Each year, roughly 50,000 breast cancer patients in the United States undergo mastectomy (total removal of the breast).* Revisiting the journals I kept at the time of my own breast amputation three years ago, I wonder whether my experience was typical. Do you know anyone who has lost a breast to cancer? I would love to hear their versions of the scene below, which recounts the few minutes before I was anesthetized for the surgery. If you could forward this post to them, I would be most appreciative.
I woke up the morning of the mastectomy with a urinary tract infection. It had been years since I’d had one, and I was miserable. The pre-surgery restrictions on eating and drinking most likely exacerbated the symptoms. I still wasn’t thinking about the mastectomy—I just wanted the anesthesiologist to put me out of my UTI misery.
In the meantime, the nurses introduced me to my new best friend—the “warming” hospital gown, a complicated paper and Velcro Snuggy-type gizmo with openings for hoses that shoot warm air all over your body. I looked like a crinkly Micheline tire man wearing rubber-soled hospital socks, but it was a delicious distraction.
The breast surgeon–about 8 1/2 months pregnant with twins–arrived and said simply, “OK, let’s go.”
The nurse unhooked the air hoses from my hospital gown, and the surgical team and I walked—yes, WALKED—in parade formation into the operating room. Along the way they handed me a puffy cap to put on. All a bit too casual, surreal even.
I climbed onto the operating table, thinking to myself, “Aren’t I supposed to be asleep by now? I’ve never seen a patient on TV walk into the operating room and put themselves on the table.”
“Arms out,” someone said. I was still much too awake, with the reality of what was about to happen finally sinking in. I suddenly realized–seemingly for the first time–that part of my body was about to be amputated.
Up until that very moment, I hadn’t really felt like things had been too hard for me. Early detection of Stage 0 ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), great doctors, supportive family and friends, and the promise of a perkier profile after reconstruction was completed in a few months. I had prided myself on not wallowing, not letting my diagnosis get the better of me. My matter-of-fact, efficiency-based approach had kept self-pity at bay for the most part. But as the attendants wrapped my arms in the crucifix constraints, I felt the tears start to come.
I had never felt so vulnerable. This was about as close to losing a limb as you could get without an arm or leg being involved. And what if I didn’t wake up? I had written notes to the kids and my husband before going to the hospital, but I really should have given the possibility of death a little more thought.
The anesthesiologist was murmuring gently in my ear that they would keep me warm, etc., but I was fighting back tears and just wishing the drugs would take over before I started sobbing, Velcroed into confinement and unable to wipe my own tears away. Just as the first salty drops slid down my temples, blissful fog engulfed me.
* 50,000 is an estimate based on a quick internet search; I have not verified the number’s accuracy.
Do you or someone you know have a mastectomy story to share? If you would prefer to keep your comments private, tell me that in the reply and I will not post it on the site.