This is Life

photo by Kymberle Joseph, Brooklyn, NY

photo by Kymberle Joseph, Brooklyn, NY

“Once treatment ends…people try to isolate the disease, to make it into an episode, something that just happened.
They think that’s the best way to defend themselves… Now I can get on with the rest of my life’…You can’t. This is your life.”
—Katherine Russell Rich

Last month, I completed surgery #3, the last in my breast reconstruction process and plan for treatment post my cancer diagnosis. From the pre-operation appointment to the actual steps post surgery, all had become quite routine. From the collection of vital statistics, weight, blood pressure, blood work and EKG, to the the reiteration of pre-operation rules of no food or drink after midnight post surgery, and an explanation of the use of the special anti-bacterial soap that is provided for use the night before and in the morning prior to the procedure; and the reminder to remove all rings, earrings and nail polish —I had now ‘been there before and done that’ a couple of times. Quite terrifying yet hopeful the first time around, this third time was a charm as they say and I was wanting to float right through to the end. I was over it all and therapeutically looking forward to my recovery at home in the semi-comfort retreat of my own couch.

In the wee hours that morning, I called the car service to take me to the hospital, and we routinely picked up Kym on the way. THANK GOD FOR KYM. First, and foremost, let it be clear that had it not been for the unwavering love, support, humorous presence and the daily texts of my friend Kym, I have NO idea how I would have been able to move through this chapter of my life in the relatively great and positive manner that I have been able. Through it all, Kym has been at my side, and appointment after appointment through this journey that began with my leaving my original doctor and his unacceptable bedside manner, brilliantly firing him after his less than healing and pathological bedside manner and plan for handling for my treatment. Here, on this day far from that one, Kym my designated person was signing on to make sure that I made it home after this surgery #3. She was as more alive than I was this morning at 4:45am, (YES, 4:45 – A—freakin’—M!), for the 5:15am time that I was called to report. As far as I was concerned, I was luckily awaiting to be put under because that meant I would soon be getting to go back to sleep!

It was an early day. I had received and returned texts from the rest of my lady crew. Caroline, Marie and Betty had sent their best. Kym would keep my parents in the loop. And as one of the very first patients of the day, I looked forward to coming out of anesthesia and leaving the hospital for home by the early afternoon. Upon my waking up from this last of my planned surgeries, I secretly expected that much like sleeping beauty, I would awaken from what would seem like a long and evil dream, happy and excited to be in my fully reconstructed, now 9-month cancer free body and life ahead—fresh and clean. Instead what I got was waking up in recovery to the sound of nurses talking a little too loud about their previous evenings at a decibel that I thought was less than relaxing for the recently-surgery-having sleeping beauties. I was one of only a couple of patients in recovery at that time. Strange to me, I was incredibly cranky and struggled to sleep off the rest of the 'sleep' drugs. Each time I tried to respectfully ask for a quieter experience, the most nasty words and tone seemed to come to the surface. It made me giggle, but I was slightly horrified by my own intensity. I eventually went back to sleep without cursing anyone out. When I did wake up, I asked to confer with my plastic surgeon’s nurse before leaving the hospital. After a few attempts they ‘couldn’t find her' and with more time I dosed in and out of sleep until I was ready to go. I began to get dressed then stopped when it came to mind that the anticipation of the end of this process was now over. The natural breasts that tried to kill me, have been replaced  forever with what is NOW. All the steps had been completed. This was the end. It was really over. This is who I am, what I look like, and part of the baggage that will forever be with me. THIS IS IT. But, although this phase was now complete, IT — is NOT (as I was realizing), really over...THIS, IS NOW MY LIFE. Even though I had come through so much that is now behind me, in that moment, with the reality of my last journey in tow, the unknown of the future suddenly felt incredibly overwhelming. I felt as though I had come to the peak of the steepest mountain, only to realize that I was at the base of another monstrous one. It was a bit much and with that, I lost it and began to cry.

By then, there was a lot more activity as many other patients were in recovery and the nurses were busy moving from patient to patient. And right there in the middle of it, I was kind of having a little breakdown. What a picture! It made me start to laugh! I was truly ready to get outta there. Kym was down or upstairs and hadn’t responded to my last couple texts. The recovery nurse removed my i.v. and taped up my wrist so I could get dressed. When I looked down and saw the ugly ass white granny corseted bra that they had put on me in surgery and the rough outline of my body, I started crying again—and laughing more. In that moment, my plastic surgeon’s nurse finally appeared. She asked why I was crying as she gave me a big hug. "It’s over! You’re done! Once all the swelling goes down, you’re going to be pleased.” She had come in to congratulate me on a smooth surgery and a valiant journey that has now come to an end. I was feeling like the hacked up science project that I had identified with through out each surgical step, and was sure my new body was jacked—Punked again? More importantly, I expressed not wanting to have ANOTHER surgery. I was groggy, panicking, and wanting ice cream, (remember that I am a big five year old child), but she assured me that not only was I swollen, but that there were dressings and bandages that were responsible for the oddness of my outline. But actually, I was more deeply battling the realization that whatever had happened to me that day and throughout the entire year would stay with me. Though it was over it wasn't in fact REALLY over. Where my decision for reconstruction was about bringing me back to where I was post diagnosis, what I was realizing in that moment was that Humpty Dumpty or Jamie Sommers aka the Bionic Woman, (depending on your perspective—mine bounces), was not then, and could not ever really be the same again.

I was tripping by that point and wanted to get out of that hospital ASAP. I needed to put all of what had happened in the rear view mirror. I was happy and sad, and scared, and just really tired. Clearly, I woke up on the wrong side of the bed and was apparently quite bitchy, but I was also starving. Thankfully Kym arrived and it took her one look at me and my puffy eyes for her to silently nod in agreement that it was time for us to quickly roll out. I started to laugh, but didn’t stop crying. It was all so ridiculous and made me laugh more. What I had just gone through was beyond my scope. The fact that I had had surgery, and all I wanted to do was go and have ice cream with my friend seemed super silly! Once the nurse ordered up my wheelchair, I was pushed to the elevator, Kym and I discussed where to stop before heading home. It was far past the time for breakfast, so we decided upon one of our favorite bars, (they have really good food), at a place we had frequented during our post doctor’s appointment lunch crawls off and on since my diagnosis. For this outing, I went directly from the car to the ladies room, (because this is a real story), next, I hobbled to the bar, crawled my hungry and freshly surgery having self up and onto a barstool, gave the bartender a hard look right in the eye and ordered, “Bread pudding with ice cream, please!” —IT was the absolute BEST and SO MUCH FUN! I actually could not have made that up. It had been a really long day, an incredibly long year and my five year old self was absolutely spent, traumatized, delighted and preparing for whatever life will drop in her lap next.

Note: For the record, before heading home, I did order the salmon, kale and mashed potatoes to go.    ;-)


Teri Gandy-Richardson