Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mastectomy - the hardest decision (& probably the best) I ever made

I was diagnosed in October of 2009; I had three tumors in my right breast. One was very large and had grown quickly. They also detected something on my left, but it was smaller. So when Dr. Roderick Quiros sat down, looked me in the eyes and told me that he recommended a mastectomy on the right and a lumpectomy on the left, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. Matt was sitting next to me, and I could almost feel the wind being knocked out of him as well.

You know, I’d seen ads for breast cancer and at that moment, I remembered watching them, thinking, “that has to be the worst thing for a woman to be told”; never dreaming that those words were going to be spoken to me.

I knew Matt was taking it really hard; not that I would lose a breast, but that I could lose my life. So I tried to be as positive as possible. Dr. Quiros recommended that I get a tissue expander put in at the same time as the mastectomy, so I clung to that. There would be something where my breast had been.

I went online, hoping to get an idea of what I’d look like after surgery. There are many courageous women out there; I wish I could thank them for showing what a woman looks like after her breast, or breasts, have been removed.

Still, that doesn’t prepare you for the real thing.

I can’t say that I’ve never been more scared, because I have. My son isn’t supposed to be alive. He had many birth defects, and out of only 51 documented cases, only he and one other baby survived. That was the scariest time of my life; this came in a close second, though.

The day of surgery was Hell on earth. I thought I was going to go in the hospital, be put out, and wake up with everything done. But that’s not what happened.

The small lump on the left side needed to be identified prior to surgery, since it was so small. I didn't realize how it was going to happen, and looking back, that was a really good thing.

Normal mammograms compress your breast, and it’s uncomfortable, but as soon as they take the image, it’s released. To locate this small tumor, the machine compressed it until it was almost flat. They couldn’t see it. They turned me & posed me in different directions. Each agonizing time, they flattened my breast almost completely and couldn't let the pressure up for 20-30 seconds. Still, they couldn't locate it.

This went on for what seemed an eternity, but I believe it was only half hour. It hurt so bad I was openly crying, and the girls wanted to stop. I wouldn’t let them, though, because I knew it was important to get even that tiny spot out of me; we pressed on.

Finally, they found it, and told me that they were going to stick a needle from underneath the breast to mark it. I had to stand there with my breast almost flattened, while they inserted a long needle inside. And I mean, it was a long needle – a good twelve inches.

I thought the imaging was done, but it wasn’t. I had to have another imaging procedure. Some type of dye inserted, and I was put in a machine and posed in different positions, holding completely still. With 12 inches of a needle sticking out of me. Finally, after being there for hours, it was time to take me to surgery. At that point, I was actually looking forward to the anesthesia.

Right before they put me under, I remember crying.

After the surgery, it didn’t look too bad. I mean, they’d put the tissue expander in, so it looked like I still had a boob. A small, nipple-less boob, but there was something there. I thought that it might not be so bad after all.

I came home, and set about getting ready for Christmas. There was supposed to be snow on Christmas Eve, and I was really looking forward to it.

On the 23rd, however, I started feeling bad, and began running a fever. At times, it spiked to 104.1. Dr. Morrissey originally thought that it was probably due to the last drain tube that he’d removed. I was in a lot of pain and had a lot of swelling, so Dr. Morrissey wanted to surgically reinsert the drain tube. Surgery was set for Tuesday, the 29th.

When I awoke, the tissue expander had been removed. Turns out, I had contracted MRSA during the original surgery, and the six days of fever and pain were actually a raging infection. Dr. Morrissey remarked that he’d never seen anything like it.

Swell. Not only did my real boob try to kill me, now its fake cousin was giving it a shot!

Due to it, I spent the next two months in and out of surgery. Just when we thought the MRSA was gone, it came back.

Finally, Dr. Morrissey admitted me to the hospital, and left the wound open. I was on IV meds, and they cleaned the wound twice daily. Gotta be honest; it hurt. But it was finally over; it was time to begin chemo.

The thing is, my mind was occupied during those months. I was too busy trying to stay alive, I didn’t notice the fact that not only wasn’t there a little bump anymore, there was actually an indentation. I finally took a good look at myself and it was hard. There’s really no way to explain that feeling, other than, well, horror.

Due to all the surgeries, my scar was about half an inch wide; my breast bone protruded a little, but below it was an indentation. I knew I was going to lose a breast, but I didn’t think I would be concave.

I hated to shower because I could see what I thought of as a mutation. Getting dressed was another reminder; especially putting a bra on. The American Cancer Society was awesome, and they gave me an allowance to purchase a breast form (I didn't hear anything from Susan G. Komen Foundation - but that's a story for another time).

Gotta be honest, though. When I saw it, I had to laugh. The thing was basically triangular, which was supposed to mimic how a natural breast would sag a little. It was weird; and being the dork that I am, I’d whip that bad boy out to show anybody who wanted to see it.

Still, I felt different. Almost like a freak. The thing is, I know that who I am isn’t tied to whether or not I have breasts. And in fact, how shallow am I, when we have soldiers returning from battle missing limbs. They have to deal with learning day to day tasks all over again. And here I am, missing a breast. I’ll bet that women who’ve come home minus a leg would trade places with me in a heartbeat.

The logical, rational part of me knows that; but we women are emotional creatures. It’s a real struggle for me; I wish I could be as self confident as some of the other women whose stories I’ve read. I actually saw a blog where a woman was topless on a beach after having a double mastectomy and no reconstruction. I was blown away that this beautiful woman was so comfortable in her own skin, she didn’t feel the need to undergo reconstruction surgery. I hope I’ll get to that point.

The thing is, though, that had I not had the mastectomy, I might not be alive. In fact, I met several women during my treatments (chemo & radiation) that had lumpectomies, only to find out that their cancer had metastasized. Now they’re in fights for their very survival. They felt that had they undergone complete removal, they might not be in the situation they found themselves in.

Not being a doctor, however, I have no idea of whether or not their decision to save their breast was the reason their cancer had spread. I’m just reporting what I was told; what other women believed.

Either way, I’ve been declared cancer free, and I plan to keep it that way. I’ve also begun reconstruction. My new plastic surgeon, Dr. Neal Topham, is a genius. Dr. Morrissey suggested that I see a micro surgeon, due to all the complications. He didn't think he could do as good a job. To me, that's the mark of a really good doctor - he knew his limitations and wanted only what was best for me.

Dr. Topham did what’s called a DIEP (Deep Inferior Epigastric Artery Perforator) flap. What that means is he took tissue, fat and skin from my lower abdomen and created a new breast. We’re calling it my bionic, baby, Barbie boob. It’s bionic since he made it better, baby because it’s so new, and Barbie because it doesn’t have a nipple.

I have to say that the scar is pretty intense, but they say it’ll fade in time. Man, I hope so. Still, it’s much thinner than the half inch scar I’d been sporting for a year and a half!

One of the perks of this procedure is a tummy tuck. If you’ve had children, and especially if you had a c-section, you know that there’s excess skin in our abdominal region. Sometimes, it’s almost impossible to get rid of, no matter how much you diet & exercise. So, that was awesome.

However, this is only the first in a three part process. Next up, since Dr. Quiros was taking no prisoners during the lumpectomy, a large part of my left breast was taken, causing it to look much smaller than before. On January 12th, I’m having surgery to both lift it, and insert an implant. My two girls will once again be the same size – woo hoo!

The third part is making a nipple for my bionic, baby, Barbie boob. After they create it, they’ll tattoo it to match ol’ lefty. I should have a complete set this time next year.

I’m also hoping that by this time next year I’ll have gotten over my feelings of inferiority. I hope that I’ll be able to look in the mirror and not cringe at the sight of my chest. I’d say I’m on the way to accepting my new “normal”, but it’s still a process. I’m taking it one day at a time.

The thing is, I can take it one day at a time. I’m alive and I plan to stay that way for a very long time.

Besides, Matt wouldn’t know what to do with himself without me around to annoy the living daylights out of him. He doesn’t seem to mind it as much when I do dumb stuff or spend money on something trivial.

He’s actually happy that he can still say, “Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do!”


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