Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
If she is to recover from a double mastectomy and reconstruction, the list gets a bit longer. Money (or insurance or a really good payment plan), a room of her own, a recliner, blackout curtains, painkillers, a crocheted blanket, a Bible, a noise machine, a lap dog, squishy pillows, dry shampoo, hand sanitizer, child care, bone broth, an escape hatch…
I mean, just based on my experience.
I had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery on Thursday, February 16, following a smaller surgery on January 31. Wow, mama!
The words I would use to describe how I felt immediately after “the big surgery” are relief and thankfulness. Relief that another treatment milestone was behind us, relief that the pain was manageable. Thankfulness for incredible doctors, medical research, compassionate nurses, and a village of help. It was stunning to me that this intimidating medical event, this “big surgery,” could happen, and the next day I could go for a short walk.
Four weeks ago, on the Monday before my January 31 surgery, I was edgy, lightheaded, and overwhelmed. My denial took the form of procrastination, of waiting until the last minute to pack, and my anxiety took the form of…being mean to Bryce. Thankfully, we had evening plans to visit some friends who had just had a baby. Holding an infant can have a powerful effect on fear and worry.
The January 31 surgery, which went great thanks to skilled doctors and a loving community, gave us visibility into what to expect for February 16. Bryce learned from experience and kindly suggested that instead of unleashing another wave of denial and anxiety on the Greater Richmond Region, I pack in advance and, ya know, get mentally prepared. So I did. This time, I made a binder with all of my instructions and handouts to take to the hospital. I organized my medications, too.
On top of that, in the weeks prior, women who had been through similar surgeries had given me a few “I wish someone had told me…” pro tips. I reviewed those tips and organized the supplies they gave me.
The prayers and preparations gave way to peace. On February 15, the night before surgery, Bryce and I were able to enjoy a fun dinner date. I went to my Bible study afterwards. It was nice to think about something other than surgery and have a chance to laugh, and it was so helpful to be prayed for.
On February 16, mercifully, I really was ready for the procedure. I only had one question for my doctors: “Can I see the tumor?”
My breast cancer surgeon said, “No, it’s too small now. There’s not much to see…But we’ll be running full pathology on everything, and calling you with that in about a week.”
My pastor Steve prayed with me, my mom, Bryce, and my friend Abby. That’s probably the last thing I remember before the anesthesia kicked in.
Recovery Part 1: Hospital Overnight
No matter how organized your binder is, there will always be surprises along the road to recovery–some good, some bad.
Surprise #1: When I woke up, I was not in pain. I do not take this for granted. As I mentioned in this post, some people have a much different experience.
Surprise #2: I heard the nurses say my plastic surgeon likes to keep the patient’s room warmer than usual. Yes! A woman after my own heart.
Surprise #3: The hospital recovery dinner was pretty gross. One of the nurses mentioned he hoped it would “get things moving,” but it was cream of (broccoli?) soup, vanilla pudding, chocolate ice cream, and fruit juice. I’ve spent too much time on NutritionFacts.org not to giggle about that. I hope the staff was not offended. I think (???) we were laughing together, right?
Surprise #4: One of my nurses knits! She said I could pick a hat. My first field trip out of bed was trying on a few options with her in front of the mirror.
Surprise #5: My inability to understand the patient controlled analgesia (PCA) pump. Because I’d gotten strict orders from friends and guidance from pre-op and warnings from books about the importance of staying on top of pain management, I was on high alert. My conversation with my nurse went something like this:
Nurse: …You can press this every ten minutes to manage your pain.
Me: Will it give me too much morphine if I press it too often?
Nurse: No, it has safeguards against that.
Me: Okay, great. And what about if I fall asleep for 8 hours? Will I wake up glued to the ceiling because I haven’t been pressing the button enough? Should I just press the button a whole bunch of times before I go to sleep?
Nurse: No, you don’t need to do that. You’ll wake up if you get uncomfortable.
Me: (Afraid of pain) Oh. That doesn’t sound good.
Nurse: Don’t worry. We’ll be coming in to check on you, so you won’t be sleeping for 8 hours straight anyways.
Me: Okay. (Presses button) (Presses button)
Really, the hospital stay was great. Yes, I was uncomfortable, but I got started on my exercises. I went on another field trip to put makeup on and feel a little less pitiful. And breakfast was pretty spot-on.
Recovery Part 2: Happy at Home
Initially, it was great to be home. Friends and family helped out with Lincoln (4) and Hyatt (2), so I could rest when I needed to.
With pain medication under control, I basically went on short walks, took naps, and did my post-surgery exercises.
One of the surprises was it really hurt to sneeze.
Recovery Part 3: Fearful at Home
The boys were somewhere, the house was quiet, and I was uncomfortable. A thought came to me, like a fly ball landing next to my foot: this is suffering.
It was as if all throughout treatment, I had been standing in the outfield, but none of the batters ever hit anything my way. The action just pinged around the infield. I never had to feel the weight of the baseball in my glove.
Now, suddenly, there it sat. Oh. This was suffering.
I felt the weight of so many months of treatment, and of the surgery. Needles, chemicals, notebooks. Feeling like a cyborg. Scary questions and Internet rabbit holes.
I wept that I was out of practice with normal life, and that I had devoted so much time and energy on coping strategies. I wept that the role of “patient” had become part of my identity–in a more prominent way than I’d expected at age 34. I wept because I didn’t want to live my life waiting for the next shoe to drop, but I also wept because I was still afraid.
I desperately wanted God to use all of the suffering for good, to redeem it in some way.
Here are some of the things I read in my recliner:
Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing; now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
Romans 8, especially 8:28
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
(Also helpful: the Slugs and Bugs song In All Things. I get Slugs and Bugs albums for my kids, but I listen to them all the time by myself, and hum lyrics throughout the day.)
Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
Lamentations 3:22-23 and Bifrost Arts’ song We Are Not Overcome (thanks, Rebecca!)
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
Although I have been a patient for many months, I am hopeful a time is near where this will become less of my identity.
And yet, and I am still in need. I want to be a capable wife, a responsible mother, an industrious worker, and a friend who can laugh. In order to do those things, first I need to be a child at the Lord’s feet.
Recovery Part 4: Urban Getaway
On Day 6 after surgery, Hyatt got sick. Even though I was adding so much value to our household crying in my recliner (ha…ha), we agreed I should leave to avoid infection. I spent two days at my dear friend Christy’s house just south of the river. It was a good decision. Hyatt recovered, and I recovered. I slept in, I napped, I watched chick flicks. Christy and her husband were so kind.
Hanging out with a friend helped me be a little more lighthearted. Because the weather was unseasonably warm, we got in a few nice walks.
Recovery Part 5: Current Status
I want a guarantee that I am D-O-N-E with treatment, but there are no guarantees. As I research ways to save myself with nutrition, I am thankful for the upcoming Lenten season. It’s an invitation to repent of idolatry, to spend time with God and be honest, and to experience grace. After all, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, not the fear of cancer.
In truth, I will probably eat differently. Why not? It’s something I can do. However, I know that nutrition is not my ultimate hope, and any lasting changes I make must start with my heart, out of genuine desire, not fear. I believe it is by God’s grace and wisdom that any true resolve for daily living may come. Lord, I don’t want to do this in my own strength. I lack the will, and I lack the knowledge, and this is not the only thing you have called me to. The illusion of control is comforting for brief moments, but only God knows the number of our days, and He is the real source of strength.
After some physical therapy (I have axillary web syndrome, or cording, from my sentinel node biopsy), I will get back into yoga, and hopefully, running. I will continue to research how to get my hair to look like Natalie Portman’s. I will go back to work.
Ever since June 2016 I’ve devoted so much brain space and planning to cancer treatment, normal life will be a paradigm shift. I imagine it will be like getting one’s last child safely onto the kindergarten bus: both freeing and pretty scary. Wow, okay, we did it.
As we try to process what’s happened in the life of our family and in our hearts, I keep remembering a Needle’s Eye Ministries talk I heard, The Five Pillars: Thankfulness with Brenda Burgess. Brenda shares an earnest, helpful message about what she’s learned from her own treatment journey. Definitely worth the 30-minute listen.
Thank you for your prayers and support, for being on our team throughout this journey.
AND: Listen to your bodies! Schedule your check-ups!