“With all due respect to my surgeon, in a perfect world he would be out of a job.”
Russ Ramsey, Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death
So Much to Do First!
After learning that I'd be having surgery in eight days, and that I'd need to take it easy for a month or so afterwards, my immediate thought was that I had exactly one week to get a LOT of things done. I made a list of priorities.
1. Shopping. I'd read enough to know I'd need soft, loose clothes for after the surgery. My fall and winter wardrobe consists of jeans and layered tops (tank tops, flannel shirts, and warm fleece jackets or hoodies (mostly from Marks). I knew the underarm area would be sore and all the seams and so forth wouldn't be good. Plus all my bras were underwire (except for one I'd bought in Sydney the day before we'd left for home when it finally dawned on me (after three weeks) that the reason I was still sore after the biopsy might be because of the wire! Duh!
I made a bunch of trips to more than 5 Winners stores in our area in search of a couple of soft tops and pants outfits as well as inexpensive sports bras I hoped would work.
During this time, we also managed to find a birthday present for the grandson who had his 5th birthday coming up soon. It helped that he had told us exactly what he wanted. :-)
2. Ordering Books. I knew I'd want books to read, so I checked out what was available at our library and found some books I wanted to read. Our library has multiple locations, so I just go online to indicate what I want and they magically transport anything they don't have to the location closest to us.
Yes, I got one book on breast cancer. The rest, however, were all mysteries by some of my favourite authors as well as Ann Cleeves, whose Vera videos we'd enjoyed, and whose books I now wanted to read.
3. Fall/Winter Changeover. We'd already started getting rid of things we don't really needed, and our clunky bedroom furniture (that originally belonged to my parents) was on top of the list. Since it was time to put away my summer clothes and get out warmer ones, I found some new hanging shelves and emptied all my drawers!
We also changed over to our winter sheets and warmer comforter, etc. Plus wash anything that needed to be washed. And just generally did anything I might want to have done in the next month or so.
Fortunately, Les usually takes care of the garden in the fall. And he's been doing all the cooking and shopping for many years now.
4. Organizing to Write. I'm currently working on a memoir, so I tried to get that organized a bit better, too. I've had a number of bins of materials related to my memoir stacked in my office for months.
Before my mammogram, we'd decided we needed to begin the process of downsizing and getting better organized.
I'd been keeping my "speaking" or "good" clothes in the closet in my office for years. I moved them to another area to go through later and Les bought a plastic shelf unit to put in the closet for storing memoir items.
Then he brought a large portable white table into my office to use as a sorting place.
I still have bins to go through, but at least I won't have to lift anything for a while.
5. Saturday Book Event. I had previously agreed to read from two books at an event in Brampton that Saturday, so off we went.
I read from my mystery, Shadow of a Butterfly: The Case of the Harmless Old Woman, and "Power Play," my story in the Sisters in Crime Toronto anthology, The Whole SheBang 3.
Les read from his story in Hot Apple Cider with Cinnamon.
Basically, it took most of the day. Probably not worth it, but you never know. I did get a good picture out of it.
6. Family. On Sunday, we had supper with our oldest son's family and got to see their Thor, their new puppy (who is growing fast) as well as the younger of our two granddaughters, who was home from university for the weekend. And meeting Thor for the first time!
We also looked after our youngest grandson for a while the Wednesday before my surgery so that his parents could go for an ultrasound to check on their upcoming baby.
7. Get Some Help! I've known I need help with social media for some time, and the surgery proved to be the impetus I needed to actually find and hire someone to help for the next couple of months. We'll see how it goes after that.
8. Create Ads. We'd already put a call out for stories for a new book on adoption and fostering, so we had to decide if we still felt up for doing the book and if our timeline was still manageable.
We did, so I spent some time creating a few ads for Facebook. I actually don't mind doing picture stuff, but it is time-consuming.
9. Let More People Know. I updated more people on what exactly was happening with me—including extended family members, some of the writers we've worked with, and some friends.
The Night Before
And then it was the evening of Wednesday, October 17th.
I knew I couldn't eat or drink anything after midnight except for one glass of water, apple juice, or ginger ale before 8:30 a.m. To make sure I didn't forget, I measured 8 ounces of water into a glass and took it upstairs with me and left it next to the sink, where I also keep my synthroid pills.
I went to bed at about 10:00 p.m. as usual (asleep by 11:00 is my goal) and read for a while. And I slept quite well. I'd done everything I could to prepare, and I felt ready.
I woke up by 7:00, before my alarm went off, and put on my new mauve pants and matching (more or less) top.
I got ready to leave, grabbed my synthroid pill, and took it with my glass of water.
At 7:30, Les dropped me off at the hospital (which is three minutes from our house), after which he went swimming at the pool at our community center, which is next door to the hospital. He wouldn't be required until later and planned to skip swimming Friday morning, when he normally goes.
After registering in the main lobby, I went to the small Surgical Waiting Room. An older man and two parents with a young boy were also there. Shortly after 8:00, a nurse came to get all of us. She took us to a hallway where we were given hospital gowns and pants to change into. The little boy got to choose from teddy bears or stripes. This clearly wasn't his first time. I heard his mother tell the nurse that he wasn't worried about the surgery, but about vomiting afterwards. The nurse told her to mention that to the anaesthesiologist because they could change the anaesthetic.
After putting my shoes and clothes into a plastic bag, and putting the bag on the floor of a locker, I was ushered into a new small waiting room that already had quite a few people in it. After a while, my name was called and woman who I think was a nurse checked to make sure I was the right person and that I knew what was going to happen, and that I had someone coming to take me home afterwards. I gave her Les's mobile phone number.
She also checked my blood pressure. I think it was a bit high because she asked me why it might be high. I said, "Probably because of being in the hospital waiting for surgery and so forth?"
She nodded and sent me back to the waiting area, where I waited about half an hour.
Before I was called to go to the ultrasound area, I'd been waffling about going to the bathroom, thinking that if I did go, they'd call my name for sure. So when she came to get me, I asked if I had time to visit a bathroom on the way. The technician smiled and said, "Sure."
This ultrasound technician was new, but very nice. She quickly got the area in question visible on the screen. I already knew from what they'd said that it was on my left side, at 2:00 o'clock. She called to the radiologist to let her know I was ready.
Since there was no lump—not hard, anyway—the procedure involved placing a tiny wire in the middle of the area with the cancer so that the surgeon would be able to find it easily.
The radiologist froze the area first—a small sting when the needle went in, but nothing else hurt—and then she basically inserted a needle with a wire in it, and somehow withdrew the needle but not the wire.
Again, both women were professional but very kind, and made sure I knew what was happening, which, for me, is the main thing. Knowing what the person is doing is key to my feeling comfortable.
After that, the radiologist left and the technician got me to sit in a wheelchair, and called a volunteer (an older woman) to take me to the nearby Nuclear Medicine area.
The volunteer passed a couple of waiting rooms and left me in a small hallway, which felt kind of weird. But another woman soon came to get me. She was the technician who would put dye into the mass so the surgeon could take out the affected lymph nodes for a Sentinel Node Biopsy.
This is done if the tumour is very small and likely hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes, but you need to be certain. The radioactive dye is injected into the cancer mass, and from there travels to the nearest lymph nodes.
During the surgery, the surgeon uses a Geiger counter to find the dye in the first lymph nodes into which the tumour drains ("sentinel" ones), and makes a second incision to take out a few. They are then sent to a lab for testing to see if the cancer has spread to them.
Using the wire as a guide, the technician used a needle to insert the dye. And yes, I definitely felt a sting (like 10 bees, maybe?) as the dye went into the mass. But it was only for a couple of seconds.
The technician then put me back into the wheelchair. When I mentioned that I felt cold (and that I'm always cold) she went and got two warm flannel sheets and covered me up. Then she wheeled me back to the surgical waiting area, helped me into a chair, and rearranged the sheets to keep me warm. I'd be in the waiting room for almost two hours because the dye needed that long to travel to the lymph nodes.
I'd brought a book to read, and I had my iPhone, so I was fine. Eventually, Les found his way to the room (he was misdirected by a volunteer to the far end of the hospital), and sat with me. Which was good because then I could leave the waiting area to go the bathroom without being worried that someone would call for me and I wouldn't be there.
At about 11:15, a young man (I think he was a volunteer) came and took us both to one of several small alcoves off a hallway next to the door into Surgery. I got onto a gurney, which was relatively comfortable, to wait. The young man took the old flannel sheets and got a new, warm one for me.
After a while, the anaesthesiologist came to see me and checked regarding any allergies, then told me what to expect. Since my last general anaesthetic surgeries were more than thirty years ago, he smiled and told me they had improved the anaesthetics a lot since then. Although to be honest, I didn't remember having any issues.
The surgeon smiled and waved a couple of times as he went by.
Otherwise, we just waited.
A few minutes before twelve, a nurse came to get me. I took off my glasses and gave them and my purse to Les, and while he was sent back to the lobby waiting area, the nurse wheeled me through the nearby exit doors into a short hallway and into Surgery 2, which looked a lot like the picture below, except that there were at least three nurses already in the room, getting things ready, and there was no operating table in the middle of the room.
My bed was wheeled into position.
The nurse was really nice, making sure I was comfortable while at the same time positioning my arms at a 90 degree angle. The left arm had to be out of the way for the surgery, which would be on the left side and into the armpit area while the right area would get the IV.
The anesthesiologist appeared and put an IV into my right hand. He was good. I didn't feel anything.
My doctor walked in and said, "So you didn't change your mind?"
I had to think for a second. Oh, yes, I'd asked him whether the lumpectomy was enough, and if I should have a mastectomy, and he'd said it was up to me. He'd booked the partial mastectomy but I could change it. I said, "No." I didn't add, I trust you, but I thought it.
I think he said, "Good." Not sure. To be honest, I was starting to feel a little spaced out.
I heard someone say that the Geiger counter was needed somewhere else, and the doctor said he'd do the Sentinel node biopsy first.
Meanwhile, the anesthesiologist put a mask over my face. He told me it was just oxygen, and to take a few deep breaths. I'd had a general anesthetic before—for three of my C-sections. I took a deep breath, one more, then another....
I woke up an hour or so later in the recovery area. There was a big clock on the wall on the other side of the room where I could see other beds with people in them and a curtain at the side of each bed. I think the clock said it was two, or maybe twenty to two. I no longer remember.
A nurse who was on my right side said my name and asked if I was in pain. Out of 10, with 1 being none and ten being the worst I could imagine, what number was I?
I was barely awake. I didn't really feel any pain. I said, "Two?"
After a moment, I did feel a little twinge, so I said, "Maybe four?"
The nurse asked if I had someone with me and I told her, "My husband." I think she asked someone to find him; not sure.
I was still barely awake and I just wanted her to give me a minute to take in my surroundings and discover how I was. But I felt she was rushing me.
I felt some pain on my left side where the incision was. I told her the pain was more like a six.
A minute later, she handed me a paper cup with a straw in it and three pills for me to take. Two were large and one was really small. I know one of them was Tylenol 3. I don't know if she told me what the other two were on not.
While I took the pills with the water, she left. After I finished the water, I had no idea what to do with the cup. I could see the nurse across the room with two other nurses. They were all talking to a man. I think he was in pain because they seemed to be concerned about him.
I lay there holding the glass in my right hand. I think the IV needle was still there. Maybe. I knew I was okay, so I waited for the pain to lessen, which it did.
Eventually, someone came over and I gave them the cup. I think I was asked about my husband again. Of course, I didn't know his mobile number. The person said not to worry—they had it written on my chart. Then someone—maybe a volunteer—came to wheel me to the other side of the recovery room, but apparently I wasn't ready to go. If you think U-shaped, with a nurses station at the end of the U, that's what it was. There were curtained areas on both sides.
A nurse found Les's name and cell phone number on my chart and she called him and told him where I was, but he couldn't join me until I'd moved into the second recover area. So then the volunteer was able to move my bed to the other side.
I got a new nurse, and I think she told me that the surgery had gone well. As in, the surgeon had done what he set out to do—the lumpectomy and the sentinel node biopsy.
Les showed up eventually. He told me that someone had phoned him in the waiting room to let him know that I could now have a support person.
I'd been feeling okay, but suddenly, I knew I was going to vomit. I think the nurse was still there, because someone handed me a plastic basin, and I did throw up. It was basically clear fluids.
After a bit, I felt better and either Les or someone else brought the bag with my clothes and shoes, and Les helped me dress. I was still feeling a bit queasy, and I said something to Les, who grabbed another basin out of the drawer the first one had been in and handed it to me just in time.
I just barely managed to not get any on my clothes.
The nurse I'd seen when I was brought over to this side of the recovery room was nowhere in sight, so Les grabbed the first nurse he saw and she looked after the basin.
We waited a bit until I felt ready to leave, but Les grabbed another basin to have in the car just in case.
And then someone was there with my release forms and a sheet with information about my next appointment and a few other things. I already knew what to expect from the pamphlets they'd given me on the pre-op day. And Google, of course.
While Les went to bring the car up front, an older lady (a volunteer) came with a wheelchair, and I got into it. She pushed me to the front door and Les helped me into our car.
I made it home without throwing up again. But not long after I'd gone upstairs and climbed into bed, I grabbed a plastic bin I'd brought into the room just in case, and made good use of it.
What I couldn't figure out was where all the liquid (it was all just clear liquid) had come from since I'd only had the one cup of water to drink since the night before, but Les said they had likely given me liquids in the IV. He also said that the vomiting might be my body's way of getting the poisons out. I remembered the little boy's parents saying he was afraid of the vomiting afterwards because he'd had a lot in a previous surgery, and wondered how he was doing.
No idea why, but we hadn't planned for my feeling sick to my stomach after the surgery, so we had no ginger ale in the house. Les called our oldest son, who lives nearby, and he brought over a couple of bottles. Sipping the ginger ale definitely helped my stomach settle down.
After that, I went to sleep.
It had been two months to the day since the call on August 18th to come back for another mammogram and an ultrasound. Since then, my life had been a bit of a blur. Now, October 18th, the surgery was done, and as far as we knew it had gone well but we wouldn't get the final results for two more weeks. I knew that others were praying for me, and that I trusted God no matter what the results might be. So during those weeks, my plan was to rest, to read, and to let my body—which had been invaded first by cancer and then by the surgeon with his knife—heal.