Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Touch Me, Feel Me
Before surgery, I was unsure about how my reconstructed breasts would feel (and how I would feel about them). In talking to the many brave women who had preceded me into this strange new world, I gathered that I would lose a lot of skin sensation and that, while at first my implants might seem like foreign objects beneath my skin, I'd eventually get used to them. But that's about all the information I got. So, as a public service to all those out there considering prophylactic mastectomies (or any kind of mastectomy), I'm going to try my writerly best to describe for you as evocatively as possible how my breasts feel and what I feel (both literally and figuratively) about my breasts. (And if you are my dad or my boss or anyone whose relationship with me might get a little awkward if you continue to read this, I'd suggest here is a good place to close your browser window).
How My Breasts Feel
When I was younger, before I even had breasts to do self-exams on, my mother brought home a boob. It was, I realize now, a silicone implant. And hidden in it was a lump. It was a practice-finding-a-lump-in-your-boob boob. I have no idea where she got it. "Here," she said, handing me the thing, which I looked at with distrust. "Close your eyes and feel around and see if you can find the lump." I did. It was hard to miss. "Now," she said, "you'll know what to look for when you begin to do self-exams."
The whole experience terrified me. But it made a lasting impression. So much so that when I was finally brave enough to touch my breasts in a clinical way and actually perform a self-breast exam, I was horrified by what I felt. My breasts were FULL of lumps. I was barely out of high school, and I thought I was already dying of breast cancer. My boobs felt NOTHING like that practice boob. Mine were full of stuff, and whatever it was I was feeling in there scared the shit out of me. I realize now all that stuff I felt was the milk ducts and nipple areola complex and the various lobules and and other funny words for the things we ladies have in our hooters. But the radical disconnect between what I was expecting and what I found really left an impression on me, and up until the end, I was always a little fearful about what I would find when I would do my monthly self-exams.
I tell this story because now, after reconstruction, my breasts today feel like that practice boob I felt, lo, those many years ago (sans lump, of course). And I'm pretty happy with that. Gone are the weird structures, the lattice work of veins, the strange disc behind my nipple. Now my boobs feel uniform and consistent. There is nothing hiding in them; they are all form and no function. A lot of women resort to metaphors involving water balloons to describe the feel of implants, but in my experience (I chose to have silicone implants, which are touted for being more "life-like" -- though, as I've noted, they are in fact in no way like real life, being absent of all the fillings -- than saline implants, which, to me, did actually feel like water balloons) they are much more firm, more malleable, less distensive. But their most remarkable feature is not what they have but what they lack. I finally have the boobs I thought all boobs were supposed to feel like; how ironic the path I traveled to get them.
What I can feel (and how I feel) about my breasts
When women who have had PBMs told me that after surgery, they were almost completely numb, I had no idea how to process this information. After all, by its very definition, numbness denotes a lack of feeling. How are you supposed to imagine something that feels like nothing? But I still wanted to know so badly how it felt (despite the aforementioned absence of feeling) so I turned to dentistry. The times I've been numbed have all occurred under the bright adjustable lights in my dentist's office, so I tried to imagine what I felt there and equate it with what I would feel in my breasts. But, to me, the most notable thing about being numbed at the dentist isn't the numbness; it's the tingling sensation in my jaw as feeling returns. So, in my flawed logic, I sort of imagined my breasts would tingle. I know. But humor me.
My breasts, of course, do not tingle (and if they did, I would be concerned). But they aren't completely numb, either. I have almost full sensation from my nipples up; I can respond to touch on my sternum and in my armpits and along my sides. But you could put a cigarette out on the lower half of my breasts and I wouldn't be any wiser until I smelled the burning flesh. I suspect the position of my incisions (they are inframammary, which means under the fold of my breasts) has something to do with the total lack of skin sensation on the southern end of my boobs, and I don't have any expectation this will change. As for my nips (Dad, seriously, if you are still reading, stop), I do have some feeling (mostly the ability to recognize pressure being put on them by touch) if not any actual sensation. They continue to react to hot, cold, and excitement.
The strange contradiction about having breast implants and skin numbness is that though you cannot always feel your breasts, you almost always are aware of them. I'm five-and-a-half weeks out from surgery, and I have not yet gotten used to their obtrusive presence. I feel them every time I open a door, every time I stretch, every time I reach up to grab the cereal from the cabinet above the frig. Of course, it's not my breasts I feel -- it's my body reacting around them, and any movement involving pectoral muscles will move the implant, thus drawing my attention to it. Yes, they do feel like foreign objects, but I'm getting used to them. And before long, they will just feel like me -- a quirky part of me, but me nonetheless.
Which leads to my final point about my new rack. I was desperately worried that I would hate my new breasts, that I would look down on them and dismiss them as impostors. I don't hate my new breasts. I don't love them, either. But I neither loved nor hated my natural breasts. I accepted them. And that's what I've done with my reconstructed breasts. They are by no means perfect, but few things are. As long as I'm not actively at war with my body, at least emotionally, I consider this a victory.
I realize my experience (from the emotionally-scaring practice boob to the dentistry expectation to the sternum sensation) is uniquely my own. But I hope it might help others understand what to expect on the other side of surgery. After all, this is difficult to articulate (as demonstrated above) and tricky to explain to those who haven't felt what we feel (or don't feel, as the case may be). I may be physically numb in places, but I still feel whole. And that's as good an outcome as I could hope for.