The Truth About Losing a Breast

One of the things that writing does for me, that I do for myself by writing, is find meaning in the things I am experiencing, in the feelings I have, in the world around me. I find if I write about things, it helps me gain a deeper understanding of them. In that way, writing is like therapy–it’s a way to process things so that they become clearer, because if they are clearer, they are easier to work with.

I know I’m dealing with something really complex when I can’t find the words to explain it. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does, I find it really disorienting, and frustrating. And that’s where I’m at since the mastectomy. Losing a breast has impacted me emotionally in a way I don’t have words to describe. It’s not just how it looks, but it is partly how it looks. Because, it looks awful.

And before you pull a John Legend and say “you don’t know you’re beautiful” please just stop. This is not me putting myself down here. MY BREAST IS GONE. Like, seriously, under no circumstances is that a good thing. It’s a shitty thing to lose your breast, an ugly thing. Was it a necessary thing? Absolutely. Would I do it again given the same circumstances? Fo sho. Is it still depressing and awful to look at the physical manifestation of my fight against cancer and what it has cost me? Of course it is.

From now on, when I look at myself in the mirror, I will have to be reminded of The Cancer. Hair grows back, gray in my case, but still there, and easily dyed if I really gave a shit about it. Breasts, on the other hand, do not grow back. Even after reconstruction, they bear a scar, and they have no feeling. The Cancer will always be with me now, even if I am lucky enough to get to a point of having no evidence if disease, which would be a big win for someone who is stage IV. Even if the doctors can’t see cancer anymore, I will always see it.

Before I had the surgery, this was my biggest fear, that I would only see The Cancer when I look at myself in the mirror. And now it has come true. I don’t see myself in the mirror anymore, I only see The Cancer.

When I try to talk to people about what that feels like….I don’t know, the words just aren’t there. I am usually the queen of the analogy, like, I can usually compare what I am feeling to something everyday, so folks can understand it. But I can’t even begin to say what this is like. I’ve never experienced something like this before, so I have nothing to compare it to.

I will say this, I hope this is temporary. A wise friend said to me that when you have a trauma, it takes time to incorporate it into your psyche and while that is happening, it’s hard to live with. And I think that’s probably true, that at some point I will carry cancer without being only cancer, just as the NICU has become part of me without dominating me. But man, it’s hard in the meantime.

What’s Treatment Like: Mastectomy

So, you’ve heard about chemo, and you’ve heard about radiation (so weird!), and now it’s time to learn about surgery. I’m gonna warn you upfront, this is way grosser than anything else I have described, so if you’re squeamish about bodily fluids, you’re gonna want to skip this post.

Alright, the rest of you non-squeamish types still with me? Right, here we go.

Before surgery, I was scared shitless, as I am about any kind of surgery–what if something goes wrong and I die on the operating table–and on top of that, I cried an awful lot about losing a breast. I was terrified that every time I looked at myself, and saw the scar where my breast used to be, I would have to be reminded of The Cancer. I was pretty much a mess.

Then a few days before surgery, I got sick with a sore throat. No fever or cough, just a sore throat, but man did it hurt like a motherfucker. So, I went to urgent care the Sunday before surgery, and they looked at it and said “Dude, your uvula is like 3 times the size it should be, let’s get you on antibiotics.” Then I really started to panic, because what if I had to postpone surgery? The only thing I could think of worse than having a mastectomy was postponing having a mastectomy. But luckily, the antibiotics helped immensely, and I was able to go forward with surgery after all. I think getting sick helped with my attitude toward surgery, or at least distracted me from my fears.

So, the big day came, and off we went to the hospital. My doc ended up having her morning surgery run long, so mine was delayed an hour, which was not fun. Lying in a hospital gown for that long, waiting for things to start, just was not helpful to my mood. But, then it was finally go time, and they gave me some kind of drug that they said would relax me…and that’s the last thing I remember, I don’t even remember them wheeling me down the hall to the operating room. The next thing I knew, I was in recovery and feeling really nauseous, but even that is kind of a dim blurry memory. And then they wheeled me to my room for the night.

At this point I want to give a shout out to the world of nurses. Because all of the nurses I met this stay were awesome. 9 weeks of The Boy in the NICU and we met maybe 2 nurses we didn’t like in that whole time. I mean seriously, how awesome are nurses, that practically every one you meet is kind and hard-working and just generally awesome? However much they pay you guys, you deserve more.

My mastectomy was a modified radical mastectomy with ancillary lymph gland removal. That means they took the whole breast, along with the lymph glands in my armpit area that are part of the breast system. Now, if you don’t take out the lymph glands, I hear pain after a mastectomy isn’t that bad because they take all the nerves out too. But if they take the lymph glands, there are still nerves in that area, so that’s the most painful part, and that’s what it was like for me. They gave me oxycodone and Tylenol to manage the pain, and the oxy definitely made me groggy and sleepy.

And now, here is the gross part. During the first part of the healing process, you have drains attached you. Like, they put a tube from the incision site from the boob, and the incision site from the lymph glands, and those tubes drain into bulb thingies that look like a grenade, only see-through and rubbery. And in that grenade, it starts out with red stuff, like, not thick like blood, it’s more watery than that, but it’s red like blood. Eventually it gets less red and more yellowish. And so, a few times a day, you have to empty the drains, and measure how much came out.

It takes like a week or two for most patients to drain before there’s a small enough amount of fluid coming out that you don’t need the drains anymore. And then you go to your doctor and they remove them. I got my first drain out at my post-op appointment 8 days after surgery, and when the drain came out, it was a very weird feeling, not painful but just weird, like, you can feel the tubing moving in there. Creepy. As of the writing of this, the other drain hasn’t come out yet, but it should be ready very soon.

Now, in addition to the drains, there was quite a bit of stuff wrapped around me when I came home from the hospital. Specifically, the outer layer was a giant ace bandage, then under there was gauzy stuff covered in tape, then under that were steristrips over the incision. And of course the drains, which had gauze around them. If I wanted a shower, I had to put some plastic stuff over the drains, so as not to let them get wet. The plastic stuff was basically like peel and stick Saran Wrap sheets. You can actually use regular Saran Wrap, they said, but I used the things they gave me. I didn’t feel like showering much since I wasn’t leaving the house and I was sore.

My doctor says I am recovering beautifully, and that the pathology report was good news–the chemo had done such a number on the tumors that only scattered cancer cells were left. Everything else from the tumor was just scar tissue. I still wear out pretty easily–a 20 minute trip to Target means a 3 hour nap later. And I’m still pretty sore, and my arm is pretty weak–I’ll be having PT for that later. But, all of this is normal, and I am on track to be screaming on a roller coaster with The Boy at Disneyland in a month…and after that, we do some more cancer-killing.

A Year of Deprogramming

YOU GUYS! It’s my one year blogiversary! And now I will wax philosophical about writing, and sisterhood, and The Cult.

I feel like in the past year, I have noticed a change in the world. I feel like I run into less Judgy McJudgersons, and more…well, I haven’t coined a term for the opposite of Judgy McJudgersons yet, have I? How about we call her Ms. Awesomesauce? Ms. Awesomesauce does stuff like finding support for a friend who she worries has postpartum depression. Ms. Awesomesauce tells everyone that her friend’s house may be a mess, but it’s cool because the friend is focusing on what is important: spending time with her family. Ms. Awesomesauce calls out a Judgy McJudgerson when she meets one, but in a non-assholic way, because she knows we are all stronger if we come together as moms and support each other.

The best part of this last year of writing has been the amazing community of bloggers I have joined. You may not realize this if you’re not a blogger, but when you start a blog, and other bloggers hear about it, they come read your blog and start sharing the things you write that resonate with them. And they tell you how much they loved a particular piece, and WOW, does that feedback feel good! And I do the same for them, because we are all stronger if we come together as writers and support each other.

I am not a big-time blogger. I just write whatever comes in my head, not wondering “will people like this” because I am not making money off of this. If you read much of what I write, you can tell that it’s clearly therapeutic for me to be writing my blog, especially since The Cancer. So, I don’t really worry about trying to reach new readers or page views or whatever. I just spew out some stuff filled with typos and call it a day. Which is why it is all the more amazing to me that there are so many of you who DO read what I write, and say nice things about it. And it makes me feel stronger, because in this space on the Internet, we have come together as people who support each other.

So, thanks for being so Awesomesauce, you guys! And here’s to another year of fighting The Cult!

Losing the Privilege of Choice

All my life, I have valued education, and so my law degree, and being a lawyer, mean a lot to me. I am very proud of those things–when people ask me what I do for a living, I’m proud to say “I am a civil rights attorney.” Even though, most of what I do each day isn’t being an attorney, it’s being a bureaucrat. It’s shuffling papers and working in a system, not doing Clarence Darrow, Thurgood Marshall, Ruth Bader Ginsburg stuff. But that title, attorney, represents the hard work I did to get it. It represents my intellect and my knowledge too. And I am proud of those things.

And now I am losing that title, because I am leaving my job to become a full time cancer warrior. And I am having the predictable identity crisis about that.

I wrote a while ago about stay-at-home parenting not being a real choice for many women, that often it happens not because women hate their jobs and want to stay home with their kids, but because it’s financially better for them to stay home with the kids than to pay for daycare. The idea that it is a choice based in personal preference is really one for wealthy people, whose incomes are high enough that they can choose to work or not to work. It’s a privilege to have choice. I always had that privilege, and was grateful for it.

Until cancer took it away.

I’d been really burnt out at work before The Cancer happened. It hasn’t been the greatest place to work lately. Don’t get me wrong, it CAN be a great place to work, and I love my coworkers, but lately it’s been a really stressful job. I wasn’t happy at work–I came home frustrated a lot, and dreaded going there when I woke up in the morning. So I suppose leaving my job should be one of those “cancer is a gift” moments where I say “Cancer sucks but it gave me the gift of leaving that job I hated.”

Except, no, cancer is not a fucking gift. It’s a monster that eats the things that define you, even things you didn’t think about being defining until the cancer ate them. Like my eyebrows. And my breast. And my job. And this blog. And my privilege of choice.

I’m coping with this identity crisis by keeping up my law license. I will still be an attorney–just not one who is working. It’s a few hundred dollars a year to keep myself licensed, an unnecessary expense in a time when our family will have to be downsizing, but it’s my way of saying FUCK YOU to cancer–by holding onto one little bit of who I am, and not letting the cancer take it away from me.

Beth’s Classic Film Club: Rushmore

One of my all-time favorite movies, hands-down, is Rushmore. I can’t even put into words how much I love it. I feel like there is so much wisdom in that film. The secret to happiness is “you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life.” “Kids don’t like it when their parents get divorced.” “Too many extracurricular activities, Max. Not enough studying.” “Sic transit gloria. Glory fades.”

I’ve said in the past, before The Cancer, that I’m raising Max Fischer. The Boy hasn’t shown the leadership skills that Max has, but he’s shown all the distraction from studying. He’s also just as persistent when he sets his mind to something. I feel like, given the opportunity, he would attempt to procure some piranhas from a guy in South America. And the Boy feels deeply, and believes deeply in the importance of whatever his latest opus is, just like Max.

And then The Cancer happened, and of course, Max’s mom died of cancer.

The scene where we learn this is one where Max is talking to Rosemary, a teacher he is in love with, about her dead husband. He asks how the husband died, and she says he drowned. She asks how his mother died, and he says “Cancer.” Before I had The Cancer, this struck me as so romanticist, I mean, is there any way more perfectly tragic for someone to die than drowning or cancer? AIDS maybe. Rent has taken on new meaning for me lately too, especially because people with AIDS can get a very rare form of cancer.

The thing is, as fucked up as Max is, he’s actually a pretty great kid. Despite losing his mom. It gives me hope that if The Cancer takes me sooner instead of the later we all hope for, my kids are going to turn out just fine. Like Max, they have an awesome dad, and I’ve found them a good school. It won’t be easy for them, but they’ll get there.

If you haven’t seen Rushmore, seriously, go watch it. And then think about what your Rushmore is, and do it for the rest of your life.

An Ode to Lefty

I’m sorry, Lefty, but I am going to have to kill you, before you kill me.

When I was a teenager, I kept waiting and waiting for you and Righty to grow bigger. But there you sat, just being a sad little A cup, not impressing anyone. I mean, you were reasonably pert, but it took one hell of a bra to simulate anything remotely like cleavage. You did have that cool-looking mole, but since there was no cleavage there, it was hard to show that mole off. In short, you were kind of a disappointment.

And then came motherhood. And HOLY SHIT did you grow! I mean, overnight, from an A to a D, and it hurt like a motherfucker. It turned out you were so small because you were just waiting to get filled up with milk. A lot of milk. A shitload of milk. Insane amounts of milk. Enough milk to feed not just my kids, but other people’s kids too. During the two years of milk production, you usually produced about 25 ounces a day. That’s like 140 gallons of milk you made. Which is pretty fucking impressive.

And then when it was time to stop making milk, you deflated like a sad balloon, and just hung there, looking, well, sad. Who knew that A cups could be saggy? And I know I should have been like “I don’t mind, it just shows what a good job you did feeding my children” but instead I was like “seriously, you are just sad-looking.” And I put you in a push-up padded bra and then you looked OK.

And then you got cancer. A lot of cancer. A shitload of cancer. Insane amounts of cancer. Did you swell up and look good, at least? No, you just lay there looking the same as ever until I noticed you had a big ass lump. And now that the chemo has been eating the cancer, you are drooping even more. You look even more like a deflated balloon. And you STILL have cancer.

I am so fucking pissed off at you for getting sick, and I know you have to go and I have no qualms about this from a medical standpoint…and yet, I am still going to miss you. Because, you are a part of me. A deeply flawed part, but a part nonetheless.

So, I’m sorry, Lefty. We’ve had a good run, but now it’s time to go. Godspeed, and say hello to the pathology lab techs for me.

Hot Flashes

Holy fuck you guys, I hate hot flashes so much. I can’t remember the last time I slept more than 4 hours straight because I keep getting woken up by hot flashes. One of the many pleasant side effects of chemo, along with nausea and exhaustion, is that for young women who haven’t yet hit menopause, it fucks up your hormones and puts you into what we call chemopause. It’s just like menopause except it can sometimes go away after chemo is done.

And now I would like to apologize to any woman who has mentioned hot flashes to me and I didn’t express my deep and abiding sympathy to her.

For those of you who haven’t had a hot flash, it’s like this. You’re lying there in bed, or sitting on your couch, or doing whatever you’re doing, and suddenly you feel craaaaaaaaazy hot. Like, in-a-sauna hot, like, it’s-110-degrees-and-I-have-no-air-conditioning hot, like, what-the-fuck-kind-of-pepper-did-I-just-eat hot. And then after a couple of minutes, when you are all sweaty, it’s gone again. And you’re like, “THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED?!?!” And then if it’s the middle of the night, you try to go back to sleep…which doesn’t happen easily, at least not for me.

You know, women gotta go through a lot of shit in these bodies of ours. A lot of seriously fucked up shit. I have a hemorrhoid from birthing The Girl that comes back anytime I get constipated. (Did you know that Zofran, a key antinausea med for chemo patients, makes you constipated? Good times.) Don’t even get me started on periods themselves, especially after kids. And then we get menopause. So shitty.

Male readers: do you have shit like this you have to put up with? The Hubs never complains about his junk, unless someone accidentally knees it (The Girl usually, she loves to climb on people), but maybe you’re all just suffering in silence?

I dunno, I guess I shouldn’t complain because at least I’m going through this after kids. Did you know there are women who get breast cancer in their 20’s? Like, before they’ve had a chance to get married and make babies and all that? And sometimes, chemopause is permanent. At least I don’t have to worry about my fertility while I am sweating profusely at 1 AM. In fact, I sincerely hope that this will be permanent for me, because I really don’t want to go through menopause twice. Once is plenty.

In Defense of Pink

I feel like this post is a follow-up to my post about the color purple. Remember that one? I wrote about how the real problem with boys rejecting “girl” stuff is that it is a symptom of how we devalue the feminine. And that devaluation is a part of the larger problem of misogyny in our society.

But hating on girl toys isn’t just for boys. It’s for grown-ups too. Ever talk to an adult who sneered at buying a princess dress or a doll for their daughter? And insisted on only gender neutral or more masculine toys? I have, lots of times. They want their daughters to embrace Legos so they learn engineering, and Star Wars, so the embrace a love of space and adventure.

The Girl loves her some girl toys. She loves to play with her baby dolls and serve me some tea from her alarmingly pink tea set, and then twirl around in a princess dress singing Let it Go. That’s where she finds her joy. So, it makes me go a little mama bear on people when they start shitting on the stuff my daughter likes, and suggesting that the pretend play she is engaging in is the wrong kind of play.

I understand that it gets tricky with kids and marketing and did the kids choose the toys or did the marketers brainwash the kids. And I know that choice and tastes in little kids are more easily influenced than adults. That isn’t really the point, though. The point is that we value the traits of traditionally male things over the traits of traditionally female things. We value engineering over nursing. We pay carpenters more than child care workers.

When The Girl plays with her girl toys, like her baby dolls and her very pink tea set, she is the most kind and thoughtful and loving person. She shares her tea with me. She sings to her baby and feeds it bottles. She invites me to dance with her in her princess gown and tells me I look beautiful. These are behaviors I want her to learn and to practice and to internalize. Hell, I want The Boy to learn and practice and internalize them too, and that’s why I make him play with his sister sometimes–because HER toys teach important skills, just as much as his Legos are teaching him important skills involving engineering and construction.

What worries me is not that The Girl is having too much feminine stuff. Because there is a lot about The Feminine that is awesome. Like nurturing and compassion and empathy and thoughtfulness. What worries me is that The Boy isn’t getting enough of it from his weaponized Legos.

Pink is not the enemy. Having ONLY pink is the enemy. Lack of choice is the enemy. And devaluation of pink is the enemy.

I had an awesome dream

This post is a total non-sequeter, but I had the coolest dream the other night when I was all chemo’d out. I was at the Oscars, except, they were honoring TV shows, not movies, but it was definitely Oscars people were getting. I wonder if that’s my brain’s commentary on how TV is becoming way more interesting and with better story-telling than movies?

Anyway, at the start of the event, there were tables like at the Golden Globes, like with people eating dinner and getting drunk, but halfway through it turned into theater style seating. And my seat was next to Meryl Streep, who I ADORE. She was looking gorgeous in a red corset gown and she was eating a bag of potato chips. The producers of the show could hear her bag rustling and were like “WHO THE FUCK IS EATING POTATO CHIPS DIDN’T WE JUST FEED YOU DINNER THAT BAG IS TOO LOUD” so she surreptitiously dumped the chips into a bowl under her seat and kept sneakily eating them. And I turned to her and quietly sang “Did you ever know that your potato chips are my hero?”

And without missing a beat she said “They are the wind beneath your wings. You want some?” And then we were best friends and we drank wine and laughed at the reality TV stars that were getting awards while she anxiously waited to hear if her project was going to win…but I woke up before we found out.

Meryl, if you like wine and potato chips, as a scene in Postcards from the Edge suggested you might, and cheesy references to Bette Middler songs, look me up because I think we could be kindred spirits. Also, I really hope you win your TV Oscar someday.