My birthday was two days ago, and I told my husband that all I wanted this year was to disappear. Like, I really just wanted to go off the grid for a bit. So he took the kids and gave me the afternoon (and the shirt I kept pointing out because he’s not an IDIOT.), and I found myself here, trying to reconnect with myself.
Life after cancer seems so loud. So busy. And very confusing.
And I feel like people think I should have my shit back together by now.
A few months ago, I was connected with someone that I went to high school with who was just diagnosed. I reached out, letting her know that I’m here for her. That I know. Through her emails, I’ve had to relive those early days — the bewildering, all-encompassing fear and confusion. Her panic, her despair are palpable through the screen (but maaaaaaybe I am also projecting a tad?), and I am often reduced to tears for her (for myself?), and to be honest, I haven’t been a very good friend / support to her.
But I find myself in this weird space where I have one foot out of the breast cancer world and one foot still in. And I lose my balance easily.
Like with the entire last month. Oh, October. Pinktober wasn’t good for my heart (re: anxiety level), the big pink party that it was. October also wasn’t a great month for some of my online friends / fellow bloggers healthwise. Their breast cancers didn’t care that they were supposed to be PRETTY and CURABLE in October. They just did their thing. Which is continue to ruin and take lives.
It’s not good for me. It’s not good for me to be constantly looking breast cancer and the damage it does right in the face. I’m still too off-balance. I fall too easily.
But someday — and I feel guilty that it’s not TODAY — I would love to advocate for metastatic breast cancer. Because their voices die out. And it could be me…or my daughter…someday.
On a lighter note, I was also thinking about how tired I am of seeing my pink wig hang in the back of my closet. I pretty much never want to see it again. You understand. But it’s a perfectly fine pink wig, and it got my bald head through some tough (and cold) times…so for my birthday, I want to give it away to someone who needs it right now! Soooo who wants it? Anyone?
In other hair news, I think I outgrew my grandpa in the last year.
Anyway, I got off track. I’m not sure this post has a track though.
When I got home from my three hour long respite, a “cake party” and homemade cards awaited me. So even in all my cancer-induced, teenage-like angst life IS pretty perfect. And the universe or God or whatever made sure to drive that point home because that evening, Josh and I attended the wake of a 36 year-old coworker of his. On my birthday. Yeah, LIFE is good, and I couldn’t be more thankful for 34.
**I’m taking a break from breast cancer today because it’s Pinktober…and I kind of want to hide in a cave until it’s over.**
You guys, if my relationship with Hanson was playing out on Tinder, I’m pretty sure they left-swiped me a while ago (probably based on a bald, boobless profile pic and this post or possibly this post). I know this based on three facts.
1. Taylor Hanson read my blog and didn’t feel the immediate need to tell me how hilarious / smart / bald / wonderful I am and then propose for me to bear his sixth child — to which, I would have had to politely decline based on my current (lack of a) hormonal situation.
2. The last time I saw them — the last time they came to St. Louis — in May, they only announced the show hours before, barely giving me time to make it. In fact, I missed the first song, sneaky brothers. It went something like this.
Bff texts me: “Dude, Hanson is here tonight?!? wtf?”
Me: “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT RIGHT NOW?”
A quick check of Hanson’s twitter revealed that they were, indeed, opening for Ed Sheeran in AN HOUR AND A HALF. Seven minutes and $193 later, I had sent my children off to Nana’s for the night with no pants on. There was no time for pants. As my husband did the drop-off, I tried to ready myself for the evening, but usually I have advance notice. Usually I shave my legs and stuff. You know, just in case. No time for that either.
Anyway, we hustled to the venue (and by “hustle,” I mean I yelled at my husband to drive faster and to blow stop lights), parked illegally, and ran inside — where there was a problem with our tickets. While waiting in the ticket-fixing line, I heard Hanson start playing so as politely as I could, I tapped on the lady’s shoulder in front of me.
“Hi, I was wondering if there is any way you’d let me go in front of you? I’m only here to see the band that is playing right now…”
“Yeah, I’m just in this line to get my ticket fixed,” she inexplicably replied and turned back around.
So I missed the first song. And I was pretty sure that Hanson was either testing my loyalty as a fan or trying to get through my hometown without me knowing.
But now I know that they must have seen the crazy in my eyes because they announced tour dates for this fall. And #3: No St. Louis show.
That is why, on Wednesday, I am going to Chicago. They’re going to have to do better than avoidance to get rid of me. An order of protection would probably do it. Which will probably happen the minute they realize that it was me who threw her bra — boobs and all — onstage.
Last night, Josh was invited to a bachelor party. NBD. Josh and I have been together for twelve years; I’ve happily kissed him goodbye to his fair share of bachelor parties. But as I lay in bed last night in silence and darkness, trying to go to sleep, I turned into a person I never foresaw for myself.
“Josh, I know this isn’t fair,” I started. “I know that I shouldn’t even say this, but I’m worried about you going to this bachelor party.”
He propped up on an elbow, and I could see his open eyes through the darkness. “What do you mean?”
“Well, I’m afraid it’s going to end up at a…” My voice broke. “…at a strip club,” I cried.
Josh knew exactly what I meant.
“I just don’t know if I can handle it,” I confessed.
Actually, I knowfor sure that I couldn’t it. Just after surgery, I was having a talk with one of my best girlfriends (whom I love so, so much and appreciate!) about my concerns regarding Josh and my newly mangled and debreasted body. I’ve never doubted for a second that Josh would stand by me and love me all the same (even more really) and keep accepting me for who I am, but I felt sorry for him.
Let’s be honest — We’re all adults here. At least, I hope so! — it wasn’t just me who lost a pair of boobs, it was my husband too. I worried about how a man would feel going through the rest of his life without ever getting to touch another breast again. Also, men are much more visual when it comes to sexytimes and stuff. Plus, boobs are awesome. We all know this.
When my 93 year-old patient found out this weekend that I was, indeed, breastless (It was a long, windy, dementia-filled road for that to come up in conversation.), he immediately voiced his concern for my husband.
“Nothing for him to touch?”
“Nope, I guess not,” I answered.
“How has he been with that?” he asked with genuine worry.
“He’s fine. And besides, I’m alive,” I answered as gently as I could.
“But I mean….poor guy!”
“Yeah, well, I’m alive.”
So it’s fair to say that I’ve spend some time feeling a little sorry for Josh (but not too much time because there have been a lot of other worries on my plate over the last year and a half and, besides, what really is most important is that I’M ALIVE, dude!)
Anyway, I spilled all these fears to my friend just after surgery, and she was, naturally, concerned right along with me. Then, she came up with a plan.
“Maybe, when you feel like Josh needs to, you guys could go to a strip club together, and Josh could get a hands-on lap dance…and he can get it out of his system that way,” she suggested.
Not even for a second did I entertain this idea. It was the most horrifying thing I had ever heard actually. The last thing I want to do in life is watch my husband get his jollies from another woman. Especially if those jollies are something(s) I can’t give him anymore. To watch him put his hands on another woman. Umm, no thanks! That was not the answer. (And to be fair to Josh, he was equally as horrified.)
I’ve never been a jealous girl, and I haven’t been particularly insecure. As a matter of fact, before we had kids, Josh was the singer of a band, and women (girls?) would ogle him and flirt with him and throw their underwear at him (Just kidding. I don’t think there was ever any underwear involved.) right in front of me. I didn’t care. I really didn’t.
Well, once, I did. It was when a girl was trying to talk Josh into her over me as I sat right next to him and after I had already MARRIED him. “Her?” she said looking my way in disgust. “She looks like a librarian.”
It took all I had not to scream, “At least, I don’t look like a whore!” I’m a lady, and I don’t say such things. Also, librarians have to use inside voices. I didn’t have to though because Josh very nicely PUT HER IN HER PLACE.
When Josh went to bachelor parties before, I didn’t really care if they ended at the strip club. Although, more often than not, they didn’t. I knew that they weren’t really his thing. I was his thing.
And I still know that I am his thing. I just can’t handle the thought of him in a strip club. Be it good or bad or fair or not, I just can’t, and it really has nothing to do with him.
So when I told him last night that I was worried/panicking a little, he again proved to me why I chose him.
“Oh yeah, you don’t have to worry. I already talked to [the groom] about it, and it’s not going to be that kind of party. And if it goes there, I won’t. I understand why you feel that way. You don’t have to worry, Heather.”
Again, I get myself worked up over things that I need not get worked up about.
Also, so what if I look like a librarian? Librarians are hot. And at least, I CAN READ.
Two days ago, I found myself in a waiting room with my husband vacillating between irritation (at best) and playfulness, feeling shaky, slightly breathy, and with blurred vision and a lump in my throat. I was disproportionately aggravated by the man, a row of seats over, who was “blaring” youtube clips or somesuch from his phone.
“That’s so rude!” I quipped, and Josh nodded at me tentatively, having already realized that the world — and he — was my punching bag this morning.
“I mean, we’re in an oncology waiting room not…” and I trailed off because I couldn’t think of when it’s not rude to blare video clips from your phone. “There are TVs here,” which were also kind of getting on my nerves, the way they were all tuned into different channels. “Or he could at least wear some earbuds. It’s just so rude!”
And then I looked up at Josh and razzed him about much faster I had done my sudoku, grabbed two word searches from the shelf on the wall, and challenged him to a word-searching duel.
The last word that I couldn’t find was “expect,” and I was frantic to find it before they called me into the exam room. I didn’t know what to “expect.” I have come to realize that we shouldn’t “expect” anything, but I somehow felt like if I could just circle this last word in the search, I could regain some kind of control. Like I might be safer.
Three months prior, inside the exam room, my smiley oncologist looked up at me and said all was well. I had “nothing to worry about.” Then I asked about scanning my left armpit to make sure all really was well.
Upon diagnosis, they were almost sure the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes based on a CT and an MRI, which was very “worrisome,” but lo and behold, when the surgeon got in there, he saw nothing, and the node biopsies were clear. They had no explanation and all but gave me a flick of the wrist as explanation. My oncologist’s fellow once mentioned following-up on this with future scans.
“So the other doctor mentioned doing a scan or ultrasound or something to follow my left armpit,” I mentioned three months ago.
And as if I had been harassing her for scans, Dr. Permasmile said that I “could have this one, but it’ll be the last scan.” Umm, I haven’t had or mentioned one since the week of diagnosis but mmmkay.
So I waited and, really, mostly forgot about it until a few days before the appointment when I started picking stupid fights with Josh.
“Why did you just turn? Grrr. If you would have gone the other way, we could have saved, like, 4.7 seconds!!” or “Why did you bring me these pancakes and coffee in bed? You know I’m trying to eat better, and this is just rude.” So yeah, maybe not my finest few days.
But Josh is cool and grown-up and has better control of himself and stuff. He says things like, “You’ve been so short with me today. I don’t understand why you’re so upset… Oh. Your scan is on Monday.” And he takes the day off when he thinks I’ll need him, even when I tell him I won’t.
I always do.
On Monday morning, I went in for the CT scan, which literally takes, like, five minutes. But those five minutes — going in and out of the familiar tube and hearing the man’s voice ring, “Take a breath. Hold it. And now you can breathe again.” — brought me back to darker times. It reminded me of how vulnerable I am, of how much control I don’t have, of how lonely illness is, of how scared I was last year.
In there alone, it was me versus my body again, and I was terrified. I had no reason to believe there were metastases — I have been feeling better everyday — but I also had no reason to believe I had cancer in the first place. Had I not accidentally felt that tiny, little lump, I could have gone on for a while feeling just fine, I suppose. It was like someone telling me, “Your shoe’s untied. If you don’t fix that, you’re going to die.” Huh? What are you talking about? I feel just fine…great even!
So I prayed and thought of my daughters as the machine did its job, all the while feeling like it was peering into my soul and was about to spill my deepest, darkest thoughts. It had the power to make or break me.
When the technician came in the room to tell me it was over, she looked down at my tear-soaked face and asked, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just nervous,” I answered as I stood up, pulling my shirt back over my head.
“Did they tell you if a doctor was going to come in here before you leave and discuss your results?”
“What?” I replied, reeling. “Why? No. Nobody said anything. Why?”
“Oh, I was just wondering.”
She’s not looking at me. She’s not making eye contact! Why won’t she look at me? OH SHIT! What did she see?
“Do they do that? I have a doctor’s appointment in two hours. I thought she was going to go over the results with me.”
“Oh yeah, that’s fine. Sometimes people want to see someone before they leave. You can go,” she said smiling but not looking in my eyes, according to me.
SHIT. Shit, shit, shit.
Josh and I had almost two hours to kill before my appointment with Dr. Permasmile, so we went to a bookstore where it’s strictly forbidden to scream or shout. (Good thinking, Josh! 😉 ), where I nervously flipped through a People magazine, sent out an SOS on facebook, and unsuccessfully tried not to think of what it would be like if I was rediagnosed at stage 4 that day. What about my daughters?
Basically, I got myself REAL worked up.
I barely think it’s avoidable though. I think it’s a universal cancer experience. Scanxiety is real. Oh, how quickly things can change. One minute you don’t have cancer. The next, you do. It’s just that easy. It’s not within your control.
“Heather? Heather Lagemann?”
My heart raced and I struggled to swallow as my husband and I stood up to see the doctor and hear the results of a scan that had felt like cut me wide open. NO FINDINGS TO SUGGEST METASTATIC DISEASE!! ::Like, seven judo kicks and a little air guitar:: I mean, PHEW! It was literally like a load off. Walking out of there, I stood up straighter, I felt lighter, and hey look, I’m smiling again. But why wasn’t that girl looking at me? Healthcare workers, eye contact is important. Like, SUPER important, you guys.
In a (successful) attempt to make myself laugh, I trolled the internet for gifs and captioned them. I have to say, though, that it wasn’t entirely my original idea. A favorite blog of mine, Semiproper, has a series called This is How I Feel.
So basically, this is how cancer makes me feel.
To my left boob, just before surgery.
When I had to say goodbye to my right boob.
When someone tries talking to me about how tumeric / cannabis / kale / positive thinking could cure my cancer.
The first time I went out in public without a wig or hat.
When my husband got home from work, mid-chemo.
When I wore a wig.
When people try to talk to me about their loved ones who died of breast cancer.
Last week, I had a phone interview with a writer who annually produces a special newspaper insert, distributed nationwide, on cancer awareness and treatment. She liked my blog so much that she wanted to feature me, but when we got on the phone, I was full of angst and cynicism and other glass-half-empty sort of stuff. But mostly, I was full of anger. I met her questions with biting answers.
When she asked, “Do you ever see a time when your blog stops serving a purpose for you and you leave it behind?” I answered with, “Yeah, I do, and really, I think it might be now.”
What a jerkface.
I was such a jerkface that she eventually said something like, “I’ve read a lot of your blog, and you seemed to move through cancer with positivity and humor. Talking to you now, I’m wondering if you feel like who you are on the blog is a persona you created for your writing.”
Now, I’m sure those weren’t her exact words, and she was very, very nice in asking this — like she was really just genuinely curious about my “process” — but OUCH, dude.
But yeah, I deserved that.
You see, lately I’ve been ANGRY. Straight-up mad. I had *moments* of anger throughout treatment (like when I dramatically threw my $300 breast pump away or when I received my first big hospital bill and realized I was actually going to have to PAY FOR THIS with my money too) but in the grand scheme of things, I think I skipped that stage.
I’m generally not an angry person so this is new territory for me. I have to say I don’t like it. As necessary a step as this might be, it’s not very becoming of me. Last weekend, one of my best friends was home from Boston, and in trying to joke with him, I think I was just rude. Anger is seeping right out of me and into my countenance.
My mother-in-law kept our girls overnight recently so my husband and I could have a date night. Mid date, my husband looked at me and said, “I feel like you don’t like me very much right now.” It was true. I didn’t. But that’s also because the very next day, I became a woman. Again. I literally felt like I was 13 all over again — I only wished my mom was around so she could call her friends and alert them of the news — I had nothing in the house to “deal with it,” and I wasn’t sure if I needed to call off work for such an occasion or not.
Then, when I went to work, I complained that all the extra money I was making “at this hospital” was “going to another hospital” (to pay off my medical bills).
You guys, something has to be done. I don’t like me right now. It’s actually not me right now.
Last week, I told Josh that I was going to write a blog post about every little thing I was angry about as a way to purge it. An exorcism, you know. So I began keeping a mental tally, and I have to say, I started to feel better immediately. I don’t think I need to share that post because it’s not my jam to spread negativity (The list ranges from being angry that I lost a big portion of Alice’s babyhood to cancer treatments to being angry that my nails are still peeling. I mean, I’m angry that my finances are a mess and that my body will never be the same, but I’m also angry that Hanson never acknowledged me and that I have to deal with my bikini line again.), but I am glad that I gave it some thought.
My anger is valid right now, and I kept trying to push it away. I kept trying to remind myself of all the things I have to be thankful for (pretty much alllllllllll the things! I am truly one lucky lady.), but it only masks the problem and you end up being a jerk to those around you anyway. So I gave my anger its day in the sun this week by consciously acknowledging each thing — big and small and seemingly insignificant — that I have lost or that I am just straight up mad about, and you guys, it has helped.
My friend has to turn around and come back to town this week so hopefully, I’ll get a second chance to tease him without being a jerk. I know he would forgive me anyway. I’m a little more nervous about this newspaper insert though. : /
It’s been almost a month since I’ve been here, and to tell you the truth, I thought about never coming back. Now that treatment is over, all that is left is me. And I’m a mess. I didn’t want to share my mess because it makes me feel vulnerable, and I’ve had quite enough vulnerable for the time being, thankyouverymuch.
I also didn’t want to examine what I’m feeling right now enough to blog about it because, you guys, it’s kind of like being 14 all over again — without all the hormones, of course. Estrogen is, obvs, my kryptonite. I can go from content to depressed to elated to super anxious in an afternoon. It’s tiring, and it’s even more tiring trying to figure out the feelings behind the feelings. So lately I haven’t even been trying, partly because I’m also tired of thinking about cancer. I’ve just been riding the wave.
To be fair, it’s not as extreme as I’m making it sound. Generally, I am happy, but I’m not as level as I once was. I really think it’s all par for the course in life-after-cancer, but I’m not sure everyone recognizes that there are still struggles to be had after you “beat” the Sumbitch.
I went to my husband’s 20 year class reunion (He’s pretty much geriatric, I know. 🙂 ) last weekend and met a lot of really cool people who had been following me via Josh. As nice as they were — like truly loving and supportive (Thank you, AHS class of 1995!) — they said a lot of really weird things to me.
“I’m so proud of you for beating cancer! You did great!”
“You kicked its ass! Way to go, girl!”
“I’m so excited for you!”
At the last one, I looked around to my brother and husband to see their faces.
But there was not a crack in either of their smiles, not an understanding eye roll to be found.
And therein lies the problem for me in blogging about life-after-cancer.
As much as I appreciate the sentiment — and I really do — you would NEVER tell, like, an assault victim that you are so excited for them.
You know, like, girl gets held up at gunpoint, threatened, beaten down, and robbed. She makes it out alive. Then you tell her that YOU’RE SO EXCITED FOR HER.
Way to go, girl! You kicked ass!
I’m so proud of you!
And then, a year later when she’s still suffering from anxiety and depression on account of the event, no one says, “Oh, I though she’d be happy now. I mean, it’s over. She beat it! What’s her deal?”
Because I’ve also heard a few forms of that last statement as well.
And I get it. I probably would have thought something similar before my own dance with the big C. You’re DONE (not realizing that a cancer patient is never “done”)! It’s all parades and confetti in the air now, right?!
Well, frankly, no. I feel like the girl who has recently been violently mugged.
In the days after diagnosis, I remember trying to explain what I was feeling to my husband.
“It feels like someone is holding a gun to my head!” I said with every nerve ending in my body on high alert because that’s the only way you say something for about a month after you’ve been diagnosed.
Cancer certainly threatened my life. It beat me down, with a scalpel and chemo-style. And it definitely robbed me. Of so much more than I’ve copped to here on this blog — money, sex, self esteem, the surety of a future.
But here’s how I can best explain the fear in life-after-cancer.
What if that crazy gunman left the girl to live but whispered in her ear, “Watch your back, dear. I might come back for you. It may be tomorrow, it may be in five years, or it may be never. You’ll just have to wait and see. Just know that whatever you do, you can’t hide from me. I will always know where you are.” Creepy, no?
And then, she has to WATCH NEWS STORIES OF THIS PSYCHOPATH KILLING OTHER PEOPLE! In movie after movie, this gunman shows up. People think she wants to hear stories of others who’ve met the Sumbitch. It’s all around her.
So she joins a support group. Those people understand, but now she has to WORRY ABOUT THEM TOO. The gunman told them the same thing, and statistically speaking, he follows through one out of three times.
You wouldn’t tell that girl that you are excited for her. You would realize that she’s still “fighting” a battle. That what she went through was straight-up traumatic. You would be scared right along with her because it’ll never be over for her. A shadow is never just a shadow anymore.
So that’s my truth. A headache will never just be a headache, and my worry is forevermore. Although, I’m sure as the years go by (and hopefully, the years do go by!) these feeling will dull. It’s a little intense, I know, and that’s why I haven’t been around. I didn’t really want to put words to what I’ve been feeling because then I’d have to think about it and stuff. Instead I’ve just been pushing it back and letting it pop up in weird ways in my life like in my spending habits or in me not taking care of myself. And after I did do the thinking, I was hesitant to SHARE it with the internet at large so people could throw their two cents in because that’s always super fun.
The thing is that you guys will never know what it’s like without someone telling you (unless you’re here too, which is a bummer) so that’s what I’ve decided to do: let you in on my mess. Pretty much so you know that being excited for someone who recently “beat” cancer is super sweet but also really weird.
Wedding dress shopping, for me, was kind of a nightmare.
I named my youngest daughter ‘Stella’ for a night, woke up the next morning all like, “Nah Josh, I don’t think she’s a Stella. Let’s go with Alice,” and then it took us the rest of that day plus another to settle on a middle name. But my husband is pretty used to how I roll.
“Well, I better call my mom,” he joked that morning after Stella/Alice was born, “before anyone has anything monogrammed.”
This is why I’ve never wanted a tattoo. I just know that two months later I would hate it.
I buy shirts that are *so me* for, like, three weeks before I hate them forever. “Were my eyes closed when I bought this?” I think to myself. “Who am I?” (But I have to continue to wear them because WHAT AM I MADE OF? MONEY?)
I tell you this so you will understand my struggle right now.
I’m 99 percent sure that I’m going to go ahead with reconstruction (Always leave a little wiggle room, no?), but now I have to decide how to go about it. Like what kind of boobs I’m going to get. That’s a big decision for someone who clams up at the dollar menu.
I had my last Herceptin infusion last week (!!!!!) and after an emotional bell ringing — it was strangely more much emotional than the bell ringing to mark the end of chemo — I headed down one floor for a consultation with my reconstructive plastic surgeon.
I had only met him once, two days after my diagnosis, and my impression of him was probably influenced heavily by the haze that I was in. I remember him as being cocky and maybe even a little loud and apathetic. Nothing is further from the truth. I mean, Dr. Build-A-Boob (let’s just call him that) is definitely confident but in a surprisingly quiet kind of way.
But first, I met with the fellow.
I had stripped down — and when your boobs are detachable, those have to go too — and covered back up with the hospital gown, and just when I started to get comfortable, in walks the fellow.
He was cute and charming and caring.
I knew immediately that I didn’t want to disrobe in front of him and hugged my gown a little tighter.
This had happened once before, at my last echocardiogram a few months ago. The technician was a guy about my age but not as cute as this plastic surgeon in training. At that appointment, I decided to treat it as a social experiment, and as I opened my gown for the ultrasound, I studied the technician’s face. HARD. In fact, he’ll probably request to never care for me again. I don’t know if I was waiting for him to flinch or start crying or run away screaming, but I do know that I was ready to detect even the slightest amount of disgust in his eyes. To my disappointment (but also really not), I saw nothing.
This time, Dr. InTraining didn’t ask me to disrobe (Thank the good Lord.), and instead sat with me for at least twenty minutes discussing my boob plans and options while I made slightly inappropriate boob jokes. I had lots and lots of questions (a plus to delaying the surgery until you are past the “I HAVE CANCER??! fog), and he patiently answered them all. By the time we were done talking, I felt optimistic about surgery and kind of like I had a new friend, and I was stoked that he didn’t ask to see the war zone that is my chest.
Then, he went to get Dr. Build-A-Boob, who definitely would need to assess my situation, which was fine by me. Dr. BAB is a little older than me, not quite so cute, and frankly, saw what I was working with before they were gone.
What I didn’t anticipate was Dr. InTraining coming back in the room as an onlooker.
So here’s where I’m going to tell you about my two real options. I basically have to decide between implants and a type of breast reconstruction know as DIEP, where they basically craft new boobs out of skin and fat from your lower belly. There are pros and cons to each, but in order to give me a real picture of my options, Dr. BAB needed to also take a look at my belly fat, and when he said, “Can you unbutton your jeans, please?” I knew it was going to get real real up in there.
It is embarrassing enough having someone inspect and poke around your belly fat under FLUORESCENT LIGHTS, but to have a bystander involved is downright humiliating.
I uncomfortably muttered things like, “Yeah…haha…chemo made me gain this weight,” “I’m fifteen pounds over my normal right now,” and “I’ve never weighed this much not pregnant.”
So yeah, I was suuuper cool about it.
But Dr. BAB didn’t just, like, see if he could ‘pinch and inch’ or whatever. He pushed and pulled and squeezed and contorted my little (but bigger than ever before) belly every which way. At one point, he put his hands on exactly half of my lower stomach and simultaneously squished them together and pulled them out in order to get an idea of how big of a breast he could make out of it. So I guess he was feeling me up in a way? Jk.
Anyway, after that emotional trauma, we again went through he pros and cons of implants vs. DIEP. I am a candidate for both, and I have to be honest, even though the surgery for DIEP is a bigger deal, recovery is much more brutal, and it just sounds kind of gross, I was leaning toward that option.
That is until Dr. Build-A-Boob informed me that he wasn’t sure if he would be able to build me back up to my natural size.
Ahh gee, well, thanks…
But wait, I’LL BE DAMNED IF I HAVE THIS SURGERY AND END UP SMALLER THAN BEFORE. Oh, hell no.
Is that vain? I don’t care. It’s true. After all this, there is no way in hell that I’m going to settle on a A or barely B cup.
“So you want me to gain twenty pounds?” I ask. “Cheeseburgers all around in the name of bigger boobs?”
He agreed that that’s a possibility, but I’m not sure it would work. A cup size of belly fat would, at least, quadruple the junk in my trunk.
And before you go there, my mother-in-law and husband already beat you to it. Yes, they could use other sources of fat (my badonk), but Dr. BAB doesn’t recommend it.
So what I’m left with is my pros and cons list.
The route to implants starts with expanders — to literally expand my skin and create a space for boobs — that would have to be ‘filled’ every two weeks or so for about four months (I think?). I imagine that hurts 50 times more than tightening braces, but I don’t know anything about either. Then it requires a ‘swap’ surgery to replace the expanders with the implants, and surgery every 10-15 years forevermore to replace the implants themselves because implants expire. Did you guys know that? Weird.
Although it’s more surgery, it’s an easier surgery, taking only around two hours each time (DIEP takes 10-12 hours!), AND I can go bigger. I’m not trying to get crazy here, but I can’t swallow being smaller than before after having to deal with so much crap.
But implants are not a perfect fit for me either. Since they are literally just mounds on your chest — and I have no fat or breast tissue to surround them — they would be just mounds on my chest, and one of the things that currently bothers me most is the concavity of my chest, especially my upper chest. In fact, it was this upper chest hollowing that led to me considering reconstruction because it is noticeable in a lot of clothes.
As far as DIEP is concerned, it’s potentially only one surgery and done. It uses my own tissue so I wouldn’t have anything foreign in my body and the infection rates are much lower as such. It would address the concavity and the look is more natural. Also, the procedure includes a free (??) tummy tuck. I mean, not that I really need it, but it’s definitely on the pro list. On the other hand, it would leave a pretty mean scar from hip to hip.
There are lots of other pros + cons, and Dr. BAB really tried to help me nail it down. Like, in a nice, caring way. He tried to help me decide which would work better for me, but it was like the time I tried to choose between JTT and Joey Lawrence. At eleven, I. just. couldn’t.
He told me to go home and discuss it with my family, but what exactly does that even mean? I tried to talk to Josh about it, but (1) he also doesn’t really know and (2) if he even hints around the visual or tactile benefits of one over the other, I basically accuse him of not caring about what’s best for my health. Oh Heather, haha.
So what am I supposed to do? Call my dad?
I know for sure that my mom would support me in not being cool with having a boob job to go smaller so there’s that. And my mother-in-law definitely has her opinions, but they aren’t usually based on what you would call facts.
It’s been over a week, and this is where I am still. Unsure and struggling to make a decision. And it’s not exactly like I’m trying to decide between fajitas or pizza for dinner. This is just phase one you guys. Wait until I have to decide what to do about nipples.
When people say things like, “When one member of the family has cancer, the whole family has cancer,” my first instinct is to be all, “Um, no. It was me who was forced to shave my head lest my newly crawling baby choke on my hairballs. I was the one who had to endure the inexplicable, horrifying, gut-wrenching mix of constipation and diarrhea from chemotherapy, and it was definitely my life (and my boobs) on the chopping block,” but I know better. I know that cancer does affect the whole family. Boy, do I know it.
Baby isn’t ready to wean? Cancer doesn’t care. Your three and a half year old is putting on a special program at church for parents and wants you to be there? Cancer doesn’t give a shit. Between working full-time, taking care of two small children, a house (kind of), and a wife whose hormonal state that can only be described as “erratic,” your husband looks like he’s about to break? Yeah, cancer couldn’t care less.
It really is brutal on the whole household. Our cat ran away in the middle of my chemo. Even she couldn’t take it.
In ways, I think that I have been able to move through this cancer business — feeling all the feels that I’m supposed to feel, dealing with what is in front of me — faster than my family because the world has been helping me. You guys were helping. I got cards (so many wonderful cards), gifts, visitors, open invitations to talk about my feelings. You lovelies did a little doting on me, and it helped me get along and sort things out.
But my family… well, my family had to give up a lot and didn’t have a lot of time for sorting. They had to focus their attention on me. They had to pause their lives, or maybe put them into slow-mo, and put my needs ahead of their own. (Okay, maybe my baby didn’t, but believe me, when I compare those months of Alice’s life to Penny’s, it breaks my heart.) My family had lots of feelings too — confusion, fear, anger, exhaustion, annoyance — but, while we did what we could, we just didn’t have the time or ENERGY to deal with their feelings like they deserved. We all got swept up in cancer, and I was at the center of that.
Aside from family and friends, there are a lot of resources out there for cancer patients and survivors. I am currently in a sort of young woman’s cancer support group, and I can’t tell you how helpful this has been for me. It’s the whole “me too” factor.
The last time the group met, we were talking about the merits of different types of reconstruction (because I’m now entertaining the idea), and one of my friends (who has an implant) was all, “Here, feel mine” so I giggled a little and then I felt her up.
It just felt right, you know?
Like, her boob. It felt pretty good.
Well, that and the connection I feel to these other young women who have gone through the same things as me.
Although I have only met up with them a handful (See what I did there?) of times, I feel like they understand me in ways that no one else in my life can. In those few meetings, we’ve talked about things I’ve only thought about blogging about. Things my other friends can listen to but just don’t quite understand. (One day I’ll tell you about the kind of funny, kind of heartbreaking quiet confusion that ensued upon my husband’s and my first ‘meeting’ in the bedroom after my mastectomy.)
But, although they have had cancer too, in the way that the whole family does, there aren’t quite as many resources out there for the families of cancer patients.
That is why when the people at Angel on My Shoulder, a non-profit organization, got a hold of me recently and asked if I would help them spread the word about their (amazing) programs, I was all, “Yeah, you had me at hello, guys.”
Because as soon as I read about what they are doing — bringing relief to family members and caregivers dealing with the challenges of their loved one’s disease FOR FREE — I knew that I wanted to help them get the word out about their camps. Because free relief, guys.
So basically, they offer five different weekend camps for kids whose lives have been affected by cancer through the illness or passing of a close family member (parent, sibling, or grandparent). Camp Angel is for kids ages 7-12; Camp Teen Angel is for teens ages 13-15; Camp Angel Adventures is for older teens ages 16-18; and Camp Angel Adventures Extreme is for 16-18 year olds who want to experience more extreme activities, and Camp Hozhoni, is a family camp for families with a child 18 or younger who has cancer.
My kids aren’t old enough to do this, but if they were, I would be so game. It was hard enough for me to understand what was happening to our lives when cancer came along. I can’t imagine how confusing or frustrating or scary it would be for a child to watch a mom or dad or sibling go through it.
These camps give kids the opportunity to be with their people. The people who can handle what they have to say, who are right there with them, who can understand them. Plus, it looks like a ton of fun. Summer camps include swimming, kayaking, canoeing and fishing. Winter camps feature snowshoeing, ice fishing, dog-sledding and sleigh rides. I kind of wish I could go to the Angel Adventures Extreme.
Let me just reiterate why I agreed to write this post. THIS PROGRAM IS FREE, cancer peeps and families of! Take advantage! (Well, it’s actually funded through donations, so that everyone who wants to attend may do so.)
And it’s not just for the kids. In line with my own family needs, they host two different weekend retreats Angel Care and Healing Angels: one for cancer caregivers to give them the chance to replenish and revive themselves (Josh!); the other for cancer survivors to enjoy a safe and nurturing environment for them to continue their healing process (me and my ladies).
Although cancer may not give a shit, there are people out there that do, and I just wanted to make sure that you AND your families have to opportunity to find them before your cat runs away from the stress of it too.
**This is a sponsored blog; while the views expressed here are genuinely my own (as always!), consideration was paid to me by Angel On My Shoulder to review this product.
The fact that I had to amputate my boobs is hilariously ironic (re: terribly tragic) for two reasons. For one, I had to cut them off when they were DOING THE ONLY JOB THEY WOULD EVER HAVE: breastfeeding. (I mean, other than snagging a husband. Hey-O! 😉 ) But seriously, out of all my years, I was only actually going to put my boobs to use for, like, two of them, and in the middle of THEIR ONLY FREAKING JOB IN LIFE, they decided to try to kill me. Lazy bastards.
It’s also hilariously ironic (re: decidedly heartbreaking) because my breasts were pretty much my only body parts that I didn’t have a problem with. They were kind of awesome, really. Smallish but packed a punch, you know? Quality over quantity and stuff. I couldn’t have had buttcheek cancer or carcinoma of the stained teeth? Or needed an amputation of thigh fat? (JK. No cancer is good cancer. Also, I made those up.)
I think a lot of people wonder why I didn’t have reconstruction. The truth is that I couldn’t handle it. It was just too much.
Breast reconstruction IS NOT the same as getting a boob job. Not at all. So please don’t, “Well, at least you get new boobs! YAY!” anyone who tells you that they have breast cancer. She will be silently cursing you and probably giving you some pretty serious side eye. Because no.
To my surprise at the time, there are many ways to build new boobs, but they all involve lots of pain and often multiple surgeries for a result that probably won’t ever look natural. And if you go the implant route, you’ve got to swap those out every ten years or so. Ugh.
I was all signed up to start reconstruction immediately following the mastectomy. Like, I had literally signed the consent form and had a plastic surgeon on board. Then something that the doctor said — that they have to say — just didn’t sit well with me. There was a ten percent infection risk.
Hey man, that seems high, no?
There is very little time to make such an important decision, and your head is not exactly clear. I tried to get the breast surgeon to tell me what to do because I also had to decide what to do with the healthy breast (Spoiler alert: I gave it the old chop-off too.) and sometimes you just don’t want to have to make the big decisions.
“If I were your wife, if I were your daughter, what would you recommend?” I asked.
“I would tell you that it’s your choice,” he answered as if he has this conversation dozens of times a week — which he probably does.
“No, I mean, what would you tell your daughter to do?” I repeated with what I thought was an edge of ‘It’s cool; we’re friends here’ in my voice but was probably more akin to hysteria.
“It would be her choice.”
“But you’re a doctor. This is your specialty,” I pleaded.
“It’s your choice.”
Nope. I couldn’t handle it. The thought of anything else (besides the cancer) going wrong was too much. I just wanted to be healthy. I just wanted to raise my daughters. I cancelled the reconstruction.
I’m still not sure if that was the right choice. But that’s easy to say now that I am healthy and back to raising my daughters.
When I woke up from surgery, I couldn’t look down. When the nurses came to empty my drains and assess the incision sites, I tilted my head and rolled my eyes toward the ceiling as they pulled back the dressing.
At home, Josh took care of everything. In the shower, I turned my head and averted my eyes and he washed me. I studied his face for a tell of how bad it was. He doesn’t have a very good poker face, but his post-mastectomy face is impressive.
It took me almost a week to look.
I gingerly unvelcroed my sexy new surgical bra and forced myself to look in the mirror. I couldn’t do it head on so I met myself with half-open eyes.
I was horrified.
It took me much longer to really look.
In the short year since, I have grown used to it. I don’t surprise myself in the mirror anymore, and I can face myself head on.
But I do have conversations like this:
“Penny, do you think I’m pretty?” Yes, I know. Probably not the healthiest question to pose to my four-year-old daughter, but cancer was a pretty heavy blow to my sense of vanity.
“Yeah!” she responded thoughtfully. “I like the sparkle on your eyes.”
Then she looked down. I wasn’t wearing my prosthetics. She reached out her little hand and swept it across my chest. She rubbed back and forth a few times before looking up at me.
“Mom, even though you don’t have boobs, you’re pretty when you wear your prosthetics. When you don’t, you’re not.”
I realized that I don’t want my daughter to understand beauty as purely physical or only by conventional standards.
“Why don’t you think I’m pretty without them?”
“Because it looks like you’re dead. Like someone scraped off your boobs or something like that. It makes me sad.”
I muster, “It makes you sad to look at my scars?”
And, honestly, I can’t argue with that. It makes me sad too.
Not having boobs isn’t alllllllll gloom and doom though. In fact, I made a list of all the advantages of the ‘flat and fabulous’ lifestyle. It’s short because, let’s be real, boobs are awesome.
It doesn’t feel like you’re laying on a speed bump while STOMACH SLEEPING.
My husband can get to second base without me around and/or noticing OR skip that base all together.
I get to say fun things like, “Put mommy’s boobs down now! They are not toys. You know that.”
Because they are now considered ‘medical equipment,’ insurance pays for my bras.
Also, although I may not win a wet T-shirt contest, I can do fun things like this.
Can you pack your husband a picnic with treats as awesome as your boobs? Or greet him so kindly at the door? Comfort your daughter with a piece of you and LEAVE IT WITH HER? (Jk. I don’t actually do that. That’s weird.) A little surprise for the mailman?
I do what I can.
Two months ago, if you would have asked me if I was ever going to reconstruct, I would have told you probably not. That I finally feel decent again and more surgery sounds sooooo terrible. That I was okay like this.
More recently, though, I have been having lots of sad boob feelings. I’m pretty sure it’s because things are returning to normal. My hair is growing back. Family dynamics are getting back on track. It’s just not so cancery around here, you know?
But really, it’s because I don’t feel like myself without boobs. It’s not as much about vanity as I thought. It’s more about not feeling comfortable in my body. You might think this is a stretch, but, in a very small way, I feel like I can relate with Bruce Jenner right now. I feel like I understand the transgender community in a way that I didn’t before. Feeling comfortable in your skin is so important. It can be defining.
As a child, I watched my mother dress in awe. Her body, her feminine movements were magical, and I couldn’t wait to also have a woman’s body — like her. With this “haircut” (which I realize is temporary) and without breasts, I feel uncomfortable in my skin. I feel like that part of my identity has been taken from me, and like Penny, it makes me sad.
It is for this reason that I am now *thinking* about reconstruction.
All of this to say: I have an appointment with my plastic surgeon in a week. I am now weighing my options and trying to decide if it’s worth all the pain, time off, and money. I also don’t know if I hope to have enough abdominal fat for a DIEP or not. Amiright, breast cancer ladies?