What breast surgery is really like

Morphine is a wonderful thing. For the first day or so after my partial mastectomy and lymph node clearance last Thursday (a week ago?? Where did that go?), I was pain-free and pretty happy, apparently sending exclamation mark-filled texts from my hospital bed, although I have no recollection of this.

The worst bit of the day, after DH dropped me off at 7am and we had a tearful cuddle, was definitely being squashed in the mammogram machine and having long flexible wires stuck through my boob under local anaesthetic to map out the area of pre-cancer that needed the chop. That took an hour or so, and was uncomfortable and pretty weird. Edward Scissorbreasts.

Then at 10am I was in a hospital gown with flight socks on and a name label round my specs like a complete mentaller, lying on a bed beng wheeled through the surgical area of the Royal Surrey and confirming for the sixth or seventh time that I had no piercings and was allergic to several things but nothing medical. Then into a small room filled with reassuring anaesthetists, who struggled to get the canula into my hand as I was suddenly shaking so much. I’d been practising counting backwards but in the end my last words were ‘I’m sorry, I’m a bit nervous’. Then oblivion.

I came round in the recovery room with an oxygen mask on. Then I went back to sleep, on and off. The morphine was kept topped up. My naturally low blood pressure wasn’t doing me any favours so the oxygen stayed on for a bit. I remember the clock opposite saying 3.30pm. Then 5.30pm. Then there was a bed available and I was wheeled up to the ward. Not near a window, Tracey the surgeon doesn’t like her ladies near draughts.

Then I saw DH, bizarrely wearing a joke golf visor with fake hair coming out of the top, covering his baldy bonce, which was a bit of a headf%ck inthe circs. He’d been waiting for me for two hours. Dunno what we both said, I was out of it. I was starving, having not eaten anything for more than 24 hours, so DH went off to get me a kebab – lovely lean meat, packed with raw veg, and much healthier than what was on offer in the hospital. Throughout my stay, it was like the hospital kitchen staff were playing a game of serving up the exact opposite of what would a) be appealing and b) packed with nutrition to help you get better. As my brother in law noted, hospitals at mealtimes smell like cheap cottage pie.

There was a bedpan involved as I wasn’t allowed up. I got ‘shy willy’ – as an adult, in bed, lying on your back and sober, every synapse is screaming ‘THIS IS NOT AN APPROPRIATE PLACE TO RELEASE YOUR BLADDER’. There was no dignity left at that point.

For three days, I had lovely visitors who smuggled in nice food. My babies came in twice to brighten my day and I wished I could give them less rubbish cuddles. They are learning to hug my ‘strong’ side and be gentle with my right side. I watched the heatwave through the window. My blood pressure was taken regularly and lots of different nurses said ‘ooh, it’s on the low side’. I swallowed all the Good Drugs dished out in tiny paper pots. I progressed to a commode, sat in a chair to be washed and then the room slid sideways, my vision went monochrome and sound disappeared. I remember saying, thickly, I’m having a bit of a funny turn. Back to bed.

Then the weirdness of night time in a hospital, when my co-patients, all of whom seemed perfectly normal in daylight, turned into wailing zombies: ‘ooh, ah, oh dear, nurse, NURSE, commode, please nurse, ooh, argh, oh no’ and so on. After night one, I wore earplugs. That is my toppest tip. The nurses (all wonderful) were obsessed by bowel movements. I had a secret stash of organic apricots, so was fine, but a couple of women were literally being held hostage until they had ‘passed’.

I had, have, to sleep on my back. Movement of my arm was, and still is, very limited. It’s extremely uncomfortable. The pain is just about kept under control by three drugs, but every so often I overreach slightly and then the pain is eye watering. There is very little sensation under the top of my arm, in my armpit, and the top of the breast, so it’s like having a local anaesthetic. Disconcerting. Some of this might come back. Some, particularly under the arm, definitely won’t as the skin nerves had to be cut to remove all my lymph nodes. I will have to get used to this. I can’t drive for a couple of weeks.

On Sunday the first drain, from my breast, was removed, with a bit of an ouch and a deep breath, as it had stopped draining excess fluid into the bottles I had to carry around in a pretty embroidered bag. The fluid has some blood in it, so the tubes running from under my bandages looked very red, which was a bit alarming. The second drain, from my underarm, was removed on Monday just before I was allowed to come home. This had drained a lot more. The sensation of the long thin tube slithering through flesh was unexpectedly revolting.

From the first tentative glances down at my new miniboob under its bandages, it looked like Tracey had done a pretty good job. As she said when she checked on me that first evening, ‘You have the breast of a 19 year old’. Well yes, I probably do. But just the one. And also, it’s a nice small pert boob but with an anchor shaped scar: all the way around the nipple, which had to be removed and re-placed, down, and all around the bottom. At the moment there’s still a big dressing over my poor squashed nipple, which makes it look even odder. My signature mole is still there but it appears to be further down now.

I was sent home with a special bra: no underwires, high cut and wide straps, so it’s just as flattering and wearable (not) as a nursing bra, except with pockets in the sides for prostheses.  I have a triangle-shaped ‘softie’ to pad out the bra on the emptier side. When the wounds heal up, in a few weeks, I’ll be measured for a silicone one which gives a better shape. I’m meant to wear the bra day and night. After the first night at home, I decided to just wear it during the day as I figure the healing power of sleep is just as important as breast support, and I couldn’t sleep wearing it.

Coming home on Monday afternoon was lovely, but strange. Pleased as I was to be away from the hospital and the enforced intimacy with strangers dealing with their own serious health problems, I felt extremely vulnerable. My cheerfulness and optimism dissolved. By Wednesday morning, it was clear that I wasn’t coping with the kiddies, so DH bought in the big guns – his mum and my mum on successive days to entertain, clean, tidy, prepare meals, iron, make me cups of tea and let me cry on their shoulder. Everyone who texted me in hospital got a perky reply. Everyone who texted me yesterday got full and frank disclosure of my fragile emotional state and my physical challenges. I cried so many large blobby tears I was surprised I didn’t flood the place, like Alice in Wonderland.

I wasn’t prepared to feel like this. I underestimated the effects of being under general anaesthetic for three hours. I had no idea how restricted and uncomfortable I would be, and the knock-on effect of this on my ability to sleep and move normally. I had an inkling of how difficult I would find adapting to my new, albeit temporary body shape, though: I always knew the psychological impact of losing half a boob would be far trickier for me than the chemo.

I’m not spending a lot of time looking at myself naked. I expected it to look like I had one large breast and one small one. What it actually looks like is that I’ve got one high up breast and one low down one. If you hoik the left one up, they don’t look that different, although I reckon the right one has around half the mass. I will be very pleased indeed to have the simple cosmetic reduction on the left in a few months. Human beings are meant to be symmetrical, so it really messes with your head seeing something that isn’t. I’ve had two shallow baths at home now – I’m not allowed to soak or get the wound wet for six weeks – and both times I’ve had a mild asthma attack, I think triggered by the shock of seeing my body looking so unfamiliar.

Today, I feel calmer. I’ve done very little. DS has been at nursery, DH is at work, so me and DD have just been hanging out quietly at home, being looked after by my mummy, who has cleaned the house from top to bottom as my new cleaner picked this week, when I physically can’t do much, to throw a sickie. I know there will be up days and down days in the weeks to come. I am going to try and take it easy, in terms of what I do each day and being gentle with myself. This is a huge challenge for someone who hates being slow or still. Another lesson to learn from cancer.

I need laughter, I think. The children help: yesterday I laughed like a drain when I found them playing an entirely unprompted game of hospitals and DD announced she was ‘Celia’ (my research nurse), DS had to be ‘Dr Houston’ (my oncologist) and cousin A was ‘Tracey’. At one point, Dr Houston was sitting on Celia’s face while she kicked Tracey…

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19 thoughts on “What breast surgery is really like

  1. Oh my love, you’ve really been through the mill (((gentle hugs on your strong side))). Everything I have tried to write sounds like a cliche…. you’ve been through the worst now and it sounds like you have the most amazing support in place. It’s natural to mourn what you have lost and acceptance of any change, especially to your body, isn’t always easy. Allow yourself the freedom to be with that – and to feel however you feel, it’s only natural and is an important part of your healing and recovery.

    Sadly a very close family member was diagnosed with breast cancer at the weekend and is having the op next Tuesday, so I really wanted to thank you again for sharing your experiences (especially this post) as it’s so helpful in being able to prepare ourselves for it all – what she may be going through and what we can do for her.

    Sending you much love as always,

    Sarah
    x

    • Thank you my love – and I’m so sorry to hear your news. I reckon it’s harder being close to someone with cancer than actually having it, to be honest, just as it was easier for me having a nice long nap than waiting for someone to come round. xxx

  2. Val says:

    Well done! I assume you had a therapeutic mammoplasty like me. My boob looks beautiful now 6 months later and when the other is tweaked to match they will be better than they were to start with. You will love it in a few months!

    Rest and relax, enjoy your kids and in a few weeks you will feel a new woman…..are you having radiotherapy? If so its a doddle compared to the chemo n surgery! xx

    • Thanks Val! I have been assured by everyone who’s been through chemo that radio is a walk in the park. And nice to hear that your bionic boob has settled down. I am looking forward to being small but balanced too! xx

  3. Bernie says:

    Maja, you are an incredible woman! I’m not surprised that you have been feeling low the last couple of days. You had to conserve so much of your energy to get through the chemo and the surgery and it was inevitable that you would experience a dip at some stage.

    This feeling is very common and it will pass; in the mean-time take up all the offers of help you are given and under no circumstances try and be brave for the sake of other people. This is your time to lean on family and friends who are all very happy to help you get through this challenging time in your life.

    Love and hugs Bernie

    • Thanks Bernie. Wise words as ever. I am not terribly good at being a patient, or being patient, as you know! It’s hard for control freaks who are always on the go to stop, sit down, and let someone else take the strain, but I am trying. xxx

  4. Hugs Maja. Brave and searing writing again. Thank you for sharing.

    Watch as many “funny films” as you can to laugh.

    Rest up and enjoy the love coming from those so close to you and surrounding you.

    Hugs xx

    • Hospitals are so weird, yes! You get institutionalised worryingly quickly. After a day or so, clock time is irrelevant – the day is marked with drug rounds, blood pressure monitoring, and dreadful food at random times of day. And it’s never dark, and never quiet. Not planning to go back any time soon! xx

  5. Natalie says:

    Oh my lovely friend, my heart aches for you. I cannot possibly comprehend how all this must send your head spinning but I do know that you are surrounded by so much love and support. You can cry as many blobby tears as you want, Team Pinchy will mop up after you always

    You are a strong, courageous, inspirational lady on good days AND bad days. Chirpy texts are not the reason people love you. You are the reason.

    Hugs on the strong side.
    xx

  6. wow – what an amazing, honest read. Thanks for sharing what must be a really weird and not particularly lovely time in your life right now. One day when everything hurts less, you might be able to look back on it as an interesting incident that added character to the pathway of your life.

  7. connie says:

    lots of love maja, i laughed when you said you had a kebab! hospital food is not very good is it, processed cheese sandwiches with white bread (which is what mum got) is not a dinner in my books! Glad your’e back home being looked after and relaxing x

  8. StudentMummy says:

    Even though not family and linked more by virtual wires and long ago school friendship, so proud of you. Hugs. xx

  9. bec says:

    I’m afraid i might have been one one of the weird people who shuffled or moaned at night during my recent hospital stays. I have been there with the bed pan experience too and my buzzer was out of reach!
    But terrific to read your positive spin, its the only way to try and deal with things. Im glad this bit is over. love to you and the family Rebecca

  10. R2 says:

    So pleased you’re recovering and up and about – it was good to see you earlier, even if it was at boring old Sainsbury’s. And I was delighted to have been a recipient of a morphine-fuelled text! This post made me cry because this is the first time I have really seen any sorrow; you have been through so much and yet still manage to write beautifully, honestly and with such candour and humour with that tiger mask on. It is a real privilege to have access to all your feelings like this.

    If the children fancy the company of other children next week, give me a call and we’ll arrange something. Besides it will get them out of OH’s way as he had the snip today and will drive us all mad! As for laughter, my brother would recommend I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue – he laughed so hard he was worried he’d burst his stitches! Whichever way, I hope the healing process is kinder this week.

  11. Gosh. I’m just over here to say I’ve read every word. What an ordeal you’ve been through. Hope this is the start of better things. Make sure you rest and take every offer of help. My friend went through this a few years ago. She came out the other side and flies off to the Caribbean tomorrow. x

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