I Endured Surgery and All I Got was this Lousy T-shirt

I Endured Surgery and All I Got was this Lousy T-shirt

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I returned to the plastic surgeon’s office a week after reconstruction surgery. Completely uncomfortable, off the pain pills, I was more than ready to get the dressings, tubes and stitches out and see what my new look was going to be. Since the time of my bilateral mastectomy, it’s been a running joke that I would soon be trading in the awkward tissue expanders for new “perky Bs” that would suit my athletic lifestyle. I was excited all week to see how they turned out, so I was completely unprepared for my actual reaction to the first look at my chest.

The doctor made a point to say, “now, don’t judge based on your first look at things”. There is still the healing process to go through, and I was very bruised and swollen. But it’s easier said than done. I didn’t like what I saw. The area of damaged skin that had to be removed made the right scar painfully tight, in turn pulling and deforming the shape of the right breast. Radiation does so much damage to the area that this can be a common problem. The procedure included fat grafting, where they take fat from my stomach to fill in the areas around the implants to “soften the look”. The end result made the right side even more lumpy and misshaped, to the extent that the doctor said, “it may need more work.” After the rough week I just had, the last thing I want is more surgery.

On top of the sleeplessness, pain, and disappointment with my new look, there is the much more disconcerting problem of my left arm. It is still numb, extremely weak and I am not able to control my movements very well. I now am being sent to a neurologist to see what went wrong. In the meantime, I am not letting anyone draw blood from my arms (since I fear that the IV might have had something to do with the nerve damage), which may cause me to be kicked out of the clinical trial that I am in for a very promising drug used with stage 4 breast cancers to decrease rates of recurrence. Hopefully, I can get everything checked out before I lose my spot in the study.

Once again, I was hoping to get out of town this winter break, but now I have one kid on the couch with a fever of 102, an appointment tomorrow to find out the results of the MRI on my knee (which had to be postponed since September because of the metal in the tissue expanders), and appointments next week with the neurologist and surgeon. And today, of course, I woke up with a bad sore throat….

Oh, I almost forgot – about that shirt I mentioned in the title. I bought it months ago with the intention of wearing it home after reconstruction. Unfortunately, one week after surgery, I still was not agile enough to actually put the shirt on…At that point, I was in tears anyway and not feeling lighthearted enough for self-deprecating humor. The next few days were rough.

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Happy Holidays! I think I’ll sleep until 2015!

Nip, Tuck

Nip, Tuck

The last words I ever expected to cross my lips were “I just had plastic surgery”. But there it is. I just had plastic surgery. I am not a vain person, I don’t wear make-up or fuss with my hair or clothes or my appearance in general. I had considered not doing reconstruction at all, but I am just self-conscious enough to want something there, so I can change clothes in the locker room without embarrassment. Yet, for me this surgery marks the end of this journey battling cancer, and somewhat of a return to normal.

I arrived at 11:00 on Monday for pre-surgery preparations. Surgery was scheduled for 12:30, but the surgeon was behind schedule so I had extra time to sit, hungry, craving my morning coffee, and worrying about the surgery. My boyfriend, always there to cheer me up, put adorable kitten videos on his phone to help pass the time. It worked, and before long, I was all ready to be rolled off to the operating room.

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Because I had lymph nodes removed on both sides, I am not supposed to have IVs or blood pressure cuffs on my arms. I convinced them to do the blood pressure on my leg, but they would not do the IV in my foot, so I had an IV on the left side, which had fewer nodes involved. It hurt like crazy going in because my chemo-weakened vein tried to run and hide. She eventually got the IV in place, and pre-surgery meds started flowing. As with every surgery, I begged the anesthesiologist not to make me sick. They always give me the works to prevent nausea. Antacids, motion sickness patches, anti-nausea meds, but it never seems to work. I always end up sick to my stomach. So that happened. Again.

The plastic surgeon checked in on me and drew lines all over my chest and stomach while I could still stand up. Apparently, they don’t want to make the lines after you are unconscious, flat on your back. Once that was done, they wheeled me off to the operating room right in my recliner. Entering the OR, I said, “I see the party has started without me, and just as I expected, brightly lit and cold”. There was some lighthearted joking around, then they wanted me to get as comfortable as I could on the operating table before they completely knocked me out. I felt relatively comfortable, with my arms straight out at my sides, airplane-like, so the oxygen mask was placed over my nose and mouth with instructions to take deep breaths. Nighty night….

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Next thing I remember, vaguely, was coming to gradually in the recovery room. I heard Andy’s voice and the nurse telling me something, though I don’t remember any of it. I noticed at that time that my left hand had fallen asleep and was tingly. Apparently, they got me up and dressed. It was late in the day and everyone was anxious to get home. I was the last one on the floor for the day. I was becoming more and more alert, and I wanted to go home. That’s when the nausea hit. I got sick, which made me feel better, but then they took away my crackers.

Feeling better, they got me up to walk to the bathroom. I felt weak and lightheaded, but managed ok. Until I had to try to pull my pants up. My sleeping left arm was not working. This made me panic. I feared the worst-they paralyzed my arm. I would never have traded use of my arm for new breasts. A future without the use of my arm horrified me. I have big plans for my future, and most of them involve physical labor (rehabbing houses) and motorcycles, and a generally active and adventurous lifestyle. What would I do with one arm? And that was my “good” arm, that hadn’t endured multiple surgeries.

This new problem delayed everyone’s departure for the day, but eventually, I was wheeled out to the car and sent on my way to recover at home. I managed to sleep fairly well that night and most of the next day. I did speak to the surgeon and the anesthesiologist about my arm, and they reassured me that it is temporary and I should expect to regain use of my arm over the next two weeks. The specialist they spoke with says it happens sometimes, when the arms are stretched out for an extended time. They think the nerve was over-extended or pinched due to swelling. Maybe the IV in my arm also caused the problem. So, I just have to wait and see. If it isn’t better in two weeks, I’ll have to see a specialist. Now, it is three days later and my arm is still numb and tingly, but I am regaining some movement, which is reassuring.

Besides the arm issue and the nausea, the surgery went well. There was a bit of skin that was so damaged from radiation that it had to be removed, though, so the scar may be bigger than I thought. I am tightly wrapped in gauze, with a tight girdle-like piece wrapped around my abdomen. I have to keep this all wrapped up until next Tuesday, when the plastic surgeon will remove the dressings, and expose the end result for me to see.

Livestrong

Livestrong

As of Tuesday, I am a graduate of the Livestrong program at the YMCA (I even have a certificate!). Livestrong is a 12 week program designed to help cancer survivors achieve their health goals. I would highly recommend the program to anyone just finishing cancer treatment, unsure about how to rebuild after the difficulties they’ve just faced.

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While I still have a ways to go to regain the strength and fitness level that I had prior to cancer treatment, I feel like it was an excellent way to start. Participants in the Livestrong program get a free Y membership for the duration of the program, too. My class met twice a week, and it was just the push I needed to get off the couch and hit the gym. It was extremely difficult to find the motivation, and the energy, to exercise during chemo and radiation, but having a class to look forward to was an excellent way to get me out of that mode.

I’ve always had a physical lifestyle. I love jogging, biking, swimming, hiking, playing sports, and on and on. But I’ve never been terribly interested in “classes”, or group exercise. I have to say, there was something invaluable about being part of this group exercise program, though. For me, it was less about the exercise, and more about the camaraderie I found in a group of women who had recently gone through the same treatments and challenges that I had. It was the opportunity to talk about our experiences that motivated me to go every week. My group was very small, only 3 of us came regularly, and we grew comfortable talking about some personal stuff. It became like an intimate support group ( another thing I’ve never really been interested in). We were there to encourage each other and cheer at our small successes.

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Over the 12 weeks, we tracked our progress and did a baseline and post-class assessment of our progress. I’m proud to say that I improved in the areas of endurance, strength and flexibility! I hope to keep working toward my goal this winter. One more hurdle to clear, with surgery imminent, but after that I’m on track to join Team Phoenix at Aurora next spring! (more on that in future blog posts…)