Saturday, November 22, 2014

Lipstick, laughter and learning to be new

I'm getting pretty good at this hospital gig.

I know now to pack my iPod, my phone, my laptop, my DVD drive, some movies, an extension cord, a double adaptor. I know how to buy an extra data pack and turn my phone into a WiFi hub. I know I need to stay connected to stay sane while I heal. Everything's a learning experience if you let it be.

I know what clothes I'll need, what toiletries. I put in some snacks in case the food's inedible.

And now, I pack my lipstick.


I never used to do this lipstick gig. As a teenager I was self-conscious about my big lips, my rather yellowed teeth from the hideous amounts of antibiotics I consumed as a child. Did I mention that I was a sickly child? I was always in bed with tonsillitis or the flu, or, once, a case of rheumatic fever that scared the wits out of my mother. She decided I was to be wrapped in cotton wool after that. I was a compliant child; went along with it like a lamb, or at least until I got to my late teens and decided to lash out a bit. I still remember the colour draining from my mother's face when I showed her the holiday snaps of me riding a horse along the edge of the mind-numbingly steep Arrow Gorge in New Zealand.

It took me years to discover that I have the constitution of an ox, and little fear. My heart doesn't have a murmur after all. My body heals quickly.

And it's taken me years to discover the liberation of lipstick. Everything's a learning experience if you let it be- even cancer.


I now have these wonderful new friends, you see, and I learn stuff from them all the time. The Freeloader gave me these people. I would never have met them without him. Here are just some of them.

It was all Angie's fault, really. The lipstick thing, I mean. She's nagged us all into slapping on a bright mouth to help us feel beautiful again. We've all got our issues- whether it's a flat chest and a lost career, or a permanent loss of hair, or knees that just don't work any more, or PTSD, or a metastasis waiting to grab us by the throat one day.

It's not a competition. We know all our issues are crushing for each of us, in their own way.

But we're not letting them crush us. Power in numbers, in being there for each other at any hour of the day or night. Power in sharing truths, and in finding many of them darkly hilarious. And power in bright, laughing mouths.


And so my lipstick went into my bag when I lined up for this - well, I hesitate to call it the final hurdle, because that's kind of tempting fate - but there's no doubt I've thought of this as some sort of end point. As Dr Yes put it, a restoration of sorts. A reparation, perhaps.

Not that I'll ever be the same. I have to learn to be new. The girl with the amazing cleavage is gone forever. My new foobs (false boobs, for the uninitiated) are many sizes down on what I was used to.

She didn't go alone, mind you. Fortunately it seems that the girl with eyes bigger than her stomach has also gone forever.  Looking at the wonderful menu in this five-star hospital, I choose the All Bran for breakfast, because I've learned that painkillers have their, um, down side and eating chook food is better than trying to force concrete through fresh scar tissue (did I mention the tummy tuck that comes with the foobs?). But I choose the fruit Danish too, because I've also learned that denying yourself everything you like is no way to stay healthy.

And then I look at lunch and dinner, and I take the casserole and the pasta but reject the cheesecake, reject the pudding and custard, because I know I'll just feel bloated afterwards with that delightful chemo-hangover metallic over-sweet taste lingering in my mouth.

And I know, now, that I don't need three two-course meals a day.

This is okay. I don't feel like I'm depriving myself. I feel like I'm listening to myself. I didn't know how to do that before.


The day of the operation started with a small glitch, as my enthusiastic cousin Pam dropped me off at the wrong hospital and drove away.

I just laughed and rang her to come back. Honestly, I swear after you've sat in the BP toilets at Maclean having a panic attack because your bone scan results are coming back tomorrow and you don't know yet if you're terminal, NOTHING is ever as bad again. There are many hospitals with the same name in this city, and two of them are only blocks apart. An easy mistake to make.

Here is something you learn when you get a cancer diagnosis: don't sweat the small stuff. Honestly. Just don't. You'll find a way around it, and that's a lot easier if you're not conflating the situation with panic.

And you'll find you have zero patience with people who make a drama out of every little thing. Watch all the cancer patients drop the drama queens off their Facebook friends list like there's an Ebola outbreak onstage. Yeah, even if they're family. Just stop it, you old hams out there. Stop making mountains out of molehills (unless, of course, it's a malignant molehill, in which case throw everything you've got at that fucker).

Anyway, once we'd arrived in the correct location things moved rapidly. A double DIEP reconstruction is an eight to ten hour procedure, so I was the first and last on Dr Yes' list. Yet again, I struck it lucky with outstanding medical staff; they moved me rapidly and cheerfully through the usual steps, from paperwork and consents and billing and privacy statements to the fashion-statement stockings, Prada surgical gown and temporary removal of my eyesight. (Yes, folks, since chemo everything's a bit blurry without the glasses. Take what you want and pay for it. Dear nurse, please fill in my menu for me, because I can't see a damn thing on that sheet of paper and I could be ordering dry muesli with Vegemite sauce for all I know.)

I admit I'd had a few butterflies leading up to the day. The Bear was having a shocking time of it, worrying that I was pushing my luck by lining up for yet another surgery. I protested angrily, while secretly wondering the same thing. Should I be content just to be alive, and flat? Was I cruising for a bruising? How much could this poor battered body take, after two years of abuse in the name of a cure?

Was this all just vanity?

But wait. Lipstick. It's just like our little gang colouring in our lips to take on the world, regardless of the issues that torment us in the dark. It's not vanity. It's grabbing back our power. It's the ultimate fuck you, cancer.

You took my breasts. Now I'm getting new ones, and what's more, they won't knock me out when this new me goes out running. Shove that where the sun don't shine, Freeloader.


And so before I knew it, I was asleep, and seemingly moments later I was awake again, with Dr Yes enthusing about how well everything had gone. My blood vessels had been very cooperative. The operation had taken just over seven hours (a total win- the less time under anaesthetic, the better).

All and sundry proceeded to comment on what a good result it was, what a great surgeon Dr Yes was. "They're so even." "They're so tidy." "Wow, they look great."

Or maybe I was just high on morphine.


A day later I was sitting up in the chair with my laptop going ten to the dozen and standing unaided, surprising the nurses. Business as usual here. (Though, admittedly, falling asleep every few hours- the nurses have to check the blood flow in the newly transplanted foobs every half hour all the first night, so my sleep was a bit non-existent.)

Whatever! Onward and upward!

Two days later I'm walking round the ward unaided, though somewhat stooped; the tummy tuck is very tight to start with. I've graduated from morphine to less noxious substances, which is kind of a bummer but much better for the concrete mixer, if you get my drift and pardon my pun. And the foob checks have graduated to every two hours, which is a slightly more decent amount of sleep at a stretch.

I'm well enough to put my lipstick on. Huzzah! The nurses look surprised. (Let them.)

I'll be in here a few days yet, walking around or not. I'm taking no chances. They do a sort of ultrasoundy Doppler thing on the foobs every few hours; you can hear the rush and throb as the blood pulses through them. It's kind of like being pregnant with twins. These babies are going to be assured of complete health before I take them home.

Look out, world. New me coming through.