Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Eviction Day

Is there anyone in the whole world who sleeps well the night before going into hospital for surgery?

(Nah, didn't think so.)

Of course if you happen to have cancer, that's when all the old doubts- the ones that you've just about staved off by now, thanks to positive thinking and the support of wonderful friends and family- will come back to assail you. The twinge in your left elbow, the numbness and tingling in your left little finger are indications that you'll wake up after surgery and discover that they've amputated not just your whole left breast, but your cancer-riddled left arm as well.

Seriously. In the middle of the night, that crazy stuff can seem possible, no matter how many times you tell yourself that you've just cramped your ulnar nerve by lying with your arm in a weird position.

That's what's so wearing about cancer. You're all waiting to hear how I got on in surgery, like it's the answer maybe- but the truth is that many, many question marks are still there. They'll be there for days, months, years.

And where there are question marks, sheer terror will sometimes walk right in the door uninvited. My door, and the doors of the people who love me.


The Bear and I were both wide awake by 4am yesterday, lying there holding hands and listening to the birds building up the layers of their morning chorale. There's one soft-voiced singer who starts it off, well before the sun comes up, with a sweet little 'chiu, chiu'. Many a night I've lain awake waiting to hear that dear little bird tell me that daylight and sanity are on their way.

Those morning moments are such a precious part of living in the forest. It's hard to start the day in anything but a good mood when you've been gently serenaded awake by nature. It's hard to be pessimistic once that little bird starts its morning song.

But yesterday, of course, our glorious reverie was cut short by the musical sacrilege of Mozart's 40th performed on buzz saw and garbage bin lid (or something), courtesy of my mobile phone alarm. I find that the best way to ensure I actually get up is to select the most hideous Muzak abuse of the classics I can find, as anything but a wide-awake selection of the correct soft key to turn it off will result in an encore ten minutes later. Getting up is bad enough without also choking on my coffee.

So we stumbled out of bed, stumbled through our morning routine, stumbled into the car. Got to the hospital by 8.


Completed paperwork.


Eventually I was hustled away to have the Freeloader shot full of radioactive isotopes, so he could have a glow-in-the-dark picture taken for Hallowe'en. Or something like that.

Actually, the theory was that if they injected him with this wonderful stuff (which is so bloody dangerous that much fuss was made about washing it off my skin lest I carelessly nuked any passing children), it would seep down to the appropriate lymph glands. Then they'd shove me into another space-age camera (this one a cross between a sandwich press and a blender) and the pictures would tell Dr Goodguy which nodes to remove.

An hour of claustrophobia and rotor rides later (not to mention more waiting for my poor Bear), they'd worked out that the Freeloader wasn't co-operating. He wasn't going to give us any hints. (Bastard.)

So we changed floors and waited some more.

Got my blood pressure checked. Tick.

Heart. Tick.

Height and weight. Cringe. 

More paperwork. Yawn.

Got fitted for granny stockings to prevent blood clots. Ew. 

Got outfitted in my designer theatre garb. Bleaugh. 

Feeling ugly and old, thanks to the sheer hideousness of the outfit, wasn't helping me. Neither was feeling cold. A kind nurse brought me a heated blanket.

Say what?

Yes, a heated blanket.

(This hospital's not too bad, really.)


There was going to be a lot of waiting, again. And a lot of paperwork. And a hell of a lot of very, very bad daytime TV. (Excuse the tautology.) If the cancer doesn't destroy your peace of mind while you wait, The Morning Show will.

We waited.

And waited.

A little after midday I sent the Bear home. He was getting rabbit-in-the-headlights eyes, twitching slightly whenever a doctor walked past and growling impatiently at the truly atrocious Midday Movie. Put Sex and the City and The Sixth Sense in a blender, and you get Charlotte seeing dead people. Wow, there's a plot.

I figured we'd both do better if he got back into his comfort zone at home and I stopped worrying about him getting freaked out by deja vu, vu, vu. He kissed me about a million times and skedaddled, obviously relieved.

By 3pm, a kindly nurse had realised that some sort of explanation was in order. No, Dr Goodguy wasn't sitting at the bar enjoying a long cool daquiri between ops; in fact he was dealing with the patient listed before me, who'd developed major complications on the table.

I was taken to the theatre anteroom at 5pm. (Yep, that's right. 5 pm.) And that was an optimistic move by the team, because the drama was continuing on the other side of the flip-flop doors. But it was actually a good place to be for this impatient patient; it gave me a reality check.

I looked around at the wall-to-wall supplies of disposables, remembering yet again how damn lucky I was. Lucky to live in a first world country. Lucky to have got breast cancer at a time when so much progress has been made towards treating it effectively. Lucky that other women have trodden this path before me, so that doctors now treat the whole woman rather than just the disease.

Lucky, too, that the extended wait gave me ample opportunity to talk to the anaesthetist about my locked-in experience last time. That talk, my friends, was fab. I don't know where St Vincent's found this team, but they are amazing; yet again, I had a doctor treat me like an intelligent human being.

Dr Drowsy was quick to pick up on my anxiety, thorough in his investigation of how it had happened, sincere in his attempts to reassure me. He went through the side effects of all the drugs he was going to use; he ran some alternatives by me, adjusting his thinking as asked me more questions and reflected on my answers. I felt like a partner in the experience, not a problem on a trolley. Applause for that man.

And then, bless him, he slipped a cool Mickey Finn in my drip to help pass the time before he went back to check on the extended drama in theatre. I lay back and relaxed. Accepted that I was just going to have to go with the flow, again.

An hour later, when he came back out to prep me up for real, he told me the name of every drug he was putting into my drip and he told me what each one was for. That doctor is a keeper. That is the anaesthetist worth shopping around for, the one you want knocking you out when you have a serious illness.

I didn't get into theatre till after 7.30pm. (I'd been fasting since 7am; who needs Jenny Craig when you can just be next on the surgery list after a total catastrophe?) And you think I'd had a long day? What about poor Dr Goodguy? I didn't get out of that theatre till around 10.30, and I wasn't the one up on my feet trying to delicately snip away human tissue and then sew the holes up with minute stitches.

In there, I was knocked out before they turned me into a smurf. That was a little disappointing; I'd rather fancied taking a picture of myself dyed blue from top to toe and posting it on Facebook to contrast with all those pink profile shots. Never mind; the blue dye did its job where the isotopes hadn't, and showed up seven lymph nodes terminating the Freeloader's plumbing system.

Seven was a bit of a disappointing number. We'd been hoping for less than that. I'm suspecting that seven might mean I'm in for chemo, but I may be jumping the gun; I really should wait for the pathology before I say things like that. Dr Goodguy told me quite clearly that seven blue nodes doesn't necessarily mean seven cancerous nodes. But it's hard not to jump ahead.

As for the anaesthetic- I woke up quite suddenly and pretty much in full possession of all my senses, as though I'd just had a nice refreshing sleep. It was awesome. Thanks, Dr Drowsy. I'll pay your account quite happily.

So where to from here?

Radiotherapy, the breast care nurse tells me, is pretty much a given. It's just a matter of whether the pathology shows that I need chemo first. Or, heaven forbid, further surgery first. Dr Goodguy couldn't guarantee that he'd removed all of the calcification; it's not an exact art. We can't know whether there are cancerous cells in the margins of what was removed until the samples have been checked out at close range by experts. I won't know any of that for at least three days.

And looking at my newly reconstructed breast, I'm hoping like hell the whole thing doesn't have to go, because Dr Goodguy's done a terrific job. Unbelievably, I still have sensation in the nipple, despite it being relocated. I've lost a bit of sensation along the underside of my arm, but that's not exactly a big deal. Yes, I'm in a bit of pain where the nodes were removed, but Dr Drowsy impressed upon me that my job is to be a total wuss and take adequate pain relief for the acute pain now- which apparently helps prevent chronic pain later. (Don't ask me how that works; I have No Idea.)

So for now, my job is to rest here at home, recuperate and- play the piano. That's a great way of keeping the lymphatic system working properly in my arm, I'm told. Music has become my friend again over the last few months; for too many years now, since I stopped teaching music five days a week, it's taken a seat so far back in my life that I've gone weeks without playing or listening to anything at all. (Hard to believe, I know, for those of you who knew me in my 'past life'.)

The iPod saved my sanity when I came back to my hospital room at 11.30pm after surgery, too late to phone-a-friend because the switchboard had closed. I was feeling very alone, in pain and probably a little shocked by that number seven. I admit to a little weeping then. Tchaikowsky, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Britten and Dvorak eventually allowed me to get a little restless sleep; each time I woke to some hospital crash or city beep, the familiar old favourites would lull me back to tranquility.

And tonight I'm listening to the music of rain on the roof, after far too many weeks of none. If this keeps up, there'll be enough water in the tank for me to enjoy another hot bath or two if I'm getting too wound up about waiting for results.

If? Who am I kidding? When I'm getting too wound up about waiting for results. I'm still trying to look things in the eye. I've envisaged myself losing this miraculously resurrected breast. I've envisaged myself having chemo. I've acknowledged that these are not the worst things that can happen, that they might be what has to happen to save my life. I spend a lot of time counting my blessings so far.

But Eviction Day for the Freeloader doesn't mean it's over- not by a long shot.


  1. Way to go chickie babe! II still struggle to work out how Dvorak is soothing...thanks to my first piano teacher I have something akin to a pathological hatred of that music but if it worked for you I will learn to love it! Just think, 7 is better than 10, than 12..... keep sane and relaxed and hugs to you both.

    1. Dvorak Cello Concerto- love it!

      7 is better than 28. I know someone who had that many out. All hugs gratefully accepted.

  2. Oh Candy, it is a tough road but you are handling it so well. I am glad the surgery was complication free for you. Try to think on the positive side, Dr Goodguy said those 7 nodes may not be cancerous. I am certainly willing that to be so. :)

  3. SOunds like you had a great team on your side. With that team in there working hard for you and your team of hundreds out here supporting you I am confident we will all help you get through this. Besides, it's not all bad news. Sounds like you had a bit of a crush on Dr Drowsy & your 'new' brreast sounds like a winner. Crossing everything for you until you get some news.

    1. Haha- no crush, Greg- but I do like people who are damn good at their job! And yes, I do seem to have a mighty team. It's actually very touching.