My Friends Tell Me I'm Beautiful But It's Hard For Me To See
Trigger warning: The following blog may be difficult to read for anyone planning on getting a mastectomy.
Two weeks post mastectomy, someone said to me, "You're still in pain?!".
Yes, yes I am. My sister and I were discussing how much happens during a mastectomy that people just don't know about, which is why they don't understand the pain. Surgeons don't just chop your boobs off and then sew you up afterwards. In the most rudimentary way possible, I'm going to explain this.
First the surgeon cuts you open. Then they detach all breast tissue connected to your skin and rib cage. Doing this severs or damages every nerve in your breast area. Then you are sewn back up leaving all those nerves wondering what their job is now. The nerves go berserk trying to figure this out. The brain is still sending them signals on a broken pathway. They dance about in confusion. This causes pain.
I describe this sensation in two different ways:
The first is a more maddening discomfort than pain. My nerves think that the breasts are still there and are trying to reach them. This happens when a person has a limb amputated too. In this case, I feel pressure around my rib cage as if I’m wearing a sports bra. On any other day, I would just remove the bra causing the discomfort. But now, there’s nothing there to remove. This has thrown me into panic attacks where I have to strip off my shirt to feel less confined.
The second is a fiery pain. It feels like severe sunburn someone repeatedly punched on the upper inner arm from my elbow to my armpit then across my entire chest. If my shirt drags against it, if my arm brushes against my body, if the wind blows wrong, it sends razor blade pain throughout my chest.
I'm not telling you all this for pity. I want you to understand. This hurts, and it will take time for it to become a new normal.
There are also many emotional aspects of a mastectomy. I honestly thought it wasn't going to bother me. I hated my boobs so much and was glad to see them go. But the reality of the aftermath is that my body is completely different now. I didn't think it would matter, but breasts are part of being a woman and a mother. A female shape is defined by their chest.
To help you understand this, I’ve included a post-op photo. Other women have found solace in my sharing them. If I can help others with my flaws, I’ll do that. Even though it’s uncomfortable for me.
The photo on the left is 2 weeks post op. The right is 2 months post op.
When breast cancer survivors say they decided to "go flat," I don't really get it. I'm not flat. I'm bumpy. I have rolling hills and valleys where I once had mountains. I ask myself daily while I change, "Who will ever find this attractive?" My self-image is so damaged now. What gave me my feminine shape is now gone.
On my left chest, my port protrudes. The left scar comes to a point under my arm. It's strange looking. Kind of like the corner of a purse seamed together. Where my breasts were is nothing but droopy skin. My surgeon left extra skin in case I chose to have reconstruction. I get that he was trying to make that part easier for me but hate what it looks and feels like so much that, even if I don’t get reconstruction, I’m going to have to have it surgically removed later anyway. Because of the extra skin, I still somehow have "underboob" with no boobs. That means I have underboob sweat. And we all know how much I hate that!
Looking at my body is now so uncomfortable to me. And don't even get me started on how I feel others may be viewing me. I know it's probably mostly in my head but it's still something to deal with on the inside of me. My friend tells me I'm beautiful. It’s hard for me to see that though. She told me, "I love you, every single stitch." I needed to hear that, because I hate the scars, even though they are evidence of my life saved.
I’ve sought out a plastic surgeon to discuss my reconstruction options, because frankly, I don’t like what I look like. I realize the cosmetic side of this pales in comparison to the health side. Yes, I am officially "NED" (no evidence of disease) and yes, that is what is important. I am eternally grateful for what was done to get me there. But part of health is mental health. This is the aftermath of treatment that not many know of or understand. Just because I'm NED does not mean I am done with the fight. None of us are. So hug a Breast Cancer Survivor today and let them know you are still there with them.
Photo courtesy of Author.
How did a mastectomy change your body image? Share your story in the comments below.