A recipe for living with cancer.

Posts tagged ‘breasts’

Standing like Wonder Woman

Two weeks until surgery and I am starting to get butterflies in my stomach.  I have been anxious and worried but now it’s getting worse.

The whole process of breast cancer therapy is daunting, never-ending (seemingly), a free fall and painful.  It is physically painful and emotionally painful for a long time, and the fear of a recurrence never leaves our consciousness.  The therapy process, once you understand it, is horrific in terms of anticipation and actuation, and yet we all seem to make it through.  Surgery is disfiguring and painful and the loss of a piece of your body inculcates us, we will never be the same, we need to change our body image and if you already have body image issues this just becomes another one to add to the list.  My hips are big, thighs are fat, arms are flabby, my neck is wrinkled, my hair is thin and now my breasts are… are… not there.

The mounds sitting on my chest as a result of a water balloon (commonly called skin expander) inserted and stretched to a size A/B are amorphous numb lumps that neither resemble my breasts, nor have any sensation at all. That is not true, the muscles in my breast are painful and weird in that they hurt and I can feel them move and flex when I do certain movements.  When exercising and stretching the place where the fake skin is attached hurts and pulls. The chest muscles were cut at the bottom and attached to a piece of ‘processed’ skin and reattached then lifted to the skin surface to form a pouch.  The water balloon is slipped in underneath the muscle into the pouch and filled with saline to the size you want, require or desire.

Any sexuality associated with sensation and my breasts is gone and likely will never return, never to what it was.  What will my impending breast surgery afford me once finished?  A facsimile of my breasts that will neither feel, look, nor function as before, although I do not need it to function as a milk station any longer.  They will look like breasts, possibly feel like breasts, but they will not really be breasts, they will be “chunks” of stomach tissue, muscle and fat cut from my stomach area (obviously) and stuffed into the man-made pocket made by the water balloons.  I think a lot about what they will look like, what will it feel like and what scars will remain.  I currently have five-inch scars on each breast bisecting the breast side to side.  I was quite taken aback when I first saw these scars expecting them to be much smaller and not quite so obvious.

I have spent the last year obsessed with breasts, scars, reconstruction surgery, before and after pictures, nipple tattoos, scar tattoos, blogs, websites and reviews of anything and everything to do with breast cancer, breast surgery, reconstruction of breasts and breast outcomes.  To look at my history on the computer one might begin to wonder just what kind of gruesome disturbed person I am looking at all these things.  I’ve watched mastectomy and reconstruction surgery videos over and over to become comfortable with what they will be doing and to better understand the process.  Too much information is not always a good thing.  Now I worry, what if I don’t like them, what if they are still uncomfortable like the water balloons, what if I am making a mistake and should just be flat, what if I don’t make it through surgery, or I have complications, what if what if what if.  I need to go into this surgery with a different attitude, a Wonder Woman attitude of success, instead of a what happens if it is a failure?

Brent told me about a TED talk the other day: Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are.  It talks about going into a stressful situation and how you go in shapes how you come out.  For example a job interview: go in tentative and uncertain, not feeling adequate for the job and chances are you come out without getting the job.  Go in confident, assured, knowing you can vanquish the world, go in like Wonder Woman and chances are you will get the job. Take a look at the Amy Cuddy video then think of me the day of surgery.  Right before I go in, I will be standing there next to the gurney for 2 minutes, huge blue gown hanging down to my calves-open in the back-attractive paper cap on my head, IV hanging from my arm, gray socks on my feet, hands on my hips, standing like Wonder Woman, ready to vanquish the world!

 

Two bowling balls on my chest

Traveling with skin expanders should be no different from everyday living, right? Every time I fly I feel the expanders get harder as if they have had more saline injected i into them.  I know this isn’t true, I know the saline is inert and should not expand under pressure, but I swear, every time I fly, the next day I feel like I have two bowling balls on my chest.  They feel fuller and  more pressure than before, but this is not logical.  After just writing the post on hypochondria I should be able to say, it’s all in my mind, but it’s not, its in my chest and painful.  It doesn’t look bigger, the tension when you press on it seems the same, yet it feels different.  Could this be phantom pain?

UPMC recently called me and asked if i would participate in a survey based on my bilateral mastectomy and phantom breast pain.  I’d thought about this a lot since the mastectomy and had moments when I thought I was nuts.  Moments when I had the feeling of let-down associated with nursing a baby.  The first few times it happened was early on and there was still much discomfort from the surgery.  But later after most of the discomfort had disappeared I would suddenly feel that let down, and would look down, almost expecting the milk to start flowing.  The questions on the survey involved mostly itching and pain and I was surprised that someone else knew about this.  It still amazes me how much of a bubble we reside in during breast cancer…of course other people feel these things.  And of course you would, you just lopped off two very sensitive body parts and how could I not expect to have phantom pain?  The pain wasn’t the worst part, it was the itching–I will get this terrible itch and need to scratch, and when you go to touch it, you are totally numb, so scratching has no effect on the itch.

This is mind bending, having this incredible itch and having no way of effecting it.  But cancer and cancer treatment in and of itself is mind bending.  Removal of breasts, infusions of toxic substances, radiation producing blistering burns all in the name of healing.  And our bodies do heal, and our minds chug along behind trying to make sense of it all.   Someone called me a survivor the other day, the first time since this began.  I don’t feel like a survivor, I feel embattled, tired and confused.  Everyone marvels at my great attitude and how great I look, how upbeat I am.  And I am, unless I get off a plane I’ve been on overnight and feel two bowling balls on my chest.  Then I feel this is the confused time, the tired time, the time I may not be so upbeat.  But then my overnight plane ride brought me to Israel and I get upbeat again.  So big deal, two bowling balls on my chest, it’s only temporary, surgery is soon…then I’ll have something else to complain about!

Does this Make Me Look FAT?

Some things never change, like our perception of our body.  I have always been overweight heavy thighs, big butt and as I age growing waistline.  I have dieted up and down hundreds of pounds and have been obsessed with the way I look from the waist down.  My breasts and my hair have never been part of this obsession because you can always cover hair, pull it back or wash it quick in the sink if all else fails.  My breasts were always just there, an ok size and shape and neither offensive nor of particular concern.

Therefore I guess it was no surprise when I decided to “go commando,” as Tom likes to say, and not cover my bald head after losing my hair.  Apparently I have a nice shaped head with “no divots” as Brent and everyone else commented.  And caring for a bald head as opposed to a head of hair…incredible, fast, easy and you NEVER have to worry if it looks good! The hardest part was actually losing my eyebrows and eyelashes because this has a dramatic effect on the appearance of your face.  Judy mentioned the word ghost and I realized that is a perfect description of how you look without them.  I would get up each morning and there was a washed out ghostly look to my face and a person who I did not recognize.

As my eyebrows and lashes have come back (eyebrows are really thin, oh well) I look in the mirror and there is color once again and I am starting to recognize the reflection.

Having my breasts removed has also been a bit odd in that I have not “mourned” their loss, but been grateful to have the cancer taken out.  I am alive, what more could one ask for.

After all of this– Tom and I walked out Saturday morning to take a walk in the beautiful weather.  As we walked out the door I turned to Tom and asked, “do these sweatpants make me look fat?”

He looked at me in disbelief and said, “I can’t believe you are asking me if you look fat after going for all these months with no hair.  Are you crazy?”

Some things never change.

Here is a great picture of Tom and me at Elizabeth’s wedding in October.   We are starting to look like twins as my hair grows in! Do you think this dress makes me look fat?  Just kidding!

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