Being that it’s October and the month of breast cancer awareness is upon us – the topic of breasts is ubiquitous to say the least. However, I’d like to give you a “peek” into the mind of a woman with breast cancer, lest you think it’s all pink ribbons and silicone up in breast cancer world. Needless to say, for many, it’s not.
I loved my breasts. I did. I really loved them. I feel like it’s kind of ok to say that now that I’ve lost them. I mean, ‘haters gonna hate’ and all, but you can’t really give a girl with breast cancer a hard time for missing the ol’ sand bags, now can you? Even after nursing two kids, bearing the impact of years of sports, and the cumulative impact of 43 years of gravity on this planet, they were still holding their own pretty damn well if I do say so myself. I had zero complaints. Well, up until one of them became filled with advanced, aggressive cancer tumors, and the other was brewing something as well. There’s that. Then yes, I had quite a few complaints actually and a thousand questions. How could they betray me like this? No family history, regular check ups, mammograms, ultrasounds, and daily self-checks – yes daily! How did this happen?
So, we had to part ways. There was really no choice in the matter. I had to pretty darn quickly come to terms with this (on top of receiving an advanced cancer diagnosis!) and grieve the loss. As a shrink, I believe in processing and having proper closure to mark transitions and endings. Therefore, I sent them off with a full-blown DJ dance party and boogied down at 10am with 40 of my closest friends and family to see me off to the hospital. I was scared to death and this helped distract me from my imminent butchery. It was also my way of paying respects and honoring their time served. They were a really important part of me, and I felt they deserved a proper send off.
Before breast cancer, I was one of those women who was naturally blessed with an hour-glass figure – smallish waist, larger breasts, and ample junk in the trunk – so to speak. Again, I can say this now because, after double mastectomies, I have zero point zero breasts. Actually I have like negative breasts – because they’re kind of indented. In addition to the two craters I now sport on my chest, three major abdominal surgeries have left me with something that resembles a baby’s butt on my abdomen (I affectionately call it my ‘front butt’), and my hour-glass figure now looks more like a lumpy pear viewed sideways. Sexy!
So, I am on the precipice of trying to regain some semblance of my old body, but at a potentially huge cost. After facing a life-threatening breast cancer diagnosis, undergoing 4 months of chemo, 25 rounds of radiation, a perforated colon, 4 surgeries, and 8 hospitalizations in 9 months– I know very well that I am just lucky to be alive. Those that love me echo this sentiment and do not want to see me go through any more pain, hospitalizations, risks of surgery, drains, or precious time away from my kids, to undergo reconstruction – or what they call “elective” surgery – but is it elective? It doesn’t feel that way. It feels 100 percent, completely necessary to being whole again – to me.
In my case, due to a number of medical issues, “reconstruction” will require at least two 8-10 hour surgeries during which I will be carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey and undergo complex micro vascular surgery. Coincidentally, the first of these is scheduled for November. Gobble gobble.
I understand that every surgery carries risks, and I also know the subsequent pain and failure rate involved with these procedures. I have been warned by many breast cancer patients who have been down this road to “just leave well enough alone.” Well, if only it were that easy for me. I know many women who have opted not to “re-breast” and forego reconstruction. However, this is so personal and we have complicated relationships with our breasts, don’t we? They are not necessarily functional body parts like a hand or leg, I get that. Yet they must serve some really vital purpose for me if I am willing to go through all this to get them back. The question is, what is it and is it worth it? I keep asking myself the “shrink” question, what I would ask a patient struggling with this, why do I need them to feel whole again?
Well, my response as a patient would be: It was an excruciatingly traumatic process waking up and having them gone. First I had implants put in which were substantially smaller than my “real breasts.” This was odd because it usually goes the other way. It was a big adjustment to get used to those smaller, not-my-own, perfectly shaped spheres I kept looking down at. However, I barely had time to get used to the “new B cups” before my colon burst – and I woke up from a 6 hour emergency surgery with an ostomy bag on top of the fake breasts and drains. I felt and looked like a mutilated Barbie doll from Sid’s bedroom in the movie Toy Story. To follow up all that excitement,, both breasts got infected, and it was decided the implants had to come out. Goodbye fake B’s. That is when the psychological s&*^ hit the fan.
When I awoke from that surgery (my 3rd in 4 weeks), now more than 20 pounds thinner than I have been in my entire adult life, with an ostomy bag attached to my abdomen for bowel movements, and now cratered areas with drains, blood, bandages, and slashes of new stitches where my breasts, then implants, had been, I hit a new low in my breast cancer “process.“ I was numb and so depressed. I felt deformed, robbed, stripped, so vastly… “different” from my previous self – the only self I’ve ever known. Despite having to change bandages and empty drains several times a day, I somehow managed to not actually look at my chest for 3 days after that surgery. I couldn’t. I literally could not. I had to titrate the trauma I was going through at that point in time and this was something I just wasn’t mentally prepared to face, yet.
While sill in the hospital – I asked my sister to secure a bra and prosthetics for me immediately so that I would not have to be without something “there” in public, ever. There was something about other people seeing what had happened to me that was particularly bothersome. It made me feel weak, vulnerable, scared, as if I’d somehow let cancer get the best of me. I’d had my breasts cut off and I felt like everyone would just see that and think of that the second they saw me – it felt so invasive, personal, and horrifying. I also worried that people would feel bad for me and be so struck by the stark contrast of my changed figure from the previously voluptuous and fit one to what was – at that point – skeletal, deformed, and sick.
Well, between my sisters and friends, we were able to secure all manner of breast prosthetics: Knitted knockers, swimmies, skin-colored full C cups (just like mine had been), cloth C’s, cloth B’s – breasts for all occasions and moods. Here is my collection, please… let me show you my breasts, The Greatest Hits Collection:
Oh, did you really think I was going to bare my chest to a bunch of strangers? No, no. Just keeping it real and taking you through the experience of Breast Cancer World. Like I said, it’s a far cry from a “free boob job” and a pink ribbon, as many people believe. Take a good look at that picture if you will. This is seriously what I have to choose amongst every day if it is a day I want breasts (many days now I go without and have become more and more comfortable – and actually kind of proud – of what I’ve overcome, both physically and psychologically, baring my bosum-less chest). Knitted knockers – made by an incredible organization to my previous size (36C/34DD) now seem freakishly huge. The transparent ones, which I got for swimming, seem so little and make me self-conscious about my significantly changed figure. The beige ones are heavy, hot, and end up sliding around in pools of sweat, and the soft white ones – which are really for post-op use – are too light and end up moving around to weird places. I was actually on TV once doing an interview about my foundation when one of these bad girls traveled smack in the middle of my chest – right below my chin – where no boob should be, EVER.
Not that I haven’t had my share of fun with all these detachable boobies. My sisters, nieces and I got pulled over at 1am on a crazy road trip this summer to a fundraiser, and I grabbed the beige ones out of my bra, held them up and said oh don’t worry – I’ll show him my boobs to get out of the ticket. Yes I know that is a horrible, inappropriate, not-to-mention sexist joke – I know. It was also really hysterical at the time and seriously – if the ridiculousness of this situation can’t provide some comic relief once in a while then that’s really sad.
So, as you can see, I’m working through this. I’m trying to process what my breasts mean to me and why it is important enough to feel “restored” in the way I hope to following these surgeries that I am willing to take this on despite the risks and pain I know are ahead of me. I haven’t been able to fully articulate my reasons yet, but I have decided I don’t need to. I don’t need to justify this to anyone, I just know it is something I need, something I want, and something that to me, is part of my story.
Am I under the delusion that these new breasts are going to be carved out of gold or that my new “body” is going to resemble Jessica freakin’ Rabbit? No. I just want to regain more of my “self” that I feel I lost. Take another WIN back from the score cancer has settled on me. I’ll keep you posted on how the new gals turn out…
This past October I wrote a piece entitled “To Breast Or Not To Breast,” in which I described the psychological trauma of losing my breasts to cancer, followed swiftly by the loss of part of my colon, followed by the loss of my spankin’ new implants for good measure, just in case I hadn’t gotten the, “It’s your turn to go through some s&^%” memo from the universe. Within 6 weeks of receiving a devastating advanced breast cancer diagnosis, I underwent 3 surgeries, was completely mutilated from my navel to my neck, had an ostomy bag and drains hanging off me, and was in such shock I could not even look directly at my scarred chest for days following the implant removal. The shrink in me dubs this “titrating the trauma.” I was facing my new reality in small doses and allowing myself time to work up to handling the full impact of the situation.
After all this demolition, along with chemo, radiation and more abdominal surgery – I was really looking forward to reconstruction surgery and putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. However, implants again after radiation was not ideal and the use of my abdomen for tissue to make new breasts was, in my case, not an option. I feared that no matter how important this was to me, reconstruction might not be possible. Although many women choose to remain “breastless” after mastectomy, and this is such a personal choice, it was important to me to reconstruct – and I did not want that choice taken away from me after so much already had been.
Then I met Dr. David Greenspun and found my ray of hope. He spent two hours going over my options with me, discussing possible risks and benefits to each procedure, and ultimately concluded that the best reconstruction surgery for me was a Lumbar Artery Perforator (LAP) flap procedure. He described this as taking tissue out of the lumbar area (usually known as love handles even though no one loves them), and re-purposing it to make breasts with the added benefit of accentuating the curvature of the lower feminine back. I call that recycling at its absolute finest. Sounds like a dream right – whittling your waist down, putting that fat where your breasts should be, and lifting your butt?!
This seemed like a great choice, but I was confused because I am thinish to average weight and many women (same or larger than me) told me their doctors said they were “too thin” for flap surgery. Well, you can understand why I was mildly offended when Dr. Greenspun didn’t miss a beat taking one look at me and saying, “No problem – you’ve got plenty.” Um, seriously? He could have at least pretended to have to think about it right? Act like it was a tough call? That would have been the polite thing to do. But..he was right. I have been absolutely amazed at how much tissue he was able to “re-purpose” from my back to my front – where was that all hiding?!
So we did it. Well, he did it. I just laid there unconscious and woke up with one, then two breasts and a much tinier waist to boot. These are awfully nice perks after the hell that cancer and complications have reigned down on my body. However, before you all go running to sign up for this deal, you should know that nothing comes that easily. Nobody would trade in their perfectly healthy breasts for ones made out of love handles. The operations are definitely complex and carry some risks…and my scars do look a bit like I was a magician’s assistant who didn’t fold up quite well enough in the box. However, in the hands of a very experienced surgeon – who specializes in this type of procedure – the risk benefit ratio is very acceptable.
After each of my surgeries I spent 3 nights in the hospital for monitoring, but by the next morning I was eating breakfast and walking around within a day. With a little help from the awesome Greenwich Hospital nurses, I was even able to take a shower before I left. I then had a comfortable recovery at home, and was able to get back to driving a bit the following week. Don’t get me wrong – you are not doing much for a few weeks. However, I was lucky enough to have my mom stay with me to help with the kids, and the pain is totally manageable. Since I can put my feet up, eat bon bons and binge watch TV with the best of them – I did great (and am fully up to speed on The Affair, The OA, and The Leah Remini Scientology Documentary by the way).
I should mention that tissue taken from the love handle area is more complex than flaps taken from the abdomen, but for women like me for whom that wasn’t an option – this was a great ‘back’ up (pun intended). While flaps from the abdomen are done with both breasts at the same time, the lumbar flaps are done one breast and one love handle at a time. Therefore, there is a month in between the two surgeries during which you are sporting just the one breast (and still have the one love handle). Of course I could have worn a prosthetic to even it out – as many people do permanently. However, I usually didn’t bother. In fact, so many people did double takes when I was out in public with the drains and the unibreast – that I thought about having a t-shirt made up that read, “Pardon my appearance while I am under construction.”
My surgeon took this pic in his office one week
after my lap surgery– It shows the contour of my
back that was defined from taking the tissue there
So the question I wrestled with before, and that I’m being asked repeatedly now that this is behind me, is…Was it all worth it?! To this I say…HELL YES! My amazing surgeon Dr. David Greenspun, whom I should really refer to as the Michelangelo of breasts, under-promised and over-delivered big time. Despite the scars, etc. they ARE carved out of gold! I DO look like Jessica Rabbit! Well, ok not exactly – but compared to what I had before, after not one but two sets of breasts were lost – it seems like it. Even though some part of me knew, but could not exactly articulate why, having breasts returned to my body would make me start to feel whole again – and in fact it really has.
I’ll never get back the body parts I lost, have any guarantee that my cancer won’t metastasize (as it was so advanced when we found it), or rid myself of the scars (inside and out) from what I’ve gone through, but I am able to begin the New Year feeling like something has finally been restored rather than taken. I now feel ready to start working on repairing the other damages that have been leveled by this disease – the ones that are a little harder to reach, and that don’t come in a C cup.
Follow your gut, if reconstruction of any kind is important to you and you have the option and access to do it – find a great surgeon like Dr. Greenspun and go for it. If not, own that too. But…look out Nicki Minaj…with the success and appeal of the LAP flap surgery for breast cancer patients, there may be a lot more ladies out there sporting those hella sexy curves you’ve cornered the market on.
Nice try cancer but, like Stella, I got my groove back.
This week, on Channel 8 WTNH in CT: I was doing a segment to promote a
breast cancer pink in the rink game this Saturday for my foundation
My best friend – since I was 6 – and I at a cancer gala one month after my second surgery.
Although breast cancer research funding covers many areas of prevention and treatment, it doesn’t properly address needs for those with stage 4 cancer.
Metastatic breast cancer (MBC), also known as stage 4 cancer, is incurable and is responsible for the deaths of nearly everyone who dies from breast cancer. MBC is when the cancer has spread outside the breast to other parts of the body — typically the bones, lungs, liver or brain. A recent study estimates that as of January 2017 there are nearly 155,000 women living with MBC in the United States alone and about 25 percent of them were diagnosed at stage 4 from the beginning; the other 75 percent progressed to stage 4 from an initial earlier diagnosis.
Read the entire article at: Why Metastatic Breast Cancer Research Needs More Funding