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.