Mastectomy or “Good-bye, Ms. Right”
I scheduled the mastectomy with my surgeon’s assistant for mid-November. I remember confiding in her about her boss’ stiff bedside manner. She chuckled in understanding, but went on to assure me how deeply he cares about all his patients. I tried not to think too much about losing my breast, but it was impossible to keep my mind off it completely. I remember sitting on the couch with my toddler son sitting under my right arm and leaning his sweet blond curly head against my soon-to-be missing breast. I experienced such a warm feeling of tenderness and nurturing in this simple bond. I made a point of holding this moment in my mind, remembering every loving feeling and sensation. I can still vividly recall everything that this simple moment held for me. The night before the mastectomy of my right breast, I climbed into bed wearing a sheer pink tank top and underpants. I lay down next to my husband, and we both in some way said our good-byes to my right breast. I viewed it through the lace of the top, so that the scars from the prior surgeries were veiled and the beauty was easier to behold. Then, I turned out the light. I never looked again.
I worked on using visualization techniques to picture a flawless surgery and an easy recovery. I had purchased a book prior to surgery that helped with accepting one’s body post-mastectomy. It discussed the many feelings that come up before and after the surgery, as well as recommended techniques to pull one through the surgery. It really helped prepare me for what I would experience and validated many related feelings, as well as provided suggested visualizations to employ prior to surgery. This helped me feel that I had influence over the outcome.
Once again, my mother came up for the surgery and to care for me afterwards. We, along with my husband, drove up to the hospital early that November morning. It was surreal to me. I was admitted and taken to a room to disrobe and don hospital garb. While in admittance, I was visited by a surgical assistant. He asked if I would be willing to be part of a study pertaining to the brain’s responses to anesthesia, seeing if they could detect when the patient would be coming closer to consciousness. I agreed to do it. This man had a wonderful way with three anxious people. I can’t remember what he said, but I felt such a heavenly warmth coming from him, as if he truly were an angel. My mother felt this too. She was quite upset as she walked away from saying good bye before my surgery, and this man put his arm around her shoulder and said the most comforting things. I felt so grateful. With this surgery, I didn’t have to worry about the “radio boob” set-up, because the whole breast was coming off. However, since I agreed to be a part of this study, it required that I wear something that resembled an old television antenna on my head, to monitor my brain’s responses. I just could not get away from the absurdity!
As I came to after the surgery, the same shakes and chills engulfed me as before, and once again, warm blankets were administered. It took me a minute to recall what had just occurred. I peered down from my prone position and certainly noticed a lack of symmetry, but not as flat as I imagined. This was mainly due to the amount of bandages and the swelling beneath it. I was not upset. Rather, I felt an odd curiosity, as if I was observing someone else’s body. More like a “would you look at that – hmmmm.” I was in the hospital for a couple of days to heal. At one point, I woke to the words, “well, hello Sleeping Beauty.” I opened my eyes to see my so-called cold-hearted surgeon peering down at me. What a smile he got from me. It caused me to wonder if his assistant had had a word with him.
I was sent home with extra bandages and a set of instructions to care for myself at home. In addition, I was once again hooked up to a Jackson-Pratt (J-P) tube and container. Aside from all else, this particular appendage makes one truly feel like a freak of nature. I’m already staring at the place where my right breast used to be that is now covered in bandages, and now to top it off, I’ve got this tube running from it that collects the “runoff” in a little plastic bottle. And to make matters more unpleasant, I’m directed to push this fluid through the tube, forcing it into the container, so I can measure its contents and record this number on paper three times per day, in order to keep track of my progress. It was good to have a job.
I mentioned that my mother is a breast cancer survivor as well. I was the exact same age as she was (thirty-eight) when I had my mastectomy. We even had the same side removed. I’d seen the results of her surgery since I was fourteen years old. It was a stark picture. She had a radical mastectomy performed on her, whereby they take the breast tissue and even the muscle. She was stripped down almost to skin and bones. I knew that I would not look as severe as this, and even though I tried to visualize what I might look like in order to prepare myself, it was still a frightening prospect to remove the bandages and behold what would be the “new me.” My sister-in-law, who was a nurse, came over to help me. Her presence gave me some comfort and confidence to go ahead and assess everything. I slowly pulled away the surgical tape and gently peeled back the gauze. Because the area was still a bit swollen, it appeared as the budding bosom of an adolescent girl. I was thinking, I could live with this, that it wasn’t so bad. But as the swelling went down and I was finally free of the Jackson-Pratt apparatus, I truly saw what I was left without. My hand would constantly run over this vacant space, like our tongues often go to the site of a missing tooth. It was so odd to feel each rib from the top rung to the bottom, as if running my hand down a washboard. I sleep on my left side, so it was also an odd sensation to feel my right arm drop completely down across my chest without my breast to hold it higher. I bolstered this area with a small pillow to simulate the position for my arm, so that I could better fall asleep. Otherwise, these moments caused me to dwell further upon my loss. My fingers could feel this area, but I could not feel my fingers touching me, due to the numbness from nerve death. I would experience phantom sensations that brought on feelings of mourning for my loss. My hand felt compelled to return to this vacant spot, as if to ask me, what happened? What did you do with it? The rest of me was thinking, oh my god, this really happened – this inalterably happened.
I was sent home with a foam rubber form to place in my bra until I could be fitted for a prosthesis a few weeks later. And while I didn’t venture out very much during this time, I felt like everyone could tell what had happened to me in just one glance. At some point, I threw this form into the wash. Then, while it was swishing around in the machine, I saw my neighbor across the street and remembered that I had to tell her something. Without thinking, I ran over to her and midway, realized that I had no camouflage. Luckily, I was wearing a loose top, so I hunched forward, crossed my arms and talked fast. I was more concerned about making her uncomfortable than about my own embarrassment. On another wash day, after I was given permission to drive again, I rolled up a sock, shaping it as best as I could and went to the grocery store. I felt like a space alien, trying to fit in on planet Earth. I kept expecting an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” moment, when I would be discovered and pointed at with a horrific scream.
I was given a set of exercises to do a couple of times a day and was faithful about doing them. My goal was to be in the best possible shape before beginning chemotherapy.
At my next appointment with Dr. B to discuss the details of my chemotherapy, we began by going over the pathology report from the mastectomy. I learned that they found three more centimeters of tumor, bringing my staging up a bit to a 2b stage. Lobular breast cancer is tricky like that, because it can snake around in there. I felt vindicated for losing my breast – there was a very valid reason for this loss. I experienced a greater level of acceptance, believing this sacrifice contributed greatly to saving my life. I still missed my breast, but understood the benefits of losing it.
Shortly before beginning chemotherapy, I was fitted for a prosthesis at the Friends Boutique at Dana-Farber, your one-stop shopping for cancer-related camouflage. Hats, wigs, scarves, caps, bathing suits with special inserts – they had it all. The people who work there are often cancer survivors themselves and have a great sensitivity to their clients. Julie helped me select a couple of bras, then we selected the right size in a prosthesis to match my remaining breast. It made such a difference in my level of confidence, and it sure beat the sock! In addition, I threw in a couple of comfortable caps in anticipation of losing my hair. My mother was with me. We had an odd mother-daughter shopping moment as my mother ordered herself a new prosthesis too. Just two girls out shopping! I was given a set of instructions on how to care for my prosthesis and sold some special products to assist with this. What a very humbling moment this was for me every night, as I removed this silicone replica from my bra, washed it and put it in a box every night. As I held this form in my hand, still warm from resting against my chest, I relived the sensations of losing my breast. I could fool myself with clothes on. The form was a perfect match and quite comfortable in the special prosthesis bra, hanging with the same weight as the real breast, but when I removed it at the end of the day, the stark truth revealed itself, and a moment of mournful sadness would envelop me.
My son was almost two years old at this point and already had quite a vocabulary. Still, when he asked what this thing was, I didn’t think he was ready for the word, “prosthesis,” so I called it my fake boob. He was fascinated. He would ask to see my “fake boob,” then my real boob. The other vocabulary word I came up later with was “hair hat” when referring to my wig. It rested on a stand on my dresser when it wasn’t on my head. He loved going over to investigate it.
-Excerpt from Thank You, Cancer – The Hidden Gems from Adversity
By Susan De Lorenzo