Of the many experiences I faced during cancer treatment, one that sticks with me very distinctly is the experience of going to the hospital the day before surgery to be marked up.
During treatment for Breast Cancer, there are many times when you can feel a lack of dignity: there is a lot of prodding and poking of “the lump”; having an MRI involves lying on your front with your boobs hanging through some carefully places openings in the table; having the DIEP surgery, as I did, led to several appointments in which my plastic surgeon studied my breasts in great detail and grabbed at my tummy fat in an approving manner, pleased with the quantities he had to work with! However, throughout these experiences, I usually felt as if I was being treated as a human, my feelings were considered and everyone involved was doing their utmost to think of me as a person and the effects it was having on me.
Then came the “marking up”. I don’t know if this happens in the same way in all hospitals, but for mine I had to go in the day before surgery to have this done, and although I can understand the reasoning (to save time on the day of the op for what was a very long procedure) I can’t help but thinking there must be a better way.
“Marking up” involved exactly what it sounds like. A doctor with a large marker pen, writing on me showing where they would operate, marking out the area of tummy to be taken, the position of the blood vessels, which would be transferred with the tummy fat to keep my remoulded breast alive. The marking itself took about an hour after which I went home to spend a sleepless night worrying about what was going to happen the next day. On returning home, I spent some time looking at myself in the mirror, staring at the lines and markings, the large arrow pointing to my left breast, ensuring they would take the correct one.
For the first time in this experience, I felt that the medics had hit far wide of the mark. I didn’t feel like a human person, but a thing to be manipulated and worked on. This marking has scarred my mind almost as much as the ensuing surgery has scarred my body.
she pulls out the marker pen
as if to jot down ideas from a group brainstorm,
or write a “NO PARKING” sign.
But the pen is for me.
I uncover my body and become her flipchart, her paper.
She draws around my nipple,
which once nourished my beautiful babies,
An action so intimate, yet so different from my husband’s loving touch
An arrow marks the side to be taken.
Across my stomach, dotted lines:
‘Cut Here’ marks show where they must take their clay to shape my new breast.
I stare in the mirror
Blank eyes look back
My body, once familiar
now looks like a paper pattern for a sewing project.
A new body will be formed.
I must say goodbye to the feel of my husband’s gentle touch, the sight of my child’s mouth suckling.
I am me, but not me
A year has passed since I had my surgery. Medically speaking it has been a success: the cancer was all removed; the reconstruction all healed well and looks pretty good. My head will take a little longer to recover. I still have days where I regret even having the reconstruction in the first place. I can look at myself in the mirror, but it still feels like it’s not me that is looking back.
I am taking small steps to take back my body again. I’m trying to exercise and have taken up yoga. The yoga classes, led by a wonderful teacher, have been the most useful way of getting back in touch with my body. I really lost faith in my body. I felt I didn't understand it, that it had let me down and I could no longer trust it. It was almost as if my body didn’t belong to me, it belonged to the plastic surgeon who created it. Over the past few months, I have started to build trust in my body again, to find out what it can do (and what it can't), to understand what it is telling me and to listen to it. I still miss my old body, but I’m heading in the right direction.