The large manila envelope sits unopened but within view. I have passed by it many times but have yet to pull out its contents. It’s been in my home since February, a subtle reminder of something I really don’t need reminding about, my mastectomy. These are the papers I need to fill out before surgery. Avoiding the paperwork makes me falsely think I have some sort of control over this entire process. I don’t.
My oncologist, surgeon and radiation oncologist all assured me that only one breast needed to be taken. I felt uneasy about it. My surgeon said that if I wanted the other removed, I could do it later when I had reconstruction done. The problem is, I have decided not to do any reconstruction. That would require removing flesh from another part of my body and attaching it to my chest. There would be no feeling there but I suppose it would look “natural” under my clothes. It would also mean, as my oncologist pointed out, that if the cancer returned, we may not recognize the signs right away and it could spread before we had a handle on it. After chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, I doubt I will be in the mood for anymore surgery anyway. I know that these procedures can go very well. I also know that they can cause more problems than they are worth (anecdotally).
I had a second conversation with my Oncologist. I said, I really think that my left breast is as much trouble as my right. I have several cysts despite being thrown into early menopause (a side effect of chemo). After examining me, he agreed. He said,” I have a hard time distinguishing which one has the tumour and which one is healthy. I never recommend taking a healthy breast, but in your case, it’s probably a good idea.” That’s all I needed. So many women tell me that they wish they had asked for the same thing. Once you have breast cancer, the fear that it may return takes years to overcome.
So that’s that plan. On May 2nd I will have both breasts and several lymph nodes removed. In the breast cancer community they call this a BMX (bilateral mastectomy) I’m not really afraid of the surgery itself. I’m more afraid of the aftermath and the psychological effects it may have. I’ve been working hard at trying to overcome my anxiety. It’s body altering but it doesn’t change who I am as a person. As one friend who has had the surgery told me, “It’s not our arms or our eyes. Our lives won’t change drastically because of it.” This is very true. I have had two children. My breasts have done their job.
Until there is a way to prevent breast cancer, this is the cure. The cancer has to be physically removed from my body and that’s what is going to be done. This is the main thing I tell myself these days. Let’s get this thing out of my body so that I can live a long, healthy and hopefully happy life.
I walked into a mastectomy lingerie store for the first time a few weeks ago to pick up a free camisole that I can wear after surgery. It has pockets to hold the drains that will be a part of my body for a week or two. I was surprised to see how beautiful the bras and bathing suits were in this store. I somehow imagined them to be ugly and they were far from it. The woman working that day was a breast cancer survivor and was one of the most vivacious women I have met. She made me feel completely at ease and was extremely helpful. Meeting her was exactly what I needed. She showed me what prosthesis looked and felt like and joked that I could be any size I wanted after the surgery, since I was getting both removed. I told her I’d probably stick to my natural size. Truth be told, I may change my mind on that. This woman also encouraged me to join their dragon boat team made up entirely of survivors. I am excited by the prospect and have every intention of joining once I’m well enough. I walked into that store full of dread and left feeling lighter than I had in months. Fun Fact: The woman behind the counter, Arlaine, was a star of the eighties fitness show “The 20 Minute Workout”. My friend, who accompanied me and I flipped out a little. I already adored her and now this nugget!
The trip to this store was more beneficial to my psyche than weeks of support group and one session with a social worker. You just never know where you’re going to draw inspiration from I guess.
Today I made a phone call to my insurance company. It was another conversation that I had been putting off but was necessary. How much am I covered for breast prosthesis and bras? It turns out my coverage is pretty good and I can get six new bras a year, 3 every six months. I can also get new prosthesis every two years. The best part of all this is that I get to visit that lingerie store every once in a while.
It’s time for me to suck it up, again. Chapter two is less than two weeks away and I’m “almost” ready for it. I’m not defined by my breasts but they’ve been a part of me for a long time and I will miss them. Unlike my hair, they won’t return. That’s ok. There are things more important, like my family, my friends, and the amazing life I have. I’m really lucky when it comes down to it. It’s time to open that envelope and find a pen that works.