Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Part Three: Was It Cancer?

LinkContinued from Am I Dying?: Part 2.
I woke up from surgery in the recovery room. I remember Jeff and my plastic surgeon standing over me and talking about me like I couldn't hear them. Funny enough, I couldn't hear them. My plastic surgeon looked down at me and smiled and said, "Good news. No cancer!" I couldn't process the info. I knew I felt relieved. Chemo was the one thing that scared the bejeezus out of me and I wanted to avoid most of all. The news was exactly what I had hoped to hear -- no cancer equals no chemo.

OMG, what had I just done?

I had a brief moment of panic. If I didn't have cancer, this was such a radical thing to do. Was I crazy? While my mind raced with questions, I knew in my heart -- which was now located somewhere deep below fresh scars and painful temporary expanders -- that I had done the right thing.

As they wheeled me up to my room, I asked Jeff what had happened all day with him. He told me how Christine had come to hang out with him and have breakfast, and that Weeza and Clairee jumped in a few hours later. I was so relieved that he was taken care of -- I knew that my day was actually the easier of the two. Going through surgery, I can do. Waiting while my love was under the knife, I'd be a disaster.

I asked Jeff to go get the girls in the lobby so I could thank them personally for taking care of him. As I was taken into my room, things got incredibly weird. In fact I thought I was being taped on one of those bad reality hidden camera shows. Would there be a laugh track edited to this bizarre moment? I heard a couple of nurses discussing -- like full-on strategizing -- how they were going to get me from the gurney into the bed. I swear I was hearing them discuss the process for ten minutes while I lie there waiting. I was growing impatient and suddenly heard myself say, "Come on, people... it's not the pythagorean theorem here."

You could've heard Jeff's sigh of relief from a mile away. Seven hours of surgery and my sarcasm was already back. His wife was gonna make it after all. Then, before they could even toss me -- and I do mean toss (I've never met more incompetent people) -- I noticed a brown shiny bag sitting on the window sill.

"What's that?"
"My God, Jackie... it's like you can smell jewelry from across a room."

I fell asleep smiling, knowing my hubby still thinks of me as his 'girl,' even though they had just removed a big chunk of the physical part of me that represents that.

The next day, my husband presented me with a beautiful butterfly pendant on a very delicate chain. I'll spare you the speech but he leaned over my bed and said the sweetest words, comparing my life to that of a butterfly. I've heard of "push presents" but never expected to get a booby prize! I imagined him at the giant mall next to the hospital, shopping with a mission while doctors operated on his wife. I will never know what he went through that day.

But generous gifts aside, the next four days were -- in a word -- horrific. The meds made me sick, the anti-nausea meds -- even sicker. The ICU floor was being remodeled and I felt abandoned by the staff at the hospital, vomit covered my blankets and no one would respond to my calls. I remember having heart burn so severe and I couldn't even get someone to show up at my room with Tums. I was woken up what felt like every 30 minutes -- compressors on my legs, tubes in my nose and respiratory therapists at my bedside, concerned about my lung capacity from being under so long. It was scary and sad and frustrating that I couldn't get the care I needed at one of the most reputable hospitals in the country.

Every time a friend would arrive, I couldn't even pull myself together to visit. I remember opening my eyes just long enough to see a loving face, a supportive friend, people who stopped doing whatever they had going on, to come see me. Although I don't think I ever spoke, I could name each person that sat by my bed. I will never forget their generosity and kindness.

Two days in, one of the nurses gave me a hard time when I said I wasn't up for a shower. I sat in a chair long enough for her to make up my bed and remember how hard it was to keep from falling over. I probably would have if it wouldn't have hurt so much. It wasn't the pain of the surgery but the incessant nausea that followed me from soon after I woke up from the operation on a Thursday afternoon until late afternoon Saturday, when they finally offered me better anti-nausea meds. (If you're going into surgery, don't accept anything less than Zophran.)

I started to feel a bit better Saturday night and by Sunday, could go on short walks. Now I was anxious to get home to my babies and wanted out of the hospital. My doctors suggested one more night so I tried to get as much rest as possible.

Monday, I was able to raise my arms a little bit and washed my own hair in the sink. The drains coming out of either side of my body were the worst part of the pain. Sweat suits with inside pockets became my uniform, they were perfect for hiding the tubes and drains.

I lied on the bed waiting for Jeff to arrive and for my doctor to come sign discharge papers. Christine sat with me once again -- a place she had gotten used to that week. My surgeon arrived and began talking -- once again, I was in a conversation I will never forget.

"You dodged a bullet, honey."
"Huh?"
"The pathology came back. You had pre-cancerous cells growing in your other breast."
"What does that mean?"
"The best guess -- you were one to five years away from a full breast cancer diagnosis."

OMG. I totally did the right thing.

Cancer. What a magical word. While most people would never want to hear it, knowing it was beginning to grow inside me was empowering. I had really done something that saved my life. I am not courageous like my sister -- the one who did it without the lump forcing the decision on her. I did it because I had to -- because I had two boys at home and a husband who needed me and because there was a huge chance cancer had already started. Christine will forever be the only person to ever know how enormous that moment was for me. (If you remember, she was also the one who was there for those life-altering days visiting Lucy last May.)

From that moment on, I felt a weight lift right off my shoulders -- although temporarily, the same pressure I felt metaphorically on my shoulders shifted literally to my chest, the physical pressure felt like an elephant had set up camp. But it was the most incredible feeling, because pain meant I was alive.

I finally made it home to my two little boys and couldn't have been more relieved.

A couple of weeks post-surgery, Jeff pulled together a group of 40-or-so friends and relatives to celebrate my birthday. While on the outside, I may have looked tired, sore and still overweight from those babies, inside I felt like a princess. With every happy birthday wish and sip of champagne, I felt strong, beautiful and loved.

Side note: You know how I love inappropriate humor? One of my friends asked if my breasts were completely done with reconstruction. When I told her it takes a several months to complete the whole process, she looked at my chest and responded with "Oh good. I was hoping you didn't pay all that money for those!"

Anyway, it was a difficult time, but also an incredible time. My mother had come to help with the boys, Jeff's mom took over after that, followed by my sister in law, Pam. I also didn't have to make a meal for an entire three weeks. Every night, a new dinner would arrive -- a gift from a group of friends who had planned it all out. ( I could actually list them and what the meals were, it left that much of an impression on me.) After our help left, friends would arrive during the day, ready to pitch in wherever they were needed.

Four weeks after surgery, Karen -- my friend since 7th grade -- arrived with her four kids. Since they had never visited before, I really wanted to shake it all off and try to have as much fun as possible. We actually went to Disneyland, with me pushing my boys in the double stroller. It was days like that when I felt liberated as well as exhausted. I was pushing my way through, with the amazing support of friends and family.

I joined Weight Watchers a couple of months later and started to get back into walking our hilly neighborhood. I was getting stronger and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Within a couple of months after that, I had dropped a few pounds and was feeling good.

But it wasn't over.

To be continued...

9 comments:

momwithfaithandhope said...

You can really tell a story. . .but you knew that. . .standing by, waiting for more!

Donna said...

You are a strong woman Jackie. I really admire you. I think you absolutely made the right decision. Can't wait to read more! :)

Anonymous said...

I love ya tons. And I will always be by your side. Sarn

RyanPaigeDavis said...

You made the right decision. I think you are an amazing wife, mom and friend. HUGS!

Colleen said...

Oh my gosh you are me!!! When you left your blog site on my blog with no comment I have to admit I thought it was advertising LOL but reading your story...this is me right now. I get my results on Thursday and I am scared to death. I read your sisters surgery was 14 hours!!! I'm thinking a few hours of surgery?? I guess I am totally off here. Thank you so much for leaving your site. I am in tears reading. I am so scared..this is the first time I have really just let lose and cried...I need this cry I know I do. I'm keeping everything so bottled up inside and trying to be brave for my family. I'm not brave I'm weak...I'm scared.

Jackie said...

Colleen,
I couldn't find your email to comment directly. I have to admit, it wasn't me who left my blog address on your blog. Whoever it was, I am so happy they did. I would love to talk -- I have been in similar shoes. Email me anytime. You are NOT weak. Brave is being scared and strong enough to admit it and still moving forward.

Please email. jackie@taiwan-on.com

The Family K. said...

The things you do for love...

All of us out here in blogland are glad you dodged that bullet and lived to tell the tale. Thanks for sharing your story. Looking forward to reading the rest.

Shell said...

Jackie -- I just got caught up with your blog and, whoa, your story has hit home. Big time. I've had surgery twice on my good ole cervix (gotta love my "higher than most" chance of developing cervical cancer).

My mom is a breast cancer survivor, too. Her sister passed away from it. My mom's single mastectomy was just over two years ago this past Christmas (her surgery was done 3 days after Christmas 2006). She opted against the reconstruction and she's got a really cool prosthetic boob. :-) It's removable! She's had the genetic testing done and her result was inconclusive which has made me realize that it's really important for me to do it. Soon.

You are such an inspiration, Jackie, and I thank you so much for sharing your story with all of us.

Jen and Jeff said...

Wow. What an incredible story. What strength you had and that you kept your sense of humor and gratefulness during such an ordeal. What a sweet guy your husband is too. I loved the line that was something like...what you can smell jewelry from across the room? LOL. I can so hear my husband saying the same about me. :-)

Thanks for sharing your amazing story. I'm sure I speak for many of your readers that we are glad to know a bit about the amazing person who makes us laugh, think, and smile.