January 15, 2021

#206 The Spontaneous Combustion of My Breast

I’ve been doing well—getting back into the swing of things and feeling really good, if not great. But alas, sometimes three steps forward comes with two steps back.

I’ve been doing well—getting back into the swing of things and feeling really good, if not great. But alas, sometimes three steps forward comes with two steps back.

Just when you think you’ve kicked cancer’s ass something happens to remind you that you haven’t gotten there—not yet. Damn.

On Sunday night, June 3, 2018, I arrived in Texas full of vim and vigor to attend an industry conference I had been looking forward to for some time. I missed last year’s conference due to being in treatment. This year was going to be great — I just knew it! My chairman was going to be a featured speaker the next day—so cool! I think he’s great and I was excited to share him with my industry colleagues.

I get up on Monday feeling cute as ever in a white/green/gray zip-up Akris Punto dress and white Dior pumps that I just love! I head down to breakfast, hug a few friends, and sit down to eat. I start feeling my chest tighten and notice that my left breast (the one with cancer) has started swelling — I mean really swelling, really fast.

Within 30 minutes it had swollen under my arm and nearly to my collarbone and is at least 3x bigger than when I got up this morning. I call my doc’s office in Virginia and his nurse says “get to the emergency room.” So I call an ambulance and they take me to the nearest hospital. At some point, I call my husband, Greg, and tell him what’s happened. Anyway, while in the emergency room, my blood pressure plummets and I’m fading in and out. All I can hear is the nurse telling me to stay with her and shaking me awake. She doesn’t want me to pass out. I can’t keep my eyes open, I just want to sleep, but I try my best. At this point, my breast is still swelling and I’m still in my dress, praying they don’t try to cut me out of it. I mean, this dress was an investment! She tells me that I need to sit up so I can get out of my dress. I say I can’t, my breast is going to explode. She thinks I’m kidding.

I unzip the dress, she sits me up and sure enough, my breast explodes. I mean bursts open. Blood is EVERYWHERE, including all over the front and back of my dress and my shoes. The explosion is so large that my brand new implant comes out intact. Undamaged! It becomes clear pretty quickly that my implant didn’t explode, my skin did from the pressure. It turns out my reconstruction scar of four weeks ago that had completely healed gave way to my blood-filled breast. Everyone is horrified–even the ER doc and the three nurses who are staring at me. No one does anything for a few seconds so I say, “shouldn’t we put compression on this before I pass out?” They snap out of it, put compression on the “wound” and I pass out as I hear them say to prepare for a blood transfusion because I’ve lost so much blood. I still don’t know if I had a transfusion. I have on a bracelet that says I might have. Who knows?

By now, the bleeding is controlled and so is my blood pressure so they start giving me IV meds (no idea what) and prepare to transfer me to another hospital because this one doesn’t have a plastic surgeon on staff and I need surgery right away. Seriously?

I get to the new hospital and the (gorgeous) plastic surgeon says “I’ve never seen anything like this–never.” I forgive him for this statement because he’s cute and it all sounds so silly. I tell him that I’m an over-achiever so I’m sure I’m here to help him expand his knowledge–which was equally silly. He calls my doc in Virginia; they doc-chat for awhile and determine surgery is a must but the cute doc would rather wait until he’s fresh first thing in the morning. Sounds good to me–I’m on a morphine drip; what do I care? He says a blood clot is the worst that can happen and he doubts that will occur. He takes another look at the wound. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been to so many doctors lately that when they look at me or my situation, I don’t listen to what they say, I watch their eyes and often their facial expressions. Sometimes doctors give away a lot and don’t mean to. As the cute doc looks at the wound, he cringed. I kid you not — he cringed. This can’t possible be good. Of course, it hasn’t been good yet, so why should it start now?

A dear friend who is at the conference ignores my protests about her visiting and comes to visit anyway (thank you) to keep me company until my husband arrives. Yes, my husband hopped on a plane and flew to Texas — this must be serious. What you need to know about my husband is that he’s a steady, serious guy. In a crisis, he is not the one to run to your bedside and sit there holding your hand while they put in an IV. He’s more the ‘I love you and tell me if you need anything‘ kind of guy. But not in a cold way, just a matter of fact way. So, he arrives around 9 pm and I am so glad to see him. If he is here, I know it’s serious, but I also know that it’s going to be okay. No one could possibly advocate for me or take better care of me than my husband.

The next morning, the nurses and docs are great—prepping me for surgery. We’ve removed all my jewelry except one Cartier bracelet that won’t come off. (These bracelets are screwed on so taking them off can take some time). At this point, me, my friend, Greg, two docs, and two nurses have tried to remove this thing–no go. They end up insulating it so my wrist doesn’t burn if cauterization of the blood vessels in my chest is required. Surgery goes as planned.

Except, I wake up and I only have one breast. Really. The other one is gone, gone, gone. This is shocking to me. After the mastectomy in April (2017) the surgeon put in tissue expanders in preparation for reconstructive surgery. Four weeks ago, the expanders were exchanged for implants. So throughout this whole ordeal I’ve had something resembling breasts — even if they were rock hard. Until now. Now, it’s just breast. Singular. WTF?

Greg and I talk them into discharging me from the hospital so we can rest in the hotel room I have that is going unused. But then I start to worry about going home. How are we going to get there? A commercial flight doesn’t seem feasible, nor does driving — him and me in a car for 18 hours or so? No way. We’ll try the commercial flight and hope the cabin pressure on my flight over didn’t have anything to do with my breast’s spontaneous combustion.

Then, out of the blue, I hear from my company that they have a solution. How great is that? What did I do to deserve that much kindness?

So, this morning Greg and I (and just my right boob) are flying home. Tomorrow I will see my surgeon in Virginia (who is also gorgeous) and determine the next steps for my mutilated body. He thinks there are options. I don’t know what that means. But I keep thinking that just two weeks ago as I stared at my newly reconstructed breasts how disappointed I was because they were not as gorgeous as my pre-cancer breasts. Now, it all seems so ridiculous. I should have been thankful, not disappointed. At least I had breasts (plural) and I’m cancer-free and relatively healthy.

What I would do now for those two oddly, but not horribly, reconstructed breasts. God has a way of keeping us in check when we get a bit too ungrateful; doesn’t he? I don’t think I’m ungrateful, just a bit too vain. Perhaps to him, it’s the same thing. Either way, the journey I thought was ending seems to only be in the middle–the fifth inning and not the ninth. I hope that makes sense — I don’t follow baseball.

I’m reminded that people always tell me that I’m resilient. I guess I am. I just hope in the end people will say that I rallied; I always tried to be positive, even when I felt my resolve crumbling; and that I got to meet Darius Rucker. That DR reference will only make sense to some of you.

No worries, I’m not depressed and I don’t think this is the end. I’m just a bit disappointed, stubborn, and quickly becoming quite a bit less vain. Enough with the lessons!

Here’s to hoping your last 48 hours were much less eventful!

See here for the second part of the story