I took the week off. Sitting around reading trash mags and sipping margaritas is hard, and you should all be way jealous.
Last Monday was L-Day. Lumpectomy Day. The day that Bob the Tumor (that’s my husband’s name for it and don’t ask me why) got evicted from my right boob.
I keep hearing that I’m strong, and while I appreciate the props so much (encouragement is everything right now), honestly this isn’t about strength. I have no other choice. Strength is the fortitude that comes from choosing to do something hard in the face of other choices. The only choices I’ve got right now are to live or die. Yes, my reality is that melodramatic. Fortunately living means receiving the
tortures treatments my doctors tell me will absolutely cure this cancer. And since I have no intention of leaving my husband and daughter alone together so they can bloodily battle their way through the remainder of her teen and college years, life is my only choice. I don’t think that makes me strong.
This is especially true when I think back to the two moments over the last month when I wanted to fetal curl and check out of everything. (I’m warning you now that I’m not holding back on some of this, so if you’re squeamish or modest, skip down to the paragraph that says “Safe to Read.”)
I’m a pretty savvy and connected gal. It’s part of my job, but I also just really like most people. So even though I already had a solid list of no fewer than a dozen gals–and one guy–who have lived through breast cancer, not one of these survivors ever talked to me about the pain and discomfort involved with their protocols before I myself was diagnosed, and almost no one raised his or her hand after I joined their club. (Two exceptions really helped prepare me for some of this and I’m grateful to their honesty.)
Why are we silent about this? We women share endlessly about the pain of childbirth and the body aches from working out and getting old. We proudly prattle on about surviving our babies’ attempts to suck the nips right off of our bodies when nursing or about the toddler who, in the throws of a tantrum, gave us a black eye with their elbow. We display the Honor Badges awarded from our cramps, headaches and stubbed toes without hesitation. But not this. We do a poor job of sharing what is done to us during cancer treatments.
I’ve had two biopsies now. The first was a breeze. Seriously. I was more disturbed by the description of what would happen than by the actual procedure. So I admit to feeling more than a little arrogant and blasé when I was told I needed to have a second biopsy a week later.
For the uninitiated, a biopsy is the surgical extraction of what is believed to be part of a tumor. The resulting “stuff” is brought to the lab where those white-coated folks do all sorts of tests to determine if said “stuff” is really a murdering mass of out-of-control cells. Benign means okey-dokey. Malignant means life will never be quite so full of unicorns and rainbows again.
In my first biopsy, the lidocaine (numbing drug) was injected high on my boob, a scalpel cut a small slit into my boob and the small suction or grabbing tool (I did not want to see what it looked like) was threaded down to the tumor where it then grabbed a small amount of “stuff.” It was fast and I sailed through it.
My second biopsy, which came after the breast MRI was done, was more involved. The MRI showed two small off-shoot tumors, like branches from a bush. The bush was Bob the Tumor, and we already knew about it. The doctor needed information on these two off-shoots.
Going through that second biopsy meant the cut needed to be on the edge of my nipple, what we properly call the areole.
Can anyone tell me how many nerves are present in a typical female nipple? I’m not a doctor, but in my official, anecdotal, pain-substantiated medical opinion, I would say a shit-load of nerves are present in the typical female nipple. And when those first two shots of lidocaine did not numb my boob fast enough–which I only knew was the case when the scalpel started its task–let’s just say that all life in the exam room paused until my screaming ended.
Before anyone jumps on my doctor or tech, please know they were wonderful. As soon as I said stop, I’m feeling this, they did. But then I was given more lidocaine, through another injection, in the spot right next to the first, and it hurt. A lot. And I started crying. Softly, because the last thing I wanted to do was to become hysterical while a scalpel was working exactly one-half inch from my nipple.
I did warn you that I would be pretty blunt here, remember?
When I hinted at my angst over the biopsy experience, suddenly a bunch of my buds raised their hands and said, hell yeah, a biopsy can really hurt.
My other breaking point happened when I became a member of the Borg Collective.
Yes, I’m a true Trekkie, worshipping the ground walked by every Starfleet officer over the last 50 years. And I know now that whoever created the Borgs in The Next Generation series absolutely, positively, had some experience as a cancer patient. It’s the only explanation to credit the horrific imagination needed to create the Borg.
During both biopsies, two small markers were inserted into the tumors. These titanium chips (yes, there were all sorts of jokes handed around about chipping my boob, thank you very much) would allow the doctor to find and remove Bob and the Bobettes. But that’s only part of the process. The chips point to the tumors, but it’s the WIRE that outlines the tumors’ perimeters, to direct the doctor where to cut.
And how do we get a wire around the tumor in my boob, you ask?
I started my day having blue dye injected into my boob to help the doctor isolate my lymph nodes. That happened in the nuclear medicine department at the hospital, a more frightening sounding place there is not, except for maybe the morgue? Anyway, that was not a bad experience.
Next stop was the Breast Center where I was once again smooshed in the mammography machine. Remember this is my Poor Boob that has already be stuck and cut so much and now it returned to the scene of the first assault to be stuck and cut again. This time, instead of my boob being smooshed by two solid clear acrylic plates while the mammography is doing its work, the top plate had about a 2″ x 3″ cut out, which was centered to where the wires would be inserted. I was contorted in a not-quite sitting, not-quite standing 45-degree angle and told NOT TO MOVE. AT ALL. FOR TEN MINUTES, AT LEAST. I grasped the base and length of the mammography machine like it was the cliff I was trying not to fall from, and started to talk myself into not moving. At all. For ten minutes, at least.
I try to not look when unpleasant things are being done to my body. I’ve had at least two gallons worth of blood removed from my veins over the years of infertility treatments and never once did I see the needle go into my arm. As long as I can’t see it, it’s not real. Well, the contorted position I was in, with my Poor Boob smooshed between the plates, left me unable to avert my eyes. So when my radiologist stuck two hat-pin type needles into my boob through that 2″ x 3″ window, I saw it all. Again, lidocaine was used, and the position was just enough away from the last biopsy that my nipple didn’t factor into this process. But, I saw it all. And I started crying. And I couldn’t stop because it was so scary and I wanted to move away from the machine and those hands that kept sticking sharps things into my Poor Boob, but I couldn’t because now my boob was pretty much pinned to the machine, looking ironically like that frog I pinned to a wax sheet in seventh grade for dissection. So I kept crying, without moving, waiting for ten minutes, at least.
And then came the wire. About 20″ long and super thin, it was threaded down one hat-pin needle and up through the other, just like the quilts I make. Sort of. And the doctor and tech are happily praising themselves for their perfect placement of the wire, which meant they would not have to try again, and I’m still crying, not bothering to fake bravery anymore, but wondering if all of the congestion I’m creating would affect the anesthesia that I was about to go under.
When they released my boob, I saw two long ends of wire, sticking up from my breast, like ultra-thin rebar. The tech taped the ends down, and between the blue dye, the wires and the cuts, I was now Borg, and resistance was futile.
Safe to Read: I was wheeled into the surgical center where I tried not to reveal my crying to my family, because I didn’t want to worry them. (Why do we say that? Of course they worry. That’s the price of love. But still, protecting them is a priority.) But I possess one of those faces that shows every tear shed, and not in a pretty way. They knew. And Sam started crying and I felt so bad for adding more weight to her young, heavy heart. Then they gave me happy drugs and I swear I remember saying, “Oh that feels nice,” and then I was awake in recovery.
Okay, so we’re a week past and I can update a couple of things. The good news, the great news is that my lymph nodes are clear. Clean. No cancer. Nada. Zip. Zilch. That means that it did not spread yet. The not-so-good news is that my margins, the perimeter of Bob the Tumor, still showed cancer cells. It was starting to move past Bob and now I have to go in again, to get bigger margins. (For my quilt-peeps, margins are seam allowances. We need bigger seam allowances here.) There’s no way for the surgeon to know that the margins are adequate until they test them, so about 20-25 percent of lumpectomies require a revisit. But, I don’t have to become Borg again, so I can do this.
Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1631700a)
Young Frankenstein, Peter Boyle, Gene Wilder
Film and Television
That I heal rapidly from surgery remains true. By Wednesday I was bouncing off my bedroom walls. I’m back at work this week, but go in Friday for the second round. I still don’t know positively about chemo, but radiation is a definite. None of that happens until FrankenBoob heals from all of these cuts. Yep. That’s her new name, FrankenBoob. You’d understand if I was willing to show you my stitches, but I’m not. You’ll just have to trust me here.
And once again, thank you everyone who has reached out to us, sent us notes and cards, fed us, drove us, called us, texted us, hugged us, and just generally stuck around in some way. It means the world and it’s needed. We will not get through this alone.