When I woke up on December 17, 2008, I had two intact breasts, though the right one was already scarred and misshapen from two previous surgeries to remove breast cancer. Those surgeries had taken care of the scarier infiltrating ductal carcinoma, but not all of the elusive ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). Hence the decision for this third surgery.
Here is one of the last pictures I have with my real breasts just days before surgery:
I was a month out from my last chemo treatment and there was some hair, light and soft, starting to grow back. Why the smile? Because I was, and remain, grateful to be as fortunate as I have been regarding my run-in with cancer. By then, I was also looking forward to the relief that would come with my third and final surgery, nearly eight months since my diagnosis.
When I came out of anesthesia later that Wednesday afternoon, I was minus five pounds and two breasts following bilateral mastectomy. One of the first things I did as I sat up in my hospital bed was to look at my new chest terrain, as much as I could see with the light bandages, gauze, and steri-strips covering the incisions and stitches. I wasn’t into avoidance and it wouldn’t have served me well in this healing process.
Darcy was there when a nurse came in to check on me, so he got a look early on as well. The surgery was mine. The healing and moving on was for both of us. More than anything, then and now, we remain deeply grateful to be here, still here, continuing our lives together.
I dubbed my chest area “a strange vacancy” and it really was. I wouldn’t get the full effect of the strangeness for a couple weeks because of the bandages and four drain tubes in place. There were two tubes on each side, a few inches below where my breasts used to be. Attached to each tube was a plastic bulb that collected fluid draining from the surgery sites.
Our job when we got home from the hospital was to drain the bulbs and measure the amount twice a day. The amount went down and the color lightened. Signs of healing.
Darcy was a wonderful and patient spouse throughout the months of surgeries and treatment. It was the same after this surgery. He helped me bathe in those first days. Tender care when my emotions and healing were also tender. Not to mention those drain tubes that could be cumbersome and unwieldy. Surgical camisoles were a true God-send. The tubes and bulbs could be contained in the camisole and I also had the semblance of breasts, which I needed at that point.
Sleep came a few hours at a time. The recliner and I were good friends in those first post-surgery days. I recall laying on my side in bed post-mastectomy and really feeling that “strange vacancy.” It’s hard to describe, so I won’t try.
Twelve days later, the drain tubes came out. The steri-strips were mostly off too. Finally, I could take a shower. Just me, myself, and I. That was a freedom I fully appreciated. Incrementally, I had been given some time to get used to being breast-less, protected physically and emotionally by bandages and tubes. Twelve days prepared me for the complete reveal. From there, I fully embraced healing. With some physical therapy and regular exercises I did at home, my arm mobility steadily improved. It wasn’t long before I was putting shirts on over my head again and reaching the higher shelves in the kitchen cupboards.
Incrementally, I healed physically and emotionally. The support of loving family and friends helped sustain me. So did the relief of being done with treatment and surgeries. After this third surgery, my cancer status became NED-no evidence of disease. It remains so. I try not to take that for granted all of these years later.
I am also fortified by the fact that life can go on without breasts, and go on richly. It has for me. I miss my breasts. But I would miss my life so much more.