Where the light enters

finding meaning in mortality

Tag: mastectomy

The post-surgery blues

My surgery was completed five days ago on Groundhog Day.  I never was sure what one does to celebrate Groundhog Day, so I guess having surgery is as good a celebration as any.  I just hope I don’t have to relive it day after day like Phil does in the movie.

Day Five post-surgery is bearable.  Days One and Two really weren’t.  The worst thing was not being able to find a comfortable position for sleeping.  The next worst things are the surgical drains that have become like new appendages.  Gross little appendages that dangle out of my side like useless rubbery limbs.

I have an appointment tomorrow with my surgeon, and I’m hoping the drains will be removed.  Until then, they’re tucked away in secret pockets inside my new camisole’s Velcro depths.  Not exactly haute couture, but it definitely serves its purpose.

I thought I would be sad losing a body part, but the main thing that I feel now seems to be guilt.  I keep thinking that if I had only been more vigilant, or gone to see the doctor sooner, or eaten more vegetables, or taken more vitamins.  Who knows?  I’ve scrutinized every possible mistake and misstep for the past decade, trying to figure out where I went wrong.  This is, I know, a fruitless exercise, as I think it’s very rare that anyone knows for certain where his cancer came from.  How could you know?  We bathe ourselves (sometimes literally) in carcinogens, eating, drinking, and breathing them.  How could we pick out a single culprit?  Quite likely it wasn’t one thing that caused cancer to form, just as it’s not likely that one act of mine would have prevented it.  There are way too many variables in something like cancer to pin it down so tidily.

But nonetheless I feel guilty for not knowing that this was happening to me, for not paying attention to every excruciating detail of my physiology.  Mea culpa .  And I’m not even Catholic.  I’ve made so many mistakes in my life; it only seems reasonable that this is another one.

I used to have a dream that I had forgotten to do something and, as a result of my forgetfulness, I was doomed.  Did my unconscious mind know that something malevolent was growing inside me?  Maybe this is going too far with dream analysis, but I’ve not had the dream lately.  Maybe my subconscious is saying, Finally!  You realized that creepy thing was colonizing your body and you took action. ‘Bout time.  Or something like that.

I guess I should just be happy that the tumor is gone, although I probably shouldn’t count my chickens until I’ve seen the doctor tomorrow, to learn the results of the pathology report.  It’s possible that I could need more surgery if the tumor margins aren’t clear.

This may sound morbid, but I wish I could save my tumor, maybe put it in a jar of formaldehyde (a carcinogen, so my tumor would likely feel at home), and look at it.  If I could envision it outside of my body, a separated thing from the rest of me, maybe I could be comfortable with the idea of it being gone.  As it is, I’ve never seen it.  I have no material proof of its existence or non-existence.  I don’t think my doctors are concocting an elaborate scam to bilk my insurance company out of great gobs of money (or do I?), but I had no symptoms of being sick, no indication of anything being wrong, only a feeling of firmness in one breast.  If I could only see the tumor, be able to point to it and say, Foiled again, Snidely Whiplash!,  (or maybe something that doesn’t make me sound quite so old), I think I would sleep better at night.

But that’s impossible.  They’ve already cut the little bugger up and analyzed his very essence.  I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with whatever news comes of this dissection.  I’m hopeful that it will be a bit of good news finally.

Until then, I have to suffer through the post-surgery blues.  Guess I’d better get my harmonica out.  It might be a long night.

Last dance with the red devil

Today was my fourth and final Adriamycin and Cytoxan chemo infusion.  Two weeks from now, I’ll begin twelve weeks of a different chemo drug called Taxol, but these first four treatments are supposedly the stronger of the two.

Adriamycin is probably the worst of these. Its nickname, the Red Devil, might give you a clue to its ill effects which can include nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, darkening of skin or nails, mouth sores, weakness, fatigue, eye redness or puffy eyelids, and, of course, hair loss.  These are only the common side effects.  More serious side effects can evidently also occur.

The major side effect that I’ve experienced while dancing with the Red Devil is fatigue.  By this, I don’t mean the normal “I’m pooped and I’m going to go curl up on the sofa with a good book” kind of fatigue.  I mean the “I can no longer stand up or sit up or pay attention to anything and I have to go lie down now” kind of fatigue.  The kind of fatigue that makes you ask yourself why you’re wearing ankle weights.  Then you realize, of course, that you’re doing no such thing.

I’ve noticed the fatigue setting in sooner and lasting longer with each successive treatment.  I suppose this is what they meant when they said there would be a cumulative effect.  I finished today’s treatment just after lunch, and by late afternoon, I already needed a lie-down.

On a more positive note, today’s treatment was the last dance I’ll ever have with the Red Devil.  Even if my cancer recurs down the road, I can’t have Adriamycin again; there’s a limit to how much you can have in your lifetime, and I think I reached it this afternoon.

Not the Red Devil, but close enough. My mom circa 1980s.

Not the Red Devil, but close enough. My mom circa 1980s.

I do have twelve more chemo treatments to go; however, the Taxol is supposedly not as harsh for most people.  There may still be fatigue and hair loss, but I’ll no longer have to return the following day for a shot of Neulasta to boost my white blood count.  One possible side effect of Taxol that I’m not looking forward to is neuropathy.  This happens when there is damage to the nerve endings, normally in your toes and fingers, that causes numbness and tingling.  For most people, it’s a temporary condition, but for a few it can persist and become a permanent problem.  Some people with neuropathy end up not being able to button up their own shirts.

After my first round of Taxol, I’ll go to see my surgeon again.  She wants to evaluate the chemo’s effect on the tumor to see if it’s shrinking.  If it shrinks enough, (and by enough I mean an awful lot), I’ll be able to have a lumpectomy.  If not, I’ll have to have a mastectomy.  So far, it appears that the tumor is softening, but not necessarily getting any smaller.  My oncologist says that’s normal for where I am in the treatment process, so I suppose there’s still some hope that I won’t have to have a body part lopped off.

I’m not vain, and I’m not really worried about losing some part of my femininity, but I’d rather not start cutting body parts off.  How much more terrible it must be to lose an arm or a leg, or something more noticeable like a nose or an eye.  And yet I’m not comfortable with losing anything.

My friend, Joy, who went with me to today’s treatment, reminded me that as you age, you do lose things.  Maybe not entire body parts, but there is a definite sense of loss as you get older, when things no longer function as they used to, or you have to give up certain activities because they’re just too difficult to continue doing.

I understand her point.  Although I’m not entirely comfortable with the aging process either, I realize that it’s inevitable (if we’re lucky enough to make it that far).  I needed reading glasses for the first time a few years ago, and I still mourn this loss.  I’ve always welcomed change, but loss is a type of change that I’m evidently not well-equipped to deal with.

So the thought of my body drastically, irreparably changing in this way is a hard pill to swallow.  But if it’s a life-saving pill, I suppose I’ll have to learn to swallow it.

My oncologist told me today to stay positive and that’s what I’ll try to do.  Maybe the chemo will shrink the tumor significantly.  Maybe at the end of it all, dancing with the devil will have been worth the trouble.

Whatever happens, I say goodbye to him today, and thank him for his efforts to kill my cancer cells.  I wish him well with his next patient, and if my treatments prove to be a success, I promise to thank him every morning as I snap my underthings in place, getting ready for the day ahead.