Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Life You Save, Part Two

After the initial shock, I waited to be referred to a surgeon. Apparently, my doctor didn't know one, for a week went by, then two, then three, and my calls to his office were fended away by the receptionist. I waited one more week, then did the only thing I could think of--I called the American Cancer Society and allowed myself to have a Good Cry, sobbing out my predicament and fear. Within a day, I had been referred to a local representative, who took care of the paperwork to get me on Medi-Cal. Three days after that, I had an appointment with a surgeon and two days later, found myself on a gurney, at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo, California, draped and prepped and waiting to be wheeled into the operating room for a lumpectomy.

I was going to be in no condition to drive myself home, I'd been told, so one of my sorority sisters volunteered to be chauffeur. She was there to hold my hand as we waited, making inconsequential conversation the way people do, skirting around the fear that sat on the gurney with me.

Afterward--after I was awake and lucid enough to speak two consecutive sentences, she drove me home. No sooner had I walked into the apartment, still groggy from the anesthetic, than the phone rang. It was the surgeon's nurse. I needed to return to the hospital. They had to do a second lumpectomy, to "get the perimeter."

My driver good-naturedly agreed to take me back. This time, they got it all, the surgeon told me at my next visit, and he felt confident it wouldn't return, but I wasn't out of the woods yet. Now, my regimen of Tamoxifen chemotherapy began, coordinated with six weeks of radiation.

First, I had to meet with the radiologist and get my "tattoos." Nothing that said "Mother" or a big red heart with a dagger embedded in it, but three marks looking like nothing more than lead pencil periods; each under the skin, connected to the others to form a triangle with the area to be treated in the center.

Every morning at 7:00 AM, I drove myself to the radiology department where I lay on a table while the x-ray equipment hissed and rattled and boomed above me, reminding me of every mad scientist movie I'd ever seen--only this time, I was the Bride of Frankenstein who would rise from the slab, announcing triumphantly, "I'm alive! Alive!"

Alive--maybe--but not looking in any mirror that would allow a view of anything below my neck.

The following year, I began the first of my surgeries for breast reconstruction.

It was April 1. When my plastic surgeon and her nurse arrived, I greeted them enthusiastically. I was ready to meet this surgery head on--let's get this show on the road! When she said, "There's a problem. The company didn't send your implants." I waited for everyone to start laughing and shout, "April Fool!"

They didn't.

The company had forgotten to send the implants! A phone call was in to them rescheduling the delivery. Two days later, I returned for Step One of a breast reconstruction.

After the surgery, I was given a card to carry in my wallet, identifying me as a member of the McGhan Medical Corporation's Implant Registry. If I happen to get killed and can't be identified, they can remove my implants and the Registry will be able to tell them that #PL7716 belongs to Toni V. Sweeney. Isn't that a comforting thought?

As a member of the Registry, I will be also be monitored for the rest of my life, and notified if any problems arise concerning the implants.

Now that I had two breasts again, there were several adjustments I had to make--some of them hilarious, some of them painful--I found I couldn't roll over in bed without pain because my breasts bumped against each other and had to sleep with a pillow between each one. More accustomed to being a 32A, I kept dropping crackers and peanuts down my now 38C cleavage. My breasts were numb and wearing a tube top became embarrassing when it slid down around my waist and I didn't realize that because I couldn't feel it....

In 2002, my surgeon dropped out of the program and I was referred to UCI Medical Center in Orange, California. In 2003, I underwent a Z-plasty to release my lumpectomy scar and my next surgery--the skin flap transplant--was scheduled for Christmas, 2004.

The next surgery never happened. My surgeon was too swamped for me to get an appointment for a follow-up. As a Welfare patient, I was unable to find another doctor to take his place. After three tries, I was told to wait a while and try again. Eventually, I gave up hope of completing my surgery, consoling myself that I had enough up top to be able to wear a low-cut neckline.

I had graduated from monthly visits with my oncologist to check-ups every six months with a mammogram and accompanying blood work. I did monthly self-exams, took vitamins, and followed my doctor's orders.

In 2006, I was dismissed from treatment--feeling like a Work in Progress...slightly unfinished...with 1 2/3 breasts...with 60 extra pounds from my chemo...and a nearly complete lack of bodyhair... but I'm alive.

Recently, I read a newspaper article stating that research has shown self-exams don't aid in preventing death by breast cancer. All I have to say is: Ignore that! See your doctor, have a yearly mammogram--and do those monthly self-exams!

Newspaper stories notwithstanding--the life you save will be your own!


Jennifer Johnson said...

Hi Toni,
Thank you for your post. My mother-in-law had breast cancer several years ago and the doctor has detected what they think is cancer in the other breast so she goes Wed. for a biopsy. Her name is Gloria.

I'd appreciate any prayers and good thoughts going out to and for her Wednesday and in the days while she waits to hear back.


Bess McBride said...

Thank you for sharing your story, Toni. That you've found the will to use humor throughout speaks well for your recovery!! :-)

My best to you.

Bess McBride

Tanya Hanson said...

Thank you, Tony, for this courageous, uplisting and nervewracking story.

May your health continue and your days be long and bright. My husband is in 20 weeks remission for testicular cancer, truly a journey we never thought we'd take. Praise God he is healthy and well again after harrowing chemo and a complete cure is expected.

~Tanya Hanson

Tia Dani said...

Hi Toni,
Thank you so much for sharing your courageous story. We will keep you in our prayers.

As always,
Tia & Dani