Note: This is part 2 of a 5-part series of journal excerpts written when I was diagnosed with breast cancer 15 years ago. Read Part 1 of this series.
Friday, Sept. 22, 1995
After surgery, I recall waking up in the recovery room and then in my hospital room, where my husband was. I had an oxygen tube in my nose and a catheter for my bladder and a button I could press for a painkiller in my IV and lots of bandages where my breasts used to be. I was groggy, but I wasn’t in much pain.
The surgery had gone smoothly. That’s what everyone said. My color was good and I looked well. Everybody said that, too.
Every morning, a flock of plastic surgery residents came in and peeled off my bandages and pads. I looked down at my chest, along with them. There are two perfect saline hills with red wounds slashed across them and small, careful black stitches. I almost went into cardiac arrest the first time I saw them, but the plastic surgery residents always oohed and aaahed. Day after day, they complimented me on my incisions and on how well they were healing.
The incisions drain into two bags that hang over my crotch and bounce when I walk. I think this is what it must feel like to have balls.
My pathology reports were supposed to come back Wednesday afternoon. Shortly after 5, a nurse called me on the intercom. “Dr. K’s on the phone,” she said. “He wants to know if your husband’s there.”
“Not yet,” I said. “He should be here soon. But I can talk to Dr. K by myself.”
A short silence. Then, “Dr. K will come by to see you later.”
After that, I lay in my hospital bed and stared at the ceiling. A lot of friends called and I told them all that I was worried, since my surgeon seemed to be avoiding me.
Finally, my husband arrived. I told him I was pretty sure it was bad news. We waited and talked and time passed and then we started to create a whole scenario. Dr. K had been so demoralized by my path report, we decided, he had gone straight to a bar. Right now, he was probably on his 10th martini. He was sitting in a sleazy bar, listening to bad music, falling off his barstool. His glasses had slid off his nose and a drunk cowboy had stepped on them, crunching them with his boot. Then Dr. K had started offering free medical exams to all the go-go dancers. Then he passed out.
My husband and I talked on and on and it made me feel a little better. Sometime after 8, Dr. K finally came to the room. He told us the news wasn’t as good as we’d hoped for. On the right side, my lymph nodes were clear, but on the left, three of the 14 nodes they’d taken had been positive.
Dr. K has such a kind, concerned face and I like him so much. He didn’t want to tell us this any more than we wanted to hear it. “Can I do anything for you now?” he asked.
We said we wanted to be alone. I can hardly remember what happened after that – except my husband kept telling me that we’d handle this. We’d handle all of it somehow.
The next day, Dr. K came in to see me. I told him about the wild scenario we’d concocted about him being at a bar and getting drunk, rather than seeing me.
He blinked and shook his head. “I was in surgery the whole time,” he said.
My odds – what are my odds? Not as good as they used to be. I have a 70-85 percent of being alive in five years. Then, something less than a 50 percent chance of surviving 10 years.
But then all those damned experts rush in to tell you about the 103-year-old multiple node-positive survivor who died in a fiery motorcycle wreck in the Grand Canyon while French-kissing her tattooed Romanian lover. Or the vegetarian aerobics instructor who memorized the Bible and ate broccoli and had a tiny tumor and negative nodes and a positive attitude, but died a few hours later. In other words, don’t ask them about your own case. They don’t know. They give you odds instead of promises.
Right now, my life is so different. It’s so vivid and fast-paced and emotional. Every moment’s a world. My life has an intensity that’s like a drug, but I don’t think you can live this way for a long time. It’s too exhausting. But maybe that’s why it happens at a time like this. Maybe I’m living my life jam-packed, in fast-forward, with the colors jumping and spilling onto me and the emotions crashing over me – maybe this is happening because I have fewer years to live and everything has to accelerate.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 of this series.
For comic relief, read another (lighter) post about how I failed to become a big breast cancer TV star
That was a terrible experience, and yet you were lucky, even then. Lucky that you had a good mind, that you could find the humor even in a terrible experience, and lucky that you had the kind of husband who could share with you not just the pain, loss and fear, but also the laughs.
You’ve broken down the series of events for us, but I can only imagine how everything felt happening all at once, so quickly, for you. So uplifting to read your words, here, today – from a time that looked not quite so uplifting 15 years ago.
As someone who went through all of this – but never documented it in a journal – this is bringing back every emotion in clear detail. I’m so happy to be sitting here knowing you are here to look back on it all these years later.
Ruth – You’re so brave to post these journal entries. Is it hard to revisit this scary time in your life? Is it bringing back all sorts of emotional memories?
I’m so thankful that you’re still with us and bucked the odds, so they say. I’m with Sheryl – I’ve gone through some rough times, but couldn’t bring myself to write about them (and I don’t mean to speak for you, Sheryl – chime in here, if you want, on the process of writing through the scary times).
I just wanted to get away from those times and never revisit them ever again.
Again, thank you Ruth for posting these entries from your journal.
I can’t believe (yes, I can…actually) that your doctor didn’t “get” your jokes about him at the bar. I’d like to to think he’d show some connection to your humor offered up in such a vulnerable moment. Sigh. Some docs!
Anyway, thanks for writing and can’t wait for the next installation(s).
A powerful re-telling of your cancer tale. Thanks for sharing this, Ruth. For now, more words escape me.
It’s one thing to wake up from surgery without your tonsils, but I can’t imagine waking up without breasts. So hard. And to wake up without breasts and with no tattooed Romanian lover? THAT has to be the worst.
Living in fast-forward. Hmm. Quite an image. Looking forward hearing about it tomorrow.
I think it is wonderful that you are sharing these very personal memories. There a lot of women who need to know exactly what to expect and exactly how others felt.
15 years, you are definitely going to be the 103 year old grandma. It sounds like you and your husband are incredibly supportive of each other. I can’t imagine coming up with funny scenarios while being scared to death.
I have very much enjoyed getting this inside look at what it’s like to go through this. I feel as if I am in the room with you.
I kept scrolling back and forth to read more. Thank you for sharing these Ruth, I’m sure this isn’t easy to relive.
Ruth, I gotta admire your sense of humor for creating such a vivid scenario about the doctor despite the horribleness of the situation. Can’t wait to read more!
when I had an out of the blue life threatening illness, I quickly learnt that part about medical professionals not knowing the odds any more than anyone else. and the stories they choose to tell…
I am glad you and your husband were able to support each other in this hard time.
Ruth, you are priceless! Worth the price of admission just for these two sentences: “The incisions drain into two bags that hang over my crotch and bounce when I walk. I think this is what it must feel like to have balls.”
I’m with Tessa (see comment above): I love how you use humor to get you through the tough stuff.
Ruth, two things always seem to help you when things are rough: your sense of humor and your husband. I’m happy you beat those odds!
“My life has an intensity that’s like a drug, but I don’t think you can live this way for a long time.”
That’s a really great way to put it. I’ve never had to deal with this particular crisis before, but I’ve suffered other issues with my health – and yes, it’s very drug-like in its intensity. I can only image how much more intense it would be in your shoes.