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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The terrible, horrible, blah blah,very,very bad day

Exhibit A
Alright. We all knew this was coming. I didn't need the MGH brochure informing me "Most people feel upset after breast cancer surgery...common feelings are worry, anger and loss..."  to know i was eventually going to lose it emotionally. I'd lost it once already back in November, around the time of my initial diagnosis, the seams gradually splitting on my way to Boston to teach a writing class called "Getting all Emotional." (Yes, that was the real name of the class. You can't make this shit up)  Fortunately,  I made it through the class without crying or yelling "I HAVE BREAST CANCER!" at the ten or so innocent strangers who paid for a class  to learn about writing emotions, not to watch their instructor have an emotional breakdown. But by the time I was home in bed, I was a runny mess. I tried to wake Ben up a few times, shaking him, repeating his name, but he was in serious hibernation mode. So I gave up and somehow, eventually, comforting myself, fell asleep.

This past Sunday's breakdown could possibly have been avoided had I not decided to read up on chemotherapy Saturday night. I have a tendency to do things I know I shouldn't do, that likely won't serve me well (like reading that Atlantic anesthesia article, remember?). So i went to bed with all the possible chemo side effects swirling in my unconscious. This was on top of the fact that my mother-in-law had gone home on Saturday leaving with me with my husband (god bless the poor man) as my main caretaker. We pretty quickly butted heads over something trivial in the morning and the next thing he know I was a blubbering mess crying that I wanted my mommy. Literally. My mother died of ovarian cancer a little over ten years ago, and I can say, even when I birthed my two children, I was never filled with such mother longing as I was on Sunday. Staring at me however at that moment was not my mother, but my husband, with his own stresses and pressures and  testosterone. I continued to blubber for much of the morning and we continued to argue until I stood up and yelled "JUST SAY YOU'RE #$%#$ SORRY!" at the  man for whatever the heck he was supposed to be sorry for at that moment, and he apologized. (BTW, Did I happen to mention that losing a boob apparently can bring on your period and other hormonal nuttiness? Surprise.)

Anyway, Ben and I moved on, but I was still struggling to keep the tears in check. I even cried through Will Ferrel movies. Ben wisely decided to take the boys bowling and after they left, I had this strange compulsion to watch my sisters' wedding videos. I wanted to see my mother. I wanted to be "near" my family. So first I put in my sister Jacqui's video, which I hadn't watched since the evening of my mother's funeral. And there was my mom  alive and well and beaming in all her my-first-daughter-getting-married-to-a-nice-Jewish-boy glory. Potentially, watching this video could have swayed me either way emotionally, but as I had suspected, it made me feel better, not worse.

I saw other lost relatives too, my aunt Helen and uncle Harvey, and many of those who are, thankfully, still living but not nearby. By the amazing power of 1990's VHS converted to DVD, I was back in the womb of my sometimes dysfunctional but unique and special family. One particular highlight was my great Uncle Phil, (now gone I'm sure) but in his eighties on that day back in 1990-something, tap dancing and singing like a young man. What could be more inspirational than that, I ask you!? Except maybe this clip of me giving a very moving toast at the wedding -  I hope this provides  you, my peers, the same hope and inspiration for the future of our children and womens' hairstyles that it provided for me.

The icing on the cake of this rebound from despair was when my boys returned from the bowling alley, excited to share with me the prize they had won, my gift (exhibits A and B), also known as the lovechild of Barney and Jaws.
Exhibit B
"I pulled it out of the claw game!," J said, beaming with pride.
 I'd always told them those things were a rip off, no one ever wins. But this time J had proven me wrong, and now I have a new "adorable" sleeping buddy to help me through my darker moments.

p.s. Monday was a better day.

Friday, February 15, 2013

How'd we all Do?

Since many of you have been emailing me and asking for updates, which I very much appreciate but can't keep up with, I figured I'd just cover it quickly here.

The day started just like any other: I got up, rubbed special cream on my boob, and sealed it in saran wrap. Then Ben and I dropped the boys at their school and drove to MGH for my surgery. Yes, we were late. Anyone who knows us knows we are time-challenged (this was what I told the elementary school principal last year when she called because my kindergartner was late a lot). In our defense, on Tuesday, there was still a lot of snow on the ground and people were driving like schmucks. So it was mostly out of our hands and nothing like the time Ben decided to stop and get a coffee at Starbucks while I was well into labor with E.

Anyway, on this occasion our tardiness did come with benefits; we were expedited through all the pre-surgery stuff.  Before I even had a chance to potentially freak out over what was about to happen to me, I was in the operating room, well sedated, and then completely asleep.Next thing I knew I was awake in some room where the clock said 7 pm and Ben was at my side. I think we had some conversation but I remember little of it as I kept falling asleep as Ben tried to talk to me (nothing new). I do remember him watching some nature channel on the TV that had no voice over, which was an odd but I suppose respectful choice. He then changed the channel and started watching a teen jeopardy championship, which we both agreed was more like an SNL skit. Then I slept as best as I could until morning (more from noise then from pain).

In the morning, I was visited by periodic strangers requesting a quick peep show. The plastic surgeon who came by was impressed by her own work, which I take as a good sign. Everyone kept asking me how my pain was and I kept saying, "I don't really have any pain." They attributed this to the nerve block I was given before surgery. As the day wore on, however, they started to doubt it was still the nerve block. I finally ate something, peed about seventy times (do some people really have trouble peeing after anesthesia because I apparently had the opposite reaction) and felt well enough to go home. Since coming home yesterday, I have taken Tylenol twice, more for discomfort than for any actual pain.

I can identify only two possible reasons I have been so lucky in my recovery thus far:

Theory A)  I was so well protected  under my moldy green blanket of love and healing that nothing could hurt me (thank you very much everyone! You did great. I think I even had a vision of Matt Damon in a teal sweater fighting Brad Pitt for my attention while visiting my happy place)
You can really find the strangest shit on the Internet
Theory B)  in a strange turn of events, I really am a bionic woman now. A bionic woman who needs a lot of sleep, but more powerful nonetheless.

p.s. this blog would likely be funnier if I was on some serious pain meds...

Monday, February 11, 2013

My Blanket of Luv

So I've been reading this book Preparing for Surgery by Peggy Huddleston, in which she gives a lot of good advice about the power of visualization and positive thinking before, during and after your procedure. Ms. Huddleston also provides true life examples of people who have lost less blood, healed faster and altogether recovered more quickly thanks to the use of collective prayer and positive statements.

One specific suggestion she gives the reader is to create a "blanket of love." The idea here is that everyone thinks about you, or prays, or whatever it is they do at exactly the same time - usually the time of the surgery. One specific idea she offers is for you to ask  people to wrap you in a "pink blanket of love."

While I like the concept, I'm not a big fan of the color pink. So, if you are going to visualize me wrapped in a blanket of love, I prefer it to be green. More specifically, tealish green, or slightly darker. I mean brighter.
OK - so wrap me in a sort-of-teal-but-a-little-bit-brighter blanket of love.

Except the whole "love" thing makes me a little uncomfortable. A little too touchy feely for me.
So how about a sort-of-teal-but-a-little-bit-brighter blanket of healing?

Good. And make it snug, please. But  not too snug; just comfortably snug. Please do not suffocate me.

So where are we? You are going to wrap me in a snug, sort-of-teal-but-brighter (think hue of early mold if that helps) blanket of healing -

Now I'm visualizing one of those pig in blanket appetizers I used to eat  as a child.

To simplify this, let's just say that at noon tomorrow (Tuesday) when I am about to go under the knife, you will visualize me as a slightly moldy pig-in-a-blanket of healing.


Thanks in advance. xo

Sunday, February 10, 2013

How to Tell the Kids

First, make sure you drag it out as a long as possible. Decide you can't tell them today, because the surgery is too far away. Or you can't tell them next week, because it's Christmas. In January, definitely don't tell them before E's seventh birthday. Then, when you've just about mustered up the courage to have the conversation, make sure to take your mother-in-law's advice to wait longer so that they won't get too stressed out too soon. Sounds good to you, yes? Because this is a conversation that is not going to be fun. Especially because your older son tends to get anxious. And he knows that your mom died of ovarian cancer. And they both know that George Harrison died of brain cancer because your husband felt it was a good idea to share this with them about two years ago, when they were five and three. 

So, to avoid the dreaded "C" word, tell them it's a boo boo, which the folks at Mass General will tell you is a bad idea because your children will think their future boo boos mean surgery and hospitalization. So change your plan to include the " C" word. Then make sure to pick an evening when they are really worked up. Because that's always ideal for a serious conversation. 

Make everyone sit at the table and say "I have something important to tell you." 

Look them in the eyes and say, "Remember when I had that boo boo on my booby a little while ago (post-biopsy)? Well, turns out that was breast cancer. But it's going to be OK because it was caught really really early. And it's not like my mother's cancer, which was down here (point to area) and caught very late. So the doctors can fix it."

Wait. Look for signs of tears. Or anxiety. Ask "Do you have any questions?"

Respond to the silence that follows by adding what is likely too much information by saying, "So what they are going to do is remove this boob, and replace it with a new boob."

Make sure your husband, or significant other, then says, "A bionic boob!"

Watch your children cry from laughing so hard.

Tolerate the onslaught of questions that follows for approximately the next ten minutes:

"Mommy, will your bionic boob grow a butt?"
"Will it grow a little arm that can pick up legos?"
"Will it poop on your other boob?"
"Will it be able to do karate?"
"Will it grow a penis?"

And so on. 

For a moment, feel a wee bit of sadness over this unexpected reaction. You are their mother, for Christ's sake. The little shits should be feeling much worse. 

But let the negativity pass. 

Truth is, you could not have hoped for a better response. Tell them that if they talk about your bionic boob at school, they will lose any video game privileges for a week. Then let 'em laugh.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

My Happy Place

A major part of preparing for surgery for me has been perfecting my happy place. I have a significant fear of anesthesia, stemming from dental work I had done in the seventh grade. Apparently I had too many baby teeth in my mouth, so several had to be pulled, and one stubborn tooth had to be pulled down from the gum in which it was hiding. Enter the anesthesia, which in the seventies when this took place, was probably not the best. All I know is I awoke screaming for my mother, convinced the dentists were talking about how they couldn't wake me up; that I had died. Scary, huh?

Fortunately I have a wonderful therapist and weeks ago she began working with me on finding my happy place. She calls it trance, which I find a bit frightening. Trance makes me think of losing control- of Fred's hypnotized state in one Flintstones episode where he walks around repeating, "Yabba Dabba Doo." (Or maybe those were alien or robot Freds or something. I tried to find the clip on YouTube to no avail - yet I stumbled upon this fascinating clip of Fred and Barney smoking instead).

Still, despite my fears about trance, I wanted to surrender, to give up control, since that's what I would need to do for surgery . So, I settled into the couch, closed my eyes, and placed my hand on my therapist's dog's tummy for life support.

Now imagine your belly as a balloon, she said. Any color balloon you like. Now fill that balloon up with air, breathe in, and out. Think Strong on the in breath, Calm on the out breath.

This I could do. This was good. We practiced this for a while and then she asked me to think of a place, a place where I felt calm, a place in nature. Like the forest, she suggested. Uh, no way. Wild animals. Crazy conspiracy theorists living in log cabins. Or by the water, on a beach. Yes, a beach. Good, OK.  I pictured myself on a beach. In a hammock.
"You can hear the waves, crashing on the shore," she said. "The birds...everything is peaceful."
Crap, I realized, this wasn't going to work. I'm covered in freckles, making me a perfect candidate for skin cancer. I already had one basal carcinoma removed from my nose. Long gone were those high school days when I idiotically covered myself in baby oil and held one of those reflectors up to my face. How could I relax here?
How are you doing? she asked.
"I'm scared of getting skin cancer," I said in a trancy voice.
Imagine there's a bottle of suntan lotion on your hammock, she said. SPF 30.
A bottle of Coppertone magically appeared, but it wasn't enough. So I put a hat on my head. And an umbrella next to my hammock. Still, I couldn't shake this feeling that someone was watching me; a woman alone on the beach.
Maybe you want to go for a walk? Or a swim?
Was she f'ing kidding me?
"I think I'm going to go inside now," I said.

That was weeks ago. I'm happy to report that since then, I have perfected my happy place, which includes books, a fireplace, a black lab, and occasional visits from both Will Ferrel and Brad Pitt. I'm hoping to spend as much time there as possible in the coming weeks.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happened? Did you find a lump?
No lump. I went for my annual mammogram in early November, the day before my birthday. On the morning of my birthday, I got a call from a nurse asking if I could come back for a second mammogram (Cue Frosty the Snowman clip, but insert F word between happy and birthday). Now fast forward two days: back in for 2nd mammogram, then invited into closet-sized consultation room, which is never good, and told my suspicious calcifications required a biopsy. I had a hunch, then, that this was a completely different experience from the time, twenty years earlier, I found a lump under my armpit and went to the  emergency room only to have  a medical student with a dire, confused look on his face find a doctor who, after inspection, deemed my lump, “a large vein.” At least this time I'm legit.

Your blog is called “I had a boob once.” Does this mean you are losing your boob?
Although the cancer was caught early, the cells have taken up enough mammary real estate that the best course of action is a mastectomy. So I’m losing the right boob and gaining an implant on February 12th. The follow up to this question is usually, “How do you feel about losing a boob?”  I've been thinking about this one for a while. After reading Nora Ephron’s essay "A Few Words about Breasts" recently, I realized my relationship to my breasts has been the complete opposite of Ms. Ephron's...meaning almost non-existent. Maybe back in the 6th grade, when the female twins around the corner from me sprouted prematurely and attracted all the boys’ attention, I felt slightly inadequate on the boob front. But that was it, really. At 44, I still struggle to operate a bra correctly—the straps are always falling down due to some sort of engineering defect or law of physics I can’t figure out. Anyway,  do I really need my breasts anymore? The only time they truly served me was when I nursed my two boys. Back then, my dainty b-cups transformed into powerful weapons of mass construction, capable of providing gallons of life-sustaining milk to not just my two sons, but probably the whole Octomom family if called upon. Now, they are back to mere accouterments  I guess I'd much rather lose a breast than the following: a foot, an eye, my hands, my mind,  my I-phone.

So, will you be increasing the size of your boobs?
Uh, no. My boobs, I've been told for the first time ever, are perfect just the size they are. Seriously. That’s the one thing two plastic surgeons agreed upon. That my breasts are ideal for implants: “Perky and not droopy. “ I feel like a proud mama.

What caused your cancer?
I'm still wondering this myself. I tested negative for the breast cancer gene, and none of the professionals I've spoken with could really offer an explanation. I have a hunch, however, that all those elementary school glue- sniffing parties I went to had something to do with it.

Yes, that really is me apparently sniffing glue in the back. I have no explanation.

Why, yes. Yes I did. Thank you very much Atlantic editors for including this article as one of your cover stories last month. You timed that beautifully. Upon receiving your magazine in the mail I said to myself “Don’t read this before your surgery. DEFINITELY DO NOT READ THIS.”
Two seconds later, of course, I read it and have been working on perfecting my happy place ever since.

Do you think cancer is funny? I mean really, should you be joking about this?
Yes, I think cancer is kinda funny. Not other people’s cancer of course, but my own. Most days at least, yes.