Now that I have completed my surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, I have decided to focus on one important part of my treatment and share my experience with you. Maybe I can reach the right people so that others won’t have to experience what I did.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year at the age of 48, I entertained the notion of writing about my experience, of documenting my treatment. But then I thought, that has been done before.
I was otherwise healthy and feeling good about my life when Wham! The diagnosis came from a routine mammogram. There is no history in my family, no indicator that this was on my horizon.
Now that I have completed my surgeries (double mastectomy with reconstruction), chemotherapy and radiation, I have decided to focus on one important part of my treatment and share my experience with you. Maybe I can reach the right people so that others won’t have to experience what I did.
When you first get the diagnosis, you go numb. You are not sure what to do. I was blessed with a wonderful, compassionate surgeon who walked me through my options. He helped me take charge and do what I had to in order to get rid of this disease. My oncologist was the same way; he sat me down and went over all the steps that needed to be taken to ensure that I could be “a survivor.”
I was given more information than I knew what to do with. Treatments, side effects, healing. There was so much involved. Even my radiologist would sit down with me eye-to-eye and discuss any questions, fears or worries. They all looked at the whole picture and how this would affect my work, my family, my finances, every aspect of my life that would be touched by this ordeal.
The one place that I dreaded going each time was to the plastic surgeon’s office. Here I had been given devastating news and I am going to be losing a big part of me which makes me feel like a woman. I walk into what seems to be the waiting room of a luxury spa. There are advertisements for Botox, skin rejuvenation, tummy tucks, buttock lifts. I see the beautiful women that come and go and wonder if they are there for just a “touch up” or are they there for something more, like I am. I would prefer going to a sterile office or hospital than sitting in that waiting room. The exam room is tiny, no room for the doctor to sit down and talk. There was never any looking at the “whole picture.” Not once did I feel compassion for my situation. I wanted to scream, “I am not here because I want to be. I am not getting my crow’s feet filled, I am getting my breasts cut off.”
I was referred to this plastic surgeon from my surgeon’s office as he was “the first available appointment” that they found for me. I should have done some research or “interviewed” different plastic surgeons, as one of my friends from chemo did. But everything was moving so fast to get my surgery scheduled and they had to coordinate with the plastic surgeon. This is due to reconstruction starting at the time of my mastectomy. The surgeon removes the breast tissue (and hopefully all of the cancer) and the plastic surgeon follows directly after to place the expanders under the tissue to start the reconstruction process.
Each time I went to see the plastic surgeon — driving 45 minutes each way – I went with questions, but after sitting on a table, topless while the doctor loomed over me and spent literally three minutes with me, I would go home in tears with my questions unanswered.
I had a complication with my expander. I tried to tell the plastic surgeon. He brushed it off. I called his office in tears trying to advocate for myself and my situation. My radiologist listened to me. He requested the plastic surgeon call him during my next visit. I had to argue with the plastic surgeon just to get him to call my radiologist. Only then did he listen to the concern.
Due to this complication, I had to have my final implants put in prior to radiation instead of after, which is the norm. Because this surgery was scheduled fairly quickly, there was no sit-down discussion of final size or shape. What I woke up with was what I got. My chemo friend once asked me, “Did you go with the round or the shaped implants?” I had no idea there was a choice.
I know that my breasts will never be conventionally beautiful again. I have scars running across them instead of nipples. But I want to at least feel like everything is being done by this professional to make me not just look the best I can under the circumstances but also feel the best I can too.
Due to the implants being put in prior to radiation treatment, they left the side that would be radiated loose, as the skin would tighten and shrink, so I was lopsided. Now, six months after finishing radiation, one side still sits a little lower. I scheduled a consultation, as I am on the fence about getting another procedure to help even it out. During another three-minute appointment, the surgeon basically said, “There could be more tightening. I would leave it as is and we can look at it again in a couple of months.” Luckily my cleavage looks pretty good and from the outside no one can tell what I have been through. Besides, every woman is a little lopsided, aren’t they?
I guess I am just writing this to try to get the word out to plastic surgeons who deal with patients with cancer — and vice versa. Reconstructive surgeons, try to have a little more compassion than you may have with a “Hollywood Housewife” who is there for Botox. Maybe take a little more time to explain things as we have been bombarded with information since our diagnosis. Maybe ask our opinion more about how we want to look. Ask us if we have any questions or concerns. I know there are probably many out there that are very compassionate; I just didn’t have the luck of having you as my plastic surgeon. But I may see you if I decide to get a second opinion.
- A Survivor