This Breast Cancer Awareness Month guest post was written by Aunty Annie, and was originally published on her blog Fighting the Freeloader. Please go over to Annie’s blog and have a look around, it is a fabulous read – so honest, open and funny.
It’s while I’m running the filleting knife down the rib cage of the freshly slaughtered turkey that the analogy hits me between the eyes.I am, for all intents and purposes, performing a posthumous mastectomy on this poor creature.
It’s hard to get every last scrap of flesh off those ribs. The only thing at stake, in this case, is household economy and my own idiotic perfectionism; the older I get, the more I become aware of my underlying OCD. DrGoodguy, on the other hand, would have been leaving me vulnerable to recurrences if he left a single strand of breast tissue in place.Just as well he’s the surgeon and I’m the amateur butcher.The knife slips, slicing into my left middle finger. Fuck. I’m covered with little nicks, thanks to the Lyrica making me sleepy and uncoordinated. I reach for yet another Band-aid, pushing away the knowledge that I’m meant to avoid breaking the skin on any part of that arm.
This is reality. I can’t sit here swaddled in cotton wool for the rest of my life. We still have to eat.
The human breast that Dr Goodguy filleted away two weeks ago is definitely better gone. My ovaries were as pure as the driven snow, and for that I’m immensely grateful; changes there are symptomless and frequently deadly. But the pathology on my right breast did show some small aberrations – not anything that could be classed as pre-cancerous, nothing to cause undue concern, but any changes at all make me damn nervous after the year and a half of crazy I’ve endured. I think of the white spots on my last mammogram, which didn’t set off the alarm bells in anyone but me, and know that we’ve cut off the Freeloader at the pass this time. He won’t be slipping any messages into Paul Revere’s saddlebags, bound for my lymph nodes, before we even know he’s arrived.
And there’s that, isn’t there? My last mammogram. I have no regrets about a future in which my sexual parts will not be slammed between two icy plates and flattened till I wince. For long, long minutes.
Honestly, men complain about a finger up their arse to check their prostate? Been there, mate. No comparison. Come, let me take my hair straightener out of the freezer and apply it to your nuts, and we’ll talk.
But I digress.
There are things I’d forgotten about post-mastectomy recovery. The scales tip this way and that; to balance the load of crippling fear I carried through the last mastectomy, I have my brand new and total lack of tolerance for being ill or incapacitated. In hospital I ran on equal parts of adrenaline and denial, refusing pain killers completely by the second morning so that they sent me home on day three with nothing but a drain bag and a cheerful wave. It felt like a win.
Bloody-mindedness continued to be my friend for some time. I spent the first day at home sort of in bed relaxing, then normal service was resumed as I started to cook and do a few chores around the house. Realising I wasn’t sleeping all that well – I blamed the annoying drain in my side, which made lying down singularly uncomfortable – I dug out an old packet of Targin and started dropping one each night.
It didn’t help much, but still the penny didn’t clang on the bottom of the piggy bank and bring me to my senses.
Day seven, and the drain came out with a cheerful ‘see you in six months’ from Dr Goodguy. I am Superwoman! Nine days out from the operation I was walking four kilometres to our creek and back on my own, bush-bashing and climbing trees on the way.
And still not sleeping.
Well, that was only to be expected, right? I haven’t been able to sleep on my left side since the axillary clearance – the ache in my arm becomes unbearable within minutes if I lie on it. And obviously my right side was going to be sore after being filleted. I’m really not a back-sleeper – I’ve always curled up on one side or another, or even slept face-down (not an option at present). So of course I wasn’t sleeping well.
Ten days out I started to crash, as the sleep deprivation hit me. It finally struck me that the pain over my new scar was getting worse, not better. I checked for redness, but no – it all looked perfectly normal. But anything touching the wound was agony, and that included clothing. (Sadly, running around nude in the middle of the Bungy winter is not a viable option unless I want snap-frozen spare ribs. Very, very spare ribs.)
But wait. Anything touching… where have I heard this before?
I’d forgotten about the nerve pain that accompanied Round One, making it impossible to even rest my poor gutted wing on the arm of a chair. I’d forgotten about it to the extent that I didn’t recognise the sensation that was driving me crazy as nerve pain, simply because it was in a different place – under the arm and across my chest, rather than running down from shoulder to elbow.
And so, back to the Lyrica, which makes sleep possible at night and turns me into a zombie by day. If I only take the evening tablet, I can sleep at night and sort-of function during the day.
Sort of. If I don’t count cutting my fingers to ribbons while processing a turkey.
Along with the zombie mode which lasts well into the morning, along with the deep reluctance to get out of bed, comes the Black Dog sniffing around my heels. You’re failing, he snuffles. You’re backsliding. You’re lazy. Knowing it’s bollocks doesn’t help me when I’m this flat. I can’t even shout at him.
I know exercise would help, but I just can’t find the ergs. Riding my bike seems too risky; breaking the scar open would set my reconstruction plans back to zero. Walking seems too slow to make a difference to my mood. My motivation feels like it’s gone in the incinerator with my fine sections.
I get on the scales to see how much ground I’ve lost, but of course I’m well over a kilo lighter thanks to the missing breast; small comfort when your two steps forward are surgically achieved. Should I be trying to lose the rest of this weight? Should I say fuck it and just turn back into a pile of lard on the couch? Should I try to find the middle road and somehow maintain this weight till the reconstruction surgery?
And that, of course, is a whole new can of worms to deal with; another surgery, at this moment, seems as desirable as an anchovy and Vegemite sauce on my ice cream sundae, but I know it has to be arranged. My reconstruction requires a whole day in theatre, and if I don’t book that theatre well in advance I’m screwed. Within a week of the mastectomy I’m on the phone and lining up the reconstruction for November 21st.
“What’s the hurry?” grumps the Bear. “You’ve just been through one surgery. Why the rush to put yourself through it again?”
Because I hate the way I look. Because I’ll have to pay another excess on my health insurance if I wait till next year. Because I want this to be over. I have many genuine, heartfelt and logical responses, but none of them fix the real problem at the heart of this conversation: my Bear is at breaking point. He’s had enough. Three rounds with the Freeloader in his life, killing and maiming his women, and he wants it to stop. No more hospital, no more anaesthetics, no more surgery and recovery and watching people he loves in pain. He’s started to believe he’s cursed. He’s started to believe he’s caused it somehow, and seeing me go through this shit all over again is undoing him.
“You’re not your boobs,” he says to me. “You were blessed with wonderful breasts and I enjoyed them, but they’re not you. It’s you I love.” And he’s saying all the things a dream man would say in these circumstance, and I can’t fault a word of it, and it’s never going to change my mind. Because that’s how I am. My body, my decision.
I’m even dreaming of having breasts again. I wake devastated to find it was just my subconscious playing tricks. I drag myself to the bathroom, look at the wasteland of my chest in horror. The slashes, the knobbly ribs- I look like a goddamned turkey carcass. I may as well feed myself to the dogs and be done with it.
Dressing to go out, I put on an ah-bra and the old teddy bear tits long before I should be putting any pressure over the wound- just to feel normal, just so people don’t stare, just so I don’t hate my own reflection. At the end of the day they’ve ridden up to my chin, and it’s hilarious and ridiculous, and under the laughter I feel like a freak.
And so we’re sinking together, my Bear and me- him from sheer emotional exhaustion, me under the weight of our combined physical and mental pain and my desperate attempts to keep our relationship from imploding. One step forward, three steps back.
Throw me a lifejacket, someone.