Sunday, 10 May 2015

Re stitching

This week I finally said goodbye to the wonderful surgeon who put me back together again. Five years on from initial diagnosis and surgery, I am no longer quite who I used to be; time and circumstance remoulding both physical and spiritual form. Last time we met, he asked me to write a piece for his website; yet I had hung back, unsure that any words I scribbled down could even begin to convey such a maelstrom of events. 
 On the drive home, it slowly occurred to me that the words I sought had already woven themselves into those blog posts written when the thoughts and memories swirling round my waking hours slipped through fingers and onto the page. As a quilter carefully stitches separate patches together to make something new; so I have unpicked and re stitched my words ; to try and create a coherent whole.

I first felt it in the shower, a lump the size of a plectrum; hard and unyielding beneath my fingers, in stark contrast to the soft surrounding flesh. I ignored it at first, knowing that I was soon to go for my annual scan; I put it to the back of my mind, carrying on regardless whilst it resolutely remained; a solid nugget under probing fingertips.

At the clinic I smiled through the mammograms, scans and biopsies; willing this to be a cyst, a blocked duct, a figment of a hypochondriac's imagination...... I told my husband all would be well, and went alone to get my results.....but then the nurse walked into the room with the specialist, and in that instant I knew.There is that sudden moment of clarity when you hear what is to be said before a single word is uttered. The look between specialist and nurse confirmed what in truth I had known all along.I went into preservation mode, poker faced; discussing the practicalities of the surgery to follow.  Lumpectomy was not an option... mastectomy? One breast or two? 'Like ordering tea at a posh cafe,' I remember thinking in a wry moment of black humour.

Words flew over and around me as I watched hands sketching quick drawn diagrams, weighting up the pros and cons. The specialist and surgeon were both so kind and attentive; giving me time to ask questions, double checking I had understood the mechanics of the procedure. I smiled, I nodded, whilst all the time my unspoken thoughts were spinning into free fall.On the drive back from the hospital reality hit, as it surely must. I pulled my car over to the hard shoulder and howled, then, mindful I was heading to work, wiped my eyes, gave myself a stern talking to and found my poker face once more.

By the day of the operation I had switched to self-preservation mode; reminding myself that both sister and cousin had been here before me, and that I would not be without a breast when I awoke. My husband and son chatted in the car, but I cannot to this day remember any of the conversation; just the pinched look on their faces as we said our goodbyes. The waiting was the worst; sitting in a ward allowing all manner of thoughts to tumble unchecked through my mind….. but suddenly there was the reassuring voice of Mr Mathur, introducing his team, and patiently going over the procedure.

I did experience a mild sense of panic as I stood naked but for a pair of briefs, being drawn upon ready for the off..... Slightly alarmed I noticed not one but two lines were being drawn upon my chest ' it is only the one' I said; quickly to be reassured that In fact the lines were to measure the natural fall of the chest, so the reconstructed breast would closely match the natural one. As I had opted for a DIEP flap reconstruction, a hand held ultrasound was used to map the viable veins on my stomach, which was to be the donor site. At one point it resembled a small child's attempt at dot to dot, and I smiled quietly at the thought of how I must look with this strange new graffiti inked upon my skin.

Suddenly it was time... a porter came and off we went. It's strange, but to this day I cannot express that feeling as I was wheeled into theatre; it wasn't fear or dread as I thought it might be; but more a sense of overwhelming inevitability. 

Waking up and realising that I still had the shape of a breast under bandaging and drains, helped enormously on my road to recovery. Cancer strips you of many things, but a missing body part was not to be one of them. In reality chemotherapy is a hard road but manageable. Your hair will regrow and your skin will glow once more; you will regain your energy, the deep seated ache in your bones will finally dull,  and you will discover a profound sense of who you are.

 Unlike Humpty Dumpty I have been put together again, in a different, more complex manner. My scars now faded to silver meander like contours across my body mapping the years of openings and re openings; of harsh lights, soft voices and blue scrubs. These are the tattoos of an incredible journey, which act as a testimony to the skills of a team of dedicated surgeons, and the amazing healing powers all our bodies possess. I have reclaimed this tired body moulded by circumstance and surgeon's scalpel; becoming familiar with new curves and old wounds. There is more balance in my life; I have learnt to be still and breathe the world around me. My wide eyed trust in the inherent goodness of others has been reaffirmed by the incredibly skilled and caring medical teams who came in and out of my life with more frequency than I ever thought. There has been trauma, loss a
nd bewilderment, but this has been tempered by laughter and the friendships forged in the fire. 
I have emerged older, wiser, and as yet unbroken; eternally grateful for the medical teams, family and friends who carried me through.

Monday, 4 May 2015

past life

Idly turning on the TV  last night, I found myself watching the C word on BBC 1; a drama that opened a window into my past; to let memories like light from far distant stars come thinly shining into the present.
Just under 5 years ago, post diagnosis and major surgery; I left my first chemo session pumped full of FEC, steroids and anti sickness pills, feeling fine; even stopping for sushi on the way home. This was the calm before the storm; as by 10pm that evening I was throwing up, despite the back up anti sickness meds, the back up back up anti sickness meds, and an iron will. 
I had no idea you could vomit 10hrs straight..... But yes, sadly this is physically possible; although towards the end, it was clear that my stomach was completely voided, and what was being produced was pure bile.... bright green and bitter on the tongue.
 A swift trip to the hospital to rehydrate and receive further  anti sickness back up meds soon put it right; although the difficulty they experienced inserting the cannula should have set alarm bells ringing.
By my second chemo session, it was clear my veins were having nothing to do with the process, resolutely shutting down; unyielding to the gentlest of nurses. It was decided that a PIC line was in order..... and had my veins allowed it to pass through, this would have made chemo far simpler... But no, my right arm refused to countenance such a scheme; which is how I ended up on an operating table being told by a doctor that I would just experience some pressure on my chest as a Hickman line was inserted......he lied; but then again how could he know; he after all had never experienced this procedure!
Then the inevitable happened; my hair began to drift out in clumps, as we knew it most surely would. My husband and son couldn't face shaving it, so two dear friends, armed with a pair of clippers, took photos as they clipped my hair into a Mohawk , and then down to a buzz cut.... We laughed and joked as the clippers did their work... compared to the Hickman and the vomiting, this was the least of my woes.
A week later, I realised even the buzz cut was rubbing off onto pillow cases and the back of sofas. Like Hansel and Gretel, I too was leaving a tell tail trail marking my movements  around the house.
That evening I decided it had to go! I ran a steaming hot bath, and, taking a brand new razor, began to shave my head. After the second stroke I realised this was a bad idea; I was now immersed in 'hair soup' ! I scrambled out of the bath, wrapped myself loosely in a towel, drained the water, cleaned up every last strand of hair; then realised that I must finish what I started, or totally lose my dignity as even with a buzz cut, there is a surprising amount of hair. I took the razor, headed for the shower and carefully shaved the rest of my head. There was now hair all over the shower curtain and the bath tub. Wrapped in a now damp and distinctly hairy towel, I cleaned the shower curtain, re cleaned the bath, and discarded the towel in the laundry hamper... Only to notice I had missed a tuft of hair. So I took the razor, leaned over the basin, and finished the job; then cleaned the basin, cleaned the cleaning cloth and consigned another hair laden towel into the laundry hamper. 
Two hours from that fateful decision, I wiped steam from the bathroom mirror and steeled myself to look at my reflection. It was as I thought; despite the neatly rounded skull of a cesarean baby, it was definitely Uncle Fester's twin sister staring back at me!!