This post is an excerpt from my memoir, Cancer Was Not a Gift & It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person: A memoir about cancer as I know it.
Before my bilateral mastectomy, I was busy Googling away and found little about what it was really like waking up from a mastectomy. I mean, the actual waking up part. I wanted to know everything. Not everyone does and that’s fine too. But if you do, well, this post is for you.
Of course, everyone is different, and I can only share about my experience. If you have had a mastectomy, I hope you’ll share about yours with a comment below.
Getting this post ready reminded me how difficult this experience is for partners and other loved ones too. If you are/were coming at this experience from that vantage point, you’re invited to share too.
What’s it really like waking up from a bilateral mastectomy?
(This excerpt contains a few minor edits to better format for a blog post.)
Waking Up (from my bilateral mastectomy)
Cancer Was Not a Gift & It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person – Chapter 17
When I wake up in the recovery room, the first thing I notice is the large clock on the wall telling me it’s a bit after 2 p.m. I’m surprised to find myself more mentally alert than I thought I would be, or at least I think I am. I hear nurses talking in hushed voices and watch them hovering nearby. I am relieved I have no pain, at least not yet.
I feel like a spy peering out from my secret hiding place or an observer concealed under a fuzzy veil, quietly gathering information about someone else’s life.
“He went for four lymph nodes,” I incorrectly hear one of them say (it was actually fourteen).
Immediately, I know they were not all clear. I can’t hear many other details, the voices sound too distant and muffled, but I listen intently as if I am decoding safely guarded, classified secrets.
As I continue to wake up, I am acutely aware I have been lying in the same position for over six hours, and the idea of ever moving again feels like I might as well be trying to reach the moon. Eventually, after close to two hours, I am pronounced ready by whoever decides such things, to be moved to my hospital room where David, Peter and Aaron wait for me. Lindsay will come later tonight.
Still flat on my back, I am wheeled down numerous meandering hallways and finally end up in my assigned room. I brace myself when it’s time for them to transfer me to my hospital bed.
“We’ll count to three and then you try to lift your head,” someone instructs.
I’m not sure if I am capable of blinking my eyelids much less lifting my head, but they count anyway, and I guess I do, because miraculously I am lifted via a blanket and placed into the hospital bed. Unfortunately, we must count and “lift off” once more for final adjustments in the bed.
Finally someone, certainly not me, determines I look comfortable enough, and we all relax a bit.
Next I see David, Peter and Aaron standing over me with worried expressions on their faces. They continue looking down at me, as if waiting for me to say something profound. I say nothing.
“You look good,” Peter says.
“Yes, you do,” echos Aaron.
I know they aren’t telling the truth, but who cares. It must be hard to see your mother at such a moment.
Peter and Aaron leave almost right away so Peter will not be late for work at his summer job. Aaron will come back later with Lindsay, who decided to drive down from Fargo. I’m thankful for my three children who have become such capable, loving and caring young adults.
I also feel badly they have become so familiar with cancer.
Facing me must be hard for David, and I feel badly about this. He doesn’t get to tell me all my lymph nodes were clear. That was supposed to be our secret code for things being okay when I woke up. If I heard the words “all clear,” we could celebrate. If I heard the words “all clear,” I would not need chemo.
I don’t get to hear them. We are both silent. Actually, I am too sick to think about much else anyway.
Coming out of anesthesia completely is like trying to free myself from quicksand. My mind feels clear and fairly alert, but my body seems stuck in slow motion, and I am unable to speed it up.
Every movement I want to make from the simple task of turning in bed, to pushing the buttons on my remote, to the more monumental feat of actually sitting up and getting out of bed, feels mechanical, slow and difficult. When I do finally manage to sit upright in order to make my way to the bathroom, I move slowly, like a woman decades older, and I am overcome with nausea.
“It’s okay,” David says.
He gently rubs my back as I throw up into the long, narrow, plastic blue bag.
Eventually, I make my way to the bathroom accompanied by a nurse and attached to my pain-relief-drug-filled IV bag, which is in turn attached to a cart on wheels. The nurse has instructed me that I am allowed to push a button on the machine every so often for an extra dose.
I push it.
There hardly seems to be room for all three of us in the tiny bathroom with its annoying fluorescent light. Why do they always buzz? I glance at my pale reflection in the mirror, but I don’t look for long. I don’t want my gaze to make its way to my chest, not yet.
When you are recovering from surgery, you no longer take for granted simple bodily functions such as rising out of bed, putting one foot in front of the other, brushing your hair or teeth, emptying your bladder or even breathing. Such simple motions you normally do every day with little notice or appreciation now suddenly feel like the most valuable skills in the world.
Aaron returns this evening with Lindsay. I’m almost relieved Peter is at work and doesn’t have to be here. We spend the evening just being together. I wonder what they are really thinking about, especially Lindsay. I remember thoughts I had while observing Mother. They aren’t thoughts I wanted her to have, at least not yet.
It seems unbelievable I have cancer too.
However, I have just come through a successful bilateral mastectomy. My case will turn out differently.
This is my new mantra.
The four of us sit around doing little, but accomplishing much, simply by spending time together. Later after they leave, I collapse into bed slowly; it is as much a mental collapse as a physical one.
June 2 is over. Thank God. My bilateral mastectomy is done.
I guess I am now officially a survivor, or that’s what I’m told anyway. I have no idea what the hell this means. I do not feel like one.
Regardless, for whatever reason this situation has been assigned to me; there is no turning back.
I must look forward, just not tonight.
Read more in my memoir.
Stained-glass artwork in images by Laurie Bieze
Have you had a mastectomy or any other type of surgery and wondered what waking up from it would be like?
If applicable, what do you remember about waking up from your surgery?
If you are/were a partner or other loved one what was the experience like for you?
If you like this post, please share it. Thank you!