“The test came back positive.” It was my breast surgeon’s voice on the other end of the line. He had phoned me just minutes before. After a brief conversation to ask how I was feeling, he perfunctorily made his announcement. With a trembling voice I said “Okay, what’s next?” He asked if I wanted a lumpectomy or mastectomy and I told him that he was the expert and asked for his advice. He said “Mastecotomy”. Then he told me that I needed to make the decision whether or not I wanted only one or both breasts removed. The decision I ultimately made took several days, but I ended up opting to have both of my breasts surgically removed. The surgery was scheduled and there was no going back.
Fair warning to anyone diagnosed with breast cancer and who is facing any type of surgery. The trauma experienced is, at best, profound. From the moment you are diagnosed to awakening in your hospital bed your nerves are on end. Yes, this is necessary. No, it was not your choice but it was the best choice. Coming home is hopefully better for some than it was for me. The first week was fair. I had some care from my former Nanny and former fiancée. But the second week was excruciating. My Nanny had to leave to care for her aunt who also had cancer, and I was left unattended for the most part. Thus I ended up back in surgery two weeks later after having an emergency blood transfusion. I snapped the tissue expander on my right side while trying to care for myself, breaking the sutures away from my chest wall which caused internal hemorrhaging. Six weeks after my first surgery I returned to California to be cared for by my children and grandchildren.
Here are my recommendations to anyone facing surgical mutilation by way of mastectomy:
1. First and foremost make sure that you have a network of family and friends who are willing and prepared to help you during the first three weeks of recovery. This is absolutely crucial to the physical healing process, and provides emotional and mental relief for the patient. They can help you to the bathroom, help clear your drain tubes, shower or bathe you, prepare meals, and watch over you as you rest.
2. If you do not have such a network, try to prepare meals ahead and freeze them. Let your immediate neighbors know that you will be having surgery and get some phone numbers in the event of an emergency. If you belong to a church let the pastor and deacons know and get phone numbers from them. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’re going to need it. Make arrangements for a home nurse to pay daily visits to check your wound sites and clear your drains until you can do it yourself.
3. Take your medications on time! The pain that I experienced was not pleasant, to say the least, and I missed my medications many times. If you have someone caring for you they should set a timer to remind them to give you your meds. If you don’t have anyone set a timer for yourself.
4. Eat, and drink plenty of fluids. You’re not going to feel like eating at first. You have, after all, lost part of your body and this is often a hard fact to accept. I recommend soft foods to begin with, such as scrambled eggs or oatmeal with toast. A pitcher of water should be kept close to the recovery bed with a drinking glass. I drink iced tea, and I made sure that I had my 40 ounce mug filled at all times.
After the first few days you should be able to get out of bed with a minimal amount of pain and move about slowly. Whatever you do, DON’T PUSH YOURSELF! Recovery from major surgery takes time, and you don’t want to end up back in the hospital again as I did. During the second week you should be able to shower by yourself, and in the third week you will be almost back to ‘normal’. But again, don’t push yourself. The recovery period for this particular surgery is actually six months, and if you are going to have implants you will be facing yet another surgery sometime during those six months and will begin the recovery process all over again.
Somehow through my experience I have learned to smile through the pain and laugh through the tears. I am in my fourth month of recovery from my surgeries and am doing fairly well. I know that a year from now I will have my implants and feel like a whole woman again. Yes, I am on hormone therapy for five years and facing chemotherapy, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I will be fine, and you will be too!