Being Patient as a Patient
I have had minor oral surgeries, but nothing like this! Mastectomy, the removal of the breast and all underlying structures, is a pretty big deal. Still happy and shocked I was able to go home on the same day of surgery.
Day one after surgery I woke up late after tossing and turning uncomfortably all night. It wasn't just that I could not get comfortable, more so it was the pain medication, Percocet that kept me up, causing rapid heart rate! It felt I I was running a marathon in my sleep. Tylenol would have to do the trick.
Waking up day one after surgery in my own bed was a blessing. I wasn't comfortable, but at least it was a clean, quiet, natural reprieve. Adam is a wonderful barista and I had prepped healthy breakfast options, so I had the pleasure of eating real food the morning of day #1 at home. Three wonderful friends brought by prepared meals that filled my fridge with LOVE, and was such a treat to see their masked faces. I remember spending the morning telling Adam about my surgical journey and how strange it is to be a 'patient'. My energy was low, I did not feel like myself, and I needed to have piles of blankets on me to keep warm (which is normal after surgery). Most people would likely curl up on the couch and watch movies or read. I chose to fill out the SBA loan on-line as it opened up April 10th for sole proprietors! It was an impressive feat to complete having just coming off general anesthesia, but I did it between answering loads of texts and calls from my wonderfully supportive friends and family.
Resting, sitting in the garden, eating, dealing with my JP drain, resting, walking around the house...this went on for 4-5 days. I actually did what I was told, ASKED for HELP, did not move my left arm much, did not attempt to do any chores. Adam had to help me a ton in that first week, as every time I moved my left arm away from my body, the drain exiting my left rib cage would ZING me. It was an alarming reminder to not do too much. I actually had to ask for help getting into and out of bed, washing my hair, managing my drain output/bandages and dressing the left half of my body. As a PT, part of my job is educating spouses/caretakers how to safely and properly care for their loved one. Adam did not need much help at all. I was sure to thank him for all his efforts, big and small, to make me comfortable, as he was on the clock 24/7! Thank your caregivers people!
As the swelling started coming down, so did the extreme sensitivity in my left chest. By day six I was doing quite a bit more by myself. I was back to making french press and cooking myself breakfast. I started to put away light weight dishes at shoulder height or below. Folding laundry (visualize sheets) was a shit show, but a great start to functional exercise and reminded me just how tight my chest was. I began to accompany Adam and our pup Stella on walks. The first time I strolled outside of our home I was exhausted, I lasted 15 minutes. WHHHAAT??! As I was not taking much in the way of pain pills, I could feel every muscle, tendon, nerve on the left side of my body with every step. Breathing was labored, and as a result my heart rate would spike fast. I did not feel myself. Adam regularly had to remind me that HEALING takes a lot of energy out of you and I had to remind myself that PAIN is exhausting as well. I needed to be kind, compassionate and PATIENT with myself. To practice what I preach! The next day I pushed the walk with Adam to 20 minutes, each day adding 5 more minutes until I started to feel my regular stamina return.
The first time I took Stella on a walk without Adam felt like a big deal. Up until that point I was actually holding onto him for support and using him to guard my external drain from danger. Without him I felt vulnerable and exposed on my left side, especially when the drain was in me. I was nervous it would catch/snag on something (because it did at home), or Stella could pull too hard and I could get injured. Everything was just fine! Walking Stella was therapeutic for me. It gave me purpose, I had a walking buddy, someone who REALLY wanted to go with me daily. Prior to surgery Stella and I were putting on 5-6 miles (2-3 hours) of walking several days a week to prepare my cardiovascular system for surgery. I am going into week three now, I am still working to get that level of stamina back, but I am close.
Additionally, prior to surgery I was completing 60-90 minutes of intense yoga a day. This was for mental preparation, heart health and functionally stretching my tissues as much as possible to prepare for being cut open and tied back up tightly. I humbly did my first chair yoga session April 14th, 5 days after surgery. This helped me stretch out my tense and aching neck, encouraged me to breathe bigger and stretch my rib cage, and began the movement of my tight spinal column. I cried after my first session. Due to feeling so much better in just 30 minutes, feeling hopeful that I would be okay, and also startled at how limited I truly felt. My surgeon and team informed me to not get my heart rate up, push myself too hard or do any repetitive movements so as not to increase fluid accumulation at the incision or delay healing. I was being extremely PATIENT with myself, listening to orders and preventing any set backs. My instincts were that 30-60 minutes of chair yoga were in my best interest and not contraindicated. Those early yoga sessions allowed me to feel less robotic, took me out of stiffness and made me feel like my old self. My instincts were that early, gentle mobility would also provide a host of other benefits such as improving circulation, preventing blood clots, shifting my mental state to a more positive one. Looking back I wish I would have done 3 small sessions a day, but I was being cautious. Yoga is a beautiful tool and I plan to encourage folks, clients, friends and family with Cancer to use it for its buckets of benefits.
Helping with my roller coaster of emotions was my meditation practice. For the first few days I meditated in a chair. When I finally returned to my mediation station, sitting on the ground was a really big deal. It was shockingly difficult to get on and off the floor that first week as using my abs, which pulls on your rib cage, pulled on my breast/drain and I would get a ZING! Knowing how to modify movements is what I do for a living, so I had to get creative with my floor to standing routine!! My meditation practice prior to surgery was usually 30 minutes of silence once a day. Closer to surgery I did a lot of visualizations seeing the surgery go really well and hearing my doctor say to me "Your lymph nodes came back clear, your cancer has not spread". This is basically what she told Adam after surgery!!! After surgery, with very low energy and a strong desire to sit, I started doing 45-60 minutes of meditation in the morning and a 30 minute session before bed. These looked like prayer, guided (YouTube) healing meditations, yoga Nidra (from DownDog app), mindful body scanning to reduce muscle guarding and pain. Sometimes I would be lying down in bed, sometimes in a chair, but eventually built my stamina back to sitting upright in meditation. The meditation helped calm me down, returned my body to purposeful breathing, guided my mind to a path of healing I could visualize on a cellular level. Most days this would allow me to feel calm and resilient after this shocking and traumatic surgery.
If you are a friend of mine, or a client, you know how much I encourage meditation. This practice is 'new' to me the past 4 years, and has evolved since I started doing just 5 minutes of sitting in silence every day. Before my practice started I was a hot tempered, cranky chick. I wasted a lot of energy in anger, fear and anxiety. My humble meditation practice has been a huge help in cultivating PATIENCE in this trying time, COMPASSION for my healing body, and GRATITUDE for my health and the ABUNDANCE of love all around me. I still have moments (sometimes days) where I feel down, concerned about my abilities, but my meditation practice reminds to be in the present moment, not control the future or try to change the past. I have cultivated RESILIENCE for this journey with Breast Cancer, and unrelenting optimism that I will continue to learn many lessons as well as meet incredible healers in my own journey as a patient.
Post Op Day #1, with JP drain and bandages