(Previously published July 25, 2010)
A shower. So simple, yet right now so complicated. I'll caution as I write that I may be a bit more graphic than usual.....G rated, of course, but some of the intimate details of breast cancer and lymph node surgery will follow.
Some may laugh, but the whole process of showering, doing your hair, make-up, shaving etc., etc....has never really been something that I look forward to each day. Don't get me wrong, cleanliness is very important and so, of course, the process ensues most days...can't say everyday, but most. But when bathing takes every ounce of energy you have and requires a lot of prep-work just to step foot into the shower, it takes on a whole new meaning.
For the three days in the hospital, there was no showering. I was bandaged tightly around my chest, on drugs that made me unstable and pain that was pretty close to an 8 or 9. I can't remember which day it was, probably day two, when Beth, who now has probably seen more of me than she would really like to, helped give me a sponge bath. It felt like heaven. Ahh, to be cleaned. There was no hair washing, mind you, but just the wash rag on my arms and legs soothed my tired and aching body.
Home I went on Sunday, with instructions that none of my incisions, stitches or drainage holes were to get wet. That pretty much took care of the area from below my neck to my hips. My Aunt Kay came up with the brilliant idea to cut a hole in a tall white trash bag, wear it as a dress and take a shower. You can stop laughing now.....it's ok....it really was quite a sight. Needless to say, that was my first real shower about 6 days after surgery. Again, hair was not allowed to get wet, as you couldn't let any dirt get near the suture sights or run down your body. To say it was relaxing and invigorating would be quite a stretch, but soap and water hit my body for some brief moments.
Going into the surgery, I had been told about these lovely drains that would be a part of my "new" body for about 2 weeks following surgery. They were described to me by my plastic surgeon, as looking like "grenades." I wasn't too sure how to take that. But that in fact is a pretty accurate description. I went home with four of them, two on each side, as you can see below. Again, I'm sorry, if it is more than you'd like to see. It is one of the facts of breast cancer surgery. They come out from just below my underarm and the tubing is pinned to the side of my bra. They have to be emptied and measured about 3x per day. Thankfully, my aunt was right on this and then my dear husband picked up upon her departure.
I have a wonderful friend, who went through breast cancer about 5 years ago, (another survivor, Amen, Amen!!) and she passed on the wonderful advice about post-op clothing for drains. She lovingly told me to go out and buy a couple of men's style, button up oxford dress shirts. It is too hard to put things over your head at this stage of recovery, and the baggy dress shirts hide the grenades. It was wonderful advice. Kind of like the advice your may have received before delivering your first baby and naively thinking you will go home in your pre-pregnancy jeans. That never happened to me. I still looked pregnant for about 6 weeks following birth and wore my maternity clothes. These just aren't the details that your breast surgeon (or OBGYN) passes along. So, I was quite grateful for the advice and even more ecstatic when The Gap had a whole slew of ladies dress shirts on clearance right before surgery! Thanks Hillary!
Last Friday, when I had my first post-op appointment with Dr. Singer, two drains were removed. Whoo hoo! The plan is to have the final two removed this Wednesday.
So, back to the simple things, well the drains make showering a bit more complicated.
Tonight, showering was undertaken once again and it just wasn't so simple. Prior to the shower, I went through the 8 or so exercises that I have to do each day to regain range of motion in my arms, enough so I can do the "touchdown" as my surgeon so comically calls it. That would be arms straight and raised above my head. Yes, I know, so simple, but yeah, can't do it yet. Well, silly me who goes for the gusto, undertook these exercises, which stretch, pull and hurt every muscle you possibly have in your pecs, your triceps, your back, your diaphragm, and throughout your rib cage......muscles I didn't even know I had and I used to lift weights regularly!
I, of course, had my usual cocktail (as I call it... which again is comical as I don't really drink), of pain meds before beginning the exercises....Percocet, Valium, and Annaprox(spelling?). For someone who use to run 4 miles, and weight train.....these post-op exercises are like going back to Kindergarten, but yet not ready to graduate. They hurt and success if far off.
Then my husband, who I can't say enough wonderful and beautiful things about.....creatively helped me get that shower thing underway. The tricky task being what to do with the drains?This time, I could wash my hair and be fully under the running shower water. I was pretty excited about this shower. In walks my husband with an athletic necklace that usually holds a whistle. You know the kind a ref wears to ref a basketball game. The whistle was removed and the thing that you press in on the end to hold the ring of the whistle remained. Well, that became my drain holder. Around the neck went the necklace adorned with my drains. Yes, he is an engineer, so was quite proud to have come up with this solution and I was all the more grateful to just be under that running water.
What takes the normal person about 10-15 minutes took me about an hour. It was painful again from both the physical side as you can't even imagine the number of muscles that hurt, even to the touch, and then to see my body: the scars, the stitches, the drainage holes, the rash that I had gotten from the surgical bra, the tendon that is so stretched and taut under my right armpit (where the lymph node surgery took place).......I was thoroughly exhausted by the time I was done. It felt good to be clean, though. To have shaved my legs, and under at least one arm....can't shave under the surgical one yet (that's pretty!) and to have clean hair. I asked my husband to rub some cream over my back, but even as he touched the top part between my shoulder blades, the pain from his touch was too much to bear. So many muscles are involved in this process of healing.
And as he helped put me back together, and dry my hair.....I thought of how I have taken for granted these simple things. These things that for many on a daily basis, aren't so simple. I thought of my mom who is paralyzed on her left side and the simple act of putting on a bra takes many, many minutes not seconds like the rest of us. I thought of those in a wheelchair who can't even stand themselves, and those in other countries who don't even have clean running water to bathe with. Each day gets a little better. I have a little more energy and a little less pain. This too shall pass. I again and again am reminded to look up and not in. As I got into bed, so thankful that the showering process was over for a couple more days, my oldest son, Ben, knocked on the bedroom door and asked to come in. I don't know if it was the look on my face, I don't know if it was God prompting his tender, compassionate heart, but he walked over to the side of the bed and gave me a kiss on my cheek. The simple things. The love of a child. The gift of life. The beauty that God will bring from this thing called cancer. I looked into my teenager's eyes and said "thank you, son. I love you."
You know what. We all go through trials in many different ways. I'll say it again and again, I don't have the answers. I don't have "it all together." But I serve a God who does. I serve a God who told us in Hebrews 12 "to lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us and to run with endurance the race that is set before us. " And He gave us the example to follow....."looking unto Jesus" the author and the finisher of our faith, who for the JOY that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame and has sat down a the right hand of the throne of God." That joy was knowing that through His pain, His persecution, His death and resurrection....His obedience to His Father....He would rejoice in that many would be saved. I am reminded to "look unto Jesus." The shower, the pain, the process, the surgery, the scars, upcoming treatment.....all of it I can either choose to dwell on and be miserable, shout and scream and let anger take up residence...or I can look unto Jesus, submit under His mighty and loving hand and have joy.
I recently heard some words of wisdom saying, "you can't gain endurance unless you endure." You can't run a marathon, unless you endure the training needed to get you to the finish line. You can't hold a hard earned diploma or master's degree in your hand, unless you've endured the classes and coursework that brought you to that place. We all have something to endure and God tells us in James that patience or endurance will be produced as our faith is tested and tried through trials. That we will be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. Not perfect as the world defines it. But perfect as a believer and lover of Jesus Christ desiring to please my Father, submit to His plan, trust in His love and be guided by His Word. A believer growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ and being conformed to his image. I want my faith to be tried and tested and to cross that finish line into the arms of my Father hearing Him say, "well done good and faithful servant." I desire for many to cross that finish line with me and hear the same words. So, I choose to endure. I choose to take the not so simple things as they come and "look unto Jesus" to bring me through.