It’s been a week since my bilateral mastectomy. Diagnosed on April 21 with cancer in my left breast, I waited 45 days for the surgery to remove the deadly invasive ductal carcinoma from my body.
To say I was afraid the night before would be a gross understatement. It wasn’t just the surgery or the idea of losing both breasts that distressed me, but also the possibility that they might cut me open to find that the cancer was much more advanced than they had believed. No, I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t.
I got up at 4 a.m. and showered, knowing it would be the last time in a while when I’d be able to shave my legs, wash my hair, or feel truly clean. It was also the last time I would bathe with my body intact. I stood there in the hot water, tears pouring down my face, my hands instinctively reaching to hold the part of me I was about to lose.
My sister and younger son Benjamin got up with me and prepared for a day at the hospital. We left my house at 5 a.m. and reached the hospital at 5:30. The sun was up, light spilling over the plains onto the mountains as we took a few minutes just to sit in the parking lot, where I did my best to gather my courage.
Robins sang in the trees. The sprinkler system kicked on, water spraying out over the asphalt and not onto the grass. Typical. We joked about making use of the off-kilter sprinklers to give Benjamin’s car a bath. And then it was 5:45. Time to go inside.
Facing my worst nightmareThe surgery center was busy and staffed by medical assistants who seemed far too cheerful to me. Did they not understand how afraid I was or how damned angry I was to be facing a bilateral mastectomy? I’m sure they intended to be professional and polite, but to me their attitude felt like cold, corporate indifference. I was sure they didn’t give a damn what was happening to me, and I wasn’t about to let anyone hide behind a superficial smile.
“Pamela Clare reporting for mutilation,” I said to the one at the desk, unable to keep the tears out of my eyes.
She blinked, clearly taken somewhat aback, then returned to her script. “Show me your ID. Gimme money. Sign here. Sign there. Blah blah. Nice weather. Please have a seat over there. Blah blah blah. Someone will be out to get you soon.”
My parents arrived a few minutes after we did. My mother smiled and gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek, but I could see the grief and fear in her eyes. She didn’t look like she’d slept much either.
A nurse came for me in a few minutes and led me back to a room, where I took off everything that made me feel like me — clothes, earrings, ring. Those things were replaced by two hospital bracelets, one of which was mostly a bar code like you’d find on a box of Corn Flakes.
We quickly came to the first thing I’d been dreading. A man from radiology came in to inject radioactive isotopes into my left breast near the tumor. The isotopes were supposed help the surgeon identify the lymph nodes that the tumor was draining to — the sentinel nodes. I’d gone to great effort to research practices at various hospitals and had made it clear to my doctor that the injection would not happen unless I had numbing medication first.
And yet despite guarantees that I would get lidocaine as patients at most hospitals do, I discovered that the lidocaine was mixed with the isotope solution. In other words, I wasn’t really going to be numb before the injection. The lidocaine was just there to take the edge off during the injection.
I was pissed. I really don’t understand why the medical profession doesn’t do all it can to eliminate unnecessary pain. How people feel ought to be of supreme importance to all medical staff. It wouldn’t have cost but a few minutes to numb me up first. Why couldn’t they take that extra step given what I was going to go through that day?
When the radiology tech did the injection, I let him know exactly what I thought of his apparent indifference to causing me pain. “This is fucking bullshit!” I said, squeezing the heck out of my mother’s hand.
So far, the morning was becoming the nightmare I had feared.
The nurse promised I’d get sedation as soon as I signed consent forms. She started an IV, hooked me up to a bottle of lactated ringers, and left us alone.
I lost it for a while. Anxiety from six long weeks of waiting had taken its toll on my emotions. Combine that with lack of sleep...
I cannot tell you what it meant to me to have my parents, my sister and Benjamin there. They held my hands while I cried, kept their arms around my shoulders, and just generally surrounded me with love while we waited together.
Laughter and acts of kindness
At 7 a.m., my priest arrived — and everything began to change.
Rev. Susan has a lovely voice and a beautiful presence. I met her in January after my former mother-in-law’s sudden death made me want to return to my spiritual roots at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Thanks in part to my cancer diagnosis, Rev. Susan and I got to know each other quickly, trivialities swept aside for the deeper discussions that happen when one is facing serious illness.
She entered the room, a sympathetic smile on her face, and hugged me. I sobbed on her shoulder, and she didn’t let go. When I had gotten the tears out of my system, she introduced herself to my parents, greeted Benjamin and Michelle, and listened empathetically while we talked.
The surgeon came with papers for me to sign. When he saw I was with my priest, he left us in peace.
Rev. Susan guided the conversation to a spiritual plane, bringing her perspective to my worst fears — losing a precious part of myself, facing prolonged illness, possibly facing death. She talked about God’s love and the Resurrection of the Flesh and what that means for those of us who’ve lost parts our bodies in this life.
“Jesus holds these precious parts of us in trust until we are resurrected. We’re reunited not only with our loved ones, but also with parts of our bodies that we lost,” she said, her hands curving into cups. “If you can imagine Jesus holding this precious part of you... ”
And we all burst into laughter. Jesus holding my boobs?
It felt so wonderful to laugh, so much of the tension I’d been carrying dissipating in shrieks and howls.
The surgeon opened the door, perhaps wondering if we’d all gone insane, and came in to listen.
Rev. Susan finished the point she’d been trying to make, then she invited my surgeon to join hands with us in prayer. Her prayer was beautiful, helping to fill me with the sense of peace I’d needed all morning. She anointed my forehead with oil and blessed me, and then stepped aside so that the surgeon could go over the consent forms with me.
The anesthesiologist, a woman from Australia, was right behind him. She asked some medical questions, had me sign some papers, and then told me to tell everyone goodbye. “Once I give you the sedative, you won’t remember anything, so it’s better if you say goodbye now.”
I hugged Rev. Susan, my father, my mother, Benjamin and my sister, each one of them finding different words to offer me reassurance, my mother and sister with tears in their eyes.
Then the nurse injected a powerful sedative into my IV and ...
I do remember being wheeled from the room and into the operating room.
“Can I please wear lipstick during the surgery?” I asked the anesthesiologist.
I have no idea why this was suddenly important to me.
“I don’t see why not,” she answered.
She reached into my bag of belongings, fished a tube of lipstick from my purse, and helped me put it on. “Is that good?”
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you.”
And then she put the mask on my face, and I was out.
She could teach that radiology tech a thing or two. Just a little touch of kindness here and there can help a patient feel like a person.
In the recovery room
As I slowly regained consciousness a couple of hours later, I felt a stabbing pain in my sides and pain across my chest. I heard voices — a couple of nurses — talking about the dose of medication a patient needed to receive. They were trying to do the math.
I can’t do math to save my life — unless I’m semi-conscious and on morphine apparently. I saw the numbers behind my closed eyelids and spoke the answer out loud.
The voices stopped.
“She’s right,” said one.
“You must be a math whiz,” said the other.
Me? Hahaha! A math whiz? I barely survived college algebra. I have math phobia. I hate math.
I drifted in and out for a while. I told someone I was in pain and asked over and over again whether they’d found cancer in my sentinel nodes.
At first nurse’s voices and then my surgeon’s voice told me that the surgery had gone well and that they’d found no cancer in my lymph nodes.
I cannot tell you the relief I felt when that news finally sank in.
The pain was bad. The surgeon gave orders for more pain medication — morphine. And then he stood there beside my bed, one hand holding my right hand, the other pressed against my right forearm.
“Everything’s okay,” he said in a reassuring voice. “You’re going to be okay.”
I don’t know how long he stood there, but it seemed like a long time. Maybe it was the anesthesia or the morphine or both, but I felt a kind of peace come over me. And in my mind, he became Jesus, standing beside me, comforting me, reassuring me that all was going to be well.
The worst behind me
“Are all of these people your family?” one of the nurses asked. “I hear you have a lot of visitors waiting for you.”
They were there — my parents, my sister, both sons, my brother Robert. They were all there except for my youngest brother and my sister-in-law and the kids. I felt so lucky and happy to be able to share the good news with them. The surgery was behind me, and now all I needed to do was rest.
I could feel pressure bandages across my chest, and I truly did feel like I’d been stabbed in the sides, the pain the result of incisions made to accommodate three drains.
I wasn’t certain how I was going to be able to face my new body, but given that I could barely open my eyes, I opted not to worry about that yet. I was just grateful to be free of cancer and to have so many of my greatest fears behind me.
Part II coming soon.