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Dec 2, 2014

Before & After (Part II, After): Meule Belmontoise

THE STORY:

Besides being small, I sometimes think my body is just not made like other peoples'. I am told two things about my mastectomy surgery: that I will be groggy for a couple hours and then can call my husband to tell him I'm OK. And that I'll be needing lots of pain killer. They are wrong on both counts. I am out for around 13 hours after surgery (which takes place from around noon-3pm)  -- too drugged to eat, get up, or pee, let alone make a coherent phone call. This is not the fault of French medicine; I'm always like this when it comes to anesthesia (and no, for this level of anesthesia, it's not bring-your-own).

I am just coherent enough during this period for two important things: I register when my surgeon comes into my room and tells me the good great superfantastic news that both my lymph nodes and the cells behind my nipple are clean and cancer-free. And when Anthony finally gets worried because I haven't called 6 hours post-surgery (I am simply too groggy to reach for my phone, which is right next to my bed), he calls the nurse station, they bring a phone in to me, and I manage to drunkenly slur the great results before crashing back into my drugged stupor.

On the other hand, I bounce back after surgery like a superhero. When I finally wake up the next morning, after emerging from the anesthesia-haze around 4am, I eat normally, take half-hour walks around the hospital, and later that day, add in 10 flights of steps up and down.

I feel fabulous. I don't need pain killers, except for a few over the counter Doliprane (acetaminophen) when -- essentially -- forced by the nurse: "Just take one on this first day. Just take one before you sleep." But honestly, I'm not in pain. I mean, I feel it, obviously; it tugs and can be a bit annoying (like a mild case of sunburn, or a pulled muscle), and I can't roll around and sleep too well the first few nights, but that's about it.

I feel like going home almost immediately because there's nothing to do in these rooms; there's nowhere interesting to walk; there's no place comfortable to sit; there's no Wifi; there are no cute freckly kids or helpful husbands; and, of course, there's the food.

I have heard from some Americans who've had surgery in France (including my husband) that their hospital fare was markedly better than what they would get in the US. And for French baby deliveries, I hear it's downright gourmet. Well, clearly, they weren't being treated at the Insitut Curie. I'd rather have a hospital that deals competently with my own breast than with my chicken breast, but really, sometimes it looks like the sinister subtext of this hospital is, "If the cancer doesn't kill you, we're going to finish you off with our food."



Everything is extremely bland, and either very dry, or very wet, indeed. I like the idea of salmon swimming, but not in pools of butter. All of the vegetables are seriously overcooked and utterly devoid of flavor and texture (and, probably, fiber and nutritive value).


 
For breakfast, there is a bowl of tea or coffee, and a yogurt, and -- as you can see -- the ubiquitous white roll, French-style.



By the second day, I'm allowed to start choosing my own food (happy day!), and I choose every option that includes raw fruits or veggies. Even still, I'm longing for airplane food. Really.



Not optional: the cheese course. Of course. Every meal has cheese among the dessert choices, whether it's an aged cheese or a yogurt-y Fromage Blanc. And most of the meals, including every breakfast and every official 4pm goûter (snack), include plain yogurt, along with a packet of white sugar. For my cheeses, I am treated to pasteurized Fourme d'Ambert blue and an industrial, pasteurized Camembert.

 

The food is bad enough that Anthony brings by persimmons, and my friend Meagan takes pity on me and stops by for a visit with raw fruits, salads, a sandwich, and -- most importantly, and I quote, "the pastry that looked the most like a boob that I could find." It turns out, boob-pastry is delicious, filled with blackberry and coated with lots of whipped cream, all on a cookie crust. If she didn't want one that looks like a breast, she could've chosen one that sounds like it, the Paris Brest, but I have to say that I appreciate the blackberry. At this point, I'll take fruit in any form, especially delicious.


I don't want to be accused of being falsely chipper. As I told the psychologist, in the move that finally convinced her to sign off on my sanity and my mastectomy, "I'm not stupid, and I'm not crazy. If I could choose not to have cancer, obviously I would. But since I can't choose, and I do have cancer, I'm just grateful it's such an easy version caught so early. Plus, if I do end up needing chemo, and I lose my hair, I will cry. I will survive, but I will cry." But thanks to my clean lymph nodes, I don't need chemo, and because I did the mastectomy, I don't need radiation, either!

Also, I do get teary-eyed once, on the first day after the surgery, having just seen my boob, which was not only black and blue at the time but basically looked like somebody had tried to antique it with a hammer, then run over it with a truck. It probably didn't help that I was in the middle of a Bridget Jones Diary movie marathon, dubbed in French and subtitled (mysteriously, in a different French translation than the dubbing), and basically all Renee Zellweger does in the movie is show off a whopping pair of natural breasts. But my self-pity doesn't last long, because it's hard to take anything too seriously when you are watching Bridget Jones.

In case this makes you feel better if you were worrying about me, or about your own possibly-someday date with breast cancer and/or mastectomy/reconstruction, here is some photographic proof that it really is all going well. Here's me the morning of my surgery (Monday) and back home again (Thursday) pointing to my new boob. As you can see, there's not much difference, other than the bra under the tank top gets uglier.

 

I come home with tubes still attached to me, which isn't news to anybody who's ever had the procedure. But what is different is that a nurse comes to my house twice a day -- morning and afternoon -- to check on me. This is fully paid by insurance, here in France, and is simply a wonderful way of getting you out of the hospital and back home more quickly and comfortably. In the US, people have to deal with their own tubes and figure out how to nurse themselves. I like this approach better, seeing how squeamish I am. Even the taxi home is covered by insurance, once the hospital gives me the prescription (and depending on how kind my insurance company wants to be).



Comically, not one of the visiting nurses ever has a thermometer, yet they always want my temperature, so we use the one here in the house and convert from Fahrenheit to Celsius. And they never even do the checking; they just trust me to tell them the number. However, I think it's pretty obvious that I'm not feverish and that I'm feeling fine.

Most unbelievable to me, and my American friends and family, is that they take the final tubes out (on Sunday morning, 6 days after surgery) here at home. Pippa is not sure if she wants to watch (it is, after all, an unusually interesting sight) or run away (if it gets too gross), so she's hedging her bets by hanging out at the door.


It's one of the more unpleasant aspects of my whole breast cancer -- and that's telling you something about how easy I've had it -- but not unbearable. Don't worry about me; I just tend to make overly dramatic faces (see lice treatment photos). It's not my best look; perhaps I should just learn to take yucky things more placidly (especially when being photographed). Perhaps I should have sung a Hawaiian chant.


I've felt basically good since the moment the drugs wore off. And one week out, I feel really great. I can stretch my arm, gently, nearly all the way up. I can even roll around a bit when I sleep. About the only complaint you'll hear from me is that I have to wear that annoying compression bra (like a sports/running top, but much tighter) for a month -- day and night. But honestly, that is a really miniscule price to pay for getting rid of the cancer and letting my fabulous new boob heal -- and it is quickly looking more and more fabulous, and less and less like a traffic accident casualty.

Of course, I'll have to go through this all again in a few months, or whenever "they" let me do the mastectomy on my other breast. Which is the price I pay for living in France during this episode in my life, I suppose. But at least for the next time I know a) that it won't be so bad and b) to smuggle in fruits, veggies, and take-out meals to the hospital.

Sometimes people use their horrific cancer stories to scare/inspire other people to be vigilant. I feel like my approach is somewhat different: I'm like an evangelist for checking often and finding it early, because then you could have a breast cancer as fantastic as mine. Truly it is the Breast Cancer of My Dreams, the Lottery-Winning Cancer. I walk around with the thought constantly popping into my head, "How on Earth did I get this lucky?!"

So now, I make sure to wave and smile big to the women who are scared by the idea of the mammogram, diagnosis, or surgery. I'll show just about anybody who's curious and at this point have flashed my new boob more than if I were in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I'm putting Skype to good use. A couple days after surgery, when I was checking myself out in a cute outfit in the mirror, Gigi cocked her head and said, "You know, Mom, I'm not even scared to get breast cancer." That's my girl. I want everyone to know that if it has to happen, it's possible for it to all turn out for the breast.

THE CHEESE: Meule Belmontoise

Meule Belmontoise is a pasteurized cows' milk, industrial cheese, made by Etoile d'Or (Gold Star). It's aged at least 6 months, and is a simple, fine, but unexceptional example of a cow cheese. If you taste it with a connoisseur's mouth, I think you'll agree that it tastes, predominantly, like cheese.


It has a little of that sweetness you expect from a mountain cheese, with a bit of salt. It's like every unremarkable, undistinguishable, unidentifiable cheese you've ever tried on a sandwich or on an appetizer tray. The texture holds up well for an appetizer tray, coincidentally, and is soft and creamy, for a hard cheese.


THE CONNECTION:

Not only is this cheese pricked and poked, with things sticking out of it in the photo, as I am for days after my surgery, I am reminded of my fabulous, fancy-schmancy, new-and-improved, cancer-free fake boob in many ways: The name "Belmontoise" roughly translates as "Of the Beautiful Mountains." At the moment, my beautiful mountains are a bit lopsided, but that will sort itself out once I get the other mountain re-landscaped, as it were. Also, like my new boob, the cheese is industrial and rubbery.

5 comments :

  1. All the best with your treatment - have been following your blog since early this year as I love your take on Paris (I had my first trip there in July this year), not so much the cheese as am not a cheese eater. Take care from Leigh in Melbourne, Australia x

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    1. Thank you! Glad you liked Paris, and are enjoying the blog, and don't worry about the cheese: I probably eat enough for both of us.

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  2. Kazz, I love your stories about cheese and life in Paris - but your openness with the details of your cancer is truly a gift to all of us women who fear we may get breast cancer someday and wonder what that could entail. (I currently have 4 friends fighting breast cancer). THANK YOU for making it a little less scary and much less taboo. I vow to do my self breast exams regularly and I will think of you when I do! (Is that weird?!) :) You rock! - Kerry

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    1. I'm flattered to hear you will think of me while examining your breasts. But more than that, I'm happy that you'll be checking regularly: check often, catch early!

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    2. Thank you, Kaz, for sharing such a personal experience — you've assuaged the fear of your friends and given such confidence to your daughters. I admire your openness and send warm regards for your continued health! Vicki D.

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