Lumpectomy Is Not For Sissies

“Breathe for me, Angie.  Can you do that?  Huh?  I need you to take a really deep breath for me.  Okay?” a voice yelled the words in a sing-song pattern.  I gasped air.  “I need you to breath deep.  Okay?  Keep taking deep breathes for me.”  The voice yelled again. 

Who’s saying that, I wondered? I opened my eyes.  There was a curtain or drape hung about 5 feet in front of me.  I didn’t see anyone, only heard voices.  I struggled to see in front of me…struggled to lift my head and my chest off of whatever I was sitting against.   I strained my eyes open.  Where’d the drape go?  Lots of people were talking in regular voices.  I listened and watched people in pajama like clothing walking around in front of me.  Someone was standing next to a countertop.  Where was I?  My head became too heavy to lift anymore and my chest wasn’t moving forward.  I heard the voices but couldn’t speak to anyone.  My eyes closed and I let my head fall back.  It landed on something soft and crisp.  I should open my eyes, I thought.  I raised my eyebrows trying to will my eyes to open but my eyelids wouldn’t participate.  My mouth was open but I couldn’t speak.  I felt myself give up trying to do whatever I’d been struggling with.  I felt my face go soft and my expression sag.  Just shut up everybody, I thought.  Sssshhh! 

My arms felt cold on the inside.  I knew I had arms but they didn’t seem like they were attached to my body.  I felt tingling pulses down into my fingertips, like they were buzzing.  I loved the feeling.  I wanted to lift my arms but they were too heavy to move.  And the left side of my chest hurt.  My nipple burned and stung.  “Ow!” I cried out.  The words were hard to say.  The burning seared deeper.  “Help, me,” I tried to say.  My words sounded mumbled. No one understood me.  I panicked.  The burn went deeper.  “Oww!” I tried to call out again.  “My nipple hurts.  It burns,” my words came out clearer this time.  “Help!’  I felt my face pinch up in pain.  I started to cry but no tears came to my eyes.  I cried harder, but my eyes stayed dry.  “It hurts…” I started again.  My eyes opened clearly.  Where was I?  I couldn’t move my arms they were too heavy.  I tried lifting my head again.  I couldn’t lift my shoulders up.  I was sitting up, but couldn’t move my body.

“Take a deep breath, okay?” I heard a voice yell.  I opened my mouth and breathed in.  The air felt good, my eyes cleared, I was awake.  The lights were bright. I could see the curtain had been pulled back and someone was charting near me.  It was a man with short, dark hair.  He was young.  Tall.  He looked at me, “It’s the anesthesia.  You need to take deep breathes.  Ok?”

I felt confused.  Of course it’s anesthesia, I thought.  I had surgery!  I’m fine.  I’m awake!  I tried to shift my weight on whatever kind of chair or recliner I was sitting on.  My lower back hurt.  There was a rail up alongside me like an arm rest.  I tried to move my arms to place my hands on it for leverage, but I couldn’t make my arms work right.  I listened to all the noise going on around me.  It was overwhelming.

 I looked down and realized I was sitting up a little but couldn’t move my shoulders off of whatever I was reclining on.  I’m awake, I thought, watching people working in front of me.  I felt the pain in my nipple come charging through my breast and I cried out, “OW!…OH!” still no tears came from my eyes.  I shut them.  I couldn’t open them again.  My breath was shallow and quiet.  I felt light, like I could float.  My head dropped back on the soft, crisp rest beneath it.  I felt everything go limp.  “Ssshhh” everyone, I thought.  Leave me alone. 

“Angie!  I need you to take a deep breath for me!”  This time the words were louder and closer.  I was being shoved.  I got pissed.  “I am!” I growled back.  I lifted my head again.  I forced my eyes open wider, but they wouldn’t stay.  I scowled at the person pushing me.

 “We’ve got people here who want to see you!” the person shouted.  I saw Don, my sister-in-law, Karen, and my girlfriend and “inside doctor”, Amy, come into my view.    Amy came to my left side beaming and giggling a little.  “No lymph node involvement.  Stage ONE!” she said.  Her shoulders were nervously fidgeting.  “No drains!  No chemo!  Stage one!”  Her words sounded strange.  “I know,” I replied. But how did I know. 

I was watching a world pass in front of me but couldn’t find the opening to jump into it.  I felt like I was trying to play jump rope, watching the rope go around, waiting for the right moment to skip into the center, be part of the game.  My sister-in-law was smiling broadly.  Her delicate pink lips pressed into a hopeful smile at me.  Her eyes were glassy with tears.  She was standing with Don, my husband.  They were both talking to a nurse about something.  Me I guessed.  They were in front of me.

“My nipple hurts,” I cried out.  “OW!” this time the tears sprang to my eyes.  “It hurts.  It really hurts!” I called to anyone who would listen.  I wanted to scream.  I moved my right arm to finally reach over to my breast with the hope of comforting myself and easing the pain.   It felt foreign.  I couldn’t feel my hand on it but I could feel an intense pain skewering into my breast.  I started to shake.  My teeth began to chatter against themselves.  My head fell back against the pillow.  I felt like I was floating again.  I liked the feeling.  I gave up trying to stay with my family and friends and nurses and doctors.  I wanted to float again.  I felt myself not breathe.  I wondered how long I could go without taking in air before I’d die.  I wanted to float away.

I felt a sharp shove.  “Angie, you need to take deep breathes.  Okay?  You need to be taking deep breathes for me.”    I snorted in air fast, hard and deep through my nose.  My head cleared.  I saw Don, Karen, and Amy in the pre-surgery holding room.  How’d I get here? I wondered.

“Is it over?” I asked.  Amy laughed.  Karen smiled and said, “We talked with the doctor.  Everything went great.  You’re in recovery.”  Amy was now standing by Karen in front of me.  I was sitting up in sort of a recliner.  Don was standing on my left.  A nurse came in with a pile of blankets.  “You’ll want some warm blankets.  They help,” she said as she placed heavy, moist, warm heat on top of my chest and legs. 

“I should head back to Fort Wayne before it gets too much later,” said Amy.  Karen offered to have her stop at their house for a meal, but Amy declined the offer.  “I should really head back.  I didn’t think we’d be this late.  But surgeries can get pushed back, so you never really know,” she laughed.  “I’m happy for you, Angie.  You had a great surgeon! A  GREAT one!”  I was clear headed enough to agree.  “Thank you for coming Amy.  I really appreciate it.” 

“I want to head for home, too,” said Karen.  The boys’ll be home now.  Are you guys heading home from here or do you want to spend the night at our house?  You’re welcome to,” she assured us.  “I’ll make dinner.  You haven’t had anything to eat all day.  You’ve got to be starving.  I can make anything you’d like,” she said.  I wasn’t hungry.  I was tired.  I was relieved it was over.  I wanted to see my sister-in-law and my brother before we went back to Fort Wayne.  I wanted to put the surgery behind me, but I felt my eyes start to close. 

“You want to keep breathing deep breathes, Angie, so the anesthesia clears from your lungs,” Amy said.  “You need to keep taking deep breathes.”  So I did.  But each time I felt clear headed I’d find myself wanting to go back to the feeling of floating and resting, so I’d let the haze take me over.  My head would fall back and land on the pillow.  I’d cry out with each sharp, deep rush of pain that entered my breast through my nipple.  “Why’s it hurt so much?” I wondered out loud.  No one would tell me.  But each time I felt the hot poker of pain it was worse than the time before.  A nurse came in and added some pain medicine to my I.V. 

The girls hugged and kissed me and left.  Don stayed standing by my side.  He handed me his iPad and let me see my Facebook page.  It had dozens of posts from friends asking how I was feeling, what was going on, how the surgery went.  Well wishes and prayers filled the posts.  I got private messages from friends, too, wishing me well, asking how I was feeling, stating prayers.  I tried to respond.  My finger would slip off the screen and I couldn’t type the words.  Don started to type for me.  My anit-social media man was thrown into the game with a vengeance.  “Who are some of these people?” he asked me. “How do they know you?  How do they know me?” 

“We’re part of each other.  They can’t know me without knowing you as part of me.” I smiled at him.  He looked tired, but didn’t act weary.  He was attentive and gentle.   He watched me struggle with the iPad until it slid out from my hands onto my lap.  I felt him take it away.  Then he just let me rest.

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Our day had started at 4AM.  I was supposed to arrive at the Simon Cancer Center by 7AM.  I wanted to give myself time to shower, get cleaned up, and make sure Don got some breakfast before we had to take off for the hospital.  It was about a two hour drive.  Neither of us had slept much the night before.  I had cried while he held me in his arms off and on through the night.  He’d held me and kissed my head gently trying to help me calm down. We talked about all sorts of things.  We made love – slowly and tenderly; both scared to think of how things might change after my surgery.  By the time the display on the alarm clock beamed 3:49 it felt right to finally get out of bed and get moving. 

As I got ready for the day I thought back on our dressy dinner date the night before.  It was our way to celebrate our new beginning.  That’s how we looked at it.  No kids.  Just us.  We hadn’t had many of those nights over the past 17 years and our life had become more fragile in the days since my diagnosis.  Our business and personal lives blended together so tightly that we sometimes forgot we were lovers and friends and spouses as well as business partners.  Life over the years had become rushed and scheduled.  But since discovering I had breast cancer we’d spent more time together, we shared more intimate moments, spoke more gently to one another.  It felt like we’d become newlyweds again.     The tenderness of our renewed relationship made the pending drive south down I69 seem less daunting.  We’d get through things together.

My needle localization, a pre-surgical procedure where a fine wire  with what amounts to a barbed hook on the end is inserted through the breast and embedded into the center of the tumor was scheduled for 9:30AM.  Right on schedule a young woman came into my waiting area with a wheelchair.  She was to take me to radiology for the procedure.  I looked at the young woman and then at the chair.  “Who’s that for?” I asked.  “Um… You?” she questioned with a smile.  “Can I please walk?  I don’t want to get into that.” I said.  She looked a bit panicked by the question.  “Let me go find out.” Her words dragged out tentatively.  Minutes later she returned, closed the wheelchair on itself and announced, “You get to walk!”  So we did…for what seemed like a mile in my stocking feet.  I began to realize the wheelchair wasn’t meant to be an affront to my dignity but more likely a convenience for a lengthy trip through the hospital corridors.  But I enjoyed walking.  It helped me work out my anxiety.  And I got to see that the sun had come out.  It looked beautiful outside the glass windows.

Once in radiology I met the two doctors who would be handling the procedure.  They looked like young kids to me.  “I don’t usually feel old.  And I’m pretty sure I look a lot younger than I am,” I started, “But you young women look incredibly youthful.  Um…I’m not trying to offend you, but I could probably be your mother.” I felt terrified.  “Have you done many of these?” 

The first woman to speak up accepted my comment as a compliment, and then offered one back, “I doubt you’d be old enough to be my mother.” 

“I’ll be 50 next May.  Please tell me you’re at least 30.” I gently tried to tease.

The second woman picked up on my attempt at being funny.  “I’ve done six of these procedures…”  My heart lifted a little.  So I’ll be your seventh, I thought.  Not exactly the tenth, but not the first either. “…this morning.”  She had a great delivery! 

“So, you’re maybe close to thirty?  Can you just say, ‘Sure’,” I hoped aloud.  They both smiled warmly and assured me that they weren’t as young as I thought they were.

The needle localization was painful.  The first injection of numbing medicine was actually done to make the second injection easier to bear.  I tried to focus on deep, rhythmic breathing to steady my nerves and transcend the pain.  The second injection caused me to cry out loud in pain.  Tears burned my eyes and I couldn’t keep my breathing on track.  Both of the women were encouraging and sympathetic to the pain.  There was no sugarcoating, no marginalizing.  They tried to prepare me for the different sensations I would feel as the needle continued its trajectory into my chest wall.  Unlike the biopsy, I had nothing to hold onto to squeeze as the pain intensified.  My left arm was extended above my head as I lay on my side, my left breast exposed.  I squeezed my left hand with my right and tried to hold as still as I could during the procedure.  When they finally began to place the wire my legs began to shake uncontrollably.  My teeth chattered and I started to sweat.  I became ice cold.  I apologized for whatever was happening.  “I can’t stop it,” I said.  Another woman, a technician of some sort, reached out to comfort me by gently rubbing my leg.  “It’s totally normal,” she said.  “It happens to everyone.  It just does.”  By the time we were finished I was sobbing quietly and shaking in waves.  The sensations frightened me even more than what I’d been through.  I had no control over my body.  And I was ice cold.

The doctors left and I was alone with the third woman, a radiologic tech.  She offered to find me warm blankets as soon as we got back to the pre-op area.  She was rubbing my back trying to help me calm down.  “I know it hurts,” she said.  “There’s one more thing I have to do.  You need to have a mammogram so we can verify the wire is where it’s supposed to be.”

I thought I was going to pass out sitting on the procedure table.  “Are you serious?” I felt a wave of nausea well up inside of me.

“We have to.  We need to know that the wire is where it has to be. “I began to cry again this time not from the pain I had just experienced but from the thought of my injured breast being smashed down between two plates for the mammogram.  I prayed silently for God’s strength and then apologized to the young woman for getting so emotional.  I couldn’t get my hands to stop shaking.  I looked at the woman and told her I appreciated her trying to comfort me.  “How do you handle this?  It’s got to be tougher on you than it is on us,” I asked.  Then she surprised me.  “You guys are courageous,” she said, tears springing to her eyes.  “If we aren’t careful we’ll start crying and we can’t help you.”  I opened my arms and we hugged, both crying for the other.

Once we’d both settled a bit we walked to the mammography room.  As we walked down the hall, me trying to control my chattering teeth, her trying to control her sniffling tears, we passed their “technical hangout”.  Glancing in I saw a large, gorgeous picture of Johnny Depp displayed prominently, his piercing eyes sensually focused on whoever gazed his way.  I stopped.  “Whoa.  Whose is that?” I asked, chattering teeth settling down a little.

“Oh, Johnny?  He’s all of ours.  He’s who helps us get through your procedures.  He’s the only man we can all agree can help us handle anything that comes our way.”  I stood in front of the doorway, still in the hall wearing only my hospital gown.  I breathed in his bedroom eyes, his beautiful smile, his hair.  She was right.  He was getting me through my fear of the next step.  My tech and I looked at each other with a wizened smile and started to laugh. 

“Well, then.  Let’s get this over with.  Is it wrong that I’m…like almost 50…and still get turned on by a young guy like Johnny Depp?” I asked.  She grinned at me.  “I don’t think so.”

I managed through the mammogram.  The wire was where it should be.  I was taped up to ensure the wire wouldn’t fall out or pull out prior to my surgery.  The only things left to do were to head back to pre-op and wait for my surgery.  My tech asked if I would have a seat and wait on her to return.  I obliged.  When she walked through the door she had a wheelchair and a stack of warm blankets. “I thought this might make you more comfortable.  You’ve been through a lot.” 

“Yes, I have.” I said.  “And yes I will…Home, James!”

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Surgery had been scheduled for 11:30AM but had gotten pushed back to 3:30PM.  My posse and I had joked and visited just like we would if I’d have invited the girls over for lunch…and Don would have joined us!  My small holding area was gradually turning into party central.  Amy was telling surgery stories, Karen was making family jokes, and all of us were making off-color comments to the most humble and respectful man we knew in the room.  Don put up with it all.  Slowly, various doctors, nurses and medical fellows who could overhear our conversations outside of the drawn curtain were popping their heads into our area, introducing themselves, leaving, coming back, and then just hanging out.  At one point I had to shush the group down out of respect for the other patients who might be waiting, like me, for body altering surgery; but decorum had left the building and I was glad to see him leave!  The mood was hopeful, happy, and joyful.  I hope our energy and humor we were able to lift the spirits of other surgical patients that day.

Our party was interrupted when the nurse came in to start my I.V.  My posse gathered ‘round me and Don grabbed hold of my hand to help me with the start.  “You guys have been having way too much fun. We’ve gotta get you ready now.”  With that she told me she’d go find out what was taking them so long.

Gradually my newly befriended band of medical revelers entered my area more calmly, extending their hands and introducing themselves professionally.  As they were all younger than me and pretty good looking men I had some playful fun.  My bravado was actually egged on by the doctors.  Even my surgeon joined the fun!  Dr. Bob came in and extended his hand to my gang.  He apologized to me for the length of the delay and explained the surgery that had taken him far longer than he expected.  It was okay with me.  If someone else needed his expertise and care in order to be healed, I was thankful he was there to do it.  I told him I’d expect he’d treat me the same way if I was the one in that situation.  I wasn’t upset.  He stood next to me and asked, “So.  Are you ready?” he smiled with his eyes twinkling.  “Are you?”  It was a playful, coy tease.  We’d sparred in his office for much of the appointments I’d had with him, so it was our established mode of communication.  He extended his hand out in front of his chest and, acting like he was trying to control a tremor said, “Think so.  I had my last drink about six hours ago.”  Then with a sly look toward me he asked, “What do you think?”

I chuckled.  “I’m thinking I’d take a shot of something right about now, actually.  You pouring?” 

“I’ll see you back there.” His smile was warm, his confidence spilled onto my family and friend.  “I like him, Ang,” Karen said.  Then she asked if we could all take hands and pray together.  We did.  It was calming and natural.

Carefully the curtain was pulled aside and another nurse walked in with my “outfit”.  Footies and a silver spaceship looking hat.  “Seriously?”  I asked.  “Ya.  You’ll look like you’re a flying saucer getting ready for take off,”  she replied. 

Once I was covered she helped me off the reclining chair I’d been seated in for most of the day.  She put her arm around my waist and told me I could say good-bye to my family.  I hugged and kissed them all.  We began to walk out of my little holding room in a group.  She then instructed me that I was being allowed to walk with her back into surgery.  “This hallway is going to get chilly,” she said as the doors to the operating room hallway opened and we walked through.  She was right.  The air was much cooler once behind the doors.  “We’re going to walk down this hallway to the last doors on the right.  When we get in there it’s going to be really cold.”  I was walking with her down the hallway not quite believing that I’d actually walk into surgery.  I thought at some point there would be a gurney or a wheelchair I’d be required to settle into.  And I wouldn’t have argued with that.  I was getting a bit anxious.  But we continued right up to the next set of doors that opened as we approached.  We stepped through them into a large, ice cold room with an operating table at the far end and lots of machines and equipment set up around it.

“OH…this is a lot of reality to take in,” I said nervously. 

“Hey, everybody!  This is Angie!” the nurse cheered, wrapping her arm tighter around my waist as she glided me toward the table. 

“Hey, Angie!” the group cheered back.  I knew the faces and smiles as those doctors, nurses, and fellows who hung out and visited with me earlier in the day.  I wasn’t afraid.  Felt a little rushed, but I wasn’t afraid.  “We’re gonna need you to hop up on the table for us, okay?” one asked.  “You’re going to have to sort of bare your hiney when you sit down on the table,” said another.  Suddenly I was sitting on the operating table, folks pulling tubes around, pushing the I.V. stand around, talking to me, joking with me, reintroducing themselves to me.  It was a whirlwind. 

“You guys have been incredible to me.  You really have.” I meant those words from the bottom of my heart.  Who knew people like this existed in hospitals and operating rooms.  I’d never had this type of experience.  I was awestruck.  Then from behind my head I heard a soft and low voice say, “But the men treated you the best, didn’t we?”  I turned my head to see the man speaking was my anesthesiologist.  He was the only one of the group who didn’t clown around with me and my family prior to surgery.  He acted like the most reserved “killjoy” of the group.  Yet here he was upstaging all of them with his gorgeous face and smooth silky voice. 

“Look at you all of a sudden,” I teased back.  “I’ll be putting you to sleep.” He winked. He voice and tenderness made me feel safe.  “You, guys.  I’m not scared.  This is wild.” I was amazed at the calmness they helped me feel.

Finally, Dr. Bob walked in unmasked, calm and gentle.  “I just want to come in and see you before we get things started.  Are you okay?”  We were done joking.  This was crunch time.  He looked me in the eyes and extended his hand to hold mine.  I was still sitting up.  I wasn’t medicated yet.  When he took my hand I asked him if he would do something for me.  “Sure.  What?”  Holding onto his hand I asked him if I could pray for him and the folks in the room.  “Sure.” His smile was reassuring and accepting.

I prayed aloud that God would be with all of us in the room.  Specifically that He would give Dr. Bob eyes to see what he needed to see and that He would guide Bob’s hands in surgery so he would be able to go where he needed to go.  I prayed that everyone would be successful in their jobs during surgery.  It was a short, exact prayer.  When I finished he thanked me and then left to get ready.  My anesthesiologist told me he was going to start the medication. 

That’s the last thing I remember until…The Cheer!  Whether it was a dream or an imagined event or a hallucination coming out of anesthesia, I can’t be sure.  But I believe I heard pathology calling out to report the lymph node section was negative.  I believe I heard the gang whoop it up as I laid there.  I think I remember someone putting their face close to my ear and telling me that my lymph nodes were negative for cancer cells.  “Stage One Only.” 

It had taken me several hours to wake up from the anesthesia.  It was 9PM before we left the IU Simon Cancer Center in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana.  It had been dark when we arrived at the hospital.  It was dark when we left.  The air was warm and smelled like summer outside.  I began to cry as I sat in the wheelchair waiting on our car.  Everything felt fresh.  I hugged Don tightly as he helped me into the car.  We’d been through a lot together that day.  I loved the warm feel of him.  I melted into his kiss.  He was at that moment my knight in shining armor.  He cared for every detail.  We were both scared but tremendously grateful for the outcome we’d been given.  No lymph node involvement meant there was little likelihood that the cancer had spread outside of my breast. 

Whatever happened in that operating room that day I know a power far beyond my worldly understanding was with me.  I have the utmost respect for those whose mission in life is to comfort the scared, heal the sick, and work to give women a second chance at being healthy, sexy and beautiful.  I don’t remember the names of everyone who touched me and my family that day.  I wouldn’t know how to thank them for all they did for me and my family.   I hope this might allow them and those who do their kind of work to know how valuable they are to women like me.  You each made a difficult day easier to handle.

Thank you.  God Bless YOU!