Having been so open about my recent surgery for nipple reconstruction I feel it’s only fair to update you on how it’s all turned out. OK so the administration of my hospital experience was ‘not ideal’ and I’ve written plenty about that (please note just over 7,000 words, and all of them, together with Ronnie’s accompanying blog, sent hard-copy to the hospital – more about their response will follow in another blog post). But surgically this was very straightforward and has gone well. I also have the most wonderful kind and gentle and skilled plastic surgeon – Ken Graham – who I trust completely. And I know he will always do his best for me.
So for ten days after surgery I have a blue foam block covering my new nipple and dressings on the other breast where I’ve had some revision for symmetry. And a four-inch suture line on the inside of my upper thigh which is frankly, very uncomfortable. That was the donor site for the skin which was used to create an areola (which will mean I don’t need any tattoo-ing if the colour works out well). And I don’t mind telling you that having three surgical sites in particularly senstive areas do in fact hurt, I feel delicate and bruised. The effort of bending over to paint my toe nails, the tenderness, the way I am frightened that I will knock myself and hurt. Impossible to sleep on my side, too uncomfortable because of the stitches on both sides. All those things that are familiar post-surgery.
And all this healing time is frankly boring. I don’t get out much, I can’t do anything very active. I sleep long and nap often. I have some visitors who bring me chocolate and cake and we chat. I’ve been to the cinema and also went out for delicious pizza with my friend Karen, but post-surgery is a time for rest and healing.
So as I anxiously look at myself I get to see bits of stitches, dried blood and bruising. That’s what surgery looks like while it’s healing. And then ten days later I am back to the hospital for ‘the unveiling’. That’s what I’m calling it. Every surgery is a surprise – the removal of dressings, the dried brown blood, steri-strips, swelling. But there it is, on my breast, it’s what I can only describe as ‘a nipple’. Ok it looks a bit large, yes it will flatten, the skin from my thigh looks perfectly natural and it is completely ‘nipple-like’. Despite the remnants of purple surgical pen, the freshness and raw-ness of new skin, the black stitches… it’s all perfect, and the next day I write in my journal, ‘Ken G is a genius.’
But it’s still another change, another new part of me to adjust to, okay it’s not as big as the first recon surgery or even the second one. But there’s definitely an emotional shift of emergence that I’m feeling. And mostly the emotion is pure delight, although I resist saying that because I don’t want to sound smug. But I remember this after DIEP, the ten hour surgery to create my breast mound, about feeling ‘glad’, feeling happy. Ah. Because breast cancer is such a shitty disease these times of getting something for me, something positive, are, selfishly, good.
In clinic I’m given my least favourite version of the hospital gown, the one that’s printed all over with the words ‘hospital use only’ – I mean, really? What else am I likely to use it for? Everything about hospital annoys me now, I have no tolerance left. Five years of this. I’m easily irritated. I am lying on this bed in this tiny room with Ronnie sat next to me, and Tina, my reconstruction nurse, has just unveiled my nipple and cleaned it. And there’s Ken standing in the corner in that surgeon-like way and doing nothing other than observing me and beaming fondly at me. I know he is observing my reaction to the surgery. ‘Do you like it?’ he asks me. Tina and Ken discuss the most appropriate dressing for my new nipple, swapping tradenames I’m not familiar with, and a gauzy mesh covered in a greasy vaseline substance is placed over the nipple and covered with a soft white dressing and taped over. I can’t tell you how pleased I am about the protusion. Over the next few days I stare at my breasts in the mirror, with clothes on, and delight at the nipple bud, even with the dressing, I can see it.
And all surgery, plastic surgery, takes time to settle, to heal and this is no exception. Over the next few days the stitches around the nipple start to dissolve and come out (they are meant to), the edges of the wounds develop what I’ve come to call ‘gunk’ and scab, and I change the dressing daily. It’s all a ‘normal’ part of healing. The finished ‘result’ won’t be for a good few weeks yet. Sigh.
Regular readers to my blog know that I have an expert and attentive carer – Ronnie – who is also now formally my guest editor here on the blog, and as well as his caring role, he’s always on the lookout for me for articles I will ‘enjoy’, for reading to entertain me. He sends me an email titled ‘Nasty’ and I wonder what he’s found for me now. There’s no message, just a link – and here is the link:
Oh dear. I already know I’m not going to like this one. It’s a very short piece in the local Liverpool Daily Post about a calendar produced by two checkout ‘girls’ (their words not mine) who have ‘stripped off’ (yes not undressed) to raise money to go towards ‘the fight against breast cancer’ (sigh, remind me again why it’s a fight, am I not fighting hard enough?). Oh, and anyway, they say in the title that it is ‘for breast cancer’, so ‘for’ has come to mean ‘for the cause’ has it? But it’s not ‘for’ that? It’s against breast cancer isn’t it? I hope it is. Lazy journalism.
Ronnie may well regret having sent me the link as he has to then put up with my ranting that ensued. Because, in my opinion, the article is a perfect example of everything that is just so not right about the way we talk about both breast cancer and charitable acts of kindness.
The 44-year-old ‘girl’ (essential that you know her age don’t you think?), says she wants to do ‘something’ for the Rhys Jones Memorial Fund. (This is a fund raising money for a community centre which started after 11-year-old Rhys Jones was shockingly and tragically shot dead in Liverpool in 2007. So in this article, somehow the ‘something’ for poor Rhys Jones metamorphoses into ‘something for breast cancer’, it’s not made clear quite why, although Rhys Jones’ mother works with the woman who has initiated the calendar project.)
So the idea of a ‘calendar based on Calendar Girls’ is begun. The image that illustrates the article is for February 2012, and we have an artful black and white shot of naked woman lying on her back with her arms above her head clutching a pink rose (yes the rose petals are all pink) and her body is covered with pink rose petals covering her breasts and pubic area. She is, by the way, very slim. She’s just one of the women who work at the Tesco store who has been ‘cajoled’ to take part and ‘show some skin’.
I’ll show you some skin.
Perhaps I’d be a suitable model for a calendar right now? I mean, what with me being a breast cancer patient and all that. A scabby nipple with post-surgery gunk, on a breast mound created from my stomach fat. A scabby and bruised other breast, and an upper thigh wound just cutting into my right buttock. Perhaps we could artfully arrange the rose petals to cover all that up? Then you won’t have to see the reality of breast cancer.
All I want to know is this… what on earth has this calendar got to do with breast cancer? How will that change anything? I’ve written before how I totally understand that people want to do something… yes, I get that. But just what?
No-one questions this. This ‘something’. It’s all good, isn’t it? Is it? Well, you decide.
So, dear readers, instead of a boring ‘how am I doing’ update, you have my thoughts about, well about journalism, about charity, about nudity, about pink. About obedient behaviour. Because, in fact, I know you know this, I’m still very angry and the anger does not lessen. Lying around naked strewn with rose petals isn’t in fact reversing the statistics about breast cancer.
For those of you who might be interested in supporting ‘the girls’, the calendars are now on sale at the Deysbrook Lane Tesco store in Liverpool, priced £5. No information about how much money is going to what charity has been supplied. Because you’ll just have to assume it’s a ‘good’ thing.