The 5 BEST Things about Major Surgery

Today, a friend of mine is going in for surgery and it made me start to remember all of the things that I thought and worried about before each of my 5 major surgeries in the last couple of years (see A Brief Timeline of Crazy if you just went, “wait, WHAT?”)  I can go on and on about how scary and difficult and painful surgery is (wouldn’t that be a fun blog to read?!) but I realized that no one really talks about the good parts of having misbehaving organs ripped out.  So here it is…

The 5 BEST Things about having Major Surgery

  1. The Binge Watching- TV shows and movies on Netflix, Amazon On Demand, Hulu, etc. were practically designed for someone in the hospital or in recovery.  My suggestion is to pick a show that you have never seen before that is already 6 or 7 seasons in and then just marathon it.  Personal favs include Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl but I am really sophisticated and cultured like that, you may be more of a West Wing person and that’s cool too.  I wouldn’t recommend Lost though because with all the drugs in your system you will probably get really…well, I think you know where I’m going with that one! Which leads me to…
  2. The Drugs- I have a bizarrely high tolerance to pain meds, but even I got to a point when I started professing my love for the nursing staff giving me the drugs.  Apparently I kept telling my Dilaudid-wielding nurse, “I love you, do you know how wonderful you are?”  This got a little awkward for my husband who was standing there, especially since it was a male nurse!  If you are lucky you get a magic device- the pain pump (my favorite was filled with Dilaudid but Morphine is pretty good too.)  Don’t be a hero, you don’t get any points for not pushing that button, use this liberally and enjoy.
  3. The Love- Your friends and family will come out of the woodwork to shower you with cards, emails, texts, flowers, gifts, jewelry (ok, maybe not jewelry, but if you have a friend in surgery- please consider it.  Nothing says “Get Better Soon” like a pair of diamond studs!)
  4. The Help- Again, at no other time in your life will people be so ready and willing to help you.  Everyone says, “Let me know what I can do.”  Don’t make the mistake I did and just think that is an empty line.  Most people that say this truly do want to help (and if they don’t- too bad, they offered, if they didn’t mean it that’s on them!)  Seriously, let your loved ones know what they can do.  Here’s a list of possibilities- grocery shopping, dishes, pick up dry cleaning, make you food, buy you food, watch your kids, do your laundry, bring you magazines, get your prescriptions, or just come over and keep you company for awhile when you can’t leave the house and are going stir crazy.
  5. The Perspective- I think this is the biggest one.  If you survived a major surgery (or many surgeries) you will probably come out of it a little different.  You don’t know just how much you can live through until you go through it.  The worst of the pain, the hospital stay, and the recovery feel like forever.  But then one day, you wake up and realize that you are starting to get back to yourself again.  You think, how in the world did I get through that?!  And you start to understand that just maybe you are stronger than you ever gave yourself credit for.  Maybe you have a little more appreciation for the good things in your life.  Maybe you hold your loved ones a little tighter because you realize just how precious your life and health are.  Maybe you will one day be able to give support and compassion to someone going through a tough time in a whole different way because you get what it is like to be really down.  Maybe the whole process helps you realize just how many people love you and who your true friends are.  And maybe, just maybe, you have some killer new bling to go with your new look on life.

If you are about to go into a major surgery right now or know someone who is, remember that even the hardest things in life eventually pass.  Enjoy the downtime while you have it, I feel like I’m speaking in cliches here, but the world moves really fast most of the time.  I don’t really believe that everything happens for a reason.  But I do believe that things happen and you call on every bit of strength you have to deal with them, and that you can then choose to find something good that came out of it all.

I can’t say that I enjoyed any of my surgeries or sicknesses, but I can say that I truly appreciate all the love that people showered on me, the knowledge that I have more resilience than I ever dreamed of, and that I am overwhelmed in gratitude that I am alive, on the mend, and able to hold my husband and daughters every night.  Oh and Gossip Girl, I really enjoyed getting to watch that show in a continuous marathon- when you are on drugs and don’t take a break between episodes it is even more crazytown!

When recovering, you never have to get dressed!
When recovering, you never have to get dressed!

Poltergeist Panic Attack

The most terrifying tree in the world!!!
The most terrifying tree in the world!!!

Have you ever had a panic attack?  If not, then imagine being absolutely terrified- heart racing, palms sweating, breathing heavily, feeling certain that something terrible is going to happen and that you could die at any moment.  Then, imagine that there is nothing around you to be scared of, that you are just in your room on a regular day and that this feeling came out of nowhere.  Sounds fun, right?

Everyone I have talked to who suffers from extreme anxiety or panic attacks has different experiences, but the one thing that we all seem to have in common is that horrible feeling of dread, of …well, panic.  It’s something about adrenaline releasing into the body and producing a “fight or flight” response.  Basically, your body thinks that a bear or a dinosaur or something is chasing you, so every instinct you have is screaming at you to run away.  But when there’s nothing to run from it really screws with your head.

In the past few years I have been through a lot (this is kind of an understatement, see A Brief Timeline of Crazy if you need the CliffsNotes) but my first panic attack was one of the most frightening things I have ever experienced.

I was between surgeries and having a pretty good day, so my mom decided to take me out to lunch.  We were driving and I started feeling nauseous (which I now know can be a panic attack precursor for me.)  I thought I was just hungry and asked her to pull over to the first place she could find.  We stopped at a La Madeline, with it’s pseudo-French décor and soft music- not really the type of place you see in horror movies.  While we were waiting, I started to get this terrible sense of dread.  It’s hard to explain other than that all of the sudden I was sure that something horrible (like a terrorist attack, or earthquake, or Zombie apocalypse) would be going down soon at this Dallas strip mall and that we needed to get out NOW!

I communicated this to my mom and while she looked at me a bit funny, she humored me and we grabbed the food and hopped back in the car.  On the 5 minute ride home my heart was pounding, and I began thinking that I might be having a heart attack or stroke- cue the “stroke symptoms” Google.  I got in the house and ran to my room.  Then I looked out the window and saw a tree.  I looked again and it was moving (like probably because of the wind.)  I then realized that it looked like the tree that comes alive and grabs the kid in Poltergeist and I told my mom to quickly shut the curtains before it “got me.”

I think it was at this point that she started to realize there was something really strange going on and she encouraged me to take one of my Xanax and call my therapist.  No answer, so I left a message and continued to freak out.  I could still see the tree through the sheer curtain and it looked even more menacing. I soon came to the conclusion that there was a distinct possibility I was going to die, like in the next few minutes.

I would like to pause here and note that there was still a small rational part of my brain that was thinking that perhaps the tree was not really going to come to life and strangle me with its branches, but it didn’t stop the panic.  I kept leaping up like I wanted to run, realizing I didn’t know where to go, and lying back down.  It was about this time that Sebastian came home and relieved my mother of crazy-person watching duty.

He suggested that I breathe into a paper bag.   So I did- I breathed into a Whole Foods brown paper wine bag for like 5 minutes.  I did not feel any better, but eventually I just felt stupid.  Like I was in some unimaginative rom-com and the girl gets so nervous before the big date that she starts hyperventilating and her sassy (but not as attractive because she wears glasses) BFF gives her a bag to breathe into!

Eventually we got my doctor on the phone and she helped me identify what was going on. With a combination of a licensed professional talking me down and a few more Xanax, the terror eventually faded.  Leaving me feeling exhausted and ridiculous.

See, that’s the thing, I remember the whole series of events and what I was thinking.  In hindsight it seems absurd and even a little funny, (I was scared of a tree!) but at the time the feelings I was having were real.  I can totally understand how a lot of people with panic attacks go to the emergency room.  And I think there is a sort of stigma to that, “Oh, it was just a panic attack.”  Like the person overreacted and the whole thing was no big deal.  But if it happens to you, believe me, it is a huge deal.

That’s why I wanted to share my story, so that if you have never had a panic attack, maybe you will be able to be a little more understanding to a friend or family member who is suffering from anxiety.  Also, if you are someone who has gone through this, you are not alone.  I’ll get it when you say that the crowds in a subway set you off, or a certain fabric stripe made you dizzy and fearful.  But don’t call me if a tree in your yard ever comes to life…that shit is freaky!

5 Reasons I Donated My Hair

Will I look like a creeper when I go to the post office and tell them I want to mail my hair?
Will I look like a creeper when I go to the post office and tell them I want to mail my hair?

My hair has always been long and thick.  I mean, I hear when I was a baby I was a baldie, but for as long as I can remember it has been a distinguishing feature of mine.  I would get angst about cutting off a few inches and the shortest I ever had it is just below my shoulders.

During my long recovery I have spent a lot of time alone in my room, and since there are only six seasons of Gossip Girl, that gave some good thinking time.  At some point I came to the realization that I had never really emotionally dealt with my thyroid cancer.  I had my thyroidectomy and a few weeks later was back in surgery for my colon so there wasn’t a whole lot of time to process (if you need a reference for my unusual medical history visit A Brief Timeline of Crazy.)

But I started feeling this need to somehow acknowledge what I had been through.  So I came up with a plan- I was going to cut off all my hair and donate it.  It was going to be a big dramatic gesture and I was going to feel all self-sacrificing and noble like Jo in Little Women.  I told some friends and family about this plan and they were all like, “okaay, maybe you should take a minute to think about this cause you are hanging onto your sanity by a thread at the moment and the other day when I asked if you could write an email you flung yourself on the bed, covered your head with a pillow and said it was just too much to deal with.  So I’m not saying don’t do this, but maybe wait until you aren’t so physically and emotionally fragile.”

Well, those might not have been their exact words but I got the point.  A dramatic hair change can bring up a lot of emotions.  So I thought about it for months.  And I came up with a list of reasons that I was sure I wanted to do it:

  1. I am extremely grateful, I survived cancer without having to loose my hair to chemo.
  2. I have a lot of hair and it grows quickly, but my donation could really make a difference to a woman who is going through treatment right now.
  3. Getting rid of my hair is symbolic for me of letting go of some of the pain, depression, and trauma that I have suffered in the past few years.
  4. It feels appropriate, like a new start.  By changing my look I am celebrating the stronger person I have become.
  5. I still get to feel like Jo, or that woman in the story we all had to read in ninth grade who cuts off her hair to buy her husband a watch or something… anyway, I love big dramatic gestures!

So yesterday I did it!  My friend Chad Cline at Cline Salon chopped off fourteen inches of my hair and I am now rocking a really cute bob!

Before
Before

After!After!

And I love it, I feel lighter and free and hopeful and ready to start a new chapter of my life!  I am sending in my ponytail to Pantene Beautiful Lengths (in partnership with the American Cancer Society) and it will be used to make a wig for a woman who has lost her hair to cancer.  How cool is that?  If you get a wig from the Cancer Society’s wig banks it could be made from my hair, just treat it well- it needs a lot of conditioner.

If this has inspired you to donate your hair too, fantastic!  Let me know and we will be short hair buddies.  If you have ever gotten a wig from the banks, I would love to hear your story too.  If you don’t have enough hair and want to throw 5 or 10 or 1,000 bucks at your favorite cancer charity, great!  If you just read this and think I am amazing and want to be my friend, visit me on facebook and like My Super Crazy Life for more awesomeness (you can check out a video of the haircut) And if you just want to take a minute and think about someone you know who is struggling with cancer right now, or someone you lost, or a person who is just now getting their diagnosis and trying to figure out what to do, that’s cool too… although you should probably still like me on facebook!

Thyroid Cancer Sucks Too! (Part 2)

First of all, if you want to get caught up please read Thyroid Cancer Sucks Too (Part 1)  I’ll wait, if you want to grab a cocktail also,  go ahead, I’m sure it’s 5 o’clock somewhere… so picking up with my surgery to remove the tumor:

The surgery itself was a cakewalk, but I am probably a terrible judge because I have had 5 major surgeries in the past 2 and 1/2 years and this was the only one that did not include an overnight hospital stay.  My neck was really sore and I felt crappy for a few days, but my surgeon was wonderful and only a few months later I barely have any scar at all.

What no one was prepared for was my reaction afterwards.  See, my surgeon had never removed the thyroid of a patient whose colon was so recently yanked out (I’m special) and so did not realize that when my parathyroid (which processes calcium) went to sleep when it was separated from the thyroid (very common) I would go into severe calcium depletion.  The symptoms of this include sudden numbness and tingling in the hands, feet, and face.  When this started happening, the Dr. said to take some calcium pills and I would get better.  But without a colon I was not absorbing enough of the calcium and it got worse.  And then I had a full on freak out.

I have had some minor anxiety issues my entire life, but basically since I found out I had to have my colon removed it has (understandably I think) been getting much worse.  When my hands and feet started tingling, I knew in the back of my head it was just the calcium but then my anxiety kicked in and I started panicking that I was actually having a stroke, ignoring it, and would be dead in minutes.   Then my whole face went completely numb, and the top of my head, and I couldn’t feel my legs.  I became absolutely certain that I was dying and that I needed to get up and run to safety, but was scared to stand up on my tingly legs.  Luckily I already had a therapist on board at this point and had a slight moment of lucidity in which I recognized the signs of a panic attack and called her.  One long phone call and an ass-ton of Xanax later, I was finally able to sleep and the next day my surgeon got me on some calcium that worked and I was feeling much better.  Basically, my mind took some very real symptoms I was having and expanded them to my whole body causing a full blown panic attack, which those of you who have experienced them know is pretty much the scariest thing ever.  (Pretty soon I’ll tell you all about the one when I thought the tree from Poltergeist was attacking me- good times!)

Once the calcium thing got sorted out, there was my medicine to deal with.  I no longer produce any thyroid hormone at all so I have to take Synthroid and it can be tricky to get the dosage just right.  Too little and you are exhausted and too much can cause major jitters, anxiety and sleeplessness (all of which are things I have just fine on my own.)  It took some trial and error but now I have my dose at a pretty good level and am doing ok.  Long term I just have to stay on my Synthroid forever and get checked once a year to make sure my levels are stable and no thyroid tissue has grown back.

The strange thing is that I went through all of this without knowing if I actually had cancer or not, we had to wait a few weeks for all the pathology to come back.  When I got the news that it was in fact Stage 2 cancer ( a follicular papillary variant, which is why it could not be diagnosed in biopsies) I had some really mixed feelings.  First of all I was grateful that it was encapsulated and my surgeon was reasonably certain that she got all the nasty cancer cells and that no radiation or chemo was needed.  I also had a weird feeling of relief that we didn’t take out a perfectly healthy organ for no reason.  But I didn’t really have time to process the Cancer part of the whole thing because my next colon surgery was scheduled in a few weeks and I had to focus on that.

It is only now that I am starting to get some of the deep realization that I did in fact have Cancer.  For a long time, I felt that I couldn’t really even identify myself as a cancer survivor because I didn’t have to do chemo or anything.  My cancer suffering was not as bad as it is for many people, so who was I to complain about it?  But then I realized that Thyroid Cancer is a real cancer and it is ok that I feel frightened that I had it and pissed off that my body betrayed me and let those cancer cells grow.  It is normal that now every time I feel a strange ache or a lump somewhere in my body I worry that it might be cancer.  Once that C word is attached to you, it changes your way of thinking.  Cancer is no longer something that only happens to other people, that you do a run/walk to support, or that you eat well to try and avoid, it is a real to you in a way it never was before.

All that said, I do realize how lucky I am.  I have no idea how long that cancer was growing but it was big enough to be felt by a Dr.’s touch to my neck.  I had no identifiable symptoms and would never have known it was there if not for that body scan and a really smart doctor who looked twice at a little blip.  That could have kept growing until it became a much bigger problem.  Of course, the timing was not ideal (being sandwiched in between two other major surgeries,) but I was happy to get that thing out of me as soon as possible so that I could move forward.

I have often felt that I need to do something to acknowledge that I survived, to celebrate that I am doing so well and to mourn the loss of my thyroid who treated me well for 33 years.  So today at 3pm Central time I am getting my hair chopped off and donating it to Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths which makes wigs for women who have lost their hair due to cancer treatment.  So keep an eye out for tomorrow’s post with before and after pics!