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.

Comedy of Broken Pieces

Enough already! The past week has been one problem after another as my body breaks down from the strain of cancer treatment. It’s like the classic example of the driver, breathing a sigh of relief as they near home after a long drive, and then, minutes from home, they get into a car accident.

I was breathing that sigh of relief near the end of radiation, ready to be at home with a new chance at life. I am more than ready to done with doctors and hospitals and all things cancer. My body tells me otherwise. The effects of treatment keep popping up to remind me that I can’t move forward as if nothing happened. It is going to take more time and effort than that.

Monday I met with a specialist to try to find a solution for recurrent UTIs, which are exacerbated by chemotherapy-induced menopause. Tuesday was my final day of radiation, a milestone worth celebrating, to be sure. I brought a dozen donuts to St. Luke’s radiation oncology department. It was a lovely day, and I was thrilled to be done with the 7 weeks of daily trips to St. Luke’s. There were plenty of hugs and high fives. My skin seemed to be over the worst of the burns, and I was starting to heal, feeling like I was nearing the end of the long road.  I received a wonderful bottle of wine from a friend, so there was further celebration that evening.

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Wednesday I had a follow-up with the medical oncologist. Everything was looking good. Fatigue was my only complaint, yet initial blood work was showing improvements over the dropping numbers caused by chemotherapy. There were more congratulations and hugs. I donated my hats and scarves further symbolizing the end of that chapter. On my way out the door, beaming and ready to ride my motorcycle home on a beautiful fall day, the nurse stopped me and said she needed to talk to me…

Back into an exam room I went. The nurse came in to inform me that my blood work showed an elevated level of troponin, an enzyme that is released when there is damage to the heart. It is found in people who are having heart attacks. It also can occur if radiation stresses or damages the heart. So, having told me this and asking if I had any chest pain or shortness of breath, they sent me on my way with instructions to rush to the ER if I experienced any symptoms of a heart attack. NOT a reassuring thought as I strapped on my helmet and climbed onto my motorcycle for the ride home. I felt every beat of my heart on that trip.

As everything else on this road, the “not knowing” period is the worst part. Left without details, my imagination takes over and fills in the knowledge gap with worst case scenarios. In my mind, I beat cancer but surely would need a heart transplant or other extreme measure to survive the effects of the cancer treatment. The cardiologist called and I was scheduled for a heart echo-cardiogram on Friday. I do not like Friday tests. They usually mean I get stuck, waiting with my imagination, until Monday to hear the results. Thankfully, I got the call Friday afternoon assuring me that my heart was stable. Phew.
NOW, certainly I was done with hospitals and doctors for awhile. I looked forward to the upcoming weekend and a visit from a dear friend, Rania, and her boyfriend. I also was anticipating a possible road trip with my boyfriend with excitement. But (since it wouldn’t be November with orthopedic surgery) on Thursday, I had a recurrence of a sharp pain in my knee. I had already seen the surgeon for the knee pain earlier in the month and had x-rays and an exam. The next step was to have an MRI. I scheduled it and went on with RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation), and went forward with fun plans for the weekend.

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I spent a wonderful weekend with friends, reminiscing, riding motorcycles, eating out and toasting the end of cancer treatment. Then Sunday night, the neuropathy that was finally almost gone from my left foot, came back with a vengeance. By Monday morning, my left foot was terribly swollen and painful, making it difficult to walk. I scrambled around to try to see the orthopedic surgeon asap and attempted to move the MRI date up. The surgeon didn’t want to see me until he had the MRI results in, but I did eventually get the MRI rescheduled and a new appointment to see the doctor.

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Now it is Tuesday morning, the day of the MRI. I am able to put a little more weight on my foot, but I’m still limping quite a bit. I called around to make sure nothing implanted in my body contained metal (a no-no in MRI machines). The chemo port checked out MRI safe, the IUD also was okay. Then I spoke with the surgeon’s nurse about the tissue expanders (as I affectionately call them – boob placeholders). Tissue expanders have a metal port in them which the doctor uses a magnetic on to locate the port when injecting saline. NOT MRI safe…

The beautiful weather we had all weekend left with a drastic cold front yesterday, I struggle to walk without pain, I can’t have an MRI to determine the cause of my knee pain, I’m exhausted, disheartened, and my boyfriend is leaving tomorrow for a two week trip that I had hoped to accompany him on. I’ve had better days. I am ready to move forward, get my health back, get in shape, yet, here I sit, looking around at broken pieces.