, because you haven’t heard from me for a while. These last three months have been a sequence of blues, and blacks, and purples and yellows. Firstly in the stomach department, courtesy of an injection called Zoladex. Zoladex is a friendly little syringe roughly the size of an elephant gun who gets hammered in to my gut monthly and leaves me in a permanent state of menopause with a bruise that looks like I’ve been assaulted with a rock melon. Nice guy, huh? Bastard.
I thought Zoladex was the baddie in my life, but that was before I experienced liposuction. Liposuction? I know, what is this, an episode of Real Housewives of …? Actually, I like to call it Real Housewives of BC.
Yes, liposuction. The first stage of my breast reconstruction involves what the surgeons delicately label “scar revision”. A so-called “minor procedure” that involves sucking the fat out of my thigh and injecting it in to the cavities formerly occupied by my breasts. “Minor procedure” my swollen purple arse!!!
My breasts are actually faring the best throughout all of this. They are sitting peacefully on my chest with minor, quite subdued bruising, neither concave or convex, not causing anyone any problems.
But my left thigh has swollen to twice its normal size and turned a deep, royal purple. And this is not one of these latte-sipping drama queen bruises. This is a hugely painful affair that means I groan every time I stand or sit (on one buttock only) and hobble around the house in my two pairs of bike shorts.
Minor procedure??? I’d hate to experience what a major procedure is like if this is considered minor. This hurts worse than the bilateral mastectomy. Cellulitis aka The Elephant still wins the pain game but this comes a close second.
Ladies, think twice before you nip down to your local hospital to get a bit of fat sucked out of your thighs. I like my fat. I miss my fat. Cosmetic surgery is so barbaric. I can’t imagine how or why people would elect to go down this path. It’a messed up world where people are starving on one continent while adults are getting their fat sucked out on another… Go to the gym if you don’t like your fat! Or love yourself the way you are! Grump grump grump. My butt hurts.
What else can I tell you? My beautiful puppy has also been under the knife, and has had a terrible surgical run of it as well. Like dog like owner. Bizarre.
She also has a messy looking thigh.
We’re a good pair, hobbling around the house together. But the important thing is, she’s home, as am I. We might look a bit messy but we’re A-OK and happy to have each other.
The best thing about bruises is that they come and go. In a week or two they’re a distant memory. They’re not like scars, things that stay with you, a haunting reminder of what’s been. In another few days, I’ll shed my daggy bike pants and return to the real world as though nothing bad ever befell me. And hopefully this bruise leaves a good legacy, a formerly scarred pair of breasts that are ever so slightly closer to being new again.
Is it old news to do a post responding to Angelina’s brave announcement last week?
You can imagine how many people have asked me my thoughts on this. I appreciate your interest, and I think it’s great how much dialogue Angelina’s words have sparked. I could have done without the narrow-minded, withering and smarmy responses to Angelina’s announcement that popped up periodically on Facebook, but then, the haters will always hate, won’t they?
So what do I think?
That Angelina is a brave and strong woman, and that she deserves our respect. Bringing this complicated subject in to the public eye can only be a good thing.
(There’s always a but…).
What worries me, coming at this from the less fortunate side of the bilateral mastectomy debate, is that a good news story like this can over-simplify the subject matter a little.
Just in case you’ve only recently started reading my blog, a quick refresher on my experiences thus far.
Last June, after a woefully slow diagnosis process, I was found to have an invasive ductal carcinoma underneath my right nipple. It was roughly the size of a twenty-cent coin (that’s a bit bigger than a quarter, my USA friends…). At my doctor’s advice, I underwent genetic testing, and found that I carried the BRCA2 gene mutation.
After some consideration, I decided to undergo a bilateral mastectomy – prophylactic on my left, removing the cancer on my right. I had no choice but to lose my nipples – one was already affected by the cancer, and from my perspective, any remaining breast tissue wasn’t worth the risk. I didn’t have enough spare tissue (eg a tubby tummy) for a natural tissue reconstruction, so I had the first stage of my breast reconstruction along with my initial surgery, just as Angelina did.
In the weeks following the surgery, I was really quite happy with the aesthetic result. Sure, I didn’t have nipples, but I did have rapidly expanding breasts, which was good fun. They were also gravity defying. Bonus.
Unfortunately, there were also tiny amounts of cancer found in my right lymph node. This meant that I had to start chemo before my final reconstructive surgery (the point where the expanders are replaced by silicon implants). I was assured that it was fine to keep the expanders in for the six months or so of chemo.
Sadly, it was not the case. My left breast developed a bad infection. It took months before it was correctly diagnosed as cellulitis (the bug responsible was called Pseudomonis) and by that point, the infection had also spread across my chest wall to my right breast. I was in terrible pain, and it took three additional surgeries, three week-long hospital stays, and five weeks of IV antibiotics (and the end of chemo) before the infection was finally banished.
The day they removed my left implant was absolutely heart-breaking. Ditto the day they removed my right implant. For months following I couldn’t look at my naked body in the mirror. I couldn’t bear to see the long ragged scars, the loose flab where my beautiful breasts used to be.
It’s still really hard. While I’ve now grown accustomed to my breast-less torso, at certain moments I’m suddenly abruptly reminded of how different I am from other women. I’m too scared to get a massage or a spa treatment because I don’t want to have to explain why I have no breasts. At the gym and the swimming pool, I now get changed in a toilet cubicle because I don’t want myself or anyone else feeling uncomfortable or awkward. For months I even tried hiding my scars from my own partner. It’s still many months before I can start again and embark on two more major surgeries to hopefully get my breasts back.
But what does this have to do with Angelina?
What she’s proposing avoids most of this nastiness. By having the bilateral mastectomy preventatively, you can usually keep the nipples. They go a good way towards hiding the nasty scars. And being healthy throughout the reconstruction (rather than immune suppressed while undergoing chemo) means that the chance of infection is very small.
Here’s the interesting part. When I was debating the bilateral mastectomy, I was debating it on largely aesthetic grounds. It’s human nature to view it that way. But the thing is that having a bilateral mastectomy has a much, much deeper impact than purely aesthetic.
Let’s not beat around the bush here. Mastectomy is a pretty word for what is actually an amputation. Along with the breast tissue that is scraped out from the chest area go the nerves as well.
Over the months, the nerve endings try to repair themselves. A lack of sensation turns to strange dull pins-and-needles. Sometimes it feels like two phantom breasts are hanging off my chest. The lack of sensation extends right around to the start of my back, which feels quite painful to the touch.
It’s easy to say so what, you don’t need breasts. But actually, psychologically, I say you do. Without going into gory detail, breasts form an important part of a woman’s sexual physiology. It’s in this context that I miss them the most. I actually feel like less of a woman without them.
Will having fake, reconstructed breasts help reduce this? Maybe. But it won’t bring the sensation back. Those new breasts will never be completely part of me.
Looking back on those difficult days leading up to my mastectomy, I wish that someone had told me to really feel how it was to have breasts, and to remember that feeling. But everyone was too busy telling me how great my new breasts would look.
Right now, with my ravaged flat chest, do I most want the appearance of my breasts to return? No. I want the sensation to return. I want my chest to feel like it belongs to me again. I would be interested to know whether in six months time, Angelina feels the same way.
I’m not saying bilateral mastectomies are a bad thing. They’re a life saver. And I commend any woman with the strength to go through with it, particularly prophylactically.
But I just want the dialogue to go deeper than it was three months of discomfort but then I popped out the other end with great breasts – the end.
It’s just not that simple.
And we’re doing women a disservice if we make it out to be that simple.
This is my honest opinion. Please respect it for what it is – an opinion. I don’t know if my experience is typical, good, bad, middling, but it’s worth sharing. I hope it may prove of assistance to someone making what is possibly the hardest decision of a lifetime.
All my love, as always.
Postscript: As per always, Scorchy has posted some incredibly insightful comments on this topic. Definitely worth a read.
Nobody thought to tell Saskia that I also owned an elephant. The poor hound didn’t expect to be sharing a bedroom with a creature that wanders muttering around the house at night, keeping a drug diary and microwaving heat packs at 4:20am.
It’s done wonders for her toilet training though, as the three of us mosey around the courtyard three or four times throughout the night, my bald head twinkling in the moonlight, all in relatively good humour considering the situation.
And then I had to have a colonoscopy and endoscopy as well. I keep having blood transfusions, and then the red blood cells vanish, leaving me gasping for air within about three weeks. Has the elephant developed a taste for red blood cells? The oncologist thought that maybe the red blood cells were going missing because of an ulcer or internal bleeding, but nothing became apparent despite the battery of tests.
At the height of the special colonoscopy diet, Saskia had the pleasure of watching me sip laxatives, clear beef soup, green jelly and icy poles all at the same time (5:36am!), and then bolt for the bathroom. Only a puppy can love you at a moment like that. She would drape herself languidly on an abandoned pile of pyjamas and patiently wait until I returned from the bathroom, wagging her tail delightedly. I love you the most right now she would happily wriggle. I just love being near you! I love you the most at 5:36am with the runs! I can barely contain my love…
Can you tell why I love her right back? Love love love you too, Saskia!
As the nurse’s (and thus my own) fear rapidly escalated re the elephant, my surgeon as usual fluctuated wildly between totally deadpan You’re fine. Purple is a fine colour for skin. Pus is positive. And what’s wrong with eating hardcore pain meds like they’re M&Ms? and spontaneously over reactive Can you come in at 12:45pm for emergency surgery, and can you start fasting… Umm… Now?
My answers, by the way… Purple is not nice. Pus is not fun. And hardcore pain meds not working anymore is just plain scary. And painful! and While I am already fasting, it is for a colonoscopy, and no you will not be spontaneously performing emergency surgery on me this afternoon. Besides, I have nothing left to operate on!
(Sorry, my true believing friends, I truly don’t intend to mock, but I can’t find a more accurate way to express my frustration and sadness.)
So today I left Saskia chewing on an oversized lamb shank and walked the elephant to hospital.
We were due for my first round of twelve weekly doses of Taxol, but first I had to work my way through three fat bags of B+ blood with my name on them. Transfusions are slow. They drip drip drip away, and I was entertained first by my dad keeping me company, and then dozing in a recliner, trying to recover from several weeks of elephant filled dreams. Sleepy and uneventful, I’d call it.
And then six hours in, the Infectious Disease Registrar turns up. She is the Elephant Specialist at long last! Can she teach me how to kick this bloody cellulitis? Please please please?
Then as I’m deep into giving her my medical history, something strange happens. I can’t breathe. I can’t think. I can’t remember what I’ve said, or am saying, and I’m scared but even more scared to admit something is going terribly wrong. I feel very faint and I feel very strange, can you call a nurse?
Not one nurse pours in, but eight or ten. It turns out that they started giving me my Taxol six minutes earlier, and they’d been standing by in case of anaphylaxic shock. Apparently, my chest turned red and rashy over a few seconds. Like magic the nurses injected me with cortisone, were on to me with blood pressure monitors and were holding my hand and stroking my back as I sobbed and tried to breathe.
Have I just become another bad statistic? Again? Seriously?
Everything that happens after that is blurry. I’m given something called Phenurgan and it makes me pleasantly sleepy. The poor Elephant Specialist stands well back, shamefaced, as though her case history caused me to have a near death experience, and quietly asks if she can photograph the elephant and show it to her supervisor.
There is a lot of quiet chat, and I gather that I’m not getting my Taxol today. I’m not getting an elephant cure today either. And I just lie back in my recliner and wait to be taken home to my bad puppy who loves me any old time.
Love you all as well. Even at 5:36am. Even when it’s raining.
If you’re a sweet, sensitive soul, you might not enjoy this post. But it amuses me, and thus I can’t help but share. So please be amused, not offended by what I’m about to share.
I want to tell you about my favourite nurse, and why it is that she holds this honorable title, and there’s no better way than sharing an exchange that we had today.
A special dressings nurse came by to check my wound post-surgery and dress it before my discharge from the hospital. She pulled back the layers of bandages and unwrapped a very wide, very deep hole in my chest. My favourite nurse, let’s call her Nurse G, stood by.
We all admired the hole for a few seconds. Let’s say that surgery is a lot like mining. All my surgeries to date have been the type of mines where there’s untold masses of work happening beneath the surface, but on the surface (the skin) you’d barely know. A few stitches, a scar, that’s the extent of it. Well, my new wound is an open cut mine. I now have an open cut mine the size of a big coin and a good half inch deep sitting below my right breast. I half expect to see a tiny mining truck chugging up the side.
It’s more open than I expected. I say at last.
Your skin is harder than I expected says the dressings expert.
I’m more concerned about the breasts above it! says Nurse G.
I call them my ugly pug tits. I reply.
I was thinking sausage dog… Nurse G suggests.
No, sausage dogs are better looking than that. I reply.
Well, I didn’t like to say it… says Nurse G.
I know, I know, the whole interchange sounds tacky and tactless but it wasn’t at all. Nurse G was able to turn a disturbing new discovery of what the medical profession had done to me this time into something we could all laugh about.
I also loved that she was honest about my breasts. It takes a big person not to lie when it comes to something sensitive like botched up breasts. It’s much easier to make evasive comments or say nothing at all. And it’s best to laugh because, as the cliche goes, laughter really is the best medicine.
I love Nurse G, and wish she could always be by my side. She is unfailingly honest, incredibly experienced and deeply involved with her patients and their well being.
The depth of her experience means that nothing phases her, and you know you’re in the safest hands when she’s around. You’re so safe you can have a laugh along the way.
She’s the one who told me that six doses of the chemo drug I’m on now will kill you. I’ve just had my fourth. I found this remarkable more than terrifying and that’s because I was in her company when I heard it.
Immediately after our pug tit interchange she went and arranged for a community nurse to come around to our house every two days for the next 4-6 weeks to clean my wound and redress it without me having to trek in to hospital. I just hope the community nurse has a fraction of her depth of experience and humour.
Big love to you, Nurse G.
As things shift rapidly from the sublime to the ridiculous, I’m worried that I (ab)used my Lady Bracknell quote from The Importance of Being Earnest too soon.
Because… believe it or not… I am now set to get my fourth breast removed. Yep, folks, you heard it here first. My lovely breast reconstruction is soon to be entirely defunct, kaput, cactus, on the shelf, sleeping with the fishes. Pick your preferred.
And how am I? Strangely ok with it. Having now lived with my new Frankentit for almost three weeks now, we’ve reached a state of compromise. I don’t like its grouchy flat little face, but it in turn doesn’t hurt and isn’t infected and as such I can forgive it its trespasses.
Basically, I’m sick to death of being in pain, and if having an ugly flat chest for the next six months is the price I have to pay, I’ll take it.
In addition, I got my fake tit. Or tits, really. I have a light foam one for now (sort of a surgical recovery tit… It’s light and doesn’t press hard on the bruised flesh beneath). And for later I have a much more hardcore fleshy feeling stick-on tit with genuine weight, although I’m not allowed to stick it on until January when my chest wall is better healed.
It’s an expensive business buying fake tits. While the government will reimburse me $400 for each tit (maximum two, before you weirdos start having any ideas) you then have to factor in the underwear. It’s a captive audience, the mastectomy crowd. And so they slug us. A bra with little pockets for the prosthesis costs on average $80, although a bit of clever Internet shopping revealed a few cheaper sources. A swimsuit (what, flat chested people swim too?) cost me another $150. Expensive tit pockets, huh? And because you can’t wear a bra/ swimming costume 24/7 but might not want to look like an adolescent boy (or in my current case with one breast remaining I just look wildly lopsided) then there are camisoles with pockets that are a bargain $60!!! Yay! I’ll buy three!!! (true).
So in amongst all this financial bloodletting, getting the second tit off almost seems like a bargain. I might as well, I have all the kit, the prosthesis place is on speed dial anyway. Hey, I’m so organised that I’m picking up my extra tits tomorrow so when I get out of surgery my new breast awaits me. What a cozy thought!
Let’s step away from fake tits for a moment and talk about hats. Because of course, I’ve been buying a lot of those, too. All of these are very worthy things to be blowing my cash on because they enable me to leave the house but oh boy oh boy do they add up!
Our study, which is where we store our clothes, now looks like it’s inhabited by a drag queen. Fake tits, a wig on a wire head, bright scarves and oversized hats strewn everywhere… Weird. Weird weird weird.
And then we get on to the high altitude bit. I’ve mentioned before that if I walk up a teeny tiny five metre hill I find myself gulping for air like a goldfish that’s lost its tank. Well, it turned out that it was because I was incredibly anaemic. I had so few red blood cells to transport oxygen around my body it was like living at high altitude.
So the other day I had my first blood transfusion. This was a strange sensation, because for years now I’ve been on the donor end of the blood world. I was a plasma donor, as apparently that was how my B+ blood was its most useful. I had to break up with the blood bank when I found that I had cancer, because they don’t want your stinky cancer-ridden blood (they put it more politely than that). And now I’m a receiver! I suppose at least I did my bit when I could. And I hope that one day I can go back to being a donor.
Anyway, I can now say with authority that donating your blood is a wonderful gift. Whoever gave me theirs has made me feel a whole heap better. As I gulp whole lungfuls of air I think fondly of them, wherever they are. Thanks, kindly stranger!
So that pretty much covers where I’m at. I return to hospital on Tuesday (RIP Righty) and chemo happens again on Thursday, and then I’m sure you can expect some appropriately grumpy chemo related post some time after that. Chemo is a bitch.
Oh ho, what fresh hell is this?
I came in to hospital, you’ll recall, because I was having issues with an elephant. Well, it turns out that when your elephant has gone unchecked for so long, he won’t be deterred by IV drugs alone.
No, you must have your elephant surgically removed.
Sounds drastic? It is. Yesterday I had my third breast surgically removed. And you know the greatest irony in all of this? Leftie was the healthy one! Poor Leftie didn’t even have cancer in the first place. Leftie died, first time around, for the greater good and now how do we repay her?
I know this is all a bit odd and hard to follow, so I’ll try to summarise it simply. Two months ago, I had a bilateral mastectomy. The right breast had a rather nasty cancer lurking beneath the nipple so it had to go. Because I have the bad cancer gene and knew it was very likely that I’d have another breast cancer over my lifetime, I decided to get my healthy left breast removed as well.
At the advice of my breast surgeon, I had the first stage of breast reconstruction immediately, during the same surgery (two months later, Medicare still can’t get their heads around that, but that’s a different story).
So, following the surgery, I had breasts. A bit high, round and odd, but breasts nonetheless. Over a period of weeks, my new breasts were expanded with saline, via a humorously oversized needle. Oh, the things these breasts have seen.
But then, as you’ll know if you’ve read the elephant post, Leftie turned feral.
Obviously a bad bug settled deeply into the implant on the left side, and no amounts of antibiotics would flush it out.
After a weekend of feeling really rather neglected in hospital (by the doctors, not my amazing support network), on Monday morning, my oncologist stormed in, fresh off an overseas flight.
That left implant has got to go, it’s held us up long enough says she. I never approved of getting a breast reconstruction pre-chemo! she adds. And honestly, she didn’t. But that’s because my arrogant surgeon didn’t let me meet the oncologist until after the surgery. Useless much? Yes.
Monday was an angry day.
I couldn’t honestly believe that as a result of all my myopic, self-centered, uncommunicative specialists (and this is the A-Team, remember!) I was going to lose Leftie again. I mean, for shame!!!
I insisted on a meeting of the Big Heads (in this case, my plastic surgeon and my oncologist), which to their credit, they both turned up to. And after some initial tensions, we eventually all sat down like some kind of “A-Team” (hah!) and as a unit agreed that Leftie had to go. What I needed was some basic sign that the various Big Heads actually realised the scope of what they were about to do to me. They were going to put me into immediate emergency surgery to clean up a mess of their creation. My problem was that the oncologist kept on saying that it was just a breast but it isn’t just a breast, it’s my bloody breast and it’s already mangled with a whopping great scar and it’s been stretched for weeks and weeks and fricking weeks so don’t tell me it’s just a breast.
You can get an idea of my state of mind. My oncologist’s core point, as usual, was that if I was dead due to lack of chemo, my breast was kind of irrelevant. Do you think I don’t know that? I mentally raged. Do you think that after all these months that I honestly haven’t figured out that cancer is life threatening yet? What kind of a moron do you think I am?
This is not about perspective, or values, or priories, but it is about my expectations. And I expect my A-Team to not only save me from cancer but also to acknowledge that I’m a complete human being and as such I give a shit about superficial things like breasts, and pain, and the almighty time suckage that comes out of a medical screw up like this one.
Whoa, still angry.
Anyway, obviously I somewhat managed to get my point across and eventually we were all singing from the same hymn sheet, albeit out of tune, and so I signed the consent form to have Leftie cut out, for the second time.
Isn’t that just the best part? That in the end I get to be my own executioner and sign away the life of a breast (again!) that was perfectly healthy to begin with!
On Tuesday the deed was done, and the surgery went fine, as always. It’s nice to know that I can depend on my ability to bounce out of surgery, Tigger style. It seems that some primitive life force springs out and dances around inside me going you’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive and you’re marvelous! so thank god for that. Thanks, body and spirit for being so unerringly optimistic in a shitty time such as this.
I hope that Leftie died again for a worthy cause, to help me get over this infection, to drive my elephant of pain away, to let me get on with chemo and knock that cancer dead once and for all.
If all that happens, as my A-Team promised me, then I’ll begrudge the six months of having to wear a fake boob (a prosthesis, as they say, which for some reason makes me think of comical false ghoul teeth).
I can’t wait to see what Medicare says when they hear that I’ve just had my fifth boob operated on. Tabloid TV, here we come.
Lopsided, walking in circles, half boobed love to you all…
July 17 2012
In the next instalment of this highly-paced melodrama, we get to talk genetic testing and boob shopping!
Now I know what you’re thinking… “Boo to the genetic testing – I want to hear about the boob shopping!” but bear with me, I think that the genetic factor is quite interesting too.
Yesterday I met with Professor S, the resident expert on all things gene-related, and a lovely counsellor named Louise. We were there to talk about whether I qualified for a government-sponsored gene test, something which normally costs in the region of $5000. Louise drew an amazing family tree (reminiscent of Year 8 Biology, for those who remember drawing hereditary trees… or whatever they’re called) as Anna and I rattled off the plethora of exciting things my relatives and ancestors had died of over the years.
It seemed that on sheer number of cancer cases in the family alone I qualified for the gene test (well… whoopee!). Louise was there to provide counselling for what I am sure is a troubling time for many. The thing is, normally the people who come for gene testing don’t actually have cancer yet. They’re people who are worried about cancer striking, often because of a strong family history. It’s a big decision… because even if you find you have The Breast Cancer Genes (catchily named BRCA1 and BRCA2) it doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get cancer. And plus apparently only about 10% of the people tested are found to have the gene (and many people who get breast cancer don’t have the gene). And if you do have the gene, the booby prize (ho ho) is a bilateral mastectomy, possibly with the bonus removal of your ovaries (more on that later). Personally, if it were me, and things were normal… I wouldn’t have that test.
From my perspective, by contrast, just two weeks post-breast cancer diagnosis, the genetic testing was interesting but not stressful. After all, I already know I have to lose a breast, possibly two, and possibly my ovaries to boot. So I think I surprised the counsellor with my zen reaction to the whole thing. I was pretty delighted just to be in a medical appointment where they didn’t shoot my nipple with a biopsy gun… or inject me with radioactive dye… or make me drink a litre of iodine… or cut off my breast!
So it was with a song in my heart and a spring in my step (OK, slight exaggeration) that I took my Very Expensive $5000 Genetic Testing Cardboard Box off to the blood donation guys and gave up a few more vials of the precious red stuff.
Results come in a fortnight, which is very fast by genetic testing standards. It normally would take five to six weeks.
OK, now the boob shopping. “Hooray!!!” says everyone.
This morning, Charlie and I met with Dr M the plastic surgeon. When I think plastic surgeon I imagine some greasy gel-haired snake oil salesman, dripping in gold and leering at my breasts, possibly mouthing “sweetheart, you can do so much better”. Dr M was nothing like this. Phew.
7:30am is a strange time to shop for new boobs, but we soon got into the swing of it. We talked implants. We felt implants. We talked doing two breasts versus one. He checked out my stomach and back for possible tissue harvesting. We established that I am too thin to be harvested for more than the smallest single breast reconstruction. I don’t know whether to be gratified or disappointed in myself, actually.
I am reassured that at the end of this, I might just have a very nice pair of breasts to remember it all by. The finest that the medical fraternity can offer me in fact. As to my final decision as to whether I go two breasts, or just one, you’ll just have to wait for another email to find out.
And now we wait again. We wait for the results of the gene tests. We wait to speak with Dr S again. And we wait for Dr S and Dr M to find a nice long time-slot when they can operate together.
And… oh yes, ovaries… It turns out that if I have the breast cancer genes, I may be a high risk factor for ovarian cancer as well. But fear not, even if that’s the case, I don’t need to start worrying for another ten years or so… by which point I’ll have had the opportunity to pop out a kid or two, with any luck. Strangely enough, this rates very low on my list of concerns right now.
And that, friends, is the state of the nation.
I’m sorry if I’ve been slow to answer your texts or emails, it’s been more due to a case of the flu than a case of cancer! You’ve all been so attentive that I’m beginning to feel like some D-List celebrity.
Lots of love…
July 14 2012
A major medical appointment on Friday the 13th didn’t seem like such a great idea, but as breast cancer waits for no-one, I returned to St Vincents yesterday with the whole family in tow to discuss next steps.
The ever charming Dr S didn’t keep us in suspense – there is absolutely nothing else wrong with me. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that while my breast(s)’ days are numbered the rest of me is doing just fine. I have some nice pictures to prove it too.
This means that a clearer picture is building as to what is to follow. Next week I meet with the plastic surgeon to discuss reconstruction options and the genetic specialist to discuss genetic testing. The plastic surgeon will work together with Dr S in surgery – up to eight hours if I use muscle/tissue from another part of my body for the breast reconstruction (the alternative is silicon implants – the surgeon will advise what is best). The genetic specialist should be able to advise whether I need to have both breasts removed now (a bilateral mastectomy) or whether I get to hang on to leftie for a while yet.
Of course, if I get both breasts removed at the same time this is my big opportunity to look like Pamela Anderson… although I must admit that this whole process has made me love my breasts exactly how they are.
Thereafter, I can be scheduled for surgery.
Part of the surgery will involve injecting my lump with dye (probably 24 hours out) and then removing some of my lymph glands. They won’t remove all of them, only about 10, and depending on how many of them the dye has travelled to they can figure out how much chemo I will need. Fingers crossed, precious little…
Before chemo I’ll need to go to a fertility specialist, because chemo can result in early menopause and if I want to have kids in the future I’ll need to have eggs harvested and frozen in case this happens. My IVF friends, I’m warning you that I’ll be plying you with meals and alcohol after the surgery to talk to me more on this front…
Now for the bad taste component. I’ve been thinking about hair loss. Since chemo seems pretty much on the cards now, I’m having to come to terms with the fact that I might lose my hair. The thought of waking up with it sitting like a dead animal on my pillow really freaks me out, so I think if hair loss is on the cards, I should try various short styles along the way… all the styles I haven’t been brave enough to try the rest of my life. Haven’t we all wondered how we would look as a shaved headed monk at some point?
I will also do research into the exciting world of 1960s style scarf turbans. It seems like a good opportunity to purchase the vintage Hermes scarves that have been tempting me in op shops all these years.
So there you go. I’m still making a good fist of seeing the funny and interesting side of it all.
Thanks again for the continued stream of flowers, cards, parcels, wine, calls, emails, texts and smoked duck breast (I’m still giggling).
More in another week or so…
Lots of love.