The Warrior Princess

At 6:00 a.m. on September 24th, I took the train to Boston for a procedure at MGH: to have my port implanted. Bill was going to meet me after lunch for a chemo teach. As I was ushered into the exam room at 7:00 a.m., the nurse asked who was with me. “My husband is meeting me this afternoon. When I’m done here, I’m going to find a nice quiet spot for lunch.” I didn’t expect her reply, “Well, we’ll find a quiet spot for you here until your husband arrives. You can’t leave the office on your own.” Getting the feeling that this was more than a minor procedure, I sat in an interior waiting room, under a “No cell phones allowed” sign and called Bill. “Can you come sooner? They aren’t going to let me out of here until you get here!”

To start the procedure, the tech got her tape out. As she started working she explained why she was doing what she was doing: she was taping my right breast to my right knee. Had Will and Liam called ahead suggesting a tape trick be pulled on me? “We’re simulating you standing up. We don’t want to place the port with your breast up here. Believe it or not, this works well.” Whatever you say, I thought. Then she went to work covering my chest and neck with the equivalent of iodine. I couldn’t see it, but she told me that it was orange. I could feel it run from the base of my throat right up to my ear. She told me I could get it off with rubbing alcohol.

The radiologist came in and went to work. While I was supposed to be in a happy place with the mild sedative, I could feel the strength of the radiologist putting the port in place. I would’ve preferred to have been in a much happier place, remembering none of the procedure.

After recovering from the port placement, having a bite to eat, and finagling a cup of coffee from the nurse, I met Bill outside about an hour before our next appointment. I checked my cell phone. Change of plans. Chemo teach canceled. After my second surgery, I had an MRI to confirm the whole tumor had been removed. I had expected an “all-clear” call. Instead it was a “We see something else and aren’t sure what it is. Come to the Medford hospital to have an ultrasound done.” I wasn’t happy. I had a plan. I didn’t want it changed.

I walked into the Medford hospital and bumped into a couple from church, said “hello,” then continued on to the bathroom. There I saw the orange stain on my neck. I had worn a coral-orange shirt that day. My shirt and neck matched. I was pissed. I had had to sit for an hour and a half after the procedure and no one had offered to clean my neck off. My anger festered as did my attitude. Standing in that bathroom and summing up the day’s, weeks’ and months’ events, I remember thinking loudly, “This is bullshit!” The Warrior Princess was born. I think perhaps even my hair reddened with anger. (Sidebar: I warned you about the cussing that runs down through my family. I know the vocabulary and use it only on a few, select occasions. I have to be extremely angry or in fear for my life. I’ve sat on this for days, thinking about editing it out, but this is how it happened. Sorry if I offend.)

I went to the waiting hallway. A tech who I recognized from previous visits came up to me with a blue Johnny (hospital gown). I had been sitting in a blue Johnny from 7:30 a.m. until noon at MGH. I exploded, “Do you mean to tell me I can’t talk to my doctor in my OWN clothes?” Poor thing. “Of course you can,” in a way-too-kind voice for how I had just spoken to her.

Fully dressed and with Bill by my side, I met with my breast surgeon. With sullen, edgy looks she and I exchanged how disappointed we were with the situation. She left to consult with the radiologist before they did the ultrasound. I changed into the Johnny and laid down, staring at the ceiling, again wondering if this was really happening to me. Bill sat quietly in the corner. The tech came back. “What do you have on your neck?” I explained where I had just come from and told her I had to use alcohol to get it off. “Do you want me to wash it off?” Still seeking some control, I tartly replied, “Only if you don’t charge me for it.” “It’s a freebie.” She wiped my neck so tenderly that tears welled up in my eyes.

Then she asked if she could get me anything. “A beer would taste really good right now.” She chuckled, then we bantered a bit.

Tech: “What do you do?”

Me, as the tears started rolling down the side of my face: “I’m a full-time Mom. I have two sons, and I can’t talk about them lying in a hospital bed.”

Tech: “I’m so sorry! Where did you grow up?”

How did she know these were my two touchstones? Me, more tears flowing through the gates: “Iowa, and I can’t talk about that either.”

Tech: “I’m trying to make you feel better and NOT doing a very good job!”

We were both laughing as my eyes soaked the sheet behind my ears.

Me: “I can talk about cancer in the hospital without crying!”

And, being a tech, she said, “I can’t talk to you about that!”

Me: “Weather has been nice, huh?”

The surgeon and radiologist came back in and went to work, conversing in scientific jargon. My surgeon apologized for the foreign language. I told her I was on Wingaersheek Beach and to just to let me know when she was done and what they decided. At one point, I was wiggling trying to wipe a tickly tear in my hairline. The tech saw it and wiped it away for me.

They left the room to consult and to let me get dressed. I’m guessing the tech had tipped them off about my love for the Johnny. My surgeon came back in and told me the ultrasound was inconclusive. She said, “I say we just take it out tomorrow.” What I wanted to hear. No messing with biopsies, just get it out. Be sure. She was as fed up as I was. Patients waited for weeks to get into her OR, she was going to make this happen tomorrow.

Before my 1 p.m. surgery the following day, the radiologist drained fluid that had built up after the previous surgeries. Then he placed a wire to mark the new questionable spot. Neither were pleasant procedures. I told the radiologist it was nice to see him again, but I didn’t want to see him again in the near future. We both smiled as we shook hands.

Surgery went well. After having already had two surgeries there, I knew the staff; it felt like old home week. I left the hospital with bandages sticking out above my collar on the left side, matching those on the right covering my port. I really did look like a Warrior Princess, minus the orange war paint on my neck. I spent the next several days icing my wounds. That battle officially ended a few days later with a call from my surgeon to say the spot was benign, probably scarring from the first two surgeries.

I was back on the chemo highway.

There have been pivotal moments on this journey with such rawness that I block them from my own immediate recollection. There’s no way I could immediately share this experience. First body and spirit needed to go through a healing process. I jot notes during these times but don’t want to relive it through sharing it soon after the event. Now, months later, finally I can look back, reflect, and even laugh. But those tears that day felt like salt pouring in an open wound before the first incision was even made. It took weeks for the emotional pain to dissipate. Even as I wrote this and re-read it and re-read it, my Warrior Princess teeth clenched in defense. I’m going to post it now and release my jaw.

Staying strong,