My husband and I were sitting in our yard planning our upcoming trip to Italy when the phone rang. A woman’s voice said, “Hi Mary Ann, the results from your biopsy are in and the Doctor wants to meet with you.” Being asked to come into the Doctor’s office to review a pathology report is never a good thing. You fear the impending news at a deep visceral level. In my case I felt it in my uterus. Venice, Florence and Rome would have to wait as my life was about to take a detour.
A few hours later we are sitting in the Doctor’s office, waiting. My mind was jumbled, my heart racing and my stomach churning. My husband and I sit in silence. Being a nurse I try to appease my jitters by explaining all the possible options that lay ahead to my husband. We are called into the exam room. The door opens, the Doctor walks in, says “Hello” and sits down with just a brief moment of eye contact before she starts rummaging through her folder. Crap–it’s worse than I thought; she can’t even look at me.
She begins, “The pathology report is back from your uterine biopsy.” No kidding. “The bad news is you have Cancer. The good news is it is Stage I which means we caught it early enough so treatment should be minimal.” All my years of clinical nursing vanished in a flash and I was left with – WHAT DOES THAT MEAN, MINIMAL? She proceeded to explain that most Stage I Uterine Cancers are treated with a complete hysterectomy and nothing further…but we would have to wait and see. (A hysterectomy for all you guys out there is a complete removal of all the female reproductive parts.)
So many questions and ramblings filled my mind in a matter of seconds. Should I let my family and friends know? How will this affect them and their interactions with me…no I won’t tell them. Why didn’t I take that trip to Africa years ago? What was my life really worth? When was the last time I had sex? That will probably be the last time!!! On and on and on...
Now it’s official. From this day forward I am a Cancer patient. But will I be a Cancer survivor?
What great words of knowledge, advice and insight can I give myself as I start down this path? Nada, blank, nothing, I was a wreck. I barely made it out of the Doctor’s office before I burst into tears. I could feel my goals and dreams being pulled away as my mind filled with all the horrors I had witnessed and tended to over the years as a nurse. I went from planning a trip to Italy in the morning to planning my funeral in the afternoon. Who am I kidding, Death sucks!
I was at the beginning of the proverbial road, not knowing where I was headed or how many times I would return.
My fear and depression ebbed and flowed for a few weeks until I met face to face with my gynecological/surgical/oncologist. The facts were reviewed, fears discussed and surgery scheduled. Once a plan was in place I was more at ease with my diagnosis and prognosis. As I reviewed the facts, my practical and logical mind began to resurface. I reviewed treatment protocols and outcome probabilities on multiple web sites; some reliable, some not and some just scary. I relied on my dear friend who is an ob/gyn nurse to provide me with statistical data and my husband for the day to day pep talks and expressions of endearment.
As the day of the operation neared I found solace in my family, friends, books and quiet. My resolve to stay calm and to remain open to whatever was my predominant mind set. It was a natural progression, nothing forced. I felt bad that I wasn’t more positive and a bit of a drag for my family.
We are so used to only revealing a fraction of who we truly are. We’ve been trained to hide the parts of ourselves that might be perceived as weak, needy, angry or downright ugly. Yet, my family was supportive through my many moods. It is amazing the amount of energy it takes to deal with a possible life changing disease. It’s all consuming.
Throughout those days leading up to the surgery, my thoughts turned to my patients and their stories. I reflected on the many different ways each managed their symptoms, their loved ones and their minds. These individuals who had been down this road in one form or another served as an inspiration to me. I have listened to countless patients and families, cried with many and written stories on a few regarding their illness and how they dealt with it. I have been around death and suffering for over twenty years. Now it has knocked on my front door and I didn’t know whether to embrace it or slam the door shut. Didn’t I write a Blog post a while back on practicing letting go? Well, here I am…let go already!
After navigating through my emotions and mind for a few weeks the day of the surgery finally arrived – July 3rd, the day before Independence Day, oh crap-is that another omen? Does this mean I will be given independence from my body, my disease or better yet ~ my mind? By this point I was beginning to yearn for the anesthesia cocktail that awaited me. Bring it on.
I entered the pre op admissions area and handed over a copy of my Advanced Health Care Directive to the Admitting nurse. I have reviewed this document every year for the last 14 years and felt comfortable with all my decisions as did my family. “Oh dearie,” the nurse says, “You won’t need that, you’ll be fine.” At that point my 20 something anesthesiologist showed up and chided in with the nurse, “Everything will be fine, don’t worry, I’ll give you something for your anxiety.” Even in my pre op vulnerable and exposed state I felt my angst rise and told them in no uncertain terms they were not to connect me to tubes and multiple apparatus if things go to crap on the table. Of that I was certain and yes, bring on the drugs.
Only one family member was allowed with me in the pre op holding room. My 21 year old son wanted to be that person. He remained my anchor, my voice of reason and served as a reminder that life had been good to me and I to it. We held hands for 30 minutes until I was wheeled away, one of my treasured memories for a lifetime.
Upon entering the operating room I was introduced to the “Da Vinci” Robot that was going to be performing the manual work. This new high tech procedure done by laparoscope is guided by the surgeon in the corner of the room. Remember what the robot looked like in the movie Short Circuit? His name was Number 5. Well, imagine him only older, more muscular and a lot smarter.
As my positioning on the table was tweaked and the oxygen mask placed over my nose and mouth, I began to breath deep and surrender to what was about to take place. The Operating Room techs played their music, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. Are you freaking kidding me? I put aside my surrender moment, took off the oxygen mask and asked them to please play something else less daunting. They laughed and obliged as I proceeded to be gracious and let go. Ahh drugs…
I awoke a few hours later with very little pain and was told that all went well. The old, tired and diseased uterus and her ancillary parts were sent to pathology for a splice by splice look. The final report was checked and cross checked and indicated no further treatments were needed as the affected part was minimal, small and non invasive. I left the hospital relieved and calm.
After a few visits to the doctor for checkups I am now released and relegated to 6 month checks for the next few years. I am now a Cancer Survivor and walk the thin line of gratefulness and knowledge that the inevitable is only put off. For how long I don’t know.
I now realize my initial reactions were a bit unfounded. But as a toddler learning to walk, I was learning to die. I don’t regret a single moment of the fear, sadness and dread endured, just as I embrace the love and appreciation expressed by those close to me and I to them.
It is only now, two months after my surgery that I am able to look back, reflect and write this Post. The trip to Italy is just two weeks away. I will celebrate and embrace this trip for all that it has to offer – the planned and unplanned. I look forward to getting lost in Venice, wandering and eating my way through Florence and being filled with awe and inspiration from the art and history of Rome. I look forward to enjoying life while appreciating the power and rawness of death. This trial run of death has brought me closer to life.
There were many insights and lessons I learned during this trial run to death’s door. Some I will remember, others I will leave behind. I would like to share some of these with you.
Lessons and Insights
- Have someone you trust with you when you are asked to come into your Doctor’s office to review “pathology reports.”
- Go ahead, scream, cry and moan out loud when you are given bad news regarding your health. Be dumbfounded, confused, depressed, sad and even morbid. It will pass.
- Create a support group (mine consisted of 2 and grew to 4). This will allow you to verbalize all the weird thoughts and ideas that move in and out of your head. It also provides you a reality check.
- Limit your research on the internet. Below are two Cancer web sites that I found reliable, clinically reviewed, endorsed by medical professionals (doctors and nurses) and current. There are many more but these are my tried and true sites
- Keep a running list of questions and concerns that arise to discuss with your Primary Care Provider. Don’t keep anything back. Be a pest if need be. The objective is to settle your mind. Clarity is soothing.
- Plan. Make a plan for your procedure, treatments and recovery; a plan for food and exercise; a plan for your departure from work; a plan for your finances; a plan for what you are going to do with all your “down time.” And most importantly, develop a plan for your mind when it starts to wander…because it will. And then follow those plans.
- Don’t push yourself to be something you are not.
- Complete your Advanced Health Care Directive if you have not done so. Review it with your loved ones every now and then and make sure they are aware of your wishes.
And, Go to Italy.