My Cancer Story: The Recovery

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Cards

The next morning,  my friend Dwight,who’s on faculty at UNC, dropped in on the way to his office, followed a few hours later by his wife Susan.  Fun!

A Resident came to discuss the pathology. I asked her to write down exactly what type of cancer I had:  Grade 1 endometriod adenocarcinoma. I still wonder how those little buggers got  in there.

Cara unhooked me from the catheter and IV. I passed all of my tests:  Walk. Pee. Eat. I was homeward bound!

This is when it got hard. Not horrible, but hard.

I didn’t have any acute pain, but I began to just feel sick. Maybe something like a case of the flu after someone drops a bowling ball on your mid-section. My belly had swelled up overnight like I was six months pregnant. The only way I could sleep was to brace it with a pillow.

Scary symptoms related to the node removal appeared too (see below).

“You should get better every day, ” the doctor told me before the surgery. “If not, we want to hear from you.”

“You ARE getting better,” Cliff told me, every day.

One night at bedtime, he pulled the covers back, and I climbed in. “See that!” he said. “Look how you moved your legs. You couldn’t do that last night.”

Over and over again, he announced I was getting better. I needed to hear it because many days, I couldn’t feel or see my progress.

Despite a few meltdowns, my mood was good, bolstered by Cliff’s kindness and cards, food, visits, and presents from friends near and far. My surgeon and oncologist, Dr. Gehrig, phoned me twice, which I very much appreciated.

Seven weeks later, I feel great (and very grateful). Post-op check up on Monday.

For those of you who may have a hysterectomy, I’ve listed some specifics below. If you’ve got any questions, email me.

And if you need a hysterectomy due to prolapse, endometriosis, fibroids, or another condition and are hesitating, I say go for it. You’ll feel better fast, and those nasty issues will be gone.

Here’s the scoop:

Pain:  Unlike many patients, I had great luck with oxycodone. Half a pill eliminated my pain, gave me energy, and improved my appetite. Over the counter meds, especially the recommended Ibuprofen, didn’t do much. Most disconcerting was waking up in the middle of the night in pain.

In Weeks Two and Three, my discomfort would disappear for a few hours. I’d announce to Cliff, “I feel normal!”  Two hours after that, I’d reach for pain meds and be back on the couch. I have no clue why pain comes and goes. My doctor explained that the pain usually increases as the day progresses, which was often, but not always, the case with me.

Happily, I never experienced any sharp pain or pain that made me want to scream or bite whatever people used to bite in olden days movies.

Incisions: Zero pain with these, which amazed me. They were closed with steri-strips. As they healed, the incisions itched, but not horribly. Per instructions, I pulled off the strips after 14 days. Seven weeks later, they are just small marks. Photo to come!

Pelvic Floor:  The uterus is removed through the vagina, which is then stitched closed at the top. For two weeks, I was shocked I felt no pain there.  But then it set in. At the time I was up to walking two miles a day. I retreated to the couch for the week.  By Week Four, I once again felt no pelvic floor pain, and I can now walk my regular miles pain-free.

Bleeding and Discharge: I had zero bleeding, which surprised me. But in Week Three  (the same time the pelvic floor pain started up), I began to leak a watery substance. Scared me as I was afraid it was urine. My doc’s nurse explained that pockets of fluid develop and are discharged as the swelling goes down. This lasted about nine days, on and off.

Node Removal: This was the kicker, and the most upsetting part of the recovery experience. When I got in the car to come home from the hospital, for some reason I tried to cross my left leg over my right. I couldn’t do it. That night, I couldn’t lift the leg onto the couch (although I had no trouble walking). “Try,” Cliff said. “I’m trying,” I responded. No luck.

Within 24 hours of the surgery, I also began to experience a burning sensation on the front of both my legs, from the knee up. This only hurt to the touch but was so annoying that the first time I put on denim shorts, I took them off again.

The doctor confirmed both issues were damage from the lymph node removal. She suggested my leg mobility could be improved with physical therapy, but the burning sensation might be permanent. I kept telling myself I could live with it if I had to, but part of me was devastated at the thought. What discouraged me most was that I saw no improvement whatsoever for over two weeks.

On about Day Seventeen, the burning sensation lessened by a tiny amount. Gradually the nerves healed over the next few weeks. Yes!  Now, it’s almost gone except for a patch on one leg.

I can  move my left leg fairly well, although I still have trouble with certain motions. I’m hoping this will continue to improve.

Nausea and Appetite: I never threw up or came close to it, one of my biggest fears! I felt queasy on and off for two weeks.  A neighbor who’s an RD pushed me to eat protein since it’s important for healing.

I lost three pounds and was so pleased that Cliff finally said in a bossy voice, “The purpose of your recovery is not to lose weight. You need to eat.”  Although I liked watching the scale go down, the return of my appetite was a relief.

Constipation: I’ve never had trouble with constipation, so I thought I’d skirt this one, despite warnings from a friend who recently had a hysterectomy. I drank lots of liquids (also because I was afraid of a UTI), ate fruit and salads, walked from Day Two all I could, and took stool softeners. Nope!  I had about three days of troubles, including some bad middle of the night stuff.

Mobility: I was delighted that my incisions never hurt, and despite my swelly belly, I could easily get up and move around without any acute pain (until the pelvic floor pain set in). I had to use my hands to lift my bum leg some, but that was my only mobility issue.

I spent a lot of time on the couch. I felt best with my feet up (and discharge instructions suggest you have your feet propped up plenty).

Energy: I rested a ton and did very little the first week. I had trouble concentrating and couldn’t really read or write much, but I was in good spirits, enjoyed visits (although they can certainly exhaust you), and made what I thought was fairly lively conversation. I took naps for three weeks, but seven weeks in, am back to my normal energy level.

Sleep: I’m not a great sleeper under the best of circumstances.I didn’t sleep at all well until Week Four or so. I’m now sleeping okay (for me!)

That’s about it. Once again, if you’re going to have the surgery or just had it and have questions, email me.

 

Peaches

 

Photo Top:  I treasured each card. They provided a happy splash of entertainment. Cliff enjoyed them too and handed them to me  with great panache when the mail arrived.

Photo Above: We so appreciated every gift of food. Three of my friends brought over a scrumptious lunch that we ladies enjoyed together. This is Judy’s Peachy Delight. Yum and yum! You can find the recipe on her website, Judy’s Wellness Cafe.

 

Judy's Wellness Cafe

 

My Cancer Story: Although I’ve got more posts in the wings, this completes the beginning to end tale. I’ll sprinkle other posts in now and then. Thank you so much for all your good wishes.

Other hysterectomy stories on Friend for the Ride: Check out  Hysterectomy: Leslie’s Story and When the Bottom Falls Out: Surgery for Uterine Prolapse.

 

My Cancer Story: Out of Surgery

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liquids

I opened my eyes.The clock said noon.

Four and a half hours gone by in a twinkling.

Barbara body check:

No nausea.

No memory of a tube being whipped from my throat.

No weirdness from a catheter.

Worries Two, Three, and Four, all vanished.

Yes!

“You’ve been out of surgery for an hour,” the recovery room nurse said.

I did some fast math. My surgery lasted a half hour longer than expected, by my calculations.

Did the doctor need to remove additional nodes, meaning the cancer had spread?

Worry Number One, The Big One, despite my sleepy brain, loomed large.

An orderly wheeled me out of the recovery room.

I saw Cliff for a moment. At least I thought I did.

A blur of walls. The ding of an elevator.

Next, I was in a hospital bed.

I glanced around. No other beds.My own room. Worry Number Five, gone!.

Cara, who introduced herself as my nurse, explained lots of stuff. I mostly remember her pointing out the  TV remote control and the phone, tucked in on one side of the bed. Cool!

But what about the pathology? Cliff had promised to tell me right away, good news or bad.

But he had said nothing in the flash of an instant I saw his face.

Did that mean bad news? Was he waiting until I was more stable?

Finally, at one-thirty, he stepped through the hospital room door. I hit him with the question immediately: “What’s the pathology?”

“All good!  Everything is good.”

I sank back into the bed. Never, ever have I experienced such relief.

That joy took hold and hasn’t left me yet.

My first meal arrived. A liquid one that included my beloved Coke!

Despite my high spirits, I fussed at Cliff, “Why didn’t you tell me the good news when you saw me after recovery?”

He explained that besides a half-smile, I slept, and of course, he didn’t know he wouldn’t be coming into my room right away. (Turns out, the orderly and nurse asked him to wait while they got me settled, and then forgot about him until he began to worry and inquired.)

Maybe waiting made the news even more powerful, if that’s possible.

All was forgiven, and Cliff enjoyed my jello with gusto.

Cliff Eating

An hour later we checked out the bandages. Amazing, isn’t it, that not so many years ago, this would have been a giant incision.
Stomach

A visit from our pastor (don’t worry, I didn’t reveal my stomach) and phone calls added to the room’s festive spirit. Everyone reported later that I was an upbeat chatterbox.

Ordering a meal at UNC Hosptial  is great sport. The menu is divided into pretend restaurants. This is the page with Asian food.

Menu

We decided to select dinner from the Southern Cooking page. After all, we were in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Best milkshake ever. It’s probably all I really consumed. While food sounded, looked, and tasted good, my appetite was missing and wouldn’t return for two weeks.

Hospital Dinner

Cara printed three goals on the white board across from my bed:

Walk.

Pee.

Eat.

Eat: Although I didn’t consume much, I passed the eating test.

Pee: The catheter, which began to bother me some by nighttime, was staying in until the morning, per doctor’s orders. Pain medicine helped. Official peeing would come tomorrow.

Walk: I’ve heard story after story of patients being pushed out of bed.

“Am I getting up?” I asked the late night nurse.

“Nope,” said the nurse. “You aren’t going anywhere tonight.”

If you told me three months ago that I’d be hooked up to tubes and ordered to stay in bed at UNC Hospital, I’d have panicked.

But that night, in that hospital bed, was just about the happiest night of my life.

I’m not sugarcoating the experience.

I’m not making light of something so serious.

I’m writing the truth.

The surgery over. My pain minimal. An excellent surgeon and her team. The kindness of family and friends and hospital staff.

And most of all, an excellent pathology report.

What more could this girl want?

womens-hospital

My Cancer Story: The Surgery

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CokeCoke girl here!

Drinks are now permitted up to two hours prior to your scheduled arrival time at the hospital: water, apple juice, Gatorade, sodas, (Coke is one of the examples in the above pamphlet!) and black coffee with no milk or creamer. They’ve  found that hydrated patients usually have less trouble with nausea.

So when I awoke at four AM on surgery day, I took a few sips of  my beloved Coca-cola.

What’s NOT allowed is makeup. I put on a minuscule amount, but let’s keep that our secret.

As Cliff drove me to UNC Hospital an hour later, I had five predominant fears about the day ahead.

1. At the top of the list was the pathology report. The pathology would be done while I was under. I’d know right away.

2. Nausea upon waking. I hate to throw up, and my body does not handle it with grace.

3. The intubating tube being pulled from my throat. The nurse in Precare said they do this AFTER you’re awake, but you’re too groggy to notice. Yikes. Groggy or not, that sounded bad.

4. The catheter. This would be inserted while I was under, but the whole concept creeped me out.

5. A roommate. I’m a people person, but not a room-sharer. I kept telling myself this was nothing compared with Fear Number One (and the others). Buck up. Barbara. Your hospital stay is only one night.

unnamed

When we got to pre-op, I was whisked away to a large cubicle with a Carolina blue curtain. (This was UNC, after all.)

A resident and a medical student were the first to pop in.

“Can you explain what you’re having done today?” the resident asked me.

“I’m having my uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and nearby lymph nodes removed because I have uterine cancer. While I’m out, pathology will be done. If the cancer is in the lymph nodes, they’ll take additional nodes to determine how far it has spread.”

“Excellent!” she said.

I felt pleased to pass the test. (Those of us who work with words take our praise in whatever form we can.)

We chatted about my illness, the surgery, and what the recovery should be like.

They left, and I met my pre-op nurse. Jeannie put me at ease and did an IV in my hand so painless I hardly knew it was happening.

An anesthesiologist introduced herself next. I noted to myself how good her hair looked for 6:40 in the morning (smooth and curled in a pageboy).

“I hate to throw up,” I told her.

“No worries. We’ve got great drugs we’ll put in that IV. How are your teeth? Do they chip?”

On no!

My teeth love to chip, especially on important occasions.

She promised to be careful.  “And what about reflux?”

“I had a bout of reflux a few years ago,” I said.

“Tilt your head back. Let me look at your airway.”

What if my airway is bad? What happens then, I wondered, but didn’t ask.

“Good airway,” she said.

Phew!

Jeannie sent for Cliff.

He snapped this picture and filled me in on life in the waiting room, which sounded like it had soap opera potential. He’d have time to soak up plenty more during my three hour operation.
Prep Room

Throughout this entire process, I kept my eye on the clock in front of me. I watched it move from 6:15 to 7:25, sort of like waiting for midnight on New Year’s Eve  but without any hope of champagne.*

With a word from Jeannie, Cliff kissed me goodbye and was off.

And so was I, to the operating room.

I’ve been told you don’t remember much about the operating room. I tried to pay attention.

I saw the fancy robotic instruments, and that’s all I had time to take in.

They had me scooch from the chair in the picture above to the operating table.

Someone put a mask over my face. “Breathe, Barbara. This is oxygen. The anesthesia is coming next in your IV line.”

Two weeks before the surgery, I asked my son-in-law Matt how he dealt with his surgery, a spinal fusion, at age twenty. “Were you scared?”

“Not really. I figured there’s no one more qualified to help you than the doctors,” Matt answered.

I love simple advice that is oh-so-smart.

And in its simplicity, the best advice sticks with us.

I kept Matt’s words in my head and heart the weeks before surgery and especially that morning.

I couldn’t save my own life.

I needed the expertise of my surgeon and her team.

Take it way, Dr. Gehrig.

And thank you.

Dr. Gehrig

 

Click on the photo above to hear my surgeon, Paola Gehrig, talk about endometrial cancer.

* Actually, as it turned out, there is champagne in the story, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

 

My Cancer Story: Getting Ready for Surgery

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nightgowns

I’m a project person.

I like to be organized.

And I’m fond of shopping.

So I took on preparing for surgery with a touch of gusto. I was scheduled for a hysterectomy on July 8. A month earlier a biopsy had revealed endometrial cancer.

I bought a new nightgown.

 

Hospital Stuff

I found stretchy shorts. I wouldn’t be able to wear waistbands for a while.

And I picked up some other post-surgery items.

I put sheets on the guestroom beds, since I thought it best not to climb our long stairs for a week or so.

And I made the house as tidy as could be.

As the day approached, a sort of calm came over me.

Yet I had moments when my illness hit me anew. Our pastor sends out a weekly email with announcements of upcoming happenings at Hillsborough Presbyterian Church.

 

Church Announcement

 

Me.

Cancer.

I felt so good. How could I be sick?

The night before the surgery, I took a final walk on our brand new riverwalk. I had no idea when I’d be able to walk this trail again.

Riverwalk

I talked to my girls on the phone, and to my mom (I didn’t tell her a word about my illness until after the surgery).

Got the blog set.

Packed my hospital bag.  Added a folder with my Living Will.

Gave my ID and medical card to Cliff to carry.

Took a shower with antibacterial scrub per hospital instructions. Talk about squeaky clean!

The very last project was taking off my nail polish.  Hospital rules state it has to be removed. One pedicure down the tubes.

toes

Three weeks later, after the surgery, I sank into a bit of a funk. My oncologist said it’s normal. “You sail into cancer surgery with  blinders on,” she explained. “You do what you have to do. Later you stop and really reflect.”

And that was me.

I did what I had to do.

And got as ready as I could.

With the help of my husband and the well wishes of friends and family, I was off to UNC Hospital at five the next morning. Lights out!