8 MARCH 2010
I got back home around 7:30pm from my lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy today. I cannot believe how amazingly easy the afternoon has gone and how well I feel.
The nurses on the short-stay ward at Heatherwood Hospital in Ascot are so lovely. I tried to chat with all of them and collected origins: I had a Hungarian anaesthetist, and sweet nurses from Goa, Delhi and Ghana. I have been thinking that I will make and send them some earrings as a thank-you (healthier than chocolates and they last longer!).
I had assumed that I would have restricted movement on my left side and that I would feel really icky. Last night, Frank and I practised him helping to dress me with easy-to-get-into clothes (pop-socks, slip-on shoes, a zip-up skirt and tops I could just drape over my shoulders). I also bought snack-sized food that I could keep by my bed and help myself to. I was even going to have one of our phone handsets in my room so I could call Frank without shouting.
But, here I am, at my desk in my study, writing to let you know that a) I didn’t feel sick when I woke up in the post-theatre recovery room, b) I managed to dress myself before Frank arrived and c) I can move and get around fine. It’s a good thing my eBay snipe bid failed this morning for a shoulder cape I could wear in bed!
The last 24 hours
Standing at the train station following a lovely afternoon with two friends in Richmond yesterday, I realised that I was now WAITING, waiting for the moment when they’d put me to sleep before being wheeled into theatre for my operation. Although I wanted it all to be over, I also felt oppressed by the sense of just WAITING whilst also not wanting to go to sleep because it’d mean the beginning of a day in hospital.
So, on the way back from the station, I popped into Blockbuster and rented Moon and Wall-E. Once home, I packed my bag for hospital (my coming-home clothes and overnight stuff, just in case) so that I wouldn’t have to think about it again. I made myself a big salad and Frank and I put our feet up in front of the telly.
Both films were excellent – highly recommended. We watched a couple of the Wall-E special features but, seeing it was 2am, I decided to try to sleep.
I wasn’t allowed to eat anything after 7:30am today and so I put a banana on my bedside cabinet in case, as usual, I woke up during the night. I ate it at the third wake-up at 4:30am. I was awake before the alarm and we left for Reading hospital just after 9am.
Morning: Sentinel Node Injection
My morning appointment was to get an injection with a radioactive liquid in my breast which the surgeon would later use to detect those lymph nodes which drain the breast, as these are also removed when a tumour is found as cancer can spread via the lymphatic system.
In the past (and in some clinics still, where the surgeons don’t have Sentinel Node Biospy training), women would have all their lymph nodes removed when a cancerous lump is found. By finding the sentinel (leading) node and the ones further down-stream that are specific to the breast, just those are removed.
It took us a while to find the Medical Physics department at Reading Hospital. English hospitals seem to be so higgledy-piggledy, with ramps, corridors and lots of doors. Even though there was no-one before me, we still had to wait 20 minutes as nurses walked in and out of various rooms and made preparations.
When they were ready, the nurse spent a minute talking about pain from the injection, no more painful than the biopsy (which, for me, was like tweezering – a sharp quick pain which subsides immediately). The needle was so fine and I hardly felt a thing that I wondered why the big pain build-up.
On leaving the hospital, Frank suggested going to the shops or a walk but I just wanted to go back to sleep. We came back home and, by the time I caught up on mail and a book order, it was time to leave.
Afternoon: “Wide local excision and sampling auxiliary nodes”
I’d previously told Frank that I wanted to go to the hospital by myself because I thought that having someone there with me would make it harder to get into the right frame of mind. We said our goodbyes and off I strode, into a sunny blue-skied but near-freezing day.
We’d debated about whether I should take my mobile with me as there would be no lockers for me to use on this ward. I ended up taking it anyway and, as I walked, started typing a draft text message to send later to Frank, asking him to bring the car as I’d be going home.
I sensed a woman behind me and looked back. She smiled but had a strange expression. I turned back and carried on with my message. When I looked back again, she smiled and motioned to get my attention. She introduced herself by name; she was the owner of the building that I’d just moved into. We chatted – I was a little (!) distracted – and then parted once we reached the hospital. I am glad that she didn’t ask me what I was doing. As I turned to cross the road, I noticed Frank waiting on the other side! He’d been following me too. I was pleased to see him.
Again – old English hospitals – it took a little while to find the short-stay ward. From first walking in, I had a really good feeling. It felt friendly and it was clear from their faces, that the nurses were on the ball. Frank was asked to leave so that I could check in. It was just after noon. I was second on the surgery list, due about 1:30pm.
I was visited by a variety of nurses, doctors, surgeons and goodness-knows-what, asking questions I’d already answered at Friday’s pre-assessment, and sometimes asking the same questions asked by someone minutes ago, filling in a different form. These people need hand-held computers – I’m sure they’d prefer doing proper care than filling in forms.
There were three other women in the small ward. I asked the lady opposite whether I could join her for company. Three of us ended up chatting, swapping stories, having a laugh.
[August 2011] I didn’t talk to the fourth woman on the ward. She was Elisabeth Sladen, the actress from the Sarah Jane Adventures. She died a year later from cancer. Frank and I didn’t tell anyone at the time that we’d seen her at the hospital; it was no-one’s business but hers.
Some time after 1pm, I was asked to change into the hospital gown and my robe and slippers. I was still putting my clothes away when another nurse turned up to say that They Were Ready For Me. She asked me some of the same questions again (any allergies? dentures? piercings?) and it was all a fluster for half a minute as I tried to answer while putting my clothes away in my bedside cupboard while another nurse was trying to do up my gown, even though half the ribbons were missing.
I was escorted through a door and down an outside covered walkway (brr!) to, what I assume was a small ante-room. It was just after 1:30pm.
There I met again the Hungarian anaesthetist who’d come to see me earlier (allergies? dentures? piercings?) and a bearded guy who called me Paolo or Paula. I asked whether they were going to get me to count as I’d been practising counting in prime numbers. Oh how they laughed.
They had finished putting the cannula in my hand and taping it, so I went from chat about primes to counting. When I got to 23, I explained that I hadn’t expected to be still awake and hadn’t practised primes beyond that. They pointed out that they hadn’t injected me with anything yet. Ahem.
I looked down at my hand and saw a baby pink valve-thing at the end of a tube taped to my hand. I asked whether boys get blue ones. :-) Apparently they get green ones (bigger size); I later found out on the ward that babies get blue ones (smaller).
The next thing I knew, my eyes were opening to see that I was in a different room with nurses walking around. I felt nice and cosy and closed my eyes. I opened them again, saw people, shelves and boxes and decided to close my eyes. The third time I turned my head towards the left and saw a nurse sitting beside me. She asked me how I felt – in answering I realised my throat was very sore and that I could only speak quietly. I thought about how I felt, and told her that I felt great.
After taking some readings, I was wheeled back to the ward, where I was welcomed back by my neighbour I’d been chatting to earlier. A nurse came and said I could sleep but instead I resumed chatting again, getting the head-rest of my trolley-bed-thing raised.
I was offered water, shortly followed by tea and toast with butter. Yum. By now, it was 3:30pm (I’d been told that the surgery would take 90 mins). I assumed Frank had called at some point as I heard a nurse at the station tell someone on the phone that “she’s out and feeling fine.”
It then came time for my neighbour’s surgery and, feeling really sleepy, I tried to doze in the hour and a half until visiting time. But it was noisy and I didn’t get any proper sleep. I felt a bit sore on the side but I could move my arm okay. When a man came around offering tea and a sandwich, I said “yes, yum.”
I ate my sandwich slowly while reading a women’s magazine with articles and celebrity news that the first patient to leave the ward had given me. I was talking, moving and eating! This was great!
I’d been asked by nurses several times earlier whether I wanted to get dressed and now I was ready. After practising getting dressed the night before only with Frank’s help, it was wonderful to be able dress myself and with my normal clothes, not the drape-over-the-shoulder stuff I’d planned. But, as I was moving around, I started to feel really nauseous: remember, I’d just eaten four slices of bread and two cups of tea, not having eaten for over 12 hours PLUS still having some anaesthetic in my system.
It was one of those unmistakable I’m-gonna-be-sick feelings: light-headed, faint, tummy churning. The nurses were getting my neighbour into her bed but I managed to tell one of them how I was feeling. She helped me walk to a bathroom and rubbed my back as I suddenly started to sweat. I was sick just once – just a small amount – and that was it. The nausea, feeling faint and feeling flushed all slowly eased away. I apparently wasn’t supposed to have eaten a sandwich so soon. I was disappointed that my being sick had blemished my otherwise perfect post-op experience but I appreciated that I could have been a lot sicker!
I retrieved my phone and went to sit in the visitor’s room – a small room next to my bed – where one was allowed to use mobiles. Just as I was composing a text to Frank, he walked into the room. :-)
While telling him about my afternoon, my lovely nurse came in to ask if I was ready to leave. Yup. Frank and I packed my stuff, I said my goodbyes, passed the gossip magazine to my neighbour and left Heatherwood Hospital.
Now my jewellery – including wedding ring – is back on; I didn’t like not wearing that ring. All of today’s clothes are in the laundry bag and I am in Frank’s tartan night-shirt and newly-laundered (thanks Frank!) thick and fluffy dressing gown. And here I am, writing what I thought was just going to be a quick update!
(By the way, they also injected me with a dye to mark the lymph nodes – I now have blue pee! How cool is that!)
You know, I am astonished that I have been under general anaesthetic and have had two types of things removed (lymph nodes + tumour + margins [some surrounding area to make sure they got all of the cancer]) through two incisions, got stitched up, back on ward, eating and now back at home the same day feeling really fine.
I’ll find out in two weeks whether a) any of the lymph nodes are infected (in which case, they’ll remove more) and b) whether the margins are cancer-free (if not, they’ll remove more).
I’ll keep ya posted. Thank you for your messages and for sending positive thoughts my way!