There is a lot to be said for the immense positivity that cancer patients are able to find and express. There is a wealth of positive and inspirational resources surrounding the disease and support for those going through it. Not enough is written though about the other side – the tough times, the depression, the grief. Mac and I have decided our new catchphrase is “Sometime Cancer Just Sucks”. Most of the time I am able to keep my chin up and look for the silver lining of each day, but sometimes I just say fuck it, and cry. Cancer just really sucks. The pain, the scars, the endless appointments, the miserable side effects and the endless intake of medication – sometimes it’s all just too much to handle. The fight can break you. When you’re fighting for your life, everyday feels like a marathon. I think it’s important to share this side of the story so that other women going through the down times know they are not alone. I think it’s also important for friends and family to understand that it’s ok to feel low. Hold us when we cry, let us release the pain, despair, confusion and anger. As much as I appreciate the efforts to cheer me up, sometimes I just need someone to stop and tell me it’s ok to be angry, sad or discouraged. When I see all the pink paraphernalia throughout October and the rest of the year, I am happy for the Breast Cancer awareness they bring, but I am angry that these items do not shed light on what cancer really means to patients and their families. We need a new campaign that shows the reality of cancer, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for a very good marketing campaign so we’ll stick with the pink bows and bracelets for now. At least they’re raising awareness and funding so that someday women won’t have to fight this battle for their lives. So far, I have tried to stay positive in my blog. I have shared inspirational insight, ideas for refocusing your outlook and how to look good and feel better with makeup and beauty tricks. I have also shared a lot of pictures of me at my best during treatment. I would be misrepresenting cancer and the experience I am going through if I didn’t show the other half of the picture. So many people keep telling me they don’t know how I do it. How do I always look so put together, while battling cancer nonetheless? The makeup, the wigs, the outfits, the blog, my home, how do I keep it all up? The truth of the matter is, that I don’t. When I post a picture of my perfectly placed headscarf and my flawless makeup, that is one moment of one day out of many. The way I look each day at work and out and about, it’s an image I create. Most of the time I enjoy preparing that image getting ready and pulling myself together, but it’s just that, created. I don’t look like that when I wake up. As soon as I get home, I take off my wig, change into sweats and spend the evening looking way less than perfect. When people are coming over, I usually clean up my house a little and tell people to “please excuse the mess, we didn’t have time to clean up”, but the rest of the time our house is messy like everyone else and decorating takes a major backseat. I also want to note here that we don’t have children and we have one non-shedding puppy so my biggest mess obstacle is my husband. I don’t want to set unrealistic expectations for women battling cancer. You do not have to be superwoman. Most of the days I don’t have enough energy to make the bed, nevermind decorate. I have horrible days when I lay around in pain and nausea feeling sorry for myself and don’t wear an ounce of makeup or ever change out of my PJs and that is perfectly ok. I may not always take photos of those moments because who wants to be photographed when you’re feeling your worst, but I want to tell you those moments are real and they are OK! The following images from my surgery and treatment thus far, will give you a deeper look into what cancer has been like for me. I hope these will help begin to demystify the illness and express the pain, the vulnerability and the exhaustion that cancer brings. Warning: Some of the post-surgery images below are very graphic and intense. If you have a queasy stomach or prefer not to see these type of raw images, stop reading here.
This bear was given to me by a dear friend after my mastectomy and became so important to me during my recovery. I used this silly bear to shield my eyes every time my dressings were opened. I did this for about a week until I was emotionally ready to see the results of my surgery. I want to stress that it is OK to be afraid of looking at your body, and it’s ok to take time to mentally prepare before seeing the changes. It will take time to accept this new reality. Accepting your new body will mean you have to accept that the amputation is a worthwhile sacrifice in the cancer game of life. Each downfall, each change, and each awful moment is taking you one step closer to beating cancer, and no victory is ever won without sacrifices. The sacrifices are traumatic and awful, but I realized my life is much more precious.
Flowers brought me so much joy in the hospital after my surgery. In these images after my surgery I am smiling and laughing, but please keep in mind that I was very high on the pain pills and anesthesia. As the drugs wore off and I found out I had a hematoma, the excruciating pain from the swelling quickly wiped that smile from my face. We did not take photos during those moments of pain.
These images of my mastectomy scars and the drains were taken shortly after my surgery. The bruising is normal and went away in time, but as you can imagine it was extremely painful and extremely traumatic to view.
Most of my pain was localized in this area by the drain site and the incision above it where the surgeon had to go back in during my hematoma and make some surgical changes to reduce the swelling.
This is the contraption attached at the end of the drain tube. I had to have the drain in for approximately 2 weeks. Twice a day the drain tube had to be stripped and the bubble had to be emptied and measured – we affectionately called it my blood bubble. Once the output was less than 10 CC for 3 days in a row I could get it removed. I absolutely hated the drain and longed for the removal everyday. I could not stomach the sight of it and it caused me the most pain. My amazing husband and mother stripped and emptied the drain for me everyday for two weeks. For that act alone, I will be forever grateful.
Here you can see me with my eyes shut as my mom and husband change my dressings, check for swelling, administer the “sniff test”, and empty my drain. This was during the period where I was still too scared to see my body. I couldn’t bear to see the results yet. Oddly, I look very peaceful in this photo.
This photo was really important to me. It was one of the first times I looked in the mirror after surgery and smiled. I still felt a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, but I was beginning to accept the body I saw before me. The scar has healed even more since this photo, but I will remember this moment as a turning point in my recovery.
This lovely photo is from a quick “vacation” I took to the ER a week or so ago during chemo. After my port surgery, I was running a high fever and had to be admitted for a virus/infection. Luckily some super strong antibiotics and 3 days in the hospital did the trick. One particularly horrific moment from this trip was when the ER nurse drew blood from my newly surgically implanted port that was not yet healed. He did not know what he was doing and it took multiple tries to get the needle in. Even on a strong morphine drip the pain was excruciating. Another fun part was when I had a reaction to the antibiotics called Vancomycin, where I turned bright red and got extremely nauseous for many hours. The next morning when the doctors told me they were putting me back on the drug, I almost lost my mind. Luckily, when administered over 3.5 hours instead of 30 minutes, I did not have the same reaction. I am making light of this situation, but please know there was nothing fun about those hours in the ER and days spent in the hospital.
This is my Matrix contraption. It is implanted under my skin and a small tube is run up to my collar bone and drops into my ventricle. This allows the chemo drugs to be administered more directly. My poor bruised and clotted arm can now recovery from all the IVs and blood draws. I didn’t want to get the port for cosmetic reasons, but since I will be on IV administered drugs for a year I decided it was worth it. As if the pain from my port surgery was not enough, I had a horrible reaction to the Tegaderm tape they used to cover the area. This also may have had something to do with the 3 times they ripped it off and put it back on in the ER. Luckily there are steroid creams for these kind of things but I just want to present the full picture to you. It’s never just one issue for cancer patients. It’s a domino effect. I will do a full post on the port later.
This is how one takes a shower when your port is healing.
Here is another lovely photo documenting my hair falling out in patches, my port still healing, and my lovely skin rash from the tape. I do still have makeup on from work that day.
My hair was reduced to baby fuzz and my wigs and head scarves wouldn’t stay in place anymore, so I asked my husband to shave off the remaining peach fuzz. This ended up being a very emotional experience for me and very sad. Any remaining hair I had, that I had been hanging on to is gone. I am bald, cold and naked – but not afraid.