- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2010

One of the pieces of advice I received during my leave from work for breast cancer surgery was to write about the things to expect that no one tells you about.

At first, I couldn’t imagine what those “things” might be. I already had collected a dozen brochures on what to expect before, during and after surgery, and had talks about all kinds of issues with many (wonderful) doctors and nurses.

But my mother, who stayed with me for two weeks during my convalescence, had several observations, which I am happy to share.

• Get some post-op clothes. On my discharge day, I discovered I really might have to walk outside in that hospital gown! There was virtually nothing in my closet that would fit my multiple stitches, bulky binders and a wounded left arm that couldn’t be raised. The button-down blouses were too small, and the roomier over-the-head shirts were unthinkable. All that was left was my (dirty) white poolside coverup that zipped up. All my pants and shorts were also useless — I couldn’t bear even loosely fitting items on my waist. So we departed the hospital with me in a black wraparound skirt that barely fit, the dirty pool coverup, and several get-well balloons as colorful distractions.

The immediate solution was to purchase a number of housedresses or “dusters” that snapped or zipped up the front and were roomy enough to accommodate binders, dressings and drains. I agree, these are not items I will wear once I fit into regular clothes. But they saved the day for several weeks, and I sincerely recommend them to any woman undergoing this kind of surgery.

• Prepare for a loss of appetite or ultrafinicky palate. What you feel like eating before surgery may be vastly different from what you will want to eat afterward. In my case, all my favorite foods lost their appeal. Even TV commercials with shrimp dripping in butter, juicy cheeseburgers and delicious pastas all left me cold. A small dish of Jell-O or applesauce was OK and maybe six bites of watermelon (but not cantaloupe). I even developed an aversion to many creamy things, so out went the yogurt, vanilla ice cream and potato salad. Coffee was verboten, with or without cream.

As the weeks passed, my appetite perked up from time to time (thank goodness for my husband’s grilled steaks and the chocolate candies he hides around the house), but these dramatic changes about food caught me totally by surprise. I would urge others facing cancer surgery to stock up on the kinds of foods they think they might like if they were recovering from a stomach flu. And yes, chicken soup hit the spot many a day.

• Fatigue hits hard and fast. You can imagine that as a longtime journalist, I don’t like to sit still long, physically or mentally. But I would be perfectly fine, sitting at home with someone, and a wave of fatigue would wash over me, and I would fall out. Certainly many painkillers will have that effect, but healing — in my case from, I am guessing, 500 to 600 stitches — takes a lot of bodily energy, and sometimes I think my body just knocked me out. So all those books to read and letters to write and recipes to sort just had to wait. In time, my energy level returned at sustainable levels, but it really did take at least four weeks.

• Don’t do this alone. The most profound realization for me, a fairly independent, self-sufficient, care-giving person, was that I was pretty much helpless for quite a while, and I needed people to help me. The hospital staff was attentive and helped me navigate some very challenging moments. But I remained helpless after coming home, despite my concepts that I was going to be OK by myself. My mother was with me, and numerous friends stopped by to offer comfort, do some dishes, throw in a load of laundry, pet the dog and bring (non-creamy) food. I was quite humbled to realize how much I treasured those visits, and my husband was able to go back to work knowing I was in loving hands.

There have been many papers written about us being “hard-wired” to connect to each other, and that this is a basic need “essential to heath and human flourishing,” as the Institute for American Values puts it. Based on this recent personal experience, I would sincerely concur.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.