I am out of the hospital and recovering in beautiful Northern Michigan. My dad drove the eight hours to retrieve me from Cleveland Clinic on Thrusday, and we all made the journey back up north on Friday. While it was a long drive, it really wasn’t too bad and I am oh-so-glad to be in the comforts of home again.
I know I have a lot of cancer patients, particularly breast cancer patients, following my writing. I have had them in mind the last few days as I recover from my mastectomy, and I am mostly writing this piece for them. It is an opportunity to talk honestly about a procedure that naturally was very frightening and anxiety producing for me. It’s also an opportunity to stand up again and be honest and open about who I am and what cancer looks like for me.
Right before I went under for surgery, the plastic surgeon told me he didn’t feel comfortable enough with the margins around my tumor to keep some of the skin on my breasts. In particular, he advised I would lose my nipples. The tumors had been too big and too close to the surface, he explained. I then watched as he marked my flesh with purple pen indicating the areas he would cut away. I found myself staring down at my chest and almost patting my boobs in an attempt to say “goodbye friends.” What else do you do when you know you are walking through a door that will close behind you for good? You give your breasts a little gratitude speech, run your hands over what has been yours your whole life, and then hope they hurry up with the sedatives already.
When I woke up, it was late. The surgery lasted somewhere between 5-6 hours and in that time they took my breast tissue from both sides and 4 lymph nodes from my left side. They did not find any indications of residual disease- which, of course, is fantastic news. They placed the temporary expanders under my pectoral muscles, which will be inflated later on. For now, everything is bound down with bandages and a tight, front-closure bra. It was all very ordinary and went completely as expected- by doctors’ standards at least.
I will admit, the first 12 hours was challenging. I was in pain, I couldn’t find a comfortable position to lay in, and I was foggy and groggy from being sedated. I worried that first night that this would be a very hard surgery to recover from. But just as I started to fret, the pain became manageable and I started to come back around. I went for a few short walks around the hospital wing, and even ventured down the elevator to the main level. Coughing was painful and it was hard to figure out how to get in and out of bed (you can’t use your arms at all, really). But with Tom’s help, I was able to do everything I needed to do. Every day brought a significant improvement in function, independence, and comfort. I even walked yesterday for an hour and plan to keep moving every day until I go back for my follow-up appointment on Thursday.
The parts I thought I would struggle with the most, the drains and the pain, have turned out to be completely manageable. Tubes leading out from my breasts, one on each side, are responsible for emptying the fluid that collects until the tissue has healed enough so that it is no longer draining. I thought this would be dis-gus-ting and that I wouldn’t want anything to do with it. Turns out, it’s not really gross at all and it’s kind of fun to have something to obsess over and make sure it’s perfectly maintained. If that sounds like OCD, you’re right…so what. I’m going to enjoy the fact that my hyper compulsion to measure output and strip the lines is driven by a personality defect and that I don’t have to suffer and cringe at the thought of this mandatory personal care item.
As far as the pain goes, at this point (5 days out) I’m totally fine. I’m sore, but it’s nothing significant. I feel like I got punched in the chest really hard, but I no longer wince when I cough or sneeze. Between the pain medications and the natural healing process, I have surprised myself at how good I feel. I am very very relieved at this and so thankful to be progressing so well.
Finally, there is the aesthetics. Ladies, I’m talking to you here. Frankly, I look like I was run over by a lawn mower. But don’t panic- this look is temporary. My expanders are empty and things are swollen in some places and deflated in others. It’s kind of a bizarre pocket of time where I know this isn’t permanent and it’s the first step in transitioning to my new body, but I also think it looks weird and totally foreign and fascinating. I have decided to include a photo below because a lot of women were kind enough to share their chests with me post-opertaively and that was so helpful for my peace of mind. I want to put it out there so other women see me at this phase and then later again to know what realistic recovery is like. I want to give them reassurance to know that their time is coming, too, and that it will all be okay.
So here I am, without breasts. I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it either. It just kind of is what it is, and I’m okay with that. Just know these scars were hard won and that beneath them lies a very humbled, very powerful, and very excited woman. Part of losing my breasts is preserving my future. I am so damn happy to have a future. And if the past is any indication, the incredible (and I mean incredible) amount of love an support I’ve received will guarantee that I will have a beautiful and full life…even if I currently have not-so-beautiful and deflated breasts.
Love to you all.
Give ‘Em Hell