Seven years ago, I altered my body. Five months after I received The Letter advising me of the “density” that was presumed to be nothing but was worthy of another look, I was waiting to be summoned into an operating room.
That morning, I stood in the shower taking a long look at Me and crying in silence. This was a personal moment. A moment between me and my body. And, what would be happening in a few short hours was as a result of a choice. My choice. I had clear margins when the surgical biopsy was done. I also had a diagnosis of invasive lobular breast cancer.
I still have the copy of my pathology report where the surgeon drew the box explaining “clean margins” and then placed little dot marks of ink inside the box. She said, “The question is how do we know there isn’t a dot over here?” Seeing that dot was OUTSIDE the box, my brain began to engage. I knew I needed to start thinking outside of the box about how I wanted to proceed with treatment. And that is how I came to find myself at Memorial Hospital NYC on September 19, 2006 for my bilateral mastectomy.
I remember crying in the shower, but what happened next is just a jumble of memories. They are all out of order in my brain. Or just simply gone. This, I am sure has nothing whatsoever to do with chemo brain but is a function of being as scared as I have ever been in my entire life. Fear had me in a chokehold like nothing I could have imagined or anticipated.
I remember changing into what would be my attire for the next several days, The Blue Gown. I remember how everything was behind schedule that day. I remember the kindness of the young man who was my tour guide between the surgical area and the labs. I remember wanting to scream at the nurse that ungently injected the dye for my sentinel node biopsy. And I remember sitting and sitting and sitting with the blue gown and the blue socks.
I don’t remember when I was finally called. I don’t remember walking to the operating room. I don’t remember much of anything until walking into the OR and not seeing the blue pillow that was there before. Seeing a horseshoe shaped thing upon which to rest my head, I remember my mind beginning to race, “They are going to intubate me to do this.”
Before I had a chance to freak out, everyone began to greet me as if we were going to have some grand party. Everyone was soothing and cordial, welcoming me to their workplace. Greeting me by name as the flurry of activity begins. “Blood pressure, cuff, AnneMarie.” “This is sticky and cold, AnneMarie, I’m sorry.” And then, the familiar, “Can you spell your first and last name please?” while my wrist was being examined by another person. Just checking. And then, the dreaded, “What is going to be done today, AnneMarie?” These people were all displaying compassion and empathy that I’ve yet to witness in any other place. But STILL. I don’t know how I politely replied but my brain was screaming, “LOOK AT THE WHITE BOARD THAT TAKES UP THE ENTIRE WALL!! IT’S ALL THERE!!!”
And, then: “AnneMarie, can you hear me? You are in the recovery room. Are you warm enough?” Nurses. Possibly the noblest profession on the planet. I don’t think I sustained two consecutive moments of “awake time” for another ten hours. I remember being wheeled through what felt like an underground, bumpy labyrinth on wobbling wheels. I remember being lifted into a bed. It was 10PM and no, I did not know where my nipples were.
I remember waking that next morning surrounded by no less than six doctors. That’s what happens in a teaching hospital. The doctor gently opened the Velcro on the surgical bra to change the gauze and check the incisions. Nothing was taped to my skin. The gauze was loose. The doctor asked me if I wanted to look. I just remember staring straight at the ceiling and I remember the tears falling on the pillow. I didn’t even respond.
Another round of doctors later, the next doctor did not arrive with an entourage. She was soft spoken and kind. I think she was sent in for the sole purpose of my psychological well being. “The sooner you look, the easier it is to jump that first hurdle.” I still hear her words. Through streaming tears, I looked. I didn’t realize they would begin filling the tissue expanders in the operating room. Yes, I was surprised I didn’t look like a boy.
But I was more saddened by the loss of what was part of me. It wasn’t until more recently that I finally came to terms with The New Normal in The New Body. It wasn’t until five years later that I properly grieved my loss. The world has been telling me forever that the Pink People are the lucky ones, the strong ones. Good cancer, mild chemo, how dare I be anything than Fine.
I am now and was then, surrounded by a large and loving family, but in that moment, I never felt more lost or more alone when I had the funeral for myself five years after the event and I felt everything that I had been shoving aside for so long. There are still moments of wistfulness and moments of sadness. I miss my own body. I miss all of the altered and removed parts but I made medically sound choices based on my individual circumstances. Many conversations with my doctors, much soul searching and in the end, I know it was the right choice and I don’t regret it for one second.
No regrets, however, doesn’t mean there isn’t an ongoing grief process. I’ve accepted my new body. I’ve come to terms with the reality of what is. I know I would not do anything differently but still … I miss me.