Friday, 27 August 2010

When it comes to the crotch...

Dan and I were in the car on the A30 to Penzance when he reached over, squeezed my fleecy knees and said Happy Anniversary. I'd had a wardrobe crisis earlier in the morning, brought on by the big knickers I knew I was going to have to wear post-surgery to keep the stomach together after lipo-modelling. I kept looking at them and thinking how tight they were; I needed something loose and comfortable to wear over them, but what? Everything I looked at promised to make me feel horribly constricted. In the end I kept on my leopard print pyjamas, matching dressing gown and added a pair of gold birkenstocks: think Wilma Flintstone meets the happy wanderer. I even had a knapsack on my back as I walked into St. Michael's. The backpack let the side down a bit — it was covered in dried mud because Dan had put it down in a cesspit at Port Eliot festival without thinking (oh darling! Happy Anniversary!) — but thankfully, my fashion cred was cranked up a notch by the addition of ted stockings and a delightful cotton gown, which on me looked like an NHS maxi dress. I was smokin'.
A nurse took me back to the F ward (I'm not swearing — it really is called F ward), the same one I'd been on six months ago when I had my mastectomy. I remembered the lovely lady who I'd met back in February; she used to work for Bishop Bill, as she called him. She told me stories about retired churchmen with extraordinarily long beards spending their spare time knitting, and about the nuns who used to work at the hospital until relatively recently. It had made me want to explore the history of the convent, the hospital and the nuns; I thought I might write a sort of Hayle equivalent to Jennifer Worth's Call the Midwife, her account of nuns looking after women in London's East End. I've since turned to writing about fruit and female self-esteem, but there's always the nuns on the table for later. 

What I had appreciated so much about my stay last time — the people that I met in the hospital — was what held me together this time. I saw my favourite cheeky nurse; the Gruesome Twosome; and smiley Margaret to name a few, and also met some new characters, who told more great stories. I think my favourite is the one about the elderly auntie who used to have a weak bladder in the days when pants-to-the-knee were the norm. She cut holes in the crotch so that she wouldn't have to muck about with too much elastic when she needed a wee. The thought of customised bloomers drying on the line on a windy day is a vivid, if not exactly pleasant, one. I'm going to be drying pants-to-the-chest Victorian undies on the line soon myself. But I will be keeping the crotch intact.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Happy Anniversary - crack open the morphine

On August 24th, 2010, Dan and I are going to celebrate fourteen years of marriage with a bit of surgery. Sounds a bit kinky? Not half! I'm going to be spending our anniversary with another man, my surgeon, who is surely sharpening up his scalpel as we speak. We made the date some time ago, when I was convinced my back would never heal and needed something to look forward to. I was so miserable at the prospect of having a perpetual hole in my back and a breast marauding under my armpit that I didn't care when the surgery would be; I just needed to know that I'd have my back fixed and my reconstruction completed. Swapping champagne for morphine is neither here nor there when it comes to feeling whole again.

This time around, I'm having several procedures done at the same time, but they are minor compared to the previous round of surgery. I'm having a new nipple, my back tidied, and lipo-filling, which is a technique using fat from the stomach to shape the breast. I've put on around three kilos since my surgery in February, so I've given Mr A permission to take a bit extra if he likes. Actually, I'm lying. I've asked him to take as much as is humanly possible, but he reckons he'll only need about 100 grammes. Bugger. Still, got to be careful, because the body doesn't forget where its tissue truly belongs: if you tend to put weight on in the abdominal area and then move that abdominal fat elsewhere (i.e. a new breast), you need to watch your cup size: I've been told that the breast will get bigger along with my stomach and give me a lop-sided chest. It's a blow because the breast care nurse has encouraged me to eat as much chocolate as I like until the surgery. It's going to be a hard habit to break. Still, there's always the morphine on demand. Can't wait.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Oncoplastic Fruit at Port Eliot

The first ever public orange surgery workshop took place at the wonderfully eclectic Port Eliot Festival on 25th July - Jarvis Cocker calls it "a festival of ideas" - thanks to an invitation from the people at Their programme theme was Write out West: "You might associate Cornwall with painters and pasties, but we're at Port Eliot to showcase our vibrant writing scene..." Well holy smokes I'm blushing, cos that writing scene included me and my blog y'all! 
Look, Profwriting even asked fab illustrator Georgia Sawers
to create a word-swilling cowboy programme

My workshop was code-named Operation Orange. My trusty sidekick was none other than Frances Lambert, a breast care nurse at the Mermaid Centre, Truro. I think she was a bit worried during our run-through that our presentation was going to be a shambles. We were sitting on a bench on the hill playing with our props, which included a silky prosthesis, Pimms, playdoh and skads of oranges. Frances kept asking me what I was going to say and each time I told her something different. Partly, it was because I simply didn't know what to expect. Who was going to be in the audience?

The answer was: all sorts. There were patients who had sought out my talk, and there were people who came out of sheer curiosity. It was a thrill to find that both those with experience of breast cancer and those without got some wow moments out of the session. A woman who'd already been through mastectomy and was awaiting reconstruction said: "I really enjoyed attending your workshop - it helped me understand what's going to happen to me." She also said her husband would have found the orange surgery workshop reassuring. It was evident that the workshop can benefit not just patients, but everyone around them. It's about understanding what's happened to our bodies to help us feel much more in control of the situation, and for others to understand what we have been through so that we can relate to one another. It beats the medical prose in some of the patient literature for getting information across in a pithy (couldn't resist!) and accessible way.

I wondered if people were afraid of coming to the workshop. The subject of breast cancer (whether early or advanced) is a big sticky scary mess, and frankly some people would rather not look the subject in the eye when they don't have to. But after Operation Orange, people were coming up to me afterwards to tell me how much they enjoyed it. They were genuinely amazed. It had truly opened their eyes. This workshop isn't about pink-ribboned awareness-raising or tales of extraordinary survivorship. It's the fruity equivalent of stitch and bitch, where we can unpick the breast cancer taboos, talk honestly and openly, and be unafraid to ask questions. Meanwhile, our children can sit by and quietly fashion boobies and animals out of playdoh, or play with puppets.
Two workshop attendees ride the carousel afterwards.
(Puppets lovingly crafted by Daisy and Lola Stevens)
For me, Operation Orange has turned feeling mutilated into feeling proud of my new breast. I consider it a work of extraordinary craftsmanship, and I see my oncoplastic surgeon as an artist/sculptor creating unique pieces lovingly by hand. As Frances would say (thanks to her interest in neuro-linguistic programming) I have 're-framed' my experience. Whatever, I like the word 're-frame', especially as we 'frame' art that we love. In essence, I think we proved that understanding surgery through orange sculpture - while swilling freshly-squeezed orange juice with Pimms and lemonade in a friendly group - can make both past and even future losses so much easier to bear.