The Long Day: Recovering From My Mastectomy
Mastectomy recovery requires granting myself both time and patience (often in short supply).
The nail polish color is called Thyme Is Money. On the morning of my double mastectomy surgery, every single female I encountered in the hospital remarked on the color, from the pre-op nurse who took a urine sample (I may be 56 but there’s still a chance I could be pregnant — just another wrinkle in a journey jampacked with them), to the orderly wheeling my gurney, to the three women hovering over me in the operating room.
I don’t know if all those women sincerely liked either the hue (if you’re wondering what Thyme Is Money looks like and you’ve settled on a kind of green that can also look blue in the right light, you win). But in retrospect, I wonder. Because in the OR — not the most relaxing place in the world and even more intimidating flat on my back on a gurney — the women’s compliments compelled them to pick up and hold my hands in their own. I was not imagining the slight squeezes, the gentle touch, while tears leaked from my eyes and settled into my ears.
Three female faces — my breast surgeon, the nurse-anesthetist, and another unidentified member of the crew set to work on my hours-long surgery — were the last I saw before it was all over and I was in the post-anesthesia care unit (PACU), thirsty as I’ve ever been and squinting hard to make the hands of the clock on the wall in front of me swim into focus.
I’m back. It’s over.
On July 11, between 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., I underwent a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction with a DIEP flap, as well as the removal for biopsy of a few lymph nodes. My husband got two calls: the first around midday from the breast surgeon, reporting on the mastectomy and lymph node removal, and the other in late afternoon from the plastic surgeon, saying that my reconstruction (phase one, really, more on that later) was complete and successful.
In the pre-op process, the anesthesiologist had quipped that it would be a long day for my husband but for me, not so much. She was correct.
My long day started when I woke up from the anesthesia.
From the moment I awoke in the PACU, one thing was abundantly clear: the anxiety that had consumed me in the two-plus months between diagnosis and the surgery day was just … gone. What was in its place: four surgical drains tethering me to four plastic bulbs filling with a murky reddish fluid. An IV tethering me to a pole. And two thick wires, taped to my chest just below my collarbone with what looked very much like packing tape, that were hooked to a monitor on the IV pole and measured the status of the flaps. The flaps (relocated abdominal flesh and vessels and nerves that now fashioned my new breasts) were like a vulnerable baby in the NICU, carefully monitored hour by hour to be sure they were still breathing.
They breathed, and so did I — deep breaths to help clear the fluid that can collect in your lungs after eight hours on a breathing tube. My first night nurse got me out of bed at 6 a.m. and brought me coffee, the angel. I got an A-plus from all my nurses; one even dubbed me “literally the best patient with this surgery she’s ever cared for,” in terms of how quickly I progressed, if you can call shuffling down the hall with my pole, dressed in two gowns and some very unsexy disposable mesh undies, an A-plus move.
And now I’m home, and the long day is turning into multiple days, and there are times I feel my grade slipping into the B- range at best, as I measure drain output twice a day, walk halting laps around the ground floor of my house, feeling for obstacles the way I remember my enfeebled grandmother doing decades ago, sleeping in a recliner. Only once have I had to text my husband to help me after the recliner’s remote slipped off the side table, leaving me temporarily helpless on my back, a modern-day Gregor Samsa.
For someone accustomed to multitasking even relaxing pursuits (I do crossword puzzles while watching TV, for example), the “long” part of the long day has been the hardest. The half-steps backward my recovery takes in these early days make it hard to remember that, most of the time, I am netting a step or two forward. Yes, there are times that the pressure of the swelling and the tautness in my abdomen hunch me into a comma that makes my lower back scream in pain. But I am walking, I type, I shower, I read, I eat. And I sleep. I peek down the top of my Brobe (an ingenious, comfy garment with interior pockets for the infernal drains) and can see, maybe, barely, the outlines of what will, eventually, be my new body.
Patience, not a typical virtue of mine, is hard to conjure. Cookies, however, are not; along with flowers, I have a surfeit of sweet treats on hand here. So I have another cookie. And I wait.
Important: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not Everyday Health.