I wonder what it will be like waking up without my breasts in two days
Will my first feelings be of sadness for my missing breasts or gratitude for my missing tumor? Will I remember that I chose this path of a double mastectomy as the best option to keep living a life I love? Will I recall that I made this decision to rid my body of the cancer now and save myself the anxiety of it coming back in my other breast? I’m 44, will I remember that reconstruction and symmetry are important to me and this is the first step? When I wake to a flat chest with only skin, nipples and plastic expanders, not yet filled, will I feel as if a limb is gone? The doctor has said I may have phantom pain. This is not internal surgery on an organ, but an external part of my womanly shape and identity. Will I feel less feminine? When I see the five drains that will empty the fluids from the wounds will I remind myself that the alternative is far worse? When I reach to touch my breasts and they are numb and I realize that I will never again feel them being touched will I be angry I made this choice or grateful I had the option?
I’m trading my real breasts for my life – or perhaps just my sanity. At least that is the bet I am waging. Statistics show the same survival rate for women who have a lumpectomy as those who have a double mastectomy. So maybe I’m just trading my breasts for some control. I want to know that it won’t come back in my breasts. I want certainty that I won’t go through chemo and surgery for cancer in my breasts again. MRIs of both breasts looked suspicious and were hard to read, as my breast tissue is very dense, as is the case with many younger women. So dense that a mammogram did not detect my cancer, even though I found the lump. I don’t want the stress of retesting and having biopsies each time we find something uncertain. I’m done with cancer in my breasts. If it comes back elsewhere in my body… then it’s an entirely different game. Once breast cancer metastasizes it is treatable but not curable. So I’m treating this curable breast cancer as aggressively as it has grown in hopes that it ends here.
I wonder at what point I can declare myself cancer-free. After surgery when the tumor is removed? After all treatments, the radiation oncologist says. But I want to begin thinking it after surgery. I know there are cancer cells, too small to be detected by any advanced scanning, that are likely there. The truly difficult part of cancer, for me, is keeping my mind from spinning into the ‘what if’ questions and staying focused on the ‘what is.’ Cancer treatments live in a world of studies, statistics and percentages. I’m thankful for this, but my mind does better with the present. ‘What is’ on Monday after surgery will be no more detectable cancer in my body. I’ll write that in big letters and tape it on my fridge. I’ll try to imprint it in my mind. I’ll ask my friends to remind me when I am upset, hurting or anxious during the next 3 weeks of recovery and then 3 weeks of reconstruction where my breast implants are filled twice a week. I’ll ask them to remind me again in about 9 months when I go through the final reconstruction surgery. In 6-8 weeks, January 2014, when I begin 6-7 weeks of radiation everyday that makes me fatigued or burns my skin I may forget again. Right now I want to think of radiation as the ‘bonus round,’ icing on the cake, to ensuring I get to keep this cancer-free outcome, but I may not remember this perspective. Yes, let me complain at times, I’ll need that. Don’t expect a superwoman, I’ll cry and feel my experience fully. I’m not one to sugar coat what’s really happening. But help me stay with the “what is” as I go through it. Help me find the beauty in “no more detectable cancer” even before I’m finished with treatments.
Photo by Paige Stoyer of plastic surgeon Dr. Shannon O’Brien as part of her continued “The Real Thing” documentary series. See Plastic Surgery consult SHOOT for more. Shot Week 16 of chemo, Oct 29, 2013