The Gift

Discovering the gifts of breast cancer

Retirement and radical mastectomy

Marie Henderson - Last day at work

Last days as UCOL lecturer November 2021

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I was so fortunate to be able to return to work for 8 days prior to my next surgery. It was really important to me to finish in a professional manner. Clearing out my work space was a mission after being a “might come in handy” hoarder of books and resources for the previous 14 years. Importantly, I was able to hand my much-love course over to another lecturer and spend a few last precious days with my colleagues. I had a sense of satisfaction of a job well done as I left my almost-48 year nursing career behind me and headed into retirement.

Post op radical mastectomy November 2021 Post op radical mastectomy November 2021

I wasn’t looking forward to a “radical” mastectomy and extensive dissection of lymph nodes. It seemed crazy that everything was just settling down from the first operation which had been really painful, to go back to operating theatre and have the entire right chest and armpit excavated. But they were and this time was a much easier post-operative and recovery period. I always used to teach my nursing students that it is difficult for a patient to describe their pain to a nurse or health professional. I explained what I was experiencing …. “it is numb yet it is exquisitely tender (nerve pain) … the whole right chest wall and armpit feels like they have been to the dentist … it feels wooden and thick … but light stroking of the area is unbearable … pushing on it relieves the pain”. Herein lies one of the challenges of being a nurse trying to assess and relieve pain.

The great news is that of the 29 lymph nodes removed only 2 had triple negative cancer and everything else was cancer-free, including the removed breast. The original malignancy was not found. “I don’t usually say this to a patient”, said my surgeon with a big warm smile on his face, “but this is curative. I can’t absolutely promise you that 1 or 2 cells haven’t escaped; that’s why we are following up with chemotherapy, but this treatment for you is with curative intent”. I beamed back at him, “I would love to give you a big hug and a kiss”. My heart was singing. I felt like I had been released from a death sentence.

Hair shaved and wig ready for chemo January 2022 Hair shaved and wig ready for chemo January 2022

Having never had chemotherapy before I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t want my hair falling out & clogging up our plumbing so a friend gave me a 0.5 haircut. The Ministry of Health contributed $408.88 towards my wig “for temporary hair loss”. I wonder who decided on that exact amount? And as you would imagine I voraciously devoured what the Internet had to say about foods that heal; that raise immunity; that kill cancer; that will virtually raise you from the dead! I’ve settled on a good healthy, well-balanced diet, lots of fluids, fruit and vegetables and a couple of specific supplements. One of the many gifts in this cancer journey is appreciating the life-giving wisdom of what we should all be doing anyway: maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise, healthy diet, being creative and generative, staying in touch with friends and family; actively relaxing & appreciating beautiful music & the world around us.

Marie Henderson - Last day at work Last day at work

My adult life has revolved around my work. It has been an important part of my identity. I loved being a Critical Care Nurse and seemed to always end up in a teaching role of some kind. I particularly loved teaching using simulation and was so fortunate to help develop a simulation lab at UCOL (Universal College of Learning) in Palmerston North. I was in my element and loved every day of it. The professional in me had been heartbroken that I would leave without properly updating my course & handing it over in good shape to somebody taking over from me. It meant the world to me that I had those 8 days back at work to feel that I had finished well.

On my last day Jim and I drove away from UCOL and I cried all the way home. There was almost a rending of heart; walking out of the building through a “guard of honour” by my colleagues; leaving behind my career of nearly 48 years; leaving UCOL and the students and role that I loved so much; losing my income and heading into the unknown of retirement; facing my radical mastectomy the following day and cancer journey that was to follow. It was a huge moment for me and one that I will never forget.

My malignancy in the lymph nodes was classified as “basal-like” triple negative breast cancer, which is highly aggressive and associated with poor prognosis. Those who do die usually do so within 3 years, and those who make it to 5 years have a reasonable chance of longer-term survival. This was hard to take in. What about “the gift?”

It had already been an extraordinarily difficult month or so leading up to this radical mastectomy. I had been knocked off my eBike and sustained a serious leg injury and developed cellulitis. I was in hospital when my long-time best friend died after a battle with melanoma. My previous breast surgery had been really painful. I had undergone 2 failed cardioversions for a chronic cardiac arrhythmia. My beloved Jim was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimers. What about “the gift in all of this?”

The gifts

• I am getting an appreciation of how much Jim & I are loved by so many people. You have all expressed your love in such practical ways; visiting; providing delicious healthy meals, house-keeping, prayer & personal scriptures; phone calls, encouraging emails, advice about helpful supplements; offers of support from neighbours, help with setting up this blog. You don’t mind that I have no hair these days. Words don’t describe this kind of gratitude we feel. One of my greatest needs is for you to stay in contact. I feel your love and it is really encouraging & energizing.
• Friends who have had cancer, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation & other treatments have shared their journeys and advice with me. Of course I long to know what this journey will be like and what I can do to make it easier and more successful. I treasure your advice.
• I feel like I am being wrapped around by a fantastic cancer service and support resources. I am about to participate in a group session about managing hair loss, and have received a care package with beautiful free products by supporting businesses. How generous!
• I am having really authentic conversations with people because of my cancer diagnosis and especially after taking off my wig. This seems to be a real leveller and conversation starter.
• So many incredible scriptures from the Bible have really encouraged & strengthened me.

  • John 14:27. “I leave a gift of peace with you; My peace. Not the kind of fragile peace given by the world, but My perfect peace. Don’t yield to fear or be troubled in your hearts; instead be courageous”.
  • Psalm 23: 4. “Even when your path takes me through the valley of deepest darkness, fear will never conquer me, for you already have. Your authority is my strength & my peace. The comfort of your love takes away my fear. I’ll never be lonely, for You are near”.

There are so many gifts in this cancer journey and it is only just beginning.