Girl on Top (Part 11) – Feeling the Pain

I stood at the mirror, undecided.  Were the marks at the front of my right breast simply scar tissue, or something more sinister?  The scar that I had sustained after the mastectomy of my right breast, curved all the way from under my right armpit to the very middle of my rib cage and, although I had administered Bio Oil every day, it still looked quite fierce to the untrained eye.

After deliberating even more, I decided that a second (and maybe even third) opinion was called for.

Baring the mark to my friend, she was as unsure as I.  It certainly looked like scar tissue as, at close inspection, it crept its way inoffensively out of the long line across my right breast, almost seeming to form part of the scar that bore testimony to my operation six weeks earlier.  However, there was a niggling feeling that it looked different to the bold scar which traced the outline of where my breast once sat.  A feeling that it somehow sort both attention and confirmation, regardless of however small and insignificant the mark might seem.

Seeking further affirmation, I decided that the best course of action was to call my breast care nurse who would then, if necessary, forward me on to my surgeon.

I am not someone who creates unnecessary scenarios out of nowhere; in short, I am not a drama queen, or a person who craves attention from the smallest ‘incident’.  Although something, somewhere told me that this was more than just a gut feeling and that this was something to be concerned about.

A few weeks previous to this I had sat, carefree, with my friend in the late summer sun, sipping wine and discussing, among other things, how my cancer had impacted on my life to date. After a few giddy glasses in the evening twilight, we had broached the subject of my mother’s premature death and my reaction to both that and my impending disease. My friend had pressed me as to what I foresaw in my future, to which I had unabashedly answered that I didn’t see a future further than a few years down the line.  This declaration wasn’t meant in a morose or disheartened way, but simply a statement of my innermost feelings.  I had no boyfriend and no children who depended on me; in short, there nothing which I could honestly say demanded my attention somewhere ‘down the line’.  My friend reasoned that she too was in the same situation, but I somehow rationalised that (without wanting to seem pompous or racked with self-doubt) my gut feelings told me that things happen for a reason, and that this was very much a feeling of que sera sera …

The next day, my nurse called me to confirm an appointment with my surgeon at the hospital and I again found myself in the waiting room of the breast clinic.  As I walked in, the receptionist greeted me almost like an old friend, there being no need for me to tell her my name, even though I had not seen her for some months.  On being summoned to the surgeon’s room, he too welcomed me with a smile:

“You can’t keep away from this place, can you?” he joked, as he gestured to the seat next to his desk.

“I just thought you might be missing me” I smiled, as I sat down next to him.

After I had explained the marks that I had seen, the surgeon examined me and concluded that he thought that the most likely cause was scar tissue.  As I had already experienced complications with the cancer penetrating my skin, my surgeon thought it best for me to have an ultra-sound, which showed that all was as it should be under my skin and that there was no cause for alarm.  Just to be completely sure, he also took a punch biopsy on the area, to give me peace of mind.  Usually, this would have been taken in another part of the clinic but, as it was busy that day, my surgeon decided to do it himself, accompanied by an American nurse whom I had not met before.  As she began to explain the procedure to me, I caught my surgeon’s eye, and we started to laugh.

“It’s fine, I already know the procedure, I’ve experienced it once … or twice” I told the nurse, who was unsure as to why we were giggling.

“I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing” she smiled, as she began to assist with carrying out the painful process.

A week later, I returned to the hospital for the results.  Over that time, I had noticed that the red mark that I had caught sight of ten days previously had spread even more, and now looked like the small branch of a tree growing out of my scar line.  I resigned myself to what I had first thought; I knew what the results of the biopsy would be.

Sitting across the desk from my surgeon once more, he sighed before beginning.  Interjecting, I cleared my throat and told him that I was aware of what he was about to tell me: the cancer had returned again.  He solemnly confirmed my suspicions and continued to examine my scar and the mark, becoming increasingly surprised at how large it had grown within the space of a week.  Measuring it, he conveyed to me that it had more than doubled in size, and began to make small points of reference on my skin where he would soon operate to remove the cancerous area.

It was now my turn to express surprise, as he asked me whether I could take the following day off work, for the small operation to be performed.  Taken aback, I agreed and told him that I would arrange for cover at work, in order for the operation to take place.  The procedure wouldn’t be a long one, but would involve the removal of the infected skin, and would be conducted under general anesthetic.

As I sat back with my surgeon at the desk, and he began to make notes in preparation, a sense of shock overwhelmed me.  Although I had already known that the sprawling mark on my chest was more than just scar tissue, to have this confirmed in the cold light of day, felt like a physical slap in the face.  Another operation.  Another cancer.

Questions rushed through my head, like an express train and I fought to compose myself and structure these into a sentence.  How had this happened again and was it because I had not started my radiotherapy sooner?  Deep down, I felt that my surgeon was thinking exactly the same things, but I knew that, as a matter of course, he wouldn’t express this to me, as it might in some way highlight negligence on his part.  As he was straining to answer, another thought clicked in my head: what would happen to my radiotherapy that was scheduled to begin in four days?  Would this again have to be pushed back further?  The surgeon explained that, even though my scar might be sensitive, I should still go along for my first session, as it was critical that this treatment start as soon as possible.

My journey home gave me time to compose myself and try to answer some of the other questions that still raced around in my mind.  I was due to move house in a few days’ time, which would mean the very day after my newly planned operation, yet this now seemed both hectic and totally unrealistic.  The fact that I was about to have an operation, move house and then begin radiotherapy in the space of three days was an insane and grueling agenda for one single person.  I would have to deal with it as best I could.

As soon as I got home from the hospital, I began packing and continued into the early hours of the morning.  On waking, I resumed filling boxes right up until 2pm, when I grabbed the essential pieces required, and made my way to the hospital for my operation.

This was third time in a less than a year that I would be going under anesthetic to have another procedure performed on my body, to try and eradicate the cancer which seemed to laugh in the face of modern medicine and continue to seep its way through my veins. On my arrival at hospital, I was greeted by my surgeon who told me in a lighthearted manner that this would be the very last time that he would operate on me.  I smiled back, conveying that he must be fed up with me by now and that he would probably never want to clap eyes on me again!

Sitting in the waiting room, I prepared myself for the operation in hand.  Before long, I was again lying on a bed, as I had done three times previously, this time chatting to a lovely nurse while waiting for the anaesthetist.  As we waited and observed the comings and goings of the busy hospital, I bombarded the nurse with questions.  Exactly what surgeons and nurses talked about in the operating theatre had always fascinated me; did their chats, for example, mirror those from Grey’s Anatomy?  To my disappointment, she informed me that only operating procedures were discussed, along with in-depth explanations if a young practitioner was present.  Before long, my anaesthetist appeared and told me, as he was administering injections, that I was to be the last operation of the day.  My surgeon had made room for me on the end of his busy operating schedule, in order to ensure that the cancerous area growing from my scar was removed as soon as possible.  As the anaesthetist spoke, his profile above me suddenly became a blur and I found myself floating like a feather on the wind, and falling into a deep, deep sleep.

Nearly two hours later, the nurse wakened me, and my surgeon visited to ask how I felt.  My mind, although still anaesthetized, somehow snapped into thinking and, ignoring his question, I told him that he had been wrong in what he had said previously.

“You know, this isn’t my last operation with you” I stated, as I shifted in the hospital bed, trying to shake the remains of the anaesthetic off.  “You will have to operate on me again and hopefully soon.”

My surgeon’s brow furrowed slightly and a look of concern played on his face, before I continued:

“You’ve got to do the reconstruction, remember?  I still want my new boobs!”

He smiled and assured me that, as soon as my radiotherapy was complete, he would assess the situation.  However, he was determined not to see me until my formal appointment with him in December.

“In that case, I’ll see you at Christmas and hopefully you’ll have a present for me.” I joked.

After a few hours, in recovery, I found myself completely alone in the ward.  The second hand of my watch ticked slowly by, and soon it was 6pm.  Looking out of the window, I watched the late summer sun slowly beginning to set.  The bustling hospital seemed somehow more quiet and tranquil than it had when I first arrived in the early afternoon.  My friend was due to pick me up at 8pm, and so I spent another few hours chatting with the nurses, as they came and went.  Surprisingly, the pain that I felt as the anaesthetic cleared, was far more than I had encountered in my previous operations, even though these had been a lot longer and the procedures somewhat more complicated.  I resolved that pain killers would soon sort this out and that, the most important thing, was getting home, continuing with my packing and then implementing my big move the very next morning.  Although the thought of what I had to do spiraled in front of me, like a never ending upward staircase, I could see somewhere at the end of it, my comfy bed the very next night, safe in the new surroundings of my brother’s house.

Arriving back home at 9pm, I looked around my room, which was now adorned with cardboard boxes piled high.  Trying to snuggle down in my bed, a sense of sadness suddenly overwhelmed me, as I shut my eyes and tried to block out the negative thoughts that danced before me in the darkness.  The pain was still strong, even though I had taken a number of prescribed tablets, and this, along with my resistance to leave the house, was morphing into something which was difficult to shut out.

I had lived with my two best friends for over three years now, and we had made so many happy memories together.  However, my planned departure for Singapore the previous year had meant that my room would have become vacant.  With my housemate giving birth to her beautiful baby boy in spring, it was now time for her to return to work, and it had been decided that her mother would come and stay, to look after the new addition.

Deep down, I always knew that this moment would come, but it didn’t make my departure any easier.  We had been through a lot together and my housemates had played a very important part in my life.  They had been through everything with me; my ups and downs, my tears and laughter, my unsuccessful Tinder dates and my triumphs in love.  My career, my cancer, my chemo … the list went on.  Secrets to cherish and memories to share forever.

As the sun crept its way slowly up into the untroubled, cloudless sky the very next day, I carefully stretched in bed and cautiously registered the pain.  It was still unnervingly bad, although I had hoped that the rest (although fitful) might have done my aching body some good.  However, today was the day of my move, and I was determined (with the help of my brother, cousin and housemates) to make sure that it went without a hitch.

On my arrival later that day at my brother’s house, a certain sense of trepidation filled me.  As I sat on the floor of my new bedroom, unpacking my belongings and trying to find them new homes, I questioned how things would be, living with my brother, his wife and their small daughter.  The restful night that I had been so looking forward to, still seemed a million miles away.  Although I had only been in the new house for a few hours, I found myself missing my old room and this, in tandem with the immense pain that I was still feeling in my chest and neck, began to make things unbearable.

And so I was proven right; another sleepless night followed, as the discomfort became worse and my mind continued to work overtime, as my eyes flicked in the darkness from one side of my new room to the other.

Next day, I awoke to find that the right side of my neck was swollen and the mass under my new scar moved around to my touch.  There was also substantial bruising to my right side and I was unable to lift my arm any higher than my waist.  My first thoughts were that of alarm, not because of the pain that I was in, but because I feared that my swollen state might stop me from commencing my radiotherapy which was just one day away.  I decided that I would go to the hospital regardless, and see whether they would give me the treatment.

That evening, I spoke to my friend in Canada via Skype.  A sense of sadness and upset still prevailed and, unlike before, I found that I was being pulled down and could see no way out.  Perhaps the pain made my emotions worse as it was as if, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake off the intense feeling of being dragged into what seemed like a bottomless pit.  To brighten my mood, we spoke about my newly-planned  trip over to see him in Toronto, which I had booked just a few weeks previously.  Trying to lift my spirits even higher, I suggested a couple of days in New York along the way, to which he agreed.  Considerably cheered up by thoughts of holidays and travel, my mood brightened a little and, as I laid my head on the pillow for the second night in my new bedroom, thoughts of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and Central Park, eradicated the pain which engulfed me.

As rain pattered against the pane of my bedroom window the next morning, a wave of soreness hit me and I immediately reached out to feel my swollen neck.  My radiotherapy was due to start within the space of a few hours and I was determined to proceed with it.  Grabbing my phone, I called my breast care nurse, to ask her if I could see someone before my treatment began, to check up on my swollen neck and painful side.

On my arrival at the hospital, my nurse saw me straight away and directed me to another breast surgeon who was in clinic that day.  After a swift examination, she concluded that I had contracted Hematoma, which is a localized collection of blood outside the blood vessels, usually manifesting in liquid form within the tissue.  It explained the pain, bruising and swelling along with the strange sensation of feeling a mass moving around under my skin.  The surgeon decided that she did not want to hang around and, to avoid another general anaesthetic, she explained that she would open my wound up there and then in the clinic and try to drain as much blood out as possible.

Calling in my breast care nurse to sit beside me, the surgeon began to prepare to deal with the blood that had manifested itself in the region of my wound, armpit and neck.  As the instruments were prepared, I tried to relax and joke that my previous surgeon must have definitely had enough of me, as I was so bruised it looked as if he’d beaten me up while operating on me!

“Laura, you’re still smiling!” the nurse beamed, as the procedure began.  Suddenly feelings of uncontrollable anger hit me.

“This time I’m not smiling.” I told her.

I had been through so very much, and there was only a certain amount that any one person could take before reaching the end of their positive thought process.  Quite simply, I had had enough.  I had reached my limit.  I didn’t want to be tested and taunted any longer by the cancer which continued to rear its head, or poked and prodded around by medical professionals.  I wanted to go right back to the time before my nightmare had begun.  I wanted to feel the certainty of a life full of new and exciting opportunities, of a future away from hospitals and treatment.

As the surgeon removed the dressing, I was unsure of exactly what to expect underneath. The area around my scar was already numb, so when the anaesthetic was administered, I couldn’t even feel the sensation of the needle penetrating my skin.  Unable to avert my eyes, I watched as she slowly started to cut the stitching away, commenting on how good my surgeon’s needlework was, and how he was renowned for his careful hand.  I was fascinated as I watched the wound being opened up and the plastic tube going inside, pumping and draining the blood out.

Fortunately I’m not in the least bit squeamish, but my attention began to wander as a sense of discomfort filled me and I realised that the tube was rubbing against my chest bone.  Sensing the tenderness, the surgeon asked me whether I would like her to halt the procedure, but I encouraged her to continue, wanting the blood drained from me as quickly as possible.  A few minutes later she asked me again if I was all right, and again I replied in the affirmative.  For the first time, I averted my eyes from my wound, as my head began to swim, my mind dizzy with pain.  Again the surgeon asked me whether the discomfort was too much and, this time, I agreed that I wanted her to cease what she was doing.  Immersed in near agony I knew that I had withstood all that I could.

After being stitched back up (and she was right, her stitches weren’t anywhere near as good as my previous surgeon!), I was sent for an ultra-sound to see whether she had been successful in removing the majority of blood that had congregated around my wound area.  Unfortunately, this showed that there was still quite a bit of blood left.  Gravely, she informed me that there was only one way to remove this: I would need another operation the next day.

Again, my radiotherapy would be postponed, again I would go under the surgeon’s knife, again it was all far from being straight forward.

As I lay on my bed that evening, listening to my brother and niece downstairs, I felt both exhausted and drained.  How much more was my body going to test me, in my fight for recovery?  How longer would I be confined to hospital beds, operating theatres, and consulting rooms?  A wave of pity, anger and fear swept over me, maybe because of my new and unfamiliar surroundings and maybe because of what the immediate future held for me.  The pain of the last few days remained, as I tried to rest my head and close my eyes.  My cancer took on a form of its own, as I drifted into an uncomfortable nights’ sleep, jeering at my every intention to recover, at my very will to overcome it.  I banished it to the back of my mind and, instead, tried to fill my thoughts with my forthcoming trip across the Atlantic; of skyscrapers and clouds, of bagels and coffee and of my true friend from over the seas who was waiting for me there.

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6 thoughts on “Girl on Top (Part 11) – Feeling the Pain”

  1. Life can be unfair and yet that same life gave us your friendship!

    We who are close to you and witness your ever-present normality, laughs and craziness will never quite appreciate what you are going through – we try, but you hide a lot of it.

    This blog chapter is a reminder of the emotional roller-coaster you are constantly facing!

    Here’s to hoping that life gives you the break that you need, and really deserve voras!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your thoughts and feelings on paper are so understandable, but you never show this outwardly! You are an amazing inspiration. So brave and strong. I only ever see you smiling. This is so sad to read, but your ability to carry on regardless, has to pull you through this part. Special girl. xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So glad I’d waited for a ‘quiet’ moment before I read this part of your blog.
    Totally agree with Suzy on your ability to carry on regardless and hide the majority of what you’re going through is second to none.
    You’re one truly amazing lady.
    I only have total love and respect for you xx

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The saddest part of the blog yet, but totally inspirational, as always. The reader has a sense of the pain that you went through as they read it, although it is only a small flicker of what you yourself must have felt, as you battled along on your journey.

    Still though, your immense positivity and courage shines through like a beacon in the dark night – and it is this which makes you a true inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I didn´t write a comment on this chapter, neither on the another one. Not because I had a busy full month of holidays with my family or festive time is more important, its simple I realize how fragile life is and how valuable. I needed time to prioritize and I realized how quickly life can be taken away. I learned to appreciate what I have and just enjoy life and live in the moment. I appreciate just being able to see my friends and hang out and appreciate all the other people around me that I have. I realized not to take things for granted. If I really want to do something I am going to go and do it and not put it off.
    Laura with your blog you are opening eyes to many of us. The name of this chapter ´Feeling The Pain´ was carving us with a pain all story through. This chapter is so brutal about your cancer, so brutal how affected your body, that we had no idea what a tough journey you are going through.(Even we knew on a daily basis what are you going through, and that the saddest part). Laura you live with, absorb, and you make as normal as possible the many side effects and ravages to your body. It is the recognition of how fragile life is and how valuable life is by respecting (without ignoring) all the messages your body and your life sends to you!
    You are truly conqueror!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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