Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9
I’d been told that six months was the longest I could wait to have a hysterectomy, and that deadline was fast approaching. I was weary, sore, and still taking a lot of pain meds and muscle relaxers (mostly because of the tissue expansion process), but like it or not, it was time for more surgery. Since my new and improved oncologist agreed that my regular OB/GYN could perform my hysterectomy, the surgery was to be performed at Baylor Regional Medical Center in Grapevine on September 4, 2012. I opted for the robotic surgery, which involved smaller incisions and less trauma. Compared to the mastectomy, this promised to be a cakewalk.
My pre-op appointment at the hospital was scheduled for August 30, and I was squeaking in under the wire, managing to finish the antibiotics from my strep/upper respiratory infection marathon just in time for surgery. I learned that my surgery was technically a Robotic Hysterectomy with BSO, which stands for Bilateral Salpingo Oophorectomy, big words for removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes.
The pre-surgery song and dance was the same this time, but at least we were preparing for a week or two of recovery rather than a month or two. My brother offered to come over at 5:30 a.m. the morning of the surgery so that the kids could sleep until a reasonable hour. I knew I could trust him to get the kids to school on time and in one piece, and that gave me a lot of comfort. Other than that, Mark figured he could handle all the school pickups and drop offs, as I expected to only spend one night in the hospital.
We prayed as a family the night before the surgery, and my sweet Ryan prayed that the robot wouldn’t malfunction. I couldn’t help but chuckle, but I agreed that a cooperative and obedient robot would be helpful.
The pre-surgery setup at Baylor was much more comfortable than the old hospital in Fort Worth. Mark and I got a big kick out of the paper hospital gown – it had its own HVAC system. There was a unit on the wall, connected to the gown with a tube that looked like a small piece of A/C duct work. You controlled the temperature with a remote, and air flowed in between the two layers of the gown. It was awesome. Unfortunately, the staff was very prompt, and I didn’t get to enjoy my personal climate control for long.
A blood vessel in my hand burst during the first attempt to put my IV in, making a big mess and running a nurse off. She declared herself a “one-trick pony” and went to find someone else. The next effort was successful, and once the IV was in and all the forms were signed, they put something in the IV to relax me. It did more than that, and I was asleep before I even left the pre-op room. Unlike my earlier surgery, I didn’t pray myself to sleep in the operating room, and I have no memory of saying goodbye to Mark. I suppose that’s a good thing as long as everything turns out well.
The recovery room experience wasn’t bad at all compared the mastectomy – mostly because my arms worked. I was in my room before I knew it, and my dad and brother were there to meet me. I remember shivering uncontrollably and trying to keep my teeth from chattering because it was about 65 degrees in there. Once that was fixed, I was comfortable and taking calls from clients like one of those horrible Wall Street heart attack patients you see in movies.
I had a great nurse named Toni, who thought it was funny that I was throwing around terms like “JP drain” and “sat monitor”. We exchanged war stories like hospital veterans. I had a catheter for the first 24 hours because of the risk of urological damage during the surgery, so I got some really good rest. When the catheter was out and I tried to get up, it took some thought to work out what body parts I could use and which ones I needed to be careful of, especially since I wasn’t in much pain. I had to keep reminding myself to use my arms; something about being back in a hospital bed on pain meds had me all confused. One thing was clear, though – my incisions were tiny. There were five of them, the largest of which went vertically through my belly button. It was about an inch long, and was the entry point for the camera. There were also two very small incisions around where my ovaries were, and another above and to the left of my belly button. They were glued closed with Dermabond, not stitches or staples, and it was amazing to think that they were big enough to accomplish anything.
Once Toni’s shift ended, I had a new nurse – young, pretty, with great curly black hair. I wish I could remember her name, but I didn’t write it down, and things that didn’t get written down got lost in the pain pill fog. She came in and out several times like nurses do, checking and adjusting things. After a few hours, however, she pulled up a chair next to my bed and just said, “WHY?” Over the next twenty minutes or so, I explained my family history, my genetic mutation, and all I knew about the pros and cons of prophylactic cancer surgery. She had so many questions, and was genuinely interested in understanding my choices. I think she began the conversation with doubts about my sanity, but hopefully I allayed some of them.
The hysterectomy was so easy compared to the mastectomy, and even compared to my two C-sections. Once the catheter came out, I was going to the bathroom without an escort (a nerve-wracking thing after passing out in the bathroom last time), walking laps, and ready to go home. The curly-haired nurse gave me my discharge instructions. She told me not to be deceived by the ease of the surgery. In her words, “the incisions are small, but it’s Spaghetti-O’s in there.” Looking back, I should have recognized that she wasn’t joking.
I was home from the hospital around lunchtime on Wednesday, armed with a pumpkin spice latte from Starbuck’s, but wearing my pajamas because my bag of clothes was lost somewhere at the hospital. I was bruised up, but pleasantly surprised that I could get up from the couch without help, and could take care of myself just fine. A friend had recently had a hysterectomy and said she never had to take a pain pill once she was home. Surely I could be that tough after what I’d already lived through, right?
That’s where I got into trouble – it was too easy, and I was too confident.
I took it easy for a few days, but Sunday was coming. It was the official beginning of a new schedule at church. The worship services were being divided into contemporary and traditional, and decision that had been hard fought and a long time coming. I was determined to be in church that Sunday. It was hard to find clothes that didn’t either hurt my chest or my abdomen. I put bandaids over the five small incisions in my abdomen so that my clothes wouldn’t irritate them. The belly button incision was burning and hurting, but I figured I could handle it. I was a surgery veteran, after all, and this was nothing compared to a double mastectomy.
About ten minutes into the worship service, I felt myself swaying. My vision went black for a second, and I knew I had made a mistake. I sat down, wishing I was home on the heating pad in my designated spot on the couch. I survived the service, but couldn’t go home because we had all come in the same car and Mark had Sunday School teaching duties. He might have found a sub, but we were also supposed to go to my brother and sister-in-law’s house after church for my dad’s 76th birthday lunch. I was in it for the long haul, ready or not.
I managed to get upstairs after the service (thank goodness for elevators), but then I had a packed hallway to face. I was completely panicked, unable to protect myself from the press of people. One of my preschoolers ran up to give me a hug, her head hitting me directly in the abdomen. I realized that I had no business being out of the house, but it was too late to retreat. I made it to my Sunday School room, dropped into a chair, and someone mercifully brought me a cup of coffee.
After church, we went to Dad’s birthday lunch, and I stayed upright long enough to eat. Afterward, I found a recliner, collapsed, and didn’t move until it was time to go home. When I got home, I cancelled all my clients for the next three days, sank into the couch, and didn’t move unless absolutely necessary until Wednesday, when I managed to get myself to preschool choir and go through the motions of teaching (probably also too soon). Lesson (partially) learned.
There was another consequence of my adventure. After I got home from church, I tried to remove the Band-Aids I had put on to protect my incisions. Unfortunately, a bunch of Dermabond came off with the Band-Aids, taking a lot of my protection with it. At baseball practice a couple of nights later, I looked down to see blood seeping through my pants where I had popped open one of the small lower incisions. Dr Allen had to close it back up with steri-strips. Another lesson learned the hard way – add it to the list.
My only concern for the moment was the incisions, but there was other healing that had to occur, and it wasn’t happening on its own. I won’t go into details, but Dr. Allen had to remove some scar tissue that formed in an unfortunate place after several weeks. At that point, it became necessary to use estrogen cream every night for four weeks, which was, in a word, gross. Eventually, we resorted to an estrogen patch temporarily in hopes that the internal sutures would heal more quickly. When all was said and done, I wasn’t released for normal activity until November 14. By the time I had fully recovered from this surgery, I’d already had another one.
The Crazy Lady had said that estrogen replacement was out of the question because of its contribution to breast cancer risk, so I was apprehensive about even using the cream. Dr. Allen contacted my new oncologist, Dr. Young, to ask about prescribing a very low-dose estrogen patch long-term to alleviate the menopausal symptoms that I was already experiencing (mainly night sweats and hot flashes). Dr. Young gave her consent, stating that because I had already taken my breast cancer risk from 87% down to around 1% with preventative measures, I could afford a little estrogen to improve my quality of life.
This one thing eased my mind considerably, as most of the fears The Crazy Lady had shoved so forcibly into my mind were related to life after a hysterectomy without the benefits of estrogen replacement. Dr. Young was, in many ways, God’s mechanism of redemption for me, even though I didn’t know redemption was what I needed. I had cried so many tears in fear after that first oncology appointment, and didn’t even know what to pray for. God understood what I needed and provided it. The Crazy Lady terrified me, but Dr. Young replaced those fears with hope.
By the time I recovered from the hysterectomy, I was getting very frustrated with what I viewed as useless lying around. The house was slowly turning into a pigsty, I hadn’t cooked in weeks, and I had done absolutely no birthday party preparation for either of my kids. Surgery #4 was looming in two weeks. I wanted it all to be over so that I could be a productive human being again.
On September 19, 2012, I got a clear pathology report from the hysterectomy. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and got to work planning my son’s birthday party. One of my sweet friends offered to have someone come clean my house around this time, but I declined. It was tough to get it all done in my slow-moving state, but I needed to do it, and in doing so prove to myself that I was still the same person I was in April before all of this started. I needed to know that behind all the scars and under all the bandages, I was still ME.