Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Radical Mastectomy Or Frontal Lobotomy?

It was a running joke among some of my friends, well, those who thought they were my friends... 

I had no choice, a mastectomy was necessary to stop the cancer from invading the rest of my body, but since I routinely did some idiotic things, some people suggested a frontal lobotomy wouldn’t be so bad. I was going in for surgery anyway...

I proved my need for this just two days before my surgery. I was watching a YouTube video on mastectomy recovery, but it started with the entire surgical procedure - in full color - entirely uncensored!! It’s now been two weeks since my surgery, and I still can’t get the images out of my mind. I watched, mesmerized, as the scalpel sliced open the breast, splitting it sideways like a ripe cantaloupe, spilling its insides everywhere.

I admit, it was another dim-witted thing to do. I have a degree in Science and have done my fair share of dissections, but this – well, this made me nauseous. Yeah, the frontal lobotomy wasn’t such a bad idea after all...

When I told Peter about the video I watched, he responded, “Why did you do that? It’s surgery! Did you think it was going to be pretty?”

Maybe I did. After all, isn’t breast cancer a pretty pink ribbon? Ever since the fall of 1991, when pink ribbons were handed out to runners in the New York City race for breast cancer survivors, this little pink ribbon has been the rallying point for Breast Cancer awareness, support and funding around the world. What was I supposed to think?

Little did I know that during my surgery I would have an observer, someone like me, watching a mastectomy for the very first time.

But there were lots of preliminaries before the actual “Big Day” arrived. A pre-admittance nurse gave me a call to go over all the particulars so I would be totally prepared.

As she walked me through the process of what to bring and went over my health concerns, she mentioned that I would have to stop taking all natural supplements two weeks before surgery. Considering that my surgery was in exactly one week, I became slightly concerned.

“What kind of supplements?” I asked.
“Anything that isn’t a vitamin or mineral,” she astutely replied.

I had read that ginseng and gingko biloba could cause problems but weren’t sure why. When I told her I was taking both of these supplements she told me to STOP IMMEDIATELY!

Okay, okay! “Are there any complications that can arise if someone has been taking these natural products?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t want to tell you the horror stories of what happens in surgery,” she replied. “One never knows how these supplements react with anesthetic.”

What an incredible ‘bedside manner.’ She obviously helped me feel calm and relaxed about the surgery, putting my mind at ease.

When she also told me to stop shaving two weeks before surgery, I almost asked if she wanted to use some of my gingko.

Then she let me know I was NOT to use any make-up on the day of the surgery! And here I had set up a manicure and pedicure the day before. I thought wearing lots of eyeliner, mascara and lipstick only appropriate if you have to have a mastectomy – I mean, you want to look your very breast!

I asked the nurse how long she expected surgery to last as my surgeon said it could take anywhere from one to two hours depending on the sentinel node biopsy. But the nurse retorted, “Your surgeon’s only booked in for an hour so she needs to get it all done in that time.”

Oh...good! I wouldn't want her to rush and make a mistake or anything...

I jokingly asked the nurse if I should use a felt marker to indicate which breast they were to remove and she said that wouldn't be necessary. The pre-op doctor would use a marker to indicate the cut lines so there’s no error on the surgeon’s part.

Whew! Good news there. I certainly didn’t want to have a double mastectomy.

The sentinel node biopsy preparation was at 7 am and after that I would wait around until my surgery. The only thing the nurse said I was allowed to wear was ‘clean’ socks. I made a mental note to do laundry the night before.

On April 4th, I entered the hospital armed with a double pair of clean socks, ready for battle. When prep for the sentinel node involved inserting four needles into my right breast with radioactive dye, I asked how painful it was.

“Some women can handle it,” the doctor said. “But others scream in pain and some say they can’t do it at all.”

With those comforting words I gripped Peter’s hand and closed my eyes. The first three needles were a piece of cake but the fourth, well - I didn’t quite break Peter’s hand.

Then there were two pleasant surprises. A good friend of ours was in Red Deer that morning, for the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. She decided to visit me but had no idea where the hospital was. The first person she asked told her, “Follow me. I’m the chaplain there and I’ll lead the way.” When she arrived, a visitor who was just pulling out of a rare parking place offered her his time card with over 40 minutes still on it. Even though Peter and I were in a ‘holding’ room, she found us, joked with us and prayed for me before surgery.

There were three breast cancer surgeries scheduled back-to-back and I was in the middle. When a young woman walked in and introduced herself as our student nurse, I had no idea what a blessing she would be, especially to me.

We were the only ones to have a nursing student (Jess), shadow us throughout the day.

As we laughed and joked with Jess, the time flew by. She was a movie buff and had a vivacious personality. We welcomed her into this life-altering day and our lives. All too quickly they called for me. They were ready. Was I?

No wheelchair this time, I walked into the pre-operating area. Peter was stopped at the door. He looked a bit shocked that he could go no further. One last kiss, then he was gone.

But there was Jess, grinning at me, walking with me. For the first time I realized she would be beside me the whole way, even in the operating room watching my mastectomy. I thought back to the images of this surgery I had seen and prayed they wouldn’t harm her innocent eyes.

When I was settled onto a gurney, my IV hooked up, the surgeon marched in with a black felt marker, putting her insignia with an arrow above my right breast and a star on my right hand for good measure. I told her that wasn’t really necessary as Jess was there to make sure she did a right mastectomy not a frontal lobotomy.

The surgeon smiled at us, patted my shoulder and said everything would go well.

I found out Jess was a film buff and as we were talking about some of our favorite movies the anesthesiologist came for a chat, I was becoming more nervous about the surgery and asked for something for anxiety. The anesthesiologist explained I would be going into the operating room in ten minutes so there simply wasn't time for the anti-anxiety medication to take effect. Becoming even more agitated I mentioned that this could cause serious heart palpitations for me.

The anesthesiologist just shook her head. “No, I don’t want to hear that,” she said. “Just tell your heart that is not going to happen,” and she walked away.

I looked into Jess’s startled eyes, but she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Hmmm, that was easy.” 

Then she asked me for my Top 10 films of all time. She was trying to distract me – we both knew it – but it worked! Amazingly, I found that she had Schindler’s List and Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet in her Top 10 (as they are in mine).

When the anesthesiologist came back and started to wheel me out, she said, “This is it. Are you ready?”

An electric burst of fear swept through my body from head to toe. I was literally tingling, and knew there was no way I could do this. But Jess looked at me and gave me her double thumbs up signal and I thought of all the people rooting for me and praying for me. Courage slowly dragged the fear from by body and by the time we were in the operating room I was fine.

Jess was introduced and she mentioned this was the first surgery she had ever seen. I looked across at her and said, “Then this will forever be in your Top 10 Jess, because it is your first.” She nodded at me, her eyes shining.

When a nurse asked Jess what her goal was, she grinned from ear to ear, “To make sure Doris has a right mastectomy and NOT a frontal lobotomy.”

The nurses were laughing and it was such a jovial atmosphere the anesthesiologist decided to give me laughing gas. I was gone...

For the first time,I dreamt while under anesthetic. It was pleasant and I didn’t want to wake up but when I saw Jess’s bright eyes, I gruffly asked how it went, my voice raw from the intubation.

“No lobotomy,” she said. “They even got the right breast.” We grinned at each other - our special secret. She had to leave but assured me the surgery was amazing to watch and that she really enjoyed her time with us.

Peter was soon holding my hand, so happy it was over. I later found out he did a great running commentary on Facebook saying that once the surgery was complete, “my right breast was just a distant mammary.”

They gave me a barf bucket right away but I didn’t need it so Peter suggested I put it on my head to show how I was “cowboying up,” after major surgery. Needless to say I reacted very well to the anesthetic. No chills, shivering or throwing up.

The first night was brutal as my nurse could have used some of my gingko herself. I was peeing green dye from the sentinel node biopsy that they were supposed to measure each time, but I ended up doing it. They refused me my normal meds or anything to help me sleep and were wondering why my heart rate skyrocketed. They taped my chest because of a huge edema and did it wrong which caused excruciating pain and some spectacular bruising.

Thankfully when the daytime nurses got on, all that changed. I got my meds, slept most of the day and went home that evening!

My drain came out 10 days later and I am slowly healing. But the reality of the collateral damage is just sinking in. I still don’t know what my pathology report will say and the road ahead looks like a long one.

The battle against cancer is filled with unknowns, but some of them, like Jess, are blessings. They are reminders that God is with you, even in dark places.


  1. Nicely written, Doris! Praying for a speedy recovery.

  2. Wow.... Thank you for sharing this walk with us... we continue to Pray for you... Lorne & Mercy

  3. I can't believe you watched a video on the surgery before your surgery! You & my sister are so much alike!You science people! :o) So glad you are on the flip side & hoping it gets easier & that good news is in the future!!!

  4. Wow, thanks for sharing this, Doris. Your courage (and sense of humour) are inspiring. All the best as you work through recovery.

  5. Wow I'm so sorry for the pre-surgery lack of bedside manner! I'm glad you're healing and just sent up a prayer of thanks for Jess. Something tells me she will be a great nurse. Blessings....

  6. Ha! That's so funny that you watched that video - that's exactly what I would have done (and have done - but a different surgery). Yeah, a couple day's before you go in though probably isn't the best time.
    That's for posting this and giving us a clearer glimpse of what was happening inside that hospital. Thank God for Jess!! Sounds like God sent you an angel in human form! He knew just what you needed! ... It's easy for me to say but He knows what your going to need going forward too.
    Love you and praying for you.

  7. Jess was your own special angel, just when you needed her! Your supplements can act as blood thinners, which is why they probably wanted you off of them. Even though they are "natural" they do have an active affect. Thanks for sharing your story. Makes me more aware and compassionate for those going down this path. Bless you,my friend.

  8. I have never been able to take the scientist out of me so, Lorna, Joy, it was inevitable that I would watch a video on the surgery, but it was a really stupid move. It's different when you can look at it objectively - but when you think it's YOU under that knife - it brings on a whole new set of feelings...

    Jess was definitely an angel to me that day. Looking back, I don't know how I could have faced the surgery otherwise. I certainly would have been much more afraid if she hadn't been there. She will make a GREAT nurse!

    Becky - you are right about my supplements. They did act as blood thinners, but then I was given a shot of heparin right before the surgery too. When my surgeon found out about that she was angry because that was another blood thinner. Thankfully I didn't have excessive bleeding during or after the surgery.

    Thank you all for your prayers!

  9. Doris, I just found your post. I had a right radical mastectomy on May 30, 2012 and I really appreciate your attitude and sense of humor. We could be great friends. I tend to look at the irony and humor in stressful situations, as well. And, Lord knows, going through these surgeries and treatments can be a tad stressful at times. How are you doing? Are you healing well? Have you started treatment? I had my first of 4 chemo treatments last week. Radiation will follow for me. I still have my hair but my scalp is beginning to tingle. You will be in my thoughts and prayers now that I've found you.

  10. My friend had a masectomy yesterday....this helped me understand her feelings a bit better...she is also waiting to hear the results. I wish I knew what to say to make her feel better.....

  11. My friend had a masectomy yesterday....this helped me understand her feelings a bit better...she is also waiting to hear the results. I wish I knew what to say to make her feel better.....

    1. Waiting for results is one of the hardest things. I was glad the surgery had gone well and was focused on recovery. But when my pathology reports took a week longer to get to my doctor than expected, I thought the worst - that the cancer had spread. This was not the truth though, they were just backed up at the lab. Beth, you can encourage your friend - that she made it through surgery; that the pathology reports might take awhile; and that the biopsy report she had to begin with was probably fairly accurate. My hope is that the cancer hasn't spread. I got great news from the pathology report after my mastectomy. Even better news than my oncologist expected. They got all the cancer, no spread, no radiation, no chemo. It's almost 5 years since I wrote this post and the cancer has not yet returned. Also amazing news. Encourage your friend and stick with her through all of the waiting.