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)
For comic relief, read another (lighter) post about how I failed to become a big breast cancer TV star