Rethink is honoured to be the guest editor for Wildfire Magazine’s Identity and Aftermath August issue, which is dedicated to highlighting the struggles of life after cancer diagnosis.
Here is Melissa’s story.
In 2017, I was a size 18 pants and 1XL shirt. I was curvy, confidant and felt on top of the world. I was a leader in my department at work and was advancing within the company, even though it was stressful at times. My home life was typical, I was married to a hard-working man and we had a 4-year-old in his first year of school. My life was seemingly normal—and then came my breast cancer diagnosis.
Like every newly-diagnosed person with cancer, fear immediately took hold. Images of every cancer patient I’d seen in movies, on TV and in the media came to mind. All sick, pale, puking, weak and without hair. Panic struck me in my core. I tested positive for the BRCA1 gene, which put me at greater risk for breast cancer and made me a candidate for a double mastectomy. I cannot tell you in words how hard it was for me to process the feelings that followed.
I felt blessed with a large chest and attention and references to my breasts were like second nature. They felt like part of my personality as silly and ridiculous as that sounds. I know what you are all thinking because I heard it from many, “Your breasts don’t make you who you are, your personality does.” But those words just did not ring true to me because it felt like I was losing my best friends. My husband also enjoyed my best feature. So along came the fear of losing him and being unlovable as a new me. I opted for immediate reconstruction because I just couldn’t see my life without having breasts.
Besides, reconstruction options for curvy, chesty woman are very limited. I didn’t understand how regular women could get implants as large as I naturally was, yet I could not get expanders/implants that would even match half my size. We are also at a higher risk of complications due to our weight. I was told to lose weight before surgery for a better outcome (like that was possible while on chemo and steroids.) I also had nasty side effects like fatigue, nausea and bloating to deal with.
When I woke up from surgery, I looked down at my chest and to my shock and amazement, my expanders didn’t look half bad. My surgeon explained they were at half capacity and that every week or so they would fill them a little more. Finally, I was feeling positive and that maybe I had overreacted before and that I could live a full life. I felt stronger than I ever thought possible. Little did I know that strength would be lost in one moment.
Three weeks after my surgery, my right incision line decided to bust open. What was a small opening lead to a huge loss of fluid. Despair choked the air out of me as my shirt and pants became soaked. Since my surgeon was on vacation and living in a small Northern Ontario community, my only option was emergency care and even they were lost with what had happened. I sat infected and losing fluid for two weeks. I was my surgeon’s first appointment the day she came back. During this time, my other side broke open and my heart knew this was the end of my expanders and my acceptance.
The weeks following the loss of my expanders were probably some of the hardest of my life. I was left with swollen skin flaps on my chest and incredible pain that paralyzed me. My chest looked hideous, inhumane and misshapen. My surgeon was a butcher and literally did not sew me up skillfully. My incision lines once again did not want to cooperate and started to form holes. Fluid began leaking from my chest again. This grotesque scene could not have gotten worse but to my dismay, it did. Half a dozen holes all along my incision lines broke open. One after another, each painful and slowly making me powerless and miserable.
My independence was stolen from me and I felt dehumanized, indignant and incompetent. I needed help getting dressed, going to the bathroom, bathing and pretty much every task you could think of. Looking in the mirror lead to tears and PTSD attacks. Infuriated and misunderstood, I started to push everyone away. My family and friends tried to tell me this would all be behind me one day and I’d come out stronger. My mom kept telling me to be positive. This only made me livid and aggravated me further. Positivity could not fix the grief, sorrow and mourning I had to go through.
I felt like life cheated me, first with cancer, then with the double mastectomy and reconstruction and now with an emptiness and loss of all hope. Physically I was left with horrendous skin flaps on my chest with large purple marks across my incision lines. I have divots in some spots were the healing took longer and the scar tissue bridged the gaps awkwardly. The emotional chaos lingered, and I was on a never-ending loop of dread, despair and sorrow.
Months passed with the hope of new reconstructive surgery. My scans revealed new nodules too small to biopsy, my bloodwork indicated inflammation and doctors put me on the wait, watch and see protocol. There was a 50/50 chance I had cancer, or the infection was still playing around in my body. Nine months passed with no answers and life was filled with anxiety from scan to scan and bloodwork to bloodwork.
After months of waiting, a nodule grew big enough to biopsy and thus came the epic conclusion. I had stage 4 breast cancer. I should have felt devasted and hopeless but instead I took time to think about it long and hard. In my heart of hearts, I always knew that this would be the answer. I took some time to be grateful for my journey and decided that I had to stop seeing myself negatively. I was alive. We caught the tumors while they were small, and my doctors were optimistic that I will live a full life. I knew so many others that did not share the same prognosis and I had to be thankful. My emotions shifted to loving myself, scars and all. I realized all my emotional turmoil was to get me to this point.
Every day I grew stronger and went from being a victim to a survivor. The scars on my body remind me of everything I’ve overcome. I don’t think about dying, I think of all the time I have left to be me and help others in the same situation (attending cancer conferences, retreats and support groups helps). I think of being a great mother, a good wife, a happy friend and a supporter.
Will I ever get a chance to get my chest fixed? That is still TBD. Will it change who I am now? No! I have conquered the grief for my physical losses by finding meaning in life itself. Sometimes looking at the bigger picture puts the smaller things into perspective. Finding love for the person you are inside is very hard and getting there is a journey of emotional magnitude.
Physically, I am broken. Spiritually, nothing can bring me down because I’ll never stop fighting. – Melissa Saitti