Other than the shooting…

With the exception of being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40, I’ve always had a pretty  healthy countenance. Ok, I know that sounds like the old joke, “Other than the shooting, how’d you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” And now, with the flu, the joke’s on me.

Being sick, or being diagnosed with cancer, makes one appreciate one’s good health. For schizzle. Again with the annoying cliches, but somehow we don’t know how good we’ve got it, until it’s gone. Whatever “it” may be. In my case, it’s good health.

Even after my diagnosis and surgery and epic battle with the infection, people would universally remark upon how healthy I looked. As if the stereotypical look of a cancer patient or infection warrior has to fit into a preconceived box. I suppose that’s the very essence of stereotyping: it exists for a very legitimate reason, and the reason is that it is true.

Follow me? It makes sense to me, but it may also be the cockamayme ramblings of a fever-induced, Tamiflu-fueled insanity. Temporary, I hope.

I’ve said it before and will say it again: cancer is not a gift. Anyone who thinks it is either (a) doesn’t have it; (b) has it but is whacked-out on narcotics; or (c) is a lying sack of you-know-what. It’s a disease, pure and simple. It’s a malfunction at the cellular level. Something changes in the DNA that alters the way the cells behave. In breast cancer, in particular, BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor suppressor genes — they keep cancer tumors from forming. When these genes undergo change, which can happen for a variety of reasons, they no longer cause cells to die at the right time, and cancer is more likely to develop.

I’m not sure how someone can understand that and still think that cancer is a gift. There’s nothing, not one thing, in gene mutation that even hints at slick, shiny  wrapping paper and silky bows.

Because I’m a realist, I don’t expect people to bump up against cancer–whether with the bomb being dropped directly over one’s house or simply knowing someone who’s been diagnosed–and drastically change their lifestyles. In my case, my lifestyle didn’t need much changing. I ate healthfully, exercised pretty much every day, played as much tennis as humanly possible, chose organic and turned my nose up at pesticides. Granted, I could have cut down on the volume of champagne I consumed, but I felt like that fell under the “live life to the fullest” category.” Sounds good, right?

So why was I the one to get cancer, while people who treat their bodies much less kindly go on to live long, uncomplicated lives? I have no idea. Was my diagnosis handed down from on high, with some mystery contained therein for me to interpret and then carry out? Doubtful. Was it my destiny to contract this blasted disease and then come out the other side a mouthpiece for the Cause? Maybe, although I’m not there yet. Was it random bad luck, in that the great karma wheel stopped spinning and I was the one in eight? That sounds more likely.

No matter the reason, the disease did come calling, and the infection did set up shop, and my life did change. Some of the change was for the better: I’ve learned a little bit of patience, how to let go (sometimes), I’ve become pretty well-educated in a fascinating topic, I’ve learned how to blog, and I’ve made some new friends.

That’s not all bad.

Update on my guardian angels

Remember these three lovely ladies? If not, read this. I wrote about my guardian angels and their unfortunate accident in which they flew off the shelf and crashed onto the floor.

They’ve been repaired and restored to their shelf in the kitchen, where they can watch over my family and me. I think they’re recovered from their trauma, but are likely wary of another episode and probably watch over me with a worried eye, thinking, “There she goes, crashing around the kitchen again like a crazy person. It’s only a matter of time before she bustles over here to grab a cookbook off our shelf, and down we go, smashed into bits on the hard porcelain tile.”

Or something along those lines. I have no idea what Willow Tree angels’ conversations actually sound like, but that’s how I imagine this one. 

All three angels went to Ed’s magical workshop for repairs. They may want to ask about a frequent customer card, as they’ve been there before, and will probably end up there again. His rates are very reasonable, he does outstanding work, and he always manages to work in the casualties resulting from my carelessness.

This angel sustained the most extensive yet least noticeable damage. She pretty much snapped in half, suffering internal injuries but held it together cosmetically. You can see that she now has a long scar all the way across her middle, which is prescient as that’s what I too will have after reconstruction, since they’re gonna cut me hip-to-hip to harvest the skin & flesh to rebuild me up top. Ick. I wish I could manage as serene an expression as this Angel of the Heart in the face of my trauma, injuries, and recovery.

The Angel of Hope needed limb restoration, but thankfully she managed to escape the accident with her right arm intact, since it holds her lantern that she uses to watch over her careless charges. A single amputee is bad enough; a double would have been really tragic. She also lost part of her ponytail, but as we all know, hair loss is temporary, and hers did magically grow back at the workshop, and her scars are barely noticeable.

Sustaining the most overall damage was the Guardian Angel and her young companion. The decapitation was especially devastating, and sadly his head was never found. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Harry the eating machine found it and devoured it before he realized it wasn’t actually food. She also lost her head, but I found it and it, along with her hand, were restored to their previous state.

Thanks to everyone who wrote, called, or emailed with concern and support about these lovely ladies. Let’s hope they stay in one piece for a while.

Now that I have a surgery date…

Now that I have a surgery date, if you feel compelled to join the Greek chorus that’s asking if I really want to have the surgery, don’t.

Just don’t.  

I don’t want to hear it.

I don’t need to hear it. 

Isn’t the fact that I have a surgery date evidence enough of my decision to go forward?

If I didn’t want to have the surgery, would I really have a date? Would I be putting myself through the mental anguish that accompanies such a decision and the days that stretch on between said date and today?

Sometimes I hate people. 

Mainly those who say stupid things, but Sarah Palin & “President” Mubarak are on my list too. If you like either of these idiots, you may want to unsubscribe from this blog, because I will most likely rip on them and their idiot-ness a lot, esp when I’m in a foul mood like I am now. And if ripping on dumbasses makes me feel better, then Katy bar the door because I’m gonna do it. 

So there.

And don’t tell me that people mean well, and sometimes they just don’t know what to say. They can suck it. If it’s that hard to come up with something not stupid to say, then perhaps they should zip it.

But back to the surgery. Reconstruction is a big step. It’s a scary step. It’s a horrifying assault on my already-beleaguered body. If things were different, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to do it. By “things” and “different” I mean the path of destruction left by the blasted mycobacterium.

I hate that myco almost as much as I hate Sarah Palin. Sheesh, just typing her name makes me mad.

Ok, reigning it in.

That darn mycobacterium wrecked things up good. If it was just a question of having a flat chest, I’d be in no hurry for reconstruction. I kinda like my flat chest. It’s simple. It’s low-maintenance. I never have to wonder if people are paying attention to what I’m saying, because they’re certainly not distracted by cleavage (there is none). But thanks to the infection and subsequent tissue excision (gross, I know), it’s a mess that’s gotta be fixed.

And thanks to the infection, I can’t just pop in the implants and go along my merry way. I remember being asked as a kid if I had to do everything the hard way (I was a little stubborn back then). The answer is yes. Yes, I do.

I do not like surgery. Or hospitals. Or hospital gowns. Or hospital linens (scratchy, so scratchy). Or hospital food. Or the hospital smell. Or needles. Or being an invalid. Or depending on other people. Or waiting on other people to show up and do what they need to do so I can get outta there.

I do like the drugs, though.

But not enough to rush into a big, long, complicated surgery. So while I don’t actually want to have this surgery, I need to, to clean up the leftover infection mess. It’s going to be hard, and the recovery will be long. I won’t see a tennis court for several months. I will once again be at the mercy of other people’s kindness. But I need to do it, so I will. And I will leave you with another mantra from my childhood: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Thank you, Thumper. Preach it, little rabbit. 

And if you can’t follow Thumper’s advice, and still feel compelled to tell me how dangerous this surgery is, or how complicated, or ask me to think about how it might affect my kids, or any other stupid thing that flies out of people’s mouths, then consider this: 

Official diagnosis

While looking through my paperwork from Dr Spiegel and mapping out the next month of pre-op stuff I have to do, I found something that made me laugh out loud.

I hope you find it funny, too.

If you don’t, there’s something really wrong with you.

This is the orders for the EKG and labwork I have to get done before my reconstruction. 

The handwriting is kinda hard to read, and the picture is pretty fuzzy, but if you look closely you’ll see that for Diagnosis, it says “absence of breasts.”

Other than laughing hysterically, I don’t know how to respond to that.

Patience, or lack thereof

Tammy, my lymphedema specialist who I love and adore and
look forward to visiting, asked me a simple question yesterday:
When’s your reconstruction? I told her that the two surgeons’
offices (Dr S and Dr Spiegel) are supposed to be coordinating their
schedules and issuing a surgery date this week. I told her this
Monday afternoon, which for all intents & purposes, is this
week. In fact, this conversation took place in the afternoon of
this week, therefore in the far reaches of said time period. I
thought it was perfectly reasonable to expect to hear back from
those docs with my surgery date. After all, they’ve had since
Thursday to work on it. That’s plenty of time. Giddyup. She laughed
at me for being impatient. Good thing I love
and adore her, or else that might have made me mad. She’s gotten to
know me well in the last several months, and we’ve become friends.
She has educated me on the human lymph system and has schooled me
on how to (hopefully) continue unleashing a wicked forehand
(repeatedly, with great force, and multiple times a week) without
ending up looking like the “after” picture in the lymphedema
textbook. She knows I’ve been to a second surgeon and have decided
to venture forth toward yet another surgery, and I thought she knew
that I’m a very impatient patient. I don’t even know why the word
patient, meaning a person who requires medical
care, has be a homophone to the word meaning “the bearing of pain
or difficulty with calmness.” And I might even quibble with that: I
can bear pain & difficulty with calm, I just want to get
through it fast. Anyone who’s been a patient knows it’s hard to be
patient. If you haven’t learned this first-hand, trust me. I know
of which I speak. Lots has been written about patience. Everyone
from Shakespeare to Guns ‘N Roses has addresses this fragile human
condition. My favorite allusion by the Bard to the patience
principle is in Othello: “How poor are they that have not patience!
What wound did ever heal but by degrees?” I feel like Shakespeare
has been peeping in my windows again. I could show him color photos
of a wound healing by degree (but won’t gross y’all out by posting
them here). I have a bar graph, too, showing the wound dimensions
and how they changed, by degree. I’m serious about the photos and
graph. Alexandre Dumas, perhaps the most famous French writer of
the 19th century, knew enough about patience to utter this: “All
human wisdom is summed up in two words — wait and hope.” I’m good
with the latter, not so much with the former. And if it takes
patience to gain wisdom, forget it; I’m out. Not that I’m
particularly impulsive, but once I make a decision and set my
course of action, I’m ready to get to it. Now, not later. Leo
Tolstoy wrote that “the two most powerful warriors are patience and
time.” Egads, I’m double-hosed. We’ve all heard time & time
again that patience is a virtue. I don’t quibble with this ancient
wisdom, I just don’t happen to possess that virtue. I’m sure Dr S
is still laughing at me begging him to let me go home from the
hospital the day after my mastectomy. I was ready to get outta
there and get on with my life. Not so fast, lady. Ben Franklin
wrote that “He that can have patience can have what he wants.” I
always though he was kind of a smart-ass. And why can’t I have what
I want without being patient? Where’s the Burger King motto in all
this? I want to have it my way, and my way is now. Right now. St.
Augustine was probably very patient. He too linked patience to
wisdom: “Patience is the companion of wisdom.” Whatever. I
understand all these ancient guys speaking about patience: the
world moved at a much slower pace back then. They’d probably flip
their wigs if they knew of the modern world and all its speediness.
Imagine those guys seeing a bullet train, or the Autobahn, or even
Loop 610 in Houston, and not even at rush hour. What about a
conveyor belt flanked by factory workers, producing goods from
digital watches to cars in a hurry? Or drive-through food or pizza
delivery? I don’t think any of the pizza chains offers “30 minutes
or it’s free” anymore, but still, when I order a pizza online, Papa
John has it ready in 2 shakes of a lamb’s tail. (such a cute little
expression, right?) The point is that these esteemed writers,
thinkers, and movers & shakers can blab all they want about
being patient, and I will listen (impatiently) and consider what
they say (as I rush off to do the next thing on my list). But I
still want it my way, which is now. 

My guardian angels

One of the things I inherited from my mom was several Willow Tree angels. She wasn’t much of a collector, but friends had given these little angels to her over the course of her cancer battle.

You’re probably familiar with these little creatures. They look like they’re made of wood, but it’s probably some synthetic material instead (they are made in China, after all). They’re simple and heartfelt, and each one has a theme. Apparently you can get a Willow Tree angel for all manner of life events, from birthdays to anniversaries to new babies.

There are also symbolic Willow Tree angels, and people tend to give them based on this. For example, the ones my mom had received were Angel of the Heart, Angel of Hope, and Guardian Angel.

I’ve had them on one of the shelves in my kitchen over the desk, next to a stack of cookbooks. Several times I’ve almost knocked them over while reaching for a cookbook, and every time I remind myself to be careful and not go crashing around like a bull in a china shop, or like an overworked housewife around a bunch of fragile angel figurines. At least one of these angels has taken a tumble over the years and needed to go to Ed’s repair shop, where he has a vast assortment of glue and both the time and the patience to fix a broken wing.

Imagine my horror when I once again reached for a cookbook in a big hurry and knocked 3 of the 4 angels clean off the shelf. Before I could even react, there was a tumble of bodies and a heads, literally, were rolling across my kitchen desk. 

It looked like an angel crime scene.

I’m rather superstitious, although I don’t like to admit it but now it’s out there. There’s a black cat that I see in the parking lot of the club a lot, and twice I’ve reversed my route to avoid driving by it. The other day I spilled some salt while refilling the shaker and threw it over my left shoulder, instead of scooping it off the counter and throwing it in the sink. You will never, ever, ever catch me walking under a ladder. No way. Not even on a dare. A few weeks ago while driving down Austin Parkway, I saw about 10 vultures stretched across the street, feasting on something. The sight of all those ghastly birds freaked me out and made me wonder, if crossing a black cat is bad luck, what in the world would happen to the poor soul who crossed all those vultures? You’d have thought the Grim Reaper was sitting on my doorstep, awaiting my arrival. Thankfully those birds were on the other side of the divided road, so I didn’t have to turn around and find another route home.

So when the angles came tumbling off the shelf, I panicked. It took me a few minutes to find all the pieces, and sadly I still can’t find one head. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of my dogs found it and thought it was a tasty treat. Hope the paint is lead-free.

I can almost hear my mom tsk-tsking me from the Great Beyond, shaking her head and wondering why her wild-child daughter is always in such a hurry, or why that girl never learned to take better care of her things, or why she insisted on hopping on top of the desk to reach the cookbooks, instead of going to get the step-stool.

If I had used slowed down, been more careful and used the step-stool, I likely would have been able to avoid the gruesome angel carnage. But I probably wouldn’t have even taken notice of the little angels. I certainly wouldn’t have noticed that the one remaining angel, pictured at the top of this post, is named the Angel of Healing. But I will stop and savor the fact that out of my mom’s angels, that’s the one I need the most.

A weighty issue

I received a serious assignment from my doc. Now don’t laugh when I tell you this, because it’s not funny, and don’t say “lucky you” because I’m not so lucky. It’s serious.

He wants me to gain weight. A lot of it. So he can build my new boobs. 

We’ve had this conversation a couple of times and I’ve stuck my fingers in my ears and said “la la la, I can’t hear you” because I didn’t want to do this. I’ve spent most of my life beyond the age of about 15 trying not to gain weight. When you’re five-foot-nothing, there aren’t a lot of places to hide the extra pounds, and I personally don’t like the way my body feels with a lot of extra weight on my frame. I’ve never been a skinny chick and don’t aspire to be, but don’t want to be mistaken for a contestant on The Biggest Loser, either.

I worked hard to prep my body before and after my mastectomy, to gain as much muscle strength and cardio conditioning while fueling myself with a good diet. I also played as much tennis as humanly possible in the weeks leading up to surgery. It all paid off, too, with a shorter surgery, no need for Alloderm (cadaver tissue used to connect and close mastectomied chests), and a pretty easy recovery. Because I was in good shape, I was up and out of the hospital bed the day after surgery, trolling the halls. When I got home, I had a decent amount of independence because I didn’t need much physical assistance. That was, and is, important to me. So the idea of turning into a big blobby girl, even temporarily, scares me.

The first few times Dr S brought it up, he warned me that I didn’t have enough belly fat to build the new girls. At that point, reconstruction seemed so far away that I didn’t pay much attention. But the last 2 times I’ve seen him, he’s been more stern about it. I hate it when he gets stern with me.

When I saw him a couple of weeks before Christmas, I told him I’d been drinking a few beers for the first time in 15 years, and I wasn’t playing much tennis because of a recurring foot injury. That was about as much as I was willing to commit to his “living large” plan. I did the usual indulging over the holidays, but I also went to the gym.

So when I saw him the other day, instead of shrinking from his “examine the fat” game as I have in the past, I told him I’d been working on a big project — a BIG project — and showed him my newly rounded belly. I was sitting on the exam table so my belly even hung over a little bit. I thought it was quite impressive, as it’s the biggest it’s ever been without a fetus inside of it.

He was not impressed. Not even a little bit.

He told me to pull my jeans down a little and gave me the pinch test, then had me bend over to see how far it hangs. So much fun. I live for that game.

Then he made a very stern face and said it’s not enough. It’s still not enough. It’s enough for one side, but not both. And maybe not even enough for one. Since I have impossibly high standards and insist on a matched set, that’s a problem.

Dr Sternface says I’m not really even a candidate for the DIEP flap procedure, but since I have no other options, we have to try and make it work. I was thinking about this later and wondered, if I’m not a candidate but don’t have any other choices (i.e., tissue expanders to implants), what’s a girl to do?

Eat, girl, eat. And then eat some more. Then have a beer. Followed by a milkshake.

People make fun of me for being a healthy eater. I genuinely like oatmeal with blueberries. I love salad. Not being a carnivore eliminates a lot of the unhealthier options for me, and I like it that way. I’m not super picky but I don’t like drive-through food in general, and I don’t get the “all you can eat” places at all. I’m not a big junk-food junkie, and usually whatever I cook is way better than that stuff anyway. Not being conceited, just stating a fact.

I’m not doing a very good job with my assignment. Yesterday I had half a bagel with a piece of melted provolone and a handful of blueberries. It felt pretty indulgent to me. Lunch was two pieces of leftover pizza, with an orange. Cheese & crackers for a snack before we played tennis, then dinner after with the tennis gang at a BBQ place. I had pinto beans with pickles, coleslaw, green beans, some mac & cheese and a few fries. Oh, and a roll. Wish I’d thought to put butter on it. Melanie told me that I wasn’t going to get the job done eating all those vegetables and suggested I get a milkshake. Every day.

Today we played 3 sets of tennis and I was hungry. We splurged on brunch at the club, which for me meant mixed fruit, cheese & crackers, salad with lots of blue cheese dressing, and some tuna. Mimosas, of course. Then some pasta with artichoke hearts, mushrooms & sundried tomatoes. Then a few bites of seafood ettouffee. And a sliver of key lime pie and a chocolate-dipped strawberry.

I feel kinda sick.

My doc keeps saying he just hates the idea of me going through this giant surgery and hard recovery and not being satisfied with the results. I keep telling him that any change over the status quo will be an improvement, and I’m ok being average. At least in this one category. He doesn’t seem to believe me, even though we’ve had the same conversation repeatedly.

He wants me to go see the other surgeon who will help him with my case. I’ll have to see what she thinks about the bulk-up plan. Meanwhile, I need to think of a new t-shirt slogan. Something like the “baby” with an arrow pointing at the pregnant belly t-shirt, only a different kind of “under construction.” Any ideas?


I’ve been reading up on and researching reconstruction. Oh, to return to the days in which the only context I had for reconstruction involved the South rising again.

Alas, that’s not to be, and the horse is out of the barn, the worms are out of the can, and we can’t unring that bell. So now reconstruction means something entirely different.

It was supposed to be a pretty simple affair: tissue expanders put in at the time of my mastectomy, which would be filled with saline slowly and gradually, over a period of a few months, to allow my skin to stretch and accommodate a set of perky but modest implants (male readers, go ahead and groan at the mention of modest implants.) Why does one need her skin stretched for implants, when millions of women get the orbs jammed into their chests in a single step? Because those millions of women haven’t had their flesh scooped out down to the ribs. (Hope you weren’t planning on eating BBQ anytime soon.)

Back to the implants: my simple affair turned in an epic fail when the right tissue expander exercised some really bad judgement in allowing a mycobacterium to share its space. Ah yes, the infection. That dadgum bug turned my world upside down, and fast-tracked me from post-surgery superstar to sick, sick, sick. My recovery was going so well. I was convinced I’d be back on the tennis court in a month. Sigh.

Moving along to option B: the TRAM flap. It’s a big surgery (8-12 hours average) with a week’s stay in the hospital and 3-to-6-month recovery. Youch. I didn’t really get how they accomplish this surgical feat, so in the course of my research I watched a youtube video of an actual TRAM flap procedure. “Ewww, gross” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

In laymen’s terms, the surgeon cuts a football-shaped piece from your tummy, with the incision going from hip to hip. He or she (for this purpose, we’ll say “he” since Dr S will be the surgeon, but y’all know I’m all about equal opportunity so I must digress) then cuts the rectus abdominal muscle, in its entirety or partially, and  uses that muscle as the blood supply (e.g., blood vessels and small arteries) in the newly created breasts. Then he tunnels his way from the tummy incision up to the breast area, shoving tummy fat upward to create the new breasts.

After recovering from the grossed-outed-ness of watching this, I marveled at the ingenuity of the technique. Pretty cool stuff. But I admit it unnerved me for a few days. You may recall from previous posts way back when this all started that I HATE hospitals. I detest the smell, the noise, the lack of privacy, the parade of people in & out of the room, the clanking of carts up & down the hall, the cafeteria-style food, the machines beeping, the cords snaking everywhere, and the omnipresence of needles and IVs. I do like the morphine, though.

In addition to my extreme and unconditional hatred of all things hospital, I now fear them greatly and mightily because of the infection. I’m really, really scared. Like “want yo mama scared.” The risk of infection in any surgical procedure is estimated to be 3 percent. That’s pretty low, right? When you think about all the different surgeries done in all the different hospitals in all the different cities every day, that’s pretty low. But leave it to me to be the one person who gets it. Sheesh.

And leave it to me to get a rare infection that is not only hard to classify but hard to kill. Hence the never-ending 12-hour cycle of oral antibiotics. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation tells me I’ve been taking those two oral abx for about 140 days. And there’s no end in sight.

So you can see why I’m not exactly rushing back into the OR for my reconstruction.

However, the compelling reason to get in there and get ‘er done is the complications still arising from said infection. Dr Grimes, my infectious disease doc, thinks that undergoing the surgery sooner rather than later will help clear up some of those complications by way of cleaning out the unhealthy tissue and replacing it with fresh new tissue with a brand-new blood supply. Sort of like replacing your old, threadbare socks with a nice new pair.

That’s why I was doing my homework and scaring myself half to death, so that I can go into my appointment with Dr S armed with knowledge and ready to proceed. I took a lot of notes and tried to keep up with all the different kinds of flap procedures: pediculed vs non-pediculed vs perforated, etc. Then there are variations on the procedure called DIEP and SIEA flaps (Deep Inferior Epigastic Perforator and Superficial Inferior Epigastic Artery, respectively). Prior to my research, I had no idea what TRAM stood for but speculated, based on my limited knowledge, that it was “That’s Rough on your Abs, Ma’am.” Turns out it’s actually Transverse Rectus Abdominis Myocutaneius. Good to know.

I didn’t pay much attention to the DIEP and SIEA flaps, because the TRAM flap was the only procedure Dr S had ever mentioned. I assumed that’s what I’d be getting. We all know what happens when you assume…

Dr Dempsey pointed out, however, that the DIEP flap is the one for me because it spares the ab muscle, something I will want and need as I go forward in my long, active, tennis-filled life. The DIEP flap is a more complicated surgery (12-15 hours), though, and there’s not nearly as much info available on it as there is on the TRAM flap.

Here’s why: the DIEP involves a lot of microsurgery. Instead of transferring the ab muscle and its blood vessels to the breast area, Dr S will make that big incision on my tummy, but leave the muscle there, removing the blood vessels and arteries entirely and reconnecting them in the new breasts. Apparently he will have to cut a piece of a rib, too, to make this all come together. I choose to skip over that part and not even think about it. Yikes.

The DIEP is considered the gold standard of flaps. And the reason there’s not as much info available is that it is a more technically complicated surgery, and not many surgeons do it. But if you’ve read any of my posts about Dr S, you know that he is the gold standard of surgeons, so I’m in good hands.

Stay tuned.

Hunan Plastic Surgery

I read an article about plastic surgery in China (you may have, too, and if so, were you as freaked out as I was?). It told the story of Wang Baobao, age 28, who has had some 180 plastic surgeries. She started with her first operation at age 16, and has 6 or 7 procedures each time she goes under.

She’s had something done to “nearly every part” of her body: she’s had her eyes widened (and more Western-looking), her nose & jaw narrowed, and her chin reshaped. She’s had fat sucked out from her hips, thighs, stomach, and rear end. She even had heel implants, to make her taller (didn’t work). She’s had her breasts done, of course, and she says, “I had to keep having operations to repair them.” Yeah, me too.

China is third in the world of most plastic surgeries performed, behind Brazil and the U.S. No data, though, on how many procedures in any of those countries are for non-cosmetic problems.

The “official” estimate is that 3 million plastic surgeries were performed in China last year. The Deputy Secretary of the Chinese Association of Plastics & Aesthetics says his hospital sees 100,000 plastic surgery patients a year, and that all of Shanghai could see 300,000 a year. Try getting a hospital room there.

However, the Deputy Secretary points out that “most people don’t have surgeries at officially regulated hospitals. Many patients go to beauty salons and other unregulated facilities.” A beauty salon??? Egads. That’s a major infection waiting to happen. Trust me, I know.

Before the economic reforms of the 1980s, people in China were only allowed to have plastic surgery to correct a physical deformity, mostly  hairlip patients. Cosmetic procedures were considered a bourgeois way of life. What’s so bad about the bourgeois? Doesn’t everyone deserve a perfect physique? (says the girl with the flattest and most scarred chest in the Western Hemisphere.) I’m all for economic reforms, and think in general prosperity is a good thing for society, but when the rising tide of affluence is outpaced by the pursuit of physical beauty, we may be headed for trouble. Xi Shirong, the senior plastic surgeon at Beijing Hospital, says he sees at least 20 patients a day, mostly women in their 20s. That’s right, in their 20s.

24-year-old Wang Bei, a singer in China, died in the OR during a facelift. Can someone explain to me why a 24-year-old would need a facelift?

Back to Wang Baobao. She says the technology wasn’t good enough and the surgeons not skilled enough. One might think she’d be able to find a better surgeon, though, considering how many times she went under the knife. Isn’t that the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over & over but expecting different results? She says she kept “needing repair operations.” Again, me too.  Sigh.  She’s spent some $600,000 on her surgeries and says “the effects are not that good. And all over my body, there are too many scars.” Ya think?

In the trenches, together

You’d think that having a friend going through the worst thing you’ve ever faced would be a comfort. And it is, kind of. It’s also really hard and really sucky, because as great as it is to know that she truly gets what I’m feeling, it means that she’s probably feeling it too, because she’s in the trenches herself.

Does that even make sense?

It does to me, but if you’re having trouble following along, bear with me. My friend in the trenches is staring this vicious beast in the eye, going toe-to-toe with the roughest part of the “cancer journey.” (I really hate how that phrase conjures up a nature walk or space travel or anything other than what it is, which is hell. For lack of a better phrase, I’ll continue to use “cancer journey,” but I insist on taking away some of its power by using quotation marks.)

She and I had a great day together yesterday. I took her to her appointment with Dr S., which is always fun for me because I’m not the one sitting on his exam table. She was getting her tissue expanders filled, and I’m going to risk embarrassing her a little here by saying that girl is starting to become stacked (yes, I’m envious, but so so so happy for her at the same time). I also had gotten my tissue expanders filled a few times this past summer, before the *&$% hit the fan and “mycobacterium” became part of my lexicon, so I knew what to expect from the procedure.

What I didn’t expect was to get to be Dr S’s assistant.  Nurse Nancy in the house! Dr S’s lovely nurse Brenda was on vacation, so Dr S told me to glove up and earn my keep. I couldn’t resist asking him if the gloves were latex-free, even though I don’t have a latex allergy. It’s not much, but it’s all part of how I drive him batty.

I’ve witnessed him bossing Brenda around plenty, and it was funny to be on the receiving end of that. We were in the midst of a heated discussion about something or other, and he started ordering me around right away.  I reminded him that it’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice. He loved that one. Really. My poor sweet friend asked us to stop fighting and please talk about something sweet, like puppies or Easter bunnies, since Dr S was waving a giant needle around as she lay helpless in his wake.

He told me to hold the bag of saline a certain way, so he could jam the giant needle into it and fill up the king-size syringe to then insert into her tissue expanders and fill them up, and I couldn’t resist doing it the wrong way, just to tweak him. Then I realized he was pointing the giant needle at me, coming toward the saline bag, so I decided to shape up. It’s all good fun.

Before we made it into the exam room, she and I waited quite a while in the waiting area (I sure hope this isn’t becoming a trend with Dr S, because I hate to be kept waiting). We were chatting and laughing, and an older lady was watching us. She finally interrupted our conversation to tell me she liked my boots, and to ask if she’d seen me in Dr Darcourt’s office earlier that week. She and I apparently have the same oncologist and plastic surgeon. Small world! She asked my friend and I where we both are in the reconstruction phase, and we compared notes as girls in our situation tend to do.

This sweet lady shared that Dr S had done the TRAM-flap procedure on her 5 weeks ago. I said, hmmm, that’s the procedure he thinks he wants to do on me and I’d love to talk to you about that. Good grief, did that open the gates to a gush-fest on how wonderful Dr S is. This lady and her husband both couldn’t say enough nice things about him. If they said it once, they said it 100 times: “He’s not a surgeon, he’s an artist.”

That’s sure nice to hear. I’ve heard it before, actually, from lots of different people. But it’s still nice to hear. Especially just before my friend and I got called back into the exam room for her turn. It made me give him a little bit of extra grief, just because I know he’s so full of himself. And because I know it makes him nervous to know that I’m talking to his other patients. He’s asked me not to mention the whole infection thing, just in case that unfortunate event is associated with him. Easy enough, as I’d like to forget it ever happened. And easy enough because never in a million lifetimes would I ever believe that it was his fault. I’ve said before and will say again, repeatedly, that man drives me crazy but he took good care of me. The problem is that when someone asks why I haven’t started moving forward on reconstruction, as this sweet lady did, it’s kinda hard to answer honestly. I can always lie and say I’m a big chicken who can’t face another surgery, or I’m indecisive and can’t figure out which option to choose. But neither of those are nearly as compelling a story.

After we concluded our business with Dr S, we ran a couple of errands before meeting some other friends for lunch. And by “ran a couple of errands” of course I mean shopping. We were on a mission to find her a new pair of black boots and I’m proud to say that we found not only the boots but also two other pairs of shoes. I’ve written before about the healing power of new shoes. It’s a force unto itself. She and I both really believe in the power of great shoes. The rest of our worlds may be a crumbly mess, but we’re gonna face it in great shoes.

We spent a lot of time laughing so hard we hurt, and more than one person stopped to look at us and probably wonder what in the world could be so funny. She’s not the sort of person who snorts when she laughs real hard, but I am, and I did it a few times. That’s how you know you’re really laughing. I’ll bet that to the outside world, we look like two normal women: hanging out, enjoying each other’s company and relentlessly pursuing the perfect pair of black riding boots. Probably no one notices that we both have a port bulging out from under our skin, or that we have a much different profile than we used to. I know that no one can see the scars under our shirts, and the newly-etched worry lines on our faces could be from any number of stresses. No one knows that the landscape of our daily lives has a completely different topography now. Instead of just being filled with carpool and tennis and such, it now revolves around doctor appointments, procedures, and research. When we’re out in public, running our errands and getting stuff done, we look like normal people. We get through our days, cross things off our “to do” lists, and take care of our families, just like everyone else. But we do it with a heavy burden. That’s why it was so great to spend the day together, and to ease each other’s burden, if only for an afternoon.