Book extract: A tryst with cancer

Willing the body to hurry up and heal besides the item songs and a godsent bra expander helped overcome the traumatic days post-surgery

Book extract: A tryst with cancer
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Shormistha Mukherje

The port. Ugh. I woke up the next day after surgery and looked at myself in the phone camera. There was a small dressing near the base of my throat. I peered at it, and almost dropped my phone. I could see the outline of a pipe under my skin. It went right down and connected to a small balllike shape just over my right breast. This was the port.

And that’s why the doctor asked me if I wore plunging necklines! Because this ball would jut out of my body for almost two years. Yes, my port stayed even after my chemo and radiation got over. As an extra caution, in case I needed it again. Just so you know, a chill goes down my spine every time I even write this.

Not that the port was painful, in fact it gave me a lot of entertainment. When people would stare at my chest, I could never tell if it was my boobs they were looking at, or that little golf ball that looked like it would start throbbing any minute.

Right now, I looked far from anyone who would ever wear a plunging neckline. I looked like a cyborg, plus my short hair was standing up. I shut the phone camera real quick.

And then there’s the reconstruction. I have bandages all over me. And I kept feeling like my bra is very tight on one side. Then I’d realize I’m not wearing one. It’s how surgery feels! The tissue is trying to sort itself out, the nerves are all trying to join or connect, and I keep feeling tingling sensations.

My armpit has been opened up to remove lymph nodes, so I can’t feel too much of my upper arm. There’s no pain after the first night, just some new sensations. I am also the original bag lady; one bag is attached to the pipes on my left side that drains the excess tissue, the other pipe is a pee bag. I’m paranoid the pee bag will fill up and splosh all over the floor, so I ask all visitors when they come in to bend and check how much pee there is in the bag. No wonder I don’t get too many repeat visitors.

And because they grafted some skin from my back to cover the nipple area, it feels like my back is stapled up. More tightness, more feeling like a python just wrapped itself around me and is slowly squeezing me to death.

Which brings me to this question. How do people get boob jobs? Or nose jobs? Or lip jobs? Or any jobs? How do they voluntarily sign up for all the discomfort and pain? Hats off to them. Pamela Anderson, you have my respect.

So now I have a brand-new boob, but I also have so much dressing on my chest that if I lie straight, I could pass off as an Egyptian mummy. No bra is going to fit me, least of all my fancy ones with underwire. Which I am not allowed to wear for a while anyway. Ziba comes back with some plain bras and an incredible thing which is a small piece of cloth, fitted with hooks. Basically, it’s a bra expander.

Add this to the hooks of your bra and it gives you about two inches more of space around your back. Who thought of this? I would like to meet him or her, and thank them.

And finally, doctors can cure anything. Including stress and worry. My parents, who of course visit me every day at the hospital, are looking more and more miserable by the day. All those tubes, dressing, stitches, IV injections, it’s taking a toll on them. And they feel helpless.

It’s like Anirban has a purpose, which is looking after me. But Mom and Dad are feeling like they are drifting. Till one afternoon, Mom gets up and says, ‘We are going to meet your doctor.’ They march off. And half an hour later, they return with big grins on their faces. Seriously, I think it’s the first time I saw them smile in five days.

Mandy has not just spoken to them and explained everything, but also told them great things about me. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a trick that always works with parents. A good report card !

Surprisingly, the hospital stay wasn’t so bad. Maybe because I was so determined to get out of there fast, and I was still in the zone. I think I was willing my body to hurry up and heal. Mandy would come in to see me every day, and look mighty pleased to see me on my laptop, or walking around in the corridor. Dr Quazi and his cyclonic gusts of cologne were holding me back. It’s because of the reconstruction that I had to stay two extra days.


What also helped was my obsession with item songs at that moment. Oinx bought me a small speaker, and I would blast a Badshah playlist all day. In the evenings my chief cheerleaders would come and play Uno with me, and we’d do the Lungi Dance. No, I am not proud of it, but hey whatever gets you through a surgery.

It was Sunday afternoon when they let me go. I came back home in my favourite blue pants, blue shirt, and lilac converse sneakers. And, of course, a plastic packet holding my two drain bags. The pipes were still attached. Dad had put a ‘Welcome Home’ sign on the door.

I was in great spirits, because this felt like a breeze. The surgery happened, the surgeons did their job, the bad cells were out of me. What I didn’t realize was coming home would be hard. I was out of the zone that had seen me through.

First came the fact that it was difficult to adjust to being home. I’d keep thinking my drainpipes had moved and the bag wasn’t filling. By the first evening, I was flipping out. I was sure something had gone wrong. The plastic surgeon didn’t give me his number, my onco surgeon did. Mandy told me that even if no one takes your call, he will. I wanted to call him, but I didn’t want to be that wuss who calls the surgeon every time she freaks out. So, I stayed put.

The night was difficult. You can only sleep on one side, because the other side has tubes that are going into you. Then you have to make sure your tubes and drains are hanging in a particular way so that it can all collect in the bag, and you don’t thrash around while sleeping. Add my paranoia to that, and it was a bad night.

(Shormistha Mukherjee mixes travel with history, saris with sneakers, feni with Limca. Co-founder of a digital agency, she ran a popular blog that featured her undercover name agentgreenglass)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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