Me. But Better: Surgical Thank Yous.

As I type, it’s nearing on five weeks since surgery and people have been asking how I’m doing ‘down there’. The following notes are thank you letters to my surgical team which will explain the situation best.

Dear Nicky,

I quite literally feel like I won the surgical lottery. Hit the jackpot. I know it wasn’t quite like that. You were chosen for me. But I feel so damn lucky to have been your patient.

Even past the bruising and the swelling, I see a breast that looks just like mine. It IS mine. I have my own skin. I have my freckles. I have the same shape, and I also know that what is inside is mine, and is me.

So, I don’t feel at all like I’ve had a mastectomy in a funny old way. It just takes a little re-framing of the situation – I’ve had something really really horrible taken out of my breast, and a bit of me from somewhere else popped back in – a re-org, as it were, a tissue re-shuffle.

My boob is fabulous and SO ARE  YOU.

Thank you. You are, actually, the best.


An edited version of the thank you letter penned from my hospital bed to my Consultant Breast Reconstruction Surgeon.

Dear Dan,

It can’t be easy being registrar when the consultant  surgeon gets all the damn credit for the boobs. I wanted to write and say thank you for the bits you probably don’t get thanked for very often. Like the belly button bit.

I’ve always had what could be conservatively described as a prominent outy. An ‘out there’ outy. An extroverted, flamboyant outy verging on body-political ambitions for abdominal take-over.

Then with two pregnancies, dear GOD, my belly button grew to such grotesque proportions it cast its own shadow across my abdomen at high noon.

And so I resigned myself to one piece swimsuits.

Then came breast cancer-reconstruction surgery. Once I’d gone home and the swelling had settled in my abdomen, I did not, in a million years, expect to wake up one day, lift the sheets and look down to ‘New and Improved Shiv’. Not only a svelte new abdomen but what appears to be a new and improved belly button. HELLO YOU!

And perfect neat scars, healing nicely thank-you-very-much due to some mighty fine stitch work at the tail end of a long and exhausting surgery sesh on nothing more than bean stew.

For the new and improved me, I salute you Sir. Your belly buttons ROCK Dan. Thank you.


My draft letter to Dan, the registrar who played a key part in my surgery.

So people, really, don’t feel sorry for me. I am going to wang on and on about the unexpectedly fabulous new me thanks to awesome surgery by awesome people who work for the NHS, all in the name of ridding me of the cancer and putting me back together again. I will go so far as to say I may become intolerable. I may even resurrect that belly button ring from my late teens. Hold the phone, I might even wear a crop top this summer.

Watch out world, this is Shiv version 3.0.

Seven Days Post Op: A progress update & wise words from my Anaesthetist

This post is dedicated to Jane Quinlan, my wonderful Consultant Anaesthetist. She’s not dead by the way, I just wanted to dedicate it to her even though she’s alive and unlikely to read it. 

Jane, apart from being bloody brilliant at what she does, is proper funny.  In meetings with her, there were times I was mentally panning back with a camera and thinking. “You could script this. She’s good!”. On the day of surgery, I told her how much I appreciated her humour during what was essentially a pretty dark time. She admitted, shortly before I went under, that it really depended on the patient and sometimes she had to tread very carefully. This in itself, to me, was hilarious. So much potential! Imagine the scenes of the anaesthetist taking dark humour a bit too far?  It’s just so British comedy TV! 

As with my surgeons, I  took a photo of Jane “the funny one” to show the girls. “And this is Jaaaane, Mama’s anaesthetist” (maybe one day they’d like to be an anaesthetist?)
Daisy: What’th an anaeththetitht (tough, if you have a lithp)
Me: Hmm. Anaesthetists put people to sleep. Jane will give me an injection to put me to sleep before the operation.
Daisy: Silent, but with a face that said. “That’s a fucking stupid job”.

Sorry Jane, it’s a tough one to explain to a 6 year old. I should have said more about the pain management side of things.

Anyway, back to you people, this next bit wasn’t funny but it was really really helpful and came in handy yesterday. 

Yesterday, Monday, I was DOG TIRED. Weak. Just felt “not well”. Couldn’t do. I occasionally made it downstairs, but then crawled back upstairs just to collapse and disappear into my bed. Bed was the only place I wanted to be.

It was in stark contrast to Sunday. Sunday was home-day. I got up early. I showered. I dressed. I EVEN PUT PANTS ON (first time since Tuesday. As I write, it’s just occurred to me that I went IN to pre-op with them on, and came out with them off. I won’t think about that now). Tom and the girls helped me pack up my room and we all trundled home. It was a seriously happy day. As soon as we got back, we all made a bee-line for the garden and I sat in the sunshine and had a cup of tea and a cup cake. 

Jane had previously warned me, that when I wake up from the op, I might feel like “I’d been hit by a truck” (BRILLIANT bedside manner). I didn’t really feel like that when I woke from the op, but I REALLY felt it yesterday. The truck had hit me six days later. I woke with it. I wasn’t in pain, but I ached. I couldn’t stand for long and could only walk small distances. Everything was effortful and less than I could do the day before.

But I didn’t feel pathetic or down on myself because wonderful Jane (#anaesthetistcrush, now there’s a new hashtag) had drawn this for me.

Yes, well, you know what they say about the hand writing of medical people

“People Don’t Get Better in Straight Lines. It’s a wavy line with some good days, and the next day may be not so good, but ALL progress”

Jane had told me this verbally, but I had asked her to scribble it in my book (to be fair, I didn’t think she’d ACTUALLY scribble). Yesterday, I clung to it. I really didn’t anticipate feeling this awful. Instead of thinking, “fuuuuuuuck, this is shiiiiiiiit” all day, it allowed me to just move through it knowing tomorrow might be a better day.

Today so far is a really good day and I’m listening in. I woke up FULL of beans and am now back in bed for my afternoon nap. It’s a good thing because today is hubby Tom’s birthday. We’re going to make cake together (me reading the recipe and directing from the sidelines, probably).

So thank you Jane, your little scrawl in my book got me through a tough day and will get me through every subsequent post-surgery dip. This morning I remembered your parting words to me last week. “And remember. Strictly no washing dishes or vacuuming for two years”*. If you get sick of putting people to sleep, you could always try your hand in comedy.

*I hope I haven’t ruined that line for you by publishing it. You might need to work on a few more. Always good to have fresh material to pull out the of the bag.

Everybody up for a standing ovation!

It was around midnight Wednesday. There was definitely a rumble of sorts. It feels like the troops are mobilising. Oh my god. There’s no mistaking it.

I need to poo.

I haven’t ‘been’ since Monday. We came in early Tuesday for ‘op day’  and i drank coffee on the way in to help, well, ‘move things along’. I thought it would be optimal to go into theatre ‘empty’.

We meet Jane, my wonderful anaesthetist. She goes through a few things.

“Any questions?”, she asks.

“Well.. there is one thing.  I haven’t done my morning ‘constitutional” I say with meaningful eyes.

“I won’t… you know… On the… during the…??”

“Oh no don’t worry, everything will grind to a halt”

“Like when you go camping?”, I suggest.

“Exactly” says Jane, parting with “right then, see you later and erm, good luck with your wee slash poo situation”.

No more to report.

Back to midnight last night. I am now post-op so let me put this in perspective for you. I’m lying in a hospital bed. I have two drain pipes attached to my insides on the left hand side of my body (one for my breast, one for my left abdomen) with accompanying bottles for post-op body fluid to drain into, one drain on the other for right abdomen. Also a catheter and accompanying ‘wee bag’. Intravenous pain blocker direct to my newly constructed breast on the left, and a cannula /morphine feed, the latter two attached to a lamp-post-machine thingy on wheels to the right of my bed.

All this needs to come with me.

I call for the nurse. She arrives,  takes one look at the situation, and calls for another nurse.

We all exchange a look that says, “ok. Let’s do this”..

We start with what we need to do to get me out of bed. I have intermittent pneumatic compression devices velcroed around my legs (to prevent blood clots) which need to be removed. My bed clothes include the ‘Bear Hug’ an inflatable plastic blanket with warm air being pumped through it 24/7, sheets and blankets. I am physically ‘plumbed in’ to everything so, as the bed clothes etc come off, we need to give clearance to the wires on both sides of the bed as I ever so slowly bum-shuffle down, taking some weight into my right arm, and get myself to sitting position on the edge of the bed.

The intravenous lead from my right arm to the not-a-lamp-post on wheels is short so it needs to be wheeled from the right hand side of the bed to the left, with my arm following it.

Nurse A, let’s call her Romana, because that’s her name, brings a drain bottle and my catheter bag. Nurse B, Shirley, is holding the other two drain bottles. In the end we decide all the drain bottles can go in a ‘Chipping Norton Literary Festival’ tote bag to make it easier to carry them.

The door to the loo is two metres away as the crow flies. I inhale, and stand on the exhale. This is big people.

I have effectively had a tummy tuck to create the volume for my left breast from my abdomen. It’s really tight down there and I can’t stand straight. It’s a slow, decrepit, old-lady-like shuffle to the loo. I’m wearing a backless hospital gown which is the only remotely convenient thing about my set up in that moment.

Once I get there, we all need to go in. Because of where the nurses and the wheely thing are in relation to me, we need to walk in , reverse, and de-rotate so I am not entangled in wires and everything is on the correct side. This happens in the small space between the sink and the loo.

Sitting is an effort but a relief. We bloody made it!! It feels massive. But not as massive as what’s backed up inside me and threatening to come out any second. It suddenly feels very crowded. You know that scene in Ghost, when Whoopie Goldberg is in the room with all the ghosts and she does the, “right, EVERYBODY OUT, OUT OUT OUT!!!”. That happens.

Aah, privacy. I close my eyes and wait.

And wait.

Eventually, I fart.

[SOME TIME LATER: I’m pleased to report a ‘happy ending’ to this crushing disappointment. I had aimed for Everest and only reached Basecamp and it was a difficult blow at the time. Tom and the girls came to visit me the following morning. Tom brings coffee and beetroot juice.  A familiar rumbling kicks in toward the end of their stay. I ignore it for a while. By the time I slam that nurse button we are ALL SYSTEMS GO. I make it to Basecamp AND Everest! Thanks for bearing with me as I got my poo story out. The poo is a big step in recovery. It means my insides are back on track. It means, I can get from the bed to the loo. That means they can take the catheter out. That means I am one ‘lead’ down in being plumbed into ‘the system’ and one baby-step closer to getting back home. And THAT my friends, is a worth a standing ovation].