It has almost been two years since my last reconstructive surgery, the DIEP flap, where stomach tissue is transplanted from the abdomen (hello, tummy tuck?) to the breasts, creating new reconstructed breasts out of your own tissue.
While I’ve come out on the other side of my healing process, there are so many things I learned on the way that could be useful if you’re considering the procedure. Here are the five truths about getting the DIEP flap.
I Did Not Get a Tummy Tuck!
I thought the DIEP flap surgery was going to result in a tummy tuck (because that’s what people told me!) That was NOT the case. I ate whatever I wanted in the weeks leading up to surgery because I thought, why not – I’m going to wake up from surgery with no more stomach fat? Although I definitely have a tighter stomach now, my body has just changed and I’m wider now than I was before (thank you abdominal surgery scar for the permanent muffin top).
My Scars Aren’t What I Expected
I’ll try to make my long reconstruction story short. At the time of my double mastectomy, I had tissue expanders inserted underneath the muscle in my chest to make room for my eventual implants. Six months after I finished radiation, I had the exchange surgery where the expanders were replaced with the permanent implants. Unfortunately, I had complications due to the radiation treatment and after one more exchange surgery where they inserted a smaller implant, we had to scrap the implant route completely and have the DIEP flap surgery instead. This whole process took over a year so I got used to my straight across scars over my new breast. Post-surgery, I now have oval shaped scars that take up the bottom half of my breasts. Of course the scar wouldn’t be just a straight line (facepalm) because they had to take stomach tissue (including the skin) to create my new breasts so the scar would have to actually surround the transplanted tissue.
My Breasts Are Hairy!
Everyone has at least some peach fuzz on their stomach. Well now that peach fuzz (and a stomach mole) are on my breasts! Again, I don’t know why I didn’t think about that fact before the surgery, but it makes total sense. I’m just glad it’s blonde peach fuzz and not hair a little further south.
I Have a “New” Belly Button
I woke up from surgery with a reconstructed belly button. In order to close the stomach incision, the upper abdominal tissue is stretched down to meet the lower part of the incision. The skin ends up covering the belly button, so a new hole must be created to expose it. I now have a small circular scar that surrounds my “new” (and improved) belly button.
There is Back Pain Involved in Recovery
It took me a long time to be able to stand up straight after the surgery. The remaining stomach tissue had been stretched so much that it was physically impossible to stand straight right away. This brought on back pain that I wasn’t expecting. When I think back to the weeks after surgery, it wasn’t the incisions that I remember being painful – it was the back pain. I guess that means the recovery wasn’t too bad!
Although my new breasts will never even compare to my old, pre-cancerous ones, I’m thrilled with the results of the DIEP flap surgery. It was a very long surgery and not an easy recovery but now, being almost two years out, I hardly remember how hard it was. I guess time really does heal all things.
Emily Piercell is the Programs Coordinator at Rethink Breast Cancer, where she helps plan and execute Rethink’s educational and support programs. She also manages the Give-A-Care line and regularly contributes to the Rethink blog. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, Emily was introduced to Rethink through the summer retreat, Stretch Heal Grow, where she fell in love with the organization.