It has been a few weeks now since my last op. I can’t lie, I don’t think I was prepared at all for what ensued. It is most unlike me, but for some reason I didn’t do quite as much research as I had in the past and consequently my recovery has been full of surprises.
My consultant offered lots of reassurance about the procedure he was carrying out; from the origami approach he would use to create my right nipple to the lipomodelling of the left breast using fat from my inner and outer thigh and upper abdomen. I felt the familiar feeling of being marked up for theatre as he started to draw where the incisions would be made on my thighs and boobs. It dawned on me at this point, I was wearing a very expensive pair of cream knickers, French and lacy and when I looked down they were now full of purple surgical pen which has yet to come off despite numerous attempts with Vanish and other associated stain removal products!
I was surprised when I woke up to discover the surgery had taken four hours for what I had understood was minor surgery. I returned to the ward and was keen to eat something so I could make my way home as quickly as possible. My newly created nipple was dressed Jean-Paul Gaultier style and I would wait another two weeks before finding out the result. My left bobber resembled Dolly Parton – its new inflated size and to quote Dolly – “Plastic Surgeons are always making mountains out of molehills”, this was definitely true in my case as my left boob went from a C cup to a DD.
My legs quickly swelled and by the following morning measured 40 inches compared to their normal 35 with bruises from hip to knee. I couldn’t sit, lie or stand without pain. It was much worse than I had anticipated. My flesh touched from the top of my legs all the way down to my knees and overlapped pressing together like lovers in a warm embrace but without the benefit of any romance. It didn’t feel like me; I felt truly awful and very sorry for myself.
Two weeks later at clinic was the big reveal. Something that looked like a nipple. I started to cry – again – tears have become a constant companion on this journey. It’s difficult to explain the psychological impact of not having your own breast and today made a big difference in coming to terms with what has happened. Now, I wait for my tattoo – six months if I have it done on the NHS or three months if I pay privately…we’ll see.
Over the last few weeks, my nipple has decreased in size so it is now really quite small. It’s also flattened at the top and would benefit from a stitch to ‘fix’ it into position. I’m hoping it doesn’t shrink anymore but as it is, it’s probably ok. I can’t wait to have the tattoo done.
My legs are another story. As part of the procedure, both legs were used to lipomodel my left boob. I’m seven weeks post op and currently have significant changes to the structure of my legs on both my inner and outer thigh. Every day I wear a very glamorous pair of Marks & Spencer body shapers as per the instructions of my consultant – I wear these for 23 hours a day and the hope is they will smooth the lines. My problem is, I don’t have lines, I have gouges in my thighs. They really sadden me and I am struggling to come to terms with this. If I had known the surgery could have ended up this way I would have not had it done. Having since spoken to the plastic surgery nurse, she has told me when you are slim, the results may be less favourable. This wasn’t on my consent form and nobody said this to me prior to my surgery. Everyday, I cry at what I am left with – another reminder, another disfigurement.
So I will wait. The final results will only make themselves known up to 6 months post op – I have a little way to go. In the meantime, am doing everything I can possibly do to improve them, from walking every day; yoga; massage with my newly acquired body roller and applying liberal amounts of oil prepared by Sonia. Sonia is our resident aromatherapist and advisor on the science of natural healing.
Rather than focusing on how bad they look, (and they do), I am repeating a daily mantra along the lines of my legs are getting better every day, because I know how important it is to be positive. Our body is capable of healing itself in many ways, but sometimes we are so lost in trauma, we lose our way.
At the end of the day, I have been blessed with life and amidst all the twists and turns, it is important to remember, today, I woke up and I will do everything I can to celebrate each precious moment.
The next part of my journey has been having a prophylactic hysterectomy, that is choosing to have a hysterectomy in the hope it may help to prevent the recurrence of breast cancer and incidence of ovarian cancer which mum was diagnosed with at 53, stage IV. Removing my uterus will also help to eliminate the heightened risk of uterine cancer associated with taking Tamoxifen for the recommended ten years – the joys of being a breast cancer patient!
There has been some discussion between the oncoplast, gynaecologist and myself as to whether to have my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed or a full hysterectomy and finally we opted for the latter. From the decision being made in September it has taken six months for my surgery to take place which has given my body some time to heal and prepare and more importantly enjoy something like being normal – doing exercise walking freely enjoying what it feels like to do yoga again; feeling the intensity of a Chataranga Dandasana and knowing how far I have come not only in my core strength but also all the worry I had about my mastectomy and whether I would ever be able to do yoga fully and get back to the place I love most – my mat. I had wondered if I would ever have enough strength in my right arm to hold upper body poses and whilst my strength is definitely compromised, it limits me but does not stop me.
At only 45 I have not been too sure what to expect from the hysterectomy. The first gynaecologist I met thought it would be like a baptism of fire, spontaneously going into menopause as I emerged from theatre in a hot sweat in the recovery room. She promised a depressive state, heightened mood swings, loss of cognitive function, loss of libido and facial hair!! – I can see why women aren’t queuing up for this.
On the run-up to the operation, I did wonder on a number of occasions what on earth I was doing – I could live with my ovaries a little bit longer and see how things go, but at the back of my mind, I couldn’t help worry every time I ovulated if I was surrendering an opportunity to put an end to the uncertainty and instead, double dicing with an unpredictable future. And so on the 28th of February I packed my bags once again for L’otel Hospital and booked into a beautiful, not so private suite.
I started taking pre-load the night before – this helps to recover from the anaesthetic and having taken it before my breast surgery I was keen to make sure I had it again. This time I was armed with the knowledge I could also add orange or blackcurrant juice to improve the flavour rather than the repulsive citric lemon taste which was barely palatable. Packed full of calories, preload is used as part of an enhanced recovery programme for people undergoing some surgical procedures. All I can say is it definitely seem to help my post-op recovery – I was more alert more quickly on both occasions compared to other anaesthetics I have had previously. If you are having surgery – you may want to ask for it – it may help you feel better the day after. I was also given the mandatory hospital gown in size ‘marquee’, it wrapped around two and a half times; a cardboard coffin to wee in (which was progress, usually, ladies are expected to wee in a small plastic bottle with a one inch circumference – my aim is simply not that good!); a net hat which I immediately put my finger through and a glorious pair of below knee embolic stockings. I looked ravishing in my new attire.
On the morning I saw what seemed to be most of the staff who were on duty in hospital. There was a possibility I would need an abdominal incision but I was hoping to avoid this. Everything was going, ovaries, tubes, uterus and cervix – I did ask the surgeon if there was any possibility of a little nip and tuck whilst he was down there and he assured me he would see what he could do!
Anaesthetically, there were several options available to me, The consultant suggested I opt for a general anaesthetic and a spinal which would benefit me if I needed an abdominal incision and if I had a laparoscopic surgery would help me to feel better sooner. I had a spinal when I had my first baby and was rushed to theatre for an emergency Caesarian section – the difference this time was the baby hadn’t been bearing down on my cervix for the last 24 hours essentially numbing the area and, whilst then I was oblivious, this time I was totally compos mentis so the reality of the needle was very real.
When the consultant drew out the needle, I could only imagine there had been some kind of error and this was the anaesthetic needle used in pre-operative cases for large mammals who have escaped from the zoo. It was at this point he asked when I last ate which had been around 6 o’clock the night before it was now 10am. He looked up at me and said ‘that’s a relief, the lady before you got up at two in the morning to have her last meal!’ I’m so glad he mentioned this before they put the needle in my back because I laughed out loud, I mean let’s face it what a commitment to food to actually get up four hours before the final fasting time – that is simply pure dedication.
It was at this point, relaxed, he said ‘hold still’ and applied local anaesthetic into my back. I had a lumbar puncture a few years ago and it felt very similar, a ‘pushing and pulling’ sensation inside, uncomfortable but over pretty quickly. I asked for a sick bucket just in case I threw up but didn’t and actually the whole process was over faster than I could say ‘I need to lie down now because my legs are turning to jelly!’ And that is of course what happens, slowly you start to lose every bit of sensation from the waist down and the anaesthetic team rush to get you horizontal and start to complete the process for the GA and before I knew it I was waking up in recovery. I was told the surgery had taken a little longer than expected as part of my omentum had became entangled with surgical mesh from my last operation giving the surgeon a crystal maze like structure to extricate.
A few hours after the op, I was keen to get up but staff had a very different idea. I don’t like ringing the bell, but asked each time I had my observations done and was told categorically, no, I had to stay in bed a little longer. Not to be out done, I contemplated how I was going to negotiate climbing out of the bed and over the bed rail with a catheter in situ given I didn’t have the upper body strength to release the bed rail from my current horizontal position.
After a little shuffling around and carefully lifting the catheter bag off its stand, I was raring to go and finally slipped my way to the very end of the bed. There was a narrow gap where the bed rail ended and the end of the bed so I wriggled my hips out like a slinky, letting out a groan as I snagged my catheter bag in the process on the bed rail on the other side. And there, the path to freedom. I headed towards to door and gently closed it so I wasn’t found out and slowly started walking up and down my room – my motivation was two fold – first and foremost, I had stopped taking Tamoxifen and could only start taking it when I was back to normal levels of activity due to the increased DVT /PE risk. Secondly, as sexy as the knee high embolic stockings are, I’d rather stick to Agent Provocateur for my lingerie and was keen to toss the green knee highs in the bin.
Evening came and I knew my family would be visiting. My hubby came first and we spent some time together alone – it was just what we needed in the moment, an opportunity to talk about everything that has happened, laugh and cry together before our kids, my brother and dad arrived. The kids were double excited to see me and me them, their gift, a warm hot water bottle – pure bliss and the best pain relief. They’d had the thrill of coming with their uncle too who adores them!
Dad arriving was incredibly emotional. When I was in hospital with breast cancer, dad was also in hospital, unable to visit and then became gravely ill. For him to be there today, to hold my hand at the side of the bed, to tell me he loves me, to say everything will be ok, meant the world. A few months ago, I honestly thought he wouldn’t be here to support me through this next phase and I’m so blessed that he has been able to. He put his arms around me and hugged me and remembered when he was is hospital how he was too weak to lift his arms up to embrace and we cried together and how far we had both come.
Everyone left. I felt overcome with fatigue and emotion. I was already in bed, prepared for the hourly interruptions throughout the night, already negotiating with Staff as to when the catheter would be removed though I knew the answer. I settled down, intoxicated on the love of my family and the after effects of the anaesthetic and drifted off to sleep.
I was soon home and given very similar instructions to those following my last operation, though it felt somewhat easier as I had the use of my arm having not also endured a mastectomy at the same time – thank goodness. What I was not prepared for, a few days post op was referred pain around my mastectomy site as a result of inflammation of the scar tissue which left me unable to lie down on my right side or if the kids cuddled me, I winced. Even clothes and bedsheets against my skin causing pain, I felt as though I had taken a massive retrograde step. It brought home the piggy back nature of the two surgeries and as the surgeons predicted, the inevitable slower recovery of this procedure as a result.
One of the entry sites in the abdomen became infected and my belly was swollen – it still is very swollen despite my ‘big panty woman’ knickers trying to restrict the swelling. Some days I wake up and by mid-morning, I could quite cheerfully go back to bed but I don’t I want to get into that kind of routine so I dust myself down slap on a bit of lippy and crack on. I can’t lie though, rarely a day goes by where I make it through without having a sleep – an overwhelming sense of fatigue wipes me out and I have to surrender; if I don’t, bed beckons very early evening and I miss the kids chattering and the end of the day pleasantries.
The reality of hysterectomy has thankfully been less dramatic than the gynaecologist had predicted. Yes the hot flushes have come on with a vengeance as my oestrogen has flatlined. I generally feel as though I am in the middle of the desert, scrambling around for a glass of water and a breath of fresh air, opening the doors and windows and insisting we sleep with only a sheet on – and still I am hot. I have found some days to be emotional for no apparent reason; feelings I would normally be able to reconcile are more difficult to rationalise and tears flow. I am struggling somewhat with pain which I hope will level off soon. I believe this is my body adapting to the very low levels of oestrogen and as I am unable to take HRT or herbal supplements (like many other women who have ER+/PR+ breast cancer), I need to ride the rain shower. At least for now, I have not suffered with some of the extreme menopausal symptoms some women go through and for that, I am eternally grateful. I continue to be back and forth to hospital and within the next few days have a mammogram though only for my left boob as my bionic boob cannot be screened and also a DEXA (dual energy X-ray absorptiometry) scan to assess my osteoporosis risk. I have to wait four weeks for the results of the mammogram which feels interminable.
Some women who are invited for mammogram as part of national breast screening programmes fail to attend their appointment as they are unsure of what happens during the procedure or may have concerns about the result. On a personal level, since my diagnosis, I discovered I should have been invited to screening nearly 10 years ago but I was missed, nothing may have changed for me and I can’t think of what ifs, but if you have the chance, don’t regret it…here is a video showing what happens during a mammogram.
Exercise helps me for my emotional and physical well-being and whilst I am not yet on my mat, I am there in spirit! (My oncologist also said exercise, 20 minutes per day, 5 days per week was of equivalent benefit to the Tamoxifen I’m taking of which I have 3460 days remaining on the medication so I am very motivated by exercise). I did try a plank but felt I was better settling in savasana for now! I am walking each day which is in itself a blessing especially at the start of spring as the birds nest and blossom comes in. Meditation helps to ground me, particularly whilst I am unable to do yoga but that day will come. Praying restores my faith. And for now, whilst I feel like a bag of spanners inside, I’m hoping a new creation will emerge, a little stronger again with a few bits and pieces less to worry about.
Thank you for taking the time to check in – love Toots xx