When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I spent a lot of time thinking about my breasts. I started thinking back to all the insecurities I have felt over the years about my body. As women, we tend to pick apart our bodies so much that we are left feeling unhappy with the body we live in. We beat ourselves up for not looking like the actresses on TV and the models in the magazines we read. As I began to discuss the surgery options ahead, I realized that I never loved my body enough and I was out of time to make up for it. My boob was killing me and I had no choice but to remove it as soon as possible.
A lumpectomy was not an option for me due to the size of my tumor as compared to the overall size of my breast. So it came down to one boob or two. I spent hours, maybe even days, trying to decide which surgery to proceed with. My doctors provided me with all the information necessary to make the decision; pros and cons, risks and benefits and then they empowered me to make the decision. My genetic testing was negative for BRAC 1 & 2, my lymph nodes were not infected, I did not have a strong family history of cancer, and there was no evidence of cancer or abnormalities in the other breasts. So, the decision came down to my emotional well being and which route I was most comfortable with long term.
This is where I will stop and say that whatever surgery you choose, will be right for you. You know yourself and you know what’s best for you (taking into consideration your doctor’s recommendations of course). No one is in a place to judge you for the decision you make. My husband made made it very clear that he would not provide a recommendation on this matter. He would talk through the pros and cons with me and offer support, but he did not want his opinion to sway me in anyway. Knowing that I am a worrier, I did not think that I could live with the fear of the cancer coming back in my other breast. I didn’t think I could take the added stress of ultrasounds every 6 months, and the constant unknown. So I decided to go with a double mastectomy. I wanted all the cancer gone and I wanted to eliminate as much risk of recurrence as possible. My surgeon did not want to do both surgeries at once though, due to the risk of infection and how that might impact or delay my chemo, so we decided to complete the second mastectomy and the reconstruction after I finish chemo.
So how does one emotionally prepare for a mastectomy? I tried reading blogs, medical websites, books and talking to survivors, but nothing prepared for me the experience. I will do a separate post with specifics about what to bring to the hospital, clothing choices and tips for after surgery. I read one blog that referred to the mastectomy as an amputation and I think that was the most helpful way for me to look at it. You are quite literally removing a part of your body and while you may not need that part of your body to live, losing it will have a profound impact on your life. I woke up from surgery and realized that a piece of me was gone. Just like with any other loss, I traveled through a variety of emotions. First I felt denial and fear. I had to wear a compression vest after the surgery and I could not look at my body. Even when my husband and my mom would open the vest to check my swelling or clean my drain, I could not bare to look down. I had to hide my eyes. It took me over a week to get to a place where I could even look at the scar. Then I felt angry. Angry at the cancer, angry at the doctors and angry at life for forcing me to undergo this change . I had to keep reminding myself that there was a bigger reason for my surgery; that surgery saved my life. Intertwined with anger was sadness. I mourned the body I lost, and felt sadness every day when I looked in the mirror and saw a body I didn’t recognize. I felt like Frankenstein, pieced together with stitches and glue. Lastly, I experienced acceptance. It takes time and I will admit that I am not fully there four weeks later, but I am beginning to look at my body differently. I am beginning to accept this chance to love myself again and embrace this body that has given me a second chance at life.
I know I have a long road ahead of me: chemo, another surgery and reconstruction. I think this first surgery has changed my life forever. Never again will I look at my body the same. Never again will I take for granted this body I have and the life it allows me to live. I hope that other people can take my experience and reflect on their bodies. I can’t tell you enough how beautiful you are. You have to love your body, flaws and all, because you never know when something might come along that will change the way you see yourself forever.
Another young cancer survivor shared a great resource with me before my surgery that has helped me see the beauty and the strength in my post-surgery body. It is called the SCAR Project. If you have a chance, check it out here. This project is a compilation of large scale portraits by David Jay, which bring awareness to the breast cancer struggle and show how the scars unite young breast cancer survivors everywhere.