It was a year ago this morning that I had surgery to remove a cancerous lump in my left breast. In a way, it seems as though it was just a few weeks ago. In another way, though, it seems as though it was in another lifetime.
When the hospital gave me the paperwork outlining everything I needed to know about the surgery and how to be prepared for it, the pages were filled with pictures of smiling patients. When I arrived at the waiting area before surgery at 6 a.m. on Jan. 30, 2012, I didn’t see any smiling faces. I saw the faces of people who were just as scared as I was.
It’s a surreal experience to be going through the motions of preparing for something such as surgery. In a way, it was very normal, because I had a checklist of tasks to accomplish before I got there. Mostly, though, it felt as though I was stepping into a world that I’d been able to avoid for all the years of my life until then. If it’s not overly dramatic to say so, it felt like preparing for death.
There was no reason for me to think that morning that I was about to die, but the experience was so foreign — as well as cold and antiseptic — that it was oddly reminiscent of what it must feel like to prepare to die. I can’t even explain that. It’s more something I feel. It was very cold and impersonal. More than anything, I felt very alone.
An old friend brought me to the hospital and waited for me. When the nurses were ready for me to come to the pre-op area to get ready, I left her behind with other people’s families and friends and entered a world that felt like death’s waiting room. I had to take off all of my clothes and put them into a bag. I dressed in a gown with hospital socks and a net over my head. One of the anesthesiologists connected a plastic tube to my arm.
With every step I took in the process, I wanted to scream and run, but for the nurses and doctors, it was just another day at the office.
The time came for my bed to be rolled down a few hallways into the surgical area. We stopped right outside one of the surgical theaters and waited. The surgeon — who I’d met on two different occasions since he had diagnosed the problem two weeks earlier — came by and talked with me briefly. He was calm, friendly and confident. It was just another operation to him.
Once I was rolled into the room for surgery, I was transferred from the bed to a platform. Very soon, an anesthesiologist put a cup over my face and asked me to start counting.
And then I was awake. Apparently, we hadn’t started. “Why were we delayed?” I thought as I sat up.
A nurse quickly came over to me and told me to lie back down. And then it hit me. I was in the recovery room. The surgery was over.
I wasn’t supposed to be wide awake so quickly. I didn’t feel groggy. I didn’t feel tired. I didn’t even feel any pain. I was just thirsty and wanted to get up. I asked for water and chatted with the nurses. I made jokes about everything, simply because that’s what I do when I’m nervous and in an unfamiliar setting.
A few minutes later, I was wheeled back to the same room where I had changed clothes earlier. My friend was allowed to come into the room to see me. She handed me my iPhone, because she knew I’d want to report to the outside world. I sent a brief email — to someone who I regrettably no longer talk to — to let her know I was fine.
I was required to wait a specified number of minutes before they’d let me leave, because — once again — I wasn’t supposed to feel this good. I wasn’t even allowed to walk out of the hospital. I felt like a fraud while being rolled out in a wheelchair, joking the whole way about the absurdity. My friend was at the hospital pharmacy picking up the pain medication I’d been prescribed, and the wheelchair attendant agreed to let me walk after we got to the pharmacy.
As my friend drove me home — only about five hours after we’d driven downtown — I had trouble believing that I had been through surgery. I felt too good and too normal.
I was given strict instructions not to drive for 24 hours, but I got bored at home that afternoon, so I drove a couple of miles and walked around Target just to have something to do. I felt completely normal. More than anything else, though, I felt immensely happy to be alive.
A year later, I still feel the same way.
Life can be ugly, cruel, miserable and mean. It can be depressing and heart-breaking. But it can also be beautiful, kind, happy and pleasant. It can be exhilarating and joyful.
For the last year, I’ve mostly experienced things from the first group. It wasn’t a good year. But I’m happy to be alive, because I’m convinced that the best days are always still ahead of me.