The Pits

So many weird things are discussed and planned before having your boobs chopped off. I’m thankful for the support groups I’ve found my way into, and for family and friends who have lovingly and extensively researched the matter, because I’m out in left field right now, and I need help. It makes sense that my neck will feel tight after surgery and that a fuzzy, lavender-scented, bunny-shaped neck pillow that can be heated or cooled will feel fantastic. Big body wedge/pillow for the bed? Sounds amazing. I sleep on my side and stomach which is obviously a no-go post-op. My sister amazonned me both a fuzzy neck bunny and a medical grade wedge, because I certainly didn’t think of any of that. I was fretting about my daughter, who turns four just days after my surgery, and in stepped my bestie Harmony, who found a winter break day camp at the YMCA and called to reserve her a spot. (Harmony just left after spending a week with me, away from her family, two weeks before Christmas. She will get her own blog post at some point because she did oh-so-much more than set up child care!) Oh yeah, I’ll have four surgical drains dangling from my chest and I haven’t given an ounce of mental energy to a solution to that, but my mom personally experienced this and came up with her own drain hack involving fashionable scarves (naturally) which she will bring and style for me.

But the most humorously perplexing issue by far has been… my PITS. That’s right. My armpits. I haaaate armpit hair. I shave daily. It itches me if I don’t. I feel dirty even when I’m not if I have any growth whatsoever. And Harmony brought to my attention that I should address this prior to surgery after which I am not allowed to lift my arms for THREE WEEKS. Simple solution: a wax. No hair for three weeks. Perfect. Or so I thought. Apparently one has to have one to two weeks of hair growth before getting a wax. I had a pre-surgery long weekend getaway at the beach with my husband and I wasn’t going to be anything other than clean shaven as I was taking my girls out for their last hurrah in a bikini… which of course had to be excessively photo-documented. (Take a moment to imagine me, usually selfie-averse, awkwardly taking pictures of my chest from every angle on the beach. Yep. I was that person. But selfies are a practiced skill and I am just not up to par.)

The Pits
Exhibit A (Who blinks while taking her own photo?!)

There was still time thankfully and I began the arduous growing-out process. And let’s just say that I don’t have cute, fluffy, popstar pit hair which was having a moment a few years ago (or is it still?). Think less euro-chic, more lumberjack. At boot camp, I felt the need to explain my pit-uation to everyone in my immediate vicinity which of course lead to a lot of breast cancer oversharing and sweaty hugs.

Ten days in, I could take it no longer and made the executive decision that it was time to make the waxing appointment. I was so excited. But just before I hit “complete” on my online booking, I paused. I hadn’t taken any time to consider the downsides of waxing. I quickly consulted one of my online support groups for guidance and my reservations were validated. I have never waxed anything before so I have no idea how my skin will react. It could be fine, but I could also come down with anything from mild irritation to a flesh-eating bacterial infection. Lymph nodes will be removed from my armpit during surgery, flesh-eating bacteria of the pits would be, well, the pits. So, I scrapped that idea and immediately shaved simultaneously bemoaning the needless ten days of axillary annoyance and the fact that I would, in fact, have to deal with itchy, hairy pits on top of having my boobs chopped off. RUDE FOREVER!!!

As has happened in a few other instances, I took this disproportionately badly. Like almost as badly as the diagnosis itself. My brain is all confused about what and how much to feel about anything these days. But, if I do end up needing chemo and/or radiation (this is still unknown and will not be known until after surgery), I suppose losing all my pit hair would be the the one perk. Gotta take those where I can get them!

So, my last day to shave my pits will be Monday December 17. In the surgical world, time is measured by the number days after the operation. (“Post op day 1” etc.) I shall amuse myself by measuring time in no-shave days. Christmas will be no-shave day 8. Oh what fun!

Living the Dream

Last night I had my first surgery-anxiety dream. I am an avid dreamer. My external environment seeps into my subconscious, conjuring dreamscapes ranging from nonsensically whimsical to startlingly real. They are almost always so vivid that I continue to experience them for minutes to hours after I wake, and in select cases, years. I had more stressful wedding dreams than I can count starting before I was even engaged, and then I had them on behalf of my sister before her nuptials this spring. I have recurring dreams about fleeing natural disasters, getting stuck upside down on rickety carnival rides, driving cars without brakes, and realizing I missed entire college courses the day of the final exam or graduation. So I’m surprised it took my dreamself this long to find her way into an operating room.

In my dream I wasn’t even the patient. I was a medical student bumbling around mucking things up. (I broke the sterile field more than once, and for those not familiar with OR culture, that is basically the dumbest thing you can do and it immediately infuriates everyone around you.) The surgical procedure on the agenda: a nose transplant. Dream-me was horrified by this. Thankfully, before it got too gory, I was jolted awake by my husband knocking over a water glass on my nightstand (as he sweetly brought me a fresh, steaming cup of coffee first thing in the morning). WHEW. Occasionally, in a dream, I have a huge forkful of the perfect chocolate cake and wake up just before it hits my tongue. It is genuinely, real-life disappointing! I love a good cake! But I do not love craniofacial surgery, or any surgery for that matter, so it was a relief to phase back into real life this morning.

The parallels were not lost on me however. In a yet undetermined amount of time, I will be having part of me removed in an operating room. A defining part of me. Maybe not a nose (things could always be worse), but defining nonetheless. I shudder when I imagine bits of me sitting in a cold, metal bowl awaiting extensive scrutiny by a pathologist whilst I saw logs in the oblivion of medical dreamland. But Bob will be in that bowl too. And my new plastic surgeon will be there to lay the groundwork for Kate’s chest 2.0, free from the grips of cancer. And gravity.

Until that happens, I’d appreciate it if my psyche could muster a few large helpings of delightfully calorie-free dreamcake thankyouverymuch.

Thanksgiving

While Bob is a cancerous sonofabitch, he did me the one courtesy of putting down his roots in a spot where I was able to find him by accident. Despite my aforementioned history of multiple breast lumps, I do not perform breast exams on myself regularly. But, I know most of my lumps and where they are and what they feel like. So this year, for Thanksgiving, I express my belated gratitude to Bob for his location, near my armpit. And that I practice at least average personal hygiene and soap my pits most days. And because of that, I discovered the evil lump while it was still small. I can’t say for sure at this point, but I’d like to think the outcome will be overall better because of it.

One More Night

Apparently it’s a thing to have the first big cry at the one week mark. Well it’s a thing for me anyway. I was appropriately unhappy with the diagnosis and have had short “spells” (eye roll) of anxiety, but no tears. I knew it was a sort of denial. But I guess one doesn’t know how thick the denial is until being faced with the cold, hard truth. Tomorrow is my appointment with the surgeon. (I politely badgered the receptionist until they found me an earlier appointment.) Even before having my own first-hand experience, I knew that surgery would be a given in this situation. I hadn’t felt nervous about the appointment. But tomorrow I meet the woman who will be hacking (with utmost respect for her skill and finesse) Bob out of my body. My breast. And she’ll probably take the other breast with it. Because I AM OVER LUMPS.

Also, tonight was the night I was supposed to go to my first support group meeting. One realm of my psyche was all on board. I knew it would be a good thing. I would learn what to expect from my first appointment and what questions I should ask. But an equivalent part of me felt with certainty that I did not belong there. I would be a poser. I know they told me I have breast cancer and I believe them, but I am not one of those women. I would be an intruder on their hallowed ground. And yet another facet of my mind knew full well that I simply DID NOT WANT TO FACE THE REALITY. I had one more night, damnit. One more night to be the the person I was before I became the person with cancer. I didn’t want to spend that evening with women who were suffering or bald or putting on their brave face and sharing their benevolent advice with me. (Instead, it turns out, I spent the evening in the fetal position, drinking wine in bed.)

The timing on all this is super inconvenient, by the way. Tomorrow also happens to be the day before Thanksgiving. In my optimistic denial state, I committed to making a few dishes for the big dinner we will be attending with my in-laws four hours away. And I’m getting the feeling that my Christmas present will be the least fun type of boob job ever. But, as I was weeping, my husband held me tight and first said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry you have cancer.” [I weep harder.] And then, “You know no one will be upset if we don’t show up with a raw vegan pumpkin pie.” [I guffaw juicily through tears and snot.] He is so right.

Whatever, Vladimir

I received a package in the mail from the nurse manager of the breast center where I was diagnosed with breast cancer four days ago. (Wow, still smarts a little to say that.) It is a book called “Be a Survivor” by Vladimir Lange, MD. Now, I don’t know Vladimir. He might be a lovely person, but he can step aside. Really? They couldn’t find a medically, emotionally, and experientially qualified WOMAN to write (and title) this road map to my new disease and how to survive it??? RUDE. Also rude for anyone to remind me so blatantly that I do, in fact, have breast cancer. I was doing just fine in Denialville with my delightful breakfasts of Ghirardelli dark chocolates.

Also enclosed in the package was a flier for a local breast cancer support group. The nurse had mentioned this previously in a phone call so I was expecting it. But combined with Vladimir and his bossy directive, I started to feel panicky. Too real, too real, alert alert alert! I left my cranky daughter with my tired husband and sped to my new boot camp gym with a winded sensation that felt like I was already doing godforsaken burpees. On the precipice of my first genuine meltdown, I collected myself and forced myself to go inside.

*  * *  * *

Side bar: Fitness and I have a tricky relationship. It’s on-again-off-again really. I have gained and lost the same 10-20 pounds since adolescence and have a pretty rotten self image. I’ve tried and successfully completed a variety workout programs, complete with transformation pictures to prove it. But they always come to an end and then I struggle to maintain a normal healthy lifestyle. I have two different Instagram fitness accounts that I never actually posted in because the pendulum swung back the other way before I felt lean/sculpted/satisfied enough to make the big reveal. Healthy. Eventually, I became fed up with the “fitstagram” collective, and armed with the great wisdom imparted by motherhood and my mid-30s, I tried to start a new humor blog about health and self acceptance no matter your appearance. But that didn’t get off the ground either because it wasn’t genuine — I did not accept myself. I really only wanted to humor-shame fitness obsessed people to make myself feel better. Yeah. Embarrassing. But insightful? (Hindsightful?) So over the last six months, I found myself descending into a pit of self-loathing about my appearance, about the fact that all my pants were too tight, that everything seemed to jiggle, but additionally, that I cared so much! I just wanted to be normal and happy and active and healthy and secure! I wanted to model all that for my daughter so she wouldn’t grow up with the same crazy that I have! Clearly this was cause for more of the emotional eating that started all of this in the first place. And that is when I found Burn Boot Camp. (This is not an ad. Well it sort of is, but no one is paying me!)

I signed up for a 30-day free trial, which started October 1 at their grand opening in my town. It was extremely challenging but interesting, and I had never done anything quite like it. There is a community there that is supportive and motivating. It took almost four entire weeks to see or feel any sort of progress (probably because of my chronic-dieting-related geriatric metabolism), and I spent a significant portion of that time hobbling around with muscle-related soreness. However, just before the cutoff to sign a contract with “founders” rates, I noticed some gratifying improvements. I didn’t magically look bikini-competition-ready, but I could hold a plank a little longer, lift a little bit heavier, and while the metrics only changed a little, the psychological lift of accomplishment and sisterhood had me energized and hooked. So I signed the contract on October 30. Literally the very same day that Bob showed his ugly face on a mammogram and ultrasound.

The point is that running off to boot camp is not some subtle humble brag… restrain your eye rolling. Or not. Gym selfies annoy me as much as the next non-fitness-model, but who knows, I might post some one day because I HAVE CANCER AND I CAN DO WHAT I WANT. But that place is sort of my sanctuary right now and part of my journey … OK, I hear how that sounds;  eye rolls permitted.

*  * *  *

Exercise proved beneficial for my psyche. It no longer felt like a tunnel of doom was closing in around me. I’m super glad that I made myself go to the gym. Hopefully, I will remember to turn to it in the future, rather than full-on ostrich my head in the sand with stress and anxiety, as I often do. But I did come home, shove Vladimir and his platitudes under a pile of papers, and eat chocolate for dinner. And I’m fine with that, too.

 

Meet Bob

My boobs are FULL of lumps. My first biopsy was at age 32 and then I had a lumpectomy at age 34. Both of those were benign fibroadenomas. After that I began to pay more attention and I got to know my various lumps. At age 37 I had a new painful lump, which was a first, but he looked fine on mammogram and ultrasound. Then, just before my 39th birthday, I accidentally found a different type of lump while soaping my pits in the shower. This one felt roundish, similar to my others, but less mobile, more stuck to his surroundings. I didn’t like that. A mammogram and ultrasound captured him and he looked as sketchy as he felt, and as a little surprise, a second irregular mass was found that looked nothing like a fibroadenoma. Neat. I named them Bob and Norman, respectively, and began an interminably long eight day wait for my biopsy appointment.

In truth, for the last 10 years, I have felt like it was only a matter of time before one of my lumps would be trouble, and thus wasn’t shocked when I received the results of the biopsy, along with a brand-new diagnosis of breast cancer. In the 1950s, my mom’s mom dealt with an abundance of breast lumps and eventually had a preventative bilateral mastectomy which was apparently the medical recommendation at the time despite the lack of malignancies or bad genetics. My mom was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma for her 60th birthday (rude), which was caught early and she chose to have a bilateral mastectomy. That was all the treatment she needed to be cured, and she just celebrated her 10-year survivorship anniversary. She and her fabulous new set of girls are doing fantastic!

Sure there was a good bit of anxiety and worry while waiting for the results. I’ve been through it before, but this go-round felt different. The lumps were different, the images were different, the look on my doctor’s face was different. Still, even though I felt with near-certainty the news would not be good, I had moments of peace. No one wants to get cancer, obviously, but I had a good run with my boobs. I was able to nurse my only child for 16 months. And while that wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns (biting, clogged ducts, waking up twice every night for a year…), I did cherish that. I have never been particularly fond of or attached to my chest otherwise. I mean, the girls are quite small yet somehow also saggy, and I have always thought that they sat too low on my chest. Sort of like the Renaissance sculptures of women that were based off male models with oddly shaped mammary organs slapped on seemingly haphazardly at the last minute. (I’m looking at you Michelangelo.) And the dormant rebel in me has always sort of wanted to shave my head so the hair loss part of treatment didn’t scare me either. The waves of panic came from the thought of metastases, the assault of chemo, the scorch of radiation, and at the most morbid, leaving my daughter without a mother. But I had immediately decided ahead of time, with the encouragement and support of my husband, that even the lowest grade cancer would be the end of my natural breasts. Before this scare, I was already understanding my Gamma’s choice to have them taken off, even without cancer. Always a background worry that a lump would go rogue.

Despite how prepared I told myself I was, it still wasn’t super fun to officially hear that Bob was, in fact, cancer. Grade 1 invasive ductal carcinoma and DCIS. (Not to brag but I have two types.) Norman turned out to be just fine. My voice wavered and my eyes misted but that passed quickly and the next two days were spent in a weird state of calm. Mere minutes after the diagnosis we played our first “cancer card” and my husband canceled a few patients and we jetted off to, wait for it, TARGET. We bought delicious holiday lattes and wandered the aisles giggling with each other about things that probably weren’t actually funny. It felt like we were in our 20s again, being silly on a date. (We truly did go on dates to Target, being the incomeless medical students that we were at the time.) I meticulously mixed and matched a whole new set of bedding. Oh, how I love you, Opalhouse and Nate-Berkus-for-Target.

But life goes on. Our daughter needed to be picked up from preschool. I reluctantly pulled the cord on the pleasant delirium and allowed myself to waft back down to reality. And the reality is that I have breast cancer. If you’re going to have breast cancer, this is one of the “good” ones. And now I’m ready for the plan. I’m usually not much of a planner, but I also despise the unknown. I’d rather be in a certifiably bad situation than in limbo. Which is maybe why I felt so jolly at Target. I had been given the answer, and while it wasn’t what I hoped, it was better than not knowing anything. So I’m super irritated that my first appointment with the surgeon isn’t for two whole weeks. Not because I think that the cancer will eat its way through me in that amount of time — because I know it won’t — but rather, I will spend this whole time trying to piece together what the plan is likely to be but I don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle. It is a fundamentally fruitless endeavor. Also, while I do have an MD, I am neither a breast surgeon nor an oncologist and have no formal training in either specialty. Thankfully I have been quite schooled on how to search for appropriate and reliable information and sites like www.shouldicutmyboobsoff.com do not make the cut. At the very least, I can curate a Pinterest board of badass tattoos to go on my chest-sans-cancer when the time comes, and spitball ideas for a head-shaving party if needed.