Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The woman in the mirror

You know me. I always want to check the signposts, to have a handle on where we're going with this crazy ride. I haven't even had my poor old breast cut off yet, but already my head is full of what happens next.

I mean, that's probably a tribute to Dr Goodguy. I'm completely confident that the surgery will go well next Monday. In theory, when I'm thinking completely pragmatically, I'd suspect it's simpler and quicker to cut a breast right off than to selectively chop, and change, and rearrange.

The rest of the nodes might be trickier, of course, given that he has to excavate further up my armpit. (Ouch. That's my armpit I'm talking about. And my breast, for that matter.)

But really, how bad can it be? After to talking to the anaesthetist today, I'm pretty sure that I'll have less pain after the next procedure than I've had this week (the narcotics have been a bit of a fizzer, to tell the truth). He's going to use a paravertebral block, a newish technique which will let me give myself direct squirts of anaesthetic like a junkie let loose in the pharmacy. Woohoo! Party time!

(Just kidding. I think.)

Of course there's the emotional stuff too, but I can't get near it. I've looked at the woman in the mirror, the one with the rather amazing cleavage that's been a bit of a signature tune all her life. She can't get too close to how she feels about losing her breast yet; it's all somewhere over there, in the future, and she's keeping it there.

Because she knows it's not really a choice that she's making.

Oh, she's aware that she's going to go down like a ton of bricks at some stage after the operation, when the mirror shows someone else looking out- someone with only half of the usual curves. She's squinted her eyes and tried to see what that other woman will look like; she can nearly see her already.

That other woman, over there in the future, looks strange. Looks sad. Of course she does. But the woman on this side of the glass just sees that she's alive.

And then turns away to look for the next signpost.


Chemotherapy, this way.

The Bear is haunted by visions of what it did to his last partner, which started with hair loss and ended with diabetic coma. I keep reminding him that that was 13 years ago, and things have come a long way since then; people don't spend the whole twelve weeks getting up close and personal with their Caroma ceramicware any more.

Not usually, anyway.

We'll get a booklet of signs to look for, that warn of trouble ahead. And at the first sign of any glitches my Breast Care Nurse, Monica, will come all the way out here to help. And I get a official permission to be a hermit, to avoid infection- hey, that's my natural state. No problem!

So I'm talking myself into believing how doable it all is. I mean, it starts with just four treatment sessions, each three weeks apart. Four days of being poisoned- how hard can it be?

Followed by a similar round a bit later, if things are going as planned. So, eight days of my life.

Taken one day at a time, it doesn't sound that terrible really.

Best case scenario is I'll get flu-like symptoms a few days after the treatment- aching arms and legs, extreme fatigue, that sort of stuff. The nausea can usually be controlled pretty well these days. The dosages are more fine-tuned. The anti-emetic drugs are better.

I'll be fine.

Probably right up till about week three, when my hair starts to drop out.

And my eyebrows.

And maybe even my eyelashes.

I can't even begin to imagine what the woman in the mirror will look like without those long, curly black eyelashes.

I suppose I could just turn the damn mirror to the wall till they grow back.


Monica, bless her generous heart, spent a whole two hours with Jools and me today, talking about everything from ribbed fingernails to lymphatic massage. There's a stupid amount of information to absorb, so it's far better I start the learning early, before I really need to know it all. I understand everything perfectly when I'm told it; then we go on to another topic, and another, and another, and my head starts to spin and I go home and think "What the f@#$ was that all about again?"

Which is where Jools is an angel from heaven. She protests that I make her sound like a cross between Mother Teresa and Patch Adams in this blog, but that's because she is. I don't know how people manage having cancer without someone like her to deal with the paperwork and the information overload. I don't know how they cope.

I mean, seriously. In the last two days she has:

1. Catalogued and labelled all my cancer paperwork- bills, treatment information, Centrelink stuff, scripts, Cancer Council leaflets, appointment information, pathology results, you name it. I swear there is a whole forest cut down every time someone gets breast cancer, and I can now actually find the exact twig, branch or tree I need at any given moment.

2. Rung all the people I needed to ring to find out about my treatment, financial support while I'm sick, medical benefits and god knows what else. (You KNOW how I feel about phones.) I can't even remember who else she rang, but she was on the phone for hours and a large part of it was to Centrelink. Five minutes talking to Centrelink is enough to make me homicidal, yet she's managed to find out what financial support I can get and how to do it without so much as reaching for a sidearm.

3. Driven me all around town twice, accompanied me to umpteen appointments, listened, asked intelligent questions that I either meant to ask and forgot or never would have thought of, remembered everything and explained it all to me later when my own brain resembled a Cancer McFlurry.

4. Talked me through numerous moments (half hours?) of overwhelm. (I like that word.) Recognised when I'd had enough and, instead of being hurt by my snippishness, just taken me home.

5. Cooked yummy stuff for next week and put it in the freezer, as well as making our evening meals.

6. Made sure I eat sensible stuff regularly and take my medication on time.

7. Adjusted my medication so it works better.

Look, I could go on and on, but you get the general idea. I would be totally screwed if she hadn't turned up when she did. And on top of all that, this morning Monica lent us a 3cm-thick textbook that would answer many of our questions about the breast cancer journey. By this evening Jools had read it from cover to cover so she could be ready to talk it over with me tomorrow.

Tomorrow night she goes home. That's going to be hard. We're women, so of course we've talked over and over about what happens on Monday and how I'll feel, but crunch time isn't quite here yet; I'm not actually feeling it yet. That other woman is still hiding behind the looking glass.

When she turns up and stares out at me for the first time, my god how I'm going to miss my Jools.


The Bear is struggling with the woman in the mirror more than I am.

"You've never looked so beautiful as you do right now," he said quietly to me tonight, when I was in the middle of telling him animatedly about the improvements in chemo and the wig library (que? Wig library? Yes, there is such a thing) and the team of ladies who show you how to draw your eyebrows on so you don't end up looking like a carnival clown.

It's so bloody hard when he cries, but I know how much he needs to.

"I'll look beautiful again one day," I said, trying to comfort him. Knowing how hollow it sounded.

"You always look beautiful to me," he said; but I was sitting there with my shirt open in the evening breeze, and I could see where he was looking.

"We just have to be patient," I said. Trying not to crack up too. "I'm going to get through this."

"We're going to get through this," he said.

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