Cancer Lesson #28: Morphine Dreams

Cancer Lesson #28: Morphine Dreams – Sometimes the side effects of painkillers are worse than the pain.

Rumor has it that Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was written while he was high on some form of morphine.

Having spent several days in a similar haze of hallucinatory dreams brought on by morphine and Percocet, I can believe it.

For six days, falling asleep meant plunging into a world filled with action, high adventure and drama. Each nap was a fantastical long train of thought boarded by the most unlikely characters.

One particularly unrealistic thriller involved Las Vegas underworld “enforcers” chasing The Engineer and I through the city’s back roads and alleys. I knew it was a dream and struggled to awaken, but only managed to dodge the gangsters again and again as the action grew more and more farfetched.

It was like watching one of those movies where the director expects you to suspend disbelief one too many times.

When every reawakening is a heart-pounding escape back to reality, it’s hardly conducive to healing. At least it wasn’t for me.

I asked for alternatives.

“How about Vicodin?” the interns suggested.

Nope. Having had that drug a few times for dental surgery, I knew I didn’t like it either.

Finally, we settled on Tylenol 3. It left me only slightly loopier than the average person.

I could live with that. I’ve been doing it for years.

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Cancer Lesson #27: Being ill is not a competition.

 

Cancer Lesson #27: Being ill is not a competition.

This lesson is brought to you courtesy of a roommate who, during her (thankfully) brief stay on my second night, managed to alienate everyone – staff and patients – on at least one floor, probably more. (I’m sure the ER people were cheering when they kicked her upstairs.)

This woman spent her entire visit enumerating her many ailments and directing the doctors and nurses on every aspect of her care. When no medical staff members were present, she called friends to treat them to the same monologue or lay in bed emitting theatrical moans and sighs.

Evidently unsatisfied with the amount of attention these actions elicited, my fellow patient – who rated her pain at an eight out of ten – several times got out of bed, grabbed her IV pole, and toddled off to the gift shop seven floors below, probably in search of a more appreciative audience.

Still, my whining roommate taught me this: Being ill isn’t a competition. She who dies with the most prescriptions does not win. Because, duh(!), she’s still dead.

Also, it could have been much worse. If she’d been a continual television watcher, I would probably have imploded.

Cancer Lesson #25: The Wearing of the Pink

 Cancer Lesson #25: The Wearing of the Pink

I’m not a high-heels-and-ruffles girly-girl, so when my daughter was young, I refused to dress her in pink. To me, this custom sent the wrong message.  “To be a real girl,” it seemed to say,  “you have to wear pink and play with dolls.”  

I didn’t want to foist those expectations upon her, and even as an adult, I rarely wore pink myself.

Thus, it felt strange at first to be associated with the “Pink Ribbon Disease,” especially when people began leaping to the conclusion that any pink clothing I wore was meant to remind them of breast cancer.

That wasn’t the case, at least not at first.

Later, after I lost my hair, I often wore pink as a kind of shorthand for “Yes, I’m temporarily bald because I’m in chemo for breast cancer.” It staved off a lot of questions.

 By then, I had learned wearing pink can be demonstration of love. 

As a cancer patient – and it took some time to adjust to being in that category – I was stunned by the outpouring of friendship I received, often when I least expected it.

“The Wearing of the Pink” was one of those times.

A little background first. When I got cancer, I was in the process of changing jobs. At my request, the library’s administration had agreed to allow me to step down from management back into front-line librarianship. This decision was made about a week before my diagnosis.

Yeah, I know. Pretty fortuitous for all of us.

Anyway, just before my medical leave began, my staff asked me to make sure I was in the branch at a certain time. I agreed, figuring they’d planned a little send-off involving cake, a card, and perhaps some balloons.

What they did was so much more meaningful.

Everyone in the building, including the men, wore pink ribbons, and most were dressed in shades of the color.

The memory still brings tears to my eyes.

There wasn’t one cake; there were three – four if you count the cheesecake – and in my book, cheesecake always counts. Plus enough food to have fed the horde of teens that normally descends on the library after school. Oh, and there were cookies and brownies (York Peppermint ones!) for those who didn’t care for cake. Margaritas too – the virgin version, alas (after all, this was in a public library) – served in real Margarita glasses.

I was staggered. Literally overwhelmed. My co-workers’ outpouring of support, on top of all the cards, emails, prayers, positive Reiki energy and other forms of good karma I’d received, made me suddenly so tired that I had to sit down.

I needed a nap, and when I went home – having tasted all the cakes, cookies and brownies – I had one. I slumbered deep, with a sense of gratitude permeating every pore. How blessed I was (and still am) to have such friends and co-workers, how fortunate to have had my husband, daughter and family as I approached the challenge of cancer.

Nothing I can do or say could ever adequately express my appreciation. So I will say again, as I did then, “Thank you” to everyone who was there for my family and me.

You know who you are.

Addendum: There are legitimate arguments about the way pink has been used to market breast cancer support and research, and about the way some companies have appropriated the color to make money. This posting, however, is not about buying a t-shirt or running in a race, it’s about how my friends who adopted a well-known symbol to support me when I was in treatment. 

Cancer Lesson #26: “Wanna see my new boob?”

Cancer Lesson #25: “Wanna see my new boob?”

Sometime during the first night after my surgery, the hospital resident on duty stopped to check in on how I was doing. He asked if I’d looked at my reconstruction yet.

It hadn’t occurred to me, not because I had any reservations about doing so, but because only one activity held any attraction, and that was sleep, sleep, and sleep some more.

Still, I couldn’t help sneaking a peek when he removed my big, ugly, white, Velcro-closed bra.

I had a new breast.

If I squinted hard and used my imagination, it sort of looked like my old one, despite the stitches, and the tubes coming out of my flesh. Dr. K2 had even made me a new “nipple,” something normally done later as outpatient surgery.

I felt somehow comforted by the fact that I still had something to put into my bra. Even if it was a big, ugly and white  with Velcro closures.

When my husband happened to come in as Dr. K2 was examining his work, I asked him if he wanted to take a look.

“Wanna see my new boob?” The doc repeated my words with a laugh.

The Engineer merely shrugged and moved closer to study my new breast. He may even have said something about it looking pretty good.

Engineers are like that. Nothing seems to faze them.

Addendum: I came across this video from a CBS news report on the breast reconstruction. They cite some interesting statistics and facts.

Cancer Lesson #24: A day you can’t remember could become one you’ll never forget.

Cancer Lesson #24: A day you can’t remember could become one you’ll never forget.

Though I missed most of April 27, 2011, it’s a day I’ll always remember.

I can recall looking out the window as we drove to the hospital, wondering if surgery would go as planned, if my tumor would be as expected, and how I’d feel afterward.

Once we arrived, things moved quickly. We were shown into a small room, where I was visited by what seemed like every employee on duty, all asking my name, birthday, and reason for being there (Kimberly Lucas, 2/1/61, right mastectomy with TRAM reconstruction).

My plastic surgeon, Dr. K2, used a permanent marker to draw lines where Dr. S, my breast surgeon, needed to make her incisions. A nurse started an IV, and another introduced the anesthesiology team, advising me to be nice to them since they were responsible for making sure I felt no pain.

They did a good job. One of them hooked me up, and I was gone.

“Mrs. Lucas, you’re all done. Wake up.” A gentle voice roused me to consciousness.

“I lived?”

Funny, until that moment, I’d have sworn it hadn’t occurred to me that I might not.

“Yes,” the nurse agreed. “You lived.”

I heard someone else say it was eight o’clock.

Eight o’ clock! I’d been in surgery for more than twelve hours, which meant my family had been at the hospital all day. Apparently sensing my concern, one of the medical team reassured me that my husband and daughter could see me as soon as I got to my room. (Later, I learned they’d been encouraged to go home, where the hospital kept in contact via phone.)

I closed my eyes and dozed, barely conscious of being rolled through a hallway, and then transferred into a bed. When I woke, The Engineer and our daughter were standing in the doorway.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my appearance must have been quite a shock. Compression bindings encased my lower legs, whirring every few minutes as they massaged blood upward to prevent clots. A stunningly attractive hospital gown hid a midriff layered in gauze and overlaid by an elastic truss. Tubes led from incisions in my stomach, right breast, and underarm, to grenade-shaped drains, which were safety-pinned to my bindings. An oxygen meter was clipped to one forefinger, an IV ran through the back of one hand, and a small Doppler system was attached to my breast. I had a catheter too, and what looked like a fanny pack full of morphine with a pump I could push for pain relief.

I managed to stay awake long enough to reassure my family I was fine, and was surprised to discover it was true. Sure I felt pretty crappy, but I’d expected to feel like I was dying, or maybe to experience pain bad enough to make me wish I was. Instead I just felt sore.

Very, very, very sore. Sore enough that when the nurse told me I needed to get out of bed the next day to sit in the chair, I almost laughed.

Then I realized she was serious and, with a lot of help, managed to move the six inches or so that was necessary to accomplish this task. A day later, I was walking.

Actually, it was more of a shuffle, across the hall and back, bent over like an old crone because I couldn’t stand straight. My stomach was too tight.

Certainly no one was more amazed than me when I walked down the hall to the lounge a couple days later.

The human body is a wondrous thing, able to withstand much more than most of us realize, and an immediate TRAM reconstruction after a mastectomy is one of those things.

This type of surgery is a big endeavor, especially when paired with an axillary dissection. It involves taking tissue from one part of the body – in my case, my stomach – and using it to form a new “breast.”

Two surgeons work together, seamlessly moving from a breast surgeon-performed mastectomy through reconstruction by the plastic surgeon. (For a complete description of the procedure from the American Cancer Society website, go here: http://tinyurl.com/lxvaf6t.)

My body remembers that day though I do not. The faded but still visible scars, occasional abdominal tightness and weaker right side all give testament to the trauma my muscle and tissue have endured. These effects will continue to wane, but they will never disappear, and though I don’t remember the hours that changed my life forever, April 27 was a day I will never forget.