Saturday, January 28, 2012


The last week has been one big blur. I left the hospital last Sunday with four tubes coming out of my armpits, grenade-shaped bulbs at the end of the tubes, the purpose of which is to collect lymphatic and other fluid your body creates after invasive surgery. Don't ask me; biology is weird. Two of the drains were removed sometime this week (again, it's been kind of a blur); the other two should come out next Friday. To keep Quinn (and our cats) from playing with the drains, I have a special mastectomy camisole with pockets on the inside. Between the tubes and bandages and grenade-shaped bulbs, I've spent the last week looking like a suicide bomber.

To shower, I strung a shoelace through loops on the grenade-drains and tied it around my neck. Since I am sore and on strict orders not to lift my arms over my head and on a steady vicodin/valium diet, Chris was there to help me out keep me from cracking my head on the bathroom tile. He started to wash my back. And then I leaned my head on his shoulder and cried - for the blur that all of the last five months have been, for the loss of my breasts and hair, for the pure relief I feel that the disease is gone, for how lucky I am to have the support system I do. It all washed down the drain in a sudsy, salty mess that felt so good after being wrapped in bandages for nearly a week.

I am trying so hard not to have survivor's guilt. The last five months have been no walk in the park, but all things considered, I beat cancer fairly easily. I got mad - no, furious - at this disease, told it repeatedly to get the hell out of my body my LIFE, and had at least one remarkable reason to stick around.

It kind of floors me that a 20-pound little boy - who has no concept of sickness or danger or the intensity with which my heart beats when he's around - could be such a huge part of what got me through cancer. And I hope I'm not putting too much of a burden on him by deeming him my little savior.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


I am in such a fog of narcotics; if what I write in this post doesn't make much sense, please don't hold it against me. Also, thank god for narcotics. They almost make daytime television bearable.

My surgery on Friday went exceptionally well, I'm told. They initially removed three lymph nodes based on where the radioactive dye traveled, and then another that appeared to be full of scar tissue (indicating cancer had probably been there as well). Good news: upon initial inspection during surgery, all four nodes were cancer-free.

Back to the pain. I'm so thrilled the surgery went well, because I'm not sure I could mentally bear this amount of prolonged discomfort otherwise. It's like I did 1,000 push-ups and then - for good measure - got punched in the sternum. I'm nestled into a cocoon of pillows on the couch, and as long as I'm on a steady stream of vicodin and valium... What was I saying?

Oh, and more good news tonight: my surgeon called to tell me that the full pathology report - which looks at all the breast tissue they removed - was COMPLETELY CANCER-FREE.

"You steam-rolled right over this disease," she told me.

It's like getting an A+ on the most important report card of my life. (That's a big deal for overachievers like me). So yeah, the pain's totally worth it.

Monday, January 16, 2012


In four days, I'll lose my breasts - breasts that fed, nurtured, and comforted my baby Bug in the middle of so many nights, lulled him back to sleep, grew him into a rambunctious little boy who climbs stairs, chases cats, makes "vrooom vroom" noises while playing with his cars (really, sound effects at ten months old - who knew?), and who won't let me out of his sight lately. (He has picked a winner of a week to begin having separation anxiety.) These breasts served their purpose, and it's unlikely they'll ever nurse again, so why am I so nostalgic about losing them? 

The practical side of me says "good riddance," but my feminine, sexual, nurturing, highly impractical side feels like curling into a ball of self-pity under the covers. That side has a big pout on its face. And maybe this is the rub: a big part of me feels like I'm losing my femininity here. On the heels of chemo, which is no aphrodisiac, I'm sacrificing one more (well, two) very feminine parts of me to the cancer gods. Enough is enough. 

I waiver between being anxious: will they find any evidence of cancer in the lymph nodes they biopsy? how will I handle Bug trying to climb ME once I'm home from the hospital? pleasepleaseplease don't let them find any cancer. And curious: how much do they weigh? (yes, seriously, I am curious what my new weight will be - told you, not practical.) how much pain will I be in? will I experience phantom "limb" syndrome when it's cold outside?

As the big day gets closer, I find myself looking more and more at other women's breasts in a strange mix of curiosity and envy. Curiosity about whether they're real, what size they are; envy that their tatas haven't failed them. I realize it's a pathetic exercise. My practical side is not speaking up very loudly at the moment.  

As for the practical, my surgeon's going to perform what she's called a "witch's hat" incision, which I've been told will minimize the visibility of my scars (not that they'll be on display, anyway). When my implants are placed about a year from now, most of the scar will be hidden. AND IT IS CRAZY THAT THIS IS EVEN ON MY LIST OF CONCERNS. 

Hard to compare that cancer thing with a scar, you know? But it's funny how the brain can compartmentalize things. Well, my brain, anyway. Brilliant coping mechanism. My guess is I stash unpleasant things away somewhere in that cobweb-filled practical side of my brain (at least it's good for something).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Speaking of vanity, here's a sentence I never thought I'd utter: I met with my plastic surgeon last week. It was a consultation so that he could get an idea of what I look like now and go over my reconstruction options down the road. As he examined me, he said in all seriousness that he could "undo everything motherhood has done," and - at the very least - "they'll look better than they do now."

Also, I thought, my fake boobs won't be trying to kill me, so it's a win-win all around.

My surgeon explained that there are three primary choices women have when considering reconstruction: immediate implants, done at the time of the mastectomy; expanders placed either at the time of or post-mastectomy and later replaced with implants, an option that sometimes also requires a follow up skin graft surgery; or the non-surgical option of prosthetics worn in pockets sewn into bras.

Since 1998, insurance companies have been required by federal law to cover whichever option a woman and her medical team chooses. Congress reasoned in part that reconstruction restored a woman's "wholeness," both physically and mentally, following a mastectomy. Senator Dianne Feinstein argued that it is a reconstructive - rather than cosmetic - procedure, god bless her.

Have I told you I made the mistake of googling "mastectomy scars" early on in this cancer process? The images were raw and - for me, anyway - gut-wrenching. If you dare, David Jay's The SCAR Project takes a provocative look at survivors. Seeing those images, I am so grateful to Ms. Feinstein that I have reconstruction options.

Because I'll have radiation, which can cause the skin to scar and contract (like a sunburn on steroids), I'm not a good candidate for immediate implants. Instead, I'll have expanders placed at the time of my mastectomy. Then, to gradually stretch the skin, the expanders will be injected with saline every couple of weeks through ports where my nipples used to be. By this point, they assure me all sensation in the area is completely gone. I'm not sure whether to be relieved by that or not.

Eventually, the expanders will be replaced by actual implants. I may or may not also need an additional skin graft surgery, depending on how my skin heals after radiation. After six rounds of chemo, a bilateral mastectomy, thirty radiation treatments and at least one additional reconstruction surgery, I tell you what: I am going to rock one hell of a bikini when this is all said and done.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


As the new year gets underway, the annual tradition of making resolutions has me wondering what my own resolutions for 2012 should be and thinking generally about self-improvement. Every time I go into a forward fold in yoga lately, I'm reminded that I am overdue for a pedicure. Cancer puts so much of how you look out of your control (although I can't blame my chipped toenail polish on cancer). In a strange twist of irony, I am so much less critical of my appearance now that I'm bald and about to lose my breasts.

I haven't always been easy on myself.

Exhibit A: I have been in a fight with my body hair for as long as I can remember. And for most of my adult life, the hair had been winning by a landslide. This battle has cost me more time and money on waxing and laser hair removal and depilatories than our government has spent on the war in Iraq. Who knew my victory was shrouded in a heavy chemo cocktail? Because I have ZERO body hair at the moment. Take THAT, razor burn. Unfortunately, the one thing I'm most self-conscious about now is that I have no eyebrows.

Exhibit B: The week after Quinn was born, when my belly was still black and purple, bruised and swollen around my c-section incision, I stood naked in front of the full-length mirror in our bedroom and cried. (New mamas, don't do this. Hormones are running rampant through your system and your body has just been beat to shit. Nothing good will come of doing what I did.) In that same bout of self-pity, I asked Chris if he'd ever be attracted to me again. Poor guy.

Fast forward to a few weeks after my diagnosis. I had a quiet moment to soak in a bath for the first time since I'd been pregnant and took a quick inventory. The faint pink scar low on my abdomen is barely visible. My post-nursing boobs are more like a pair of battered and worn-out running shoes than the sparkling new heels you wear to the dance. My hips are wider now than before Quinn, my stomach softer. And all I could think as the warm water pooled around me was that I'm totally okay with it all - the scars, the softness, the imperfections; I just want to be healthy.

So what are my resolutions for the new year? Be less critical, for one. Appreciate my body for what it can DO - give birth, beat cancer, run marathons, hike Camelback a week out from chemo - rather than how it looks; looks are so very fleeting, and so out of my control anymore. And normally, I would resolve to exercise more or eat healthier (both on my list again, actually), but this year my goals are driven so much more by vitality than vanity.