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.
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.