Taking stock of post-cancer-treatment me

Not really.

Not really.

I like to think about my breast cancer experience as little possible, and on a good day I succeed. I have many physical reminders of my BC that have nothing to do with the preponderance of pink ribbons and their campaigns:
• my lymphoarm and all the joy it brings me,
• dark ashy hair without a touch of blond,
• aches and pains in my breasts,
• the fact that no bra will ever fit right again (until I get a custom made one with different-sized cups, or wear a prosthesis or padding),
• the suspicion that the lopsidedness is visible to casual onlookers,
• scars on chest/breasts and under my arm, and finally,
• the radiation tattoos.

What I tell myself about each of these points:
• can’t hide the bandages or the sleeve and glove, gonna have them for the rest of my life, so I just have to deal
• thinking that getting some blond highlights back in my hair is a great idea as part of my back to work preparation—just need a whack of cash that I don’t have just now
• can’t take pain pills for that, gonna have them for the rest of my life, so I have to deal
• could have a third breast surgery to reduce the left one, and even though my plastic surgeon is an accomplished anatomical artiste I think I do not want another go-round, so I will just have to deal
• if someone is staring at my chest and discovers one breast is larger than the other, really, what the hell can I do? At present I’m home all day, or running kids around in the car, or going to appointments where I guarantee no one is staring at breasts with anything but a passing or clinical interest, so if that reminder really gets to be too much I will just get fitted for a prosthesis
• I am on my third bottle of Bio Oil in efforts to decrease the appearance of my scars and as long as I keep my arm down and clothing on, the only one that is visible is the one from my port and it’s not so bad now
• the radiation tattoos, particularly the one in the centre of my chest, above almost every neckline I wear, is the one thing I CAN do something about. There is a plastic surgeon here in Toronto who does radiation tattoo removals for free in the month of October (and hopefully shortly thereafter).

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Lymphadema / lymphahell

This is my impression of Dr. Zoidberg. It is my first bandaging for Stage II lymphadema.

This is my impression of Dr. Zoidberg. It is my first bandaging for Stage II lymphadema.

Today was a typical day in my new normal: sleeping from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m. with many wakings due to lonely, mewing cat Benny, bad dreams and new screeching leg cramps; drifting in and out of sleep from 9 a.m. to noon; up until 5, then sleep until 9:30 when Tessa woke me to a fully prepared meal (made by her and Luka). That was a bonus and welcome treat. Now I will prepare for the new fun in my daily routine—bandaging my lymphadema arm.

The bandaged arm. Note my normal hand and how you can actually see bones there.

The bandaged arm. Note my normal hand and how you can actually see bones there.

I had been managing the lymphadema in my right hand, arm, breast and trunk very well since it was diagnosed in November last year. Twice daily self MLD (manual lymphatic drainage) massage, meticulous skin care, wearing custom-made compression gloves and sleeves all day (only taken off when I was lying down) and participating in a specialized exercise program (Lebed Healthy Steps) kept my lymphadema at Stage I. After my May surgery it was difficult to do the self-massage and since I was on bed rest for two weeks I kept my arm elevated and massaged as well as I could. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough. In June my arm started hurting the same way it did when I was diagnosed, and I could see the swelling was increased. I saw Dr. Chang, a physiatrist at the Princess Margaret Lymphedema Clinic, and among other things we discussed—like this freaking fatigue that keeps hanging around—he referred me back to a lymphadema therapist for hand and arm measuring and the dreaded treatment for Stage II: bandaging.

This angle shows I actually still have all my fingers...

This angle shows I actually still have all my fingers…

I thought massaging and wearing the compression sleeve and glove was a life sentence, but this fresh hell is far worse. My arm at Stage I was only 3-4% larger than my unaffected left arm, which was very good. Now my right arm is 13% larger, and feels gross and painful. Compression sleeves and gloves hold your arm and hand at the size they are. Only bandaging can hope to reduce the size of the arm and hand. Extended massage of the neck, arm, etc., etc., right down to the tops of my legs now has to happen twice a day, no more than an hour at a time. Then I do the bandaging: a stockinette over the entire arm, bandaging of all the fingers, thumb, hand and wrist, then wrapping of the whole thing in cotton padding, then wrapping with three different widths of compression bandages in specific patterns and directions, right up to the armpit. WITH ONE HAND!

Luka came to the first bandaging appointment and videotaped everything. Thank God for that, because even with his video I was barely able to figure out what to do once I got home. I do not know how anyone could have that one session and then be prepared to do this at home with only one hand to do everything. My brain was unable to absorb anything from the session. That is very alarming.

I have had three good sobbing cries while trying to do this bandaging. It is taking me almost an hour each time. Add the hour-long massaging before bandaging and I’m looking at four hours a day on my hand and arm. Try not feeling hopeless. I’m hoping the pity party on the Stage II is nearing its end and that I’ll be able to speed up the bandaging somewhat.

My own private saint is too busy for caregiver fatigue

This is Saint Nikolai Velimirovich; my saint Nikolay looks considerably younger, has no facial hair, and never wears vestments; from http://orthodoxchurchquotes.com/2014/11/25/st-nikolai-velimirovich-technology-is-deaf-mute-and-unanswering/

This is Saint Nikolai Velimirovich; my saint Nikolay looks considerably younger, has no facial hair, and never wears vestments; from http://orthodoxchurchquotes.com/2014/11/25/st-nikolai-velimirovich-technology-is-deaf-mute-and-unanswering/

I took it very, very easy this first post-surgical week at home. I did not do that first time around—I was more like Hey! bilateral partial mastectomy? of course I can do groceries!

This time, with Tessa, my primary caregiver for the last 15 months in Russia, my man has stayed with me around the clock since Wednesday night (seven days!), making all meals—not a single delivery car has darkened the driveway—bringing them to me, cleaning up afterward, as well as doing groceries, feeding and watering all four cats and the dog, driving Luka to gymnastics, and the bus terminal, and Graydon to the scooter store, and the convenience store and so much more. It makes me feel very special, particularly as I have come out from under the narcotics haze and realized what he really has done while I’ve been sleeping. I hope I never have to return the favour (because then he would be in massive pain, etc.), but will figure another way to return this fine treatment. ❤

My surgery was a success!

 

I am evil and will surely go to Hell, but when this photo popped up while I was researching "successful surgery" I knew I had to use it. In the photo,  Dr. Donald A. McCain, Chief, Division of Surgical Oncology Hackensack University Medical Center,  Assistant Clinical Professor of Surgery UMDNJ; I'm not sure what type of tumour that is, but It WASN'T mine!! Dr. McCain does more than 20 Whipple procedures a year, which means he's up there with the best of them. This photo is from http://drdonaldmccain.com/or-cases/live-surgery-images/successful-surgery-ii/

I am evil and will surely go to Hell, but when this photo popped up while I was researching “successful surgery” I knew I had to use it. In the photo, Dr. Donald A. McCain, Chief, Division of Surgical Oncology Hackensack University Medical Center, Assistant Clinical Professor of Surgery UMDNJ; I’m not sure what type of tumour that is, but It WASN’T mine!! Dr. McCain does more than 20 Whipple procedures a year, which means he’s up there with the best of them. This photo is from http://drdonaldmccain.com/or-cases/live-surgery-images/successful-surgery-ii/

 

My surgery was a success!

Now this says successful surgery! And this photo is from The Elite Trainer, Toronto's own (well, Richmond Hill's own now, but he started in Toronto) John Paul Catanzaro: http://theelitetrainer.com/ index.cfmt=Blog&pi=BLOG&blid=185

Now THIS says successful surgery! And this photo is from The Elite Trainer, Toronto’s own (well, Richmond Hill’s own now, but he started in Toronto) John Paul Catanzaro. He has been in the fitness biz for 20 years, and been published in 25+ mags and web sites, speaks everywhere, has two books, two DVDs and his own private training facility. Photo: http://theelitetrainer.com/ index.cfmt=Blog&pi=BLOG&blid=185

I of course never doubted for a minute that it wouldn’t be—I doubted it for days, mostly in the what-if-I-die-on-the-table? vein, or far, far worse, what-if-she-cuts-in-there-and-there’s-more-cancer?

So neither of those things happened. My surgery was around 10:45, and I was in recovery a long time. I came up to my room about 6, texted a few friends that I was getting “excellent Spain meds” then watched at least three episodes of American Justice on my phone while I made blue bracelets.  I had a feeling it would take a while for me to calm down after I came to, and for them to find the right drugs for me (I hate pain, and will work hard to find the correct relief). Once my wonder-nurse introduced fentanyl into the IV, I was pain free, alert, even lighthearted. If you could see what I could see under my gown, you could estimate how much drug was required to get that effect!

I actually took some photos of my left breast and the incredible sculptural work my surgeon had wrought there—skin, tissue, black thread, wound up gauze, a clear cup—this is what I’d been hounding my surgeon for, and there it was. OMG is all I can say.

••• If you’re considering or have started reconstruction, and you have any questions, please mail me privately and we can talk about anything. The fact that my grandpa and grandma-in-law, and many colleagues, some neighbours, read this blog occasionally means that I think the details of my surgery are simply TMI for this blog. Seriously, I have photos and lots of experiences to share with any sister going through this, triple negative or not! •••

All night long I wandered in and out of sleep, lulled and awakened in turn by my sequential compression booties, fabulous boots that wrapped me up to my knees and went on all night sucking and blowing and making me think more than once that I was safely at home with Dixie, or Princess or Benny or Angel rubbing hard against my leg, almost lifting it off the bed looking for the best place to stretch out. I did fantasize about having a sequential hand-arm-shoulder-breast-and-trunk contraption that I could wear all night and never have to self-massage or wear my yucky sleeve and glove again though…

I was discharged the next morning, exactly at 11, with drains dangling. It was a bit of déjà vu from May 23, 2014 or I guess not, since it was almost identical, except for the compression sleeve and glove. By the way, I wore the sleeve and glove through pre-op and the actual surgery, explaining to the nurses and docs that it was my way of saying DON’T TOUCH THIS ARM! Obviously, they’ve seen it before.

I took it very, very easy this first week at home. I did not do that first time around—I was more like Hey! bilateral partial mastectomy? of course I can do groceries!

This post is long enough. I’ll write shortly about my follow-up.

Why am I having another surgery?

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This is a weird post to write. I’m hoping that since I am flipping out about my surgery in just over 48 hours, writing this could be cathartic, lessen some of my anxiety, give me some release.

Over the last few months I’ve had people ask me why I was going for a second surgery. I’m an open person, and a big believer in talking through your problems—a problem shared is a problem halved, that sort of thing. If I didn’t talk about things going on in my life, I think I would have imploded years ago. So when I would say that I had another surgery to go in my breast cancer saga, I was always prepared for the “what” question, and would respond with the whole “it’s called a revision, I had a partial mastectomy last year after chemo, but they call the recon a work in progress, radiation shrinks you, excess skin, scarring, balancing,” blah, blah, blah.

But the question that threw me each time was the “why?” “Why are you having another surgery?” “Aren’t you worried that something could go wrong? “Why not leave well enough alone?” “I wouldn’t let them near me with a scalpel again.” “They look fine to me.”

Why would these questions and comments bother me so much? I’m the one who says to talk everything over, get it out in the open. Maybe it’s because I’ve hit a tipping point where talking isn’t helping anymore. Maybe because I finally have to face I’m a vain person. If you’re a friend, or have been following my story, you’ll know how freaked out I was about losing my hair, butI still don’t think of that as vanity as much as it was about losing my identity and not recognizing myself. But really, is not wanting to have two differently sized breasts vanity? I’ve met wonderful women who walked away from their mastectomies and lumpectomies without any further surgeries and they’re satisfied, content, happy and thriving.

So here’s what I think, after much self-examination.

I want to do the surgery because I feel that cancer has taken away more than a year of my life, has left me with lymphedema of the arm, hand, breast and trunk, a lifelong sentence of wearing a compression sleeve and glove, the need for twice daily exercises and self-massage, restriction of movement, pain, loss of energy, craving for sleep that never satisfies, feeling that my memory will never work well again, and the crushing fear that the cancer will come back.

I intend to be here for a long, long time, and I want to take back as much as I can from cancer. I want my hair back to my shoulders, and I want breasts that match. I look at these things every single day, and while I’ll never get the original size back (nor would I want it back now that I’ve experienced life at this size), I do want to be able to fit into an off-the-shelf bra and not have to rearrange myself all day long. Or wear a prosthetic breast form.

I want to be able to buy a bra from La Senza or Victoria’s Secret and have it fit. I’d also like to be able to function on eight hours of sleep a day instead of 14, but small steps, small steps.

I have my surgery date!

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I received a call from my plastic surgeon’s secretary on Thursday with the date of my surgery: May 28. That had a few inconveniences attached to it—Tessa would be arriving back home from Russia the same evening; my boyfriend is planning to fly out May 29 to visit his sick father. But I don’t want to get caught in summer vacation roulette at the hospital, so it was a go. Pre-op on May 20.

I started the 27 Day Cleaning Countdown for the house. After this surgery I’ve been told there is no lifting, bending, raising arms, etc. With my current level of fatigue I achieve very little housecleaning, and the place has slid downhill. Anything that isn’t cleaned and sorted by May 27 will have to wait until mid-July, So Friday it was sort out the laundry room. 13 hours of sleep. Saturday was clean out front hall closet, sort, toss or Goodwill all footwear clear and wash front hall floor and baseboards, dust furniture.  3 hour nap; 13.5 hours of sleep. Sunday: 6 hours 15 minutes of sorting the garage, more laundry, cleaned out two kitchen cupboards. 3 hour nap; 2 hour nap, 9,5 hour sleep. Monday: Empty drawers in my room, pack some winter sweaters, reorganize upstairs linen closet, clean out and organize shelving unit in upper hall. 2 hour nap, 3.5 hour map, 9 hour sleep. I was channeling my anxiety over the surgery into cleaning, but it wasn’t doing anything about the fatigue. My house is looking better, and if I last three weeks, I’m sure the house would look houseguest-ready.

Then on Tuesday, the lovely secretary called with the offer to jump the surgery ahead two full weeks to May 14. Pros: My anxiety/dread/fear would be over two works earlier. Tessa will be spared having to be my personal support worker. My boyfriend will be here to take care of me. Cons: not enough time to clean house. No time to get the car fixed. Must have Luka’s birthday party this weekend. No travelling to Stratford for Mother’s Day. I’m still scared.

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So it’s on for Thursday, stay over one night, home on Friday. Preop is Tuesday.

Now I really need meditation and inner resources as  I climb clean the walls!

How am I physically?

I know a post ago I said that I was going to try writing more often and see if that helps with my outlook, and it’s been a slow start (better than a no start, I tell the dog). So tonight I’m going to give my state of the physical address.

My right hand with lymphedema, in need of major massage to force all that fluid back up my arm, over and across the right shoulder and down into the neck area where lots of lymph nodes are hanging out, looking for work, I hope.

My right hand with lymphedema, in need of major massage to force all that fluid back up my arm, over and across the right shoulder and down into the neck area where lots of lymph nodes are hanging out, looking for work, I hope.

When my hand is like this, it hurts a lot!

When my hand is like this, it hurts a lot!

So, how am I physically?

I am managing my hand, arm and trunk lymphedema with twice daily self-massage. Graydon and Tessa each came to an instructional session at Princess Margaret’s Survivorship Program for the decongestive massage and filmed it each time. Pam was the therapist both times, and she was amazingly patient and accommodating about filming. I have found that it really helps to have the video when I do the massage myself, both for pacing and remembering to do all the parts of the massage routine. I am taking a second session of Lebed Method Healthy Steps exercise classes at Toronto General Hospital, designed for opening up and promoting lymphatic drainage through the whole body, which I need to keep the swelling down in my right fingers, hand, arm and trunk, and reroute that fluid to other lymph nodes. I try to do a modified (shortened) version every day at home—the days I do it I feel better in the arm and chest. I need to do aerobic exercise, but am having a hard time keeping that up five times a week.

The fatigue continues, and is the most frustrating thing I face on a daily basis. I didn’t “believe” in fatigue before, now I believe it but I hate it. Fatigue usually lifts a few months after radiation, but I’m five months out from radiation and still bagged. After seeing my psychiatrist last week, and running two more errands, I slept from 4 p.m. to 10 a.m. the next day. 18 hours. On days I have to get out and do stuff, I need to drink a large coffee every hour or so until I am done, then it’s water. If I don’t drink coffee, by 10:30 or 11 a.m., whether I have exercised or not, I need to sleep. That sleep can be two hours or six, and if there isn’t a huge reason to get up, I can nap all evening and then sleep all night, punctuated by my mind waking up to rattle through bad thoughts for 10 minutes or two hours. If I can will myself back to sleep, great. If not, I lie there with a body that can’t get up.

I have breast surgery coming up. The right side has continued to shrink thanks to the radiation, the gift that keeps on giving. The plastic surgeon left my right breast a fair bit larger than the left after my surgery, because radiation hardens and shrinks the breast tissue. That way, depending on the shrinkage, the two breasts might end up close in size. No luck in my case. They are now at least two cup sizes different, which means no bra can possibly fit. And the difference is definitely noticeable by more people than just me. I have thought about going with a prosthesis, but there are enough other things that need to be fixed and rejigged that surgery is planned. I’ve had the surgical consult, reviewed expectations, procedures, recovery. Now I wait for an appointment to sign my consent papers, and then I’ll be scheduled. I don’t want surgery, but this damned cancer has screwed me over enough already, I don’t need to see more evidence of it every time I look at myself.

Miscellaneous items: My hair is coming in like I always thought it would if it was ever short—curly at first, now wavy, just as thick as before, texture still silky. So, except for the natural dirty, dirty dishwater blond colour, it’s not so bad. I still want my long, blond highlighted coif, so I am not trimming it in any way—just keep it growing! My right breast hurts all the time inside. On the outside, there is no sensation, and I still have no sensation under my arm and around to the back. That makes the massage feel really freaky—my left hand knows what it’s doing, but my right arm can’t report back. Weird. My toe nails are not growing back. This will start panicking me soon, because I go barefoot from May to October, and those toes look like photos in a medical journal. I can’t even paint them, because there are no nails! Fingernails are much better, as in I have nails on all ten digits, but they don’t adhere to the nail bed very well yet, so lift up a lot, have bubbles and ridges in the nails themselves, and peel and split a lot. But, I can paint them, so it’s OK.