Stories of Reconstruction: Meet Alanna
By Rethink Contributor October 16 2018
Here is Alanna’s story.
It has been a year since my DIEP flap surgery. Do I feel self-conscious about how my body looks with all the scars? Absolutely. Do I feel awkward being naked in front of anyone because my breast is partially completed? Yup. But I’ve been working to gain my self-confidence back and learning to love my new self for an entire year. Obviously, some days are easier than others. But isn’t that all of us? I look down at my chest and stomach and I am very happy with what I chose.
I was 31 when I found the tumour while lying in bed. As a bright-eyed, energetic single woman who worked hard and played hard, my mom would say, “You’re burning your candle on both ends.” She was right.
I also spent my entire life working on accepting and loving my body, flaws and all. My breasts were part of my womanhood, sexuality, and confidence. Sounds vain and shallow but I gave a crap about how I looked, especially naked. As a woman, I was already self-conscious about my body on the daily. Now add into the mix a removal of one of my most feminine body parts, my breast.
My mom is a 20-year breast cancer survivor so I knew there was a chance that could eventually be my fate too. In the summer of 2017, I was diagnosed with Stage 3a IDC (Invasive Ductal Carcinoma) and the tumour was hormone+ and HER-. When the oncologist told me that my results came back positive, I didn’t understand what that meant. I said to him, “Positively…good?” Nope, not even close. I didn’t know at the time that this was going to be a year long ordeal.
The day after my diagnosis, the appointments, tests, and scans followed: Genetic counselors, fertility specialists, surgeons, biopsies, CT scans, MRI, X-Ray. By fall I found out I was negative for the BRCA 1 and 2 genes. I had frozen nine of my eggs via IVF and was on short-term leave from work, while coping with an insensitive insurance company asking me to provide proof of my situation. And on top of it all, I was trying to figure out my surgery options.
In my experience, the surgical oncologist doesn’t tell you ALL your breast reconstruction options – more like the most common ones. A) Mastectomy – no reconstruction for a year, followed by chemo. B) A chemo sandwich – so a few rounds of chemo first, then your mastectomy (with, again, no reconstruction for a year) only to be back on chemo again. C) All of the chemo first; then depending on how the results go, have a mastectomy or lumpectomy. In my mind where was option D) none of the above? I WAS NOT HAVING IT.
I couldn’t wrap my head around it all. I know it’s silly since I had bigger issues to deal with -like first and foremost the fact that I had the big C, being scared sh*tless for what chemo entailed, losing my long hair and receiving radiation in my near future. But surgery was coming up first, and I had to deal with the present dilemma, which was ‘To boob, or not to boob?’
I requested a second opinion and pushed to get a referral with a plastic surgeon. Hearing my reconstruction options delayed surgery for three weeks but I had nothing else to lose that wasn’t already gone.
I chose the immediate DIEP Flap route. I spent a lot of alone time looking at myself in the mirror naked, trying to envision being breast-less (my way of saying goodbye). I never thought the silver-lining behind all the years of me being embarrassed of my tummy would actually come in handy! I wanted my new breast to be made of real tissue from my own body and grow old with me and hang naturally since I was only having one done.
It was an 8-hour procedure with two surgeons and a three-days stay in the hospital. The first night was the worst. I couldn’t move my body, my IV beeped loudly whenever I tried to slightly adjust my good arm, my lips and mouth were dry as a desert, and I had on a tight abdominal binder (which are just fancy words for a budget corset). I was constantly being woken up every hour to have my vitals checked (read: poking and prodding) and to hear my pulse through the new breast, to make sure the reconstruction was a success. It felt like I had gotten hit by a truck and all I wanted was sleep and to be left alone.
The surgical team doesn’t go into detail as to exactly what to expect for six weeks post-surgery so going through the motions of it all while blind-sighted was the biggest challenge. Unable to sleep in my own bed, I resorted to an upright position in a wingback chair.
The abdominal binder I had to wear all day and night for six weeks was the bane of my existence. I have an 18” scar hip to hip under my tummy to remind me of what I went through. My chest and underarm were swollen like crazy. I had one regular size D breast and one size K, I swear! Oh, and the drains. That was the only thing I was prepared for since they mention drains pre-op. But speaking from experience, make sure the tubes don’t get caught on door and drawer handles. I was caught off guard and had a lot of unnecessary yanking, which hurt.
I wished they also mentioned beforehand ALL the drugs you need to take while recovering. To manage my doses, I was using one of those week-long pill reminder boxes that elderly people use, as a holder for just one day’s worth of my medications. Between trying to sponge bath myself, taking all my drugs, napping, walking around slowly and eating my meals, my whole day was a write-off. I felt like I was a 90-year-old during the first three weeks of recovery. I finally understood what it was like to be an elderly person who missed their meds – that stuff was SO HARD to keep track of! Of course, as each day passed my recovery got slightly better.
By weeks 4-6 I was walking 7km every other day, seeing the girls for lunch and low-key hangs (yes, with the corset under my clothes) and slowly resuming my normal life. I have to say that looking down at my chest, I made the right decision for myself and HELLO…I absolutely love my finally-flat stomach. I’ve wanted a flat stomach since I was 12 years old. Obviously not the way it happened, God no. But it’s the little wins along the way, right?
By winter, I was full swing enduring six rounds of FEC-D chemotherapy for five months. I celebrated my 32nd birthday after my second round of chemo. My girls threw me a surprise, private birthday party and it was the best birthday I have ever had in my entire life; minus the fact I was bald!! By spring, I completed 25 rounds of Radiation and started Tamoxifen on a daily basis for the next 5-10 years. By the summer of this year, I was finally done treatment and exhausted.
I guess I envisioned the outcome of this reconstruction to be perfect like on TV but the reality is, I developed fat necrosis from surgery (when the fat essentially dies and hardens underneath). It doesn’t cause complications but it’s a nuisance. I wasn’t told to massage my breast to avoid fat necrosis until it was too late and the damage was permanent. I wish the ball wasn’t dropped in the communication department as I had a lot of free time during my recovery and chemo to try and prevent this from happening.
I now have a Barbie boob… no areola or nipple currently, and some dimpling in the skin from the necrosis. I would like to finish the recon this winter so I can close this chapter of my life and move forward.
Sure, Googling people’s experiences and asking friends and family for input helped me figure out what was the best choice for me, but the only person I could rely on the most was myself, and how I felt looking at my own body each day. Ask yourself: What can I or cannot live without? What are my deal breakers for my sanity? If none of the options given to you by the surgeons are decent, advocate for yourself and push to see what else is out there.
Getting back to dancing and taking a Hot in Heels workshop has helped me work through my insecurities of my post-cancer self in the most supportive and female-empowering environment. If I can look these women in their eyes, recording me while I dance seductively and they cheer me on, then I most definitely can look at myself in the mirror and be in awe of the woman I have become in the last year – strong, beautiful, confident and hella sexy.
Follow more of Alanna’s story on Instagram @alannners