(some thoughts about my breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy)
I have probably always had wonky boobs – I guess we all do – but they have been more obviously wonky since my breast cancer surgeries in June and July 2020.
When I was diagnosed, during the first lockdown, I went into ‘doing’ mode, doing everything and learning everything to get me out the other side of this cancer experience as fast as possible. I didn’t (allow myself to) feel any emotions about it at the time, because I didn’t want the emotions to get in the way of my recovery.
In hindsight, I realise that it is obviously an extremely emotional thing to go through, possibly even worse to go through alone (& in isolation for 20 weeks), and of course I eventually reached a point where trying to hold all the emotions in check was causing me pain and harm.
After having a meltdown when I went for my second follow-up mammogram last year, one of the nurses asked me what was happening for me, and out it all poured, along with all the snot and tears! As a result of that conversation, she referred me to an oncology counsellor and also referred me back to my surgeon to review my reconstruction surgery, and so began the first stage of allowing myself to heal.
I’m not all the way there yet, and I still don’t know why I’m finding it so hard to get through this, but I’m gradually starting to feel like I’m making progress.
The emotional stuff:
The counselling has helped me to feel less traumatised and to process my feelings around my breast cancer diagnosis. The thing that keeps cropping up is a feeling that it was my fault – that I should have done things differently so that I didn’t develop cancer. No matter how much I know on an intellectual level that I didn’t cause my cancer, or let it in, I have struggled with changing the story in my head.
My expectation for myself has always been that I should be invincible and it’s a tough narrative to change! A few weeks ago week my counsellor suggested that I could try using ‘I wish…’ in place of ‘I should…’ so I’m giving that a try and it really helps. As an indication of how far I have progressed, I have ‘written’ versions of this post in my head many times, but it has taken until today to be able to formulate my thoughts and actually write them down. I still don’t know if I’m saying what I meant to say, but it feels like a positive step to be writing anything down so I’ll run with it…
The physical stuff:
The other part of dealing with what’s left after mastectomy, the physical stuff, will take longer but I have started that process this week too.
I had an immediate implant reconstruction after my mastectomy (the only option at the time due to the lockdown), but it is deemed to have failed. They consider two criteria – comfort and symmetry in clothing & sadly mine fails on both! If it was comfortable, I don’t think I would care so much about how it looks, but it is so uncomfortable and that makes me feel really sad about my body. I feel damaged, and I don’t want to feel that way.
The surgery-revision process is a bit convoluted because my surgeon referred me to a different hospital, who are now referring me back to him, and even then I might get referred back! I just want to sit in a room with someone who can give me all my options so that I can make an informed decision, but different people do different things and can only speak about what they can offer.
I truly think it is amazing that there is a choice of surgical options to recreate a missing breast, but none of them feel right for me, and none of us know how any of these things will feel until we’ve taken a huge leap of faith and picked one and had changes made to our body. I don’t want to be flat on one side of my chest but I don’t want to have my tummy cut open either. I think I want to have my other breast removed and be flat on both sides, because it will at least leave me symmetrical, but obviously it’s a huge decision. And I’m exhausted from thinking about it and worrying that I might make the wrong choice. Perhaps it sounds like I’m whinging too much – maybe I am – but I feel how I feel. I know I am lucky to only be worrying about a surgical revision, and not be facing further cancer treatment. But I also know that I can feel lucky and sad both at the same time.
It honestly doesn’t help when a male surgeon repeatedly tells me that lots of women pay to have tummy tuck (which is one of the reconstruction options) as if I should be grateful to be having it for free! He also said that as a woman who has had three children, I probably need one anyway! I don’t, as it happens, and he hadn’t even examined me at this point in the consultation.
And of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with anyone having a tummy tuck, if they want/choose/need one, but I don’t want (or need) one and it feels like such a massive surgery to go through just to pretend that I still have two boobs. And maybe it is still the right thing to do, in spite of how I feel, because it will give me a shape that feels better…
It feels like such a male-dominated conversation, which is weird given that men don’t even have boobs to start with?! I’m definitely going to seek out a female surgeon for my next conversation, because however technically brilliant a male surgeon might be, he can never know what it feels like to have or lose a breast. And the losing part is brutal & and carving up another part of my body doesn’t change that.
On a positive note, the surgeon I saw this week has referred me to a more specialised psychotherapist and maybe that will help me to get my head in a better place so that I am better able to make a decision about further surgery. I hope so!
So this week everything has felt really stirred up, like I’m almost back to the beginning (minus the cancer of course, for which I’m incredibly grateful, always). I want to have never been in this place and I want it to be behind me, over and done with, sorted, and not affecting my life in any way…but it doesn’t work that way, and I’m finding it tough.
But also this week, lots of people have listened to me, hugged me, let me cry, and given me space to work through some really big feels and I am so grateful to all of them. I strive to be better at holding it in when I’m working, but for all the times that it has spilled over in the past, and for all the times it spills over in the future, I’m sorry and thank you so much for being there.
As for the wonky boobs, I don’t know yet what the answer is, or when anything will happen, so until anything changes, I’m just going to try not to hate them too much and keep working on the stories in my head.
A final thought:
And one final thought, which is not about me or even specifically about breast cancer.
If you know someone who is going through anything which is big and scary and life-changing, please be open to asking/talking to them about how they feel. Sometimes the hardest thing is trying to hold all the feelings inside because you think everyone expects you to have moved on, or needing to talk about it but feeling bad that you might make them feel uncomfortable.
If you ask and they don’t want to talk, they’ll let you know, but maybe they really need to have you listen.
John Roedel says it better than me:
& last but not least:
Have a look here if you want to know more about breast cancer, including causes, symptoms, screening & treatment.
And please don’t forget to check your boobs!