Normality and Surgical Drains


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There are certain terms associated with the cancer world that any outsiders might not understand. One of these terms is “new normal.” It’s one of those that makes absolutely no sense when you first hear it, but it soon becomes your mantra and best friend. So what is a “new normal” and how can you get one?

When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, our whole family went with her to the consultation before she began chemotherapy. The doctor explained to us, in a fairly blunt manner, that we had a choice to make: cancer would change our lives forever and it was up to us whether or not it would be a good change or a bad one. At that moment so much was being hurled at us that a choice like that seemed ridiculous. And yet, it was so true. Cancer was going to change our lives in ways we never would have predicted. What we did with those changes was a choice only we could make. The normal we had been used to for our entire lives was about to be shattered, so we had to find a new one.

There is no time line for when this new normal is set to arrive. For some it comes the moment they leave the doctor’s office. For others it doesn’t occur until after treatments are over and they are left saying “what now?” For me, this new normal arrived neatly bundled in my mother’s drains.

My mother made the decision to have a double mastectomy and reconstruction following her diagnosis. Both of her breasts were removed and the doctor took fat from her stomach and used it to rebuild new breasts. As part of the post-operation healing process, Mom was sent home with a drain on each side of her body from which the excess fluids from surgery left her and traveled down tubes where they were collected in little plastic sacks that were attached to her. These sacks had to be changed out daily. I distinctly remember the first day I saw them. I didn’t know they were there until my dad asked me for help changing Mom’s bandages. We meticulously pulled the gauze and surgical pads from around her torso and once we got to her skin, these little sacks filled with fluid of a disgustingly unimaginable color rolled out from under the final layer of gauze and I almost lost my lunch. Now, my Dad’s favorite movie is “The Fifth Element” and there is an alien opera singer with tentacles coming out of her head and down her sides- this is all I could think about when I saw my mother’s drains. It was gross and I didn’t want to help anymore. I quickly realized, however, that my mom needed me. Her recovery depended on my willingness to be there for her. My earliest recollection of ever having an epiphany was when I saw those drains hanging from the woman who brought me into this world. Staring at the puss, I realized that this was my new normal. Six months later, when my mother finished her chemotherapy treatments and the doctor told her she was cancer free, I realized again that this was my new new normal. It changes.

Normality is what you make it. It’s what you want it to be and what you decide it will be. It’s not a standard set by others that you have to live up to. After my mom’s reconstruction surgery, my uncle would jokingly ask if, because her breasts were made of fat from her stomach, they would growl when she got hungry. In my opinion, that is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. To a lot of people, though, it’s morbid humor that might be deemed inappropriate. But that’s the normal I come from, and that’s the normal I have come to know and love.