In May this year, 16 months after having a mastectomy, I had an eight hour operation to reconstruct what had been taken away. It’s pretty major surgery, not something to take lightly, yet that’s probably what I did in the build up.
At the mastectomy stage, when all the cancerous tissue had been removed, they inserted a silicone implant which, whilst giving some shape, always felt like I was carrying a bowling ball around. It was so uncomfortable, heavy and hard as a rock. There had been problems of fluid retention and then scar tissue had made the area hard and lumpy. Subsequent radiotherapy had then caused the skin to contract and thicken, creating an even tighter feel. For me, the implant was always a temporary measure, and psychologically I needed to get rid of that too.
There were three options; to keep it and have no further surgery, to keep it and have rebalancing surgery on the other breast, or to have a full reconstruction. The latter was always my preference. I joked for months about looking forward to having a boob job and a tummy tuck, which is basically what it was, but in all seriousness, the results aren’t really anything like you’d see in any breast “enhancement” brochure.
The best bit is having a flat tummy. Two pregnancies of colossal size within my 5’ frame hadn’t done me any favours and no amount of exercising or toning would ever get rid of the loose skin. But that’s all gone now. An elliptical shape of tummy skin with all the fat attached (there wasn’t actually that much fat, so I was told) and a bit of stomach muscle which provided a blood supply, was removed. The two sides were then stretched together and sewn up and the belly button re-positioned. Sneezing and laughing were a bit tricky for a few weeks. I was worried I would perforate.
The lump of flesh was then basically transplanted to the chest to make a new more natural feeling breast. The implant was whipped out and the existing breast skin envelope cut and shaped to contain the newly positioned tummy skin. The transplanted tummy tissue, muscle and blood vessels were then fused to the existing blood vessels in the breast area. This bit of micro surgery is what took all the time. I was under anaesthetic for around ten hours.
Immediately after the operation, I was monitored every hour for about a day and a half. They had to check that the blood supply had taken otherwise the transplanted tissue would have died. To help it take, the breast, and actually the whole of me, had to be kept warm. I had a lightweight fleecy kind of hollow sleeping bag stroke airbag covering me. Constant warm air was pumped through it. I was boiling. And immobile; there were three drain sites – one each side of the tummy wound and one at the side of the breast, I was hooked up to a drip of morphine, to which my hand clung as I self administered. Then there was oxygen and the obvious catheter. All I was able to do was take sips of water through a straw which had to be positioned in reach of my free arm. Then there was the nausea and sickness. Then there was the hospital food, once I could sit up. I was extremely thankful to Jenni who brought me my stash of M&S food.
Two days after the op I was lifted out of bed and could sit up in a chair. The next day I was wheeled to the bathroom. The following day I was made to walk from the bed to the window. I was sent home two days after that. I was rather delicate. I had to dress the wound sites daily for three weeks with iodine strips and gauze and tape. It took about an hour every day. I wasn’t allowed to lift anything or do much really for a few weeks. My sister came down from Blackpool to look after me, and my nephew was also around to help out. The ex had the kids and also looked after me. My lovely friends visited and brought me food and, when I was able to move around a bit better, took me out for lunch. Due to the timely World Cup, I did as I had been told and rested up, which I think aided my recovery quite considerably. The good weather helped too. Four and a half weeks after the operation I had my first night out – my graduating friends’ degree show, which had always been a target to be the first night I would be able to have beer.
The new breast is now softer than the implant ever was but still more pert than the other side, as well as being smaller. There’s a big scar running all the way around. There’s still no nipple, though that will be formed in the next stage of surgery, hopefully quite soon. There is a difference in texture between the softer “tummy” skin which is sewn next to the thick elephant-hide-like radiated existing breast skin. This is getting less apparent though with time, and the shape seems to be settling down. But there is a bit of a crimpy look to it and I call it a Cornish pasty. The look of it may get better. But it may not. I am just happy that it feels ten times better than the implant did. The next stage is to have the other breast reduced and lifted to create some kind of a symmetrical look.
There’s no escaping the fact that my body has been maimed. There’s an absence. A loss. Two years’ worth of transience. I could let it get me down but I won’t. I’ve been lucky to have had people who have helped me in various ways to get over different stages and feelings. I will be forever grateful and know I will be able to move on from here.
All this has been due to breast cancer.
October is breast cancer awareness month. Keep checking.