I think I knew anesthesia was all it was cracked up to be when I asked the nurse who was transferring me from the post-op gurney to a hospital bed whether the clock on the wall was right. She said it was. Problem is, right was 1 p.m. I thought it said 7 p.m. I closed my eyes and reopened them. 6 p.m. Did it again. 5. Then I kept my eyes open and watched the hands spin backward, then sideways and finally settle at the correct time.
Then I threw up.
The chemo regime I had undergone had shrunk my breast tumor from 5 centimeters to 1.5, and my lymph node lump to nothing, so the time had come to take out the remainders. To get a clear, cancer-free margin, the original area, about the size of a hard-boiled egg cut in half, would have to be removed. Doesn’t seem like much, unless you are a small-busted person who isn’t much larger than an egg to begin with, but the alternative was no breast at all--still a possibility if those margins weren’t clear. Around 15 lymph nodes were also scheduled for removal.
I have to admit to nerves regarding the general anesthesia. Served me right. I spent years working at a women’s health clinic, where I was ever so blase about the fears of worried women who were put under daily. Now it was my turn, and suddenly this didn’t seem so routine. I found ominous signs everywhere. Karla Faye Tucker, scheduled for death by lethal injection. She’s a woman. I’m a woman. Bad omen. Big giant storm the day of surgery. Pathetic fallacy. Serious bad omen.
The fun began bright and surly on a Wednesday morning, as my whole family, plus in-laws (my husband, Steve, and I debated selling tickets, since this event was proving such a popular spectator sport) gathered at the Breast Center.
First on the agenda was--warning: graphic details ahead--the inserting of wires into my breast to guide my surgeon about where and what to cut. The radiologist found the abnormal areas on an ultrasound and then numbed the site. They said they would do this with a “spray.” I thought of Windex. They meant a “spray gun"--imagine a nail gun shooting numbing needles into your flesh. It’s as bad as it sounds.
Once numbed, four wires were poked in. Then the wire coverings were tugged out, yanking my breast along with them. By the end, with 4-inch-long wires sticking out of my chest, I felt like an attraction at the Jim Rose Side Show Circus, or part of the act of the Genitorturers, an alternative rock band whose act included live “performance piercings.”
Yeah, I cried.
Fortunately, events now moved along swiftly. I was bundled into a gown, then onto a gurney, then moved into pre-op, barely given a moment to say goodbye to Steve (just as well--it limited any of my last-minute high dramatics). I couldn’t pronounce my anesthesiologist’s last name, so I dubbed him “Dr. Love God.” He earned his sobriquet by administering a shot that was to help calm me--but actually knocked me out early. Brilliant.
Fragments thereafter: another quick visit with Steve, who was somehow back in the room. Maybe receiving instructions about the oxygen mask. Then waking up, swaddled tightly, fuzzy-headed, smiling at Steve.
That wasn’t so bad.
What I missed: The surgery was supposed to take no more than an hour, but ended up more than two. Lump removal went fine (that wire torture was good for something). It was lymph node time that turned unexpectedly exciting. Apparently, I have an extra muscle in my armpit--a muscle that in 3,000 such procedures, my surgeon had never seen before. (Throwback, or next step on evolutionary cycle? You decide!) The muscle was blocking the nodes, and they didn’t want to cut it--they don’t even know what it is, goodness knows what it does--and so they could get only three.
One result of surgery, after I was ensconced in a hospital bed, trying to enjoy the post-op high, was some truly astonishing back pain. This didn’t really kick in until that night, after the parade of visitors had left. (Since my conversational abilities were pretty much limited to blinking pleasantly in a visitor’s direction, after a point, socializing was mercifully cut short.) The middle of my back felt as if every sore, strained muscle pain I’d ever had in my life had returned to roost there.
This just added to the general roundelay of fun that is an overnight hospital stay. Steve camped out on a cot, where, amazingly, in between the regular checking of vitals, my trips to the bathroom ( I had an IV and needed to be helped there) and conversations with me about all this and how I was doing generally, he actually managed to get some sleep.
For my part, I kept trying to find a position that didn’t feel like ice skating blades shoved in my back, and trying to decide when to take more pain meds. Thanks to my earlier encounter with Dr. Love God, and more recent visits with Demoral, I wasn’t thinking too clearly. Consequently, I spent too much time fretting instead of just getting help. Should I take a pill, as I did earlier, and risk another reenactment of the pea soup scene from “The Exorcist”? Or should I get yet another shot but be really groggy in the morning? Why did I care?
By the next morning, the pain was so diminished I almost thought I’d dreamt it. However, I knew how out of it I had been the previous day when I only just then noticed I had drains--two plastic grenade-shaped objects attached to tubes inserted in my armpit, designed to collect fluid. My arm in a sling, my IV out and a quick check by my doctor, I was dismissed and sent home. This was a mixed blessing. On one hand, home is home. The dogs are there, my own bed is there. On the other, they take care of you in the hospital. Ring a bell, someone comes running with food or pain shots. Lots of pain shots.
But I got over that and settled into a home routine, helped in large part by my sister Deborah, a nurse practitioner. Among other loathsome duties, she handled the regular fluid removal from my drains, with that blithe cheeriness good medical people have, instead of the repulsion the rest of us would exhibit. (“Serosanguinous fluid. Very good!”) Steve’s job was to keep us in trashy magazines and sweets. The cat decided his job was to try to sit on my incisions.
I can absolutely say that post-op has been what having a serious illness should be. Unlike with chemo, when my brain doesn’t function very well, I could read, and I went through a large number of books. Since I was forbidden to use my arm, Steve and Deborah waited on me hand and foot.
Soon, our days settled into a perfect routine of reading, pain pills, naps, chocolate and watching the Olympics. I haven’t had vacations this good and was darn annoyed when inevitably I got better and had to give it all up.
The pathology report was almost anticlimactic. Almost. The margins were clear, and only two of the three nodes were positive. More chemo, plus radiation, is still in the works, but things are progressing as well as they possibly can. I have a pretty, crescent-shaped scar on my breast, which is smaller than it used to be, but at least it’s still there.
Now if I can just figure out how to make use of that extra muscle.
* Next month: Halfway there.