Setbacks

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” is what the sign reads above the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Inferno and it was a phrase that kept going through my head as I left my plastic surgeon’s office just 12 short days ago.  I felt like I had entered Mastectomy Hell because just days after getting an “all clear” and even returning back to CrossFit (and to all those who will criticize me, saying I should have waited, it was HEAVILY modified with no weight at all.) I was being told that the redness that appeared on the left breast was an infection on the inside and we would have to see how it would react to stronger antibiotics.  That Sunday, when the incision burst open, I was told I would be going back into the OR to irrigate the area and replace the implant.  If this did not work, I would lose the implant all together for 6 weeks or more.

I was not mentally prepared to even write this post until now, nine days post op, because I just felt hopeless.  The surgery itself was quick and painless and I went home right after it was over.  I’m pretty tough and after having two babies without drugs, physically this surgery was no sweat.  I needed no more than a couple Tylenol for the pain.  But mentally and emotionally, I was a mess.  It amazed and horrified me to see that the tides of recovery could turn on a dime, putting you back into an OR the day after you had just gone shopping for new clothes and gone out to dinner to celebrate your full recovery with your husband.  I was assured the infection wasn’t due to anything I had done and it just happens… rarely, but it still happens.  Now, as I was nearing the coveted six week point after a double mastectomy, I would be starting over on one side, complete with the dreaded JP drain hanging down my stomach.

After surgery, I was definitely thrown, but I was happy to see that I looked pretty much the same as when I went in and I didn’t wake up with the feeling of a 747 sitting on my chest like I did with my mastectomy.  For all intents and purposes, I looked normal save for a fresh incision where the old one had been.  I went in for several follow ups so my doctor could keep a close eye on my progress and I seemed to be healing nicely.  I even got my drain pulled out earlier than I had anticipated (which, anyone who has had a mastectomy knows is a HUGE day!)  But mentally, I just couldn’t get rid of the dark cloud over my head because I kept telling myself that looking and feeling good means nothing.  It can change in an instant.  If it doesn’t get better, I will be flat on one side for several weeks.  This attitude went on for several days until, much like Virgil helping Dante through literal Hell, my husband and kids yanked me out of my own personal Hell.  My girls just wanted me to be happy and playful and my husband remained understanding and supportive through his second shift of being a caregiver.  Through absolute silliness only seen in the innocence of children, I started to laugh again.  From hugs and kisses at every opportunity, I realized the absolute greatness that was my husband and I started to like my body again, even if it had failed me at this particular moment.  The incision will heal and the scar will fade, and as he kept reminding me, “This sucks, but you want it done right.”

Now, today, I have just returned from my last follow up appointment for the next two weeks and it was a positive one.  My five day culture came back negative for any sign of bacterial growth and the incision looks good, with no sign of infection or seroma after the drain was pulled on Monday.  My plastic surgeon says that going off antibiotics without issue will be the true test to see if this worked or not, but he finally has given me reason to be cautiously optimistic.  As I was driving home, I finally felt good again and I realized that what I have been depressed about is small potatoes compared to what women with actual breast cancer have to deal with.  I was afraid I’d lose an implant.  These women live in a constant state of fear that they’ll lose their life.  So I put on my aviators, rolled the windows down (it dropped below 90 here!) with the radio up and smiled on my way home.  I had come out the other side of this and look forward to being in the Paradiso part of my journey: Complete recovery.

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One Month Later

Here we are! I never thought the one month mark would get here.  This month has definitely been the most challenging I’ve ever faced and it has gone both slow and fast at the same time.  I re-read my last post, which was written right after surgery and I have to apologize to those of you who are reading this and have yet to go through your mastectomies.  I really did not mean it to sound so scary and harsh and I am here to tell you that no matter what, it does get better.  Now that I have had a little more than four weeks to heal and attempt to get back to normal, I wanted to give some tips so that you won’t lose your sanity and so that you can stay as pain free as possible.

  1. Support.  This is absolutely number one on the list of things you NEED as you go through this.  I have a wonderful, devoted husband who tended to my every need and one tough, dedicated mama who stayed with us for a week to help in any way she could.  I am here to tell you that I would not have healed this well without them.  After surgery, I compared myself to having T-Rex arms because you really cannot move above the elbow.  However, if I needed a glass of water, a snack or the occasional chocolate treat, it magically appeared because my mom and husband were just that good.  My mom kept herself busy by picking up any slack in the house cleaning department and my husband learned to cook and make the perfect cup of coffee, even though he hates the stuff.  Then there were the kids to consider.  My dad and in-laws were rock stars in that department because while I was being taken care of, they were entertaining my kids and keeping them distracted so they weren’t worried about their mom.  So, we were a well oiled machine and not having to worry about anything helped immensely.
  2. Surgical Team.  This seems like it should be a given but I am going to mention it anyway.  My doctors, Dr. John Rimmer and Dr. David Lickstein truly are artists and a top team when they work together.  No matter who you choose to do your surgery, make sure that you are 100% comfortable and confident in them.  I knew I was in the best hands and never once worried.  At a short four weeks later, my incisions are barely visible and Dr Lickstein took what could have been a scary mastectomy reconstruction and made it look like a breast augmentation.  No woman going through this process actually wants her breasts removed, but looking down and being happy with the results once it’s finished definitely gives you peace of mind.
  3. Comfort.  If you take away one thing from this post it is this:  Don’t try to be a hero!  Stay ahead of the pain.  If you need the pain meds, take them.  Rest and let others take care of you.  As women, we want to get up and do things around the house, but you really need to rest if you want to heal without complications.  Finally, the one thing I could not live without were my Axilla-Pillas.  You will not want to put pressure on your incisions or drain sites, so these were with me 24-7.  Put them under your arms and keep them there.  I even slept with them.
  4. Mental Toughness.  Everyone talks about all the physical things you’ll go through, but this really is a mental game too.  First of all, this is not a boob job.  It is not exciting and I very much doubt that any of us want to be in this position.  You are doing this to save your life so there is that worry in the back of your mind until that clear pathology result comes back.  Tell yourself that you are a badass warrior and cancer will not take you down.  Sitting down inside all day will also start to get to you.  I don’t know about you, but I love being outside playing golf, riding horses, swimming in the ocean, etc.  The fact that you can’t do any of that will drive you nuts.  Do not sit inside your dark bedroom all day.  Open a window.  Go sit outside.  Do anything so that you don’t feel like a hermit.  Just having sunshine on your face helps tremendously.  Finally, do things to make you feel good.  At one week post op, my mom took me to get a pedicure and the day after that I went to the Blow Dry bar to have my hair done.  Pamper yourself in any way that you can, you definitely deserve it.
  5. Patience.  Here it is, the toughest thing to master through all of this.  Healing does not happen overnight, no matter how badly we want it to.  Be gentle with yourself and know that time is the only thing that will literally heal all wounds.  If you rush it, you will battle seromas under the skin like I did.  The more you aggravate things, the more fluid your body produces and the more you will have a giant needle aspirate fluid out of the breast.  I’m thankful every day that it finally resolved on its own.  At one month, I have been cleared for light exercise and I am getting better every day, but even now I can feel that I am still healing.  It feels great to be moving and exercising again, but I am having to take it very slow and use tiny, baby dumbbells even though I want those heavy barbells like everyone else.  Patience is not something I excel at, but I’ll get back to where I was eventually.

And that’s it in a nutshell!  This is a process that has tested my sanity, but there hasn’t been one second that I have regretted my decision and that is the biggest point I want to make.  This pain is temporary, but peace of mind lasts forever.