The words ‘breast cancer’ strike fear in a woman’s heart. Once you have a diagnosis of breast cancer, however, comes the reality that at some point, at least one surgery will be in your future. For some, it is a simple lumpectomy. For others, it is a more extensive procedure called a mastectomy – a procedure that scares the living crap out of women, as well it should. It is a very painful procedure. Not just physically, but it is very painful psychologically to wake up and look down and, where once sat two breasts, there is nothing but bandages, underneath which is anything from a smooth edge to a mess of loose skin, depending on if you are planning on having breast reconstruction. Those breasts may have been imperfect and diseased, but for all but 10-13 years of your life, they have been part of who you are, and it is hard to wake up and them be gone. Your center of balance is off because your body adjusts to weight that is no longer there. Your clothes no longer fit right.
You feel like a freak – at least I did, for the first few weeks anyway. Then I got used to the comfort of not needing a bra. I adjusted to my new flat chest. I had prostheses I could wear if I wanted to wear a shirt that required breasts to look right. I remember one particular weekend, we had traveled to attend a friend’s party, and several mutual friends had also come in from various cities around the country. (Our social circle is like that.) There was one guy there who didn’t know who I was, or the journey I was on. Now, I was a ‘D’ cup before my mastectomy, so my prostheses put me pretty close. I was in a form fitting dress, too, but it had a conservative neckline. He stared at my ‘breasts’ all night. The group of us sitting together laughed for a while about it until finally one of the guys went over and told him they were prosthetic devices. He almost spit his drink out, then he came over and apologized for watching me so hard.
A mastectomy is a procedure where either one or both of a woman’s breasts are completely removed down to the chest wall. Some lymph nodes are usually removed for biopsy. If those test negative, the others are left alone. If they test positive, then the remaining lymph nodes are removed as well. If the patient has no intention of pursuing reconstructive surgery, the general surgeon performing her mastectomy will usually remove the excess skin and leave her as smooth as possible. If she intends to have reconstruction, however, many will try to leave as much skin as they can to make the reconstructive process easier. This was my case. My chest was not a pretty site after my surgery! Some patients, for various reasons, are willing and able to have their mastectomy and reconstructive surgeries performed in the same procedure. This is a very challenging combination, but it does save the psychological trauma.
Despite how difficult it was to go through, I am glad I did my surgeries in the order that I did. My only regret is that I didn’t have more time between procedures to allow my body to rest.