Cancer Chronicles: Post 6 of 6

Monday 11th October: 

It’s Rihana’s 3rd birthday and I’m at the hospital at the crack of dawn. I left while she was still asleep but at least I got to give her a little kiss. I spoke to my mum and dad last night and it comforted me. So even though I’m a little overwhelmed, I’m feeling positive/hopeful at the same time.

By this time, I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since God knows how long, since you have to be in a completely fasted state for surgery. The surgery was performed by one male and one female surgeon, one on each side, and lasted 7.5 hours. Apparently it went well. 

I woke up feeling like there was a set of 5kg dumbbell weights on my chest and I would be in excruciating pain for the next few days. I can hardly lift my arms. I’m on pain management drugs and pumped up with so many different medications, including some steroids, that bunged me up for about 4 days or so. Yes, my plumbing stopped working – my digestive system was screwed. 

On the 4th day, I ended up vomiting profusely and was given some anti sickness drugs, which made me feel a bit better. I am also bed-ridden for a few days and have a total of 5 drains on both my sides, close to where my breasts once were, including one coming from my left armpit where a bunch of lymph nodes were removed. I had immediate reconstruction so some “expanders” were placed in my chest with a tube hanging from each side, which would allow for them to gradually pump some kind of fluid in the bags. Yes, you read that right. This is not the usual cosmetic breast augmentation as you know it. This is a bag of saline or silicone gel placed directly under your chest wall with no breast tissue for cushion. I can understand why some women choose NOT to have a reconstruction, but I’m a little vain to be honest. And after all I’ve been through already, I might as well go for it.

My life for the next few months would consist of visits every couple of weeks for various checks, as well as to have them pump a little bit more each time. Then once they get to a “normal” size that I’m comfortable with (pretty much the same size as my natural breasts were), I would undergo yet another surgery to have those removed, so that the real implants could be put in. I have no nipples by the way. I don’t know why they had to take those, too. Well, they gave me some “reasons” about cancers returning in the nipples if not removed, so whatever! Apparently I can have some nice looking 3D tattoos on top of the scar, if I heal well with no complications. Sigh!

One day at a time. And for the first few days while still admitted in the hospital, I’d need help from the nurses to wash myself and go to the bathroom. The drains stayed in for the 10 days that I was hospitalised, but I was walking around by about the 5th day, with the drains in tow.  

October 20th. The results of the tests came in following the surgery and I was given the news that there was no evidence of the disease (NED) in my body. I had already believed that but I cried anyway (out of sheer relief) and thanked the heavens. They also told me that I would definitely not be needing radiotherapy. Little did they know that I was NOT planning to do it anyway. My body, my rules. I tend to go with my instincts, because they’re always right. And I think in general, radiation does more harm than good (just my humble opinion from all that I’ve seen, read and heard). Look up pictures of radiation burns and side effects if you’re not afraid of gory details! Kudos to all those who have done it. Not everyone gets badly burnt, but it definitely wasn’t for me.

I think the worst is over, but the journey continues! I will NEVER be the person I was before cancer. But that’s okay, I guess. I’ll have to learn to find a new normal. I didn’t know that “normal” meant I’d have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which I didn’t even realise I had until years later. It affected my marriage more than I had even realised. Some of the PTSD symptoms that consume me on some days include, thinking that every ache, pimple, or cough might be some type of cancer. They include thoughts that I might go to sleep that night and actually never wake up. They include thoughts that the cancer might return when I least expect it. They include thinking that I might even have a tumour developing somewhere inside right now, while not knowing until it’s too late. Yes, I do go for regular, routine checks. But those only make you more anxious/stressed/overwhelmed while you await the results and can’t sleep at nights. 

I saw an analogy about cancer being like having a gun pressed into the back of your head. Sometimes it’s pressed really hard and you wonder if or when that person might pull the trigger. Other times the pressure is not as strong, but either way it’s always there and you’re constantly reminded of it.

Two months after my surgery, I felt well enough and I travelled to Jamaica. It was great. My hair had started to grow back and I actually liked the new look, which I went on to wear for about two years.

I didn’t know that after many months, I still wouldn’t be able to do much upper body work. I was actually told not to lift weights again as I could develop lymphedema. This is where your arms or legs can swell to disproportionate sizes due impaired flow of the lymphatic system. That thought of not being able to lift even a shopping bag with my left arm, let alone doing upper body exercises was despondent. Being fit and very active is my whole life. Needless to say I cried like a baby when they told me what I couldn’t/shouldn’t do. However I was soon hopeful that one day I just might.

Another thing I didn’t know, was that the range of motion would be so significantly reduced in my left shoulder for what would seem like an eternity. I could hardly lift my arm past my shoulder without pain and stiffness. I didn’t know that I’d develop long term numbness in my left arm, especially in my triceps, that would last for years. That sensation is weird and indescribable. Just a slight pinch would feel like torture!

Like I said, I didn’t know that I’d develop PTSD. There are still times when a slight cough, or an odd pimple anywhere makes me wonder if it’s something that might potentially kill me. And there’s nothing I can do to banish that thought except take really deep breaths and meditate. There are times when I miss having my natural breasts instead of two hard plastic sacs with no feeling or sensation whatsoever. 

I didn’t know that a few months later, I’d randomly start suffering from neuropathy and joint pain among other things. Though I am getting old after all, so some things might just be down to that, or a combination of both factors. I didn’t know that for years, I would try and try and not be able to do pull ups, though I slowly started to lift light weights until I  eventually got back to doing push ups. Pull ups would be a different story! I’ve met some amazing women who recovered a lot faster. But I don’t really compare because we are all different.

What I DID know, was that I was never going to give up. I would continue exercising and doing mobility exercises to increase the range of motion in my shoulders. 

Fast forward to 9 years post diagnosis: I’m grateful that I’m in the best health and shape of my life. I’m grateful that I’m not on any long term medication. Since the type of cancer was non hormonal, it meant that there was nothing else that needed to be done except follow ups and various corrective surgeries. At least, that was just the physical aspect. The hardest part for me was the mental resilience, which I didn’t know I had. There were days when I had to fight my way out of feeling sorry for myself. Want to know a secret? Those days still creep up on me sometimes. I constantly have to remind myself that I need to be strong for my family and get on with life. I told myself that I was never going to throw a pity party because that’s not good for my emotional well being. Don’t get me wrong, there are days when I’ll have a nice little secret cry. But those might be down to normal women’s hormones. Who knows?

I give thanks every single day when I wake up. I absolutely love life and everyone in it. I keep negativity at arm’s length and protect my mental space, my time, my energy. I put myself first now and I live life on my own terms and without apology. Life is beautiful and there’s beauty in everything and everyone if you really look. I hardly complain but if I’m not happy about something, I take steps towards changing it rather than moan about it day in, day out. 

There’s ALWAYS a choice, no matter what. And I choose to be happy, every single day. This is just a tip off the iceberg – there are lots more “in-betweens” and afters. But I hope you’ve learnt something from this “snippet” of what I went through. If you are struggling, remember that once there’s life there’s hope. Just keep going. Thanks for reading to the end. You’re an absolute rock star for reading such a long ass post on Facebook and I LOVE you for it!

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