The coming and going of Franken-boob

When I first get the courage to look down at my boob after surgery, I notice that the dressing extends up and over my left nipple. “Yikes! They didn’t cut my nipple off without telling me about it did they?”

At base, I know this is a silly fear, but it pops into my head, again and again, for days. I mention it to husband Pete and to a couple friends. They all laugh and try to reassure me.

Still, I have to do lots of self-therapy to keep my nipple hysteria in check:

“Dr. Hwang wouldn’t do that. No, of course she wouldn’t!”

“But what if there was some kind of re-excision emergency and they just HAD to do it!”

“You’re paranoid. You know that?”

“I was still enjoying the ether haze when Dr. Hwang came to see me in post-op. Maybe I missed the part where she told me that the team had done an emergency nipple-ectomy!”

“Don’t be silly! Maybe you should just call the Breast Care Center and ask!”

“But what if the news is bad? Buh-bye nipple!”

And so on.

I obsess about my left nipple an inordinate amount during these post-surgery days. I didn’t realize what a big deal it turns out to be. Go ahead, cut a 4 centimeter-long cylinder out of my breast, but don’t take the nipple! What use is a nipple if the alternative is death? And yet.

The post-op directions instruct me to take the dressing off after seven days. I can’t bring myself to do it. I let it go, seven, eight, nine, ten, going on eleven days. Finally, the adhesive on the fancy, waterproof dressing cover starts to make the skin underneath itch. Time to face the music.

I go into the bathroom, stand before the big mirror. I scrunch up my face as a I pick away at the edge of the waterproof cover. I get a purchase on the thin, polymer sheet and start to pull, slowly, slowly. As the adhesive and dressing cover begin to part ways, they pull at my breast. It hurts just a little. Then the adhesive lets go all at once, leaving the no-stick gauze dressings hanging there like Christmas ornaments dreamed up by a medical supply company.

Inhaling with overly-dramatic apprehension, I gently pull off the square piece of gauze off the place where my nipple should be. And … it’s there!

What are also there are six, very neat stitches pulling the upper bit of tissue together. These are not the kind that dissolve; they are not steri-strips. They are actual sutures, thin and black, spaced so evenly it’s hard to imagine that human hands put them there. A row of tight knots marches along the right side of the incision, that extends about 5 centimeters from the lower left up to the very edge of the areola. On the other side, there’s a matching row of neat stitches. I’ve done a fair bit of needlework in my time, and for a minute I stand there, admiring Dr. Hwang’s handiwork. And then, another silly idea flashes into my mind: Franken-boob!

Once uncovered, the sutures prickle a bit against the post-surgical bra. Other than that, they’re no trouble. And they provide endless material for Franken-boob jokes. I’m the only one who makes, or laughs, at these jokes. But hey, I’m dealing with cancer, so humor me. Just one problem: I can’t take these out myself. I call the Breast Care Center to make an appointment to have them taken out.

A week later, a medical assistant leads me down the hall to the last room on the right. It’s bigger than any other I’ve seen.

“This is the procedure room,” the assistant explains. Then I notice there are more drawers for supplies and a large lamp as well. After a few minutes, Debby, who’s a professor of nursing comes in.

“This has healed really well,” she says.

“Yes,” I say. “I used to have a pleat along the incision line. That seems to be gone.”

Debby gives me a knowing look, “That’s what they lovingly call ’tissue rearrangement,” she says.

Suddenly, I want to know everything, and nothing, about ’tissue rearrangement.'”

I think Frankenstein would understand.

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About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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One Response to The coming and going of Franken-boob

  1. schwartzspot says:

    Frankenstein would understand indeed! You are so wonderful Heather, and I think a lot about you. I read you religiously, even if I don’t always make comments. I’ve made a lot of comments in my mind that never got sent via email (what, you can’t read minds?????, you can tell I’m a mom), simply because I meant to and then got started doing something else, and told myself I’d get to the email to tell you how much your emails meant to me, and then something in life happened, and oh well.

    I know you understand.

    So here is an email NOT in my mind that I’m actually sending.

    Come to think of it, maybe I’ll try to rent Bride of Frankenstein for the kids and myself.

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