April 21, 2023
This is a day that will always be etched into my story.
Three years ago today I was having a hysterectomy for cancer debulking surgery. Debulking surgery is a doctor term for cutting out as much cancer as they can. They didn't know for sure, but suspected it was late stage. They didn't tell me that. At least not right away. When I was in the surgery prep room, one of my surgeons did tell me that he hoped it would be maybe Stage II. I had no idea that a late stage cancer diagnosis was coming, but I was scared.
I had never really had a major surgery before my hysterectomy. The pandemic was just getting under way and one of my oncologists did admit that perhaps my surgery would get delayed depending on how many covid cases were in the hospital. I had already gone through some really difficult appointments alone because of the covid restrictions that were in place. On this day three years ago, I was heading in to have all of my diseased female parts removed. Alone.
Just before my surgery date, they did make an exception to let my then-husband come in for the pre-op time. That calmed me down a little to have someone there, even if it wasn't my most supportive person. Nobody would be there to hug me or hold my hand after surgery.
Prior to surgery I only weighed about 92 lbs. I had been trying furiously to get up to 100 lbs. So many doctors were telling me that my low weight was a troubling fact. I managed to get my weight up to 97 lbs by surgery day. Among the parade of personnel who visited me prior to my surgery, there was a woman who was a surgical assistant. She told me that my weight was going to help me so much! In a time when so much was coming at me and I was feeling like such a failure in my health, this woman was the brightest light! She told me that she wanted to come down so that I would recognize someone once I got to the surgery room. I was so comforted by that.
I had a nurse prepping me. The anesthesiologist visited. My hysterectomy surgeon visited. My lymphadenectomy surgeon visited. The surgical assistant nurse visited me. It was a parade of who's who in my prep room. When I first arrived the nurse wanted me to get undressed and put on a gown. I reminded her that I was still "bleeding" (it was really more of just a weird discharge with some blood that I'd had since I started bleeding in December). I had to put on a Depends kind of underwear. I was so used to never being fully naked because of this constant flow for four months, but wearing a diaper is a lot different than wearing a light pad. It felt insult to injury.
My surgery started late, so I had some extra worry time in my little cubicle of a room. When they finally came for me, I had a tearful goodbye with a wave of panic to my ex-husband. I would have given anything to not be going in for cancer surgery. But here I was while everyone was running scared of covid, heading in for cancer surgery. I can't tell you how unreal it seemed.
When I got up to the surgical room, there were four very busy ladies getting things ready. There was a phone on the wall that kept ringing. We were laughing about it, me adding, "Do they think you are just up here eating bon-bons?"
There was an energy in the room with these focused women. After a few minutes, I decided to say something that had been on my heart since I saw their busy dedication and felt their care over the details of what was about to happen.
"Hey, " I said softly. "I just wanted to say before you knock me out that I really appreciate all of you being here and giving your time to me today. I really am grateful for all of you being here for me."
What I thought would happen was that they would all keep moving and say it was no problem. What happened instead was that this flurry of preparation activity came to a screeching halt. Every one of those four women stopped what they were doing, looked at me and gave me heartfelt thanks for expressing that and assuring me that they were there to make sure that everything went right. One of them (not sure if it was the one who came to see me before) came over and put her arm around my shoulders in the best hug she could do with me lying flat. That brought me to tears. The compassion that these fine ladies showed me restored my faith in humanity in that moment. They all encouraged me to cry and let it out. They promised that they would do everything they could to ensure this went the best it could. I can't put into words the magic and peace and love that was in that room in that moment.
Shortly after that, they knocked me out. My surgery lasted about 3 1/2 hours. I woke up that evening in a room by myself.
A nurse came in shortly after I was awake and told me that I needed to order some food because the kitchen was going to close soon. I was on an ERAS protocol. Expedited Recovery After Surgery. This meant I hadn't really fasted prior to surgery. Instead, I had several protein shakes the morning before I was due at the hospital at noon. I also didn't get much more than Tylenol and ibuprofen after the first day. I was also expected to get up and get moving that evening, which I did. And food. I was required to eat food upon wakening. I did that too.
Overnight, I was checked on a lot. They would come in and ask me if I had any bleeding. I had a new pair of Depends underwear on. After bleeding nonstop for four months, I didn’t have one drop of blood! Wow! Robotic surgery is precise. Not a bit of bleeding. I was really impressed, and really excited to be able to stop wearing pads 24/7. They took my blood pressure a lot, and I think they drew blood at some point too. I think around 8 or 8:30pm I was able to ask for my phone and send some texts. My ex-husband was given the job of sending out word to everyone that my surgery was done and I was still alive. I might have talked to my mom. I don’t remember. I do remember talking to my cousin who has her own cancer surrvivor story. She has always been a great cheerleader through my cancer journey. (That bouquet in the picture is one she sent me on my 55th birthday when I was going through chemo).
The next morning was frustrating. Neither of my surgeons came to see me. Instead, I had an assistant doctor who couldn’t answer any of my questions. I just wanted to be released to go home, but that took until mid-afternoon. I was bored and wanted out of the germ factory. I wanted to be home where I could get comfortable and eat food that I knew was in compliance to how I eat.
When I finally got released, I was wheeled down where my ex-husband was waiting for me across from the valet area. Going across the bumps in the blacktop and sidewalk deviations wasn’t fun. It might have been the first time I realized that those incisions and places where things had been surgically removed were going to be sore! He seemed happy to see me, and he had some tears. Turns out those tears were just because he had just witnessed a med-flight land and it reminded him of his med-flight to this same hospital when he had his heart attack. So much for a sentimental guy supporting a wife with cancer. I didn’t completely know then that this was the lesson cancer was bringing me. It wasn’t going to take long for this to smack me in the face though.
He drove home carefully. He was great about taking care of me, bringing me food. When I needed him to walk with me, he walked too fast and seemed a little infringed upon during the time he had to give for that. Luckily, I healed quickly and was soon walking on my own. I started by just walking back and forth in front of the house. Then, I upped my game to all the way around the block. Within a week, I was going for about 8-10 blocks. Shortly after that, I was logging a mile a day again.
When they told me all I was getting for pain was Tylenol and ibuprofen, I thought it was a cruel joke. Turns out, that was plenty of pain reliever. The worst pain I had was in my shoulders. It was like sciatica in the muscles above your shoulder blades. And it was painful!! This happens because when they remove your female organs, they pump a lot of gas into your abdominal area to make those organs accessible. There is a nerve that runs up to your shoulder area that carries that gas up to those muscles. It lasted about three days for me, and it was annoying and debilitating. Ugh. I was so glad when that subsided.
My recovery was pretty uneventful, save for a small infection I got in one of the incisions. It gave me a reason to see my great surgeon on an extra visit. His online headshot made him look like Superman. At the time of my surgery, I had my grandson living with me. I told him that my surgeon was possibly Superman. He guffawed and thought I was pulling his leg, so I went online and showed him a picture of my surgeon, then I showed him a picture of Superman as Clark Kent. His eyes got wide and he asked me, “IS HE SUPERMAN???” I just looked at him and asked him what he thought. I think of Dr. Drummond as Superman. He called me on a Sunday afternoon from his own cell phone to give me my cancer stage results. He said he had seen them on Saturday night, and didn’t want me to have to wait until Monday for the results. The cancer was further along than he thought it would be. StageIIIC1. This meant that it had traveled throughout my entire reproductive system, but not into other organs. It was micrometastisized and in several of ten lymph nodes that had been removed. My right ovary was nothing but tumor, the left was affected. My fallopian tubes were cancerous, as was the cervical tract, and of course the uterus because my cancer was deemed endometrial cancer. In addition (which we knew about) there was a very large fibroid near my cervix. The good news is that the cancer had not spread to my omentum-the area that surrounds your intestinal tract and plays a great role in keeping toxins from your bloodstream. There had been talk about a possible omenectomy. I was very relieved to know this part was unaffected by the cancer! Here is the medical jargon summary of a very long report after surgery.
UTERUS, FALLOPIAN TUBES AND OVARIES, TOTAL HYSTERECTOMY AND BILATERAL SALPINGO-OOPHORECTOMY:
-ENDOMETRIOID CARCINOMA, FIGO GRADE 2, GREATER THAN 50% MYOMETRIAL INVASION
-MARKED LYMPHOVASCULAR INVASION
-CARCINOMA INVOLVES CERVICAL STROMA
-METASTATIC TUMOR INVOLVING BILATERAL OVARIES AND
LEFT FALLOPIAN TUBE
-LARGEST METASTATIC FOCUS: 3.8 CM (RIGHT OVARY)
I was surprised at how easy the hysterectomy and maneuvering the cancer was. Of course, I had a flurry of appointments, consultations, and information being thrown my way to keep me distracted from any physical healing I was doing. But within a few weeks, I was walking several miles a day and having to remind myself that I had to take it easy with lifting and other work. I believe that my clean diet and work on the RA that I was diagnosed with a year before helped prepare me to clear the cancer and look like a champ doing it. I never set out to look like a role model, but a lot of people told me I was. To me, I was just doing what I had to do to reclaim my health and my life. I’m really grateful for the amazing team of medical providers I had. (And there were a LOT of them)! They were all so kind and so caring during such a scary part of the journey.
Today I’m giving thanks for those ladies in the surgery room, my two surgeons, and the nurses who took care of me overnight. Praise God! I am standing here three years later feeling like whole person who lived to tell the tale. I think I’m still here because I’m supposed to show and share with people that cancer isn’t a death sentence. It’s a life sentence. When you come out on the other side, you live differently. Better. Happier. More aware of how grateful you should be for all of the blessings you used to take for granted. Today I feel blessed. Please go do something healthy for yourself in honor of my three year surgery anniversary. I believe I’ll go take a long walk, then enjoy a healthy dinner, followed by some R&R watching my favorite baseball team. Seems perfect.
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