Three years ago I asked my plastic surgeon if I could keep my tissue expanders when they were to be removed. He laughed, and discreetly filed that request next to a lot of the other stupid things I asked in our brief consults.
I’d planned to keep them and use them as paper weights, cause let’s face it, one can never have enough paper weights. I’d also invisaged I’d get them out at parties, or let the kids take them to show and tell. Can you imagine? Oh the horror!
Last night, as I rolled into theatre, I thought I’d revisit this request. My plastic surgeon mumbled something about infectious diseases and hospital policy.
Then grasping at straws I asked… “Would you photograph them on your iPhone?”
I waited for the “No!”, but to my delight he replied… “Sure. Not me, but I’ll get someone else to do it”.
I didn’t expect for him to follow through with his promise. Theatres are serious places with very rigid procedures.
As I drifted off to sleep under the cloak of Fentanyl and anesthesia pulsing into my veins in the theatre I’d already had three surgeries in, I remembered fondly the original bearded nurses I met back January 2013, and the familiarity of the weird 70’s vinyl looking wallpaper. I briefly contemplated how far I had come from the fear and dread of three years ago. Then before I knew it I was out like a light.
I don’t fear the cancer returning now. Because I’ve played that thought over and over in my mind a million times. It’s almost boring to think about. If the cancer comes back one day, so be it. There is no rhyme nor reason to who develops mets. Despite our best treatments and people’s health status at diagnosis, it just happens. Shit happens.
I’ve seen a lot of cancer in recent years. The worst of the suffering and the best of the love and compassion that comes. How profound and utterly terrible the disease can be at the same time. With four to a room at this hospital, you get to meet people at varies stages and types of cancer. You see a lot of cancery crap.
I will never forget the time an emaciated man laid opposite me when I had my first mastectomy. He had stage four bowel cancer and he looked and sounded like my own Dad in his own late stages of cancer. That was really confronting and I found myself having to escape the room and walk the halls of the small ward, carrying my surgical drains full of blood to get some separation from such a confronting association.
Then there was that lovely lady who I chatted quietly with through the depths of the nights after my second mastectomy. We spoke quietly about our children, careers and travels. There was no discussion of death despite it being the white elephant in the room. And in the mornings she conversed with the doctors and nurses so cheerfully and with such positivity, despite having endured two primary cancers. She was now facing her imminent death from the second. They gathered round her listening to her stories, almost vigil like. I was taken aback when a doctors voice waivered when discussing her predicament. In the whole week I was there, no family visited her.
It’s hard to be an early stage cancer patient and be present while all these devastating and heartbreaking conversations occur around you. Despite ones best intentions at privacy. The guilt is huge. Why am I okay?
Take for example witnessing the desperate play that happens on a daily basis in cancer wards, when nutritionists visit to try to make a difference to patients who are very clearly wasting away as their disease grips them so tightly. Or the look on family members faces when they visit and see their loved ones fading. Such heartbreak!
To think, it could be me one day? Or maybe not.
The new hospital will be set up with single patient suites which will avoid these confronting moments. But in a way, patients might miss out on the chance to share and connect over what they know of their disease. These moments in the middle of the night. Where sharing a room makes the experience less lonely.
Last night, my plastic surgeon did his best to make me feel more ‘normal’. But it’s been no easy feat.
Back in February 2013 my cancer side tissue expander began the process of contracting into my chest after a nurse accidentally closed one of my drains the night after surgery. That begun the inflammation and scarring that would form a capsule around the tissue expander and compress it. Radiotherapy later in the year further exacerbated this.
The plastics surgical team worked hard to cut out the scar capsule and try and restore the shape of my chest. As a result what should have been a simple “exchange” surgery from expanders to implants, has meant more trauma than anticipated.
I have surgical drains again and will have to stay in another night because the drain output hasn’t slown down enough. It feels like I’ve had a third mastectomy pain wise. The other side, is peachey creamy.
The wonky 2 o’clock and 8 0’clock nipples I’ve written about many times have almost moved to 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock. Down the track when my new teardrop implants settle in to my body, my plastics doc may look at some corrective procedures which may include injecting fat from my stomach into the radiated side. Apparently the stem cells in it can improve radiated skin so that it resembles baby skin. Remarkable!
My plastic surgeon visited me late this arvo. He came good with his promise and came to show me the images he had someone take.
So here they are… these expanders got carried around inside me for three years. They went to Indonesia and Hawaii and they weren’t used to smuggle drugs. There was lots of pain and not a whole lot of love for them. But I’m glad they are finally out of me.
Home tomorrow if all goes well to celebrate my kids birthday and Mr Cool and my wedding anniversary.
To end on a silly note to celebrate the completion of this surgery and the ridiculous nature of what me and my breasts have been through, here’s a lame tribute to Benny Hill.
My Dad loved Benny Hill. Rest in peace Dad!
Tomorrow is my double exchange surgery. One thousand, one hundred and thirty three days after my first mastectomy. Finally.
Tomorrow has the weight of three years of expectation behind it.
I’m at sixes and sevens. Not sure how to feel, not sure what to expect.
Im scared. I’m scarred. My mind is scattered.
How will I look when I wake? Will I have surgical drains? How long till I can drive a car? I forgot all the details.
How long till I can hug my kids and my husband properly. Like one of those hugs where you squeeze so tight and don’t let go. Where it feels like two people might just possibly melt into one.
Will I be able to move forward from this breast cancer world I’ve been immersed in for three years and two months?
What would happen if I give myself permission to let go of this whole journey and try and forget about all this?
This will be surgery number five. It won’t be the last if I want to correct my disfigured breasts and nipples. What will come of the sixth? Will there be a seventh?
I’m a physical and mental mess today. See you on the other side of it.
Imagine my surprise when I received a letter today that said “Your treating doctor requested that you be placed onto a surgical wait list to undergo BILATERAL EXCHANGE FROM EXPANDERS TO IMPLANTS”
Placed onto? What the fark???!!!!
The letter continued … “We aim to deliver the best and most timely care to all our patients as quickly as possible.”
Most timely? Quickly? Pfft.
I understand the issues with public health, I really do. But Pffft!
You see, I was PLACED on a surgical waiting list back on the 1st November 2013. True.
It’s been nearly three years since I had my first expander jammed in my chest. And 2.5 years since I met the second one. I was so appreciative of the work of my surgeons. They removed my cancer and gave me an instant chest. I went onto the surgical list a few months later. And there I have sat with these uncomfortable, lumpy, rotten things since.
For all of this time, its been too painful to lay on my stomach. So I’ve neglected visits to the chiropractor, the massage therapist, and bodyboarding with the kids.
I guess I’m supposed to feel lucky that I’m still alive and even need my reconstruction finished. There’s plenty who didn’t get this far. Plenty!
So after I mustered up enough strength to hide my disappointment at this letter and not get prematurely upset, I rang the hospital. Turns out, the lovely Elective Surgery Access Manager felt my pain and put me on hold.
When she returned to the telephone, she offered me an apology for having me wait on the phone so long. Then she gave me a Plastic Surgeon surgical consult date (I’ve had two of these already) and an implant exchange surgery date. I didn’t know what to say.
So I said “Wow! Thankyou so much!” or some similar drivel.
Now the question is, what will they look like when finished? I’ve spent so long in this body that doesn’t feel like my own anymore. My rock hard, contracted, scar effected mounds, with nipples that point in such grossly different directions will need a lot of work to look reasonable.
And what will be of the 28kgs I’ve gained through hormonal treatment and chemically induced menopause since these Asian sized expanders were inserted? At least they were in proportion when all of this cancer treatment lark started.
What I’m looking forward to most will be the delight for my children when they snuggle and discover my chest is no longer like hugging a concrete freeway bollard. That will be the best!
Happy 41st Birthday to me. It would appear I’m (actually) having exchange surgery!