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Always Something There To Remind Me

I thought I should probably dust off the blog and post an update for those of you who still faithfully check in from time to time. Ya’ll are loyal, yo.

Last summer at my two year post-diagnosis check up my oncologist told me that I could have my port taken out. I meant to, but then things like graduation, work, bar study, bar failure, new work, and more bar study got in the way. In January, I decided that the best thing to do was to get the surgery on the calendar for a date immediately post-bar when I knew I wouldn’t be working. So I did, and I had the surgery this past Monday.

I went back to the same hospital where I had my initial lumpectomy and so in a way it was like coming full circle. This was definitely a “good” surgery, and even the nurses and doctors were upbeat about it. It was also a fast one….I was wheeled into the very cold, very bright operating room at about 10:17 a.m. and I had just enough time to answer my surgeon’s question about my new job (see the next post!) before I was out. I opened my eyes in the recovery room a mere twenty minutes later at about 10:40 a.m. As soon as I was conscious enough, the first thing I did was reach up to my neck to feel…nothing. The tube that used to run from the port (which was implanted on the inside of my right breast opposite the tumor site on the left breast) and up to my neck as a kind of express track for the chemo was gone. My neck and upper chest were just like they were in April 2007.

I am now two days post surgery and I hardly know I had anything done. I will have a scar where the port was and there is some healing that needs to happen at the incision site, but I feel fine. The little bit of pain I have feels more like a bruise than a surgical incision. In fact, I plan to try to run tomorrow morning and go back to my regular weight lifting on Friday.

So that’s it. I am free of the port and of the last vestige of cancer treatments. No more running to the oncologist’s office for a port flush every six weeks, and no more odd disk in my chest.

It would be nice if that freedom was complete and allowed me to truly distance myself from 2007 and from breast cancer, but that will never happen. Although I don’t talk about it much on a daily basis (unless I’m asked about it), there isn’t a day that I don’t think about it. My scars, the constant numbness and weird pains in my chest, underarm, and back, are there every day. I see the lumpectomy scar and radiation burn and missing breast tissue every morning and every evening, and now I can add another scar to that litany. When I shop for a shirt, I have to try on each one that I find before I buy it to make sure the scars don't show when I wear it. Sometimes I buy one thinking that it covers everything and wear it only to discover a couple of hours later that it tends to slip down too low. It’s not that I worry about showing too much cleavage, but about showing too much scar.

For a long time when I would go to the gym I would change in the locker room like everyone else, but I was always terrified that someone would see all the scars and would be uncomfortable. I may try to look at my scars as battle scars, but there is something discomfiting for everyone when someone catches a glimpse of my misshapen and scarred breasts unexpectedly. I don’t feel this way about being around my family and friends in a bathing suit, for example, but the gaze of strangers is enough to make me feel as if I have a neon sign on my chest in the form of an arrow pointing directly to the glaring evidence of my ordeal. A few months ago, I finally gave myself permission to use the private changing rooms. It was such a relief the first time I changed in one of the rooms, because I no longer had to worry about inadvertently flashing my breasts at someone. (And as it turns out, I am not the only one who experiences this. I ran across this post by fellow breast cancer survivor Clergygirl the other day, eloquently describing exactly how I feel.)

The locker room isn’t the only place at the gym where breast cancer is on my mind. I can't always do push-ups or tricep work or chest presses properly because of nerve damage, and sometimes when I inadvertently lift too much weight my muscles let me know about it the next day, and not just because they are getting stronger. There are also a million other little reminders each day. I can't shave my left armpit in the shower with a razor, because I can't feel anything thanks to all the dead nerves on my left side and I would probably just cut it open. Sometimes I get an itch on my left side under my arm or in my back or along my left tricep, and I can't scratch it because I can feel the itch but not the scratch. At least once a week I wake up in the middle of the night because I have rolled into a position that is uncomfortable thanks to the lack of nerves in my back and side.

In spite of these reminders, the cancer is behind me. The battle scars are there, but mostly they just remind me that every day is a gift, all tied up with a big bow and just waiting for me to unwrap. I still never have a bad hair day…I am so thankful to have hair on my head. I never turn down food I like...I am so thankful to be able to taste it. I am constantly grateful for all the love and luck in my life…at least I am here and able to live it.

As a cancer survivor, you never forget that tomorrow could be the day you find another lump or bump or rogue cancer cell in your body. If I was diagnosed with cancer again tomorrow, I would have to get a new port installed in order to receive chemo that way. And that is a chance I am more than willing to take.

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