Reconstruction Obstruction

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my left breast in 2011. The lump actually appeared a year earlier, but due to my age (35) and the fact that I was breastfeeding, the “breast specialist” I initially saw dismissed my lump as a fibroadenoma and told me not to worry about it.

So I didn’t worry about it. And it grew. It grew so much that by the time I started worrying about it, it was too late to save my breast.

At first, the idea of a mastectomy wasn’t quite so devastating because I already knew about immediate reconstruction.

As a television producer, I had done a story about it a decade earlier and had even interviewed my breast surgeon for that story. So I asked about reconstruction and the plastic surgeon was brought in for a consult.

It turned out that I wasn’t a candidate for immediate reconstruction because of the stage of my cancer and the treatment I needed. I needed surgery, then chemo, then radiation and then, six months after treatment, I could get reconstruction.

So with an understandable degree of trepidation, I had a unilateral mastectomy with no reconstruction on August 2, 2011. It’s almost impossible to describe how it feels to wake up without a breast. Some women hide from it. Some don’t look at it for months after the surgery, easing themselves into a very cold and murky unknown. But not me, I like things to be quick. As soon as I got home, I took off my shirt in front of the mirror and looked.

I didn’t expect it to be so…well… gone. There was a grisly slash where my breast used to be. The asymmetry of it was a shock to the senses and I immediately wanted to unsee it and have everything go back to the way it was before.

I didn’t feel like a woman anymore. I know that’s a controversial thing to say. Some people would say a woman’s worth is not equal to her breast size and I should have felt lucky to be alive. That’s true, but I can’t help how I felt.

I felt unattractive and asexual and thought no one, not even my husband, could ever see as me as sexy again. As much as it may seem unimportant given the circumstances, feeling sexy was important to me and important to my feeling normal again.

So I went through the chemo and radiation and, as soon as they were done, I tried to book my reconstruction. That was harder than I thought. Mine was a trauma hospital, so naturally traumas took precedence. Then, due to a shortage of operating rooms, women who qualified for immediate reconstruction bumped the rest of us down the list. Also, I was having DIEP flap reconstruction, so my surgery would take up an operating room for a long period of time.

For all of those reasons, I waited two years for my reconstruction.

I never saw my scar as a “badge of courage” or a “battle scar,” it was a big ugly scar where my breast used to be— and it was devastating.

I truly admire women who can embrace themselves and their mastectomy scar and see it as a symbol of their fortitude. I really, really wanted to feel that way, but I just couldn’t.

I found it hard to look in the mirror, or try on clothes or do things like get massages or go to the gym. Those activities involved getting undressed in front of strangers, which made me feel like my private business was suddenly public without my permission. It made me feel like a sideshow freak. It also opened the door to a cancer discussion with strangers, which I was sick of having.

So after two years of waiting, my surgery day arrived. I would have danced into the operating room if they had let me.

My surgery was close to twelve hours long. When I woke up, I had drainage tubes everywhere and was kept in a seated position because standing up straight or lying down were impossible due to the stomach incision. Still, I didn’t care. The pain wasn’t psychological and therefore so much easier to deal with.

A little over a year later, I had the second surgery to hoist up my “real” breast to match the new one and get a nipple. As an added bonus, I got liposuction in my thighs because they needed fat to fill in gaps around the new breast. About six months after that surgery, I got the nipple tattoo.

So now I have a great new breast that I actually like better than the real one. It only took a little over three years and a whole lot of tears, but I finally feel normal again. I’ll even get naked in front of strangers– just to show off.

See more of Sarah Michaelis’s story in the Globe Here.

For more in on breast reconstruction and what you can do to get involved in our advocacy work Deconstructing Breast Reconstruction click HERE.

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