breast cancer, life, teaching, Uncategorized

Floored

Earlier this week, we received an email at work telling us there was a three way tie for Teacher of the Year and to vote for one of the three finalists. As this is my first year at my current school, and with everything that’s gone on for me this year, I had zero expectations of even being nominated. I was wrong. In the email, I discovered I am one of the finalists.

One of the career programs at my campus is horticulture. Students have a variety of classes they can choose relating to horticulture from landscaping design to floral design to turf management to agribusiness…and many others. At the beginning of the year, the floral design class delivered bouquets to all the new-to-the-campus teachers. At Christmas, the horticulture students decorated the campus with poinsettias grown by the students.

image
Thank you floral design students!

Yesterday, the advanced floral design students designed and delivered stunning bouquets to the three finalists. The bouquet is gorgeous. The students who created it delivered to my room and told my class to congratulate me, and they were all, “uhhh…ok why?” I hadn’t told my students I was nominated. So, I told them. They applauded. I cried. *sigh* I’m not a crier, but to be honored by being nominated and honored by being a finalist and honored by the students, I couldn’t help it.

My students and their support has meant so damned much to me as I’ve gone through treatment. They make me feel like Teacher of the Year everyday I’m at school. I love my job. I’m blessed to work where I do and with the administration, faculty, staff, and students I work with everyday.

I’m about to be out for five weeks. Five long weeks away from my job. It’s killing me to know I’ll be away from work that long. I know I have to take care of me. I really do, but I’d rather be teaching.

Advertisements
breast cancer, teaching, Uncategorized

Are you going to be a teacher…like your mom?

When I was in high school, my friends asked me all the time if I was going to become a teacher. My mom is a teacher. A cousin is a teacher. Two cousins are principals. Teaching runs in my blood. Did I want to be a teacher when I was in high school? Nope! Did I ever see myself teaching? Nope! I was going to law school and practice estate law. That was the dream in high school.

I majored in English and political science and minored in education on the advice of my advisor so that if I changed my mind about law school, I had more than a degree in English and political science. And, low and behold, my senior year, I decided I didn’t want to go to law school after all. But, I didn’t necessarily want to teach, either. I had no clue what I wanted to do.

Long story short, after graduation, I decided to teach for a year or two and figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. What I found out was…I wanted to be a teacher. I love teaching. It’s my calling. It just is. Even when it’s hard, I’m drowning in paperwork, I have parents to call, and a billion papers to grade, I love my job.

I’m blessed to teach at a high school with an amazing administration, faculty, and staff. The student body, overall, are good kids who want to learn. Yes, we have our days where we wonder if there’s a full moon coming, but that’s true of any job.

One of my concerns, as I face surgery, has been how to make sure my classes don’t fall behind. I have a great substitute, a retired English teacher who taught at the campus and knows everyone and everything, and I know my kids are going to be in excellent hands. But, I worry, and I promised my students that what I’m leaving them to do is exactly what we would do if I were there or not. I know they’ll be taken care of by every teacher in my department, but still. I worry, and it’s hard, it’s so hard, to worry about myself over them because being able to go to work everyday during this crazy time has been one of my saving graces. My students have helped take care of me. I have to take care of them. It’s not in my nature to do otherwise.

I teach AP English Language and Composition to juniors and seniors, and I teach sophomore honors English. My AP kids are staring the AP test in the face in a few short months. My sophomores face the mandatory state exam in a few short weeks. My students are nervous about my upcoming absence. They don’t want to fall behind. I don’t want them to fall behind. So, everyday since I found out when my surgery is, I’ve been writing detailed lesson plans for my substitute. I’ve been breaking down units. I’ve collected things that need to be copied. I’ve made a calendar for while I’m out to sequence the plans for my substitute. I’ve uploaded things to my Google Classroom. Making sure my students are taken care of has been the weight on my shoulders since Monday of this week. But tonight, I can breathe a little easier.

image
Lesson plans and calendars

This is what I’ve worked on for hours. Lesson plan after lesson plan. A unit broken down. A calendar of lessons. The scope and sequence and handouts are from NMSI. The lesson plans, the explanation of how to teach this unit, and the calendar are mine…the unit put into how I teach using really good material. My AP students are set (my sophomore plans will be finished tomorrow…the lesson plans are done, I just need to finish my calendar). Eleven lesson plans encompassing a major text, five supplemental texts, two major written assignments, quizzes, discussions, group work, creative assignments, games, and intensive analytical assignments.  It’s spelled out for me, for my substitute, who I am blessed to have taking my classes, and my students. It has taken me five days, two to four hours a day, to assemble these plans. It’s been a labor of love because I do love my job. I love what I’ve created for my students to do based off the NMSI unit. And, I wish I could be there to see the progression of learning and understanding with my students.

That’s why I teach. I believe in my students. I tell them I expect so much because I know they’re capable of so much. Watching them conquer a concept and seeing the stunned look of “I get it now,” is why I teach. Knowing I make an impact is why I teach.

So, yes, I’m a teacher. Like my mom, who has been my role model and mentor along with a handful of other teachers I’ve been privileged to work with over the years. And, now, I know why my mom has taught for thirty two years now and doesn’t retire. When it’s your calling, when you love what you do, you just do. Not because it’s your job. It’s your life.

breast cancer, family, life, Uncategorized

You know you have a great husband, right?

My aunt texted me that question last Saturday. “You know you have a great husband, right?”

I do have a great husband. He is my Prince Charming…a saint for dealing with me and for being with me for twenty years. He puts everyone else ahead of him. As his aunt said to me in an email this week, A is “quiet but oh so loving and caring.” And, he is. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have him, and truthfully, I don’t know what I would do without him. He is my rock, and he has been my rock even more so since this roller coaster began.

I met A when I was 16. We went to the same high school, and while he is a little younger than me, we had an extracurricular class, choir, together. He sang bass, and his row of basses sat in front of my row of second sopranos. He sat directly in front of me. I thought he was funny the few times he turned around and talked to me, or any of the girls sitting around me. We didn’t really say much to each other or talk to each other too much, but when we did, I knew I liked him. He didn’t have a problem being honest with people, and he called things the way he saw them. I respected that, even when it was directed at me. One day towards the end of the school year, I blew a sight reading line test. I absolutely blew it and was convinced my choir director was going to bump me down a level. I sat on the steps of the choir room and fumed while the rest of my class tested. My friends tried to talk to me about it, but I was ticked, so they left me alone. Except A. He came over, sat down besides me, and told me to get over it…everyone would screw up a sight reading line at some point…she (our choir director) wasn’t going to bump me down. And, he ended it by telling me to stop being a bitch to my friends because they were only trying to help. Then, he walked off, and my friends grinned. I respected him for what he said (and, I was being a bitch to my friends because I was mad at myself).

Once summer began, I didn’t see him until August when our choir director sent out a mailer informing all Acapella choir members we had a pre-school year meeting one Thursday night and it was imperative that we bring at least one of our parents or guardians. As soon as I got the meeting, I looked for him, but truthfully, I was more concerned about finding my three friends who I’d been in choir with throughout all of high school and had most of my classes with them. I wanted to know if they’d done the summer reading assignment for our AP English Lit class and what they thought of the books (we’d been assigned to read Lord of the Flies and Brave New World). I found them, abandoned my mom, who had come with me to the meeting, and went to talk to them. I waved at A, but I really wanted to catch up with my friends. I didn’t live in the same town as the high school I went to, my school district encompasses three towns, and most of my school friends lived fairly far away from me.

Once the school year started, I had choir with A and that was it, but that was enough. We became good friends, and by October of that school year, we were dating. And, the rest, they say, is history. We dated throughout the rest of high school and college. We broke up a few times here and there, usually with great drama on my part, but we always ended up back together. We married after we graduated from college, moved back to my hometown, got jobs, bought a house, had two kids, and pretty much lived the dream life I wanted for myself as a kid.

To an extent, we still do live the dream life I wanted for myself as a kid. We both work careers where we impact lives. We can pay our bills. We can give our kids the things they need, and sometimes, the things they want. We are close to family and friends. But, since this roller coaster started last year when I told A I could feel something in my left breast, and I was scared, our lives have changed. We have changed as people. A has always been a great husband, but over the last five months, he has been more than great. He’s been incredible. He’s been amazing. He’s held me when I’ve cried and listened when I’ve ranted and raged and held my hand when I’ve been nervous or scared and comforted me when I’ve been scared and advocated when I’ve needed someone to speak for me. He’s taken care of our children, lined up help for me, found childcare for our children when needed, cooked dinner, done the laundry, cleaned the house, vacuumed and cleaned the carpets, gone to parent conferences, come to every appointment, bought a recliner for me, shopped for Christmas and birthdays. He’s done all of this while commuting an hour each way to work Monday through Friday, and some Saturdays, and while working in a career where 50 hour work weeks are the norm and 70 hour weeks aren’t unusual. If he’s going to be late, he makes sure there is help there when I need it (and sometimes, even when I don’t think I need it, but he thinks I do). He checks in every afternoon to make sure I’m really okay on the days when I text him and tell him I’m okay.

A has his flaws. We all do. He forgets things from time to time. He gets frustrated and overwhelmed from time to time. He gets annoyed with all of us and needs some time to himself from time to time. He’s human, and sometimes, I forget he’s not superman.

I know cancer can tear relationships apart. I know I’m lucky to have a husband like him who has not, not once, said this is too much. This is too hard. I’ve said those things on days when treatment has me feeling terrible, or I’m in the throes of side effects and miserable. And, he has sat beside me and told me it’s too much in that moment. It’s too hard in that moment. I know he has cried over my diagnosis. I know he has been angry over my diagnosis. I know there have been times he’s had to have thought this is too much or too hard. But, he’s never said those things to me. Instead he asks what can he do for me or how can he help.

What he doesn’t understand is by just being who he is, that’s what he can do for me or how he can help me. Just be A.

 

breast cancer, life, Uncategorized

Nope, nope, NOPE!

On Friday afternoon, I found a message from my insurance company on my answering machine. Thus far, we’ve had no problems with them. In fact, we’ve never had a problem with our health insurance. But, knowing that I’m facing major surgery, coming home and finding a message from them sent a chill down my spine. The message simply said, “Mrs. V-, this is ____ with _____. Please call me back as soon as possible at 1-866-xxx-xxxx extenstion xxxxxxx.” So, I called the number back. It rang a few times then sent me to voice mail. I left a terse voice mail and waiting for a call back.

The return call came quickly…within 20 minutes of my call. I answered the phone and found out the caller is an RN who told me she’s been assigned to my case for my upcoming surgery, her call was to check on my physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and she needed to ask me some questions.

nope nope nope nope - Imgur

I had no desire to talk to this stranger about my well-being…any part of it. As far as I was concerned, it was none of her business. It is none of her business. She assured me that her questions and my responses are protected by HIPAA, and she told me she was not in anyway associated with billing or claims, but you know what? When I hear you work for my health insurance company, I’m immediately suspicious of your motivations.

Her first question was: Do you have any health concerns I should know about?

My internal response: You have my medical file open on your computer, what do you think my health concerns are? I have breast cancer. I’m 37. I have 2 kids. I have a husband. I have legion of extended family, but no, I don’t have any health concerns you should know about.

My actual response: Well…I have breast cancer.

She laughed and made some joke, but by that point, I was already WAY over this phone call. I didn’t have the best Friday ever. I woke up annoyed by everything. That feeling did not dissipate at all throughout the day. This inane phone call spiked my annoyance level to the red zone.

She then asked me about my family history (there is none), how tall I am (short), how much I weight (NOPE!), what medications I’m on (a lot), how I recovered from my mastectomy…

When she asked that, I kind of lost it. I said, “I’m sorry, but I haven’t had my mastectomy yet, and I really don’t understand why I have to answer all these questions that you obviously have the answers to since when you asked me what medications I’m on and I forgot to mention Xanax because I haven’t taken it in awhile, you asked me if I still take it.”

She told me the questions were standard, she misread her screen and thought my upcoming surgery was for reconstruction, and while she did have the answers to most, there was a chance her information could be out of date. Yeah, like thinking I’ve already had a mastectomy because the paperwork was put through in October.

I answered the rest of her questions. I just wanted off the phone with her, and I figured the best way to get her off the phone was to just answer, but the kicker came at the end of the called.

“Now, you’ve told me your surgery is Feb. 3, so I’ll call you again to check on you while you’re in the hospital probably on the 4th or the day after. Then, I’ll call you again about a week later when you’re home to check on your recovery. Do you have any help lined up for your recovery?”

My internal response: No, don’t call me after surgery. No, don’t call me when I get home. No, none of this is your business. I don’t know you. I don’t want your help.

My actual response: Ummm…ok, and yes, I have help lined up.

She ended the call by reminding me there’s a 24 hour nurse line, and once I get home, if I have questions about my surgery, I should call her or the 24 hour line.

Nope…nope…NOPE. I don’t know you. I don’t want to call you. I have four nurses I’ve dealt with for the last six months who have been amazing, three doctors who have been amazing, friends who have been here, done this. I’m NOT calling you. I’m calling the nurses, doctors, and friends. I have a connection with them. I have none with you.

I realize she’s only doing her job, but no. Just no. I’m not your patient. You don’t care about me. Not really. I’m a case number…a statistic…I’m someone you have to call. I’m someone you have to check in with because you work for my insurance company and apparently, this is a thing.

I want help. I really do, but I want it from people who care about me, who know me and my family, who have a vested interest in me and my health because we have a connection, and I’m sorry (not sorry), but I don’t believe this call had anything to do with concern for me, but instead, it was something else for someone else to check off a list.

breast cancer, life, Uncategorized

Hollow

image

I found the quote image on Pinterest. It needs to become my mantra.

I’m tired today. Last night was not a good night. I tried to go to bed early-ish. Friday night I’d told A I was annoyed and was going to go lay down for a few minutes. That was at 6:30 pm. I woke up at 6:00 am, Saturday morning. I was so confused. I woke up wearing my school spirit shirt, my jeans, and a pair of socks. For a minute, I thought it was Friday and I’d nodded off after getting dressed before waking up the kids for school. Fortunately for all of us, I realized it was Saturday and left everyone asleep.

So, Saturday night, I tried to go to bed early-ish, but I couldn’t settle. It’s my fault. I drank some coffee before bed because coffee finally tastes right again. I tried reading for awhile. I’m rereading the In Death series again and am on Reunion in Death. Usually, reading settles me, but it didn’t. So, I decided to spend some time on Pinterest. And, that was the worst idea I’ve had in weeks.

One of my suggested pins was a link to a blog post about everything you need to know before and after having a mastectomy. The blog post wasn’t bad. It was informative and had some items I hadn’t really thought about yet. It was my curiosity that was the worst. I wanted to see how the blogger was doing now since the post was from several years ago. And, turns out, her cancer came back four years after treatment and surgery. It’s everywhere now…brain, bones, spine, liver. And, some of the mets are HER2 positive and others aren’t.

I turned my iPad off and mentally cursed myself for my curiosity. I tried to sleep, and I drifted off. And, I woke up sobbing from a horrible nightmare. My husband sat with me for awhile as I cried. I told him about what I’d read and my nightmare. A did what he does. He comforted me and rubbed my back until I fell asleep.

I woke up this morning groggy. I feel hollow inside to an extent. After being annoyed on Friday, angry yesterday, upset last night, I’m just hollow now.

 

 

breast cancer, life, Uncategorized

Angry

I’m angry today. Really angry. It’s come out of the blue, too. I spent most of yesterday annoyed, but I wasn’t angry.

Well, it’s sort of come out of the blue. Since I knew I had to be in Dallas today with S, I knew it would be the perfect day to go to Nordstrom to buy a surgical bra to wear after surgery while she was at her art lesson. I’ve known for awhile I would need one, but I’ve put it off. I didn’t want to buy one. It makes everything too real.

There’s a girl who works in the lingerie department at Nordstrom who was incredibly kind to me back in September. I’d gone to Nordstrom to buy a new bra because I’d lost nearly twenty pounds by then and the bra I had didn’t fit well. That and I HATED it. The girl working there who helped me was so nice. I told her I needed a new bra, but it was stupid of me to buy one because I’d just been diagnosed with breast cancer and would be having a bilateral mastectomy soon. She told me it wasn’t stupid, and I deserved to be comfortable until then. I’ve gone back to Nordstrom’s lingerie a couple of times since then, and she’s been there every time. She remembered me. So, knowing she handled me bursting into tears the first time she helped me, I figured she could help me deal with my needs today and do it with kindness and empathy. And, she did. She was wonderful today. She hugged me when I checked out, and I’m glad because I wanted to hug her but thought she might be creeped out.

Here’s the thing. The fact I need a surgical bra for a mastectomy makes me angry. The fact I have breast cancer makes me angry. The fact I felt the urge to write an today epitaph, and did write one and saved it to my drafts folder, makes me angry. The fact I’m worried I won’t be here for my kids makes me angry. The fact I may not get to grow old with A makes me angry. The fact I may become a burden to my family makes me angry. I’m just angry today.

I used to be very religious. I went to church every Sunday. I dedicated my life. I prayed. I read the Bible. I believed everything my church stood for, and I may not have been the best Christian, but I tried. I tried so hard, and I know I wasn’t the perfect Christian. I stumbled. I fell. I felt guilty. I prayed for forgiveness. And, while I fear this may come back on me, I’m so angry with God. I know it’s irrational, but that’s how I feel.

When I was first diagnosed several people to me “God never gives you more than you can handle.” I don’t believe that. At some point, there are things that are too much to handle. Isn’t that where anger, sorrow, heartbreak come from?

I’m so angry today.

 

breast cancer, life, Uncategorized

Wait…what did you say?

I find myself asking that question a lot more often now. “What did you say?” Or “I’m sorry…could you repeat that?” Or “I missed what you said…sorry.”

It’s chemo brain. Straight up, chemo brain. At first, I scoffed at the idea of chemo brain, but after treatments five and six, I’ve noticed some struggles with things I never struggled with before. The most frustrating one is a struggle to find the right word. Sometimes, I absolutely cannot find the word I’m looking for, and it’s so frustrating! Yesterday is a great example.

My childhood BFF had a baby on Wednesday, so I went to see them yesterday. I was talking to her husband about how A can control our heating and air conditioning from his phone via an app and how he can use the Fios app to remotely record shows if he forgot to set the DVR. Here’s the thing: chemo brain struck, and I could NOT come up with ” DVR.” I could come up with cable box and DVD, but I could NOT come up with DVR for a couple of minutes. It’s frustrating. It’s embarrassing. And, it happens to me all the time lately. It’s chemo brain. (Cable box…really? Yeah, that happened.)

I’ve been warned that anesthesia may cause it’s own mental fogginess by others who’ve had similar surgeries to the one I’m facing. That sounds fun.

Cancer sucks. Chemo brain sucks. It can all #suckit. 🙂

life, Uncategorized

Why I Write

I was going to write a post about how much chemo brain can suck it, but my mind went other places tonight. It went into memories.

I started writing stories when I was in fifth grade. They were terrible little things, but I liked to read and loved to write. I kept a spiral and a book with me at all times. I never knew when I’d get bored and want to write or when I’d need to lose myself into a book and suspend reality. That happened to me a lot as a preteen and teen…the need to suspend reality.

It’s not that my reality was terrible or anything like that. I come from a good family. My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were there when I needed support (or a swift kick in the rear), but for a long time, it was easier to be the quiet one. The one who could lose herself in a book…in a story…in a song.

As a teenager, there were people in my life, not in my family, who expected me to “turn out” bad. Those people were acquainted with a member of my family who had a lot (and still does) of struggles. Those people told me they saw that person in me sometimes and if I didn’t get straightened up, I’d have the same struggles. It baffled me. It still baffles me. I was, and always have been, an A/B and the occasional C (thanks chemistry and algebra 1!) student, I had perfect attendance (except for 1 day my senior year when I woke up with strep throat and my mom wouldn’t let me go to school), I sang in choir at school, I had good friends who would rather hang out at one of our houses and watch movies and play games than go out, I followed the rules, and I didn’t get in trouble. I was, for all intents and purposes, a nerd. I didn’t mind being a nerd. That’s how I saw myself, not how my friends saw me.

I couldn’t (and still can’t) wrap my head around how they saw anything in me other than me. Sure, I could be loud and obnoxious at time. Yes, I cursed more than I should have if my mouth got ahead of my filter, and yes, sometimes I wasn’t the nicest teenage girl in the world. I recognize that about myself. I can admit I was a mean girl sometimes, and I’m ashamed of it now. But, when it came down to it, all I wanted was to make something of myself. I wanted to be a successful student and adult. And, as a teenager, it was my burning ambition to make my parents proud of me. They were proud of me, but I wanted…needed to accomplish things. My parents never put an ounce of pressure on me academically except to pass my classes and be good. They didn’t have to put pressure on me. I did it to myself. I took honors, pre-AP, and AP classes. I didn’t always get the grades I wanted, but I tried, and I learned. I wanted to go to college…didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, but I was going. And, my other burning ambition? Prove people wrong. I was NOT going to “turn out” bad.

As a teenager, I let it fester…that opinion some had of me because I didn’t fit their idea of how I should have been. I had opinions, and I spoke them. I didn’t give in. I was (and am) stubborn. I didn’t fit a mold, and then, it felt like people were trying to break my spirit. Fortunately for me, others recognized I was letting someone else’s opinion of me fester and demanded I think better of myself and to let the anger go. Besides, I was going to prove them wrong anyway. One of those who encouraged me, once said to me, “You’re never without a book and a spiral. Write. When you’re mad, write. When you’re upset, write. When you’re happy, write. Just write. Get it out and let it go.”

For a long, long time, I did just that. I wrote. I poured my heart and soul into stories I wrote. They were fairly terrible, but I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. Writing so much improved my writing. It’s a skill you hone by practice. I graduated from high school, went to college, graduated from college, and became an adult who’s proud of how I turned out. But, along the way, I stopped writing. I kept reading. I devour books. But, I stopped writing

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, one of the first people I talked to was one of those who helped get me through those teenage years…the one who encouraged me to write. After we talked for a bit, he asked me, “Do you still write?” And, I had to answer with a no. He asked why, and I didn’t have an answer. So, he told me I needed to write again. I needed to have a space of my own where I could be me and lay bare my thoughts.

For the first three months after my diagnosis, I couldn’t find the words. I couldn’t see past the fear and anger. And, I realized, I needed to write so I could see past the fear and anger. Where I could let the fear and anger out. Where I could give it voice and know it’s ok to be scared. It’s ok to be angry. It’s ok to admit my struggles. It’s just ok.

And so, Those Four Words came to be. I needed to write. I needed to give space to my words. So…I did. And, I’m better for it.

family, kids, life, Uncategorized

What Makes me Happy

I love when we decorate our house for Christmas. This year, A and the kids did all the decorating. The weekend they wanted to decorate was a treatment weekend for me, so I watched and made “suggestions” as to where to put our legion of Christmas decorations.

We decorate with a red and silver theme. I love the color combination. It’s bright, it’s sparkly, and the colors and lights make me happy. This year, S, our artist, decided we needed to add snowflakes and set out to learn how to make some intricate snowflakes. She spent some time on YouTube…then, these appeared on our tree sprinkled throughout the branches.

Not to be outdone by his big sister, AJ made some ornaments for the tree out of pine cones and some puffs he found in my craft table.

image

By now, most people have their holiday decorations put up, but not us. Yesterday, A took down our outdoor decorations, but he left everything up in the house. I’d be happy leaving the decorations up all year, but A usually wants them put up by now. So, I asked him why he didn’t want to take down our interior decorations, and his answer reminded me how lucky I am to have him. “You need some happy,” was his answer.

He’s leaving them up because they make me happy. He knows seeing the decorations makes me smile. He knows I feel like our house is bare and empty when the decorations come down. He knows there are nights where I sit in the living room and stare at our hodgepodge of ornaments on the tree and remember. Some were made by my grandmother, some were gifts from A’s mom, some A and I bought our first Christmas as a married couple, some our children made, and others are just plain old glass ornaments from Hobby Lobby. There’s no rhyme or reason to the decorations. But, when it’s all together, our house feels happy.

So, our decorations are still up, and there’s no telling when they’ll come down. And that…that makes me happy.

breast cancer, Uncategorized

Set in Stone

It’s happening. Surgery. It’s set and happening. February 3, 2016, I go under the knife.

image

I saw my breast surgeon, Dr. H, this morning, and as she said, unless something major happens with her or Dr. L, the date is set in stone. I will not see her again until the morning of surgery. I will see Dr. L for his pre-op the week of surgery.

So…what’s happening during surgery? Bilateral skin-sparing mastectomy*. Immediate DIEP* flap reconstruction*.  During the mastectomy, I will have a sentinel node biopsy* on the left side, the side confirmed to have cancer. If the sentinel node biopsy comes back clean, no further lymph nodes will be removed. If it comes back showing cancer in the nodes, I will undergo axillary lymph node removal,* which we are hoping does not happen. We are hoping Dr. O, my oncologist, is right and there has been a complete pathological response. We will not know anything about the unknown tumor in the right breast nor will we know for sure there is no cancer in the lymph nodes until the full pathology report is complete, which Dr. H told us will take about a week. Every doctor I have is confident about my response to TCHP*. I’m hoping with all my might they’re all correct.

Surgery is going to be long. Dr. H  confirmed what Dr. L told us. It will be between 6-10 hours, and she feels confident it will be on the 10 hour side because I’m having a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction, and the reconstruction I chose is the most complicated and technical. Dr. H’s part of the surgery, the skin sparing mastectomy, involves Dr. H removing all the breast tissue by separating it from the fat layer between the breast tissue and dermis. Her goal is to remove all the breast tissue, including whatever, if anything, is left of the tumor, and to leave as much as the breast skin in tact as possible. Once she removes all the tissue, she has to reach the sentinel node and examine and remove it. Then, she waits for word from pathology regarding the sentinel node. If the node is clean, her part of surgery is done. If it’s not, she continues with more lymph node removal. Her part of the surgery will take three to four hours. While she ends her part of the surgery, Dr. L begins his part. He starts with tissue harvesting. Once he harvests the tissue from my abdomen, including skin, fat layer, and blood supply, he builds the breast with the tissue he harvested. And, he has to do this for both breasts since I am having a bilateral mastectomy. It involves highly technical micro-vascular surgery. This is not a type of reconstruction offered by all plastic surgeons. It takes a highly skilled plastic surgeon. He has to carefully reconnect the blood supply. If he doesn’t, the skin and tissue die. If they die, the DIEP flap fails. They will know within 24 hours of surgery if the flap failed. If the flaps fail, I have to have more surgery and reconstruction will be delayed for upwards of six months.

I will be in the hospital for a minimum of three days. I will spend at least four weeks recovering, but Dr. H warned me recovery could take as long as eight weeks. She told me I will not be able to stand up straight for at least three weeks. I will not be able to sleep flat for weeks. I will have a minimum of four drains that could be in place for up to two weeks. I will lose my belly button (yes, they’ll replace it). She also told me to expect complications. They’re not uncommon with the surgery I chose. And, I will still need at least two more surgeries after this one. Dr. H warned me it’s likely there will be at least one unplanned surgery depending on how I respond to the initial surgery. The phrase “skin origami” was used several times by both Dr. H and Dr. L to describe part of the surgery. Talk about a phrase no one wants to hear regarding major surgery!

I’ve never been under anesthesia for longer than four hours. I can’t lie, I’m nervous about being under for so long, but I’m not nervous about the surgery anymore. Dr. H and Dr. L are very good. They’ve both done everything to put me, and A, at ease. At this point, it is what it is. I made the choice for a bilateral mastectomy. I made the choice for a DIEP flap reconstruction. I made the best choice for me based off the information I have at my disposal. I’ve talked to friends who are breast cancer survivors. I’ve done my research. I trust my medical team. I’m so grateful to my OBGYN, Dr. B, for helping me and guiding me to the medical team I have. They’re among the best in Dallas for a reason. I trust them. A trusts them. The bilateral mastectomy gives me the best chance to survive. The reconstruction gives me the best chance to feel like me again.

I don’t make decisions easily, and once I make a decision, I tend to doubt myself endlessly. I worry about my decisions endlessly. There are two decisions I haven’t doubted since August: my decision to return to the classroom and my decision to have a bilateral mastectomy.

What I am terrified of is the results of surgery. Results of a new study released recently show that women who have HER2 positive breast cancer have a much higher chance of survival if there is a pathological complete response to neoadjuvant chemo in both the breast and the lymph nodes. The chance of survival is 90% if there is no cancer found in the lymph nodes and no cancer in the breast. That’s what I’m hoping for, and I’m terrified they’re going to find cancer still hanging out. Dr. O doesn’t believe they’ll find cancer left and doesn’t believe it was ever in my lymph nodes. Dr. H did a full clinical breast exam today and said all she feels in the left breast is tough areas she thinks indicate scar tissue of a dead tumor.

I spent a lot of time after I was diagnosed asking A why this was happening to me…what did I do. I felt despair. I felt hopeless. I saw my life ending. I was angry. I was sad. The emotions come and go. I’m scared. If the cancer is still there. If the cancer is in my lymph nodes. I’m not scared of surgery. I’m scared of the results from surgery.

 

*All links to breastcancer.org and may contain images of surgery, including mastectomy and reconstruction.