Anyone just following me around today would think I probably had a pretty ‘normal’ day with nothing special happening aside from the fact I couldn’t stop smiling to myself while I rode the bus to my appointment. You see, for me, today marks the end of a very long strange odyssey that I’ve been on for the last (almost) eight years.
In August 2001 while getting ready to jump in the shower I glanced down and noticed that there was a bit of a puckering on the skin of my right breast. I thought it curious but didn’t think much of it aside from a fleeting thought about Linda McCartney and breast cancer. When I still had the same pucker a couple weeks later, I realised that I would have to make a doctors appointment to have it checked. I still wasn’t too concerned as it was only a change in the shape of things, it’s not like there was a lump or anything. I made the appointment for the following week. A few days later, late at night, just about to doze off, I happened to brush against the area while smoothing my nightgown and something didn’t feel right. On closer examination, what didn’t feel right was a bit of a hard lump right near where the skin was puckered. I’ll never forget how I managed to go from being sleepy and drowsy to fully awake and absolutely scared witless. I didn’t wake my hubby up, I sat up and instead contemplated so many things about my life. I wondered if being happy had brought this on. The last 5 years for me had been the happiest of my life. There’s that rubber band theory that the more things are good for you, the further that rubber band is stretched, and eventually it’s going to snap and hit you full force. Not that I really believe in that theory, but the next few days, weeks, months and years really could have been a huge rubber band snap. The lump was indeed breast cancer, and there were actually THREE MORE lumps in there that were seen in the mammogram. I was only 39yrs old, so hadn’t yet had a mammogram. I think it’s over 50 when yearly mammograms are recommended. It’s a moot point though. I will have a yearly one for the rest of my life (which hopefully will be a lot longer than some of the scarier predictions I’ve read in various places). Speaking to my husband, my doctor said that 39 was awfully young for breast cancer, and even though at the time I didn’t know much about it, I instinctively knew he was saying something about the road ahead. I now know that statistically breast cancer in younger women is generally more aggressive and deadlier. Mine was a ‘medium’ in terms of aggressiveness. I think I’ve been blessed.
What followed were tests, doctors, more tests, a full mastectomy with a very long recovery time, many months of ravaging chemo, 5 weeks of daily radiotherapy, times of deep despair, much fear, many false alarms, a reconstruction that almost failed causing me to require a skin graft, another long slow recovery in the midst of a crisis and move to a new home. I met some fantastic people both online (via the breast cancer mailing list) and off-line at Encore and Breastroke. I lost three dear breast cancer ‘sisters’ to the disease locally, and many more online. I had some nasty side effects. Two years after having radiotherapy, the ribs in my right side started breaking easily at the least provocation – a cough, a sneeze, a hug. This was a side effect from the radiotherapy. I went into early menopause first from the chemo and then from taking an estrogen blocker, Tamoxfen for five years. I started breaking ribs on my left side, which couldn’t possibly be from having had radiotherapy. The cause was osteoporosis due to being menopausal. I went for a year with no teeth as side effect of both chemo and undiagnosed diabetes. There are many people who’ve had chemo that have problems with their teeth later. They generally wait 3 months to allow for healing before fitting dentures, but it took a full year before my mouth was healed enough to be fitted.
Two years after my reconstructive surgery, which had involved an incision in my back and tissue/muscle moved from my back to the front to make a new breast, I developed an infection that turned into a major abscess requiring emergency surgery. I was left with an 11cm deep hole in my back that needed to heal from the inside out. This took 21 months to heal. During that time I had to have nurses come to my house on a regular basis to change my dressings. Eventually I graduated to going to see the RDNS nurs at Noarlunga hospital twice a week.
Last November I had surgery to finally close this hole, and at the same time, the doctors gave my reconstruction a nipple. It looked kind of funny because it was pale like the surrounding skin. It took awhile to recover from this last surgery, but by January I was ready to sign up for aqua aerobics classes at the pool nearby. Swimming or being in the water at all was one of the things I missed most while waiting for my side to recover. It was good to get back in the water again. In addition to the aqua aerobics, I’ve been gradually increasing how far I walk each day. It’s helped a LOT in that it’s brought my blood sugar levels down significantly, and the other day I noticed that I’m healing faster. One of the things I wish with all my heart had been done differently is that at the first signs that I was healing slowly, It would have been good to have been tested for diabetes then. Getting the big ‘D’ under control earlier in this saga may have made a vast difference in how quickly (or slowly) I healed. Ahh well, too late now for the Would’ve, could’ve, should’ves.
Aside from follow up appointments, today was the last procedure for my reconstruction. My little pale white pretend nipple was tattooed to match the other side. They made it a little darker so that if it fades it will still look ‘right’. I smiled all the way to my appointment, and as I was early, I called a friend from Breastroke to share how I was feeling. It’s the end of a long Odessey. I can’t tell you the relief I feel. It’s been such a long long road, it’s good to see the other side and realise that I’m still here, I’m healtheir than I have been in years, and working hard at keeping my diabetes in check, which in turn has benefitted in faster healing and generally feeling better. I still have plenty of health issues yet, but the worst is definitely behind me.
It’s a lovely tattoo. It’s a pity there’s no way I can share it with you, but you’ll have to take my word for it. 🙂
If I knew in advance all that I’d go through after having the reconstruction, I would probably hesitate, but fortunately I didn’t have a crystal ball back then. I’m happy that I can be in the change room at the pool without feeling self conscious, and I really hated wearing a prosthesis. I feel so much more complete now that the reconstruction is completely finished.