On September 30, at 5:00 AM, my mother and sister – who had just flown in from Kansas City – and I loaded my duffel bag and got into the rental car. The last time we’d done so, I was in college. Now in the dark morning, we drove to a small Catholic hospital in Vancouver.
The hospital is part of the Providence system, and I had worked as communication director to try to unionize this West Coast hospital chain. I had lots of dirt on them muddying my head back from my union days – stats and stories of disgruntled staff and questionable patent safely. But it’s not easy to smear a group of nuns who cry “social justice” in their tattered mission statement banners. The union campaign was short lasted. My memories were not.
We arrived early and I was first on the O.R. docket. In Canada, it’s pretty easy to be admitted to a hospital, even if it was falling apart. The building felt haunted – quiet and small and smelly – elderly death wafted from corners.
And so I was pointed to a curtained bed. My surgeons and anastethologist introduced themselves; the nurses were smiling. I changed out of my Sonic Youth t-shirt into the regimented surgical gown. I said goodbye to my family, felt my breasts one last time, took a deep breath from an oxygen mask mixed with surgery drugs, and everything went dark.
The operation lasted three hours – a bilateral mastectomy of my barely 40-year-old breasts – and the insertion of “tissue expanders” (sort of like boob water balloons) to begin the reconstruction.
I woke up screaming in the recovery ward, to displeased and haggard nurses, chanting, “No Pain, no gain,” at me. I wanted to see my family, my daughter especially, and begged them to send me to my room. “No pain, no gain, Ms. Kolb.”
By the time I saw my family I was delirious, hypodermically on hyrdomorphone, a.k.a. hospital heroin, as will as a concoction of anti-nausea drubs. My chest was flat and heavily bandaged, with surgical drains that resembled macabre Christmas bulbs hanging from my former breasts. All I remember from my first familial visit was looking up at a crucifix on the wall, and my daughter drawing a cat on the nurse’s whiteboard chart. I was up all night itching madly and getting shots of hospital heroin.
The next day, after a pleasant conversation with my sister, a nurse in Kansas, about the corporatization of hospital companies, I began to vomit my breakfast. And I continued to do so every 15 minutes for 30 hours. No drugs were helping, only absolute quiet and darkness – which are impossible in a hospital. The door would inevitably open and I’d heave. They discharged me four hours after my last episode, and after I had tearfully ordered all nurses to give me peace to rest – a no-no in a hospital. My doctors wanted me out of this infection zone. And it was my child’s 11th birthday. My sister drove me home with Simone in the back seat, and me heaving a plastic garbage bag.
I sipped some seaweed and broth, and celebrated Simone’s birthday with my family, between lots of my own tears and pain – what kind of mother am I to be so sick on my only child’s birthday. Is this the last one I’ll celebrate with her? What time have I lost forever?
Once I was home and quiet, my stomach settled and I watched my family blow out candles and eat brownies. I felt shell-shocked. I do think cancer patients can acquire PTSD. My body and mind were separate. I watched the party from a distance.
My general surgeon told me breast cancer has one of the highest rates of post-operative nausea of any surgery – a little reprieve from what I went through. A week later, I had another surgery for a parathyroid tumor, that proved benign – different hospital, in and out, more sleep. I looked like I barely shimmied out of the guillotine – the cut on my neck is wide and swollen.
Three weeks later, I met with a radiologist who, of course, urged six weeks of daily treatment as soon as four weeks. I will do this, if I can remain in Canada – it’s possible the Canadian feds will make me return to the USA because I’m an “undue financial hardship” on their medical system. I’ll learn more about that today.
I received my pathology report a week ago. It reads that I have had a “pathologically complete recovery” from breast cancer and no invasive cancer was left in my breasts or the nine removed lymph nodes after my six-month hell of chemotherapy. “The tumor bed shows complete regression.”
I was so shocked I wanted to shove that pathology report down my pants and make sweet love to it. But that might make Immigration uncomfortable.
Thank you for your love, your donations, and your prayers. I know this is a first war of cancer. I know it can easily return. My job is to heal and never again fall prey to resentment, fear, and stress – no matter when the cancer returns. To not be afraid to change my life when it’s hit hell. Whatever happens today at Immigration, I’ll make it work. I know I have family – but what is family? It’s a bit of biology, but it’s also nontraditional, like the family of idealists and curmudgeons I’ve met through Counterpunch, some of you I know by name, others are anonymous in the East Village, Madrid, and the Lost Coast. We have something in common – an unflinching love affair with life. We argue for our freedom but with an independent, aesthetic and philosophical grace I find nowhere else.
Published in the October 2014 issue of CounterPunch magazine.