As I prepare for my reconstruction surgery on Tuesday, I’m finally ready to open up and provide some more information about my mastectomy and the reconstruction process. It’s a much more sensitive and difficult topic to discuss not only because it’s the most painful and permanent part of the cancer/treatment but it also feels much more personal. I mean, it’s my actual breasts I’m talking about (both old and new) as opposed to a more abstract-feeling concept like cancer cells. But I’m committed to being as open and candid about this entire process as possible. So to help me tackle this issue I’ve asked my “friend of a cancer haver” and now second time guest blogger, Kellie, to help me out with a Q&A session.
Before I begin with the Q&A I’d like to make a quick but profound statement about mastectomies in general. THEY SUCK. Ok, now onto the Q&A.
Q: Is your reconstruction basically like getting plastic surgery?
A: I referenced above that mastectomies suck. That’s because they’re less like a free boob job and more like a traumatic (both physically and emotionally) amputation with a slow, painful rebuilding process. It also comes with some permanent side effects like numbness, scars, the inability to breast feed, etc. I’d like to also point out that reconstruction is a choice. Some women opt to remain flat without rebuilding the breast at all and I applaud those women. I applaud their strength to say screw it, I don’t need you new boobs! It’s a very personal choice and I admire each and every woman who has gone through this process with or without reconstruction. So I’d say, no it’s nothing like getting plastic surgery. As you read on, I think you’ll agree with me.
Q: What’s the difference between your old boobs and the ones you’ll have after your reconstruction?
A: Well that’s easy, my new boobs won’t try to kill me like my old ones did.
Q: Is it out of line to ask if i can touch them?
There’s a long and a short answer here. I’ll start with the short – yes, it’s out of line. And the longer answer – hell yes it’s SO out of line and ridiculous to think it would be ok. It would be as pleasant and appropriate as touching someone’s eyeball. This applies to everyone and not just you, Kellie.
Q: Was there anything you had to do to prepare for the reconstruction?
A: Aside from logistical preparations, it’s all mental. Before my mastectomy I was petrified. I’ll never forget walking into the hospital holding back tears almost unable to speak to the woman checking me in. But I kept reminding myself that so many women before me have made it through this and that I’ll wake up and be closer to the cancer-free me that I want. The mental preparation for my reconstruction surgery is more like my brain yelling HELL YES! This surgery is definitely a more positive milestone. As far as the logistical preparations, there are some key items I bought to help with recovery that I highly recommend to anyone undergoing this kind of surgery – not just mastectomies but anything involving your upper body (like my brother having neck surgery recently – OUCH)….
1) Wedge pillow – this was completely necessary because being flat on my back was impossible for weeks. The pressure of lying back was too painful but also, I was unable to use the muscles required to sit back up again. So this was a MUST.
2) Neck pillow – this helped keep me in a comfortable position even after I graduated from the wedge pillow.
3) Heating pads – after surgery it was almost impossible to unhunch my shoulders because I was trying to protect my newly amputated chest as well as not disturb the surgical drain tubes coming out of my armpits. Because of all that, as well as the awkward sleeping positions, I needed to relax my muscles with heating pads occasionally and it felt like a plug-in masseuse for my back.
4) Button down shirts – putting a shirt over my head took a couple of weeks so having button down shirts for sleeping and going out in public was life saving.
5) Tumbler with straw – I couldn’t lift drinks all the way up or move my upper body much at all so having a straw was awesome! At times I wished it were filled with wine or margaritas but alas, it works even for water to wash down pain killers.
Q: Do you/will you have nipples?
A: This question is really interesting to me because it’s the one thing people (including myself at first) are most surprised by. And the answer is this, I’m not telling you. What I will tell you is that some women are able to keep their nipples while some women are not – all depending on the tumor’s location and size as well as how aggressive it is. In general, women with “big bad” tumors are not candidates for keeping their nipples. When women do have their nipples removed, the 4-6 inch incisions span across the entire front of the breast as opposed to it being in a discreet, under-the-breast location. The good news is for women left with these drastic cosmetic changes, there are now a lot of great options that provide the realistic look of a nipple including reconstruction using your own skin or 3D tattoos. However, the nipples will never functionally be the same and for that reason, I don’t think I’ll be opting for either option. I’ll likely get a more artistic, bad ass tattoo to cover the scars. I guess I just answered the question. Moving along…
Q: How long is the surgery and what does it consist of?
A: My mastectomy surgery in December was 8 hours long. That included 6 hours to remove all of the breast tissue, which is more than you might think because breast tissue spans from armpit to armpit to almost up to your collar bone. Some women who are not undergoing any additional treatment (radiation/chemo) may be able to have immediate reconstruction at the same time but that was not the case for me. The remaining 2 hours were spent inserting tissue expanders underneath the muscle, which are essentially very hard, plastic, deflated implants. They then glued my approximately 5-inch incisions back up (yup no stitches or bandages – just glue holding me together like a model airplane).
Over the past 4 months I’ve had the tissue expanders gradually filled with a saline solution through a needle inserted through the skin into the expander. This causes the expander to push the muscle and skin out to make room for the permanent implant – hence the term expander.
Now that I’m finished with chemo and the expanders are filled up, the final reconstruction surgery will be a quick 1-hour procedure to remove the tissue expander and put in the permanent implant, which is no different from the implant one would receive with an elective, cosmetic breast augmentation.
Q: How long will it take to recover?
A: After my mastectomy I spent 2 days in the hospital with a cocktail of morphine and oxycodone pain killers. Morphine sounds extreme, doesn’t it? But let me tell you, it was necessary. I’ve never been in that much pain in my entire life. As the anesthesia and numbing nerve-blockers wore off I started to actually shiver, convulse and cry in pain. The good news is once the pain did start to subside I saw major improvements each day. I also had to deal with limited range of motion in my arms and scar tissue, which required physical therapy. It took months in order to do any physical activity requiring my arms or chest muscles. Recovery after my reconstruction surgery will be a lot less painful and traumatic than the mastectomy – in fact I’m told I’ll have immediate relief from not having the tissue expanders anymore and I’ll be able to return to normal activities in about 4 weeks.
Q: Do you have to wear a bra after your reconstruction and/or have you missed wearing a bra?
A: Nope! I mean, I’m sure I’ll have to wear them for aesthetic purposes once in a while but not for functional reasons. I always knew I was a flower child at heart but now it’s confirmed – ban the bra! It’s as liberating as not having any hair to deal with.
This ends our mastectomy/reconstruction Q&A session! Thank you, Kellie, for your insightful questions. The answers and information here is all limited to my knowledge and personal experience – each woman’s experience is different so for a very detailed overview to better understand it all here’s a great website you can visit: