It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…. But I’m not exactly feeling it.
Last years potted Christmas tree has been dragged inside, the dead branches removed and the foliage still a little dull from a year of neglect. This year I decided to make crepe paper flowers to decorate the tree, partly because of my immobility post breast reconstruction and partly because I was hoping to create a little Christmas spirit.
The idea of Christmas is mostly warm and fuzzy, however it seems to be mostly about one thing… the presents. The unwrapping ritual usually commences early morning with a delighted frenzy. The obligatory Bing Crosby tunes will play out in the background with a nod to all things wholesome now lost, wrapping paper will go flying, and my husband and I will be yelling… “Read the card first” over and over again.
There is something quite disturbing about the amount of stuff some kids get these days…including my lot. The magic is long gone and has been replaced by a culture of consuming- a generation of mall kids. For some families shopping has become entertainment, a way to pass the time, to use, to dispose, to replace, to upgrade or to out do.
For me the festive season is also fraught with melancholy, a time when I’m drawn to ponder over my last year. In December last year my father in law passed away after a long struggle with bowel cancer treatment and only days after his funeral I was recovering from a lumpectomy and sentinel lymph node dissection in hospital. It was an emotional month and I mostly remember a fairly constant stream of tears.
Christmas day last year was full of despair, I was afraid of the chemotherapy and the treatment that I would come to endure. I cried in my bedroom between lunch courses and touched up my make up ready for act 2, 3 and 4. We celebrated Christmas lunch on our deck, clinked wine glasses and toasted to better days. My husband would dutifully fling every empty bottle of wine over his shoulder from the deck and it would land with an anticipated thump onto the grass. Much cheering would ensure with each bottle toss. It was a stunning Sydney summer day followed by a late afternoon tropical thunderstorm- I danced in the rain and tasted the rain drops in my mouth with my clothes getting drenched. I was drunk on the joy of being fully aware of the moment. My daily mindful meditation practice had seemed to slow time, I felt connected- plugged in.
It’s now approaching four weeks since my Diep Breast Reconstruction and I am slowly starting to move about more, however it’s sill quite painful and uncomfortable. I do know from experience that the body has an uncanny ability to heal itself, holes in the skin miraculously close up, stitches heal and pain slowly subsides. It seems with cancer there aren’t any Get Out Of Jail cards being handed out. It feels like a cancer cloud is always looming, at times it hangs overhead as a reminder of the ‘What if the cancer comes back’? Or it often looms in the distance barely out of sight but I know it’s there hanging around. A lifetime of tests and monitoring lay ahead, a constant reminder of the cloud.
Just when I thought I was getting closer to moving forward I got a red flag from my surgeon. It seems they found ‘something’ on my liver during a CT Angiogram. Gulp. Of course I got my Google Doctor on and Googled the hell out of the medical report. I searched for statistics on life expectancy for metastatic Breast Cancer, read articles about the grim survival rates for liver cancer and started to think about the Funeral Playlist I have on my iPhone. Yes, it is odd but I’ve had a Funeral Playlist for about 5 years – I always figured if I ever checked out I would at least have decent tunes, even if I wouldn’t be around to enjoy it.
The moment I surrendered myself to that search engine I pretty much knew that I was about to go for a ride on a rollercoaster without wheels. Looks like this Christmas will continue to have a little cloud hanging about. I see my Oncologist in a few days who I’m told will refer me to another medical oncologist for further testing. Gulp again. Fingers crossed it’s nothing, the playlist still needs some tweaking.
I plan to have a laughter filled Christmas day, shared with friends and family. This time the cloud might be a little too familiar and too close for comfort but I figure I can always open an umbrella or dance in the rain like last year should the cancer cloud decide to burst. I can’t help but to think that I should be so happy that this year will finally be behind me, that I can now move forward and not look back. The little fearful twinge of metastatic cancer might rear it’s head from time to time, but for now I’m going to focus on the present and try to spend my days living mindfully.
The idea of going into hospital for an 8 hour surgical procedure has become dare I say, appealing. The day to day has become mentally and physically tiring, most likely I’m still reeling from the post chemotherapy side effects. Checking into hospital is about the closest I am going to get to a 14 day health retreat only this time there is no spa suite, no sunshine, no swim up bar and I definitely wont be checking out with a glowing tan.
Around this same time last year I was still in the early stages of attempting to grasp this confusing diagnosis and treatment. We were forced to enjoy what would feel like my last vacation before chemotherapy began. I was spending my days taking calls from the breast care nurse who was touching upon frightening topics like chemo, mastectomy, tissue expanders, new nipples and was planning to put me in touch with other women who had already been through these phases of treatment. This was not my idea of a relaxing holiday, I was teary, shit scared and felt a little ripped off.
On this particular beach holiday I vividly remember the day of fun and laughter we had sitting at the pool swim up bar. My cousin unexpectedly popped into our resort to spend the entire day with us, in fact we spent the entire day in the pool with the kids splashing about while I clung onto my seemingly bottomless glass of champagne. I don’t recall exactly how many bottles of Moet we went through in the swimming pool bar, but I do remember repeatedly yelling: “Fuck it, lets get another bottle, I have cancer.”
I’m in room 1004 at St. Vincent’s Hospital and the room lighting is of course the mandatory fluorescent white, it feels harsh and all exposing. The plush holiday bathrobe is replaced by an exhausted looking pale blue hospital gown. I couldn’t shake the thought about the countless patients that had bled, wept, been confused and hollered out in pain in this same blue gown. I relinquished my own clothing and donned the patient uniform which had become a symbol of my surrender to the system. I was going to lie back and take a slashing in the name of reconstruction.
The bed linen is fresh and has an industrial crispness to it. The drawers and chairs are more of an afterthought and the colour palette is monotone and somber apart from the print of a street scene facing my bed that hints to Seurat and pointillism. I have never quite understood why hospitals don’t have shelving in front of the bed, a chatty nurse kindly took it upon herself to move the furniture around so I could get to enjoy the flowers and gifts that had been carefully chosen by well wishing loved ones.
I woke up from theatre for what seemed like only a few minutes and remember the surgeon’s head nodding and telling me that everything went well. Apparently I spent three drowsy drug induced hours in recovery then I was rolled into a hospital room. By this stage I was more lucid and the donor site hurt like hell, more like an axe had been heated over hot coals and then wedged into my abdomen. I needed more painkillers and I need them pronto. This time the PCA was not cutting it. The nursing staff felt my pain, heard my groans and someone with a kind face held my hand and didn’t let go. This simple gesture of being touched by a stranger had helped- I was no longer scared or alone, someone cared.
At one point I looked up and saw an assortment of heads surrounding the bed looking down at me, listening to my groans. One nurse suggested that I try to shift my butt as that might help to relieve the pain. I mustered some strength, raised my head and explained to the nurse that in all fairness the positioning of my arse was not going to soothe the pain from the massive incision in my abdomen. She in turn suggested I wait 20 minutes before calling the Anaesthetist. I kept my cool and insisted, letting her know I was certain he would cope with getting a phone call at 9pm. I figured a few calls were factored into his hefty up front six thousand dollar fee. The PCA dose was immediately doubled, the pain subsided and I fell asleep.
I remember peeking down at my body under the sheets, checking for a mound where my once cancerous breast had been. I was wedged with pillows into what is known as the jack knife position. My knees were raised and bent and my torso was elevated forward: this would be my resting position for the next 12 days in hospital.
I’m now home, still in the jack knife position and can not stand up straight even if I tried. I’m shuffling about hunch back style and showering on a rented hospital bath stool. Standing for more than two minutes becomes painful to the point that I can only think of getting myself into a seated position and quickly.
My new breast looks voluminous and surprisingly natural and of course has a circular flap transfer from my abdomen. It doesn’t look so great but from experience I know that the blackness of the stitches will heal and fade to pale. There is of course the unforgiving incision from hip to hip. A DIEP FLAP procedure is no walk in the park. In fact the idea of being able to go for a walk in the park seems fairly illusive at the moment. The procedure involved a rather significant amount of stomach tissue and fat that has been cut away and transferred to my breast with blood vessels from my abdomen. It’s nothing short of remarkable to think how far plastic surgery has come. The killer breast tissue that was removed in August by mastectomy has now been replaced by my own living tissue, which I think is pretty damn cool. However, not being able to stand up straight is far from cool.
On discharge my surgeon flippantly reminded me that this is going to take several months to heal and to not worry about it too much. For the time being I feel fairly redundant as I can’t contribute or help out at home and I am not exactly in love with my hunched reflection.
This road has been quite long, often times it has been lonely and I’m pretty certain that it is not over yet.