“I remember telling people I was going to have a mastectomy and seeing them crumple before my eyes. Some cried. My first thought was confusion as to why they found this news so difficult. It’s only a bit of soft tissue from inside me, it’s not actually me. But they have their own views of how they would feel if they had a mastectomy, and it was that they were reacting to. After my initial thoughts, I’d chosen to see it differently and I felt 100% genuinely fine about it. Having had the mastectomy, I still do.”
But I didn’t always feel this way...
Many of us have chatted hypothetically with our friends about mastectomies, and discussed whether or not we’d go for an “Angelina Jolie” if we had breast cancer or “the gene.” Almost everyone I know has said, “in a heartbeat. Get rid of them!” But when you’re faced with the actual recommendation, as I was, it’s quite different. Even if you’re all for it and are totally on board with why it should be done, your mind darts everywhere and it can become the stuff of nightmares.
People have mastectomies for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes there’s a choice about whether or not to have one, and sometimes there isn’t. Either way, it can understandably evoke all sorts of feelings and emotions: it’s part of our exterior and to have that removed can feel like a form of mutilation, amputation or disfigurement. Or is it? Would I feel that way if I was having a large fatty cyst removed? What is it about my breast that I’m afraid of losing? The inside bit? The skin? The nipple? My sexuality? My appearance? Myself? Will I cope when I see myself after the operation? Will I be incapacitated for days or weeks afterwards? Will my arm ever work normally again? What will my children think? Will they be frightened by my appearance? Will “the new boob” feel heavy, like an unwelcome stranger attached to my front? Will it ever feel like part of me?
I counted down the days that I could keep the body I was born with...
I’d opted for an immediate reconstruction with an implant, as other forms of reconstruction weren’t possible for me and I wasn’t totally sure I was emotionally able for “gone.” I struggled with why being flat chested on one side would be an issue for me when so many others are perfectly happy with that, but I decided that was okay. I had to go with what I could settle with.
Then it occurred to me that regardless of what my future might hold, there will be a time in my life when I will look back and wish I had the health that I have today. So, rather than dwell on what might be taken away, I should be embracing everything I have now. I had to move my mind away from the dark side and right-size it somehow. I had to be objective.
So I decided to view the mastectomy as simply having a lump of soft tissue removed, not “me.” I would still be “me.” People have things removed from inside them all the time: appendix, bone fragments, torn cartilage, cysts, tonsils... This was a turning point for me and with that decision came peace.
The first thing I realized when I came round from the operation was that I still felt like me. The “new boob” felt like part of me. It was different, but it looked like part of me and I had no pain. The muscles under my arm were a tighter, but that would go. As soon as the general anesthetic wore off, I found could look after myself as usual: I could walk, make a cup of tea, go to the toilet, wash, clean my teeth, dry my hair, sit, stand, lie down… I could do everything except for the restrictions the surgeon had put on me: no lifting and no raising my arm high up above my head for six weeks. I was quite shocked about how easy it had been and it wasn’t as I’d initially anticipated at all. I was sent home the next day with boxes of codeine and paracetamol, and all I took was a bit of paracetamol at night time, “just in case.” There was the usual weariness from the general anesthetic and having had an operation, but with rest and help with looking after our three young kids, I was soon on my way back up to my normal energy levels.
I wrote this just two weeks after my operation, without rose tinted glasses from looking back across months or years gone by. I was still in the early stages of healing and I felt very positive about my whole experience.
If I had to have a mastectomy on the other side? I would do it again in a heartbeat and without losing a moment of sleep about it.
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