After a diagnosis of breast cancer and a 12+ hour mastectomy left permanent nerve damage and debilitating pain, birds of prey helped me survive and I’ve tried to return the favor.
Some of what you’re about to read is very personal and I’ve never shared it publicly before, but today is a milestone – in the cancer world, we like to celebrate milestones because it means we’re still alive.
For far too many breast cancer survivors, the lifelong aftermath of a mastectomy can be painful, exhausting and cruel.
This hasn’t been a walk in the park for me and and if you don’t like gory and very personal details of what happened to me in the weeks after the surgery, skip over the next part altogether.
The operation and aftermath
On April 24, 2012, I was on the operating room table at Johns Hopkins Hospital for over 12 hours. When I awoke, I was free of both the breast cancer and the breasts that I had known, but a whole new chapter was ahead.
There were so many problems in the months just after the surgery. And still today.
The first infection began rather innocuously. My faux nipple fell off. Though I call it faux, it was part of my new breast and it was supposed to be, well, permanent.
The doctor reassured me that a tattoo artist named Vinnie in Baltimore does excellent work and is actually world-famous for creating realistic looking nipple tattoos. That didn’t help the morale, nor did the idea of yet another stranger working on my chest bring pleasure – I still haven’t seen Vinnie.
I try to keep a sense of humor about some of this because really, what else can you do when your nipple falls off and then one of your breast implodes. Fortunately these two events did not happen simultaneously, but days apart.
Once I got beyond the tragedy of the left breast, there was more trouble just south.
Rather than implants, I opted to use part of my stomach to build new breasts, so my abdomen was opened during the surgery – it also became infected and it was really bad.
Let me tell you about my dogs – at that time I had two, hunting breed dogs and both would occasionally bring us what they considered gifts from the outside world.
Maybe it was the hunting drive or maybe it was Feivel seeing me laid up in bed for so long or both, but a gift was about to be presented at THE MOST INOPPORTUNE TIME ever.
Imagine this – my stomach was open, my husband had washed his hands, was gloved and was readying to clean my gaping abdominal wound. I was lying in bed and saw Feivel about to jump up on my side of the bed with a squirrel in his mouth. I screamed, Feivel dropped the squirrel on the floor and my husband jumped from the bed to get the squirrel, which was still alive.
After being referred to wound care center at my local hospital, the abdomen finally closed, but another issue was getting worse – the pain across my chest wall that I thought would go away, didn’t.
In all the appointments I had been to pre-surgery and all the information I was given or that I found through my own research, I had seen nothing about this kind of pain afterwards – nothing about the potential for nerve damage.
I went from doctor to doctor and none could offer an explanation – only opioids. Even if I said I didn’t want prescription pain medications, I was given more.
One of my surgeons at Johns Hopkins told me he had never heard of this happening. I was sent to the nerve clinic at Johns Hopkins and they told me I had nerve issues, but the doctor said it probably didn’t happen in surgery. That’s when I was done with Hopkins.
Nerve damage does happen in mastectomies – it causes pain and this is well documented.
In the weeks and months just after surgery, it was easy to lie in bed in an oxy-induced haze – it was only then I was pain-free. But I also knew that was no way to live life. I had to get beyond this.
Enter the eagles and owls
I’ve been a multimedia journalist for many years – even in my late Navy days and even before digital cameras, I was shooting photos and working in a dark room.
In other words, photography was part of my life – both professionally and personally and a camera was an extension of me.
The month of June came around, I was still in pain and was still spending a lot of time in bed, but I had started slowly to get outside to shoot photos.
Starting slowly meant on two consecutive days I went to two places to shoot photos – one was to Baltimore for Fleet Week and the other was Annapolis when the HMS Bounty arrived.
On the morning of June 13, 2012, my life was forever changed. That was the day I saw bald eagles in the wild for the first time and my love for birds of prey began.
Even more meaningful, my daughter was with me.
You might not think seeing an eagle in the wild is an extraordinary event, but when I was a kid and until my late 40s, seeing bald eagles in the wild wasn’t a common experience. Because of DDT, eagles were close to extinction and it had taken them this long to make it back.
The comeback of the bald eagles and the banning of DDT is in large part thanks to Rachel Carson and her book, Silent Spring.
Yes, it was a big deal for me for to see these birds and it still is.
It was also in June, I began seeing things as I looked out my bedroom window. It looked like big, flying blobs and I originally attributed it to the drugs.
It wasn’t until I began hearing things, that I decided I had to get out of bed and figure out the mystery. Was it the drugs? Or was it real?
On June 17, 2010, I discovered that the flying blobs were were two, juvenile barred owls.
While those eagles on the Severn River had started my love for birds of prey, the owls in my backyard had sealed the deal.
That first brood would get extraordinarily close to us – they’d perch right over our deck as we were eating and didn’t seem to be scared of humans or dogs.
My daughter was 9-years-old when that first brood showed up in our yard.
The owls have been with us ever since and I’m so grateful for them. I’m currently awaiting another brood.
I could’ve easily become a statistic
The cosmetic issues with my left breast were fixed eventually, but I’m still in horrible pain – 24 x 7.
The thing about opioids is they work so well. Again, this is not how I want to live my life – I want a permanent pain solution, not short term.
Believe me when I tell you, I’ve tried almost everything to help the pain. Although I know people want to help with suggestions to try this or that, please don’t – pain from nerve damage incurred during mastectomies is currently without a permanent cure and no suggestion is going to help that fact.
There have been some who’ve had short-term relief from ketamine infusions, radio frequency ablation and other procedures, but I have yet to learn of anything that provides long-term, lasting pain relief.
I had two surgeries to resect damaged nerves. One of the surgeries helped with the pins and needle issue in my right arm and elbow, which came from the sentinel lymph node being removed during the mastectomy. But nothing helped the chest pain.
I’m not the only mastectomy patient that has experienced mastectomy nerve damage- far too many of us have. I’ve written about it and others have written about me.
The breast pain is a huge part of this story, but three herniated disks at three different levels in my back doesn’t help either.
At night, I use peppermint oil and/or Kneipp Arnica & Mountain Pine topically – both provide very minimal and extremely short term relief.
Medical marijuana? I tried edibles and had a very bad bad trip – it’s a thing. I could try smoking it, but why bother if it’s not long lasting?
I’m sharing all of this very personal information because others should know it happens and also because it’s scares the shit out of me every time I think about it – this all started in 2012, in the midst of the opioid epidemic – I could’ve easily become a statistic.
Unfortunately I can’t stand or walk for long periods of time – I take short walks, I sit frequently and I’m in bed a lot. The only ones that know this are my immediate family members – they’ve seen me at my worst, have helped me tremendously and I’m thankful for them.
On this milestone of a day, I am happy to be alive. I just wished I was pain free.
Distractions from pain
What the birds made me discover in 2012 and still today is that when I can focus on something other than my pain, it helps – it doesn’t stop the pain. but it distracts me from focusing on it.
Whether the birds are in my own backyard or in other spots that I can easily see them without standing or walking for long periods, it helps.
Fortunately I’ve had some amazing birds in my backyard, including the owls and their broods.
There’ve been some songbirds that have helped too, including these cardinals.
And while I don’t have to go beyond my yard to find birds, I do.
Enter snowy owls
The snowy owl irruption in the winter of 2013/14 proved to be a great distraction and introduction for me to a magnificent bird.
John James Audubon wrote in 1840, “Scarcely is there a winter which does not bring several of these hardy natives of the north to the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville.”
While snowy owls had been leaving the Arctic every winter for many years, it seemed people had forgotten, it didn’t happen as often as it once did, not as many snowy owls made the winter trip or at this point, the rise of social media and digital cameras documented it better than ever before. Whatever the case, these snowy owls sightings were big news and the birds were so exciting to see.
l still try to see snowy owls when they visit, but only from a distance and as always, without disturbing the bird.
Eagle nest monitor
I monitored bald eagle nests for the Maryland Bald Eagle Nest Monitoring Program from 2018 to 2021. I stopped due to a conflict of interest with the organization that runs the monitoring program.
Even before I was aware of a program for monitoring eagle nests, I did it for my own enjoyment and I’ll continue to.
Prior to the pandemic, students from the Wye River Upper School were able to join me monitoring nests in Centreville.
Journalism work and birds of prey collide
I’ve been fortunate that I’m able to work in a career field I love – journalism. And though I can’t work full time, I can pick and choose the stories I want to cover.
Combine that passion I have for journalism, the passion I have for birds of prey and being in the right place at the right time and that became the recipe for the biggest story of my career.
Since 2016, I’ve been working on a series of stories about the killing of bald eagles on Maryland Eastern Shore.
Why? Because it involved bald eagles, no one else was reporting on it, I thought someone should be reporting on it and it gave me something to do, thus taking the focus off my pain.
This work resulted in four awards – two for investigative journalism, one for enterprise reporting and one for in-depth reporting.
I began doing public speaking because of this story and I enjoy it. With these presentations, I explain the who, what, when, where, why and how of my process and the history of the eagle poisonings on Maryland’s Eastern Shore – I’ve had some great responses.
All of this happened because of the collision of two passions – birds of prey and journalism.
A bird rescuer
In January 2019, I took a raptor rescue and triage class offered at Tuckahoe State Park. Part of what prompted this was my concern about my own barred owls and if something were to happen to them, I could be prepared. Talk about being a helicopter mom.
It wasn’t just me being an overprotective mom, there were more and more people becoming birders and bird photographers – I wanted to do something more. I wanted to help birds.
I reported about the raptor rescue and triage class when it was only offered to law enforcement and animal response agencies – when I saw a Facebook post about the class being offered to the general public, I immediately signed up.
Fortunately, my barred owls haven’t needed rescuing.
But plenty of other birds have needed it and I did not, nor could I have done all of these rescues on my own. I’m so grateful to all who’ve helped me learn and the rehabilitators that help the birds after rescue.
Surviving the aftermath of breast cancer has not been a walk in the park. But I’ve walked in many parks since 2012- I just haven’t walked very far or very fast.
Something you should also know – on April 30, 1978, my mother died of breast cancer. She was 42. I was 12. I’m thankful to her for instilling in me a love for animals.
Do you remember that I said the barred owls first showed up in my yard in June and how I first saw bald eagles in the wild in June? My mother’s name was June.
While I’ve always loved animals, finding this passion for birds of prey came in my late 40s and just when I needed it the most.
Keeping with the theme of breast cancer and birds, I’m so very grateful for a woman that I never met, but who lived and died a few miles from where I grew up in Silver Spring. Rachel Carson died of breast cancer in April 1964, one year before I was born. Without her, so many birds wouldn’t be here today – not to mention people also.
I’m always in pain and it’s exhausting – physically and mentally.
For those that do suffer from nerve damage incurred during breast cancer surgery, I encourage you to look for things that take the focus off of your chest pain.
There are some Facebook groups for us, but as much as I find them hopeful, these groups can be depressing too because so many of us are in the same boat. I hope science will develop something that will help us.
Until then, I’ll keep on keeping on.
Birds of prey came to my rescue and helped me to divert my focus off of me. I’ll continue trying to return that favor.
Donna L. Cole is an award-winning journalist, Navy veteran and public speaker. Her journey about surviving the aftermath of breast cancer and finding a passion for birds of prey is one of topics she’s happy to speak about.