On this day in history…

bag packed, Snoopy donated by Macy to keep me company

One year. 365 days. Or, 366 days with a leap year. Either way, a year is a long time, a lotta days. So much can–and does–happen in the span of a year. Each day is ripe with possibility, and none was as much so as March 2, 2011. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” Looking back at this day last year, I’m taking his advice and am going to write it on my heart: being one year out, exactly, from The Big Dig makes this day the best day in the year. This time last year, I was once again in a hospital gown while my cabal of surgeons brandished multi-colored Sharpies to designate the roadmap that would lead us out of the ravages of infection.

pre-surgery note from my sweet girl

I haven’t yet processed all the thoughts and emotions attached to this day one year ago. I don’t know when or how that will happen. My reconstruction surgery was big. Epic, even. After a long and winding road of “whatever can go wrong did go wrong” post-mastectomy, getting to the point of being able to have reconstruction was major progress. All of the research, doctors’ powwows, appointments, testing, and paperwork involved was just the tip of the iceberg. Then came the actual procedure, and then the recovery. None of those, however, are as arduous as it is to wrap  my head around the “journey” that reconstruction was–and still is–for me.

Because I haven’t yet wrapped my head around my reconstruction “journey,” and because frankly I’m kinda scared to pick at that scab and let loose the torrent of emotions lying under the surface, I’m not going to write about it. Yet.

Instead, I present highlights from the surgery day and the days and weeks that followed. As you loyal readers will remember from this time last year, it was several days before I was able to sit at my computer and type. My trusty stand-in bloggers were the hubs, Trevor, and my surgery sherpa and dear friend Amy. They filled in for me when I was unable to process a coherent thought, sit upright, or use my arms.

While I never got bogged down in the “Why me?” school of thought regarding the complications that ensued from my cancer “journey,” I know now that there are a lot of thoughts and feelings still untapped regarding the perilous trek from normal person to breast cancer patient to survivor. So busy was I handling the logistics of each new complication that dealing with the emotional fallout took a backseat to just getting through each new hiccup. I know all you arm-chair psychiatrists out there are shaking your collective heads and tsk-tsking me for tamping down these thoughts and feelings. I would pass the same judgment on any other poor sap in my shoes. However, you do what you gotta do to get through the worst times, and “when you’re going through hell, keep going,” as Mr Churchill so sagely advised.

Mr Churchill would probably also advise me to quit talking about it and get to it, so here, without further ado, are the highlights (or are they lowlights?) of The Big Dig.

After the surgery was finally complete, Trevor was eerily prophetic when he forecasted the tough days ahead: “She is still awake but in a bit of pain. They are not fooling around with it at least and they just upped her pain-med clicker along with a nice big slug of morphine. We have some tough days ahead while she recovers but everything looks great so far.”

morphine pump with a very large keychain

After surgery and the recovery room, I was shipped straight to ICU for an unpleasant stay  that seemed endless. In Recovery Trevor wrote, “We made it through the first night in ICU. The nurses checked on her every hour last night so she didn’t get too much sleep though. They have ordered a regular room for her but they won’t let her out of ICU until she sits up in a chair for an hour. They just wheeled the chair  in, this is gonna hurt.”

I remember how ominous it was when the chair was wheeled into my room. A hush filled the room as everyone realized what was about to take place. Anyone who’s had a C-section knows how difficult it is to move straight after, and with a hip-to-hip incision, “difficult” barely covers it.

Trevor wrote about making the switch from ICU to a regular hospital room: “Finally out of ICU. It took forever to get out of there, there just seemed to be always one more thing. They had to take blood and couldn’t get enough from the line in her hand despite much digging and infliction of pain. They finally just opened up her chemo port and had it done in a snap. Of course they had already packed her up for transport so the morphine pump was temporarily disconnected. But Nancy is a bad ass and toughed it out.”

I have no recollection of this at all. That’s probably a good thing. I’m glad I was a bad-ass about it, though.

In So Long ICU Amy wrote: “She’s super tired.  Come to find out her new breasticles have to have their arterial blood flow checked once an hour and it’s been that way since the surgery ended yesterday and will be through tomorrow…..so cat naps abound.  They made her get up and have a ‘sitting trial’ time for an hour and she did really well.  To hear her tell the doctors about it, it was ‘hard’ but as an observer she handled the “trial” with grit and humor–typical Nancy. Tomorrow’s plan is to do a little bit of walking and take a shower.”

It wasn’t long before the wailing & gnashing of teeth commenced. As soon as I made the transition from drugged up to mildly lucid, I figured out that this wasn’t going to be an easy recovery. In Utter Exhaustion Amy explained: “I’ve only had to charge her the $10 for ‘having to put up with your complaints fee’ twice today.  As much as Nancy would like you to think she’s a troublesome patient, she is not, at all.  In fact, the staff enjoy her very much.  Her easygoing nature was complimented today when she had to make the effort to get in the chair to sit for another hour.  Le, her nurse, commented about how Nancy’s attitude really made her job easier.”

I put on a happy face for my medical peeps, but was a bit more realistic with my closest caregivers.

Amy continues: “Complaint number 1: This particular complaint is what brought on the $10 charge twice today.  The ICU room was hot, very hot.  In fact there were heaters brought in just for this purpose…two of them.  Seems that the stomach tissue that they harvested for her new rack doesn’t realize that it has to get its heat source from her body instead of the outside air, so for the next few weeks Nancy needs to have a warmer than normal outside air temperature.  I think the docs even suggested turning off the AC at her house once she gets out of here, but Nancy and I decided to let that one go over our heads.  Nancy actually assessed herself the charge after I mentioned that I charge $10 at my house for being ‘grouchy, irritable, or just plain mean.’ Then she said, ‘And you can charge me another $10 for this one…..’ Complaint number 2:  Headache.  A bad one.  She’s been dealing with this all day.  The nurses say she had a pretty major dose of morphine in the ICU so that is a side effect of morphine and it should work itself out as she uses less and less morphine.  Because of this, Nancy has decided that Mr. Morphine Pump may not be summoned every time the pain surges. She’s thinking about it before she presses the button.  On one side there’s the headaches.  On the other side there’s the pain.  It’s a delicate seesaw to manage.”

“The good news is that despite the pain, she managed to move from her bed to the recliner, sat for an hour, then ambulated back to the bed with only 1 morphine pump at the beginning of the whole scenario.  The nurses are impressed with how tough our girl is!”

I still owe Amy $20. Maybe more.

My intrepid sherpa wrote the Morning Report the day after I was released from ICU: “This morning the muscle tightness and tenderness in the belly incision reared its ugly head and has taken the forefront in the battle for attention.  While Nancy hasn’t actually called it pain, I think that may be the best word for it. There’s a lot of bruising around the hip-to-hip incision, and the docs said that they did had to work hard with her muscle layer there as well as on her chest wall so this is to be expected.  She has been given Flexeril (a muscle relaxer) to help with this and the added benefit is that it makes her VEEEERRRYYY sleepy.  So, even though at 5:15 AM, Nancy was confident that she was up for the day and we did the teeth brushing and face washing that comes with a new day, she was within minutes back to sawing logs.  Good Girl!  She has been dreaming out loud and woke asking me, ‘Is that due tomorrow?’ You can take the Mom out of the home but you can’t take the Home out of the Mom!”

Whatever assignment was due hopefully got done; I have no idea what it was!

Rejuvenated?? was written 2 days after surgery, by Amy: “Mr. Morphine Pump and the rest of his crew are yet again dust in the wind. Nancy is free of anything that follows her on a pole.  She does have 6 drains and 2 doppler wires, plus her central line access port, so she’s still got a little gear. The big event today was a shower. Well, all I have good to say about that shower is that Nancy is clean.  One word I could use to describe how Nancy tolerated the event was that she was speechless.  So, suffice it to say that the pain from the ab incision reached out and grabbed hold of her. By the time she had recovered enough from the trauma of the shower to find her voice she said, ‘That’s NOT happening again!  I’m clean enough!’”

Finally, I was able to post for myself and in 1 Week Ago, I got to it: Long story short, the flaps [newly fashioned breasts from belly tissue] were cooperating, the morphine headache abated, some regular food arrived, and life rolled on. At some point they moved the flap checks to every two hours instead of hourly, which was mighty nice. It’s amazing how your perspective changes in a situation like that. After umpteen hours with no food, a simple PB&J was a delicacy. After being awake most of the night, a short cat-nap seemed a decadent luxury. While I feel a whole lot better and am ready to get back to normal, my handlers think one week post-op is a bit premature to jump right back into the day-in, day-out routine. I am trying to take it easy. I’m resigned to the fact that I’m back to one outing a day for a while, and sadly, a doctor’s appointment counts as an outing. Yesterday I had a small entourage escort me to for my checkup, and we had a bite of lunch (sans margaritas) beforehand. The handlers insisted on snapping a photo of this maiden voyage, and there was some talk of me earning a margarita for every device I had removed at the subsequent appointment. Between the two doppler wires and the 4 JP drains, somebody owes me 6 margaritas. No salt.” 

Of my $82,996.75 bill for The Big Dig, I wrote: “I would have expected my pharmacy fee to be much higher than $4,306.50. Maybe as a repeat customer, I get a discount on morphine.”
And the Breaking News: “There are lots of things I’ve been unable to do in the 10 days since The Big Dig, and y’all know I’m a very impatient patient. I tend to rush things and push the envelope, and sometimes that results in a set-back, or at the very least, a lot of frustration for my handlers. I’ve been trying, really trying, to be patient, to not rush things, and to avoid any potential set-backs. I’m not much of a people-pleaser by nature, but I do try to keep my handlers happy. They make a lot of noise when they’re unhappy with me.”

A little later, in Wisdom from the DL, I got real about my hatred of all things invalid-related: “I’ll never be good at being a spectator in my own life, and I’ll never be one who enjoys the journey in my haste to get to the destination,but I have learned the value of time & place and that sometimes you have to be instead of do. I’ve learned to chant It’s temporary a thousand and one times to remind myself that while this is my life, it won’t always be like this.”

One year later–one very long year that was equally horrific and hard yet insightful and triumphant–I’m still reminding myself.

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15 Comments on “On this day in history…”

  1. David Benbow says:

    Wow. You ARE a bad-ass. And SO strong.

  2. My goodness. Has it been a whole year? I remember when you were psyching yourself up for this adventure. You are an amazing woman!

  3. Tamara Kay says:

    I remember this, too! I didn’t realize I’d been reading your blog for over a year. Well, since you are in the Central time zone, same as me, I’m assuming that the first champagne cork has already been popped?? What a day to celebrate, and you’ve come so far!!!

  4. Christy says:

    I remember it well. You are amazing, brave, and yes, a BAD ASSSS! Way to be so strong!

  5. Phew, I hadn’t stumbled upon your blog when this was happening, you’re a tough gal all right! Not looking to closely at the emotions just yet, sounds like an good idea.

  6. Amy H. says:

    Wow! Seems like yesterday….and then like a decade ago! You are tough and I would not wish that surgery on anyone! It’s a good thing you can’t remember a lot of it!

  7. gozzygirl says:

    Wow, has it been a year already? I was just getting ready for my reconstruction when you stumbled across my blog and posted a comment encouraging me. Since then, I’ve followed your blog watching you get back your life. I love your writing, your sense of humour and your gumption to fight for what you believe in.

    My one-year anniversary with my new breast is coming up in May, and I’ll celebrate it by completing the FIve Boro Bike TOur in in New York City.

    I hope you get out and celebrate today.

  8. Eddie says:

    Leave it to your best girl to have the right advice, “pretend it’s over”. While in a way it is, truthfully it never will be. It is a part of you now, but not all of you. From here forward you author the tale, you decide how large or small a role it plays in the movie of your life.

    Oh, and did you ever get those six margaritas?

  9. Bruce Kramer says:

    Pink: Your last paragraph speaks to me–
    “”I’ll never be good at being a spectator in my own life, and I’ll never be one who enjoys the journey in my haste to get to the destination,but I have learned the value of time & place and that sometimes you have to be instead of do. I’ve learned to chant It’s temporary a thousand and one times to remind myself that while this is my life, it won’t always be like this.””

    And there is the point. It will not only NOT always be like this, it will never be like this again. Until you have looked this stuff straight in the face, it is hard to know that. And if you are lucky–very, very lucky– someone you love understands this phenomenon and agrees to go with you. That is very hard, because it means acknowledging just how mortal we are, even when we aren’t ready.

    Hooray for anniversaries, and thanks for your wisdom. Keep writing!

  10. Barb Fernald says:

    I’m in the chorus. I remember this time well, and how I checked your blog so often hoping for positive updates, unable to imagine the strength it took to keep on keepin’ on! I can’t believe it was a whole year ago. Hooray for you!!

  11. Congratulations on the one-year milestone! What a medical saga. Like you, I had to keep reminding myself it was only temporary. I love that pic of you: stunning! XOXO

  12. Mandi says:

    Whew! A year! I remember all of this a year ago! Look at how much time flies!

  13. Wendy Langley says:

    It’s a really good day to read about you, Nancy. Cheers to you and all the victories you have earned since the “Big Dig”. Keep ‘em coming!

  14. Carol says:

    I just have to know if being still & laying low really does decrease how long one has to live with drains. I’ve had my hip drains for 3 weeks and 2 days (prophylactic bilat mastect,, BRCA2 +) and I would do just about anything short of a felony (and probably even commit a low level felony) for permission to evict ‘em.

    • Laying low did indeed work for me, Carol, and I do hope it works for you, too. The drains are vile but necessary.

      There’s been enough time & distance between the drains and me that I’ve almost forgotten how awful they are, but reading your words brings it all back. Very best of luck to you and do let me know how you’re faring. If you need someone to post bail, I’ve got your back!


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