Menopause

My Cancer Story: The Surgery


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.

 

Menopause

My Cancer Story: Oncology

 

Apoointment

When you get cancer, words you rarely use  pop to the top of your vocab list.

“Oncology” is one of them.

My gynecologist said it first, but the word really hit home when I read it on the appointment letter from UNC Hospital:

UNC  OBGYN  GYN ONCOLOGY

I began to talk about MY oncologist.

Dr. Gehrig is the  head of the department, an expert in endometrial cancer and laproscopic and robotic surgery.

Hospital Signs

That Monday morning,  Cliff and I made our way down  a hallway with a huge sign shouting the word again:

Gynecological Oncology

First came registration and then weight, blood pressure, and a few other checks.

Next they ushered us into a small exam room. My eyes immediately caught this poster:

ednometrial-study

Prior to this, I most often used “survivor” in reference to the TV show. Add “survivor” to the updated vocab list.

UNC is a teaching hospital. I met with the Fellow, Dario Roque, who turns out, went to Davidson College. He partied with my kids! (and more importantly, studied hard with my kids).

Dr. Rogue brought out a chart of the female reproductive organs.

“From your pathology, we know you have an early stage, non-aggressive cancer on part of your uterine wall” (“pathology” being another vocab word I would use over and over in the coming weeks), “but we don’t know what types or stages of cancer we’ll find in the remainder of the uterus.”

Whoa.

I learned the difference between the type of cancer and the stage. “Stage” is how far the disease has spread.

“If the cancer has penetrated more than fifty percent of the uterine wall,” Dr. Roque explained, “you’ll need radiation.”

I asked about the dreaded chemo.

“With endometrial cancer, we only do chemo if the cancer has gone into your lymph nodes.”

He explained the surgery. Five incisions in the abdomen, one for a camera. “We pull the uterus out the vagina unless your uterus is too large. Then we have to make a bigger incision in your abdomen. We’ll remove nodes. We’ll test all of it while you’re still under anesthesia.”

Happily, my uterus proved, during the exam that followed, not to be large. Who knew?

Table

After the exam, Dr. Gehrig came in and went over my diagnosis and the procedure.

“Bring a list of questions,” Cliff had told me over and over.

I was so nervous, I never brought out my list.

But I asked plenty of questions and got lots of answers. Cliff took notes.

Last, I met the researchers.

I agreed to participate in several studies, including the study from the poster above. For the first time, I realized I might help cancer patients who come after me.

Spankys

Cliff and I had an hour and a half before I was due in what UNC calls “Precare:” chest x-ray, blood tests, a talk with the nurse about hospital prep, and an EKG. We hotfooted it up to Franklin Street to restaurant row, right off the UNC campus.

We courted in Chapel Hill in the 70s. I was in grad school there, and Cliff was finishing his engineering degree at Duke. Back then my uterus was just a young thing, and its only problem was cramps.

We stepped into Spanky’s, on the corner of Franklin and Columbia Street.

I opened my menu.

My mind spun from the morning events. I liked the doctors and staff. I was scared, sure, but encouraged by what I learned about the surgery and expectations for recovery.

Cliff and I have been eating out together for years, lots of years. Festive outings filled with lively conversation and good food.

“Festive” is not a word I ever thought would go on my cancer vocab list.

Festive

But “festive” describes that lunch.

Festive since I love portabello mushroom melts and Spanky’s.

Festive thanks to the good vibes we got from UNC Hospital.

Festive because I sat across from a husband who knows how to make the best of a ninety minute break from medical vocabulary.

“Festive” comes from the word “festival,” which means “a time of celebration.”

“Celebrate” isn’t a word I thought I’d add to the cancer vocab list either.

But in the weeks to come, I learned I had plenty to celebrate, in ways that surprised me.

Stick with me! The story continues. Thanks for reading and for all your love and good wishes.