Helena’s Cancer Diary – Part V

My surgery was booked for November 24, 2015. As I had to be at the hospital at 8 am, we went to Saskatoon the day before – the same day, our local paper, the Unity Wilkie Press-Herald, came out with the first “cancer diary” instalment. As we headed out on the highway, I had second thoughts about having been so open about what I was going through but it was too late to back out – the paper was being delivered as the doubts swirled in my head.

I had brought my prettiest bra to wear to the hospital, not knowing when or if I would be able to wear it again. I even took a picture of myself in it, while all of me was still intact.

Before they put me to sleep for the actual surgery, I had one more procedure to endure. A dye was injected into my breast – four shots around the areola – about as much fun as it sounds. The dye was supposed to move through the lymph system to find the node(s) most likely to have cancer, being the node(s) most active in draining fluids from the breast. That way, during the surgery itself, the doctor would know which lymph node(s) to remove for dissection.

After the injections, imaging is used to ensure the dye has travelled as expected. In my case, the dye was moving slowly, if at all. I massaged my breast. Still no success. I did a number of curls with my left arm to get things going, again with no result. The medical team was talking about more injections.

I was sent out to the hall to walk up and down, in my beautiful hospital gown, swinging my arms to and fro, this way and that way. I thought to myself, with all of the people who I know are praying for me and all the people sending positive thoughts my way, there is no way this is not going to work! After five to 10 minutes, they brought me back in. Success at last. Further injections were avoided, thank goodness!

The surgery itself went well and, by the next morning, my dizziness from the after effects of the anesthetic had worn off. Dressing to go home was a slow process and I needed some help but I was dressed and ready before noon.

I had been told I would not likely experience much pain after the first day or two, and I didn’t. Although I was sent home the day after the operation, I only took a bit of pain medication the first evening at home and then once again a couple of weeks later, after an icy fall. I was uncomfortable but not in any real pain for the most part.

There was a drain under my arm, draining blood and fluid from the wound. That was the most awkward and uncomfortable part of the post-surgery period. Even after it was removed and the small hole cleaned and dressed by our wonderful public health nurses, the under-the-arm area was the one that gave me the most trouble.

The first shower after the drain was removed was a treat! Washing up in a basin doesn’t match hot water running down the length of your body, from your head to your toes.

For a few days I avoided looking in the mirror. Once I had summoned up the courage to do so, the sheer size of the scar was a surprise. The red, initially angry looking wound running right across my chest from near the breast bone to under the armpit was larger and uglier than I had expected. As time passes and the colour fades, it’s becoming less obtrusive; and perhaps I am getting used to it too.

Three weeks after the operation, I still can’t fully raise my left hand above my head but I can see progress as I follow the exercise routine laid out by the physiotherapists.

If this is the end of my cancer journey for now, then I can expect to be pretty well back to all my normal activities by early January. If the pathologist finds cancer cells in the lymph nodes, the immediate future probably won’t be very fun. Again, the waiting game.

Once someone has been diagnosed with cancer, life is often about waiting for the next check-up and the next test result. Whether those results are good news or bad news, cancer re-affirms the uncertainty of life.

As this edition of the cancer diary was published in the December 21st issue of the paper, I concluded by advising readers: Enjoy every moment with every family member and friend you see over this holiday season. No one has guaranteed any of us how many more Christmases we will have.