It’s been three weeks since I posted on this blog. Since then I’ve been focused on one thing: healing.
I’ve slept a LOT. The drains have come out. I’ve moved back to my own home and am sleeping in my own bed and not the recliner I bought for my parents’ house. I’ve gotten some of my energy back.
It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had good days and bad ones. The drains have been replaced by a new problem — seromas. Fluid keeps filling in the space where my breasts used to be, and it’s not comfortable. Still, it’s so much less painful than having tubes running beneath and out of my skin. Ouch!
I’ve tried to go for walks and get some excercise. It seems amazing to me that just two weeks ago, I barely had the energy to walk for 30 minutes. Yesterday, I spent three hours strolling at the Denver Botanic Gardens. I think I’m turning a corner here now that I’m five weeks post-op.
There’s an emotional element to recovering, as well. Cancer is scary as hell. Ultimately, facing cancer is about facing one’s own death. Sure, we all die. It’s pretty easy to be philosophical about it, especially when you’re NOT the one with the cancer. Until the real possibility of death is staring you in the face, you can’t grasp what if feels like.
The 45 days of waiting before my surgery drained me emotionally more than anything I’ve had to go through. In the midst of it, I told my sister that I didn’t think I’d ever feel happy or light-hearted again. That much stress has to be resolved somehow. The impact of it is real. So I’ve been trying to be very easy on myself, making no big demands and approaching each day with no expectations of what I should do and focusing on things I enjoy — music, flowers, conversations with my mother, talking with my sister via Skype, slowing organizing all the cards you’ve sent me.
It’s funny how my perspective has changed since April 21, the terrible day I was diagnosed.
I initially told the surgeon that I would not be able to survive — I would not be able to SURVIVE!!! — without breasts for any lengthy period of time. Reconstruction had to be a priority, I said, along with obliterating the cancer.
Now that I’ve been living without breasts for more than a month, I’ve begun to wonder whether I want reconstruction at all. Yes, I miss having breasts, but do I really want to subject myself to the long surgery that a DIEP flap entails? It’s microsurgery with four to five hours of anesthesia and a few days of hospitalization. I’d have chest incisions and drains, as well as a major belly incision. I’d be risking all the pain and hazards of surgery, including infection, just so that I could have sculpted blobs of fat designed to look like breasts beneath my clothing?
I’m not offended by the sight of my chest with its healing scars, so why should I subject myself to that? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself. What a shift!
I initially told the doctor that I would not even consider breast prostheses. No! No! Not me. I imagined they would be big pillow bullet bras or something. And what was I supposed to think when what they gave me in the hospital were two hand-stitched felt pillows? These were made by volunteers — God bless them! — but I’ve never worn mine. They’re not even the same shape. As I said on Facebook, I have no idea which clan they represent, but I call them my Argyle boobs.
|A pair o’ wee titties for ye, lass?|
I ended up with two bras that look like grandma bras and two high-tech breasts made of whipped silicone. The prosthetics are inserted into the bra and can be adjusted so that the little nipples point the same way and such. They look real even when I’m just wearing the bra. When I’m dressed, you wouldn’t be able to tell they weren’t real unless you grabbed them, and even then...
They’re so convincing that one of my cross-dressing gay friends has offered to buy them from me if/when I have reconstruction.
I was amazed at how good they looked — and how much seeing myself with breasts again lifted my spirits. No, breasts don’t make me who I am, but they were a part of what I cherished about being a woman. They’re a part of what makes a woman feel feminine. Looking in that mirror, I felt more like myself than I had in weeks.
Some days I wear the prosthetics, and some days I go flat. I feel comfortable both ways. Whether I’ll stick with prosthetics or go under the knife again remains to be seen.
July 3 was a big day. I woke up, took a shower with my iPod blasting, and found myself dancing around afterward while straightening up my bedroom. I said to myself, “I might not have boobs, but I still have the moves.”
Then I stopped and stared at myself in the mirror because it was the first day since my diagnosis that I’d woken up feeling happy.
What a precious thing it is to feel light-hearted! What a beautiful gift it is to open your eyes in the morning and not immediately feel pressed by worries! I don’t think I’ll ever take feeling carefree for granted again, and I am actively cultivating happiness. Yes, Project Happiness is still active.
Last summer, Benjamin and I decided we had to put a concerted effort toward having more fun. If left to ourselves, we’ll work all day every day. So we regularly planned little getaways, even if they were just quick drives to favorite spots in the mountains. We had a spectacular summer.
We learned from that. If you don’t TAKE time to MAKE memories, you won’t end up with any, and time will pass you by anyway. As a result, I’m doing that again, working to make certain that I include activities that soothe my spirit and lift me up. It’s more important now than ever.
Yesterday, we went to the Denver Botanic Gardens to see the flora and the Chihuly exhibit. I wasn’t sure when we made this plan that I would be able to handle three hours of walking around in the hot sun. Fortunately, it wasn’t as hot as it has been lately, and the beauty of the art and the flowers lifted my spirits so much that I felt as if I were being carried through the gardens. It was bliss.
|Blue glass reflecting off the water|
Beauty is so intensely healing for me. It soothes and inspires. It lifts not just my heart, but my mind and my spirt, too. Creating beauty is a God-like act, as all creation comes from that original Divine spark. Soaking up other people’s creations is such a joy on every level.
Still, I have a lot of physical and mental adjustments to make. The seromas need to heal. The incisions need to heal completely, a process that will take another three weeks or so. I still have to face treatment — whatever it turns out to be — and then recover from that. But there’s more.
I need to learn to cope with the fear that cancer brings so that stress won’t hurt me. I also need to change my lifestyle from the sedentary one of a writer to the active lifestyle I had before my climbing accident. I already eat organic, but I also eat a lot of sugar. The sugar has to go. These are big changes, and they’re tough. How many people want to live more healthful lives and never get past joining the gym? But this is my agenda for the year.
I plan to enlist the folks at the Integrative Care Center at BCH in Boulder to help me with some of this, through oncology massage, Reiki, acupuncture, counseling. It’s expensive, but I’ll go as many times as I can afford to go — whatever it takes to rebuild my health and my life brick by brick. That’s really what this is about.
The other elements that I hope to rebuild is my community involvement and my spiritual life. As a journalist, I was always involved in something. As a writer, I’ve been primarily focused on my books. I want to shift that. My church community has a program that helps women who are homeless after leaving jail or prison. Can you think of a cause more suited to my particular and very odd life experience and skill set? I think not. The cause of incarcerated women has always been dear to me, so I hope to become involved in that when my health permits.
As for my church, the community there has been very supportive of me. I gave up going to church for years, in part because I was going to sweat lodge and enjoyed that more. But in January after my mother-in-law’s death, I felt the desire to return to St. John’s, the liberal Episcopal congregation where I was baptized. I haven’t been to services since my surgery, but I hope to return this Sunday. Prayer helped me get through my dark days — with support from the beautiful and loving Marliss Melton — and I want to keep this change as a permanent part of my life.
When it comes to writing, I hope to work my way back to Holly’s story as soon as possible. If I don’t write, I don’t publish. If I don’t publish, I don’t have income. If I have no income...
Well, we all know what happens then.
I have some big decisions to make in the days ahead about treatment — decisions that have the potential to impact how long I live. My cancer is low risk and not aggressive, but there was 1mm of cancer in a lymph node. This puts me in an awkward position in terms of whether or not I should have chemo. Statistically speaking, I don’t stand to benefit from chemo because the specific biology of the tumor makes it highly unlikely that it will recur. The odds of recurrence are almost identical without chemo as they are with it — a 0 to 1 percent difference. Because chemo entails some real risks, including permanent organ damage and death, it may be riskier than going without. Statistically speaking.
But statistics aren't science or biology, and there are no certainties when it comes to breast cancer. Even my oncologist says this is a tough call. We’ve gotten a second opinion, and it concurs with the first. Both recommend Tamoxifen for five years and no chemo. But ultimately the choice is mine.
If you pray, then please pray for clarity for me on the next step.
In the meantime, please know how touched I am by your gifts and cards. Your kindness and your prayers carried me through this difficult time. I am truly grateful.