Five years ago today, I had to get something off my chest.
It was my breasts.
I had a prophylactic double mastectomy with reconstruction (DIEP) December 1, 2006, a day I will know for the rest of my life.
That day, I was made into a bionic woman of sorts. Abdominal arteries, muscle, and fat were tunneled up to create new man-made breasts, and my circulatory system was “rewired” so blood would flow in them. The nipples would be created and tatooed a few months later.
A lot of women envied me that day for getting “a boob job and a tummy tuck.”
Now before I tell the truth about my experience with the DIEP and seem like an ingrate, here’s a disclaimer: I wanted and needed the surgery, the DIEP was the best option for me, and if I had to do it all over again, I would have. (Well, except for the ICU part, which was so hellish, the devil has PTSD from the experience.) Nevertheless, here’s an open letter to my surgeons, who touted this surgery as the best thing since sliced Beth bread:
First of all, I want to thank you for your excellent work. Your dedication and caring have meant the world to me, and I will always be grateful to you.
However, I want to let you know about who I was before surgery and who I am now.
Before surgery, I was quite athletic and fit, although a three-time yoga class dropout due to my general clumsiness. I enjoyed running, swimming, and weight training. Other than that little breast cancer “incident,” I was in excellent health. Before breast cancer, I liked my body. I wasn’t vain; I just was glad to have what I was born with.
Cancer would forever change that.
After chemotherapy, radiation, and three lumpectomies, I wasn’t so happy about what I was born with. Because what I was born with was deformed. Because what I was born with tried to kill me.
Add to that the loss of a great friend to breast cancer, a scare from the results of one of my MRIs, and general upheaval — and you can see why I opted for a DIEP flap. I couldn’t bear to wake up after surgery without breasts. I just wanted it all over in one fell swoop.
We all chose a surgery that would remove the deadly duo and give me breasts immediately. You all felt the surgery was a smashing success, and technically and medically speaking, it was. But as a human being first and foremost, not just a medical case, I see the success but also the drawbacks to the DIEP. The following is an account of my experience; I can speak for no one else but me:
Once I was out of ICU and thus out of danger’s way, my post-surgical self could stumble about my hospital room and look around. But I made a mistake.
I looked in the mirror.
My torso was sliced up, and the bloodied stiches looked like railroad tracks running all over my flesh. It was ugly, much like cancer, come to think of it. But the scars would heal.
Five years after the multicolored bruising has disappeared, I am still recovering.
Now, five years later, I want to know why you assured me that the DIEP was perfect for someone with an active, athletically fit lifestyle.
Why didn’t you tell me that I would suffer nearly crippling pain regularly from my compromised abdominal wall?
Why didn’t you tell me that I would re-injure my torso almost every time I pick up my daughter?
Could you have predicted that now, five years later, I still cry some nights because I hurt so badly?
And do you know that the pain is especially tormenting because it is a constant throbbing reminder of breast cancer?
Where in our pre-surgery conversation was the term “chronic, life-long pain” ever mentioned? Was it lost among the beautiful before-and-after photos that kept me so optimistic?
I grieve that I can no longer run. I am thankful, though, that I can walk and swim.
I don’t like myself when I’m in pain. I’m crabby, grouchy, depressed, and, well, crabby. I am trying my best to cope with relaxation techniques and to keep up the exercise. And then I feel guilty because I know that so many people have worse situations than me. I know how lucky I really am.
Mostly, I am still grateful to all of you. Because this surgery has given me a chance to see my daughter grow up. Notice I said “a chance.” I know that there is no guarantee that I will live a long, healthy life. (OK, I want a guarantee I will live a long, healthy life.) But you and medical science have done the best for me.
I will live with and accept the pain and carry on.