Monday, April 20, 2015

The Story of My Surgery

IIt occurred to me tonight, while looking through my past few posts, that I never actually wrote about what getting the DIEP flap surgery was like for me. It's funny because I feel like I have written about it twenty seven times, but I must have only been thinking about it in my head. I never actually put the experience down in words.

About ten weeks ago, my family and I flew out to San Antonio for my surgery. In the weeks prior to our travel, I had come down with a cold, but it wasn't a terrible cold. I wasn't hacking up a lung or anything. It was your standard, run-of-the-mill cold that generally just goes away within a week. I thought it was a nothing.

As it turns out, it was not a nothing. On the flight to San Antonio, my little cold turned into a horrible earache that made me want to tear my ears right off of my head. And then it turned into a sinus infection. And strep throat. When I went to the hospital on the day of my scheduled surgery, the nurse in admitting took my temperature and then gave me a look that said "how the heck do you think you are going to make it through surgery with a 102 degree fever?!"

My amazing, kind, lovely surgeon came and spoke with me. He told me I was fighting an infection, and I was not in good shape for such a strenuous surgery. He told me if I was HIS wife, he would not want me operated on that day. So, through tears of disappointment, we planned to reschedule the DIEP flap surgery for the next week. I was incredibly lucky that Dr. C was able to fit me into his schedule, and that rescheduling did not require me and my family to fly back and forth to San Antonio again. I was given some pretty hefty doses of antibiotics, and for the next week, my body worked on getting better.

On the day of the actual (rescheduled) surgery, one week later, I went to the hospital at 6:30 a.m. to be admitted. I remember having my temperature taken, getting my blood pressure taken, and getting an IV. I remember Dr. C coming in to talk to me and my husband about the surgery and to reassure us, as my intravenous "cocktails" started to work. I don't remember much else, honestly. I think I remember being rolled through the hallway. And I think I remember my body being lifted from one surface to another, though I don't know if that was pre or post surgery. The rest of the surgery is like an eight hour parentheses in my life.

I woke up at some point in the late afternoon that day and saw my husband by my side. I had been told by several women who had been through this kind of surgery that I would not be lucid at all until day 2 (or at the very least, until very late on the night following surgery). But I was actually quite with it upon waking. I was able to have a conversation with my husband, which really surprised him, because he also thought I would spend my first wakeful hours thinking I was the Queen of England.

I remember the next few days in the hospital as being quite challenging. Probably the hardest thing I have been through physically in my life, but not impossible. Not HORRIBLE. Just HARD. I think, in my head, I had believed the recovery would be akin to the recovery I went through with each of my c-sections: the discomfort, the stiffness, the exhaustion. It WAS like that recovery, but way more intense. Walking my first steps post surgery felt like I was totally re-learning how to walk. And I had to rely on other people sitting me up in the hospital bed because I had very limited arm function. It was weird. It was tough. But every new little thing I was able to do post surgery was a mini-milestone that was celebrated.

The hardest part of the surgery for me was the itching. Apparently, I don't do well on morphine. Or maybe morphine doesn't do well on me. It took me a while to realize it, but the morphine drip I was on for pain management gave me the craziest itchy feelings I have ever encountered. I begged Chris to scratch my entire body over and over again. When he scratched, I could feel every little sensory nerve on my skin reacting to his touch. But despit the scratching, the itching never really went away, and it made it hard for me to sleep. I asked the night nurses to put hydrocortisone all over my skin, which they did. Sometimes the nurses would just come and scratch my legs for me (which made me love them).

The drains were the other not-so-fun part. I had one drain coming out of each breast, and one drain coming out of each side of my belly. Blood and gunk drained out of my body into the bulbs that hung down from me. I felt like a really gross octopus. When I took my first shower, and saw myself undressed for the first time since surgery, I nearly fainted. It was a lot to take in: the scars, the drains, the scratch marks from all of my itching. But I also noticed my flat belly, which was flatter than it had been in four years (two c-sections) and I noticed my new "foobs," which were now so much less likely to be a harvesting station for cancer.

And as I was lying in my hospital bed, itching like nobody's business, and pretending to be a disgusting octopus,  I kept thinking "I would rather be itching than dying of cancer." Really, anytime I experienced a little pain, a little discomfort, or anything slightly "off" during the recovery process, it was very easy for me to say "this is way better than radiation. This is way better than chemotherapy," and it kept my expectations in check. Saving my own life was not a cake walk. It wasn't supposed to be easy.

I was discharged from the hospital five days after the surgery. Leaving a hospital after being tended to and cared for twenty four hours a day is a scary thing. But the more I got immersed back into real life, the less scary it became. I rested a lot. I drank a lot. And the lovely people of San Antonio fed me and my family very well. Within another week, we were ready to return home, and I was feeling remarkably healed already, just two weeks after surgery.

And now, here I am, eight weeks later, feeling almost completely back to normal. I still have my scars, but to be honest, I kind of like them. Every time I see my stomach, or look at my new "foobs," I see the story of how I made a very brave decision, went through an amazing surgery, toughed it out through a hard recovery, and saved my own life.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman


Every day, when I pick Ember up from preschool, there is a pile of about 20 drawings in her cubby. I flip through the multi-colored construction paper pages and marvel over her fire-breathing dinosaurs, the decked-out princesses, and the families of penguins she has created. 



Ember has talent. She draws beautifully, filling every inch of her pages with characters and objects. If you watch her draw, you will hear her tell a story as she puts her marker to the paper. Her stories are elaborate, sometimes a little hard to follow, almost always quite emotionally charged.

It is an amazing thing to watch the artist as a young woman. To be honest, I am just a little envious of her abilities. She sits down at the kitchen table, takes a pen in her hand, and her imagination just kicks in to high gear, with visions and ideas pouring out of her fingers. It comes so easily to her.



For me, it is not as easy. I mean, I went to art school, and spent four years of my life intensely immersed in an environment that fostered my imagination. But now I am a working mommy. When I sit down at the kitchen table, I am thinking about my grocery list, and getting my kids enrolled in summer programs, and doing the laundry, and surgeries, and… the list goes on. It is so hard for my mind to put reality on pause, even for a few minutes.

But, inspired by Ember and her talents, I have ventured to take apen in hand again recently. I haven’t quite been escaping my reality, but I have been drawing my reality. And though my drawings are not quite as imaginative as Ember’s, it still feels really good to draw.



Thank you, Ember, for being so magnificent with your own imagination, and for inspiring me to give my creativity an outlet. I look forward to seeing your creativity grow and flourish, and to sharing our pens, pencils, markers and paper for many years to come.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Jolie and Me



Two years ago, when Angelina Jolie brought national attention to women who are BRCA mutation positive by writing "My Medical Choice" in the New York Times, I was just beginning to think seriously about getting my own prophylactic mastectomy and reconstruction. After reading Angelina's thoughtful and brave article, I was filled with gratitude. It felt like the world had given me a strange but very meaningful gift. A beautiful, confident celebrity the same age as me had JUST gone through the same surgery I planned to go through, and she was really PROUD of her decision.

Five weeks ago today, I went through my own nine hour prophylactic surgery, reducing my risk of getting breast cancer by around 90%. 

The morning of my surgery, I was not fearful. I had been anxious in the weeks leading up to my surgery, but as I entered the hospital, filled out the paperwork, and got my IV, I was very calm. I know it may sound strange, but I thought A LOT about Angelina Jolie that morning. In my head and heart, I felt connected to her. I felt brave, and confident, and clear in my decision. I felt PROUD of what I was doing, just as I had imagined she had felt.

In the five weeks that have passed since my surgery, I have not had a single moment of regret or doubt. Not a SINGLE moment. I am so proud of my decision, and I know I made the exact right decision for me. 

Now, having the bulk of the mastectomy, reconstruction, and recovery behind me, I have just begun seriously thinking about and planning the timeline for my oophorectomy. I know I need to get it done. My doctors have urged (almost begged) me to do it. My maternal great grandmother died of colon cancer, and four of her sisters died of gynecological cancers. My grandmother and mother both had oophorectomies, too. There is no doubt that this too will be the right decision for me, if I want to try and live and see my children grow into adults.

But it doesn't make getting the surgery done any easier. 

So when I heard, today, about Angelina Jolie's decision to get an salpingo-oophorectomies, I again felt like the world had given me a gift. I again felt indebted to this woman I have never met, but feel very connected to, by virtue of our shared genetic mutation, our shared decisions to be proactive, and our ability to be PROUD of our choices.

Angelina Jolie's article is beautiful and truthful. It is not about being self-pitying or self-aggrandizing. It is about gaining knowledge, and using that knowledge to make powerful decisions, so that you can be proud of the decisions you make.

Thank you, again, Angelina Jolie, for sharing your journey with the world, and for being PROUD of your decisions. It makes it that much easier for other women, like me, to share and be proud, too.