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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mastectomy

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".

10 comments:

  1. As we get older, the outside is so much less important than the inside. You have taken control of your Cancer by having the mastectomy - it is no longer controlling you.
    Love you Bron! x

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  2. so glad the surgery went well and the results look like dr lambly did a great job. your picture of the results is so inspiring to know what you have been through, the grief you may be feeling over this loss of yourself.

    stay strong and thanks for sharing so much of this journey with us.

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  3. You amaze me Bronwyn!
    So happy that your surgeon has done such an amazing job, and more importantly, that you have had such amazing staff looking after you and supporting you
    I am also so glad that Lee will be by your side with your family throughout this journey you are now taking
    Hope that Al and the boys, as well as you are supporting Paris in adjusting to her solo status
    Know that if you need me, I am here
    Much love, hugs and positive energy coming your way
    Thanks you so very much for sharing, your humour, strength and candour is empowering for so many reading your blog
    Much love and pinkness!!!

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  4. I'm speechless!!! you are so brave, so amazing and I cant agree with you more, your husband loves you and Bronny I have only met you a few times, but your smart, beautiful and kind hearted nothing can take that away from you, but most of all you have your life and that is everything. My heart and thoughts are with you
    love Judy (Nimee friend) xxxx

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  5. Bronwen

    I am very moved by your bravery - and your obvious humanity.

    We have never met but your personality - the very real you - comes through in your writing.

    we all retain something of the child within us , if we are lucky, and the child is optimistic and future orientated. She will see you through.

    Love Leni

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  6. Bronwyn, it's not just your courage, but also your honesty that marks you out as a star. :-)

    A speedy recovery to you.

    xx

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  7. Nope, not gross at all. A very neat job I must say! You're brave and amazing and so many women are going to read this blog and have their fears allayed. And it's amazing how unselfish you are Bron =)

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  8. You are brave indeed and honest as someone said earlier!

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  9. Amanda Young - Well said Bron, so BRAVE. BRAVO!!!! XX

    Anne Howe - I barely know you, but I am crying and laughing. Your blog, is so brave, informative, funny etc. If you need excesss fat for your new boob, please may I be the first to offer my rather large gut!! big hugs.

    Nim Alan - dont get upset but i cant help it iam crying like a baby and yes iam not a boobie girl at all :(((((((((((((((( love you xx

    Angie Jefferson - You are such an inspirational and brave woman Bron, I cry at every blog, but you are empowering all those that read it. xo

    Blossom Cardoz Dsilva - Bronwyn...I hope you get this published... inspirational, drama, tears,laughter... you are a very brave and beautiful person...you are in my prayers everyday

    Francesca Goener - This is informative, inspiring and couragous Bron.....sharing your own journey and exposing (no pun intended) breast cancer in this way. The pen is indeed as mighty as the sword! Thank you.

    Tracey Webb - glad to hear the surgery went well Bron, and I absolutely agree with what everyone has said above!

    Rae Askew - Confronting is all this, isn't Bron. Cried myself but at what Al said....you are a lucky girl to have such a supportive husband and family around you. Thank you for sharing. I think your blog is sooo important. Please keep writing it!

    Lisa Atkins - I feel very privileged to read your blog. Thank you

    Claire Weightman - xoxo

    Jan Nichols - Glad to hear all went well Bronny, you still have Paris and she was the the prettier of the two you know. Your blog is inspirational xx

    Betty Sheekey - you are in my thoughts. Take good care.

    Hayley Mapri - I know what a fan of the well-placed f-word you are (or not) but it has to be said: FUCK you're brave, Bron. Thank you for sharing your journey. I have laughed and cried through it all thus far. I hope you are doing lots of the same. It's good for the soul. XXX And hurry up

    John Moriarty - Bronwyn, if any of my bits go rogue I'm sending you a stamped addressed envelope for a bound copy of that blog of yours. Keep laughing!

    Karen McParland - You are a champion Bron... xxxxx

    Louise Denisenko - again your blog is so honest, open, lovely, funny, brave, unselfish and inpirational to read - thank you so much for allowing me and others to share this terrible experience with you Bronwyn and have such a personl insight xo :)

    Craig Wilson - I am just inspired at your absoute frankness and total preparedness to share your most intimate thoughts, fears and feelings with the world. This is what I believe are the characteristics that make up a truely strong confident person.....at true leader prepared to expose their vulnerability. Amazing, just awesome!!

    Tracey Wood - Bravo, Bron! Time for healing and recovery now. Onward and upwards! xxx

    Lucy Hargrave - So brave bronnie x

    Maria Mavrick - Bronee you are the bravest person i know and an inspiration to all of us. xo

    Tom Rooney - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpoyshqB8-o

    Vivimarie VanderPoorten - You inspire me Bron. I salute you, and know you will be fine. All blessings xx

    Vivimarie VanderPoorten - And yes, this is material for an amazing book.

    Malc McGookin - Bron, I didn't find it hideous, quite touching and moving.

    Fiona Vander Poorten Sawyer - love everyone's comments - so true - you are already triumphing over this Bron!

    Deniz Kultur - I too love and agree with everyone's comments above. You are a such a brave and inspirational woman. Your absolute frankness is priceless. As Anne said, if you need excesss fat please let me know ;)

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  10. Nicky and Paris never did define you Bron. Even if they were a deflated version of the actual your whole life -you would have been you, just like Al has said. No one can take that away and anyway, what's a natural DD breast at the end of the day. Your scar looks amazing too - well done doctor. Thinking of you constantly Bron - I love you, with or without Nicky - and hope you know in your heart just how much we all care. Lx PS. Don't forget I offered to donate tummy fat first! :)

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