Month: January 2014

Switcheroo

A routine check up at the plastic surgeon’s this week, where I received some great news. The good doctor says my skin has recovered sufficiently from radiotherapy to proceed with what’s known in the game as ‘the exchange’. That’s to say the switch from the saline-filled implants – the tortoise shells – to the gel-based ones – the squishies. I am booked in for the operation next Wednesday.

Most surgeons flat out refuse to work on radiated skin, fortunately Dr. Moko is in the minority. I had prepared myself for months of waiting, however she is confident there’s no need to delay. On the day of my upcoming surgery, it will have been just eight weeks since my last radiotherapy treatment. Apparently my skin has shown remarkable resilience. I’ll never know what element of the care regime helped most – the Miaderm cream, the hyperbaric oxygen, the vitamin E oil (that made me stink like a docker, by the way) – but in combination, they’ve done the trick. And while problems could present themselves on the irradiated side at a later date, here and now I’ve plenty to be encouraged by.

It’s a far simpler procedure this time around, and while I’ll be under general anaesthetic I’ll be in and out in about an hour and can go home the same day. There will be no drains to manage, no complex pain relief regime and few restrictions to my mobility. I will have to look after the stitches, though, which I didn’t do very well last time, but I’ve learnt my lesson and will take it a bit easier.

The doctor will re-excise the cut under my right, prophylactically-removed breast and make a new cut under the left, irradiated side (the existing scar runs along the middle). This is disappointing in that I’ll get another scar on the left side, however it’s a relief too because the existing scar has healed well and I was concerned whether it’d hold up if it was cut open again. I know it’ll look okay. I’ve come a long way since my first encounter with the new me back in August. I can recall my horrified reaction and the brutality of the physical response it evoked – self-loathing manifesting as nausea and breathlessness. Yuck.

As surgery approaches, I find there are many familiar elements but the way I feel about it is totally different. The other day, I sat with the surgeon, calmly discussing which implant to choose, round or anatomical ‘teardrop’ shape. She recommends teardrop: “It’s a more natural look, and better if you’re leaner.” Breastless I may be, but I am all woman and am delighted by the compliment. Physically holding them, weighing them up, I had the sense ‘this is surreal’ but this time I could see the humour. The last time I held one, my ears were ringing and I was going out of my mind with fear and repulsion.

Next on the bizarre-but-now-normal discussion agenda – nipple reconstruction options, which would require a third surgery followed by a session with a specialist tattoo artist who draws on an areola. But Ted and I have discussed it at length and kind of like how it looks currently, so have decided not to bother. “That’s not uncommon. Nor is changing your mind. It’s completely up to you and a very personal decision.”

That it is. I want to look normal from the outside whilst living with the no-nipple deformity (horrible but accurate word). I can completely understand how some people would hate to look down and be reminded every day of What Happened. I, however, feel need to acknowledge it.

Plus I can’t be fucked with the extra surgery, choosing an areola colour and all that shit, no thank you.

Anyhoo, I take the well-trodden path from the surgeon’s office into that of the account manager’s, where I sign the paperwork and pay the (less eye-watering, but still significant) bill. I got presented with the admission forms for the hospital, and the foil-wrapped surgical soap I’m to use pre-surgery. Then the fasting rules. So far, so familiar.

Next a new twist: I need to sign the breast register. There is, ladies and gents, a centralised database with all the world’s falsies registered on it, presumably so should they explode at altitude, spontaneously combust or melt, they can do a recall. Here’s another ‘did you know’- a hallmark of any boob job (post mastectomy or not) is a lack of cleavage –  there will always be a gap between the two implants. This fact ranks about 18th in the Why This Sucks charts, but hey.

Later, I say to the man I love over his birthday cake “We’ve gone teardrop, Ted. That’s okay isn’t it?”

“Yeah, natural over porno.” cheeky half smile “I suppose that’s a good thing.”

It is indeed.

As is the fact that the surgical journey will be over in a week. That, my friends, is a very, very, very good thing.

Let them eat cake

Talking so openly (brazenly?) about cancer has, I very much hope, made it a bit easier for others with it to feel understood and those without it to understand what it’s like. So I’m going to talk a bit about the way my relationships and interactions have changed in the last six months.

As you can imagine, I find it hard when I’m treated very differently because of my illness. I am still me and want to be recognised  as such although often I feel as if I’m observed exclusively through the prism of cancer. While it’s a part of my reality, I do not want to marinade in there 24/7, thanks. I remain interested in other topics, even if they’re trivial, hell, especially if they’re trivial. So rather than discussing my treatment, how I’m feeling and all that, let’s talk about the Ashes, the weather, The Bachelor or the kids. Let’s, please.

I do understand that no-one wants to let you down and that there is a lot of fear about speaking out of turn. A lot. Which is not surprising, as it’s an inherently difficult situation. But while I don’t want to bang on about it, an acknowledgement of my reality is something I always appreciate. My favourite response to my news was from my friend Hels who was on holiday when it all kicked off. She called and said “Bloody hell woman! I turn my back and what happens? Couldn’t you make what goes on when I’m gone a bit less dramatic?” I could hear she was a bit nervous still, but I was so grateful to be treated ‘normally’ when life was about as abnormal as could be. Making light of it was, for me, infinitely preferable to saying nothing. If you know what’s going on, and I know you know and you know I know you know please do us both a favour and mention the elephant in the room. “I don’t know what to say” is a totally acceptable start. I remember mum finding the deniars ultra hurtful, especially those she thought were good friends.

At the other end of the spectrum, news like this can make others incredibly chatty. I’ve been on the receiving end of more opinions and speculation than ever before, apart from perhaps when I was pregnant. Have you tried intravenous Vitamin C/the alkaline diet/green juice? Again, I understand why – it’s a big deal and a major talking point but in the early days, particularly, these kinds of conversations would shake me up some. Afterwards I’d imagine the other person going about their day, deciding what’s for dinner perhaps, while the decisions I was stuck with were not so trivial (nor did the ‘what’s for dinner’ style decisions abate any, I might add). At the time, I didn’t want to be ‘fixed’ or encouraged but this seemed to be the nature of talk that came my way. I wanted to be allowed to be sad, angry and in shock. I heard lots of ‘I’m sure you’ll be ok’ and ‘be strong’ but it’s hard to listen to pseudo-positivity without feeling as if you’re being misunderstood. Mind you, I appreciated this far more than comments like ‘isn’t radiotherapy carcinogenic?’ or ‘you look terrible but it isn’t surprising.’

I used to love conversations and being the centre of attention, then I lost my appetite for all that. I found myself in many a conversational dead end because talking, really, can only take you so far. Also it’s hard to hear when your ears are ringing from the reverberating shock. I think in days gone by when communities were closer, interaction was less verbal and more physical. Perhaps your friend would let themselves in to your home and make a cup of tea and simply sit beside you. (Alan Bennett used to do this with Alec Guinness, after Guinness was widowed). Near silence, respect and presence really fit the bill in truly solemn times but our current ‘get well soon’ culture denies that some times are just hard on a (sometimes extremely) protracted basis and there’s an impatience for things to return to normal (i.e. a non-threatening reality). An impatience I shared at times.

I came across this graph which illustrates the cancer patient’s emotional journey and it is a fairly accurate reflection of how I’ve felt, with the red ‘x’ indicating roughly where I reckon I am now.

 Google Chrome

Nowadays I am able to reflect with a full heart on how incredibly lucky I’ve been to be on the receiving end of numerous gestures which speak volumes. Helen’s husband Joe made me a mix CD to listen to en route to radiotherapy treatment. Looking at the track list, I lost it when I saw Curtis Mayfield’s Move on Up on there. One friend set up a virtual bedside vigil on the night of my operation and played along via Facebook chat while I was ripped to my non-existent tits on opiates. Back home, friends and neighbours including Marissa, Amy and Michelle dropped around meals. This was always deeply appreciated because it was a true solution to the aforementioned small problems that coexist with the big.

Also, food is love.

Meredith baked me a cake a week throughout my six weeks of treatment. Ginger fluff cake one week, lemon and rosemary the next, followed by Armenian nut cake, coffee & walnut and chocolate & Earl Grey. She’d leave it at the front door and text me with its name and ingredients. This was genuinely healing, not to mention practically useful as it’d end up in the kids’ lunchboxes. This says in a very clear but not obtrusive way ‘I love you and am thinking of you.’ Sue sent me a quote a day – I came to expect and appreciate the cakes and the quotes… which were little pin pricks of light and stability amongst the dark days.

I also liked it when friends kind of forced themselves on me. So instead of ‘let me know if there’s anything you need’ they’d say ‘We’re going to the beach. Would your girls like to join us?’ I think I did reject this at first – this whole receiving thing has been a massive learning curve for me – but they were gently persistent and I got the message that they were determined to offer practical help.

In fact of all 2013’s lessons, perhaps the most emphatic has been how wonderful people around me are. Even when tongues are tied and faux-pas committed, the love and support I’ve received has been … well, you know. Thank you all for bearing with me and lightening the load by reading my warts and all account of this bitch of a disease. And take my hand, old toad, as we face the 2014 road. While it’s fine to hope for warmer climes it is perhaps more realistic to recognise that bang ups and hang ups may happen but because I had the little c and wrote about it, and you read what I wrote, both of us may be that bit more adept at dancing in any rain we may encounter.