The last few weeks have been an emotional time. I’ve been busy studying up on all things breast cancer in order to best understand my next steps and to try to come to terms with what lies ahead. I’ve had lots of appointments with my “team” of oncologists and surgeons and feel I’m in very capable hands.
I’ve gone back and forth on how much is too much to share and decided to just spill it (because, I’ve never been good at discretion any way). As I’ve shared before, I operate under the mantra that bringing truth into the light is so much better than struggling alone in the dark. If one person reads this blog and better understands the trials of cancer, than my vulnerability won’t be in vain.
In just over two weeks, I’ll be undergoing a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. I’ve been sharing this information with friends over the last week and sometimes feel like I’m giving a report about someone else. Up to this point, it’s felt kind of like a theory. It “might” happen. But, perhaps that’s what our minds do when we just can’t compute things that are uncertain or scary. As we draw closer and closer to the date of surgery, however, it’s becoming more real and concrete. The optimist in me wants to demonstrate that a positive attitude can overcome anything. The scared little girl in me wants to run and hide and cry to her mommy.
Here’s a little about what I’ve learned to expect in the days ahead:
I will report to the hospital at 5:30am to get injected with radioactive blue dye in my tumor area. Super fun! This allows the surgeon to follow the path of the lymphatic fluid and identify and examine the nodes. The surgical oncologist will remove all the breast tissue (as much as they can) to take out the cancerous tumor areas. She will also remove some of the lymph nodes in my armpit area for biopsy. Next, the plastic surgeon steps in and begins the reconstruction. Since I did not qualify for tissue transplant, I will have implants inserted under the skin and the surgeon will use AlloDerm (donated dead tissue) to act as a hammock and keep the implant in place.
As it turns out, I’m a lucky gal because I have smaller breasts (finally a plus!) so I qualify for direct to implant surgery. With this type of surgery, the plastic surgeon places the implants directly following mastectomy rather than the traditional use of placing tissue expanders. In the latter type, women have to have a second surgery after their skin has been stretched slowly (3-6 months) to exchange the tissue expander with the actual implant. So this is very welcomed good news. If I can get through this whole process with only one surgery, I’m going to be so relieved and happy.
A recovery from mastectomy is going to be painful. There’s no getting around it. I’ve been talking with fellow survivors and learning about the post surgery situation. I won’t be able to lift my arms above my head for a couple of weeks. So, washing and brushing my hair will be a real challenge. I won’t be allowed to lift anything over a half-gallon milk for at least two weeks. I’ve been told that the days immediately following the surgery are tough for sleeping and several friends have recommended sleeping in a recliner. Getting up and pushing off of a couch is nearly impossible following surgery so I’ve been told to get as much core exercise now as I can in preparation.
At the time of surgery, they will place drains near the incision site to collect fluid from the area. The drains help the body heal and reduce the chance of infection. I will have to “wear” my drains for about two weeks depending on the amount of fluid. I’ve already ordered a special mastectomy bra and something called Pink Pockets that adhere to clothing so I can discreetly tuck my drains inside my hoodie or sweater. I’m not gonna lie—I hear that they are a real pain and I’m not looking forward to these dangling, unwanted accessories!
Since I went through radiation therapy during my first bout with cancer four years ago, I will have some additional challenges. My plastic surgeon was very thorough in warning me of the many problems that increase as a result of previous radiation. Radiated skin is less elastic and healthy and is more prone to infections and necrosis (fancy term referring to tissue dying). Sometimes radiated skin does not heal well and could lead to delayed wound healing, again upping the odds of infection. Extrusion (the implant coming through the skin) and breast tissue atrophy (implant shape gets wonky) were also thrown out there as possible complications. So, to get through this surgery with peace of mind is going to be my real struggle. I’m praying for no complications or additional surgeries. However, no matter how I slice it, I’ll need additional surgeries in the years ahead. Implants are only built to last 10 years so since I’m on the younger end of cancer (oh yippee), I can expect a few implant swaps down the line. Additionally, I will need ongoing MRIs to ensure the implants do not leak. The physical and financial costs of cancer are unfortunately continuous.
Aside from acclimating myself to all this physical stuff, I’m trying to focus more on the many blessings in my life. My friends and family have been so supportive. The encouraging letters, thoughtful gifts, and uplifting texts and messages have given me such a tremendous appreciation of all that is good in the world. Thank you for showing up for me (AGAIN). When I don’t feel strong, your words and hugs have carried me. It helps me not feel so alone.
I want to tell you that I’m going to “kick its ass” and “battle the beast” and all that warrior talk but I’ve learned that I don’t feel quite that heroic. I’m simply reporting to the hospital with whatever bravery I can muster. I fought cancer the first time and wanted to be a real conquerer. This time, I’m a little wiser. Cancer isn’t predictable and sneaks in even when your eyes are wide open and on the defense. My choice, then, is to face it with grace. I can move forward with gratitude and I can find joy in every small moment despite any hardship. These last four years were never promised to me so I must be grateful for every minute of extra love, laughter, happiness, and adventure. I assure you—I had them all in spades. I can sit with the pain and get back up. We all can, I’m learning, especially when we have each other’s backs.
Please keep those prayers coming that I can have the both the physical and emotional strength to fight through the tough days. I pray I can accept this soon-to-be foreign body and not cringe when I look at myself in a mirror. May I remember who I am on the inside, not just on the outside. I pray I continue to trust that God’s using everything I’m learning for growth. Please pray I can let go of some of the guilt I carry for feeling like an emotional and financial burden for my family. May the beauty arise from the mess.