2 weeks post surgery

It’s been two weeks, and at this point, I start the physical therapy exercises “detailed” on the sheets I was given before surgery.

So of course I totally overdid it and now I’m in more pain than I’ve felt in many days.

This is absolutely par for the course for me and I am not handwaving my role in my setback.

But damn, better PT instructions could probably* have prevented my shit day.

*see above disclaimer

So I have two stapled-together sets of paper.  One has five color-illustrated exercises.  The other is like eight black-and-white pictures, some similar to the five, but generally more comprehensive looking.  The five exercises don’t have much info about how long to hold the stretch and how many repetitions to do.  The eight say to hold a few seconds and do six reps.  Because I am eager (and admittedly probably carrying unrealistic expectations) to get on with my fucking life (these exercises will restore my range of motion) and I don’t want to be a non-compliant patient, I did them all, holding for 10-15 seconds, doing all six reps for all of them.

I know now NOW that this was too much for the first day.

But in my defense, I WASN’T TOLD NOT TO.

Nowhere on the sheets does it say to start with just the simple, color-illustrated exercises, only doing a couple reps, and work up to more and onto the challenging, black-and-white exercises.  Nowhere does it say, YO DUMBASS! BABY STEPS! YOU JUST GOT YOUR CHEST CUT OFF A FORTNIGHT AGO

Also, in my defense, when the nurse went over the sheets with me, it was right before surgery (literally–the anesthesiologist’s assistant came in with the “you will give no shits after this” medication two minutes later) and I had a couple other things on my mind, like not waking up and never seeing husband and child again (and not seeing how The Avengers *ahem stucky* turns out and not witnessing my beloved Packers return to the Super Bowl and not seeing my country fix this current bullshit).  So I may have missed when she said “oh btw you’ll want to ease into these exercises”.  I checked with Stuart and he doesn’t remember anything like that either, though he was also a tad distracted, not with the perfection of Steven and Bucky of course (he thinks shippers are crazy) but with the health and safety of his spouse.

So anyway, I started physical therapy exercises this morning with the best of intentions and I ended up feeling like my right armpit was on fire and my sternum had cracked and I was never going to heal because I was too stupid to squeeze a pink ball and lift a broom without hurting myself.

Obviously part of the problem was I let my imagination run away from me.  I had felt so good lately that a bit of pain and soreness had me unable to cope without immediately jumping to I AM SO. FUCKED.

Anxiety has a friend named Catastrophize and when Anxiety can’t pay a visit, Catastrophize shows up instead.  I can usually recognize Catastrophize before they make it through the door and tell them to buzz off “I am an Optimist!  Not a Pessimist!  Get Thee gone, foul creature!” but sometimes they sneak in.  I had some insomnia last night and also woke up stupidearly this morning, so tiredness played a part, as did the new pain level.

Anyway, I spent a bunch of the day convinced I had irreparably harmed my body.  Thank goddess in addition to catastrophizing, I’m also good at rationalizing things (there’s no way you totally fucked yourself foreverandeveramen by doing ten minutes of physical therapy; you’re just being a drama llama) and distraction (several episodes of the latest season of iZombie and knitting like a fiend).

I’m feeling way better now, like almost normal (last night’s level of normal, not last month’s level of normal).  The fire in my right pit is out and my sternum should be okaycool after a good night’s sleep.

This was a needed wake-up call for me.  A Cancer Bitch-Slap, if you will.  Progress is primarily made in tiny steps and cannot be rushed.  A bit of pain is not the end of the world.  Real healing will take more time than I want it to.  Patience and perspective are the keys to survival and sanity.

And tomorrow is a brand new day.



Yay, drain free!

So now I can shower like a normal person.  Before I had to put the drains in a fanny pack and take care not to snag a tube when washing.  The fanny pack would fill up with water and would drip, so when I stepped out of the shower, I had to quick get to a sink to set the pack in.  Then put on a shirt so I could have something to attach the drains to, then towel off my legs and get dressed the rest of the way (leaving the drains in the sink pulled on the tubes and hurt).  A stupid, clumsy process.  I can use body lotion again!

I can leave the house and walk around without worrying about the drains pinned to the inside of my shirt.  Okay, the drains didn’t actually stop me from leaving the house and I wasn’t worried about a damn thing…but it will still be nice to go out and about sans plastic bulbs hanging there, getting in the way and causing pain.  I can go for a brisk walk and not fret about getting sweaty.

I can sit or lie without constant tiny twangs of discomfort, no reminders that I had actual tubes coming out of my body and that my torso resembled The Borg.  I can get closer to the dogs.  They still need to not maul me, but now I won’t have to be so vigilant that they could accidentally get caught on a tube, sending me straight to urgent care.

I can give and receive full-body hugs again.

In short, I have been waiting for this day and it is here.


post-surgery day 12 update

Just a short update, mostly so I can remember what was going on at this point in recovery.

Feeling good.  Lots of weird tingly, pins-and-needles sensations in the chest and underarm area–very similar to back a million years ago when I was nursing Scout, feels like when milk lets down.  Kinda cool.  I hadn’t felt that in like 17 years or whatever and never thought I’d feel it again.

The odd thing is on my right arm, side that had the lymph node biopsy, I’ve got some pain and stiffness in the inside-elbow area.  It feels like I had a bunch of blood drawn there yesterday, by someone who had a hard time finding a vein.  But there is no bruising, no needle mark from surgery or otherwise.  I first noticed it a few days after surgery and it has persisted for at least a week.  I’m sure it has something to do with nerves being fucked with during surgery and it’s normal and all that.  But tomorrow, unless Norton Pavilion is having a bomb scare or something, I’m going in to have the last drain removed (PRAISE JEEBUS) and I’ll mention to whichever nurse is doing it that I’ve got weird inner arm soreness.

I should be able to start physical therapy exercises on Wednesday, and I hope that will return more strength and range of motion to my arms, especially the right.  I can’t raise my right arm higher than shoulder height, which I discovered today at Kroger parking lot while trying to shut my trunk.  Thankfully the left arm is picking up the slack, cause it was not happening on the right side.

So physically good.  A week ago I was still unable to even straighten my back all the way because my chest was so tight.  Much improvement.

Mentally, I think I’m good.  But every once in a while, I take a step back go “woah what the fuck just happened”.  It was only a month ago I was told I have cancer, 4 May.  I made the decision to take aggressive surgical steps, one that felt like a no-brainer but I’m still a little tripped out that it happened at all.

I don’t feel like a cancer patient.  Maybe I need to spend more time looking at my chest.  LOL no mistaking me for a normal person.  Maybe meeting the medical oncologist (appointment is 12 June) and talking about treatment will make it more real.  I don’t know why taking hormone-blocking drugs would do that where cutting off my chest didn’t, but…who knows.  Maybe if recovery from surgery were slower, if I were feeling shittier, I would feel like someone who has cancer.  Because right now I just feel like a boob-less version of myself who can’t reach things, not someone who has a deadly disease, even if the prognosis is good.

Back to see the surgeon

So follow-up visit with the surgeon today!

No bad news (yet) and plenty of good news.

Good news–my cancer is early stage (1b); the three lymph nodes that were taken are all negative, meaning it definitely hasn’t spread; the left side also is negative.

(Possible) bad news–apparently my cancer is a little weird, so they are doing a few more tests, the results of which we will find out whenever I meet with the medical oncologist, possibly as far away as two weeks.  Treatment won’t be precisely determined until after these tests, so chemotherapy is not off the table yet, and I won’t know for a little while.

While I was hoping to learn everything today, I was fully prepared to find out that a lot was going to be up to the oncologist.  What I was terrified of was being told that it is way worse than they suspected, spread to the lymph nodes, and I would spend, not just the summer, but the entire rest of the year dealing with this.

Also in the good news column, I got the left drain out.  The right side is almost almost there, so, barring something odd happening over the weekend, I should certainly get it out on Monday.  Y’all getting these drains out will seriously improve my quality of life soooo much.  I haven’t been able to cuddle with the dogs, or really even get too close to them if they aren’t asleep, because of fear they would accidentally snag one of the tubes in a paw.  I haven’t been able to sleep on my side because of the drains.  Showering with the drains is an annoyance.  Recording the amounts three times a day is getting really old, not to mention the cool-science factor has worn off and now it’s just fucking gross.  If the tube gets bumped (so if I move), it shoots a rocket of pain up my side.  Can’t wait for this aspect to be over.

So I’m getting there.  One drain out, one to go.  Good news from pathology.  Surgeon happy with how everything is healing.  My range of motion is improving daily (I drove today for the first time since before surgery–put it off, not because of taking narcotics, but because I couldn’t really hold my arms out).  After Wednesday of next week, two-week mark, I shouldn’t have to limit myself nearly as much as I have to currently.  And now, knowing that my cancer is officially Stage Early removes a huge source of anxiety.

day 4, post-surgery

Kind of a monumental day.

Sunday is laundry and plant watering day.  After sitting around the majority of the past two days, I decided that today was a good day to do a little bit more around the house and see what happens.  What happens=1)how good/bad I feel 2)how much extra I record from the drains.

So about the drain thing (can’t remember what I’ve mentioned already and I’m not gonna go back right now and double check).  I can get the drains out when I’ve recorded <25ml for two days in a row.  I would love to get these motherfuckers removed on Thursday when we meet with Dr Berry, so that means Tuesday and Wednesday I need to be down to no more than 25-30ml.  My output has been decreased slowly but steadily.  This morning I was 10 on the left side and 12 on the right (this is after recording like 80 on the right side the total day after surgery, so huge decrease overall).  The feeling is that if I overdo it, my body will tell me to FUCKOFF and the way that is expressed is measured by the stuff that comes out in the drains.

So I figured I would water plants and sort laundry in the morning and see what the afternoon drain recording looked like.  I was careful not to carry the heavy planters after they were full of water and not carry the laundry baskets to the basement (Hello Useful Husband Person!).  Also we took the dogs on a short walk this morning, with me holding Camp’s leash (Camp, for all his faults, doesn’t pull on leash that bad) for part of the time.

All in all, quite a big increase in activity level for me compared to Friday and Saturday.  And my mid-day drain readings hadn’t exploded!  In fact they were the same, 10 on the left and 12 on the right.  And I feel good!*  I can straighten my back more–doesn’t feel quite as constricted and I haven’t had a pain pill since Friday night.  And I went to the bathroom!  Not the Epic Shit I was hoping for, but not half bad considering the narcotic-pill-constipation-nightmare scenario I had read about.

*”good” is a relative term

So yeah, all in all, a bang-up day.  I upped my activity level, made myself useful around the house, felt good physically, drain levels were not adversely affected, stayed off pain pills, went poop.

A friend from Dance Mom** days came over for a visit this afternoon.  She brought us dinner (ingredients to make Korean Beef Bowls, excellent, will share recipe) and we had a lovely time catching up.  It’s good to have people checking on me, but also to function socially like a normal human.  I had a shitty thing happen, I appreciate everyone’s consideration and kindness, but I’m still me and we can still laugh and bitch about our daughters and our dogs and our parents and us, getting old.

**Scout was an Irish Dancer for 13 years.  The dancers and dance parents we met during that time are some of the best people I know.

It was good to feel more normal today.


pain, lack of pain

So I figured I’d be in a lot more pain.  And again, I find myself fortunate to reside on the easy end of a bell curve.  This would be the PainFeeling bell curve, joining the AnesthesiaRecovery bell curve.

It’s day 3 post-surgery and I haven’t taken any pain relief meds in 23 hours.  Kinda crazy considering I just had my chest cut off.  I’ve had hangovers that lasted longer.

Yesterday I didn’t take much either.  I took a lortab at 6am when I got up to empty the drains*.  I didn’t really need anything else the rest of the day.  The lortab probably wore off around noon, and I was able to deal quite comfortably.

*The drains are the worst.  I described in the last post where the tubes are.  The tubes connect to these bulbs that I safety pin to my shirt.  The bulbs collect all the yuck (blood, surgical irrigation fluid, lymphatic fluid) that my body wants to get rid of.  I empty the bulbs three times a day, this sad, tense little ritual, and record what my body is expelling.  My surgeon said when I record less than 25ml per day for two days in a row, the drains can be removed.  Y’all when that happens it will be like having my 21st birthday again.  It will be like winning the lottery except instead of getting cashmoney, I get comfort and sanity back.  It will be like taking a beach vacation, but without the sand and the flying vermin.  There’s this thing you do when you empty the drains–Milk The Tubes.  They could call it Drive A HorseNail In Your Side.  You slide all the stuff (yesterday I had a stringy blood clot that resembled an embryo) hanging out in the tubes down, into the bulbs.  And it hurts like fire.  Like literally someone forcing a nail into the spot where the tubes go in.  It’s teeth gritting, just-breathe kind of pain.  And the beautiful part is it doesn’t really stop when you’re done.  A nurse at the hospital told me it’s because when you empty the drains, the pressure from the suction is increased.  So it’s this thing you need to do, but sweet jesusmaryandjoseph, it’s like the worst part of the day.  Three times.

Then at midnight, I woke up in such agony I was afraid to move.  Funny (funny “that’s fucked”, not funny “ha ha”) how shit can change so quickly.  It was all in my right side, around the drain area.  I had brought the lortab bottle up to my nightstand in case that happened, so I took a pill and was back to sleep in no time.  Thank all the gods above and below.

This morning, things were okay to good.  I decided I would take a lortab if I needed it, but otherwise wouldn’t bother with plain tylenol or anything else (lortab is a hydrocodone/acetaminophen combo drug; can’t have ibuprofen for another couple days).  I’ve really been taking it easy today, basically sitting around and knitting, so apart from the dread drain emptying, I can deal no problem.  My chest is still tight, especially under the armpits, but it seems a tiny bit better than yesterday.

So Yay! less pain!  The other feelings though I need to mention.

My chest is numb.  When I touch it, my fingers feel my skin (it’s hard and weird, like there’s a thin wooden board just below the surface) but my chest itself doesn’t really have much sensation anymore.  I was warned about this.  It’s still odd as fuck.  I occasionally get a sharp, stabbing pain in the area where my breasts used to be.  It’s brief, like a flash of lightning.  And some itchiness, but that’s primarily more lower, in the area of the drain tubes and dressing, I suppose because of the adhesive there.  Odder is the sensation of bugs crawling across my chest.  It doesn’t feel creepy exactly, I don’t swat imaginary bugs away, more like a bizarre tickling.  But the weirdest part is these sensations, these feelings on my chest are like phantom sensations, feelings.  Like if I wanted to touch the sensation with my fingers, I would not put my fingers against my skin; I would touch the area a couple inches in front of my skin.  My nerve endings are having a party, but the room no longer exists.

So I guess recovery is going well.  I can deal with the level of discomfort I typically experience and if it goes beyond, I have a bottle of pain pills.  I’m getting acquainted with the new ways my chest will experience sensation and, though it’s a total mind-fuck, I’m down.  Stuart is literally doing everything around the house, which is enabling me to literally do nothing around the house…and accomplish the amounts of rest that I otherwise would find impossible.  I’ve got him for two more full days before he goes back to work.  I am beyond blessed that my recovery is going so smoothly and I can credit him for a lot of it.  His birthday is tomorrow; I can’t wait to be fully recovered so I can give back.

second day post-surgery

Yesterday, Day One, was kind of a breeze.

I felt good, moved around a lot, got better at emptying the drains.  Just basically happy that I was not in a ton of pain and the pain pills weren’t making my stomach ill or me too loopy.  In a good place.

Today, or at least this morning, was a different story.

First, I decided that, even though I physically felt fine, I probably did too much yesterday.  I spent most of the day seated in the big blue-grey arm chair and reached over to the table next to me for my laptop, my water bottle, my knitting several dozen times with my right arm.  My right side is the side that had the lymph nodes taken out, the side I should be extra careful with.  Today I decided to do less of that stuff.

So I settled on the couch where I wouldn’t have to do much reaching.  Then I got paranoid that I already done fucked it up.  Then I started thinking about the pathologist report, and the fear of bad results that I thought I had pushed into the darkest corner of the furthest closet of my brain came crawling back front and center.  Then I got paranoid that the ring I put on my right hand was getting tight (swelling in the arm and hand is a warning sign of lymphedema, something I am legit terrified of).  So I stood up and tried to do some deep breathing, my first line of defense when feeling agitated, but my chest was too tight because of the swelling around the incisions.  I couldn’t really even straighten up all the way, much less take cleansing breaths.  So, logically, I got paranoid that the swelling was a seroma (oh the terms you learn while perusing breast cancer fora!), which I totally deserved because of all the reaching I had done yesterday.

So there is the map of my trip down anxiety lane.  It wasn’t a full-blown panic attack, just a constant drip of industrial-strength unease that I couldn’t quite shake myself free from.  I turned to Dr Google to see if anxiety was a side-effect of the pain pills, and sure enough, there it was on the list in between drowsiness and dizziness.  NO MORE PAIN PILLS  I can live with some pain.  Anxiety, no thank you.

I was alone for a couple hours (Stuart at the Y and Scout at work), and maybe that had something to do with my little angst spiral.  I also had at the back of my mind that I would have to take a shower today (doctor’s orders–I have to disinfect the incisions with hibiclens daily, starting today).  I hadn’t been topless since surgery day.  I hadn’t yet been confronted with the reality of my new look.  The word dread was not too far off the mark to describe the level of anticipation.

Well, Stuart came home and things quickly improved.  Once I had someone to listen to the litany of things with which my brain was torturing me, I felt a lot better.  The adage “you’ll feel better if you talk about it” could be my catchphrase, despite having grown up in the midwest, where the bar on what is considered oversharing is rather low.  Stuart had lunch, then we emptied the drains and it was shower time.

To say Shit’s Fucked Up does not do justice to the horrorshow that is my torso.

The incision wounds are long, stretching from a couple inches below each armpit to almost touch at the middle.  Like a thin, ridged red rope attached to my skin, the graceful arcs at odds with the violent smallness of my now-flat chest.  And the bruising!  I know that having surgery is no walk in the park, that removing body parts is not a gentle endeavor.  But damn.  Still shocking.

And then there are the drains.  One on each side, the tubing starts at the wounds and runs visibly under the skin, to exit my body several inches below.  It is absolutely one of the wildest, most gruesome things I’ve ever encountered outside science fiction movies, and strangely, I got a lot of comfort from seeing it.  The drains are probably the most painful part of my post-surgery world, and seeing them, doing their job of removing fluids from my healing body, gave me a way to make a bit of peace with the whole thing.  I was also relieved to see that the swelling was nowhere near what I was imagining and apart from the bruises, my skin was normal, non-fevered skin color.

Stuart used the word “badass” to describe my chest.  Not feeling the badassery yet, I haven’t settled on a word.  I’m rejecting maimed, broken, mangled.  I am none of those.  Maybe altered, adapted, transformed.  Those could work.

After the shower, which, given my lack of range of motion, was rather unsatisfying (Stuart had to shampoo my stupidlong hair with me kneeling in the tub I KNEW I SHOULD HAVE GOTTEN A HAIRCUT), we ran a couple errands together.  It was nice to get out of the house.

The first stop was to get my piercing jewelry put back in (I fixed my five lobe earrings shortly after we got back from the hospital).  I have a double eyebrow, triple industrial, and triple forward helix, none of which I would even attempt to do on my own.  The parts are way too small for my old lady eyes.  Once those were back where they belonged, I continued to feel better.  My face had looked vulnerable, almost naked without my piercing jewelry.  Having it back in, well maybe still not a badass, I do feel more like myself.

So the day that started as a shit sundae, ended up being pretty good.  We finally tried a Mediterranean restaurant that’s a recent addition to the neighborhood.  The food was great and now we’ve got a new place to grab carry-out on those dinner-ain’t-happening days.  I’ve got a couple friends coming for a visit soon.  Also, it’s been fourteen hours since I took anything for the pain, and not only am I not in agony, I feel fine (fine being relative of course).  Hopefully this means that my ride on the Anxiety Express this morning was a one-off.  Or least until I can take deep breaths and go for a nice long walk with the dogs, the best medicine I know.