August 7th, 2011
The date is now set for the first of my reconstructive surgeries. As has been my custom, I sent out a dispatch to my support people to inform them of the date and some of the needs my family and I will have.
But you know what I forgot to include?
What the surgery was for.
I got some concerned notes from friends, wondering if I had experienced a recurrence or morbidity from earlier surgeries. Was I BRCA positive? Was this an oophorectomy or hysterectomy?
As regular readers of my blog know, I usually lay things on the table medically. I am not typically coy about what goes on.
This omission was interesting. Why had I suddenly become so uncharacteristically shy?
Blogger friend Stacey has written about how awkward it is to discuss reconstruction –– sometimes even with your doctors.
Luckily, I have felt very comfortable with my docs.
Family, friends, and colleagues… well that’s a different matter.
Part of it, I think, is that people are not as presumptuous about the “correctness” of other phases of cancer treatment. When you tell folks you have to have chemo, the skeptics may, at most, ask if you had a second opinion. But once you assure them of your diagnosis, they only offer sympathy.
Breast reconstruction becomes infused with opinion. Political opinion. Medical opinion. Cosmetic opinion.
While not everybody states their views outright, they find ways to insinuate them into conversations.
I am familiar with this dynamic. It reminds me most of the kind of indirect (and sometimes quite direct) judgments I felt in conversations about childbirth and breastfeeding.
For this reason, I am going to provide here my personal answers to the FIQ’s in conversations about my choice to pursue reconstruction.
What are FIQ’s?
I just made them up.
Frequently Insinuated Questions.
So here goes.
Why don’t you just embrace your new body?
Yes, this is the body that let me live. But it is also a body of trial and grief. It is a body that reminds me of what I have endured every time I dress and undress, every time I wear a swim suit, every time I hug. My happiest post-treatment moments are ones that do not foreground my cancer experience. I would like to have more of that pleasant amnesia around my body itself.
I have been told by more than one person about women who embrace their mastectomied bodies by tattooing their scars. Cool on them. When people stare at you, you have given them something to look at, have changed the meaning of the stare into, “What an awesome tattoo.” I think that’s great.
But it doesn’t work for me. Aside from not being a tattoo person, I am not a candidate for tattoos, between the extensive radiation and the lymph node dissection which leaves me prone to infection. I sometimes get the feeling that I disappoint people by not being a badass tattooed survivor.
Why would you want to endure more surgeries?
I have my reasons. Of all three events in the Triathlon from Hell — chemo, surgery, and radiation — I tolerated surgery the best. It seemed to be the one place where my prior fitness paid off.
I don’t want to endure more surgeries. But cancer often forces you to choose between crappy options.
The best preparation I have had for this aspect of cancer treatment is a game I played with my brothers growing up. We would pose gruesome hypothetical scenarios and ask each other to justify our choices, like, “Would you rather freeze to death or be burnt alive?”
Other women may not experience it this way, but for me, choosing between my mastectomy scarred body and more surgery is one of those would you rather scenarios with no right answer. Choose your pain: the accretion of small psychic insults for the rest of your life, or intense, short term suffering for a physical approximation of what you have lost. On the balance, my personal answer, after much self reflection, is that I would rather endure 9 months of surgery.
I do not judge other women for making different decisions. I wish I did not feel judged by others for my choice.
Why didn’t you just get reconstruction when you had your mastectomies?
If I had insisted, I could have. My radiation oncologist told me clearly that it would risk compromising the treatment and it would make for a lesser cosmetic outcome. My priority during treatment was to save my life. I figured I would deal with the cosmetic aspects at a later point, once I knew that is what I wanted to do.
The surgeons at my hospital recommended waiting 12-18 months for my tissue to heal after radiation. Delayed reconstruction has been psychologically hard, but the morbidity rates are lower than reconstruction on radiated skin. In some ways, it has given me an opportunity to live with a mastectomy body and have a clear sense of my own feelings about that. I will not have to wonder how it felt.
Are breasts really that important to you?
Growing up, I had a friend who was born with noticeable asymmetry in her face. Nobody questioned her and her family’s decision to get plastic surgery for her when she got old enough. Faces are part of how you present yourself to the world, how people see you and interact with you.
Later, my friend Josh had part of his arm removed to treat sarcoma. He wore a prosthetic initially, but found it cumbersome and finally decided to let everybody deal with their discomfort around his missing body part. He used humor to help put people at ease, like about the particular danger he would pose if he texted while driving.
So where do breasts fall on the spectrum of body parts? Do non-conforming breasts socially require surgical correction, the way that we all understood my friend’s facial surgery?
I imagine breasts fall somewhere in the middle, and different women answer that question differently.
Here is where I land. I don’t like choosing my clothing around my surgery. I don’t like the extensive strategizing I end up doing when it comes time to change in the locker room. I don’t like the sinking feeling I get every time I undress, no matter where I am. I don’t like the feeling of cuddling my children with prostheses.
I have spoken with enough women who have made different choices to get a sense of the trade-offs. I have no illusion of “becoming whole again.”
But I have listened to other’s stories, and I have spoken with my doctors about the medical realities.
I know of a woman in her 40s who enjoyed swapping out different sized prostheses –– or wore none at all –– to suit her fashion choices and activities. I know a 90 year old woman who had a radical mastectomy in the 1970s who told me she never felt comfortable with her modified body. I know a small-chested BRCA positive woman who got prophylactic mastectomies without reconstruction and felt surprised at how much she missed having breasts.
There is no one answer here. But I would appreciate trust from people I know that this is the right choice for me.
This entry was posted on Sunday, August 7th, 2011 at 1:10 pm and is filed under Survivorship. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.