IN MIDST OF RECONSTRUCTION

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Three and a half months after my mastectomy I dug out notes I had buried, too excruciating to edit that winter. Writing was sketchy because of surgical pain and I was very medicated. Although writing comes natural for me, the very process during all of my treatments felt masochistic at times than simply sharing firsthand experience.

One of the surgeries scheduled was for Dr. Korentager to replace the soft plastic tissue expander with cohesive gel implants (Gummies). I never dreamed I’d be having such a thing as implants. An augmentation was simply not on my bucket list. But there I was, next in line for such a surgery. Regardless of the ultimate symmetry of both breasts as the final outcome, replacing my natural bust felt unnatural. However the consequence of not having the procedure was too abominable to consider any other option. Month after month, as I wrote each line that finish line came closer within my grasp, yet only a sweet promise. The idea was most uncomfortable to me.

Referring to uncomfortable issues, my English grandmother used to say, “it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie”. The dogs got translated later by the Swedes into “let sleeping bears lie“. Both have the implication to, as we say now as a warning, “don’t go there” or “keep to yourself” (if you want to be safe from serious retaliation)… Such as it is. I’m inclined to lean in favor of watching out for the dogs than a bear attack, at least with my isbearvsdogsues. But old sayings are like myths. I cannot let this sleeping dog lie.

Idioms rule our language as a mastectomy ruled my life. To ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ it is often better to move forward rather than trigger hostilities over an ongoing difference of opinion. Its (the dog) instinctive behavior to bite if awakened suddenly, a dog instantly lashes out at the poor jackass who dares to startle it awake. A dog’s own nature rules and the natural response to lash out with teeth would be quite painful. On the contrary, most folks fear a clash with the bear worse.

All jokes put aside, that leaves the breast cancer anomaly. Sidestepping this issue is totally impossible. Little resolve can be expected in a woman’s health and well-being if one or both breasts are not surgically removed or in the least medically incised by a lumpectomy. Having breast cancer leaves  a woman no choices in her opinion in respect of letting sleeping dogs or bears lie. Both demand immediate, forthright attention to survive breast cancer’s bite.

I’ve said it’s a brutal, virulent monster — a nightmare in disguise — and impossible to wake up from. We dream of a cure. We run. We hope, to benefit a world of cancer patients in the midst of breast reconstruction. Science and humanity struggle with all of its diagnoses to alleviate our fears. Take your pick of old sayings to put your fears into perspective. Doctors will say I’m crazy, comparing disease to idioms. But it’s the only way I could transpose my fear into a manageable entity, to conquer it.

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Yesterday’s doctor visit went better than expected. In my previous appointment Mary Kate asked if I wanted to try to increase the injection of CC’s. No hesitation,’Yes’ 50 to 75 cc’s, definite difference. I had not added them up thus far, just went along with it. But WOW! The additional cc’s made me sorer than hell for four days rather than the usual two days. It felt just plain weird like a water balloon was being pumped up inside the hollow of my chest. ‘No pain, no gain’ another idiom, but this pain really sucked. Pardon le français, but it was fucking miserable.

But you ask, “ so what does it feel like?” Since it’s from first-hand experience, I  can only compare the tissue expander to feeling as if a solid, hot microwaved soccer ball was jammed inside my chest. On the inside of what use to be my breast, my skin felt hot and rigid, but still numb. Wasn’t exactly my idea of being called ‘hot’… I wondered about the numbness. Nurse Trisha said the nerves actually heal, a micro cell at a time. She said those spasms I had were the nerves rebuilding. My body was trying to mend itself. yay. On occasion my whole chest jerked for a second. It felt like a jolt of electricity — really weird.

I tried to get small chores done. I got into the routine of taking a daily nap when I completely ran out of steam midway through the afternoon. Felt a tad on the lazy side but I just wanted to be healthy again so I conceded to doctor’s urging to get my rest …. I’ve been called stubborn at times and nowadays I’m relying on that stubbornness to help heal my body because I feel like a dog licking its wounds after being torn up by a Pitbull. No, it was that damn gator.

keep pushing – have faith – be strong

I kindly recommend do not rely so much on websites if you value peace of mind. The stuff you will see online is not the caliber of medical journals or talking to your trusty doc; you can easily waste hours and hours viewing online augmentation photos if you’re dealing with breast cancer reconstruction. Yes, I did. Then I got anxious and depressed because the photos online looked so much better than mine, my body still in process. It was very unrealistic and caused way too much stress for me, not knowing what to expect, stubbornly acting like I had all the confidence in the world when I didn’t have the slightest bit. Subterfuge is not good when it applies to your health. I learned to squash that lifelong habit.

But going through breast recon you are gonna search anyway, regardless what you’re told so I suggest turning ON the ‘search guard’ or safesearch to prevent the plethora of sexually illicit websites and porn that will pop up in your search for legit breast reconstruction photos. The ‘dirty’ stuff is provocative, maybe fun to browse through, but they’re sure not posted by reputable specialists whose livelihood and sole purpose is to rebuild your tattered bosom after cancer. I came across thousands of photos of breast treatments, gross before and afters I really wish I hadn’t clicked on because they nauseated me. Unless that’s what you want to look at, I urge you to view such augmentation photos with a grain of salt. They just ain’t the same.

Especially for breast cancer reconstruction, this link is not too awful: Question: what does a reconstructed breast look like?. I read some women’s comments, inspiring and sympathetic, and despondent as well. (Another proof positive that I was in the right surgeon’s hands.) Their stories ranged from reconstructive disasters and discouragement, to successful treatments toward leading a fairly normal life after breast cancer.

Till later that year, as I neared the plateau skidding toward the downhill slide of my recon, I couldn’t read the articles or stomach their cancer photos. Not in the midst of my own reconstruction surgeries. It was the ol’ deal couldn’t see my own blood without fainting. In one follow up appointment, even Dr. Jew tried to steer me clear of looking at real breast cancer images online, too grotesque, she wrinkled her face and asked “why look at those?”, making it clear that she believed I needed to maintain a positive ‘healing mode’. She did not want me to dwell on the gruesome. I appreciated her genuine concern, very hard to find such a surgeon as Dr. Jew. I followed her suggestion; there’s only so much a woman can take. Only so much a patient should stomach. Forcing myself to look at the worst ugliness of breast cancer images was putting myself through hell. Not worth it.

Dr. Jew and Dr. Korentager and Mary Kate, assured me that my mastectomy recovery time will be months, not weeks. For some it takes years. They all saw how impatient I am. And I wanted to run away from all of it. I’m accustomed to being strong and healthy and independent, suddenly I became quite the opposite. I hated the incessant struggle to heal my body and spirit.

As the injections progressed, I arrived for one appointment, as I entered the exam room Mary Kate must have sensed my anxiety, seen it on my face. I could not swallow, I was struggling to maintain composure, so many unanswered questions running through my head. I’d had a rough week. Grief, I had not been through this stuff before and I really felt cranky. She paused mid-exam and calmly reassured me, explained in more detail how the reconstruction is done.

She laid her hand on my arm and assured me smiling, she gets restless too. I don’t readily succumb to tears of pain but I was feeling very fragile and vulnerable. A good nurse just knows — “yeah, winter’s being way too stubborn, spring is long overdue”. I laughed a little, glad for her temperament, her humor. It takes a good nurse to make me laugh when I had felt like crap a second ago. Although I was inclined to put on a good facade, it was obviously a lost-cause to be so stoic, even in public. Mary Kate understood.  I took huge comfort in KU’s reputation of breast cancer treatment. I believed I was in the best hands.

Like that injured dog, I accepted that Mary Kate and the rest of the staff knew what I was dealing with, my struggles were palpable by the sheer fact that I sat in that office. I admired their compassion for me and other patients — all of the staff in that sleek office had a gentle composure that made me feel comfortable despite all the cancer (that monster) in the room. After obvious persistent questioning Mary Kate reassured me I’d love the results. “You’re doing great” she said. It took all my stamina and positive thinking for me to feel it. I wanted desperately to feel empowered that I’d look and be normal again.

finally spring was emerging

One day it was 78 degrees so I raked up all the dried up doggie poo piles of the winter. S-o-o-o-o after all that arm activity, by 9 p.m. I got all comfy on the sofa to watch some TV. Except that my chest muscles hurt too bad. Tears welled up. Ed was getting ready for work, seeing my discomfort gave me a pain tablet that I had stubbornly avoided until I got to that point, which I was at. He doesn’t usually chew my ass but gave me a pep talk knowing I’m a workaholic, anxious to get started gardening just to be outdoors getting my hands dirty. For once I listened, then he held me, reassuring me “this is the ‘in sickness and in health’ part”. I leaned into his shoulder and cried. Very soon I tediously crawled under the covers into bed, no longer able to stay conscious.

Ed’s co-workers all asked about my progress. I became an overnight hero to all my x-Hallmarkers, their outpouring of caring was awesome; made me feel more like I belonged than when I was a regular employee.. My husband gave them only bits and pieces of info, though I think of them as friends to this day, especially those few who attended our wedding ceremony that blistering hot August morning. I used to act so tough as nails in that warehouse in the race for my 480. Because of our points quota, I struggled against the clock while pushing friends away. This time I prayed those friends would forgive it had only been my job, that now I sought true friendship without a time clock. Those friends are rare — they were in my circle.

As y’all can tell, I hate labels. Borderline “clinically depressed”. Being I was near clinical, I don’t mean to say I was constantly depressed, however that borderline threatened insanely susceptible to negativity, if there is such a thing, that I  normally am not. Very relative. This was also very different, more, so much more wrought with emotion. I got very impatient and could not hide the overwhelming moodiness with the transition from the mastectomy to the last week of my injection prior to my implants surgery.

The pressure on the tissue expander hurt therefore I fought sleeping slightly sitting up. I believe my crankiness was because of lack of a good night’s sleep. I was unable to sleep on my left side, very uncomfortable.

I read a lot. Reading other women’s experiences helped me to recover some sanity. I came across  The Blog’ by Lisa Masters. I showed it to my husband just as a subtle reminder that even though we are a team and he’s been stalwartly supportive, it was me who was going through the cancer treatment as much as he tried to sympathize.

our stress and imagination can render such helplessness…

Although a woman certainly will acknowledge it’s acutely warranted, it’s futile to presume she can    rationalize that such a precious body part as her breast, must be cut away, dissected and destroyed. I had frightful dreams of my breast surgery and sought redemption which I was so unsure, never before second-guessing my faith. Awesome dreams of fishing with Jesus was my only consolation during sleep. Nonetheless in my sagacious mind I was entrenched in Hell. Engulfed in those awful moments, it was solely by the grace of God that my depression diminished into a manageable issue.

Maybe I was not such a hopeless case to regain my womanhood, rather I still felt shredded all over the floor. It was such an uncomfortable feeling. Depression and feeling insignificant to disease caved in to loneliness. Damn idioms. After I let go a tear or two with Mary Kate, Dr. Korentager put me on low dose Xanax which helped elevate my depression as well as the painful breast muscle contractions.

Also I overcame my depression by reading other stories and watching many YouTube’s of other women’s stories coping with their breast cancer, reinforcing my feelings of total upheaval. A natural response. Relief trickled in. I felt tiny solace, slowly accepted all the trauma (and its drama) into being more manageable. Yet, by no stretch of the imagination could I disengage my whole psychological experience in the midst of healing from a mastectomy into simple cognitive reason. I just couldn’t do it. It was not a simple challenge; my will had lost control.

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I had breast cancer. There. I said it. To myself. I had a mastectomy. I am a survivor. After three months of doctor visits I began to accept that I was healing and alive, and cancer free. I accepted being a cancer patient as it transformed my world into a breast cancer survivor.

I had to get proactive. That mindset gave me hope and the guts to start writing again; there have been many lapses since this all started. Moreover, with doctors, staff and other women I met, my circle of people reaffirmed my sense of belonging that helped put a smile back on my face. They were my little glimmer of hope in a tidal wave of uncertainty. Appreciative of beautiful flowers, texts and invites to school events pushed me towards a better recuperation than I had at the onset believed was possible. I finally started to get back my old self, not feeling even partially womanly yet, but at least I began to cut loose from that sad, deep achy feeling like when my sweetie dog, Abby died. It was no picnic, but I’m alive and kicking. An idiom worth writing.

“If you’ve been through a real mess, it qualifies you to be a messenger”… anonymous.

[comments from the original blog post, 2014]

Keep up the good work. Honest and raw is what most people need. Your writing is better than I’ve ever seen. God take care of this lovely lady she has a greater purpose than she sees now. Take her down her path to where you expect her to be and use her blessings to help others. Love ya —  Tammy

You have made it through the hardest part,the worst part, and now you will mend a little every day. There is no doubt you will be back fishing and hunting before long. There is now a light at the end of the tunnel. We thank God for that. Keep your spirits up, and your hopes and dreams will all come true. I am honored to be your friend. Thank you…Bobby. (My web-friend is an old-school optimist.)

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