In mid-August I’ll have the third of five surgical procedures booked for 2013 — all for the purpose of rebuilding and reconstructing my chest after my 2012 double mastectomy. Yes, it’s been a long, tough two years! I’ve reflected in earlier posts that dealing with cancer is like the lyric in a song popularized by the Hollies in 1969: “The road is long with many a winding turn that leads us to who knows where … who knows where.” Sound depressing, but stay with me because in Christ, the long, winding road is laden with gold!
Radiation was part of my treatment plan after my mastectomy and chemotherapy. It isn’t always prescribed for women after a mastectomy, but it is recommended in cases like mine when the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. So after my other treatment, I went through six weeks of radiation. Studies reveal that women with Stage III or IV cancer who have radiation after a mastectomy have less chance of recurrence and frankly, their chances of living longer lives is significantly improved.
But radiation has its downside, that’s for sure. In addition to the burning and extreme fatigue that takes place during the radiation, the effects of radiation actually continue for years. It distorts the muscle and skin at the radiated site and will reject a breast implant so reconstruction must be done with my own tissue. And when there is an expander placed in the breast area, the radiated pectoral muscle doesn’t easily stretch when saline is used to fill the expander to prepare the area for reconstruction.
Well, I met that problem face-to-face last Thursday when my plastic surgeon began the month-long process of refilling my right tissue expander to prepare the skin and muscle for my reconstruction surgery in August. That’s when I will have a “flap” reconstruction when they will take muscle, fat and skin from my belly area and transplant it, reconnecting the blood vessels to new ones in my right chest. This is a delicate surgery requiring two expert surgeons skilled in microsurgery, and special equipment and staff which we are blessed to have at Hoag Hospital here in Newport Beach. I’ll be in surgery for about ten hours, in the hospital for five days, home for a month, and it will take about six months for full recovery.
So the process of filling the expander on the right side to make room for the new transplanted tissue is important. Important, but oh so PAINFUL! I wasn’t anticipating how painful until my plastic surgeon last Thursday inserted 80 cc’s of saline into my tissue expander and I could literally feel the muscle around the tissue sort of “rip” to make room for the expander to, well, expand! The pain increased as I left the office and after several hours, the pain was so great it had radiated down my right arm and was creating stabbing pain in my back — the result of the radiated, distorted muscle in the front being pulled up and out from the newly filled expander.
Now I know this sounds depressing, but don’t stop reading yet! This is where the gold comes in!
I called Philip and told him I knew I was in trouble. The pain was leading to nausea and I was afraid I was going to pass out. I got home and got some medication in me to dial back on the pain and muscle tension, but things were already out of hand in the pain department. I couldn’t find a position that was comfortable in any sense. The pain was searing and unrelenting. Finally, I sat with a pillow clutched to my chest and just rocked back and forth for a long, long time saying, “Help me, Jesus. Help me, Jesus. Jesus, please help me. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.”
Here’s the gold: Jesus came. I could sense His presence. Like in the recovery room after my mastectomy when I was told the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. Like when I first saw my chest after my double mastectomy. Like in the chemo infusion room. Like in the radiation center when the big, scary monster machine hovered over me. Like in all those dark, scary places when I called out His name, “Jesus” … He came.
The pain didn’t quickly or fully leave, but with His presence the fear and anxiety dialed back and I knew I was going to be fine. I knew this terrible pain would not kill me and I knew it would leave … eventually. When pain is great and unrelenting, you forget those important things. But with the sweet presence of Jesus came a quietness to my soul that then transferred to my body.
I spent the next day resting in bed on pain meds and still hurting, but with a lingering and distinct awareness of my Kind Savior Jesus who had once again rescued me from danger. That sweet awareness of His presence has remained now for several days. Physically I’m still sore, but more than anything, I’m grateful.
Grateful that with new and unexpected pain (yep, this pain took me totally off guard), came a new measure of grace and even of glory. I am immensely aware of His grace to me in my time of need last Thursday night! And I’m also aware that with His grace came His glory which is still resting on me today.
I have three, maybe four more of these “fills” before my August 20 surgery date. Yes, I will prepare better next time and make sure I do what I can to prevent the pain from escalating to that level again. But the most important thing is that I am now better prepared spiritually. I know that my Jesus will be there and that I can count on Him to help me through whatever pain I will need to endure. This is great practice for my big surgery in August — all a part of God’s sweet plan to make sure that I am well-prepared for that experience when pain may be my constant companion for awhile. Oh well — pain can be awful, but Jesus is bigger than any pain, as I was reminded once again last Thursday.
I started this post with a Hollies song from 1969. Indulge me as I finish with a Beatles song from the same era — also about a long and winding road, but this time with a definitive destination: “The long and winding road that leads to your door will never disappear. I’ve seen that road before; it always leads me here, leads me to your door.”
Jesus, the long and winding road of cancer and pain and suffering has always led me to Your door and You are always there waiting for my arrival. I just gotta’ love you, Lord. Pain can’t hold a candle to you, Jesus. You are wayyyyyy good.
After more than 25 years in parish ministry, Rev. Cathie retired in early 2018 to pursue a quieter life with her husband Philip in the mountains of Central Oregon. Although no longer a leader in congregational life, she continues to follow her calling and passion to minister to those who suffer, especially those with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.