Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hats Day Out

I wrote the following for another blog where I contribute, Writing, Writer, Writest. Enjoy.

Hats. I own a plethora of hats in all shapes and sizes, in all colors and fabrics. Hats that keep my head warm; hats that help me hide from the sun; hats that I sleep in at night; even a striking, red pompadour that I wear when I want to sport a little attitude. One of my very favorites is a modified baseball-style hat in a black and white houndstooth fabric with an embroidered and “bedazzled” breast cancer symbol across the front of the hat and the brim. It was given to me by two of my very favorite girlfriends who found it in a boutique while shopping. The hat feels more like a stylish accessory rather than something worn to cover my mostly bald head.
So, it was no surprise that when my mom took me to Wal-Mart to shop, I wore this hat. I remember the day clearly. It was sunny outside. I had completed a chemotherapy treatment the week before and I was just then feeling well enough to venture out of my house. We wandered through the store, selecting our wares and checking things off my list. We had just made it back to the front of the store and were preparing to check out. It was then that a woman approached.

The woman was small in stature. I remember thinking that she looked like she had just rolled out of bed, though her clothes seemed clean. She had short hair and was middle aged. As she approached, she reminded me of a puppy, looking for some attention, drawn to me like a magnet by the breast cancer symbol on my hat.

She told her breast cancer story in what seemed like five seconds. I was not feeling well and did not want to encourage her, but I was polite. Her conversation was going well, me not saying more than two words, until she took off my hat, unprompted and said, “How long have you been in chemo?”

I was completely bald at that point of my treatment. I was only showing my head at short intervals that usually revolved around some sort of hot flash (another story all together) or shower time. Not only that, but I hated the breeze on my head. It freaked me out a little. Not that I declined to show my head when asked by friends or other appropriate times. I just preferred to do so in a private setting. Not in the middle of Wal-Mart. And certainly not for a stranger.

In her defense, there is a true sisterhood among breast cancer patients. We share stories, we share advice, we share meals and sometimes even share wigs, clothes and bras. In addition, there is something that you lose when you are expected to talk about your breasts all of the time: modesty. Topics that were once viewed as “TMI” are suddenly acceptable dinner conversation. These two phenomenons were an obvious influence in this woman’s need to see my bald head.

Still, as the woman gregariously exposed my head to the fluorescent light of Wal-Mart, I was feeling none of those things. Shock gave way to immediate thoughts of anger and resentment. My hat was my safety net. My hat and this one in particular, is what reminded me that I was still a hip, cool chick. Someone peering underneath it, gave away my disguise and took away a piece of my armor that helped me to keep smiling even when all that I knew to be beautiful about myself was slowly being taken away.

However, I felt the need to appease this woman. Rude as her actions were, I could tell she was lonely. I could tell that the bond of her breast cancer sisters might be her only support system. I thought, “Karma”. Through out my struggle with breast cancer, my golden rule was that my direct and indirect actions played a role in my healing process. I felt that displaying my distaste for this woman’s actions would hurt her feelings, and more specifically, my choosing to not hurt her feelings created positive energy that would ultimately come back to me in some other form.

So, when she removed my hat, I just smiled and answered, “I have been in chemo for four months.” I closed the conversation as quickly as I could and sought the comfort of home. Done and done. Her feelings were spared. I shed a tear and got over mine. She left feeling good about herself. She probably even thought she helped me in some way.
Currently, I am a patient with a “history of breast cancer” and almost a full head of hair. The cancer is gone; the hats are not. They sit in my closet waiting for the day that I will pass them on to another breast cancer survivor. I know that day is coming, but in the interim, in a strange way, I am comforted just to know that they are waiting for me, should I need an extra piece of armor for whatever reason.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Size A, Revisited

At the time of my surgery, my doctor inserted an expander filled with 50 cc's of saline. This week at my post op appointment, Cindy Carson, PA added more. It was a fascinating process. The expander valve is located towards the bottom center of the expander. Cindy used a magnet to find the valve and inserted a small needle. Before she inserted more saline, she pulled blue fluid out of the expander to test that the needle was in the right place. After seeing the blue fluid, she added more saline.

First, I would like to say how much I like Cindy Carson. She is definitely straight forward. But, she also has a kind gentleness about her that I really appreciate.

Second, the procedure did not hurt as much as I thought it might. Similar to my right side, I have very few active nerve endings in the breast area. Cindy recommended that I take Motrin when I got home for the muscle tenderness that could result from the expander's increased size. My muscles were a little more tender for about the first hour. Still, from what others have told me based on their experiences, I expected a lot worse. Maybe so, as the expander increases in size, I guess. For now, even though I still have the residual pain from surgery, I am encouraged that the muscle pain resulting from the expander process will be manageable. I hope this means that we will be able to fill the expander faster.

With the addition of the saline, clothed, I look like I have a breast on my left side. Unclothed, it reminds me of the shape and size of a knee cap, with a nasty scar from being split open across the top. A war wound.

Emotionally, it has been hard to look in the mirror. The skin has been pulled and pressed over the muscle and the muscle stretched over the expander. The result is skin with distinctive puckers, like a tufted chair cushion. I also feel the muscle flex a lot more readily. I assume this is because the muscle is much closer to the surface.

With this recent expander fill, I can see that the tufting is starting to subside. Cindy tells me that if I end up with divots in my skin that they have ways to fix those, using body fat. She also tells me that it looks the way that it is supposed to look, even describing my skin as looking good. I trust her.

Regardless of how it looks behind the curtain, not many women get to revisit their youth in this respect. (I think I was size A in junior high school.) The weight on my chest is much different from the weight of my chest with breasts. And even more different than the weight I carried mentally when my chest was riddled with cancer. I prefer this weight. Size A, revisited.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


The following entry describes my first shower after my second mastectomy. So, if this is too much information, you may want to stop reading here. I was recently inspired by my friend, Meg, who shared something deeply personal in the form of a poem. Since I loved to write poetry in my younger years, I thought I would “go back to my roots” for this one.

Nearly Perfect,
Shower after 12 days of not.
The water hitting my skin,
So steamy and hot.

Undressing carefully,
Recognizing my scar.
Air hitting virgin skin,
Only partially marred.

Breast gone.
Matches right side.
Bravery, not so.
Cancer abide.

Stepping into the water,
Refreshing and scary.
Would it hurt, not sure,
Excusingly sparing.

Routinely lathering,
Not reaching, needing care.
Tender touch to rescue,
Holding hand, tears fair.

Not bothered by scar,
Emotions abound.
Needing that hand,
And the kiss that I found.

Hot water renewing,
Strength coming back.
Cancer is gone,
So different, the track.

Learning so much,
Unrecognizably so.
Needing so much,
OK to let go.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Surgery. Done and done.

I had a mastectomy on my left side and an expander inserted on August 31. Surgery went well. Both pathology reports came back clean! No lymph nodes had to be removed. All good news. I am grateful.

I have felt a range of emotions since this time. Again, grateful for the clean pathology reports; fear when I saw my scar for the first time; disappointment when I could not get my drains out this past Wednesday, as I had planned. The roller coaster was not unexpected. It was my turn to get on it and I have one more ticket to ride for this winter, which will be my last mandatory surgery. Many of my friends have been asking for a timeline, so I will spell it out here.

I am hoping that the drains will come out today. This may be wishful thinking. Regarding next steps, I will know know more specifics after my appointment next week. However, as of right now, it is my understanding that in a couple of weeks, they will start "filling" my expander with saline. As it sits now, the expander is under muscles on my left side. Each saline fill stretches that muscle and skin tissue to hold the implant. They estimate that it will take three months. However, it is all dependent on my pain thresh hold from here.

Once the tissue is expanded enough, through another surgical procedure, they will insert the implant. To avoid having two separate procedures, I will have them reconstruct the right side at the same time. The right side is a completely different process. They will be using my back muscle and skin to construct the breast, as radiated skin cannot be stretched. Supposedly this next surgery will be more painful. As it involves three areas of my body, I can see why. The end result will be two perfect boobs - so mentally, I think I will be in a great place!

As far as timeline, I am eligible for Family Leave Medical Act (FMLA) through my work after November 30. This is pretty much in line with when I would like to have my surgery, anyway. (For those of you who do not know, FMLA is what protects my job.) If I cannot have the surgery in the first week of December, I may postpone the surgery until February. We have an 8-day cruise planned, leaving December 26 and then Harrison has State Cup for soccer (an out of town tournament) mid-January. We are very excited about both!

So, there it is. I have been lucky enough to have loads of support. From dinners to phone calls, cards and flowers and transporting the kids and me places, everyone has just been so wonderful. You cannot know what this means to us. I know I have said this a thousand times, but I will probably say it a thousand times more. You all are the best - thank you!