Wednesday, March 10, 2010

If I Only Knew Then What I Know Now

If I do say so myself, I have a knack for proposing -- and then fulfilling -- new year's resolutions. Several years ago, I resolved to accessorize better, and today I'm proud that I'm known for my eclectic jewelry, scarves, and shoes. This year, coming off the high of surgery (and drugs), I made three resolutions. First, I resolved to wear lipstick. Result: I now wear lipstick. Second, I resolved to prepare dinner for and eat with my husband at my dining room table in my dining room at least two nights a week. This is now one of our favorite new traditions (and I've discovered, after years of misplaced feminist pride, that I'm actually quite capable in the kitchen; moreover, I enjoy it).

The third resolution was a bit trickier: eat more Ethiopian food. Now, some background. My freshman year of college, I met a woman who would become one of my most cherished friends, and our deep bond was formed over platters of watt and injera at a little hole in the wall restaurant in Lakeview. But we didn't go there for the food. We were 18, and they didn't card us. So we would sit for HOURS, smoking cigarettes until the ashtray overflowed, drinking carafes of their house red. These marathon wine drinking sessions led inevitably to complete inebriation, and frequently, illness. I got sick so many times that I learned to (mis)associate Ethiopian food with vomit, and after college, I swore it off entirely. But now that G an I have purchased a condo on a street celebrated for its Ethiopian restaurants, I knew I needed to relearn to eat the cuisine.

Last Friday, I satisfied resolution number three: I ate Ethiopian food and LOVED it (it's amazing how much better food tastes a) when you haven't smoked a pack of cigarettes while consuming it, and b) when it doesn't hit a belly full of cheap table wine). But I didn't accomplish this task on my own, oh no. I must publicly thank our friends R and her lovely husband D, who did the ordering (I loved everything they picked) and coached and cheered me as I, tentatively, scooped up the watt with the injera and swallowed.

R is having surgery in two weeks. Like any woman facing a mastectomy, she is nervous, but she also seems really ready. R's experience with cancer is much different than mine, and she has lived more than half of her life with the knowledge that she, like her mother (who is now battling another recurrence of ovarian cancer) would one day get breast cancer. But now, she won't have to. And I think that's both thrilling and scary, because, like we discussed at dinner, surgery isn't just about the physical act of cutting and reconstructing body parts; it's about the reshaping of identities, too. R is also the first BRCA friend to have surgery since my recovery and, not that I'm some expert or anything (I'm just a lady with a fake pair of knockers and a blog), I thought I would put together this list; it's half advice/half opinion. But its whole intention is just to make this clear: R, you are going to rock this. I'm so glad we've become friends; thanks for helping me with my new year's resolution.

From One Fake-Boobed Lady to Another Who's About to Be: Some Things I Learned, in no particular order.

1) Hoodies are your best friend.
Fashion be damned, zip-up clothing will be your uniform for the first week (or more) after surgery. I would recommend anything with a zipper over anything with buttons because, even though this sounds silly, buttons are hard when you are on drugs. Hoodies also solve another problem: hair. Chances are, you aren't going to be in any mood to style your hair (it's a victory if you can even reach your arms up to wash it), so just pop the hood and you are cocooned in a protective hipster shell.

2) Drains Suck
I don't have anything more to say about this. And I think you are anticipating their suckage. But this is just to say, when you are frustrated and grossed out and you say out loud, "This sucks!" I hear you, sister.

3) Get Thee One of These

Order this now. It will easily be the best $60 you spend. As a stomach sleeper, I struggled for the first week to find a comfortable position in bed. I required muscle relaxers for the cramps in my neck that were (seriously) more painful than the soreness in my chest. I feared getting into and out of bed because it hurt so much. And then I ordered this thing. The clouds parted, the sun shone, and a seraphim sang. My life changed for the better. Seriously, don't go into surgery without one.

4) It's OK To Be Scared
Even in the last week before surgery, I held my head high and bravely put one foot in front of the other. I thought I was doing a good job managing my anxiety; friends would comment how calm I seemed. But the truth was I was terrified, and I didn't realize how heavy the burden of that fear was until I woke up from surgery and burst into tears. Of relief. But even though we are super women, it's OK to be scared. If we weren't, we'd probably be in denial. Yes, the other side seems so unknown, but as a permanent resident of the over-the-rainbow club, I'm telling you, there's nothing to be scared of over here. (And we're excited for you to join us!)

5) It's OK to Be Sad
I wrote about my post mastectomy blues here, and I was so heartened to read so many messages of support and solidarity in the comments. What I said then I still beleieve now: we spend so much time being bad-asses (warriors in the face of cancer, fearless ladies who will give up their breasts to gain more control of their health) that when we want to cry, we look over our shoulder to make sure no one's watching. But go ahead and cry. It's sad what we have to do. And if anyone sees your tears, I bet they'll understand.

6) I Endorse This Bra

They sell them at Nordstrom and, while they aren't exactly giving them away, they are a great investment. I still wear mine nearly 24/7. (Another hint, buy them in a couple of sizes because it's hard to know what size you'll be after surgery. Return the ones that don't fit. And keep in mind you'll be swollen for a while, so the bra will fit differently over time.)

7) Your Recovery Will Be Your Own
Part of the benefit of being a member of the BRCA sisterhood is that you have lots of ladies to compare notes with. The downside is that, just as no two women are alike, no two surgeries or recoveries are the same. If you have your drains in longer or stop taking drugs sooner, that's great -- because that's what you need. Some women are instructed to wear a bra immediately after surgery, some aren't allowed to put one on for a few days. Just follow your doctor's advice. And don't worry to much about, say, what you should be feeling like on day five. You feel like on day five what you feel like on day five. Doesn't matter what I or anyone else felt like. You are you. And your recovery will be yours.

8) Don't Be Afraid to Call Your Doctor
A few days after I got home from the hospital, my drain site on my right breast was really irritated. It itched. It was red. I was afraid it was infected. But I noticed all this very late at night (you tend to keep odd hours after surgery) and thought it would be rude to call my doctor. So I hemmed and hawed and paced and equivocated and then finally picked up the phone. The doctor didn't seem upset (as well he shouldn't because he's the medical professional and I'm the patient) and told me what to do. The moral of the story: that's what they're there for. If you have a question, call. It's not like this is something we go through every day. And sure, there are odd things that our new boobs will do while they are healing that are perfectly normal. But we can't know that. So don't be afraid to ask.

9) Ask for Help
Whether it's climbing into bed or getting a glass of water, for the first few days at least, the stuff we do without thinking twice about will be hard to impossible without assistance. This gets compounded, unfortunately, by the fact that it's difficult to articulate what help you need, especially when you're on pain meds. I remember being so frustrated that when I gave vague instructions like, "Hand me the thing. You know, the thing that's used for that thing. The thing that's in the cabinet above the thing. Why are you being so annoying? I'm making myself perfectly clear!" I did not get the desired outcome as quickly as I wanted and often tried to do it on my own. The lesson here: know it will be hard to explain yourself, but be patient with your caretakers, too.

10) Celebrate Your Body Now, But Know There is So Much Yet to Celebrate.
As a fun thing to do with your husband, I recommend casting your breasts. Reappropriate one of these belly casting kits and go to town. It's messy (and not necessarily sexy, like Ghost-pottery-wheel messy sexy), but it's a fun and inexpensive way to commemorate your body as it is now. But don't think, like I did, that there won't be anything to celebrate after surgery. Truth is, you'll probably look even better (I know I do), so look forward to celebrating your new body, too.

Good luck, my dear R, and all the BRCA ladies out there facing surgery. I know you'll rock it.


  1. HELP - Where did you get the pillow - does it have a name?

  2. Sorry, just saw your comment. There is a link to ordering information in the post, but I've copied and pasted it here, too: