Month: May 2015

Boob shopping.

I’m not a decisive person.

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.”

Josh and Alice Jolene
Josh and Alice Jolene

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.

Herceptin COMPLETE!  And then I hugged the nurse assistant and had a cry by the elevators.
Herceptin COMPLETE! And then I hugged the nurse assistant and had a little cry by the elevators.

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.

This is embarrassing for me to show, but it's the truth of mastectomies.  Check out the concavity and hey there, prostetic!
This is embarrassing for me to show, but it’s the truth of mastectomies. Check out the concavity and hey there, foob!

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.

The Angel on My Shoulder

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.

We miss you, Ellie, the dumbest cat there ever was.
We miss you, Ellie, the sweetest and dumbest cat there ever was.

(As an aside, I just read the most brutally honest, touching piece about a husband’s experience with his wife’s cancer and ultimate death.  It’s a longer read, but well worth it.  I got lost in it the other afternoon and came out with a greater sense of humanity.)

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.

New campers get ready for a weekend of fun at Camp Angel.
New campers get ready for a weekend of fun at Camp Angel.

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.

Darci Sullivan (far right) enjoys a wet and wild ride at Angel Adventures.
Darci Sullivan (far right) enjoys a wet and wild ride at Angel Adventures.

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.

 

 

A Boobless Year in Review.

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.

What I'm currently working with.  Also, oh nos!  My boobs on the internets!
What I’m currently working with…  Also, oh nos! My boobs on the internets!  Sorry, dad!

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.”

Gah.

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.

20150512_165138

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.”

Whoa.

I muster, “It makes you sad to look at my scars?”

“Yeah.”

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.

  1. It doesn’t feel like you’re laying on a speed bump while STOMACH SLEEPING.
  2. My husband can get to second base without me around and/or noticing OR skip that base all together.
  3. I get to say fun things like, “Put mommy’s boobs down now!  They are not toys.  You know that.”
  4. Because they are now considered ‘medical equipment,’ insurance pays for my bras.

    Free bras for daysssss.
    Free bras for daysssss.

Also, although I may not win a wet T-shirt contest, I can do fun things like this.

BoobCollage

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?