The bilateral DIEP surgery

Let me take you back three and a half years. It was April 2016. The Brexit referendum hadn’t happened yet. I was pregnant and had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. My sister Rachel, also pregnant, hadn’t yet had her stroke. She accompanied me on an appointment to see a genetics nurse called Becky, to talk through whether or not I wanted to have a blood test to determine whether my breast cancer was down to genetic factors. I knew I wanted to have it. Becky told me there was about a one in ten chance of me testing positive. She said that if I did, the preventative surgery you could have was amazing. She said they could even take tissue from your tummy and use it to create new breasts. We all laughed. Imagine that.

Last Thursday, I finally had that surgery. It involved being cut from hip to hip and across both breasts, having my implants removed and the blood vessels from my tummy tissue connected to those in my newly created breasts. It took ten hours, and involved four surgeons. Two consultants, two registrars.

There was a lot of preparation to do in advance of going into hospital. My fourth novel was almost ready to go off to my editor for her thoughts, so I pushed hard and got it to her. There was childcare to arrange, Christmas shopping to do. And then, on Thursday, there was nothing left to do but go in. Because it’s such a long surgery, they like to start it early. By eight o’clock, Paul had dropped me off and my body was being drawn on with marker pens by numerous surgeons. I was talking to an anaesthetist, begging him to control the sickness I have after general anaesthetic. I was having my calves measured for those surgical stockings.

I was scared. I’d talked to people in forums and asked questions, but you just never know what it’s going to be like afterwards. It was the biggest surgery I’d had. When I was lying on the bed in the theatre, waiting to be put under, I was tearful. The staff asked about my children. What was I doing? I wondered. Why was I leaving my children at home to have this done? My breasts had already been removed, back in 2017, so my risk of a breast cancer recurrence was as low as it could be. So why was I there?

A couple of reasons. One was that I’d never wanted implants and I hated them from day one. I just didn’t like having those foreign objects in my body and I couldn’t get used to them. They looked terrible, they felt terrible, and I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. Plus they would have needed changing every ten years or so, and I didn’t fancy that. The DIEP is a huge surgery but hopefully one that will last me my whole life.

Anyway, it was too late, there on the table, to be having second thoughts. The next thing I knew, I was coming round. I was panicking. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t talk. There were faces looming over me, and I couldn’t tell them. I was convinced I was going to die. Then I was vomiting, and it hurt like hell. But someone was there, cleaning me up. I was sweating, a heated blanket wrapped around me. I was there, and I wasn’t.

The next couple of days were very tough. Every movement hurt, and I couldn’t concentrate. I had a button to press for top-ups of morphine. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t read. It took me an hour to type out a What’s App message or a tweet. But on Friday, I was helped to sit up and spent a couple of hours out of bed and on a chair, staring at the walls. On Saturday, I was helped to walk along the corridor and my catheter was removed. Two of my four drains were removed, too. But despite these small steps forward, if I’d had the chance, then, to go back and change my mind about the operation, I absolutely would have done.

On Saturday night, I had a fever. I was in a lot of pain. I sent messages to Paul, and he said I sounded scared. I admitted that I was. For no reason I can pinpoint, I was convinced, again, that I was going to die. I watched the seconds tick by, longing for dawn. And eventually, it came.

Sunday brought a small triumph that felt huge. With the help of a nurse, sitting on a chair, I had a shower. I washed my hair. I gingerly washed my bruised and bandaged body. I felt clean for the first time since Thursday morning. And better still, Paul brought the kids in to visit. Joe asked why I was wearing funny clothes (hospital gown). Elodie said very little, which is unlike her. I think she was shocked by how I looked. I still had two drains in and my movement was limited. I gave them careful cuddles. I told them I’d be home soon.

And on Tuesday, I was. The house looked a little unfamiliar, the way it always does after a holiday. My bed felt incredible. I was tired, I still had one drain, I was still taking painkillers and antibiotics and moving around was hard. But I was home. It was done.

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