About four hours after my bilateral mastectomy, as I lay uncomfortably in my newly acquired semi-private hospital room, my younger brother, Greg, asks me “On a scale of 1-10, where is your humour level at?’ He was obviously referencing the pain scale my nurse had mentioned earlier. “I think it’s pretty good, maybe an 8?” It was obvious he wanted to tell me something he deemed funny but was being cautious in case it might be construed as “inappropriate.”
He says “Remember when we were kids and could put a series of numbers into a calculator that would spell the word “boobless” when we turned it upside down?” Ah memories. For the record, the number is 55378008. In case you want to share this hilarity with your kids, it doesn’t work on a phone calculator, you need to go old school.
So here I am, much like I was at the age of 12 (when I would have found this joke funny) boobless. In the days that followed I would get two questions from my friends and family. Question 1 often began “How are you feeling, physically?“ This was followed by question 2; “How are you feeling, emotionally?” There are not many surgeries that would require question 2. No one asks you about your emotional well-being after getting your gall bladder removed or having a knee replaced. This is different.
Let me first answer question number 1 since there are a lot of women who have not had this surgery but know that it is on the horizon. If you are one of these people who has a mastectomy in the near future, fear not. I always say that every experience is different and can only tell you mine, so please take it with a grain of salt. It wasn’t that bad. I was given pain medication day one and two (Tylenol 2s to be exact). By day three I was only taking extra strength Tylenol and by day four, nothing at all. Cutting most of my nerves means that there is no feeling in my chest or under my arms. Having babies was way tougher. I always consider that as the 10 on my pain scale. Coming out of the anesthesia, I was pretty uncomfortable with the pain primarily in my armpits. I’m not sure if I have ever had pain in my armpits before but there it was. There were lymph nodes taken from my right side so that could be the reason. Thankfully, they don’t mess around with pain meds so I was given them pretty quickly and was soon feeling just fine, thank-you very much. I was wheeled up to the seventh floor when a room finally became available and was greeted shortly thereafter by my husband and my hilarious brother. A hospital staff member quipped that I looked really pale and I was feeling a bit queasy from the ride up. Let’s put it this way, if you watch me every day on The Weather Network, it’s unlikely you would have recognized me in that moment. Bald, in a green gown, and hooked up to an IV is not my best look. Did I mention boobless? That’s not actually a word since it keeps getting underlined as I write this.
The pain is totally manageable (which is great) but during surgery you have drains attached to you (which is not great). You have to continue to wear these drains for several days following surgery until a nurse deems it safe to remove them. I have three of these beauties, two on my right side and one on my left. They are long clear tubes with a bulb at the end of each. That bulb catches all the fun stuff escaping from my incisions. I’m trying to be honest without being too gross. I’m not sure if I’m succeeding. I had read other women’s accounts of this surgery and most lamented the drains and expressed relief at their removal. They don’t hurt, but it’s hard to hide them without looking like you’ve been shoplifting. I haven’t hit the town since my surgery a week ago so I haven’t had to worry about security at my local Rexall.
The nursing budget is pretty tight so I get only three scheduled home visits unless more are recommended. Because of this, I am responsible for keeping track of my drains and what’s in them, as well as cleaning and replacing any dressing on my incisions. Between my husband and I, we are ready for a M*A*S*H reboot. We celebrated our 16th anniversary two days after my surgery. By celebrate, I mean he worked on renovating our 70’s bathroom and we played board games that night. For those about to get married, don’t overlook that “In sickness and in health” portion of your vows. It may not happen in your 80’s as you envision on the altar.
Here are a few other fun facts about recovering that you may not have thought of. You usually are out of the hospital the same day or the next morning after surgery. There is no sleeping on anything but your back. Sadly, I am not a back sleeper. You cannot raise your arms very high or low. This means getting people to pull a coffee mug down for you from the shelf and having to wear tops that button up at the front. You have “phantom breasts”. They feel like they are still there! This was a serious operation to remove a very large cancerous tumour so I’ll put up with an irritation or two.
I guess this should lead to question 2. How am I feeling emotionally? Four days before my mastectomy, I was co-hosting a fundraiser attended by 750 people. I wore a black dress, a pink wig, and had my nails and make-up professionally done. It was my last night out with my body intact. I felt like the “me before cancer”. It was also a far cry from the look I’ve been sporting since arriving home from the hospital. I will tell you what I have told everyone else. I’m ok. I’m not great and I’m not a basket case. My breasts have been replaced by scars and I look a little bit thinner but I’m still me. I haven’t shed a tear since my mastectomy and I have even managed to laugh. I’ve enjoyed ice cream and a glass of wine or two and have watched PLENTY of Netflix. This is not the end of the world. I don’t have post traumatic breast disorder. I will throw something in my new specialty bra when I go out and look like I did before. In my mind, the worst is now behind me. I’ve been through chemotherapy and now a bilateral mastectomy. Radiation will complete the treatment trifecta.
Some days I wake up and feel like I’ve dreamed the whole thing so I’m not sure I have completely accepted what has happened. Maybe tomorrow I won’t be ok, but for now I am. I’ll hang on to the advice I’ve learned from Luke Cage (a Netflix original) “Keep moving forward.”