Tuesday October 30th – 28 days after diagnosis; 6 days after surgery
It was four weeks ago today that I was given the news I had cancer. A short period of calm descended, before the strange surreal limbo kicked in. My limbo was in part characterised by thoughts of doom and gloom. Now, I’m a psychologist; I know a thing or two about catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is an unhelpful thought process – thinking or believing a situation or experience to be far worse than it actually is. For me, on being told “cancer of the vulva”, what I heard was:
- You will die on the operating table and this will leave your children traumatised for the rest of their lives
- If you don’t die, the cancer will have spread to nearby organs and you will have to have your bowel removed and have a stoma
- If your bowel isn’t removed, you will be doubly incontinent
I am an intelligent, (usually) rational woman who reads widely and educates herself about many matters – both professionally and personally – in order to be better informed and take some ownership. None of these scenarios featured in any of the literature or research papers I read. Yet they became very real, dominant and troublesome thoughts which fuelled my anxiety and paralysed me. These irrational thoughts dissipated somewhat on consultation with my surgeon the day before surgery. They returned with a vengeance accompanied by uncontrollable sobbing and hyperventilating as I met with the anaesthetist just before surgery.
I lie here tonight, six days post-surgery, somewhat bemused by my reflections on the past four weeks. I have little pain. In fact I am generally in less pain than I was prior to surgery. The “must have” waterproof mattress cover has not ventured out of its packaging. Sitting is still a bit of a no-no – that IS painful – as is coughing, sneezing and over exuberant laughter. I have mastered the art of peeing standing up. Not like a regular bloke, more a semi-erect semi-squatting sumo wrestler pose – less chance of pee stinging my particular wound. I was a bit zealous with the advice of using a shower head to keep the wound clean initially; getting in the shower every time I had a pee. This transformed into peeing while in the shower (“dirty, dirty habit” as I seem to recall telling at least one of my children!) for which I feel no shame. I’ve curbed my 10-12 showers a day habit down to around four.
Each shower is followed, as instructed, by a “blow dry” of the wound with a hairdryer on the coolest setting. My new ritual continues with lying on my bed, legs apart. Thoughts (or memories) of any carnal pleasure in absentia, ousted by the sheer pleasure of just being naked and knowing this is the best medicine for a healthy healing wound. Knickerless I remain, as advised by the surgeon and other vulval surgery survivors on Twitter! Those extra big M&S knickers may never see the light of day again. The two sizes too big jogging pants, bought to accommodate the imagined huge continence pads and massive swelling, will be returned unopened too!
The thought of having a pooh was terrifying, if somewhat distantly familiar. I recall my fear as a new first time mum, post episiotomy, that if I stood up or tried to open my bowels the entirety of my internal gastrointestinal system and bladder would end up in the toilet bowl. Apparently I was susceptible to catastrophizing 28 years ago! In reality, it is fine. I am taking some laxatives and drinking plenty to keep things moving.
Other than a very short stroll, I haven’t ventured out of the house yet. I tire very quickly. Today was the first day on which I felt emotionally low. I guess the limbo is still there – minus the catastrophizing. I feel unable to look too far forward, to make plans. What I need now is the diagnostics, the prognosis and a road map for treatment; that may be another 2-3 weeks.