The first time I saw my chest after the operation I was just devastated
Following a diagnosis of breast cancer, I was admitted to hospital and underwent a mastectomy at the end of February. Modern medicine is a wonderful thing because the day after the event, I was discharged. I could have stayed an extra day but two things forced me from the hospital.
The first was the three ladies I was sharing the accommodation with. They were all lovely women but, Jesus, could they snore. It was like a jackhammer concerto and, despite the sleeping tablet and earplugs, I lay awake all night as they raised the roof.
The second thing to get me out was that my 12-year-old son was making his Confirmation the next day and, while I didn't make it to the church, I did make it to the party afterwards, albeit still half dopey from the anaesthetic.
This is not to say that having a mastectomy is easy. It's not. It's painful and shocking and the first time I saw my chest after the operation I was just devastated. I hadn't looked at it in the hospital because I was genuinely frightened of what I might see. My breasts hadn't exactly been a feature in my life but already I was grieving for the one that was gone.
I bit the bullet on my first night home. Getting my shirt off was painful and brought tears to my eyes, but nothing to the tears that flowed when I looked at myself in the mirror. My right side was perfect but it appeared as if the left side of my chest had caved in and, to my mind, I looked like a humpy old woman. I also had 23 lymph nodes removed from under my arm and my armpit resembled that of an excavation site after an archaeological dig. Being left-handed I couldn't even wash my teeth, and not only that but dangling from my back were two tubes linked to two drains.
Now, nobody mentions these drains beforehand because, I'm convinced, if you knew about them in advance you might not go through with the operation. They are like a medieval torture implement. Attached to the two tubes, which were threaded in through my back and up into my chest and armpit, the drains draw off excess fluid that forms in the chest and armpit.
The drains themselves can be clipped to your clothes to stop the tubes dragging on the point of entry. My son took one look at them and squealed, "Eewww, your blood grenades are disgusting". Kids are not great ones for sympathy!
Later, when I was having my first shower and my husband was standing outside the glass door holding the drains, he said: "When you asked me to help you shower, this wasn't what I had in mind."
The drains stayed in for a week making any movement damned hard. During that time I was bombarded by my family and friends who, knowing that my husband couldn't boil an egg, kept us fed. At one stage my ever tactful son said to me: "I know you are sick, Mammy, but this has been the best week of my life." This was because every time he opened the front door someone was standing there with not only a dinner, but a dessert as well.
A week after the operation I attended the clinic to have the drains removed and to meet the Breast Care nurse who would fit me with a foam breast, which would tide me over for the next couple of weeks. She was practical yet caring and I immediately liked her. "What size are you?" she asked. "A 38B" I replied with confidence. "Hmm . . . I don't think so," she replied.
She measured me and, with all the weight loss, I came in at an underwhelming 36A. She went off to search for a foam breast but returned empty handed. "We don't have one small enough," she said and we both had a good laugh at my humiliation. She promised to order one and send it out in the post. A brown envelope duly arrived and when I opened it a tiny foam breast fell out. My son again went "Eewww" and one of my friends remarked that it was so small they might as well have just sent a nipple.
Two weeks ago, I attended the consultant to get my dressing removed. A long, rolling scar now runs from the centre of my chest to under my arm, which the consultant assures me will flatten out in time. The numbness and tingling in my arm could last for up to 18 months.
He pronounced himself very happy with the result and I was delighted that I could look at the wound without feeling shocked. The truth is, it could be a lot worse. After all, I've only lost a breast -- not an eye or a limb.
Last week we got an end-of-season deal and decided to go skiing. I had been once before and wasn't very good but, this time, I decided to give it plenty of welly. By the end of the week I was coming down the red slope like the Milk Tray man. My daughter reckoned that with only one breast, I had the advantage of being that bit lighter!
Next week I start chemotherapy, which might put a halt to my gallop . . .