Deja Vu

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The other day, I read an article about a new app produced by the Duke University Cancer Center. The app is for cancer survivors who are having a hard time coping post-treatment. It offers meditation exercises, stress relief techniques and other resources for those who are struggling mentally with the debris of post-cancer life.

Of course, I downloaded it immediately. Upon opening it, I discovered the app is part of a study the school is conducting to help provide better support resources for cancer patients.

As I scrolled through the app answering questions for the study, one of the queries really struck me: Do you find yourself reliving or going back to your treatment?

Today I had surgery again. It was a small revision procedure to fix a wonky place in my reconstruction (yeah, let me dispel any notions that reconstruction is anything akin to having a boob job).

It was my fourth surgery in a year, so it all felt very familiar–the litany of pre-op questions, the antibacterial wipe scrub-down, climbing onto the table in the freezing cold operating room with the blindingly-bright lights in my eyes. Even one of the nurses remembered me from my previous visits.

Oddly enough, today also is the one-year anniversary of my first chemo treatment. The routine of having surgery today conjured up many of the feelings I had that day a year ago. Nervousness over the procedure. Anxiety about how I’d feel after. Squeamish over the needles and blood and pain. Just like this day last year, I’m curled up under a blanket, taking meds, trying to feel better.

And here’s where that question from the app really resonates: Do you find yourself reliving or going back to your treatment?

Trying to eat today has been difficult. Not because of my surgery, but because I keep thinking about how I felt that day after chemo. Just thinking about it almost makes me nauseous. Even this past week as I took my usual walks around the neighborhood, the uneasy feeling in my stomach would return as I remembered taking walks after chemo, trying to power through the side effects of both the chemo and the steroids I took after, in an attempt to take advantage of the benefits of fresh air and exercise.

Everything seems to remind me of that time. The stifling August heat, the way the light looks in the afternoon, the scent of soap I used at the time.

Part of the Duke app study is an attempt to identify the occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in cancer survivors. This is something a lot of people don’t talk about or understand. The wreckage after cancer treatment.

Survivors are celebrated, congratulated. “You did it!” “You beat it!” “You can get back to normal now!” While everyone around you smiles and breathes a sigh of relief, you’re still a mess. Afraid of recurrence/metastasis. Dealing with the lingering effects of chemo and surgery (effects that can last for years). Coming to terms with a new, often disfigured body. Being haunted by memories and dreams of the trauma you’ve endured.

I really hope my responses to the study can help Duke gain more insight into the issues that cancer survivors face. Life after cancer is good–truly a gift. But it’s also hard. And if we can figure out new ways to help patients cope, that’s a very good thing.

 

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Recovery, Part Deux

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Very early yesterday morning, Rodney and I went to the day surgery center for my exchange procedure. After a short wait, the staff ushered me back to one of the staging rooms for all the pre-surgery prep. That includes donning some really sexy hospital shorts (which I’m grateful for since they kept me from flashing people as I walked down the hall in my gown) and getting my chest marked up by my plastic surgeon.

After getting hooked up to an IV, the very kind anesthesiology nurse walked me to the operating room–a very bright, cold place. After meeting all the nurses assisting my plastic surgeon, I climbed up onto the narrow table and a few minutes later I was out like a light.

I woke up a few hours later in the recovery room. The surgery went really well–so well, in fact, that my surgeon decided I wouldn’t need drains this time around.

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I’m pretty sore–both my chest and stomach since she did some fat grafting–but nothing like my previous surgery. I’m staying in bed mostly, but I’ve been up and moving around since I left the hospital–I even walked out of the hospital to the car. So far, this recovery is much easier, which is really nice.

Thanks to everyone who’s checked in on me–if you need me, I’ll be enjoying some Hulu in bed (you know Golden Girls is on binge mode here!).

Here We Go Again

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I’m going under the knife again.

Tomorrow morning I’m heading over to the day surgery center bright and early for my exchange operation. This is the procedure where my temporary tissue expanders are removed and replaced with the permanent* implants.

I will also have fat grafting done from my belly to help fill out my chest and make it look more normal since the implants and muscle can’t exactly replace all the tissue that was removed. Much of my adult life I’ve joked that I wanted to suck the fat from my belly and put it into my boobs–who knew all it would take was a little cancer to make it happen?! (Sorry, I’m really into the morbid jokes these days.)

I’m going to have the blasted drains again (UGH), but hopefully  I won’t have to keep them as long this time. My recovery is supposed to be much shorter, too.

I posted a question about the surgery today in a Facebook breast cancer support group I participate in, and one of the members told me this was a step toward getting back to my old self. I really hope she’s right, because my body feels very not-like me right now. The tissue expanders are uncomfortable–they feel sort of like wearing a bra that doesn’t fit quite right all day. And then there’s this concave situation I have going on in the middle of my chest that’s kind of a mess. I know that I’ll never look or feel exactly like I did before, but if I can get close, that’s good enough.

 

 

 

 

 

Couch Life

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Earlier this year, my husband and I bought new living room furniture.

We didn’t intend to make such a large purchase–we were initially just looking for an oversized chair to replace a lumpy sofa that had long outstayed its welcome. We went to a local furniture store that I love and found the perfect chair in a display right inside the front door. At first, we were only going to purchase that one piece, but it also had a matching sofa and the deal was just too good to pass up.

As the salesperson gave us the pitch on the set, she showed us that both the chair and couch were actually recliners. The couch has a dual-electric recliner feature. We weren’t in the market for recliners, but we liked the look and feel of the furniture so much that we decided to pull the trigger any way.

This past week, I have been SO thankful we purchased this furniture, particularly the couch. It has been my home for the past seven days, since it’s pretty much impossible for me to get in and out of our bed. With a pull of a lever, the electric mechanism sits me right up, or reclines me into a relaxed position. For someone whose arms and torso are extremely sore, this is pure magic.

I’m just over a week post-op now. I’m still really sore, and these drains are still driving me nuts. Each day is a little better, but I’ve still got a long road before I feel halfway normal again.

I had my first post-op appointment with my plastic surgeon yesterday. She looked at my mangled chest and said everything looked good (relatively speaking), and she celebrated my clear path report with me. She also gave me the terrible news that I’m not getting to ditch these drains until the end of the month (long sigh).

The day before yesterday, we went to my in-laws’ house to see my son. He’s been staying with family since my surgery to give me some time to recover. This is the longest I’ve ever been away from him, so it was a pretty emotional visit for me. I cried when he walked in. I cried when he gingerly hugged me, trying to be gentle to keep from hurting “mommy’s boo-boo.” I cried half the way home (we left him there for a couple more days to give me more time to recover).

But, he’s coming home tomorrow. I am over the moon! I have had moments of excruciating physical pain with this surgery, but nothing compares to the emotional pain of being away from my child.

This time tomorrow, I’ll have company on my couch, and I cannot wait.

 

Recovery

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Hospital fashion is seriously hot.

So, I am officially post-op.

And all things considered, I’m doing pretty well. I came home yesterday after a two-night stay in the hospital. I had a fainting spell that gave everyone a little scare in the hospital, so they decided to keep me an extra night.

The pain has been intense, but manageable. I’m mostly horizontal, but have been up and walking since the evening of surgery, and my mobility has improved each day.

The drains are gross, but not nearly as bad as I expected.

I took my first real shower today and looked at my chest for the first time since the operation. I didn’t know what to expect, and it wasn’t easy to see what I look like right now. But, as Rodney reminded me, this is temporary and I won’t always look like this.

So, all of that is great, but here’s the best news: my pathology report was all clear. The tissue from both my breasts and my lymph nodes were cancer-free. I know, way to bury the lead!

I could literally hear the smile on my surgeon’s face when he called me with the news. The chemo completely eradicated what was there, and nothing new had formed. He told me this is not only good news for the short-term, but for my long-term prognosis, as well.

As I told family and friends the news, so many of them exclaimed that I beat cancer. And I guess I did in a way, but I don’t feel like I can ever totally feel like I beat it. That may change, but the fear of recurrence is still far too real for me to be so boastful. I feel like I’m jinxing myself or something.

So, I will enjoy this victory and keep moving forward in recovery. Thanks to all who’ve sent good thoughts and prayers my way–they make a difference!

Mastectomy, Simple, Complete

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Yesterday I met with my surgeon to discuss my upcoming bilateral mastectomy and lymph node removal/biopsy. I now have a surgery date, and it’s very soon.

When I got home last night, a notice from my insurance company awaited me, informing me my surgery had been approved. In the section with the coding for the procedures, it said: “Mastectomy, simple, complete.”

While it will be complete, nothing about this is simple.

When I received my diagnosis back in July, I immediately feared I’d need a mastectomy. I’d run through all the scenarios in my mind by the time my doctors told me a much less invasive lumpectomy would be just as effective. Cue the relief.

Of course, that was before I found out my BRCA2-positive status. That changed everything.

Now I’m facing a bilateral (double) mastectomy, along with the removal of some of the lymph nodes in my left armpit (the side where my cancer occurred). Those nodes will be checked for cancer cells.

I’ve opted for a nipple-sparing procedure with reconstruction. This basically means that all the tissue inside (which reaches up nearly to my collar bone and around the sides of my chest) will be removed. Then, the plastic surgeon will insert expanders, which are essentially deflated implants that will be injected with fluid over a period of weeks to allow my skin to heal and prepare for the insertion of the permanent implants.

My surgeon said the recovery process will last 3-4 weeks. And several of those weeks I’ll have drains on either side of my chest to remove fluid that builds up in the space between my healing skin and the expanders. I’ll have to empty these daily. Blech.

Obviously, my mobility will be seriously affected during recovery, and I won’t be able to drive for at least two weeks after. I guess I’ll finally have a chance to catch up on all those Netflix shows I’ve been meaning to watch.

The pain, lack of mobility and even the disgusting drains (have I mentioned how gross they are to me?) aren’t what I’m most worried about, though. Per usual, my son is my biggest concern.

I won’t be able to lift much of anything during recovery, which means picking him up is a no-no. This is problematic because my son is very attached to me. I pick him up multiple times a day. And on top of that, he’s constantly in my lap, falls asleep on my chest and ends up in bed with me most nights. All of that will have to change. Like the end of breastfeeding, I know this is going to be a fairly difficult adjustment for him. He won’t understand. He will cry. And I probably will, too.

So, yes, this mastectomy will be complete. But it is far from simple.