I was pretty out of it immediately after surgery, but I had a lot of visitors to cheer me up. Mostly that first day I remember being hot and annoyed and in pain and unable to sleep. I had those things on my legs that keep your blood circulating, but it was like sleeping with water wings on your lower legs. I kept making everyone turn down the temperature in the room. Donna Sue was my last visitor of the day and turned it down to 60 but every nurse that came in tucked my feet back under the blankets. I was also on oxygen because I still had the epidural in. The epidural was supposed to control the pain, so even though I kept telling the night nurse my pain levels were at 8, she just circled that on the wall board and went about her rounds. When the anesthesiologist came in the next day, he told me that he had prescribed Percocet for breakthrough pain as well as Valium and Phenergan (pain pills make me sick). Not sure why the night nurse didn’t tell me that, but I made sure I got my pills after that. When they finally came in and took out the epidural and oxygen and let me get up, the nurse was surprised that I reorganized the room and changed into my pajamas by the time she had the bed re-made.
My doctors came in to see me that day too. First was Dr. T, who marveled at how good I looked (I think it was the tiger print pajamas). She gave me the good news that all of the additional (14) lymph nodes she removed were non-cancerous. YAY! This meant that I might not need chemo after all.
She also mentioned something about how surprised and happy Dr. K would be, but I didn’t think too much of it until he came in later. He wasn’t smiling as much as he normally does until he unwrapped the bandages and took a look. It was only then he told me that he was prepared to call his assistant and tell her they would need to book me for another surgery before Christmas because my skin was so much thinner than he expected. He said he even briefly wondered if Dr. T had ended up deviating from their planned incision (she didn’t, my skin just retracted a lot apparently). He had put in the tissue expanders as planned but didn’t add any saline to the left side because he was so worried. But apparently my skin is very stretchy (I could have told him that) and it looked fine, so he was no longer worried about necrosis. I was glad he told me all of this after the fact! Surgery was Monday and I was released from the hospital Wednesday afternoon. I’ve had a lot of surgeries, including ones with a six week recovery period, but I think this was even worse than my tummy tuck. I couldn’t concentrate on a movie or tv show (I had to re-watch Westworld a month ago). I couldn’t read. I colored a lot, and slept, and made sure I took a walk every day even if some days I went out in my pajamas and a coat. The pain pills helped, but even with the anti-nausea pills I frequently vomited from taking them.
It was helpful that my surgery was December 12 because my cases were pretty slow due to the holidays. But after the first of the year I started needing to take calls from work to help the colleagues covering my cases. And even though these calls weren’t very frequent or very long, I quickly realized that working made me sicker than any physical activity did. Tony and I finally decided that must have been because I could slow down my body but I’ve never been able to slow down my brain.
After six weeks, I went back to work half-days for a week and then full-time. But during the time I was home I had a million doctor’s appointments, of course, including one with Dr. J who immediately told me I would, in fact, need chemo and she recommended the more aggressive regimen (which is also longer) due to my age. I’m not very proud of this, but I started crying in her office. I just wanted cancer to be over and done with. I didn’t want to be sick and tired. I didn’t want to lose my hair, which she told me was inevitable (more on this in a separate post). But most of all, I kept hearing about chemo brain and how it could make you forgetful and make it hard to find the words you needed. Obviously in my career that’s a scary proposition, and I was already feeling muddled.
So, seeing my hesitation, Dr. J decided to order an Oncotype test, which tells you how responsive your particular cancer will be to chemotherapy. Because I was stage 3, chemo was standard because even with one lymph node my risk of recurrence was too high without it. But as she said, if the chemo wasn’t going to do any good, there wasn’t any point putting me through it. I think Dr. J thought I was going to refuse chemo, which was never my intention, but I did seek a second opinion. The second doctor (who talks faster than I do) was extremely straight forward and told me she wouldn’t even have ordered the Oncotype testing, because I needed chemo (although she thought the shorter version would have worked just as well. I eventually figured out there was only a 4 week difference between the two, so went with Dr. J’s recommendation). She was very clear that the risk of the cancer coming back was way higher than the risk of adverse effects from chemo (which also include, very rarely, heart damage or leukemia).
When the Oncotype test came back, Dr. J (and I) were glad she did order it, because it showed two things – one, my cancer was not as highly estrogen positive as most lobular cancers are, so we couldn’t rely on hormone suppression alone to keep it at bay. Second, it showed that my cancer was highly responsive to chemo, and that doing it would take my risk of recurrence to single digits. She said “I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear,” and I surprised her by saying “no, that’s fantastic news!” The last thing I wanted to hear was that the cancer would probably come back but chemo wouldn’t reduce my risk at all. So, we scheduled chemotherapy to start on February 9. I would have four rounds of AC (adriamycin and cytoxin) and then 12 rounds of taxol. Meanwhile, Tony and I went on a quick trip to Keystone not knowing when I’d be up to traveling again. I wasn’t cleared to ski, of course, so I just hung out and went to the spa. Between running away to Austin right before we got the diagnosis and this trip, it seemed we were developing a pattern of travel to mark the different stages of my treatment.
Next up – the scariest part so far – chemo.