Life After Breasts

WARNING: This blog contains a photo of my naked, breast-less chest. If post-surgical photos make you squeamish you might want to skip this one.

It’s been eight days since my bilateral mastectomy.

I’m still in hospital waiting for the last of the four drains to come out. Drains are plastic bottles with little green concertinaed plugs on them that provide pressure. They’re connected via tubes that run under the skin to the wound site. The drain serum as it collects and prevent the formation of seromas.

Yes, it is very strange having tubes coming out of my body.

When the volume of fluid drops to 30mls within a 24 hour period the drains come out. Three down, one to go. At this stage it looks like it will be out tomorrow.

There’s a seroma on the side where both drains have been removed. It feels like water under the skin. When I woke up this morning it seemed fairly swollen but I’ve been doing what I can to help it drain naturally, through my lymph system, during the day. The breast care nurse has taught me how to gently massage from the seroma down to my groin. I’ve also found running warm water from the shower over it seems to help, particularly if I hold the arm on that side over my head.

I’m trying to walk at least half an hour every day, even if it’s just around and around the ward. Walking means I’ve been able to confidently refuse the twice-daily heparin injections they’ve been giving me to prevent blood clots. My doctor asked me to do this because if she changes the prescription and I get a blood clot she’ll be liable. She agrees I don’t need them. Heparin is injected into the skin. I’ve had most of them in my tummy which is now covered in nasty blue and yellow tinged spots. An anti-clotting drug will, of course, cause bruising.

Walking is also a great way to become more familiar with my new body. Losing about two kilos from my chest has an impact on my posture, my balance and how I move. It’s an odd feeling. It reminds me of being on a boat, where you never quite feel stable.

I’m concentrating on keeping my head up and my shoulders back. It seems a lot of people that have had mastectomies curl forwards. I think that would only emphasise the fact that I don’t have breasts.

Some of the staff have made comments about me wearing out the carpet or being a bit driven. Give me a break. My doctor encouraged this and I’m trying to do the best thing for my health. On the bright side, the breast care nurse tells me that my walking has inspired some of the other patients to get out of bed and start moving. Gone are the days when bed rest was considered to be the best treatment for anything. Bodies need to move to be healthy.

I’ve taken photographs of my surgical wounds. A number of people who have already had mastectomies recommended this. They look brutal. They don’t feel it. I’m surprised at how little pain has been involved and how quickly I’ve started to feel well. I’ve got physiotherapy exercises to ensure I maintain good movement and flexibility as I heal. Kylie, my surgeon, tells me that things will start to feel a lot tighter over the next few weeks as the scars heal. Then they will gradually loosen off again as I exercise and massage the scars.

Part of the healing process involves the skin adhering to my chest. There’s a few lumps and bumps in the finished result, particularly on the side where I’ve had radiation, but I think it’s going to look okay.

I can still feel my nipples. I don’t have any, but it feels as if I do. My surgeon says this is common. Curiously, I can feel them on my existing chest and not sitting out in front of it where they would have been if I still had breasts. I like being able to feel them. My body doesn’t feel as if anything is missing. When I put my hand on my chest it’s as if my nipples are behind a leather jacket.

I think it would make a huge difference for women having mastectomies if there was a way to preserve our nipples and the erectile tissue that comes with them. When it comes to being intimate, I know my husband will miss my breasts. They were a source of pleasure for him. But I will miss my nipples.

I spent some time last night on Facebook joking with a large-breasted friend about all of the things I’ll be able to do now I don’t have any. She had a great time laughing and pretending to be jealous. Here’s just a few of the things I’m looking forward to:

* Shoe string staps – haven’t worn these since I was a kid. I never could get used to the ‘visible bra’ fashion.

* No summer under boob sweat.

* Jogging. When I was at the police academy I had to wear a sports bra over a thing that felt like a wet suit to prevent tissue damage when I was running. I haven’t run since. Contrary to what TV script writers would have you believe, police very rarely chase anyone on foot.

* Not having my breasts up under my chin in ‘downward dog’. Yoga fans will get this.

* Not sitting in the audience of a concert or a play and finding my bra has become so uncomfortable that it’s stealing my attention.

* No more neck and shoulder pain – although curiously I’ve had shoulder pain since surgery. The physiotherapist says this is common with mastectomy patients, particularly previously large breasted ones, as the muscles readjust.

* No worries about what they’re going to look like as I age. No flopper’s droop. No pencil tests. Flat and free. At 52 my breasts were not going to get any better looking!

* Kayaking without having them under my arms.

* Going topless on any beach (although I probably won’t)

* Rowing without hitting them with paddles.

* Trampolining. (Well why not?)

I’m surprised by how comfortable I’m feeling about my surgery, and the absence of my breasts. Comfortable enough to joke about it, to take photos and to sit around naked from the waist up while I talk to the breast care nurse and my husband.

My body has been a warrior through all of this. My blood was amazing all through chemotherapy and I avoided any nausea. I healed quickly after both breast conserving surgeries. When I needed six weeks of radiation I had only mild redness and no blistering. What a wonderful body. How forgiving of everything I’ve put it through. How resilient. I am so grateful.

So I don’t have any embarrassment about these photos. One shows my chest just a week after surgery. You can see the two mastectomy wounds along with the original wound from my breast conserving surgery a month ago. Kylie could have incorporated this into a single wound but I preferred to go with symmetry and the least risk of tissue death. Post radiation tissue is fragile. Best not to mess with it.

This is my dolphin chest. It’s still a bit uneven and you can see the seroma on my left side, but I’m going to be fine. Kylie has left a bit more skin on the irradiated side to make sure I heal well, and to allow for the possibility of tissue dying back. One week after surgery and it’s clear that’s not going to be a problem. She tells me I can come back later for a ‘tidy up’ if I choose. We shall see.

I’m posting this photo for other women facing the same surgery. It will be okay. It will look something like this. It will be terrifying when you first get the news and you have no other choice and then it will get better. And even better.

As you can see from the other photo I’m not going to have any trouble working this look. I’m thinking ‘svelte’ thanks to my husband. And ‘athletic’.

I’m so glad I decided not to have reconstruction. I would not be so close to well, and my body really deserves to be as well as possible as soon as possible. The war is over. These are my battle scars.

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8 thoughts on “Life After Breasts

  1. Thank you for your story…life after breasts. You are a truly amazing & inspirational women. I love you xxxxxx Now you can start living a full and wonderful life again. You Go Girl!!

  2. Thank you very much for your pictures and experiences. I am scared. i will be having a mastectomy. Am leaning toward no reconstructive due to long recovery, more scar , and possible back pain from using belly fat and muscle tissue to create new breast { TRAM}. i just needed to see what i would look like without a breast. it does look brutal and shocking to the eyeballs, but as you said it gets better. thank you again for helping a person like me.

    • Dearest Liz,
      I’m very close to my one year ‘mammoversary’ and feeling great. I’ll be posting an update and new pictures some time around the 8th of August. I have not had one second of regret about my decision to pass on reconstruction. I now have a full range of arm movement, I do yoga every day and I’m feeling fit and well. While I support any woman’s decision to have reconstruction I keep meeting women that share their regrets with me. I recently had a ‘lump scare’ (benign) and was very pleased that it was so easy to feel beneath the skin and to take a biopsy. I’m not likely to miss anything without breast tissue or silicone or transplanted body fat/muscle to get in the way. And remember, you can always change your mind about reconstruction and have it years later when your body is stronger. My surgeon tells me she’s had a number of ‘no recon’ patients celebrate five years cancer free by having reconstruction.
      As for the fear, I completely understand. Fear in these circumstances is normal and healthy. There would be something very wrong with you if you weren’t frightened. You might like to have a look at some of my posts on acceptance commitment therapy. The short version is; breathe into it, make room for the fear, imagine yourself expanding around it rather than pushing against it. Hold yourself kindly and recognise that you are the sky and your emotions are clouds than come and go. We don’t have ‘good’ or ‘bad’ emotions. They are all normal. The problem comes when we fight them. It’s as pointless as trying to change the weather.
      My love and best wishes to you for your upcoming surgery. Everything you can do to put yourself into a better state of mind and better physical health before surgery will benefit your recovery, but most of all be gentle with yourself. Make the decisions that are the best for you.
      I think you’ll see that my new photos are encouraging. The puckering on the left hand side has almost completely resolved. I’m never going to look as good naked as I did with breasts, but I don’t think I would look any better with reconstruction and the idea of not being able to feel anything through the skin of reconstructed breasts still makes that option very unattractive to me. I’ve almost regained full sensation in my chest and I like being able to feel the warmth of my husband’s hands on my skin. He tells me that my scars remind him of how close he came to losing me, and that’s a good thing. We’ve both become more tender because of my treatment. Dark clouds really do have a silver lining.

  3. Hello, I just came across your blog while doing a search for natural remedies for double mastectomy scar reduction. I’ve read quite a few of your posts and have been struck by the honesty, thoughtfulness, and perspective in your writing. I love permaculture and it is a dream of mine and my partner’s to have our own healing food forest some day and to start food forests in neighborhood parks as well for everyone to enjoy and learn from. I’m an American who gained Australian Residency about a year ago and I too will be having a double mastectomy in Sydney. I’m very thankful that I do not have cancer; however, my biological mother died of breast cancer last year. I have never wanted breasts and have never felt too comfortable with them on my body and it fills me with enormous relief that I will finally be getting my breasts surgically removed early this May. I wanted to thank you for writing this blog as I am sure it has helped so many people feel more comfortable with their situation. Kind Regards

    • Thank you so much for your beautiful comment. It’s great to hear that the blog has helped someone. It’s the main reason I write. My very best wishes for your surgery. I highly recommend finding a specialist in oncology massage for your post-surgical treatment. They are brilliant with scars and helping with the ‘stickiness’ that happens post surgically (you’ll feel as if your skin is stuck to your muscle. It improves with time).
      My best tip for reducing scars is rosehip oil. I use the ‘trilogy’ brand. The skill of your surgeon also makes a huge difference. Ask about what kind of stitches they plan to use. Some can show you photos of their work. Best wishes with it all.

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