Day 0 starts with a lot of nervousness but goes off with military precision. I leave the house at 5:30 am armed with newspaper, Gary Shteyngart’s autobiography (because the man can make me laugh) and crossword puzzles. I know there will be a lot of waiting around and, in the end, it is the crossword puzzles, forcing me to think hard without letting other thoughts in, and some breathing exercises, that restore my calm. By the time the doctors wheel me into the operating theatre, with a healthy dose of a happy drug in my veins, I am positively giddy and without a care in the world.
An hour later, my tumor is on its way to the pathology lab and I am munching on crackers and apple juice. And peeing bright blue pee. Disturbing.
Two hours after surgery I am home. The nurses seemed to think I was doing very well and, frankly, I am happier to rest on my sofa than in the hospital, as wonderful as everyone is (my insurance company is giving me grief but my medical team is spectacular).
Day 1 I experience euphoria and some discomfort under my armpit, where the lymph nodes have been removed. The waterproof bandage allows me to shower safely, the only restriction being unable to raise my right arm all the way up. I spend the day in a state of profound happiness: that the known cancer is gone, that I feel like myself, that I am hungry like a wolf, that every person I know under the sun thinks to call, text, email, send flowers or cards. I pretty much spend the day talking on the phone, eating Thai takeout, Ottie and Portia lodged at my side.
Day 2 I am cranky. Sleeping on my back is not my favorite position but I have no choice. Because I am controlling the pain with just Tylenol, I wake up every few hours, when the pain reminds me it’s time for another pill. It’s actually less severe than a toothache and not that bad but I start feeling sorry for myself. If the first hurdle has been conquered there are still many ahead.
I wake up slightly nauseous, most likely from the pain meds, with dirty hair I am determined to wash. But washing it without raising my right arm seems improbable. I call every blow dry salon I can think of in the vicinity and even the scuzziest ones are fully booked. What was I thinking? It’s the day before Thanksgiving. Those who are not cooking are busy prettifying themselves. I become crankier and crankier and the question that never entered my mind starts bubbling under the surface: “Why me?”. And I know it’s not about the hair.
Ottie and Portia follow me into the bedroom, determined to keep me company no matter where I am or what I am doing. I sit on the unmade bed and shed a few tears, then the desire to clean myself up trumps my misery. I disrobe carefully and study the see-through bandages in the mirror for a long time: I stare at my small breasts, wondering if the right one is going to look miserable next to its healthy twin.
The warm water on my back and hair feels great. Zooming in and out of the shower as is my habit is out of the question. Working mostly with my left arm, it takes me ages to perform the most mindless tasks. But I wash my hair, and I style it too and I realize I am much stronger than I thought even a couple of hours ago. I will be alright.
The surgeon’s office calls me to find out how I am and to remind me to take off the bandages today. “You mean, right now?” I sound panicked.
“Yes, if there is a problem, you can at least come in today. We won’t be here for the rest of the week.”
I thought I could postpone facing what my breast looks like until tonight. I push the dogs out of the bathroom, creating, in my warped mind, a more sterile environment, and I ever so gently begin peeling the bandage off. A little strip keeps the skin around the nipple in place. There is some swelling, no bruising, definitely no blood. I look remarkably normal. Conceptually, I knew that would be the case but all my fears got in the way of my knowledge.
I go back to making phone calls, directing and bossing the Thanksgiving meal I won’t be cooking. Nobody is pointing out I am more of a pain in the butt than usual. I know they are indulging me and I am planning to milk this for as long as I can.
Day 3 is the day I am supposed to give thanks. There will be turkey, and even a pecan pie made by me, the crust rolled a few days before the surgery. I even venture to make halva (not exactly in the pilgrims’ spirit but I am promoting peace, if not in the Middle East, at least around my table) and cranberry sauce. Even if I don’t personally eat it, I don’t want any of the canned stuff passed around.
The pain has subsided, my movements are less limited and I feel normalcy setting in. All it took was three days. A lumpectomy is a lot less invasive than one might think.
So I give thanks: for my resilience, for all the love I earned in five decades, for a supportive family and very patient friends. I will eat my least favorite meal of the year without grumbling, trying not think about next week when the results that will determine my treatment will be in. I will focus instead on convincing my fellow diners that eating turkey is a bad idea all around and maybe next year we should try pizza.
It’s all about making small inroads as we go along.