I came down here to prove a point. But what exactly was it that I was trying to prove? And who the hell was I trying to prove it to?
When I initially brainstormed my thoughts on this whole “chopping off my cancerous tits” process I started with the words “My Surgery” at the center of this new little universe that I was about to dive head-first in to. Well, it’s been a month+ since I doodled that initial mind-map and I must say, damn, I was a naive little thing.
First, I’ll start with the obvious and mildly pedantic. If you know me and my propensity for skiing, hiking, biking, etc, then you know that before the age of 23, I had three knee surgeries and I am still currently in mild need of a working ACL. But that’s a whole other story that involves two more knee surgeries and me, straight-faced, asking my orthopedic surgeon “so it’d be like throwing a hotdog down a hallway?” I also had my tonsils removed in high school after a wicked case of Mono (I stand by my “I have no idea who I got it from” story), so it’s safe to say, much to the on-going agony of T-Rag and MJ, Rachael Sue is no stranger to this whole surgery thing.
Second, we can also look at this whole “My Surgery” thing from the medical perspective. For me, this process is actually a two-part surgery: Part One – they perform a surgery to remove my cancerous tits; Part Two – they perform a surgery to put in my new “yuge” fake ones.
So technically, if you were to ask me about “My Surgery,” my correct and completely snide response should be, “Which surgery?! I’ve had five of them already!”
So why on earth was I referring to this first surgery as “My Surgery?”
Well. As you might have been able to tell, that whole list of technicalities was actually just a bunch of pent-up bullshit that really was just me being terrified of calling this surgery what it really is. It was also to showcase, in the month’s leading up to my surgery, my straight up refusal to call this surgery by its actual name.
So here goes. My first surgery was a double fucking mastectomy.
That’s right. I got the same surgery that one of your distant, much older, female relatives has also had. That same surgery your family doesn’t talk about because that’s a private, female matter, and well, we don’t talk about private female matters like mastectomies and hysterectomies.
So. Let’s get to the nitty titty of what my double mastectomy entailed. First, before even discussing what type of mastectomy I should get (fun fact – there’s more than one), I had to make sure I didn’t already have breast cancer. So once again, I had to answer a zillion questions and then explain my family’s medical history to numerous medical professionals. Only then was I able to get my little teeny tiny A-cup boobs squashed between two giant plates that shot a bunch of (potentially carcinogenic) radiation into my chest. This process is more commonly known as the dreaded mammogram.
And since I was so young, and my boobs were so small, technicians were never actually able to get “a good view” on the first try – so for me, it always ended up that in order to get a clear view of my breasts, they had to shoot double, sometimes triple, the amount of “normal” radiation into my chest. All in the name of making sure that I didn’t already have cancer.
Once the mammogram confirmed that I did not have cancer yet, I was then able to start “interviewing” plastic surgeons and begin the discussion of what type of mastectomy I wanted/needed to have.
I had already had a similar conversation with a Breast Surgeon after I initially tested positive for the BRCA2 gene and a lot of women have asked me “Why didn’t you get the surgery done when you first found out?” “Or why didn’t you get it done a year later when we found a lump and totally freaked out?”
Well, to be completely honest…five+ years ago, the prophylactic surgery was a lot more invasive. They took everything, all of the breast tissue, your lymph nodes, and they also took your nipples. I wish I could say that the whole “nipple” discussion wasn’t a major factor in making my initial decision, but I was single, 22, and the very thought of not having my nipples was absolutely terrifying.
I also wish I could say that I am “not that kind of girl” – but the thought of having to tell every new man-friend, serious and casual, exactly why I don’t have nipples seemed to me, not only as a single 22 year old, but also as a single 27 year old, to be an incredibly emotionally daunting task and one that I am not emotionally equipped to handle. And then there was that whole nagging fear of rejection thing and that I would never be able to find a man who would accept my nipple-less-ness because society has told him that the “perfect woman” comes with two incredibly perky breasts and those include two perfectly shaped nipples.
And then of course, remember, we had that perfect plan! The oh-so-distant “I will wait until they find a tumor and by then I’ll have found a husband and we will have had our 2.1 kids and then when the time comes, we will make this decision together and he will love me and find me devastatingly attractive even though I’m nipple-less, because I bore his children damnit” plan.
With that totally Stepford (and somewhat nauseating) plan now sitting in my rear view window, I started interviewing plastic surgeons in December of 2016. I learned that gone are the days of super invasive prophylactic double mastectomies. Now, if there are no signs of breast cancer, they truly only remove the breast tissue. Meaning, they would not touch my lymph nodes, or my beloved nipples.
And if you find the right plastic surgeon, the mastectomy and reconstruction scars are similar to the scars you would get if you had a regular breast augmentation – which in the end, lessened the pressure for me to feel like I had to “share” my personal history with every new man-friend – and also enables me to say, with a certain amount of sarcasm, “why yes, I did get every 16-year-old girls dream boob job.”
During my plastic surgeon interview, I also learned that if I stuck with my “wait until they found something” plan, not only would they take my lymph nodes and my nipples, but I would also have to undergo radiation/chemotherapy to make sure that the cancer hadn’t spread.
As I had mentioned in a previous post (with some added numbers from my Step-Dad), I watched my mom go through 45 radiation treatments and 13+ chemotherapy treatments. So, needless to say, the no chemo/radiation aspect of this whole process was really the “icing” on the cake in my decision to get this surgery done now.
The medical term for the surgery that I had on February 20th was a prophylactic, nipple sparing, double mastectomy. In this surgery they took out all of my breast tissue, ran a biopsy of the tissue to confirm that nothing was missed in my previous mammogram (all clear), and they put in a small expander that they would later start to fill gradually with salt water to “Pump Me Up” to my chosen breast size.
(I will soon be posting “My Pump-Up Sessions,” which will include a sort of play-by-play of what these sessions entail. And, lucky for you, there might also be a pretty sweet video of one of my pump up sessions. The second surgery, my reconstructive surgery, is tentatively scheduled for some time in May, and will consist of a breast augmentation and liposuction and, obvi, I will have another post describing that process as well.)
But back to my double mastectomy. The physical recovery from the actual surgery has not been quite as terrible as I thought it would be and I have definitely learned a lot of different, random things that I wish I had known before going into the surgery. I will be posting soon (it’s already halfway written, I promise) “My Physical Recovery.” This will include an in-depth look at just how stubborn I am and will also have a great guide that includes “tips & tricks for chopping off your cancerous tits” with details provided by myself, my plastic surgeon, and my boss’ mom who is a doctor and a double mastectomy #previvor.
Now, on to the juicy stuff. The emotional recovery, as you probably could tell from my previous post, has really taken me by surprise. Not only am I learning more and more about my mom and having conversations with family members that I was once terrified to talk to, but I’m also discovering that I’m now stuck in this weird place of feeling incredibly strong and brave and powerful for what I’ve done, but also feeling incredibly unattractive, un-feminine, and absolutely worthless at work because I’m not recovering emotionally/physically as quickly as I want.
Initially, I knew that I had wanted to write about this whole experience not only for my sanity but for my family/friends, and anyone who’s also going through/thinking about going through this process. And the writing has been an incredible help – but I’ve also realized a need to start including pictures to help document this whole process. I can write and write until the cows come home, but this is a very physical and emotional journey and words can only convey part of it.
So if you follow me on the FB or the IG you’ve probably seen that in the beginning, I was posting pictures of me doing a lot of hiking, spinning, wearing snarky t-shirts, and pretty much dressing like a boy.
You have also probably undoubtedly seen the three incredibly gorgeous photos taken by my dear friend and amazing photographer Connie Chornuk. We took these photos on Monday, 4-weeks post double mastectomy, and this photo shoot was intended to show you all what my scars actually look like and how a prophylactic double mastectomy is not at all what it used to be.
If you are not familiar with this surgery, please, I encourage you to look at some photos of what some of these surgeries used to look like. It’s scary. Most people would even go as far as to say that the women who have gotten this surgery are no longer physically attractive. Hell. When I was 22 and first tested positive for this gene, I thought the same damn thing – “I do not want my body to look like that because there is no way I will ever find a husband if my body looks like that.”
And up until recently, no one was really openly having conversations about how each woman in these photos were so undeniably strong and brave and powerful. But more importantly, no one was having about how these women went through something so physically and emotionally life-altering, all so they could stay alive for their kids/husbands/wives/friends/family.
So, I said all of that to say this. With these pictures, I am officially joining in on this conversation. Before my double mastectomy, I was advised by one of the nurses right before the actual surgery, “Do not look in the mirror when you first take off your bandages. Your breasts and your scars will be so terrible and scary to look at, it’s just better if you don’t look at them at all.”
Well, I looked. (Have y’all also heard I’m a stubborn redhead?) And I must say, my scars are nothing compared to the scars of some of the other strong and powerful women who have also had this surgery.
I’ll admit it. My decision to take these pictures was half-selfish. I wanted to be able to remind myself (and maybe eventually my daughter) how incredibly blessed I am to have these scars. But more importantly, I took these pictures to show other women who are thinking about getting the BRCA genetic test done, or who might even be thinking about getting a prophylactic double mastectomy, that these could be your scars, and these scars are not nearly as scary or terrible as you might have previously thought.
In fact, these are the scars that will make you feel strong and brave and powerful. And maybe, eventually one day, these scars will make you feel feminine and attractive and dare I even say it – these scars will make you feel sexy.
So, as you might have heard, this whole process has definitely sucked. And I know what you’re thinking/have been asking me, and I’ve been selfishly not answering – Rachael what process? You had a surgery, but what was the actual surgery? What is this weird “pump up session” you posted about? When is your next surgery? And for god’s sake, how long until we get to see the new non-cancerous tits in a swimsuit?!
Burning questions, I know. And I know I’m beating a dead horse when I say I promise to answer all of these questions at some point because after all, that’s the whole reason I started writing this damn blog. But. Friends. Family (except M-Rag because apparently, M-Rag doesn’t read my blog – JERK). Today is a big day. Today is a day that I dread for 364 days a year and then when it finally arrives, I don’t really know how to feel about it.
So. Let’s start with yesterday. Yesterday was International Women’s Day. A day where I was once again in awe of just how incredible women are. And, once again, a day where I wish that I could be even just an ounce as inspiring as Emma Watson. (PS – eight days till “Beauty and the Beast.”) Yesterday was also the much-needed reminder that the women I am surrounded by every day eternally amaze and astound me.
I know women who have fought and survived cancer. I also know women who have raised some of the strongest women I will ever know. I know women who have traveled the world all on their own when everyone has told them they couldn’t. I also know women who have founded their own incredible companies. In fact, I work for a woman who founded an incredible company, and, at some point, I might even tell you what that company is. But, for the moment, let’s focus on one of the two women in my life with whom, apologies to Ms. Watson, no woman could ever compare.
Maybe one day, with her permission, and a lot more of her insight and handholding, I will tell you more about the second woman. But today, on this day, when I lost her eighteen years ago, I want to tell you about the first woman.
Densel Sue was my mother and I am happy to report that I have yet to meet another woman with the name Densel. And as a true mark of my overall timidness to actually discuss her with anyone who knew her, I do not know where the name came from. But, I can tell you that when nurses asked her how to spell her name, I distinctly remember her saying, “You know, like Denzel Washington, but with an S!” Bless you Denzel for making my mother’s life just a little bit easier on those tough days.
So, for the past eighteen years, I have been told constantly, without fail, by everyone who knew her, that my mom was hands-down one of the best, kindest people that they will ever know and that she would undoubtedly be incredibly proud of the woman I have become today.
And in those moments, these words have brought comfort and momentarily soothed the angst that I am so terrible at hiding. But, in the back of my mind, I always think, really? Densel Sue is proud of me for the time I got so mad at my brother I kicked a hole in a wall at T-Rag’s house and then lied to my parents and said I accidentally kicked it while “practicing” soccer dribbling? Do you really think she would be proud of the time I was hysterically crying while re-packing my bags, begging the Australian not to break up with me, all the while pleading with him to tell me that the real reason he was ending it with me was not because I lived on the other side of the world, but because I had actually “packed too much stuff?” And what about after my surgery two+ weeks ago when I was mildly drugged up on pain killers, coming off of anesthesia, and dropping countless F-bombs followed by a mild C U Next Tuesday? Do you think she was proud of me then?
But, that was it. Those few words were all I ever let the conversation become. Just a brief description of how proud she would be of me, but never anything more. Never any stories. No real glimpses of who the woman that I spent nine years calling Mommy really was. Never any real insights as to why she might actually be proud of me, all because I was scared shitless of having a real conversation about my mother.
And then, BAM. I cut off my cancerous tits and decided that now, when I’m already knee-deep in pain pills and hyperactive emotions, would be the perfect time to take this intensely emotional journey and learn as much as I can about my mother.
First, I started by asking my parents the technical questions. What procedures did she have? Did we have the same surgery? From a medical standpoint, in the end, what actually happened?
And then last night, I spent 46 minutes on the phone listening to T-Rag tell stories about Momma Sue. I had never done that before. They were married for twenty years, and I had never asked my Dad about my Mom. This mostly stems from the fact that my parents were divorced when I was four, and up until about the age of twelve, I ardently believed that my parents’ divorce was caused solely by the fact that one night, my father made too much macaroni and cheese.
Putting the macaroni and cheese aside, during this 46-minute phone call, I learned two very incredible things. Incredible thing #1: when my parents met at Virginia Tech, only a few years after women were actually allowed to attend Tech, my mom, just a little ole’ Sue from Tucumcari, New Mexico, was ONE of the TWO (count ‘em, 2) women in the civil engineering program at one of the leading engineering universities in the country. And, as rumor would have it (I’m still waiting to confirm my source with the VT ’73 Bugle), she graduated top of her class, with honors. Hello Glass Ceiling — meet Densel Sue.
Incredible thing #2: when Momma Sue was in the hospital, she spoke to T-Rag about two things. First, obvi she wanted to make sure that M-Rag and I always knew that we were able to do whatever we wanted to do in both our personal and professional lives. Then secondly, and most heart-breaking/shocking/inspiring/tissue hurling, Momma Sue was very adamant in telling T-Rag that no matter what, I, Rachael Sue, must never feel limited, in any way shape or form, in any part of my life, by the fact that I was a woman. Hello Women’s Movement of 2017 — Densel Sue.
It’s been a mildly stark change, we’re talkin’ Jon Snow level of stark, for me to start thinking about this whole other glass-ceiling-breaking, badass woman who was my mother. Mostly because, for the majority of the time that I knew her, I only ever really thought of her as being my badass mother who fought cancer. I never knew her as the exceedingly talented engineer who worked at a prominent engineering firm at a time when women didn’t work as engineers at engineering firms.
So, finally, eighteen years later, I am currently grappling with the fact that I didn’t really know my mother. Not because I had such a short amount of time with her, but because I have spent the last eighteen years refusing to actually talk about her with anyone who actually knew her. Well, compatriots – that ends now.
Slowly but surely I am bucking up the courage to have actual conversations with people that knew and loved my mother. If you are one of those people, I am warning you now, I will cry. Just recently I was told that my crying is “charming,” and even though I love and adore the person who told me this, I feel obligated to tell you that me crying is in no way shape or form charming. I will also advise you to re-read the part of this post about the hysterical crying and the Australian and the begging and all of the re-packing and then picture all of this happening with me sitting in a ball on the floor wearing a long peasant dress, a giant floppy hat, and an intense sunburn. Fingers crossed, our conversations will never reach anywhere near that level of uncomfortableness.
Then, after 46 minutes of fighting back tears while talking to T-Rag, I somehow squeezed in a 47-minute conversation with M-Rag. We spent most of our time giggling about how T-Rag told me the story about when he and Momma Sue took the PE exam, Mom got her results saying she passed on a Monday, while Dad didn’t get his results saying he passed until that Friday. So, for four days, my Mom had passed her Professional Engineer exam, while T-Rag hadn’t passed. (I’m predicting a phone call asking for a removal of this paragraph, so please, enjoy it now).
But even after 47 minutes of giggling, I couldn’t help but end my call with M-Rag by asking a totally dark and twisted question. Did he also think about how I only had nine years with her – and that now if you think about it, you could fit two of my nine year lifetimes with my mom into the eighteen years that I have lived without my mom?
So. I said all of that to say this. Today is eighteen years since I lost my mom to Breast Cancer. But, more importantly, today is also eighteen days since my surgery. And in these past eighteen days, with my saltwater tits now firmly resting where my cancerous tits used to be, I have learned more about my mother than I ever dared to in the past eighteen years. And that, my friends, definitely does not suck.
Just one week after my prophylactic double mastectomy, which as you know, was made possible for me by the Affordable Care Act, I plucked up the courage (aka wine + valium) and watched President Trump’s #JointAddress and listened to Colorado Senator Cory Gardner’s #GardnerTownHall. Now I know you might be thinking, “this blog is called Nashville Sue and homegirl lives in Nashville, Tennessee, why on earth is she busy trolling a Colorado Senator?” Well, along with following the National and Tennessee debates on health care, I like to also pay close attention to what’s happening in Colorado because 1) I will always consider Colorado home, 2) my aging (don’t tell T-Rag he’s aging) parents live there, and 3) the side of my family where my BRCA2 genetic mutation comes from still lives in Colorado and that includes my 8-month-old niece.
I wish I could say I was sleeping.
I wish I could say while I was lying awake at night not sleeping, I was writing a more thought out and concise post that explained what this surgery actually entails.
I wish I could say I’ve spent the past month kicking ass at my job.
I wish I could say I haven’t been wearing yoga pants and sweatshirts to work.
I wish I could say that there haven’t been numerous occasions where I’ve locked myself in my office at work, turned up Justin Bieber, and hid under my desk so my coworkers wouldn’t hear me crying.
I wish I could say I haven’t made the conscious decision to not to wear makeup this month because I knew I would cry at least once during the day.
I wish I could say that when I met the Mayor of Nashville at the “Vagina Monologues” on Friday, I didn’t blurt out “I’m getting my boobs cut off” and then immediately start crying.
I wish I could say I haven’t drunk a bottle of wine every night for the past two and a half weeks.
I wish I could say I haven’t stalked the Australian on social media and saw that he is currently in New Zealand, with his new girlfriend, on a trip that we had planned to take together.
I wish I could say I haven’t drafted up an email to send to the Australian telling him about this surgery.
I wish I could say I’ve been a good friend this month.
I wish I could say that I am a strong, powerful feminist. And when my doctor told me that this surgery is more difficult for single women, I wish I could say that I was not affected.
I wish I could say I was brave…
But then there’s you. I’ve been an absolute mess. A well preserved, “everything’s fine, this surgery will be a piece of cake,” mess and you are the reason why I made it through this past month
I want to thank each and every one of you for your emails, calls, texts, and messages. They are the reason I was able to get out of bed each morning this month, and they will be the reason I am able to get out of bed tomorrow morning. I am truly grateful to have each of you in my life. Thank you for making me feel brave. – Sue
I hate my breasts.
There. I said it. My deep dark little secret that I have only ever drunkenly told my insignificant man-friends who have no idea that I lost my mother to Breast Cancer and will probably never care to know what the BRCA2 genetic mutation actually is.
When I was 9 years old, my mom passed away from Breast Cancer. I never met her mother because she died from Breast Cancer before I was born. When I was 22, I was tested for the BRCA genetic mutation. It was positive for the BRCA2 gene and through no act of my own, I was lumped into the “you will get cancer” group.
With this diagnosis every 3-6 months I see one of my 3 doctors to make sure I don’t have cancer yet. Every 3-6 months I have to explain to another technician why I’m 27 years old and my doctor has ordered yet another Mammogram/MRI/Ultrasound. Every 3-6 months I remember how thankful I am that President Obama made sure that I have health insurance.
During this years’ election, I cast my vote solely based on who I thought would fight to make sure that I will continue to have health insurance and that insurers are prohibited from denying me coverage because I have the BRCA2 gene. She did not win. I am now asking you to be my voice in this country; please fight for me and every other woman who will face what I am now facing.
On February 20th, I will undergo a prophylactic double mastectomy with breast reconstruction. This surgery is made possible for me under the Affordable Care Act. Under the Affordable Care Act, I won’t have to worry about what I will have to tell my Dad if they find a tumor. Under the Affordable Care Act, I am able to take back some control of my life.
Senator, when I was 9 years old, I started to worry, “what will happen when I get cancer?” In 2017, I ask you to help make sure that no other little girl ever has that worry.