Saturday, August 4, 2012

What’s it really like? Breast Surgery, Part 1

When you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, there is a lot of scientific-medical-surgical consulting that takes place. There is a sense of urgency – for both the doctors and the patient. Get it completely diagnosed, measured through biopsy, PET scan done to see if there is cancer anywhere else in the body. Usually the patient talks first with an oncologist and then a surgeon. The surgeon makes recommendations based on the location and size of the tumor.

“I have a tumor. It’s malignant and growing. How fast? Has it gone into my lymph nodes yet?” These are some of the thoughts I had. “Will I need chemotherapy, radiation?”  

“We won’t know about chemo or rad,” the scientific team says, “until your Oncotype testing comes back two or three weeks after the surgery. It will also measure the likelihood of recurrence and the need (or not) for chemotherapy and possibly radiation.”

No one – No One – asks you how you’re feeling, either physically or emotionally. The decisive and urgent actions to eradicate the cancer growing in your body are the focus of the whole medical team – oncologist, breast surgeon, oncological radiologist.

I was given the choice of lumpectomy or mastectomy. But two surgeons highly recommended mastectomy because of the placement (behind the nipple) and the size of the tumor. I wanted it done, cleaned, gone. I have such small breasts, barely a handful. I chose mastectomy; the doctors noted duly, good choice. Had ... such small breasts. One breast now. And many women lose both at the same time and in the first surgery.

But no one came to tell me how it feels, not physically but emotionally and mentally, to have a breast removed. A lumpectomy, too, can be deeply invasive and heavy scarring results. No one asks something like, “Do you know or suspect that you have PTSD from any other event or process in your life? Who are your caregivers after surgery? We’d like to meet with as many of them as we can so we can prepare them for your physical needs, but also your emotional responses following surgery.”

No. No one comes and asks these questions. Perhaps a woman, with breast cancer awaiting the surgery, has been raped in the past. Maybe even 20 years before, and still has PTSD, and she’s beginning to see and feel the tiny signs of being triggered – rising anxiety, full-blown panic attacks (Oh, I just had one – and then another comes along two days before surgery).

No one prepares you for the full impact of the first minute of awakening from anesthesia, as you slowly remember why you’re in the hospital bed hooked up to IVs and you don’t know what to touch, and you don’t want to touch anything.

Part 2 tomorrow…

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