No, It Wasn’t a Drive-By Shooting
Breast cancer survivors share an odd bond. It’s a club that doesn’t recruit or want new members, ever, but welcomes them, just the same. Men, too, though they’re fewer in number.
So when I saw Susan Brearley’s Story:
I thought, “Wow! Now, that’s a chapter of the club I never thought would have another member besides me,” and I read about her awful, terrible, very bad year — laughing, a little, but not at her misfortunes. I was just telling someone, earlier today, how my knife skills needed work, and how the last time I stabbed myself in the hand I learned that there are no vital organs in that webby space between your thumb and index finger, and figured the three stitches were just thrown in by the ER staff to deepen my humiliation.
I have to let Susan win that one — she’s done more mayhem to herself with a knife than I ever have. But it turns out that Susan and I aren’t exactly in the same league when it comes to exploding boobies. I mean, my boob actually exploded.
In 2011, I had a bilateral mastectomy and DIEP reconstruction in a 12-hour surgery that was far more grueling for my loved ones than it was, for me. Honestly, for me, it felt like five minutes. “Count backward from 100…” to “Here, have a few nasty ice chips” to something that sounded like “Hey, sexy” (not sure if my husband said that to me, or I to him) followed by me saying, “I love y’all, but I’m never doing that again, just kill me next time.” I only meant that for about the next four or five hours, after which I was back on Facebook posting proof-of-life photos. The next morning, a friend smuggled me an Egg McMuffin in ICU, and I learned the hard way what they meant when they said that saliva was the first step in the digestive process.
Take note: When you have a 12-hour-long surgery, they dry you out like a stalk of wheat in a 400-degree oven. And without spit, nothing breaks down. I chewed and chewed and chewed and — oh, my God — I chewed some more, but all that accomplished was breaking that Egg McMuffin into tiny, dry chunks that were nearly impossible to swallow. It was still the best damned Mickey D’s breakfast I’ve had in the last decade. It was goooooood. But I could’ve choked to death on it.
Anyway, flash forward: After one recovers from having most of their chest removed and their ab flab lopped off, rotated, and shoved up over their rib cage, they go in for “minor revisions.” Not to put too fine a point on it, they are rebalanced like a set of bald tires, any little puckers or bulges of scar tissue are removed, and fake nipples are constructed out of dead people’s skin. I know this because I had done my research and asked my surgeon, given there are other options that sounded a lot less fun for me. Like taking tissue from the delicate lady parts, for one. “We use kat-a-VEHR-ic skin,” she said.
“What skin?” I asked. It sounded very high tech and elegant, the way she said it. Kat-a-VEHR-ic. “What is that, exactly?”
“Donor tissue,” She said, adding in hushed tones, “From a…cadaver.”
“OH!” I exclaimed. “Ca-DA-ver-ic! Corpse skin! So when my husband looks at me naked, he can say, ‘I see dead people…’?”
She tried to reassure me, explaining that it was all processed and cleansed and regrown — turns out, one of my coworkers, at the time, had once worked for the company that made this stuff, so I just found it fascinating, not horrifying. The more my surgeon explained, the harder I laughed. “It’s fine. I get it. It’s fine.” I dissolved in giggles.
So, I had this “revision surgery” one morning — it’s outpatient surgery — and I was discharged to a friend’s supervision (that was their first mistake — this is the same friend who smuggled in the Egg McMuffin) and instead of going home to sleep and have a light supper, my friend and I went out for pizza. I napped for a few hours, after that.
The hospital called in the afternoon and asked how I was doing. They seemed surprised I’d had pizza and not tossed my cookies. I felt great. My son came home from school, and we hung out for a bit.
My husband called on his way home from work, asking what I felt like eating for dinner. I was jonesing for some P.F. Chang’s Chicken Noodle Soup, by then. I went upstairs to check email while I waited for him to pick up dinner. While I was on the computer, I started to feel an odd pressure — a swelling — in my right breast. I looked down and it was larger than the left, which was odd, because it had just been “revised” and I know that both sides were more even than they had ever been in my entire life. Perky, even. But the right one was getting a lot perkier — while I watched.
I pulled up my shirt. My right boob was swollen, purple, and hard as a rock. And it was growing bigger. The stitches were starting to pull in earnest. I called the doctor’s after-hours emergency number, fairly sure this might be an emergency and not at all sure how to explain it. I grabbed a ball-point pen, debating whether I should stab myself in the chest to release the pressure when nature took care of that for me. My boob exploded. Suddenly, I was drenched in blood. The doctor told me to meet her at the ER. I called my husband back and told him to put the soup in the fridge, but we had to go just as soon as he could get here. I ran to my closet, too fast for my son to see that I was covered in blood. I grabbed a bath towel and pressed it to my chest. Smiled. I told him we had to go to the ER. I was fine. Minor problem. Popped a stitch.
Sitting there in the ER, blood now soaking through a thick bath towel, folded in quarters, and seeping between my fingers, I was pretty sure it looked worse than it was but worried that if major blood supply to the DIEP flap had ruptured, I could be more than just a little lopsided within a few hours.
Looking around the waiting room at the people staring, I realized how it looked. I calmly reassured everyone around me that I was not the victim of a drive-by shooting. They let out a collective breath, smiled — a few of them, uncertainly — and went back to worrying about their own problems. And I laughed. Hysterically. Till I woke up a few hours later with everything still intact.
I seem to be telling this story backwards. Spoiler alert: I’m still alive, kicking, spitting, and writing! But if you’re interested in more Tales from the Cancer Battlefield that are probably more humorous than inspirational, I invite you to read about that time I moonlighted as a stripper in the morning: