Cancer as healer

I am so excited! Reconstructive surgery is officially set for January 17th. I am a bit apprehensive about the procedure itself. It’s no short, quick fix, it’s a DIEP flap reconstruction on one side and a reduction on the other, with three surgical sites, some large and complex. It involves transplanting arteries from my abdominal muscles and cartilage from my ribs. Hospitalization after surgery is five days, which says something in this day and age when they do their best to kick you out the same day! In fact, at first the apprehension kind of overwhelmed all else. But once I had the date I started feeling excited, because I could actually see a light at the end of the tunnel!

What a long journey this has been! When all is said and done it will have taken up 16 months of my life, trudging along this up and down road. It has taken a lot out of me: money, strength. But it has given me some things as well: appreciation and respect for life, determination. And it gave me all these months of time to experience the joy of my little grandson, who just turned two.

In the end, it will give me health. The strength I lost during this battle was enormous. My left arm, the side where I had surgery, would tremble and collapse at the weight of a towel I was holding up to fold. Chemotherapy was kind of a long nap for me, which resulted in more loss of strength and muscle, and between that and the steroids, weight gain. My other health suffered as a result. But with a five-hour surgery coming up, I was motivated to ignore the wet cement flowing through my limbs and start going to the gym.

I know it is hard to believe this of me, but I actually love exercise. It is hard to believe, because there are a couple of other parts of me that do battle with the part of me that loves exercise: Lazy Me, and Self Destructive Me. And sad to say they have won the battle in the past. But when True Me gets a chance at self expression, it is just a joy. My muscles crave the movement. As I exercise my top thigh muscles, my inner thigh muscles start longing to be challenged, and then as I do the inner thigh muscles, my outer thigh muscles crave movement — kind of the way salty and sweet make you crave each other. When I see someone’s muscles working in a particular exercise in the gym, my own muscles feel a need to work. This is one reason going to the gym works for me better than trying to do it on my own. It’s like going to the Good Candy store.

My goal for right now is to be in the best shape I can be for surgery in January, for the five-hour long operation itself, and the recovery afterwards. I want my blood to be flowing, my muscles to be strong enough to help lift me out of bed after abdominal surgery.

And let me tell you, I am looking forward to my post-surgery self. I will be happy to have matching boobs again. I will be thrilled to have two boobs that are small enough and perky enough that I (a) don’t have to wear a bra at home if I don’t want to, and (b) my boobs won’t be dragging my bra straps down if I do.

Plus they are going to be cutting off all the problem fat on my lower abdomen. That is the stuff that never goes away no matter how much weight I lose. It arrived when I was pregnant with Michaela, and it has been there ever since. It makes a lot of things difficult, and I think makes people believe I weigh a lot more than I do. They will use what they need to construct a new breast, and then throw the rest away! Yay! (Sorry if this is too graphic. It’s yucky I will admit.)  I could write a long list of good things this will do for me. But I won’t. Let’s just say I will be happy when it’s gone.

Because nothing is ever superficial to me, I couldn’t help but consider the symbolism of all this, the disease, the recovery, the reconstruction. It kind of solidified in my mind when I considered the abdominal fat, for me one of the scars of motherhood. I gained a lot of weight when I was pregnant the first time, with Michaela, and even though I have lost a lot of weight in the years since then, I have never, ever been able to shed that. My breasts themselves were of course how I nourished five babies, but that combined with genetics resulted in floppy, saggy, oversized boobs. When I got cancer, I felt kind of like my breasts had betrayed me.

There is a lot here that I feel, that I haven’t quite sorted out intellectually. But in the end, this disease and this surgery will end in me ridding myself of the physical damage motherhood has done to me. I think I will understand this a little more clearly once that is done. “Mom” has been my essential identity, and still is, even though my oldest child is nearing 40 and my youngest is 24. It is the most wonderful thing in the world, what I wanted deep in my heart and soul, what has brought me the greatest fulfillment, but there have been signs, signals, that it’s time to take myself apart and put myself back together differently, and I don’t know what I will find. So far the process has been much like the disease: a painful mutilation that leaves me not this yet not that. But already I am seeing it: a light at the end of this tunnel also. And it is a light, a golden light, where I can stand straight and strong. To quote from Tolkien’s Road cycle of poems: “And whither then? I cannot say.” But I’m excited to find out. Honestly, still a little achy and tearful in my heart, but excited still. Oh, and coincidentally, I have actually been writing. I have found my voice. I have found my words. I just hope I can remember them all long enough to write them down!

Cancer as healer. I think it happens more than you might think. Sometimes we need to just stop and listen to what life is telling us.

Thank you for your support as always, for being here with me, for sharing my journey.

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