the element of surprise

I’m forever surprising myself. And life is forever surprising me.

When I blogged before my surgery, I was terrified. I wrote about how having a bilateral mastectomy resurrected this feeling of losing a part of myself, something I’d felt back when I was 16 and lost my hair because of chemo. I also wrote that all those years ago, when that gut-wrenching 5-minute experience with my mom shaving my head was over, I went back to my room, forced myself to look in the mirror, and was surprised… I looked good. I looked REALLY good. And the hardest part was over.

Last Thursday morning, as Dr. B wheeled me away from my parents, who could not hide their tears, and into the operating room, where I couldn’t hide my own, I grabbed my god-given, awesome boobs for the last time, looked at Dr. B, in her sweet, compassionate eyes, and I went to sleep.

In what felt like minutes, I was waking up. And the worst was truly over. Just like it was 17 years ago.

I expected to feel awful, 7 hours of surgery is LONG. I didn’t immediately feel so awful. The pain was very crazy, but I was coherent and drugged up. My mom and dad were on either side of me. I was cracking jokes, I couldn’t tell you what they were, but I know my parents, who love to act as if they’ve never heard or used a curse word in their lives, were half-laughing/half trying to pretend “she’s never like this it must be the anesthesia” (NOTE: I’m always like that). I kept asking my mom if she’d called my cousin Lauren, who was in charge of kicking off a phone chain to tell my closest friends and family I was out of surgery and recovering. More truthfully, I was demanding she call Lauren. She finally listened to me, and told Lauren, “She’s up, and she’s already ordering people around.” #ShesBack

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me and peg, just before surgery, Aug. 6, 2015
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me and MUR, just before surgery Aug. 6, 2015

When the nurses wheeled me into my room around 7 p.m., the first thing they did was check my vitals and my incisions. This meant they had to open up my gown and my surgical bra. I had no idea what to expect, but my spirits were up and I was feeling brave. The nurse said, you can look away if you want, and I said, “No fucking way.” (yes, I said the F-word). This was the moment of truth, how could I look away? Again, history repeated itself… the nurse said, “Just so you know… every nurse on this floor has boob envy.” And I understood why… my new boobies already look pretty fucking amazing. Holy cow. How do you spell relief…

More on the new boobs in a future post. Right now, most people are wondering, “So… how did you do?” Here’s how…

The first 12 hours post-surgery were quite possibly the most difficult of my life. I’m not really sure what “recovering remarkably” translates into, but I’m pretty sure I achieved it based on the reactions from the nursing staff, my doctors, my parents and my close friends. But for me, it also wasn’t like there was a choice. That’s how I’ve always been. Set a goal and shatter it. When you see a challenge, you tackle that shit… you move onto the next one, tackle that… wash, rinse, repeat. To me, this is just logical.

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I only spent two nights in the hospital. I expected, and was told, I’d be there through the weekend. I left Saturday morning, as early as possible, and literally walked through the halls (politely) hounding the nurses to give me my discharge papers and remove my IV. I’m sure they loved that.

bitchcraft

Truth be told, my nurses at Huntington Hospital on Long Island were incredible, and that made a lot of the difference.

But that first night was so tough. My parents left and I was lucky enough to have my own room, but I was in excruciating pain, withdrawing from the enormous amount of anesthesia, I was catheterized and had a button to push any time the pain was unbearable. The medicine coming out of the pump (dilaudid/hydromorphone) was making me barf despite very effective anti-nausea medications (Zofran and compazine). My mouth constantly felt and tasted like sawdust, I could barely keep ice chips down, so the nurses wouldn’t give me any food to coat my stomach. I had to choose between pain management and constant barfing… isn’t this the picture of true glamour?

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about 2 a.m. Aug. 7, 2015, dilaudid makin’ me grossie

I dealt with this for a few hours. I had removable oxygen tubes in both nostrils and compression cuffs on both legs to prevent blood clots. When you’re that uncomfortable, you just can’t sleep, and minutes start to feel like hours. I was antsy and my mind told me it was time to start moving, but my body wasn’t ready. It’s in those moments that you exercise mind over matter, like Uma in Kill Bill (wiggle your big toe). I knew the first big hurdle was walking, somewhere, anywhere. And at 430 a.m., I decided to try it.

believe

I’d been avoiding the pain pump, so my pain was high, but my stomach was cooperating. My nurse gave me a shot of Zofran so that when I went upright I wouldn’t lose my cookies. My teeth started chattering and my body started shaking as if it was hypothermic, a sign of anesthesia withdrawal and your body’s reaction to intense, uncontrolled pain. The nurse had me swing my legs to the left edge of the bed and helped me sit up… I got that far, gravity immediately settled in, and so did the weight of the 7 hours of tearing apart my torso… and it sort of resembled this. The pain was so incredible it brought me to sobs. The nurse urged me to press the pain pump until it stopped beeping (it locks you out automatically before you overdose). The pain subsided fast, the sobs took a little longer. I was out of breath, but the nurse was proud and supportive. First hurdle overcome. It hurt like a bastard, but it took all of a minute.

Next I actually had to walk. A huge wave of nausea washed over me (I def pressed the pain pump about 17 times) and I didn’t think I could stand. The nurse, in a way that only a brilliant nurse can, encouraged me by saying, “If sitting is all you can do, it’s more than you were doing a minute ago. We don’t have to go very far. We can sit here, or we can just walk a step or two to the chair and sit in it. It’s up to you.” A good compromise to walking out of the room, down the hall and back seemed like walking across the room to the sink, since I’d probably need to barf in it anyway. I stood up slowly. I waited, breathed away the urge to hurl, slowly walked to the sink and sucked on a few ice chips. I said, “That’s it, I’m good, please bring me back to bed.” Two steps back and I hurled into a bucket that the nurse got to me just in time. When I stopped, I wiped my face, took a breath and said, “OK, let’s go down the hall.” And the nurses BEAMED. They promised me, it only gets easier, and much easier, from here.

universe has my back

I slept intermittently into Friday morning, laying down was stiffening my entire upper body, but the nurses were right — things started improving quickly. And that’s because I kept moving.

Friday

The nurses brought me a bland breakfast, I ate half of it sitting in a chair next to my bed. Since I was eating and drinking, the nurse took out my catheter. I told them to get me off of the pain pump, and that meant they could also remove the annoying oxygen tubes. I started a new pain management cocktail and the compression bands on my legs came off. This was all within about 5 hours. I was feeling human again.

My best high school friends Jackie and Laura showed up, and they helped me get up, walk to the bathroom, I brushed my teeth (and did again probably a million times more that day), Jackie washed my face, they brushed my hair and helped me put it up. My cousin Lauren showed up and helped me ditch my hospital gown (it just makes you feel like a sick, incapable person walking around with a gown your ass hangs out of, let’s be real). She helped me into my real clothes. I was LOOKING human again. I sat up in bed, stood and walked a lot. I started stretching my arms lightly. My friend Laura came back that night with our friend Lysa. Nobody who visited came empty-handed. Everyone brought something I really needed: magazines, slippers, roll on antiperspirant (very important when you can’t lift your arms or feel your skin well), healthy snacks, light, soft PJs that would be easy to put on, the list goes on. I don’t know what I’d do without these girls.

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Best friends (357 crew): Laura, Me, Jackie and Lysa, Aug. 21, 2010
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my cousin Lauren, really my sister, and I in Aruba July 2009

Friday night, Duane stayed with me in the hospital. The poor guy barely slept and was so nervous I might break. He also brought me all kinds of things I’d forgotten that I really needed, helped me in and out of my bed, in the bathroom, with my hair, arranged pillows, carried things, drove me home to my parent’s house Saturday morning, ran to stores to buy stuff I realized I’d need, zip-front sport bras included (yes… for me, he was the creepy guy at Sport’s Authority way too early in the morning looking at bras).

The bottom line is, I did fabulously those first two days, and I never expected to. I owe this to the people who love me that showed up and helped me, physically and digitally. I had wifi the entire time (talk about something incredible to pass the hours I was awake). My social media notifications were in the several hundreds, as were my text messages. A lot of people couldn’t believe I was up and so active, so responsive. Many said I was an inspiration… you know what? The love inspired ME and distracted me from focusing on my pain. Love makes the world go round, and when you have a team of thousands routing for you, anything is possible. Saying I’m grateful does no justice to how I really feel to each and every one of you.

My parting words on this part of the adventure are, when you give love you get love. We can waste time worrying and contemplating and obsessing and jumping from one foot to the other, or we can set our minds to a desired outcome, say it out loud to the world with love and commitment, and be open to the possibility that things may not go as badly as we suspect. You MAY just be surprised.

Just like anything else in life, INCHES MAKE CHAMPIONS. Small steps turn into several steps. The time is going to pass anyway, you may as well be productive and working towards your goal, in my case, nearly perfect health of mind, body and spirit. And I wish all of that for you too ❤

all drugged up, but i nailed it

If you’re reading this, it means I made it and am clicking the morphine button like mad, possibly barfing my brains out and can’t really move, let alone type. I’m gonna be golden in a day or two (or five) and my best friend Christine is posting this for me.

How did I do? I just followed my best friend Sofia’s instructions:

“Mary — Tomorrow you go in there like a rockstar! You go in there like Keith Richards at his last physical. You go in there like LeBron James every season. You go in there like Ronda Rousey in her last fight. You go in there like Pacino in every movie he does. You go in there like Beyoncé before every concert. You go in there like Bradley Cooper in American Hustle. You go in there in Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. You go in there like Chris Martin on Clocks. You go in there like the NY Mets in 86. You go in there like Jordan in 93, 94, 96, 97 and 98. You go in there like a Golden on college graduation!!! You go in there and WIN!!”

And I did… and they wheeled me outta there like a boss.

Even if I haven’t had a chance to respond, I’ve seen and read every call, text, email and comment. You’ve surprised me, helped me and lifted me up. “Love actually IS all around.” I couldn’t be more blessed.

I’ll be recovering on Long Island for the foreseeable future. Until next time…

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[OUTAKES FROM ALL OF MY GOLDEN GIRLS — THEY ARE THE REASON I I LIVE]

Be like Freddie Mercury opening night in Montreal
Be like Bret Michaels on the Rock of Love bus
Be like 50 Cent without his bulletproof vest
Go in there like when T-Rex was the king of the dinosaurs
Go in there like when BIG was the king of rap
Go in there like when Billy Joel when he made Uptown Girl
Go in there like when Julia Roberts went back to Rodeo drive after those bitches dissed her (#winner)
Go in there like Jeremy Lin on the Knicks in 2012
Be like Enimem at the end of 8 mile
Go in there like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting when he “got her numba… how do you like them apples” (those pretentious, preppy Harvard punks)
Go in there like Nitro from the 1980s American Gladiators
Go in there like Kevin Bacon in Footloose
Go in there like Missy Misdemeanor Elliot rapping “Work It” in 2002
Go in there like Forrest Gump running across the country
Go in there like any time Matt Damon was Jason Bourne, ever
Go in there like Henry Hill in Goodfellas (Karen, we needed that!)
Go in there like Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games
If you EVER need a good pre-mastectomy pep rally, my girls got you.#Golden #BitchesBeCrazy ❤

nervous, numb and then some…

The roller coaster of emotions I’ve been on since June 1 is evident by the way my house looks right now (like a tornado came through), the piles of lists in every room, the started and unfinished “projects” and the amount of Xanax I’ve consumed. I have never freaked so much in my life. It almost feels manic, and that alone freaks me out. I’m normally very level-headed and precise, but I’m aware of coming unglued. It’s so weird.

I always bite off more than I can chew, and when I scheduled my surgery for Aug. 6, I knew there were specific things I needed to accomplish beforehand: make a reconstruction decision (top priority), get to Maine with my family (we’ve gone almost every summer since I was born) and get to LA to visit my brother and his family, to hug my beloved nephew Arrow and his new little sister Rio. Somehow, over the last two months, I did so much more than those three things. I’m proud that I did. I’m kind of shocked I did it, I have no idea HOW I did. But now, and as of Aug. 1, the lists have been checked off…  and there’s been nothing left to do but wait.

And think.

And worry.

And wonder.

And now surgery is here, and I cannot help but feel slightly terrified.

In early June, I woke up from a dream where I’d had my mastectomy, and I felt it… this hollow, empty, numbness where my breasts had been. This concavity, almost like my heart was gone too. No aching, no feeling at all. Just nothing. And I sobbed the whole day. What the hell is this going to feel like? The unknown is so scary.

I mentioned in my previous post that many women have been kind enough to sit with me, to lift their shirts, to let me REALLY look at their reconstruction, to feel them. Many of them said, very casually, “Sure go ahead, I don’t feel it anyway.” One woman actually said, “I’ll show anyone because I really don’t feel like their mine.” That comment in particular struck a chord. I would hate to think that after all of the work I’ve done to make the right reconstruction decision, they wouldn’t be “mine,” even if they feel like nothing.

No matter how tough you are when dealing with cancer, and overcoming it, there’s something very personal about what cancer robs you of. When I was a child, I had a head of long, blonde curls, from age 3. Goldilocks. Hair everyone talked about and wished they had.

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little Mary at my Auntie Di’s house, circa 1988 (age 6)

And when I had chemo, I had to watch it fall out slowly, as if in order to be cured, something has to die. When I couldn’t bear to watch it anymore, I asked my brother, a metal head, to shave my head… he couldn’t bring himself to do it. And so my poor mother had to. I put my head down over the sink and just sobbed. And it’s just hair, it grows back. To be honest, I loved being bald. When I was finally able to look at myself in the mirror, I felt relief. I never wore a wig and rocked a great shaved head. But in that moment, those few minutes with my mom and the buzzer, cancer won. Cancer stripped me of part of my physical identity. I think that moment was worse than the 9 weeks of chemo I had. Because it was heartbreaking.

And now as I sit here, and think about what it’s going to feel like to not have any feeling at all in my upper torso, I’m furious and devastated. I have no doubts my new boobs will look great. I’m sure I’ll love that they’ll never fall like my real boobs have already started to. They will look like mine. But that’s not what this is about… they won’t feel like anything. They won’t get in my way like they always do, I won’t notice them when I’m walking up stairs. I remember what my skin felt like after my biopsy as a teenager, and what my neck felt like after my thyroid was removed. It’s like when you go to the dentist and they shoot novacaine into your mouth and you play with your lips for hours afterward. Except that feeling never goes away.

I’ve been strong and positive up until this point, and I still am. I’m confident the surgery will go well. I’m blessed with thousands of friends, and friends of friends, who have come out of the woodwork to wish me well, pray for me and think of me surrounded in white light. I’m going to be just fine and I’m eternally grateful. But I think I deserve my moment to mourn my body. Like any other unknown, this one is terrifying.

We spend so much time focusing on our physical flaws and striving for perfection. You really don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Cancer taught me that a long time ago. Let this lesson be to love and honor yourself. Take care of the body you were given. Stop being your own worst critic. Stop criticizing and judging others’ appearances when you have no idea what they are struggling with. There are men and women who have lost limbs or who’ve become disfigured due to illness, accidents and combat. You should be so lucky you aren’t one of them.

mourn my boobs
#HOLLApalooza with my Golden Girls and besties @ The Jane Hotel, NYC, July 24, 2015

This will be my last post before surgery. THANK you for thinking of me, for reading my thoughts, for sharing them with others, for sharing your own with me. I’ve had my moments of weakness. This has been a big one I’ve carried for the last two months. I’m ready to let it go and focus on being brave (sing it Sara…)

See you on the other side of surgery ❤