Each Tuesday in October, Katie is taking over my blog to talk about her experience with breast cancer. You can read part one here, part two here, and part three here. This week, to finish out the month, Katie will be posting the final parts of her series on both Monday and Tuesday.
I did my last chemotherapy November 30, but my surgery wasn’t scheduled until December 30 – I wanted to finish out the year cancer-free. I had to wait for my blood cell counts to rebound a little bit, and two weeks before I had to drink whey protein shakes and avoid things like green tea and any medications that could thin my blood.
I knew early on that I wanted to go with a double mastectomy, not a lumpectomy or single mastectomy. I wanted to eliminate as much recurrence risk as possible, and I also wanted to look symmetric! I did struggle with this decision, but knew in my gut that it was the right choice for me – but that doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for everyone with breast cancer. I did a lot of research and even got a second opinion from my plastic surgeon to make sure I was comfortable and confident in my choice. Even with the decision to have a double mastectomy, there are so many different reconstruction options that it was a lot to wrap my head around.
I knew going in that the surgery would take about four hours, and the surgical oncologist would remove as much breast tissue as she could, as well as three lymph nodes from my right (cancerous) side. I also knew that I’d have to wait several days to find out what cancer was left and to be completely certain that my lymph nodes were cancer-free – meaning that the cancer had not spread. The plastic surgeon placed tissue expanders in each side, to start to reconstruction process. These expanders are a temporary implant that are filled multiple times with saline, over several months, to stretch and expand your tissue/skin/muscles and prepare your body for the permanent implant.
I was home from the hospital by New Years Eve, so I was only in the hospital for about 36 hours. I had excercises that I had to do to stretch things out – these actually really helped my pain. I felt better than I thought I would, but still needed help doing things that required a lot of pulling, like opening doors, and sitting up was really hard! The most annoying part of recovery was the drains that were on each side of my body to collect excess fluid as I healed. They were in for a few weeks, and made showering really, really difficult. I was very happy to see them go. I had to wear a surgical bra while the drains were in, and I had to wear only button-down shirts, since I couldn’t really use my arms.
Before I even had the surgery, I really struggled emotionally know that I was going to be losing part of my body. I knew that as my body healed, I’d be going through a grieving process for my breasts, as silly as that may sound. I knew that it would take a while to get to a place where I was content with the way my body looked and felt. It was really hard not having hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, or boobs – it was a definite emotional low for me.
The expansion process was actually kind of fun, because with each fill, it was like a small improvement. Each expansion was really quick – they used a magnet to find the port, and slowly pushed the saline in to expand. I was afraid that it was going to hurt, but really, it was just some muscle soreness for a day. I had a minor setback when my incision wasn’t healing as well as it should have been, and we actually had to remove some saline during an appointment rather than add any, but that was the only real problem I ran into. My expanders were in for about 4 months – we stopped filling them when I decided that I liked the size – it’s a totally personal decision.
For reconstruction, I had to decide what kind of implant I wanted – there are different shapes and fillings (saline vs. silicone). There were so many different shapes and sizes – I was really shocked. The actual reconstruction surgery only took an hour and a half, was outpatient (so I went home that day), and by the next day, I felt great. It’s definitely a much easier surgery than the mastectomy! I was really excited to have the implants, and to feel like I looked more normal. That, to me, was the finish line.