6 minute read.
It has been five days since my left breast was removed.
I went into surgery at 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon. My surgery took 2 hours longer than expected. Waiting must have been terrifying for my family. The surgeon had to remove more lymph nodes than expected because cancer had spread there.
I wake up in an anesthesia fog in a recovery room with other patients. A nurse sits next to me. They made me remove my contact lenses before surgery, and they haven’t put my glasses on yet, so I can’t see anything but blurred shapes and movement. I am in an altered state, thick and slow, between waking and drugged sleep. I ask, “Is my breast gone? Is my breast gone?” The nurse says yes.
The nurse says “Yes, honey, yes” and I drift back into unconsciousness.
I wake up again in my hospital room around 8 pm, starving from pre-surgery fasting, but feeling silly and good. My mom, Brian and my brother are ushered into my room. I am ecstatically happy that I did not wake up with a tissue expander under my skin (the plastic pouch they insert during surgery to expand your skin to make room for a breast implant). I’m so glad that I made the right decision for me. I feel I have passed a great initiation of mythic proportions. I grappled with making the hardest decision of my life, and I won! I DID IT!!!! It could have so easily gone the other way. My (valid) fears about being asymmetrical and wanting to appear “normal” could have made the decision for me. But I persevered, and let my deep love for my body guide me to the right decision for me.
I fully support each individual’s bodily autonomy and decision making, forever. And I deeply understand the desire to have two breasts. But I feel so grateful that I have given myself the gift of not having more surgeries than are necessary to preserve my life, and no added risk of complications from tissue expanders and implants.
In my hospital room, we crack jokes and scarf down delicious sandwiches Kelsie made for us. My family tells me the news about the lymph nodes. After a while my mom and brother leave, and Brian and I spend the night in the hospital, woken hourly by nurses who check my vitals and look at the incision for signs of infection. At 9 am the next morning, the surgeon, VLT, comes to tell me personally about how surgery went.
Before surgery, they injected radioactive particles into my left breast. The body recognizes and surrounds the foreign particles, then moves them to the lymphatic system to be carried away. After an hour, the particles reach the first lymph node that drains the breast, called the sentinel node. I love this name. The surgeon uses a Geiger counter to find the sentinel node, removes it, freezes it and slices it thinly, and a pathologist examines it for evidence of cancer. This first node will reveal if cancer has spread outside the breast.
My sentinel node was cancerous. VLT was right: there is invasive cancer present. My diagnosis is changing from ductal carcinoma in situ to something else.
Lymph nodes grow in clusters surrounded by fat and other tissue. They are small and often indistinct. VLT removed the lymph nodes that were swollen – she said they feel like little jelly beans. She removed 7-10 of them. Now we wait for the final pathology. Chemo, fertility preservation, and radiation are all back on the table. I’m not surprised by this – but I am still disappointed. My treatment plan will be based on how many lymph nodes are cancerous. More nodes involved means more aggressive treatment. Fewer and perhaps I will only need localized radiation, not chemo.
The nurses determine I’m ready to go home and discharge me late Wednesday morning. My throat is sore from being intubated. After a few days my body grows stiff and sore from bedrest. Otherwise, with the help of painkillers, the pain is fairly minimal. My chest is numb and my armpit is sore and tender. Sometimes I feel strange and surprising nerve pain – jolts of electricity and twinkling sharp pain.
On Wednesday night, I suddenly know I am ready to look at myself. I tell Brian I am ready. He stands with me while I undress in front of the mirror. I remove gauze and dressings and my post-surgical garment, a firm, corset-like bra that closes in front with a zipper and hooks and eyes.
I feel a surge of glee. Genuine, bubbly joy and happiness! I look, somehow without fear, and I see myself: one breast on my right side, and on the left, a flat chest, with a smooth, clean-looking horizontal incision. I feel no shock, horror, or dismay. I tell Brian, “This is going to be okay. I’m going to be okay with this!” When he hears these words he starts to cry. We kiss and hold each other and tell each other how much we love each other.
In that moment, I make a commitment to look at myself more, not less.
Days pass surprisingly quickly in a routine of eating, watching movies, and taking short walks, with naps in between each activity. On Thursday, I’m allowed to shower. Just undressing and showering is so exhausting I need a nap afterwards. I’m glad Brian is there in the bathroom to reassure me, tease me, and catch me if I fall over!
My mom and Brian switch off shifts staying with me and handling all the chores. I’m fairly mobile, but dizzy from pain meds, and I can’t use my left arm much, so cooking and cleaning are difficult. Kristyn organized friends to drop off a meal a day for ten days, so our fridge is overflowing with delicious home-cooked meals: fermented soybean soup with yuzu, rice porridge, kimchi stew. I am surrounded by piles of books, magazines and comic books that friends dropped off. There are THREE jars of homemade kimchi from friends in my fridge. The specific foods delight me too – I have the exact diasporic Korean community I need, that I missed and yearned for in my youth. Cards, flowers, and gifts arrive by mail and personal delivery. I feel overwhelmingly surrounded by love and support. I am so, so lucky to have this community of friends.
I did not expect that this experience would be so grounding. Along with constant fear and worry, the predominant emotions are gratitude, joy, and relief. I am so grateful for surgery, for my doctors, for my partner and my family, for my friends, for myself and my own decision-making. Each decision has been so hard and all-consuming: which doctors to choose, which treatment, when to do surgery, breast implants or no; and many more hard decisions are coming. But each decision has confirmed that I am capable of making the right choices for myself. I keep following my intuition and it keeps working out. It feels miraculous. Each decision confirms my trust in myself and my belief in my own wisdom.