Sunday, December 27, 2009
It has been nine days since my surgery, and I am well on my way to recovery. I'm not there yet, and I likely won't be for sometime, but I can see indisputable improvements every day. For example, my new breasts were, at first, terribly bruised, like they had gotten in a fistfight and lost. But now, there is only a slight patchy yellowish discoloration where the deep purple bruises once were. That's a lot of progress in just nine days.
But healing, I've come to realize, is both physical and emotional. And it's the latter I want to write about here.
Not to toot my own horn, but I can confidently say I tried as much as humanly possible to be emotionally healthy before my surgery. In addition to keeping this blog, which has been an indispensable outlet for working out my feelings, I've been in therapy since I received my genetic test results in April, I've been attending support meetings and networking with other BRCA+ women, and I've thought and I've talked and I've philosophized and I've explained and I've listed the pros and cons and I've imagined worst-case scenarios and I've developed a mantra and I've come to peace with the genetic mutation and my choice to have surgery. In short, I was very deliberate and thoughtful in my mental preparation; I went into surgery last Friday confident. I came out of surgery something different.
I'm just going to put it out there: I'm sad. This is really hard. And what makes it even harder is that almost no one in my position talks about feeling down after surgery; they all say, No, I never felt regret, I am 100% happy with my decision. And don't get me wrong, I do feel unburdened from a terrible weight. But am I 100% happy? No. I'd say I'm 80% happy, 20% sad. That's a pretty good ratio, but still, how do I deal with the sad, especially if admitting I'm sad undermines the confidence and bravery and all that heroism shit everyone was complimenting me on?
Here's the thing. Last Friday morning, I was a BRCA+ woman who was going to have a double mastectomy. By Friday afternoon, I was a BRCA+ who'd had a double mastectomy. I went from theoretical to actual in just four brief hours (hours that I was unconscious). And I'm having a really hard time reconciling my new identity. On Wenesday, G and I went to buy a post surgery bra at Nordstrom (I recommend the Natori sport bra, for those in the market for such things). I knew what I was looking for but couldn't find it, so I approached the sales woman at the register of the lingerie department and said, "I just had a double mastectomy and need to buy a bra." And then I sort of froze; that was the first time I'd said it out loud. It sounded so weird, so unbelievable. I just had a what? A double mastectomy? You've got to be kidding! You didn't even have breast cancer! Whaddya crazy?
And it's funny because before my surgery, I was so angry when people would question my choice, probe deeper into why I'd chosen something so radical to prevent a disease I might never get. And now, at least temporarily, I hope, it seems like I'm one of those people. What'd you do that for? You must a lunatic! And that's what's making me sad. I can't quite get my head around the fact that I've done this. It's not that I regret my choice; it's that now I have to learn to live with it.
Sometime last week, which day I cannot recall since they all seem the same, my family and watched a BBC program called "How to Look Good Naked." The woman featured was a young Brit who'd battled breast cancer and had a mastectomy (without reconstruction); she wasn't comfortable in her new body, and the show was designed to rebuild her confidence. She was a sympathetic subject. Poor girl! She'd had breast cancer! And so young! And to lose her breast like that! So tragic! As I watched the show, a lump grew in my throat; she'd had a mastectomy, I'd had a mastectomy. Whoa. If I could have gotten up off the couch without assistance, I would have run to my bedroom and burst into tears. Instead, I sat there and tried to process my feelings. I realized I'd joined a club I never intended to be a part of. From this moment on, I'd never not be a woman who'd had a mastectomy. Even many years from now, when I'm over it and I've healed and I've gotten used to my new bosom, I'll still always be a woman who's had a mastectomy. That's when the permanence of my choice struck me. There was no undo. I'd been changed, and there was no going back.
And maybe that's why some people don't go there. They figure, what's the point of tears? They won't bring my boobs back. So forget that and look on the bright side. And, hey, I'm an optimist, so I totally understand that impulse. It's hard to acknowledge any negatives at all, especially when you feel so persecuted for your choice. It's like doing so gives the doubters fodder. But I think I would derail my recovery if I didn't acknowledge this. I'm not going to put my finger in my ears and say "LALALALALA I can't hear you." I don't think I can heal fully if I avoid the ugly and unexpected emotions of my post-surgery life. That's why I don't want to bury my head in the sand now. I need to get this out: I'm sad.
Now I want to be clear. I'm so glad I had this surgery. I would do it again tomorrow. I could not live my life with the threat of cancer looming over me, never knowing when or if it was going to strike. And I couldn't live a minute longer with the crushing anxiety that had so consumed me in the last few weeks and months. So it's not that I wish I could go back and do it differently. It's that, just as coming to terms with being BRCA+ took a lot of hard work over many months, so too will I have to work hard to come to terms with being a woman who gave up her natural breasts. This entire process has been about adapting to new identities, and I trust that in time I will learn to accept my post-surgery self. But I'd be lying if I said everything is puppy dogs and rainbows on the other side of surgery. Now that the initial elation of simply being alive has ebbed, I'm left with some pretty complicated emotions I've got to work through.
I envy those women that say, Nope, never gave it a second thought, nothing but totally thrilled to have gotten rid of my breasts. But I am not one of those women. And I hope, if nothing else, this blog has proved I'm not afraid to tell it like it is, even if it's ugly, so take this not as a caution to women considering this surgery -- I am not saying don't do it (in fact, I'd still say, do it, sister!) -- but as gentle, completely honest advice: when you are emptying your drains, cleaning your incisions, or applying your gauze, don't forget to stop and attend to your emotional wounds too. They may be deep or there may not be any at all. But don't ignore them for fear of appearing weak or fickle. Acknowledge them and work through them. And in time, they will heal, too.
My physical healing will take months; the psychic healing could take much longer. But I'm confident I will recovery fully in both areas. But no matter what, I'd rather battle a little postpartum blues (or maybe it's PTSD?) than cancer. So as long as I keep that in mind, I know I'll come out of this OK. And you will, too.