In my on going series of posts about my experience with breast cancer, I wanted to talk about the aftermath of surgery, both physically and emotionally.
So, here we go, post-surgery photos.
As I mentioned in “Boobie Wednesday” and “Post-Boobie Wednesday,” I went through numerous surgeries. The first surgery removed my breasts and reconstructed them with muscle and tissue from my abdomen. I awoke after that first surgery in the ICU with nine drains in my body and two pain pumps. So much trauma had been done to my body that I had to be medically sedated to keep from going into shock. An IV in each arm, plus pain pumps implanted in my stomach. A diet of juice, water, jello, and the occasional “treat” of an ice-cold Ginger Ale for four days. It took four nurses to shift my body twice a day to prevent bed sores. It took four nurses to give me a sponge bath. It took four nurses and my parents to get me out of bed to make one lap around the nurses’ station with a walker. A walk that would have taken me two minutes in my pre-surgery shape took me nearly 20 minutes to make. I had to take several breaks. At one point they had to bring a chair for me to sit down in.
In the first picture, of my right side, you can see two red welts on my side just under my breast. Those are scars from drains. the red welt on the top of my thigh is one of 13 liposuction puncture sites.
The hardest part of the surgeries was the failure of my stomach incision. It failed after the first, second, and fifth surgeries. My back incision failed in two spots only once, after the third surgery. I was unable to take a picture of my back, but the scar healed thickly; it is as wide as my index finger in places.
My stomach scar is still very hard and thick. My belly button collapsed three times. What I have today is higher than my “original” belly button was, and I have several thick, hard scars around it and running down from the belly button to the stomach incision.
All in all I am happy with my body, with the breasts that I have now, with the rippled hips and faded welts from liposuction and drains. The scar on my back sits below my bathing suit line and breasts fill out my chest properly. My womanly shape is still here – my breasts, hips, and thighs. The swelling is gone, the scars are starting to soften and the pink and red tones are fading to white.
The hardest part since my last surgery, nearly 11 months ago, has been the emotional aftermath which I wasn’t prepared for. The emotional scars of going through what I went through run deep. I never took time off for my surgeries. I stayed in school full time, scheduling surgeries during school breaks. I tried to come back to the classroom, act like nothing had happened, that I wasn’t hiding bandages and stitches and compression bandages under my clothes. I didn’t tell any of my classmates or professors. I only told my advisor because I was going to have to miss three classes in my second semester. But I downplayed how I felt about it. I didn’t want to be the “sick person.” I didn’t want people making excuses for me, I didn’t want to make excuses for myself.
But in pushing down my feelings about what I was going through I ended up feeling worse. I ultimately hit a wall going 90, my life shattering. I became detached from my work, I stopped caring about school and the goals I had worked for. I wanted so badly to scream to people about what I had been through, to make them understand how miserable and alone I felt in my experience. I felt isolated. I didn’t think anyone could understand what I had been through, the decisions I had made. I didn’t have to have the mastectomies, but it was the best long-term decision for my care, for my quality of life. I didn’t think anyone would understand that. Of course I knew my family loved me, I knew that they had taken care of me and were supportive, but they had never explicitly said that. My mother, a woman who had been through the process herself, had told me one several occasions when I had remarked on my exhaustion and slow recovery that she had “told me so” prior to my surgery but that I “didn’t believe her.” So I stopped talking to her. I stopped talking to everyone. I withdrew entirely from my life. I couldn’t risk having my face rubbed in my decisions. I couldn’t risk feeling more alienated than I already was.
I had pressure from my family to plow ahead into a PhD program, something I was certain I didn’t want anymore, that I couldn’t handle. I applied even though I didn’t want to. I told my family I was working on my thesis even when I wasn’t when I couldn’t, when I wanted nothing more than to drop out of school and never return. The extent of my depression has been expansive. But with the help of a psychiatrist and an anti-depressant, I am coming back. I am slowly starting to get back to work, late yes, but I am getting back. I still haven’t talked to my mother, I don’t know if I ever will. But I am starting to feel like myself again, and that’s all I can hope for.