No Instruction Manual to Emotionally Cope With a Double Mastectomy


Two-time cancer survivor works through her feelings as her double mastectomy approaches.

How am I supposed to cope with losing two body parts that I have had since age 12? Of course I am talking about my breasts! There is no instruction manual to cope with a double mastectomy. I am not a previvor. I am already a breast cancer survivor - a survivor who recently learned she has the PALB2 genetic abnormality. I am making a difficult decision that all my doctors support. Just because it is ultimately my choice to improve my odds of survival, it has not made this major decision any easier.

I am sad and worried and even slightly hopeful all at once. When I look down at my breasts and touch them, I cringe. What will they be like after surgery? Will the pathology reports come back negative? How will I feel in this forever-changed body? Will I be less stressed with a lower chance of future breast cancer? Am I being selfish that my appearance matters to me? Will my surgeries go well, or will I be sent back to the drawing board? Am I being vain that I want my body to someday be "normal" again?

My mind churns and churns with questions and ideas. My thoughts move toward my upcoming double mastectomy with reconstruction and then they back away and spin off in a different, safer direction. It feels like the time I bumped into a glass window that I mistook for an open doorway. Bang! I came away with bent glasses, bruised and rumpled, and then I found the doorway. Time marches on minute by minute toward the upcoming surgery. I feel like a hamster in a fancy cage trying to find a way out. Can't go over it. Can't go under it. Can't go around it. Just like cancer, I will go through it.

This isn't my first round against cancer. I have already had a lumpectomy, oophorectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and hormonal treatments. I even managed to survive an unrelated melanoma a few years after breast cancer. I go back to my coping basics: I take a breath. I go outside and observe. I use imagery. I distract myself with pretty catalogs with pictures of silly things like runners, chargers and throw pillows! I journal. I practice my patience and grow my spirituality and try to be a good role model for my family. There are support groups for mastectomy survivors. There are other women and men who have shared their thoughts and courage and then turned around and offered their strength and support to help others. I am deeply grateful for them and their willingness to openly and honestly share.

I will get through this newest rabbit hole. Before, during, and at the end, I will still just be Barb, and that is OK. That is honest. I will see you on the other side and most important of all, life will go on.

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