One year ago today, October 18, I underwent a bi-lateral (double) mastectomy surgery as part of my breast cancer treatment. I went to the hospital in the morning with my husband and mother, where the radiology clinic injected my breasts with dye (which really hurt!) to trace the dye to my sentinel lymph nodes (which they removed along with my breasts to ensure that the cancer hadn't migrated to my lymph system). And then I waited for about two hours (maybe it was even three) before being taken into the pre-surgery room. I was hooked up to an i.v. My personal items were put in a bag (including my glasses, which I'm blind without). I hugged my Mom and Matthew good-bye. And then I was wheeled into the surgery, where the last thing I remembered was the anesthesiologist telling me that he would count to three and I should be asleep, and I think I made it to one...
And then there was the very disorienting experience of waking up in the recovery room. I felt very groggy and confused. I could hear the voice of an elderly man who was crying and demanding to be let out and the angry voice of a nurse telling him that he just finished surgery and he needed to calm down. When I could finally open my eyes and signal to a nurse, I felt a pain in my throat (they had to intubate me during the surgery) and I was incredibly thirsty. And I wanted to know where Matthew and my mother were. The nurse found Matthew, they wheeled me to my private room (with my mother meeting me en-route), and they told me how to work the pain meds (which I immediately did click).
This all happened a year ago. Literally. It's now 6:05pm and I got out of surgery at about this time a year ago. And it seems so odd that I went through this experience. A friend just yesterday asked if I felt disconnected from the experience--as if this all happened to someone else. And that's not how I feel at all--I definitely felt it, I definitely lived it.
Now...I'm trying to figure out what it's like to have gone through this. Not in a way that will give me closure--there isn't real closure for me about this. I'm trying to find a language and a way to tell this story, I suppose (this is the professional/academic part of me coming out--the side of me that thinks in terms of narrative). I'm trying to make sense of this experience--of trying to sort out my feelings about all of this--what I went through in the past and how I'm dealing with this now.
One of the things that I've been trying to sort out is, just how bad was it? I think there are multiple reasons I ask this. One is that it's partly my nature--I pride myself in being the person who tries to suck it up and push through and not whine about how hard things are. Did going through chemotherapy suck? Was losing my breasts hard? Yes and yes. But I'm alive. And compared to others--those who are facing metastic cancer, breast or otherwise, I seem to be doing pretty well. And compared to relatives who have died from cancer (an uncle to colon cancer, an aunt to leukemia), my treatment was not that bad and my prognosis is definitely good.
And truthfully, I don't know that when I was going through everything that I felt like I was suffering. Yes, chemotherapy is toxic--it's a hard treatment to endure. I lost my hair. My taste buds changed. I developed neuropathy in my fingers. I was constantly fatigued. And recovering from surgery was hard. I still feel twinges of pain from the scars where my drains came out of my body. But I don't know that I felt like I was struggling. Maybe because I had A LOT of support. Maybe because I had a lot of information. Maybe because I had wonderful examples of women who survived and are now thriving, who had once been diagnosed with breast cancer.
So there's a part of me that feels like what I went through, while hard, wasn't THAT hard--that I didn't experience it as a constant trauma.
I feel traumatized.
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.
[and yes, I just plagiarized from Walt Whitman--although is it plagiarism when you admit the source?]
And that's the rub. On the one hand, I feel that what I went through was manageable and not that bad and that as someone who lived through this experience, the important thing is that I LIVED through it--and I did so relatively intact and without experiencing any seriously horrible side-effects--and I had HUGE HUGE support.
But on the other hand...I'm forever altered. I am literally deformed. De-formed. I have grief for my breasts and the sense of what if...what if it comes back...what if I am one of the women who develops metastic breast cancer...
So it's been a year since my surgery. And to commemorate this year anniversary, I decided to alter my body through a piece of permanent body art--a tattoo:
[view of tattoo on the inside of my left ankle]
[close-up of lotus tattoo]
I chose a lotus because of its symbolism of renewal--of beauty born from the muck and mud--and of its Buddhist symbolism of enlightenment and progress. I miss my breasts but I love my tattoo and I'm certainly glad to be alive.