But if you can’t be arsed here’s the cheats run down:
After 18-months of experimental chemo which essentially transformed my ‘jelly-like’ cancer into bone (supposedly temporarily), I am now ready for surgery. The operation will remove the offending T6 vertebra and a corresponding rib, which have been entirely ‘eaten’ away by the cancer. Then I will have a full spinal resection which involves fusing my entire thoracic (mid) spine together with titanium rods (from T2-T8 for any anatomy nerds out there). No, I don’t beep through airport security, but yes, they did write me a doctors note “just in case”. Fun times!
23.2.2012 – Night Before the Surgery
I am lying in a large communal hospital bedroom with the rest of the patients that have been herded in the night before our various early morning surgeries. It’s eerily quiet, aside from the occasional painful groan, making the subsequent silence even more disturbing. I have been given Valium to calm my nerves and help me sleep but it hasn’t worked the way I had hoped. Instead of floating off into a sweet slumber I feel as though I am peering through the eyes of someone else’s limp body. My physical symptoms of anxiety have lifted but I am still hyper aware that I am waking up to a 9-hour surgery marathon; in which a large chunk of my spine and ribs will be sawed out, ground up, reassembled with screws, rods and “chicken wire” and I’ll be zipped back up, sans tumour. My brain is in full blown panic but my body is listening to reggae and smoking a doobie! Where the fuck was brains invite?
24.2.2012 – Morning of the Surgery
It’s 6am when my family start to arrive to bid me their final goodbyes … I mean, wish me luck. They don’t look nearly devastated enough for my liking. I was expecting long-winded speeches of love and adoration, choked through held-back tears. But as the male half of my family are predominantly ‘on the spectrum’ and generally socially awkward, I accept my well wishes with an unsurprised grimace. Eventually I am wheeled into a small pre-surgery, private waiting room. Mum follows me in to keep me company and offers some much needed distraction through a little nervous joking. It is appreciated. I am quickly wrapped up in a body-length, inflatable, plastic sheet, called the Bair Hugger. Its entire job is to lie on top of patients prior to surgery, while warm air is continuously pumped inside, inflating it like a giant, warm, balloon. Heaven. The aim of this contraption is to raise my body temperature in preparation for laying naked in a bitterly cold operating room for the duration of the surgery. After all, I can’t be poking anyone’s eye out with my frozen nips! That would be an OH & S hazard.
My elbows and wrists start being hurriedly jabbed with several cannulas on each side. These will transport different concoctions I will be shot-up with throughout surgery and post op. However, as I have been “nil by mouth” for almost 24 hours by this stage, my veins are dehydrated, slippery and hard to locate. My arms have also copped a fair bit of abuse over the previous 2-years as part of the weekly blood tests I have been required to have during my treatment. By the fourth failed attempt at inserting my anaesthetic IV, the anaesthetist gives up and decides to knock me out with gas. Praise be! Mum and I are both trying to be brave for one another but her eyes start to well up as I am wheeled into the operating room (OR), and I let a very dramatic, soap-opera-esc, single tear fall from my cheek as I drift off. So here I am; after 3 years of chronic pain, chemo and distress over this exact moment, I was out. Let the show begin!
25.2.2012 – First Morning Post-Op (ICU)
From this moment on things devolve into a bit of a blur. This is due in part to the IV of morphine being gratefully poured into my veins, as well as the uncontrollable physical pain that my body copes with by repeatedly sending me unconscious. It’s early morning when I start to come-to in the intensive care unit (ICU). A nurse tries to quietly perform my observations (Obs) without waking me but she’s unsuccessful, mostly due to the screams of bloody murder I can hear coming from behind the curtain opposite me. All around me I hear the incessant beeping of hospital machinery, randomly timed guttural screeches, and groaning I can only liken to the sound made by the zombies in The Walking Dead. Fuck. The second my brain wakes up the hell begins.
I wake up reaching desperately for my throat. I’m choking. I feel unrecognisable pain everywhere. Everywhere. Pain like I’ve never felt in my life and it’s coming from all angles. But the overwhelming sensation is that I am suffocating. I look at the nurse by my side with wide, horrified eyes. My arms are filled with 3 to 4 cannulas each so it’s awkward and uncomfortable to lift my hands toward my throat, but I try. I must look like a Halloween mummy; grunting with arms outstretched, barley bending at the elbows and flailing hopelessly. I’m trying to simulate a choking action to tell her I can’t breathe. She gently smiles and tells me that my anaesthetic ran out earlier than anticipated and I shouldn’t be awake yet (sorry wot?). I want to scream, “Well I am bitch! Knock me back the fuck out before I knock YOU out!” but I can’t speak as I still have the breathing tube down my throat. It is propelling air into my lungs as they cannot breathe on their own while under the anaesthetic. Once conscious however, the brain wants to control your breathing again. So essentially, my lungs are being controlled by two parties who will not listen to each other. It. Is. Horrific. The only way I can describe the sensation is by asking you to imagine a freshly caught fish. You catch said fish and plonk it down on the pier as it flops and writhes around, gasping hopelessly. It is so desperate that it flings its little body around, searching for water to help it catch a breath. Its gills frantically open and close but no oxygen gets in. It becomes increasingly desperate, taking quick, shallow, empty breaths, unsuccessfully. Nothing else matters, it is fighting for its life, and then… well you know what happens next. That’s how it feels to be conscious with a breathing tube down your throat. Like a hopelessly, desperate, dying fish.
I instantly regret having the surgery and wished with every fibre of my being that I would die. Please let me die. I don’t want to let myself cry because if I cry my breathing will further alter and I am sure the small amount of air I am currently sipping in will be lost. So my eyes just well up to the brim (or should I say bream…sorry, inappropriate) and let tears pathetically slip out. The nurse wipes them away as I stare daggers at her, and calmly tells me “it will all be okay“, and that “the doctor will be down to remove the tube in 2-hours“, but for now I am too weak to risk removing it. I am in disbelief. She’s going to leave me here suffocating, spluttering and praying for death for two more hours?! I would tear this bitch a new one if I could move anything but my eye balls, but instead, all she gets is the stink-eye of a life-time. Huh! That’ll show her! Please, I’m begging you, let me die…
My blood pressure remains dangerously low, so I am kept on the breathing tube for what ends up being the next 4-hours. I employ every bloody bullshite meditation/ calming/relaxation tool I’ve ever learnt in my years of yoga training and psychotherapy, but all I can do is watch the clock tease me as seconds tick by like days. Occasionally I am blessed with unconsciousness, most likely from the systemic pain or perhaps the lack of oxygen that comes from breathing like a dying amphibian. Each time I come-to I desperately hope that the clock will tell me an hour has passed, only to find it has been just a few minutes. This happens torturously often, until finally I am told it’s time. Halle-fucking-lujah bitches, the tubes-a-coming out! It has taken all of me to resist yanking it out myself, unlike Kourtney Kardashian pulling her own baby out from her ‘special area’ (true story), and it’s finally fucking happening!
The foot-long, plastic tubing is gently slid from my throat and I am filled with anticipated relief. I am encouraged to “breathe nice and deeply” as to prevent fluid settling in my lungs, resulting in pneumonia. I eagerly take my first breath and gasp gratefully for air, but am instantly met with sharp, stabbing pain in my sides and return to my horrible but safe, dying fish breath. Nothing has changed. “Nothing has changed!?”, I bark in a panic at the heavily pregnant nurse, stationed constantly to my bedside. Well not nothing, now I can speak. Now I can choke out, “am I fucking dying!?”, and “WHY is a woman whose water is about to blow at any moment, my primary carer?! GO HOME!”. But I don’t… I’m too exhausted. I go back to staring at the clock tragically and stifling back tears. I lost 10% of my blood during surgery, my body feels like a dead weight. I don’t have enough energy to lift my finger, which feels like lead, much less to yell and scream out, “Help me!”, to a woman who probably has feet swollen like water balloons and yet is here, caring for me.
It turns out the breathing tube was only a minor part of the breathing problem. Who’da cunting thunk it! I have tubes and wires coming out of every obvious orifice and just because I clearly don’t already have enough holes in my delicate female body, they have decided to create a few more. The one in question being a drainage tube wedged between my left lung and ribs to reduce fluid build-up. My lung was partially deflated during the surgery as it was in the way of getting to the tumour. This meant that now, every breath inflated my lungs (as breathing is known to do), causing them to push against my rib cage and crush painfully against the drainage tube. It’s reminiscent of the sharp pain of a stich in your side, if like, you were also getting stung repeatedly in the throat by a dozen angry wasps, and fire ants were eating your organs from the inside out. Oh, and you have emphaseema. Yeah, that pretty much sums it up! I was handed a folded up towel to press against my ribs for supportive pressure as I breathed or God forbid, coughed, sneezed or vomited. It would be two days until the drainage tube was removed. This meant two more days of breathing with the ‘death rattle’ that I had only ever witnessed once before; in a loved one, days before she passed away. Two more days of watching that arse-hole clock tick tortuously in front of my face. Two more days of trying not to cry through the most all-consuming pain I’ve ever endured. Please, for the love god, let me die.
I think this was the day I gave up striving (or was it fighting?) for everything I believed I was owed, just by purely being alive. This was the moment I relinquished all control and any hope that we have the ability to create the life we desire by simply working hard and being a “good girl”! I had been a girl who grew up controlling every morsel of food I ate, every anxious word I spoke and every single move I made was born out of an idealised future, planned years in advance. I worked hard at school, didn’t smoke cigarettes or take drugs and I had big dreams and ambitions. But then here I was. I had been “good” to the point of turning myself inside out my entire life. “Perfect” to the point that it had almost killed me as I starved myself in an attempt to be ‘beautiful’. And yet, nothing I loved or desired was manifesting itself through my blood, sweat and tears. My dream to be a singing sensation was on hold because it turns out, it’s very difficult to sing opera with a tumour pushing on your lungs. My yoga career was suspended indefinitely, as it’s unwise to bend yourself into a pretzel when your spine is essentially made of jelly. My boyfriend was pulling away because my cancer reminded him of his mothers death. And now, all I wanted to do was cry and I couldn’t even do that for fear of passing out from the pain! Well, FUCK THIS!
Unfortunately, I’ve never been one to do anything by halves or learn the meaning of the word “balance”, so releasing my inner control freak did not result in a calmer, more laid back version of me. I went to the extreme (surprise, fucking surprise). I didn’t find freedom in letting go, I found resentment, bitterness and anger in the discovery of the random unfairness of life. I started to see that things don’t always happen for a reason. You’re not always going to grow and learn from some tragic life event. There isn’t a finite amount of shit that can be flung at you before it turns around and life becomes sunshine and ice-cream-shitting unicorns! No. It’s fucking morbid and maybe (hopefully!) it’s just me, but this event was the first of many that taught me that life is seemingly just a random cluster-fuck of moments, that sometimes we can influence, but often we can’t. And as an eternal control-freak up until this point, that Pissed. Me. Off.
I flipped life on its head and somewhat unconsciously became the “anti-me”. Fun fact! It turns out the opposite to the permanently anxious, ridged, “good” girl version of me is a loose-moraled, highly corruptible, wildly volatile, life-of-the-party “bad” girl… and she’s as fun as she is insane!
In the words of Tay Tay, “The old [me] can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh cause she’s dead.”
To be continued…