Thank you for all the support and well wishes over the past week. Last Wednesday I shared in a post my experiences with breast cancer. What followed was an avalanche of love and support from readers. I cannot tell you how much it was all meant to me.
I wanted to continue the effort, partly for myself and partly for all men and women out there who afraid of the aftermath of cancer.
Several people commented last week that breast cancer awareness isn’t the problem, everyone is aware of breast cancer. The actual problem is medical professionals needing to be better at reading mammograms, etc, to prevent unnecessary biopsies or surgeries. I agree. I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through needlessly. But I’m not going to stop beating my drum of self-exams, yearly check-ups, and mammograms in the hopes that we’ll eventually find a cure. In the meantime women need to have an honest conversation with their doctor about their family history, their personal risk factors and the appropriate screening measures for them. So please continue to screen yourselves and encourage the men and women in your lives to screen themselves too.
I want to talk a bit more about the decision process that went into choosing a mastectomy and then talk about the lengthy and still developing aftermath of my surgeries.
Deciding to go through with the mastectomy wasn’t an easy decision. I thought about it for months. I was a young woman, I had just turned 24 when I had the surgery. I wasn’t married or in a serious long-term relationship. I didn’t have children. These were all things to consider. If I had this surgery would I find a partner who could overlook the scars, overlook the lack sensitivity in my breasts and nipples? If I had the surgery would I be okay with not being able to breast feed my child(ren) if I had them? Would I be happy with the outcome? Comfortable with my body? These questions weighed heavily on my mind and I feared that my new body, my new scar-ridden body would be a turn off to prospective sexual partners and that I would grow to regret making such a big decision at such a young age.
I was buoyed in my decision by my mother. An a amazing woman who had beat breast cancer herself and had chosen the mastectomy herself. A month before my surgery we had a very intimate conversation in which she told me that my father had struggled with her “new breasts” and that it took him awhile to be okay with her unresponsiveness. I didn’t want to hear about my parents’ sex life, what child does, but I appreciated my mother not sugar-coating the process. She was honest with me. She told me that the surgery was infinitely more painful than child birth, that recovery is long and difficult, that I would not feel like myself for months, even a year or two, and she wanted me to think long and hard about how this will play out in my later sexual relationships.
I ultimately decided that the surgery was important to me. It was important for my immediate peace of mind and my long term peace of mind. I didn’t want to live the rest of my life looking over my shoulder and wondering when the hammer was going to drop. I wanted the peace of mind of knowing that my risk of a second bout was virtually none. That was really important to me and that was ultimately what made the choice easier for me.
My reconstruction, as I mentioned last week, was a long and winding road. First surgery was 22.5 hours, and I had a week long hospital stay after, and using a walker for a month. Second surgery was 5 hours and the result was the loss of my left breast. I had a Wound VAC for a month. Wound VACs have to be changed in the hospital every other day. I was at hospital for an 1.5 every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a month. Showering was a bitch. I had to set my machine on the toilet and could not turn around in the shower, otherwise I would add too much tension to the tube and I could pull the machine off the toilet seat. I had to sleep with the machine plugged in, charging over night. And if you think for one minute that the machine was silent…Well, you have another thing coming. After the VAC came out I still had to treat my stomach twice daily at home and once a week for two months at the hospital.
The third surgery was 17.5 hours and left me weak and unable to lift my arms above my shoulders for a month. I was in the hospital for three days, getting out just in time for Christmas with my family. The long, thick scar across my back opened in two places. I had to have specialized wound care for 7 weeks. I could not get the wound wet at home because I could not change the dressing myself. So I took sponge baths and washed my hair with a detachable shower head for 7 weeks. The fourth surgery was 14 hours and left me in a compression garment from my knees to my bust for two months. I had bruises like I can’t even describe. It hurt to breathe, to sit, to stand, to lie down. Going to the bathroom, getting in and out of the garment was blindingly painful. My skin was painful to the touch. The fifth and final surgery was 10 hours.
It took five surgeries, 69 hours, and a whole year to finish my reconstruction. Am I happy? Yes. So to speak. My left breast is shaped differently from my right breast. It has an implant as opposed to my flesh and tissue. My right breast is soft and round, shaped exquisitely. To say I’m obsessed with it is an understatement. It’s better than my God-given breast. My left breast is flat on top. It doesn’t have the same roundness and drape of my right breast. It has a different feel and weight to it. I choose a silicone implant and I’m glad I did. I think if I had a saline implant I would be even more disappointed.
As to the question of how others have responded to my body. I will admit to being very nervous about this. The first time I had sex after the surgeries I was racked with anxiety. Will he be disgusted by me? Will he be upset that I don’t responded to his touch or his mouth on my breast? It was hard to push those thoughts out of my head. But so far I have been lucky, my partners haven’t run screaming from my bedroom. It’s easy to say in theory that any man who has a problem with my body the way it is now isn’t a man worth having, but I will admit to still being scared of the day when someone does have a problem with it.
I hope that by sharing what I have gone through more women will know that there is life, sex, happiness after breast cancer, after a mastectomy. I don’t feel like less of a woman or less sexy. In fact I feel sexier now that I know what my body is capable of enduring. So many people respond to cancer with an “I’ll never be the same” attitude. It’s true, I’m not the same. I’m better. Really. I’m stronger and braver than before.