A friend’s recovery from a double mastectomy reveals the poignant, and often frustrating journey with cancer
When I walked into the recovery room, I almost burst into tears. I’d been dutifully holding my emotions in check all day; but when my best-friend-since-I-was-seven’s first post-op words to me were “My chest hurts,” I damn near lost it. The expression on her face declaring a pain level of shocking didn’t help either. I put my hand on her forehead and did my best to smile. I said, “You did it! And you’re OK!”
Her head lolled around in wide circles attempting to define the unrecognizable noises of the heart rate monitor. It was jarring and emotional to witness her in that state.
“What time is it?” she asked with a furrowed brow. She was looking for a window to place herself in time.
“It’s late. Almost 8:00 p.m.”
“My chest really hurts.”
As someone who has never trusted doctors or hospitals or surgeries, I had a big wave to ride. I knew from the beginning of this cancer journey that it was not my place to suggest meditation and laughter therapy as viable alternatives to Ericka’s chosen treatment plan. She was already halfway through eight rounds of chemotherapy by the time I moved back home. What was done was done.
Double mastectomy surgery was her clear and definitive choice. I had made mine as well: support her needs to the best of my ability regardless of my personal opinions.
Ericka always projects a high level of control. But coming out of anesthesia, even the most capable adult is downgraded to newborn baby status, as if opening their eyes to the world for the first time.
I pulled a chair close to her head and sat with my forearm delicately balanced on the side of the bed, desperate not to disturb any of the wires or tubes. I held onto her pinky finger for what felt like forever. An hour passed.
In time I picked up the drill from the post anesthesia care unit (PACU) nurse. I let her rest when her eyes were closed. I kept her abreast of her own situation when they were open. “Hey! How’s it going? You made it through surgery and you’re waking up from the anesthesia. Crazy, right?” Zonk! And she was out again. Rinse and repeat for as long as it took for her brain to catch up to her reality.
I took the moments when her eyes were closed to shut my own and realign my emotions for the next round. This was taxing for me but I wanted every ounce of energy flowing out of my body to be positive and excited, every time she looked at me. I wanted to project the idea that everything was under control for her, just like I saw her do every day as a single mom to her four young children.
Shortly, I took over the duty of wetting her dry lips with a tiny sponge on a stick that looked like a blue lollipop, and spooning her ice chips out of a Styrofoam cup.
It felt good to be useful. Having a job made it all feel less insane.
It was dark in the cavernous recovery room; all the bays empty except for Ericka’s. We were the only people in there besides the nurse and her assistant, a younger man who had a knack for looking confused. He kept talking about how ready he was to go home. Like a mama bear protecting her cub, I didn’t want him anywhere near Ericka. Thankfully he stayed mostly at the desk.
Ericka continually asked for more pain medicine. The head nurse explained they were shooting for a balance so she could fully awaken from the anesthesia. But she also complied and gave her another dose of morphine before prepping her hospital bed for the move up to her room.
I remembered Ericka telling me she would have a patient-controlled analgesia (PCA), which is basically a clicker button attached to her IV that she could press anytime she needed more pain relief. I inquired about it with the nurses. It was a good thing I did, because it wasn’t on her list of prescriptions and they didn’t have it. The head nurse checked some older paperwork and found the order.
“It says it’s been filled so it should be around here somewhere.” She and her assistant set about the task of physically finding it.
Should be? My maternal instincts bubbled up.
Strike one, I thought as I got up and crossed over to the desk in a huff.
“Do you seriously not know where it is? Because that seems like a pretty important thing for her to have.”
“Um . . . yeah . . . it’s gotta be here. We just need to find it.” The assistant mumbled more to himself than anyone else as he searched under papers and manila folders on the desk.
Need to find it? It was hard to stay calm while my brain raced to imagine every possible thing they could screw up and how catastrophic it would all be for our patient. Fight or flight kicked in and there was sure as hell nowhere to run to.
“OK, but wouldn’t you have seen it if it was on the desk? You’ve been sitting here all night. Where else could it be?” I was getting pretty serious and needed to morph this frustration into problem solving. “Are you sure it was delivered? Did you actually see it at some point?” I asked in a much gentler tone.
“Wait a minute.” He got up and walked away.
I threw up my hands and turned back to Ericka, who watched quizzically from her bed.
“What’s wrong?” she asked in a weak tired voice.
“They’re looking for your pain med clicker thing. Apparently it got lost. How are you?”
“I’m OK. I just want to get to my room.” She was awake enough that she could be moved but this delay was keeping us put.
The PACU nurses complained to each other about daily mix-ups as they bumbled around searching high and low.
After years working in high-end customer service I had no patience for employees who bickered in front of clients, or in this case, patients. Strike two for my faith in the hospital. After five stressful minutes they returned to the scene.
“We got it!” announced the assistant, holding it high so I could see. “The maintenance man found it in the dumb waiter.”
I couldn’t bring myself to imagine all the other things that had likely been forgotten in the dumb waiter over the one hundred and ten years since the hospital was founded. I took a deep breath.
“Can we just get her up to her room please?” I exhaled.
“Yes, of course.” The head nurse sensed my frustration. “I’m sorry about that. Let’s get you guys upstairs for some rest.” She unhooked wires and strung IV tubes around the rolling pole that would accompany us to the new room. Together the nurses gently pushed the hospital bed away from the wall and down the corridor to the elevator.
“We’ll do the best we can to not hit any bumps.”
I gathered up my backpack and lunch bag and let out a sigh thinking Gosh, that’d be swell! I knew they were doing their best to balance bureaucracy with patient care, but in that moment it was hard for me to show any appreciation. Not for Ericka though.
“Thank you,” she said to them while eyeing me with a wink. She was coming back to life just in time to sweetly reprimand me for getting sour.
The nurses really did take care to transport her smoothly, apologizing for every threshold before they crossed it. Just as trust was being restored and we got to her room, a hospital worker was in there changing light bulbs.
The maintenance man was surprised to see us. “You can’t come in here!” he said. “It’s not ready yet.”
I channeled every ounce of frustration through enraged eyeballs. Well are we just going to stand here in the hallway then?
“We can wait out here in the hallway,” echoed the head nurse. “It really should only take him a minute.”
This was as much as I could take; yet things got even clunkier.
When we were finally let into the room, the nurses eased the hospital bed into its place, carefully uncurling the tubes and wires. The maintenance man had moved on to hanging a privacy curtain. It made no sense, considering it was a single room and there was no one to grant her privacy from.
In his ever-present attempt to not cause any harm he only hit Ericka’s bed four times. He bumped into the side; hit the end of it with a chair. He smacked the ladder into her foot and almost took me out in the process.
Four times she winced from the jolts and the pain, but never let out a peep. Four times I squeezed my fists behind my back and bit my lip. Zero to sixty, in one curtain installation—my blood boiled up into my forehead.
“Are you done? I think you’re done,” I urged.
The maintenance man was confused. He had no idea he’d done anything to cause my tone. “Don’t you want the curtain to go all the way around?”
“Nope. You know what, it’s fine just the way it is. Thank you so much.” I ushered him towards the door.
I was so annoyed I let out a grizzly-like growl as he exited. And there was Ericka, acting like nothing was wrong. She didn’t want to complain even when she was in agonizing pain.
My anger with the uncoordinated nurses and maintenance man got me nowhere, and I could tell it was irking Ericka. As we settled into her room, I made the decision to change my attitude.
It was well past 11:00 p.m., but tired as I was, it was Humor O’Clock and the spotlight was on me. Our dear old friend sarcasm took over as I gently adjusted the pillows propping up Ericka’s arms and spoon-fed her yogurt.
“Dude. I’m spoon-feeding you yogurt because you can’t move your arms. What the hell?!”
“I know but it’s kind of awesome, the getting spoon-fed part anyway.” She was giggling and I joined her. Thank goodness for morphine.
“Someday when we’re in our eighties, I’m gonna have to do this all over again because—even though it’s only by a year—I’m technically younger, which means you’ll probably become an invalid first.”
She let out a guffaw and a cringe from the subsequent pain. “Imagine how much fun we could have at home with this pain med clicker?”
“Oh my god that would be amazing! I hope they let us take it!”
“Maybe we’ll steal it.” She was always the sneakier one.
She clicked it again and sighed when the regulator beeped to indicate it was too early for another dose. Meanwhile, I slid the world’s two most uncomfortable armchairs across the room to face each other and created a makeshift cot for myself.
“I am going to sleep so well tonight!”
I got them as close to the bed as I could so I could lie alongside Ericka with my head at her feet. This was nothing like the sleepovers we had as kids in the pop-up camper in the driveway of my parents’ house. No scary movies, and no Doritos, but we’d do what we could to make it suck as little as possible.
“Oh! I brought this really disgusting kale juice that I can’t stomach because it has raw garlic and cayenne. It’s awful. Want some?” I offered it to her, smiling like a jerk.
“Heck yeah.” She hadn’t eaten in well over twenty-four hours and was game for anything.
Maybe it was the drugs and exhaustion talking, but we both had a slightly morbid curiosity about what everything looked like under the gauze—her more than me.
She couldn’t move her right arm at all, the side where the cancer was, because the procedure on that side had gone up into her armpit. She had the morphine clicker in her left hand and would occasionally let it go and try to fiddle with the pink fabric compression bra they swaddled her in after surgery. Watching her attempt this was surreal. How could a woman’s breasts just disappear like that?
“This is so weird! Do you think it’s just totally flat under there?” I asked, as she pulled back the top. We had looked at plenty of post-mastectomy photographs online, but I still couldn’t contend with the fact that it actually happened to my friend.
“No, because they already inserted the hard plastic spacers, so I’ll never be truly flat chested. Dr. W said it would look lumpy and uneven.”
“Well stop touching it, you’re gonna mess up the bandages. You can see it tomorrow.”
“But I want to see it now!” she whined defiantly.
“Fine.” Her resolve dissipated as if she was relieved to have someone keeping her in line for once.
I was thankful the argument subsided quickly. Every time she was strong or curious or detached from the sadness of her situation, I countered by blinking back tears like a heartbroken child who had just watched his puppy get kicked. I got up to turn off the lights, which gave me a second to let my eyes release the well and dry back up.
“Let’s get some sleep.” Our chatting slowed as I climbed into the chairs and pulled a sheet up to my chin. Thirty seconds later a new set of nurses burst into the room and threw on the lights without a word.
I bolted upright, springing towards Ericka as if I could protect her from these demon spawn. My inherent distrust of hospitals was getting the best of me, but I managed to check myself before uttering any insults to the lunatics who had no respect for natural circadian sleep rhythms.
I knew this happened at all hospitals so it clearly made sense from the perspective of the caregivers, but to be on the receiving side of brusqueness in the middle of the night was distressing. Considering the magnitude of Ericka’s surgery, it seemed insane that she wouldn’t get even a bit of rest.
As patients, we never know if certain actions are motivated by true medical knowledge of what’s best for us.
Did insurance companies decide when physical therapy started because they didn’t want to pay the exorbitant prices of another night at Chez Hospitale? Were the hospitals just too full and busy to accommodate a slower recovery time? Or was the patient herself the marker for when and how the physical therapy should begin?
Ericka had plenty of opinions on the subject, but at six o’clock in the morning she wasn’t an admin at the health insurance company she worked for. She was a thirty-eight year-old woman waking up after a double mastectomy, and she had much more personal matters to work through.
Energy in the room was low. We were both physically tired and emotionally spent. Ericka had enough mobility in her left arm to feed herself but didn’t seem to want to. She picked at the scrambled eggs that came with her breakfast, passing on the rubbery pancakes.
“More kale juice and yogurt?” I pleaded.
“Ugh . . . yeah, I guess so.”
By 8:00 a.m. there was a physical therapist in the room getting her out of bed and gently stretching her ripped open body. Ericka was exhausted but complied with instructions. Like it or not, it was time to start taking baby steps up the steep incline of Recovery Hill.
This essay is an edited excerpt from Jennifer’s full-length memoir, FUCK CANCER: A Tale of Love Pouring in from Every Angle, available on Amazon.
You may also enjoy reading Cycling for Life: Q&A with Cancer Survivor and Charitable Activist Blake Bohlig