It’s a secret – no one knows what a mastectomy surgery will leave strewn in its path.
I had no idea what to expect – not really. I knew I’d have a drain and another tube connected to a Pain-Buster, both coming out of the incision after surgery. I knew I could shower within the first 24 hours after surgery. I knew when I’d return to see a nurse practitioner for dressing removal. I was given some exercises from the nurse at the hospital, and she said they were really important to do. I knew it all hurt.
I was in shock after the surgery, though. A shower? Too complicated for me with the two drains. I couldn’t look at the surgical site, even with the dressing on. I couldn’t think or feel anything. Just do exercises, go see nurse about dressing and drains.
When the drain and the Pain-Buster tube were both removed, the extractions created strange sensations in my now foreign land. The nurse touched the incision and there was numbness and then feeling, then pain. I told her. Yes, you’ll get that. Get what? I get nothing so far.
Eventually I was without dressing and drains, and left on my own. I took a look in the mirror at the incision. I couldn’t bear looking at it – I felt so ugly and deformed. Thankfully it was late fall in Colorado and I could wear bundling clothes – sweaters and layers that faked the breast that was no longer there. But when I’d go to the bathroom and take my clothes off to take a shower, one brief glance in the mirror would horrify me. I learned not to look.
Was I supposed to know this? Was I supposed to have asked the oncologists (there were so many of them) and the nurses what to expect physically and emotionally? I didn’t know the questions, and I was too worried about Having Cancer to even consider the other side of Getting Rid Of It.
I couldn’t touch the incision except very infrequently. I would try to imagine a lover ever wanting to touch my body again. My breasts had been so sensitive. They are a secondary sexual characteristic. What do you do without one of your breasts? What about women who lose both breasts to cancer? What do they think, feel, experience with no breasts and two incisions that don’t feel at all like breast tissue used to feel?
I felt de-sexed. I felt cut upon and violated in the worst way. I had submitted to a body part amputation with no knowledge imparted to me of what that result would be.
It took months to go to Nordstrom and be fitted for a prosthesis for my left breast. I wish I had gone to see them prior to the surgery. They treated me like a woman – a woman! – and anticipated my emotional responses. They protected me. They coddled me. They beautified me. They brought me a little bit closer back to being a woman and feeling sexy and feminine.
If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer and mastectomy is offered as the preferred surgical option, are you willing to ask all the questions about the result? Will you go beyond cancer recurrence and ask about the exact physical result? And then, will you go beyond the physical result and ask for information and support for the emotional results of mastectomy – and honestly, any breast surgery? And are you willing to show your naked heart and ask for help?