In our monthly column, senior writer and editor Adriana Ermter shares her personal experiences with breast cancer.
By Adriana Ermter
The day my doctor told me I had breast cancer was the same day I met my surgeon and was scheduled for a partial mastectomy (otherwise known as a lumpectomy), breast-conserving surgery. It’s not surprising. The Canadian Breast Cancer Society attributes breast cancer as being the most commonly diagnosed cancer among Canadian women and the second leading cause of cancer death in Canada, so booking a surgery right away is a priority.
This is the case for not just for me, but for the 565-plus women from British Columbia to Newfoundland who are newly diagnosed each week. Just take a look at the Canadian Institute for Health Information’s hospital and surgery data. It lists surgery as a common and important component of and often, the first step in breast cancer treatment. In fact, from 2007 to 2010 alone, nearly 58,000 Canadian women had breast cancer tumors removed by lumpectomy, double mastectomy or otherwise. But that’s just the math, the statistics anyone can find in a simple Google search. What’s more challenging to figure out is the personal, little discussed insider information women facing breast cancer surgery need, starting with what to have on hand at home or to pack in a post-surgery care bag. Here are eight items to consider before you head to the hospital.
Depending on where you live and how far away you are from the hospital where your surgery is scheduled, make sure to hit the ATM a few days before you go in. Ideally, having $60 to $100 in your wallet should do the trick. This covers the cost of the post-surgical prescription for painkillers, antibiotics or other medications your doctor suggests. With most breast cancer surgeries now being performed as day surgeries, you’ll want to fill these prescriptions before you head home, because trust me, once the floating feeling from the general anesthetic wears off, the pain will kick in. If you don’t have a personal ride to the hospital and don’t have an Uber account (or if it’s not in your city yet), put a couple of twenties aside for a taxi to drive you and your post-surgery buddy (be it a spouse, BFF, family member etc), to and from the hospital.
- Cozy Clothes
Prior to my surgery, one of my friends recommended I buy one or two soft, cotton, underwire-free bras with a front closure. She said it was non-negotiable and that I would literally live in it, day and night. She was right. I bought two, a grey and a black bra and trust me, neither were even remotely cute looking. But they were comfy and held my boobs in place, most importantly my right breast. Having my breasts upright and forward facing 24/7, minimized movement and helped me feel more comfortable, particularly when I was trying to sleep and my incision area was throbbing. It has been almost two years since my surgery and I still sleep in these bras. The pain is gone, so essentially the bra is more of a security blanket for me now than anything else, but I like it.
You’ll also want to pack or have on hand, a pair of thick fluffy socks, super soft pajamas, a housecoat and a cozy sweat suit, even if you’re not staying in the hospital. The socks will keep your feet warm in the hospital during the surgery and at home afterwards. The PJs are obviously to sleep in, while the sweat suit is perfect for lounging on the couch, which you will do all day long. Like the bras, choose PJs and a sweat suit made from super soft and breathable cotton. I’m sharing this because after my surgery, I couldn’t pull on underwear (or any pants that weren’t loose, baggy and lightweight with an elasticized waistband), so I had to go commando and live in my sweats for four weeks. So pick these up if you don’t already have them, because, umm…chafing, so…. .
Not just any cream, this one is for your incision area. My sisters’ hairstylist had undergone a double mastectomy about 18 months before I was diagnosed and one day, while my sister Alida was getting her hair cut, she called me and put her stylist on the phone. Knowing that every breast cancer is unique and my post-surgical treatment was yet unconfirmed, the stylist’s one piece of advice was to buy the biggest tub of Wellskin Glaxal Base moisturizing cream that I could find and to start rubbing it all over my right breast and armpit, stat. So I did, and at her recommendation, continued to, multiple times a day once the incision was fully closed. Not only did the cream help reduce the itchy, pulling and tight feeling of my wound healing, it also hydrated and soothed my skin during radiation treatment.
- A Squishy Pillow
Long before I knew I had breast cancer, I’d been on the lookout for the perfect pillow. My favourite one had finally kicked the bucket and I had been having the worst time finding its replacement, like, for two years. Then, about a month before my diagnosis I discovered “the one,” online at Canadian Feather & Down Company. Extra-long, extra squishy and soft, this cruelty-free Hutterite goose down-filled pillow was, and is, magical. It was a major splurge for sure, never have I ever, spent more than two digits on feathers, but it was heaven and I’m grateful I bought it.
Having an extra long, easily manipulated pillow enabled me to wrap my body around it to find a comfortable sleeping position post-surgery. And this was not an easy feat. Sleeping was rough and the discomfort stretched beyond the initial post-surgery pains. Weeks of exhaustive, daily radiation treatment, work and then, the Tamoxifen-induced night sweats, hot flashes, joint pain and more made having a great night’s sleep something I would have gladly paid money for. Considering the Canadian Cancer Society notes six to eight hours of sleep per night as imperative for optimum healing and brainpower, buying a luxurious, expensive, yet sleep-worthy pillow is, in my opinion, oh-so worth the price.
- Slippers (or Flip-flops)
At home, I walk around in slippers or flip-flops, depending on the weather. Post-surgery was no different, except this time I made sure that each pair came with sturdy rubber soles to prevent slipping on the carpeted stairs and the hardwood floors. My slippers are also warm and snuggly with thick, faux sheepskin lining that keep my feet toasty even if I’m not wearing socks, which came in handy since I couldn’t put on socks by myself for four weeks after my surgery. Because I had day surgery, I didn’t take my slippers with me to the hospital. I did wear my slippers every single day afterwards though and then, when summer weather rolled around, I traded them in for a quality pair of flip-flops with grippy soles.
- Travel-size Toiletries
Everyone has a beauty product they can’t do without and I’m no different, except that I probably have ten feel-good, do-good items on my list. They include lip balm, deodorant, face cream, Young Living peppermint and lavender aromatherapy oils, perfume, brush, hair elastic, toothpaste, toothbrush and dental floss. So even though I didn’t spend the night at the hospital, I did put together a travel-sized stash of each (minus the teeth stuff) of my favourites to keep on my night side table for the days when I didn’t get out of bed. I also kept a lip balm in every room in my house for the same easy access and a couple in a drawer in the coffee table because I was rotating between my bed and the couch so frequently.
I’m a voracious reader, so I stocked up on books at my local bookstore before I went in for my surgery. I bought everything from Paul Coelho’s The Pilgrimage and Ruth Wariner’s The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir to Karen Connelly’s The Change Room and Grace Coddington’s Grace: A Memoir, but I only brought one to the hospital to occupy my mind while I waited for my turn in the OR. I kept the rest of the books stacked next to my bed and the coffee table by the couch. While I slept a solid 14 to 18 hours of every waking day for the two weeks I recovered from surgery at home, I also snuck in several uninterrupted hours of book time. I also kept a journal and pen close by. While I’m not a dear-diary kind of girl, I do like to make note of the things I’m grateful for each day along with keeping track of any unusual or interesting dreams. So if you’re staying overnight or longer in hospital, make sure to pack these items along with a copy of Vanity Fair or Harpers Bazaar magazines to help pass the time and distract you from your pain.
- Cell phone, charger and ear buds
Last but not least, make sure to pack or have on hand, your cell phone, charger and/or cable cord and charging dock. You never know when you’re going to need to call or text someone or to watch the latest episode of The Crown on Netflix (or Golden Girls on Prime!). Pack your ear buds too, so that you can chat or stream as long and as quietly as you like regardless of if you’re having day surgery or staying overnight. Pre-surgery, I bought an additional, extra long cable cord to keep plugged in next to my bed. Now I can rely on having a fully charged iPhone that I can use whether I’m laying stretched out, curled up or even sitting up and on either side of my bed. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re spending the better part of each day and all night there, it is.
Adriana Ermter is a multi award-winning writer and editor. Her work can be read in Figure Skater Fitness and IN Magazine, as well as online at 29Secrets.com, RethinkBreastCancer.ca, Popsugar.com and AmongMen.com. The former Beauty Director for FASHION and Editor-in-Chief for Salon and Childview magazines lives in Toronto with her very spoiled cat, Trixie-Belle. You can follow Adriana on Instagram @AdrianaErmter