You might ask, “Be careful what you wish for—did you wish to be diagnosed with breast cancer and endure all that goes with that?” Well, of course not. However, for quite a long time, I wished for breast implants. I fantasized about having breast augmentation. So, fortunately for me, one of the many wonderful things that came out of my cancer journey was a brand new magnificent set of breasts! And better yet, insurance paid for them! I am very pleased with my end result.
My maternal grandmother had breast cancer late in her life. She had a single mastectomy with no reconstruction and lived for 20-plus years following her surgery. Hearing that 1 in 8 women would be diagnosed with breast cancer, I religiously went to my well woman exams and had mammograms. I had a mammogram in February of 2012 and it had been normal. I considered myself to be fairly healthy and not at a high risk for any health issues. Then one Monday morning while getting ready for work, I found a lump in my breast. I was 43, had two teenage boys, my husband and I had recently separated and we had a foreign exchange student that had just arrived to spend six months with us. When I found the lump, I thought to myself, “I really don’t have time for this,” as if we get to make those choices. I got into my OB’s office immediately, had an ultrasound the next day and had an appointment with a surgeon the following day. The next week, I had a biopsy and another appointment with the surgeon, and then I saw a second surgeon for another opinion. It was a whirlwind. As many of you know firsthand, it is shocking to learn that you have cancer. You try to hold yourself together for your family, your kids, your friends. You try and take in all the information that has been given to you, process it, then try and make decisions about treatment. It is a devastating and difficult time and only you can make the decision that is right for you.
But amid all the stress, of course, you press on as you really have no other option and you try and have a positive attitude and a positive outlook on things. I decided to undergo a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. Based on the biopsy results, my physicians thought that we had caught the cancer early and that it had likely not spread. Upon waking up after my surgery, my first question to my family was about my lymph nodes and much to my dismay, the cancer had spread. I was devastated; however, fortunately, out of three nodes that were removed, only one was positive. One of the reasons I had chosen to undergo a bilateral mastectomy was because I had hoped to avoid radiation and chemotherapy; however, chemotherapy was the recommended treatment with a positive lymph node. I did more research and talked with my surgeon about my wishes- I wanted to be conservative and avoid chemo and radiation if at all possible. I requested an oncotype test and decided that based on those results, I would make the decision if I should have chemotherapy. The oncologist I was seeing agreed to order the test and he also told me about a clinical trial that I could join depending upon my test results. Fortunately, my oncotype score was in the low range, and I was able to join the clinical trial and I was randomized into the group without chemotherapy.
My physical recovery from my surgery was fairly easy, other than those dreaded drains. For me, the mental recovery was much more difficult. I would look at myself in the mirror and my eyes would immediately go to my scars, reminding me of what I had lost and what I had been through. I had always been extremely independent and hated asking for help, but there were so many things I couldn’t do. The loss of independence, although temporary, was very difficult and bothersome to me. Initially, fear of recurrence was a constant worry. I guess the fear of recurrence never really goes away, it just moves further to the back of your mind.
My breast reconstruction continued and required visiting the plastic surgeon approximately every four weeks for tissue expansion. The tissue expanders and the monthly expansions were not pleasant, but I loved seeing my plastic surgeon; he was so kind, personable and cute. I still needed nipple reconstruction, and I really wasn’t interested in undergoing any further surgery. I had been told about a tattoo artist that did 3D nipple tattooing. I started researching 3D nipple tattooing and Vinnie Myer. Vinnie exclusively does nipple tattooing and is internationally known.
I had to wait for six months for an opening. I cannot begin to tell you how having these tattoos has made me feel. I no longer look in the mirror and immediately see those scars. Instead, I see what looks like normal breasts. It was the perfect way to end my breast reconstruction and bring closure to my journey. Like I mentioned earlier, it was the icing on the cake.
Cancer definitely changed my life in many ways. I wanted to share with all of you some of the things cancer taught me. First, I learned to always count my blessings. Secondly, cancer has a way of defining what is really important in life. Lastly, I learned that laughter is truly the best medicine. As terrible as a cancer diagnosis is, if you let it, it can change your life for the better. Cancer may be a part of your life, but it doesn’t have to define your life. We all have difficult things to deal with, be it cancer, diabetes, heart disease, losing a loved one, drug addiction, mental health problems, etc., and we all will one day meet our maker; no one lives forever. I ask you to let the way you deal with your challenges, whatever they may, be what defines you and what people will remember you for. And remember…… ce careful what you wish for.