There Are Silver Linings from My Breast Cancer Journey

There Are Silver Linings from My Breast Cancer Journey

No one wants to get breast cancer, but if you do, if helps to focus on the positives

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No shaving my legs ever again (thanks, chemo) and being forever 21 years old in my chest: perky breasts with no need for a bra. Those are positives I choose to hold on to from my breast cancer journey. But before my forever-young breasts, there was a short time I had no breasts at all.

In spring 2007, I was diagnosed with stage 2a breast cancer, which led me to have a double mastectomy. I never felt as if I used my breasts anyway since I didn't breastfeed my children. Because of all that, I had no problem telling my surgeon, without hesitation, to take them away! Even though only my right one was affected, I thought, "Better safe than sorry."

During the mastectomy surgery, the plastic surgeon literally followed right behind the breast surgeon in the operating room and placed tissue expanders under my skin in preparation for my reconstruction, which would come some months down the road, after chemotherapy was complete.

I remember waking up from the mastectomy surgery and looking at my flat chest. I had never been big to begin with, but now everything looked different. The sight of no breasts was certainly a shock — not to mention the drains hanging from my armpits (two drains coming out of each). The tubes for the drains were pinned to my shirt, so they didn't pull too much against my armpit skin.

Although I didn't really feel anything, and they seemed manageable, the nurse told me I would be begging for them to come out in a few weeks' time. I never felt any pain, but the drains were annoying to have in the way. My skin felt raw, although there was no sign of irritation. And I felt minor stinging. So as predicted, after more than two weeks of collecting and measuring drainage a couple of times a day and trying to navigate around these tubes while showering and dressing, I was more than ready to get those tubes out!

Reconstruction was an interesting and odd process. Little by little, over the course of six months, my temporary expansion "boobs" were growing, growing and growing. The skin has to be overstretched so the surgeon could have some room for the implants to be inserted just so. Then the skin then settles down around them very quickly after surgery.

In order to slowly stretch the skin where the implants would go, the expanders were injected, bit by bit, on a regular basis at the plastic surgeon's office, with a little bit of saline solution through a port. No pain, since there were no nerve endings on the skin any more. Easy in, easy out. I've heard other women express discomfort during this process, but for me, it just felt weird as the expanders got bigger and harder.

You would think that the fluid-filled expanders would feel squishy, but they didn't. They felt as hard as cannonballs. They felt overstretched, overinflated, a little tight at times, and were a bit lopsided (temporarily, of course). And because there are no nerve endings after a mastectomy, I couldn't feel a thing if my chest was bumped into or touched by accident.

In order to keep my children engaged in the journey and not afraid, I used humor often to lighten up many situations. One of the things I did with my 13-year-old daughter was to tell her about this weirdness of zero sensation, and that she could flick or poke my breast skin, for example, and I wouldn't feel a thing. So, there I would be, with my head turned, while she would flick and giggle and be amazed that I couldn't feel anything. One of many silly things we did during these months.

My chemo started in early July and ended in late October. I didn't have radiation because I had radiation to the chest for my Hodgkin lymphoma when I was a teen. In December, I chose from a range of implants that the plastic surgeon showed and explained to me. I was able to touch them, squeeze them - get a real sense of what they would feel like – and make my decision. I chose ones with "memory gel," after a strong recommendation from the doctor and doing some research about them. I joked that, perhaps after they were in place, I could ask my boobs if they remembered where I put my keys or what I forgot to put on my grocery list. 😊 Then onto surgery a couple of weeks later: expanders removed, implants inserted and then another 2 weeks of drains (yay!) and done. Mastectomy in May, new breasts in December.

For a period after getting the implants, I was supposed to push my breasts inward from the sides, then up from underneath, and then down every day so they didn't harden. I was diligent about this practice and, as a result, my implants feel great! I did that massaging routine for longer than recommended, because I have hugged women with hardened implants and it wasn't what I even wanted to risk happening. I went from an A cup to a C cup – nothing crazy, just more proportional - and, yes it's true, I never have to wear a bra again. Really, for me, that is one of the greatest things e-v-e-r! (Read more on 'Bra or no bra? That is the question.')

There are little things that take getting used to with reconstructed breasts, like how they have no sensation to the touch, and how I get phantom itches at times. Those are the most obvious on a daily basis, but like most things, you get used to it. The crease underneath the breast that had the tumor isn't as defined as the other, but the cleavage is good. They also get colder more quickly than other areas. There are times that I've rolled over in the night to cuddle my husband and he'll yelp a little because the unbeknownst-to-me chilly breasts touch his back by surprise!

Overall, I'm very happy with them. My doctor mentioned that if there is an issue years down the line, we may need to replace the implants. Fortunately, I haven't had any issues so far – twelve+ years out. And as it has been a few years since I last had them checked, I will be visiting my doctor in the next few months to ensure that they are still in good shape.

This wouldn't have been my first choice on how on to get bigger, perkier boobs – I don't recommend it - but it is one silver lining from my breast cancer journey.

HealthyBreasts - A guide to caring for your breasts
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