It has been exactly one month since my mastectomy, and I've learned a lot in the past four weeks. Originally, I thought my blog posts after surgery would be rather straightforward: this is what happened to me on this day, and this is what you can expect on that day when you are recovering. But I realized quickly that my recovery is so very different from anyone else's, and that everyone heals at her own pace, that it wouldn't be very helpful to simply chronicle day-by-day changes. Plus, this blog hasn't been a forum for diarying as much as it's been a place for me to contemplate the bigger existential issues -- the "what does it all mean?" aspects -- of life as a previvor, and my posts here have been more like essays or ruminations on subjects than anything else. So I can't offer you a play-by-play of what to expect in the first month after your mastectomy, nor do I want to tell you every little detail about what happened during mine (mostly because it would be SO boring. Day 9: Slept. Day 12: Slept. Day 16: Slept). But I do think I have learned some things worth passing along, and so I proffer this instead. Behold: Five Things I Learned From My Mastectomy.
5) A mastectomy removes only your breasts; it does not change you in any other way.
This may seem like an obvious one, but bear with me. Before surgery, the mastectomy seemed like such a game-changing event, such a cataclysmic tear in the very fiber of my existence, that I imagined I'd wake up (if indeed I did -- remember, I was pretty convinced I was going to expire on the table) a completely different person. I also imagined that life after mastectomy would be very different. And to some extent, it has. But I also made the mistake of thinking that things would magically be better. This is a common mistake. Women do it a lot, especially when we want to lost weight. For example, say you want to lose ten pounds. When you imagine yourself at your goal weight, you aren't just you: you are not only thinner but happier, you always have good hair days, the lights always are green for you, and your partner always emptys the dishwasher. It's a Disney-fied version of your life, where the bluebirds alight on shoulder and the deer in the meadow pause by the brook to let you pet them. This fantasy occurs when we conflate the idea of happiness in one area with happiness in unrelated areas. And I fell into this trap before my mastectomy. I imagined that on the other side of surgery, life would be better: sunrises would be more brilliant, I would be thinner, people who are jerks would no longer be jerks, and my partner would always empty the dishwasher. Guess what? I haven't seen a sunrise (remember: all I've been doing for a month is sleeping), but I haven't lost (or gained) a pound, jerks are still jerks, and I just emptied the dishwasher all by myself. Which is fine. Because a mastectomy has nothing to do with the dishes. That's why I say a mastectomy does exactly what it's supposed to do; nothing less and nothing more. I recently saw a friend for the first time since my surgery and after we'd been chatting for a few minutes she look at me stunned and said, "Geez, you are exactly the same." And I understood the impulse. In fact, I remember thinking the same thing about this very friend after she'd had her daughter a few years back. Mastectomies don't change who you are any more than having a baby does, but they are such monumental, life-changing events you can't help but marvel that you come out the same person you went in. And what a relief! I know my friend meant what she said as a compliment, and I took it as such: she was happy to see that after everything I'd been through, I was still her old friend Steph. Just with new boobs. Which is exactly the only thing that has changed. As it should be.
4) Getting your teeth whitened hurts more than having your breasts removed.
I've allowed myself a few indulgences to celebrate my recovery from surgery. I've gone shopping and I've gotten an edgy new haircut (with bangs! The last time I had bangs, I hadn't even developed boobs!). But to really treat myself, I decided to get my teeth professionally whitened (remember: mastectomies do not whiten teeth, even if in your post-surgery fantasies your smile is suddenly sparklier). Big mistake. I expected discomfort the procedure (the dentist uses a tool called a "cheek separator" -- I'll leave it to your imagination what it does and how it feels) but I had no idea I would be in howling pain for hours afterward. My teeth, I've since learned, are particularly sensitive to whitening agents. My mouth hurt so much, I asked my husband several times to punch me in the face, because I was sure a broken jaw would both hurt less and distract me from my pain. It hurt to talk. It hurt to breathe (the air on my teeth triggered shooting pains). And the ironic thing was, it hurt SO much more than my mastectomy. The gift I gave myself to celebrate recovering from major surgery hurt more than the major surgery. The lesson is this: mastectomies are really no big deal. But think twice before you get your teeth bleached.
3) The worst part of surgery is the fear and anxiety I felt leading up to it.
It's hard for me now, a month removed, to quantify exactly how scared I was before my surgery. But it goes without saying I have never been more anxious or more fearful of anything in my life. And now: nothing. No fear. No anxiety. When I said before mastectomies only remove breasts, I was only half truthful: they also remove the anxiety. Nothing about recovery -- not the soreness, not the painkiller-induced fog, not the emotional vulnerability -- is as difficult as living life under the crushing weight of fear and anxiety. I know it sounds simplistic, and this is a statement that can only be said with the benefit of hindsight, but here it is: surgery isn't so bad. The shit I put myself through before -- now that was torture.
2) You get used to it.
The first time I saw my new breasts, I thought to myself, I'll never get used to seeing my nipple there (it is a lot closer to my face than it used to be). But guess what? I've gotten used to it. I thought, man, I'll probably never feel comfortable with the fact that I had a mastectomy. Guess what? I barely ever think about it. I thought that I'd never love my body again. But I already do. Yes, things are different. But I can accept that. I feared I would hate those changes. But instead I embrace them. After all, I chose to change. And I'm glad I did. Life under the threat of cancer was stifling. Now I'm free. I'm still getting used to that.
1) Life goes on.
Tomorrow is my first day back at work since my surgery. Physically, I feel fine. But I'm worried about faceplanting on my keyboard at about 2 p.m. After all, I've been pretty sedentary these last few weeks and my energy levels are still pretty low. But whether or not I'm discovered tomorrow afternoon curled up under my desk with a book under my head and my thumb in my mouth, it's time to get back to the real world. I had a dream recently that I went back to work and everyone was just sort of like, meh, whatever, there's a bunch of stuff you need to sign off on on your desk. And I was crushed. Where was the fanfare? Where were the hugs? But at the same time, I understood that this was OK, too. Because life isn't all about me and my breasts. Life goes on. And now my life can go on, too. But if my work friend do hug me, I hope they are gentle.
All of this is to say, simply, that there is life after surgery. It's mostly the same life you had before surgery. It's not that much better, but it's definitely no worse. There are much worse pains than the pain of surgery, and resilience and adaptation are partners in healing. But most of all, surgery changes only what it's supposed to: my mastectomy took away my breasts, my cancer-risk, and my anxiety and fear, but it didn't take away my personality, my sense of humor, my optimism, or my joie de vivre. And that, to me, is a very good outcome.