Unlike losing a limb in an accident or other tragedy where there is obvious pain and trauma, losing your breasts, that appear normal and healthy on the outside can be hard to wrap your mind around. With Breast Cancer and especially those who are getting a prophylactic mastectomy you can not always see the potential trauma happening within your chest. Even more difficult to imagine, is convincing yourself to wake up on an ordinary morning, get ready and walk into a hospital and have your breasts surgically removed.
As a young girl I remember waiting for the the arrival of breasts with great anticipation. As a woman I loved how full and beautiful I felt. I was blessed with three incredible daughters and I breastfed them, I treasured those moments with them. Like most women, I felt my chest, my breasts were a symbol of beauty and nurturing. It is a source of safety, comfort and love for our little ones, for our partners and for ourselves. When we embrace those we care about we pull them into our chest and nearer to our hearts. I loved my breasts, I really loved them and I knew I would miss them.
Many of us have seen the incredible photos of brave women photographed after mastectomy to educate and raise awareness for breast cancer. I love and respect their beautiful work and the strong message these women share. I just don’t know if I could ever be so brave.
What you do not see in these photos is how a mastectomy looks during the weeks and months right after surgery before the women have fully healed. The scar is raw, there are stitches where there once was a breasts, drains running from body, redness, swelling, and a lumpy, oddly shaped area where her breasts used to be. Nor do these photos show you what goes through a woman’s mind and heart the first time she looks at herself after surgery. They do not show you how she struggles to unwrap her bandages for the first time, trying to comprehend what she seeing. The photos do not show you the time she spent alone crying on the bathroom floor. This can be a horrifying, devastating moment for most women who have had their breasts removed.
It is almost impossible to grasp what you are seeing reflected back at you in the mirror after a mastectomy, there is nothing familiar in front of you to hold on to. You have to rationalize it, to somehow convince yourself that you are going to be okay, that this will be okay, as you try to recognize yourself. In this moment you are almost certain you will never, ever feel normal again. A mastectomy is a removal of a beloved part of your body, it is a loss of what you once thought made you a woman.
As with any amputation the person losing a part of their body is often offered options for prosthetics and/or reconstruction, some choose this option and others do not. The options available to mastectomy patients range from the use of pads, prosthetic bras and/or surgical reconstructions. There is no perfect answer here, each option has very different pros and cons and it is a deeply personal choice. Having recently gone through a couple phases of surgical reconstruction, I can absolutely understand why many women choose not to have it.
Reconstruction surgeries can be more involved and have just as many risks and side effects as mastectomy surgery. Emotionally, some women want to be done with the treatments and surgeries and just move forward with their lives and for some, reconstruction is just not option. Keep in mind that not all reconstructions are successful and for a woman who has endured the extra surgeries in the hopes of being reconstructed this is another difficult blow.
For me the reconstruction surgeries were even more painful and took longer for me to heal than my double mastectomy. I was seriously not prepared for the recovery from reconstructive surgery and I found myself in need of more support than I ever imagined. Whatever a woman chooses to do regarding her reconstruction she must be supported and respected.
I am grateful for the choice I have and for the advances made in reconstruction surgery options. I am glad that I was able to choose a double mastectomy instead of being forced to only have a single mastectomy. I am grateful that my dedicated surgeon continues to educate and challenge herself to improve her skills. As I write this I am preparing for my second of three surgeries for my reconstruction and as great as my reconstruction might be, I will not be the same. I don’t know when or if I will be comfortable with this new me.
It takes time to get familiar with this new version of you and even longer to embrace it. It takes time for the scars to heal and time to learn how to love this new version of you, and to maybe, just maybe even be grateful for it. You are forced to dig deep and really focus on what your definition of a woman is. You have to choose to be stronger than you ever imagined and actively plot your course to a full physical and emotional recovery.
I don’t write this because I want sympathy or pity. I have complete confidence that this was the right treatment for me. There is a great amount of relief and joy in knowing that I have potentially saved my life and at the very least I have greatly improved the quality of my life.
What I do want is for people to understand that a woman, every woman, going through reconstruction needs and deserves just as much support as she did during her mastectomy. Reconstruction surgeries are not glamorous. Breast reconstruction is nothing, NOTHING like a breast augmentation. They are not like the popular plastic surgeries shown on TV. Breast reconstruction often takes more than one surgery, in my case it may be three or four. They are painful, they take a lot out of you and the healing process is precarious at best.
I share this with you because ultimately I have hope, the hope that no matter what the outcome is for me, that I find myself. That I feel just as complete and full and beautiful as I once did, no matter what the outcome is. I repeated that last statement on purpose, no matter what the outcome is, because it is important to me. I feel like I have been given the secret ingredient to perspective and I need to sprinkle it everywhere. I hope that I am able to fully embrace this new version of me and recognize myself and become familiar with my new scars, and to own them, because they are a part of me now. They are a part of my story. I want women who are going through this or women who are about to, to have hope and support, and to know that you are not alone.
Finally, what I really want is for this breast cancer, all cancers in fact, to end. I want a cure for my daughters, for my family, and for my friends. It is possible.
Originally published by our Founder and CEO Lisa Norman at lisasafighter.com