Twenty-five days after my initial diagnosis I find myself back at the Mater Redlands, my local private hospital, for a total mastectomy of the left breast.
The hospital has given me the wrong time and in the end, it is a bit of a rush as I throw some things together into an overnight bag and Al rushes me to hospital - we arrive at 11.30 am.
Once admitted, once again I am met by the area Breast Care Nurse, Jenny Jones, who is friendly and easy to talk to. Here is a picture of her:
At this briefing Jenny gives me an envelope from the "Chicks in Pink" which entitles me to two free post-mastectomy bras valued at $160. These can be purchased I'm told from "The Women's Wellbeing Clinic" which has a great selection of bras and prosthesis. She tells me that the Cancer Council will send me a temporary prosthesis within the week. Isn't it amazing? All the support I'm getting for free, all because there are people out there who care!
Jenny produces a small case and shows me some examples of breast prostheses. The ones made of latex are very heavy. She says the ones with the adhesive backs can be hot.
After the usual pre-op checks, once again I am off to the operating theatre. Here I am in my hospital gown, ready to go off to theatre.
Soon after my bed has come to a stop, Dr Lambley arrives in his surgical gown and cap with a Nikko pen. He draws a dotted line across my left breast to indicate the line of his incision. He has already told me that he will cut across the nerve which means I will have no feeling in that area once the wound heals. He will leave a large pocket of skin which will be come in handy down the track when it is time for my reconstruction.
I have the same team looking after me, including the jovial anethestist, Dr Warden, the Scotsman. This time, he tells me a joke about the man who wakes up to be given the bad news: that both legs have been amuputated. The good news being that the man in the cubicle next door has made an offer for his slippers.
That's not bad. I tell him the joke about the professor instructing a group of medical students who are standing over a cadaver. "To be great practitioners, the first rule is that you can't be squeamish about the human body," he says. "So watch my instruction. Insert your middle finger into the anus of this corpse, like so, and lick it." The doctor inserts a finger withdraws it and licks it. "And now follow my example". As the last student inserts his middle finger and licks it, the professor gives his students a stern look and says. "The second rule if you want to be a great practitioner is to be observant. Had you been paying attention you may have noted that while I inserted my middle finger, I licked my index one."
Dr Warden tells me that, actually, in the olden days, doctors would dip a finger into urine and lick it - a honey taste indicated diabetes. I wonder aloud if that's where the association with 'piss' and 'beer' began.
In this way, I am wheeled into theatre. As the usual drugs are being inserted into my veins, there is more jokery. I recall some interchange involving nude surgery and G-strings.
The operation goes for around two hours I think and when I emerge from the ether, I realise there is a plastic tube coming out of my side to pump away excess fluids in my wound. I feel sore and sleepy.
Al comes to visit as promised. We discuss my proposed reconstruction. We have already had a talk about it.
After 17 years of marriage, it has taken this event for me to learn a surprising fact: Al has told me he has never been a boobs man!
"Then why did you marry me?" I asked.
"Because you're Bronwyn," he said. It's the sweetest thing anyone has said to me.
I can't keep my eyes open but as I doze off I realise I have a surprise visitor. It is my friend Louise, who started work at our local Council in January. The office is about half a kilometre away. It has taken my illness for her and I to meet in the flesh again. My room is dark and as I realise it is Louise, I don't know why, but I burst into tears.
Louise and I first met when I was 10 years old at Mt Carmel in Coorparoo. As I entered my Year 6 classroom, she was the girl with long blonde hair who shifted over and said "You can sit next to me." We hung around together through those primary years and then spent our high school years at Loreto. Louise and I went to QIT together and did the same course. We even had a brief time together sharing the same first job - at a small PR consultancy in Brisbane. Louise is my oldest best friend and is now a highly successful corporate official. (She is also something like an 8th-Dan in Zen Do Kai).
Seeing Louise like this makes me keenly aware of the shifting sands, the flow of time, the hand of fate. I wonder why my oldest friends have only really bothered to contact me on hearing I am unwell. Why is that? Why do we wait until people we care about are, possibly, critically unwell before we will pick up the phone? Say "I love you"? Take that extra step to make a connection beyond the superficial?
As Louise leaves I reach for her hand. Her fingers feel cool. I don't want to let go but I know I have to. I feel sad.
Later, my mum and dad come to visit and I sense their concern, seeing me like this - barely coherent in the aftermath of cooling tears.
Nurse after nurse checks my stitches and tells me what a fine job Dr Lambley has done. (Clearly he followed my instruction and stayed off the booze the night before. Ha ha.)
It will take me a few hours before I can raise myself from my bed and have a look myself at what has become of Nicky.
I am told she weighed 700 grams!
The next day I have more visitors. In the morning Al brings Ben to see me, on his way to school.
A little later, my sister Fiona arrives and as she comes in through the door to my alarm, she bursts into tears. She is upset to see me in this way.
Once she has calmed down however, and I have shown her my scar, she proclaims that I am "a lucky bastard". You see my sisters are much more buxom than me. And they are two of only a handful of my friends (Chrissy and Nim included) who know how onerous large breasts truly are. Put mildly, big tits are overrated.
After realising that all is not so bad, Fiona settles and relates her envy that I will soon be able to wear whatever I want, to run freely, to move unencumbered.
It is great to see Fiona who has come all the way from the northside. But importantly, it is good to see her leave with her worst fears laid aside. I am reminded of how an imagination can make a problem larger than it is. Cancer has a way of transforming the smallest fears into the kind that can suffocate.
Later, Harry comes to visit and we have a chat about his studies, his tutoring and his plans. I'm very pleased that he has made the effort. Dr Lambley pops his head in and bumps into my Mum and Aunt Ethel who are on the way in. It's a fateful encounter as my Mum regales Dr Lambley with stories of mystical cures for cancer. I tell him to make a getaway while he can.
When he leaves Mum and Aunty comment on what a lovely man he is. I think it's a happy coincidence that she bumped into him. It's helped to put her a little more at rest.
Aunty even comments that he is "handsome".
As Mum and Aunty leave, my friend Lee arrives bearing a bunch of flowers and some chocolates. She broaches the subject of the effect an illness can have on friends. Lee works at the Mater South Brisbane and has been in regular discourse with my oncologist, Dr Choo. Maybe it's not such a good thing - Lee knows exactly what lies ahead for me.
It's 8.30 pm when Lee leaves and I settle down for the night, nicely sedated by the pain killers that have been consumed four-hourly.
As I prepare to leave the hospital the next day, one of the female doctors, Gill, comes in. Jenny has arranged for her to come and show me the results of the full breast reconstruction she had after a double mastectomy and has offered to let me see (and feel!) her boobs. The are impressive. Size 14 D and made from stomach fat with created nipples.
This is value adding, I had joked to Jenny. "Take 2 pills three times a day and you can have a feel of my boobs."
Gill gives me her mobile number and kindly offers to answer any questions I may have down the track.
When I return home I don't know how I feel. Perhaps a little angry?
In the car I tell Al that I wish I could fast forward to October 2012 when this will all be over. It's only writing this that I realise how I have changed already. I'm a person who lives in the present. Never before, ever, have I wished to fast forward time.
Not long after I get home, Greg comes to visit. I run and jump into bed because I don't want him to see my lopsided chest. Already, I feel a bit embarrassed. Greg is bearing flowers and chocolates, and a book from Lynne (How sweet and thoughful: "You can Expect a Miracle: A Book to Change your Life" by Dr John Hinwood) As we chat, Greg lounging on the edge of my bed, another bunch of beautiful roses is delivered for the Englands and I despatch Al into a flurry of flower arranging. Here is what they look like:
And now, I suppose some of you may be wondering how my operation went? Yesterday I did have a good look at what was left of the world without Nicky. I didn't really know what to think other than that Dr Lambley really had done a neat job of the stitching.
I don't want you to see me in the flesh like this, and it is unlikely I will venture out until my prosthesis arrives. However, I am happy to share this image.
It is the line of stitching that marks the place where once I carried my left breast.
I hope you will not find this gross or unnecessary in the context of this blog.
I hope you will realise what I am beginning to, and what this image represents: That as we get older (should I get older), we are less and less the sum of our parts, and much more, the absence of them.
Perhaps this is what getting older means? Giving away, giving up, letting go.
As my friend Tim has already said: "Vale Nicky".