Friday, July 18, 2014

Make 'Em Laugh

WARNING: This post contains some full-on photos of my surgical work. If you don't want to see, don't look!


Back in the days when I was teaching classroom music full time to sometimes unwilling adolescents, my long-suffering colleagues and I used to give ourselves the odd 'time out' by educating (!) our Year 9 students about old musicals. (And yes, I confess that often meant turning on the video player- remember those?- and sitting on our exhausted arses for the last forty minutes of the day while the next segment played to a restless and clearly indifferent audience.)

Snorts of derision were the stock reaction to most of the old-fashioned and over-sentimental songs which drove the creaking plots of many of these old shows, but one sequence invariably cut straight through the carapace of teenage cool and had whole classes of 14-year-old girls writhing with hysterical delight.

I give you 'Make 'Em Laugh', from 'Singing in the Rain.' Go on, watch it. Be a devil!

Make 'Em Laugh!

I suspect that the inherent philosophy of this song- that everyone will love you as long as you make them giggle helplessly- has underpinned far too much of my interaction with the rest of the human race. Never mind that Donald O'Connor had to be hospitalised after filming the song. It's only pain, right?

And so it was that I turned up to Admissions last Monday for my prophylactic surgery wearing bunny ears.


The world is divided into two types of people: those who thought this was hilarious, and those who immediately looked away and tightened their lips into a semi-audible 'tsk tsk'. I found it an incredibly useful way to shortcut the business at hand. The tsk tskers wanted to get straight down to the business of getting me sectioned (and you can interpret that any way you want), and the others were happy to notice that I'm a human being, not a diagnosis, before they got right down to treating me.

So I smiled, regardless of the cool reception, and filled out forms; or I returned the smiles and talked about the Jolly Old Jolie Gene as I filled out forms. Laughter does sort people out awfully quickly.

What did you notice first?
The ears or the commode chair?
Here is my tip of the day for people going to hospital: be memorable, but for the right reasons. From the time I walked into that building, the majority of the staff who came into my vicinity had smiles on their faces. My bunny ears declared my intent not to be a fucking miserable sod, and hardworking underpaid people tend to like that.

It's a choice, right? Pretty much every attitude we adopt is a choice. If I'm the one on the receiving end of the shit sandwich, I reckon it's empowering to choose to make 'em laugh.


Of course, making 'em laugh also served to divert attention from my very real and intensely personal feelings about losing my remaining breast. I'd got totally tired of being asked if I was alright by well-meaning people, and it was easier to project the humour as a smoke screen than to be either angry (which would hurt them for no good reason) or honest (which would leave them as confused as I was, and no doubt convinced they'd said the wrong thing). Was I alright? How the fuck would I know? Define alright. What was there to feel about this surgery, other than complete bewilderment?

I knew only one thing. I wanted to live, rather more than I wanted to maintain one real breast (or indeed two); that's the only part that's ever been clear. In the days leading up to last Monday, whenever I touched my doomed nipple it felt numb- as though all feeling had already resigned itself to landing the hospital incinerator. Whatever grieving has to happen about that sexual loss will hit me when it hits me, but it hasn't happened yet.

What I do regret- and knew I would- what I do feel angry and sad and not alright about is the way I look now. There's simply no pretending that I look like anything but a huge pink pear. With my narrow shoulders, small back and generous Polynesian hips, I was balanced visually only by my excess of breast. I've gone from hourglass to bean bag, and I hate it.

Turn the mirrors to the wall? It's only temporary, right? Yes, sure, Dr Yes will fix it. First World problem, vanity, beauty-is-not-skin-deep, wee-waa wee-waa blah blah blah, STFU. For now, it's my reality, and I'll be damned if I'll do anything but face it and feel what has to be felt. Alone. But don't ask me to define it.

The ovaries, on the other hand, I regret not one whit; I was done with breeding long ago, and all I think of when I think of them at all is how fucking lethal they can be in someone like me.

Or, indeed, in someone like my mother. QED. Sayonara, and slam the door on your way out.


This hospital visit proved to be my turn to upset the surgical apple cart, in the most minor of ways. First on the afternoon list, I slid straight into theatre without my backside touching the waiting room chair and proceeded to screw up everyone's schedule. My ovaries, clearly picking up on the rabbit-hole theme, wanted to play hide and seek. It took some hours longer than planned for Dr Goodguy and friends to blow up my abdomen with gas (truly, they do!) and go hunting around the back of my uterus via three tiny incisions in my belly. We're late, we're late, for a very important date.

All things considered, the team did well; I'm lucky they didn't testily abandon the laparoscope and slash a bigger hole to make it easier. Face it, Dr Goodguy's just not like that. All the staff commented on his amazing neatness as they surveyed my tidy white rectangles of Fixamol (the only tape I've proved not to be allergic to), and I had just cause to thank him for his patience yet again. I ended up with the promised three small nicks, which will make Dr Yes' job that much easier.

That done, Dr G set upon my chest with the intent to make the scar on the right resemble the one on the left as closely as possible. Looking pretty good so far to my untutored eye.

But honestly, do you see what I mean about the pear? Once you take the breasts away, your body unexpectedly goes in under your arms and then out again at the bottom of your ribs. And out, in my case significantly, to your hips.

There's a pun in there somewhere about pairs and pears, but right now it doesn't feel funny.


I woke up without remembering a single thing after the anaesthetist told me he'd 'just give me something to relax me'. Whatever he gave me obviously sent me straight to coma, do not pass go, because I didn't get to see Dr Goodguy at all before he started sectioning the bunny. And perhaps because of the extra-long time on the operating table, I don't remember much about the waking up either, other than that it was unusually uncomfortable- a need to cough, which hurt like hell, and a certain discombobulation of the mind. My mouth felt like the whole of the Simpson Desert had been deposited in there, complete with camels and minus the waterholes.

I guess five hours' paralysis with tubes shoved down your throat will do that to you.

Back in the high dependency ward, I was treated like royalty. The male nurse waxed lyrical about the talents of Dr Goodguy; he cut my throat a few years ago and I lived to tell the tale, he joked, showing me an almost invisible thyroid scar. I drank gallons of water, desperately trying to remove the sandy expanses from my throat. The proffered sandwich was too hard to swallow, though my stomach loudly protested the need. A full bladder pressed alarmingly and immediately on the recently-reamed areas; I noticed with some satisfaction that I was able to use my yoga training to get myself onto a bedpan unassisted, though once there I needed to use my muscles in an unaccustomed way to help release the pressure.

A helpful nurse passed me my phone. A selfie was enough to reassure my friends that I was all done and fine.

Go me. I can do this.

Of course I can.


Doing the hospital's instant coffee for the next few days, however, was another matter. I'd been spoiled in the high dependency ward, the staff quietly conniving to bring the bunny percolated coffee from the nurses' station, and once back with the throng I was forced to post a less reassuring picture on my Facebook.

Make 'em laugh.


Happily, though, and in stark contrast to the Base Hospital which I could see across the valley through my window, the food was edible and relatively nourishing. Seriously, how hard can it be? The vegies were still slightly firm and noticeably the right colour; the meat was still moist.  Nothing appeared to have come out of a packet except some of the regrettable gravies and sauces (first ingredient salt, second ingredient sugar if my slowly recovering taste buds were telling me the truth).

Nevertheless, after three nights I was stir crazy and ready to come home. The third day had been spent feeling pretty miserable, probably a kick in the teeth from the anaesthesia as well as a little exhaustion with looking in the unforgiving bathroom mirrors every time I had to relieve my extremely impatient bladder before it exploded through my stomach wounds (well, that's how it felt). The bunny ears went back on. The call for horse and carriage was made. I waited impatiently for the Bear's time to coincide with reality- always an imperfect art.

Lemme outta here!
And so here I sit at home, mostly just lying in bed reading or playing around on Facebook, a drain still sticking out of my side to remind me not to get too ambitious too soon. I admit to feeling a little vivisected when I look at it, though of course the results of the experiment are long in. People with BRCA mutations live longer if they have these surgeries. A LOT longer.

Physically, I guess I'm doing really well. I've only had one pain tablet since yesterday morning, and that was mostly to help me sleep in a bed also occupied by a man who's all elbows and a dog who's missed me too much. I've taken two walks with the dogs today without doubling up or falling down.

But emotionally? How do I feel?

I have no idea.


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