Breast cancer lesson number thirteen: Time is a great healer… and morphine helps too

So, Friday was an interesting day. It started in the darkness of the early hours with a short train ride and a relaxing stroll along the Thames. It finished in the darkness of the night with a bucket load of morphine, a dedicated nurse, a giant monitoring chart and a view of the river (along with the London Eye). It started out with the cancer trying to take charge. It finished up with an army of amazing doctors and nurses (ten in theatre alone) all determined to make sure the cancer didn’t stand as chance.

I am happy to report, there is life after surgery. When it comes to life in hospital, however, the day asleep on the slab was the easy part. I won’t sugar coat it. The last few days have been hard (very hard). I woke up in recovery and was in pain (and shivering uncontrollably). We knew the tummy tuck would be tight. It actually felt like my stomach would rip open if I moved. I lay in bed clutching it tightly and crying through the morphine. No one could help me. Not even Mr morphine and his magic cocktails.

As with everything, however, the writhing agony has subsided and I am now left with a rather trendy abdo binder corset holding it all in (not forgetting my friend the big knickers). My right arm is limp and swollen from the lymph node clearance, my four drains are down to two and still draining into sports type bottles (all held up in the most beautiful handmade drain bags in the hospital) and my body looks at bit like it has been savaged! (Tip for those about to go through this, there are very few dressings used in plastics, so you see pretty much everything, including the glue). But, you know what, the boob is alive (complete with a bit of stomach skin), the tummy tuck was worth it, and I am still me (just a more well-thought through version).

Time can do wonders to heal and erase the memories, but if you think hospital is the chance for a decent rest, then think again – even the bed is timed to move around, so when you think you’re comfy, it sets you off guard again.

Three days is a long time in body recovery terms – although you know you’ve already been here too long when they are struggling to find a vein (the good arm is now out of bounds for life). I won’t talk you through the tests, the hourly checks, the pain, the pills the detail of the flap that is now my breast (being referred to as the flap in bed 11 is a bit weird). What I want to talk about is the positive side and, most importantly, progress.

Here are the highlights and the I-cannot-believe-this-is-really-happening lights:

1) NHS mashed potato is still pretty special: not sure I should be ordering it for lunch and dinner, but when something is that good, it is rude not to. Not sure I’ll be going in for seconds of the milk jelly though.
2) The beds are alive: nobody warns you of this and it was the cause for some amusement when I got a bit worried and explained I thought the bed was eating me. I think the guy looking after me in recovery thought I was hallucinating. At least I have been burning a few calories from the mashed potato while sleeping. It’s a special mattress for preventing pressure sores. Just wish I could have a proper ‘still’ mattress now.
3) Some drugs, when flushed through a cannula, feel like they are flooding your hand. Again in recovery too, I screamed out that I thought I was leaking. The nurses looked alarmed until it happened an hour later and they realised what I meant.
4) The recovery room was like the stuff of dreams: this feeling had little to do with the drugs or the general anaesthetic and a lot to do with the fairy tale castle and doodles on the walls. If you’re wondering why, it used to be a children’s ward. I just thought they’d consulted the wrong decorators and were attempting to transport us far from our bodies.
5) Blanket-warming machines are a revelation: they look like glass fridges and they produce the most wonderful warm blankets for theatre. If only they were available on the high street. I would buy shares.
6) I think my flap might be pregnant: flap testing involves running an ultrasound probe over the breast to check for a pulse. It’s often disconcertingly loud and the heartbeat sound it produces makes you feel like there is more than just fat up there.
7) It is possible to eat a roast dinner with one hand: a lymph node clearance makes the arm feel a bit useless (and tingly), so being faced with a lump of meat in gravy for lunch yesterday was a bit challenging. Undefeated, I worked away with one hand and managed to complete the challenge in about 40 minutes. Those who know how much of a fast eater I am will find this amusing.
8) I have a new belly button: apparently it would be too far down south if my old one hadn’t been relocated. This should go some way to explaining just what they took out.
9) Showering in a chair is so relaxing: while my new body will take some getting used to, this new way of cleaning is completely therapeutic and comforting.
10) Expect the unexpected in the consulting room: when my surgeon arrived to talk me through the operation, he did some drawing to explain – on me. To say I was a human doodle by the end of it, is an understatement. Think my parents got a bit more than they bargained for.

The strangest thing about this whole experience is the fact I am under plastics. I didn’t meet my cancer surgeon at all on the day, the surgeons I do meet are focused on new boobie, the ward is all plastics (skin grafts and skin flaps) and no one has mentioned the ‘C’ word. I think people might actually think I am a little bit vain with my boob and tummy tuck. My surgeon joked today that people elect to have tummy tucks. I grimaced and replied: ‘I guess they usually have something to remove in the first place.’ Should have had just a few more cakes, although it is nice to think my boob is part Hotel Chocolat treats and part apple and banana cake!

The one thing I miss the most? Being able to make a cup of tea. Three cups a day just doesn’t touch the sides.

The road to recovery may be a bit bumpy, but it’s the right road and I am happy to be on it at last.

I’ll be out once I am down to just one drain. Watch this space and thanks for the messages of support.

Breast cancer lesson number three: Good things do not always come in small packages!

As a pint-sized person, I have always been an advocate of the little things in life – Cadbury’s Heroes being a particularly good example (why would you eat a full-sized chocolate bar again?!). My breasts were no exception – until now!

It pains me to say it, but small is not always beautiful. In fact, in breast cancer land, small is pretty annoying.

My world view was crushed on what I truly believe to be the weirdest and most surreal day of my entire life. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone this time – although I think my amazing mum (hello mum!) could have been forgiven for wanting to go and lie down in darkened room about half way through. Massive credit to her for laughing along with me throughout – even without lunch.

It was supposed to be one 10am meeting with a surgeon and a breast nurse to discuss the MRI results and plan what I thought would be a wide local excision or lumpectomy (in other words, chop it out, move on to chemo). I thought I’d be back at work within the hour.

Here’s what happened:

1)   Surgeon (who is hilariously funny and witty for a surgeon) explains that the tumour is more like 40mm than 28mm and there are two other suspicious areas that need investigating (just to qualify, this part was not funny or witty). Still smiling though!

2)   Surgeon examines me – and brings mum in too for a quick feel – and confirms that my breast is just too small to save (thanks nature). Bit scared and annoyed with nature!

3)   Surgeon explains the two ‘reconstruction’ routes, one of which involves taking out my tummy tissue to give me a new mound. Has a feel of my tummy and thinks they might just be able to use it. Laughing now at fact tummy is being squeezed!

4)   Surgeon refers for second biopsy to investigate findings and my kind breast care nurse loads me up with breast reconstruction literature. Still smiling… just!

5)   Care staff at biopsy number two turn out to be very entertaining and lovely. Smiling lots to block out fact my boob is yet again being explored – trying not to laugh otherwise might disturb procedure.

6)   Lovely breast care nurse points us in direction of secret staff bus to whizz us to another hospital. Mum and I laugh while trying to look like serious hospital staff.

7)   Meet nurse quickly and get weighed! Best weight in three years (yay for dry January and losing my Christmas podge). Feeling pretty smug!

8)   Meet next nurse who makes us tea and explains that the Dutch only put milk in their children’s tea. Smiling at having discovered something new!

9)   Meet plastic surgeon, three nurses and a doctor who explain tummy procedure and give me a quick squeeze. Check leg and bum and confirm just too tight (oh yes!). Feeling pretty smug again at weight loss.

10)  Plastic surgeon thinks tummy might have enough fat to go ahead with procedure, but needs to do a CT scan to check. Feeling less smug and starting to regret losing Christmas weight. Maybe need to make a batch of mince pies!

11)  Surgeon refers me to pre op assessment (why not, while I’m here)!

12)  Behind door number one, nurse one takes blood pressure. It’s high (I would say this wasn’t surprising)! Second time round, I pass and move on to MRSA testing. Smiling due to the fact I like passing tests!

13)  Behind door number two, nurse two (who told us a lovely story about buying herself a dressing gown for Christmas and wrapping it up under the tree because she’d always wanted one and never got one) talks me through op day. Smiling lots at having met a friendly lady who would have otherwise remained a stranger!

14)  Behind door number three, nurse three takes blood. Uneventful. Smiling at fact needle went in vein and was uneventful!

15)  Op date confirmed: 21 February. Phew! Bit tired of smiling now.

So three waiting rooms, two surgeons, 15 care staff, six appointment rooms and six and a half HOURS later, and my mum and I are hugging and laughing at the tube station as we say goodbye.

While neither the day nor the results were what I was expecting when I woke up that morning, I was a) humbled and inspired by the amazing hospital staff and the way they fast-tracked me and b) happy to have spent the day experiencing and laughing through it all with my mum. Every cloud…

Tune in on Monday to find out if I passed the ‘fat’ test…