Tit for Tat

20th November marks my one year anniversary when I woke up groggy one wintry morning to discover a 7cm x 4 cm lump in my right breast. It was the size of a small lemon and, very bizarrely, had grown over night.

To commemorate my lump-changing event, I am ready to write about what so far has been a positive chapter in my life: my operation. I wanted to live through my operation and its recovery privately, believing that should the day arrive where I would feel comfortable to share my story it would be done with the knowledge and experience that comes with arriving out the other side.

On 20th April 2015, at 32 years old, I had a double mastectomy with reconstruction at the same time and removal of my lymph nodes. A major complex surgery lasting nearly 7 hours and requiring 9 days in hospital to recover. As I was living and working in London at the time, my operation was in Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith and everything was covered by the National Health Service (NHS).

What can greatly impact your cancer experience and make it unique is who comes on the journey with you, and in particular which doctors. I was extremely blessed to have Mr Ragheed Al-Mufti as my Breast Surgeon and Consultant. He was there when it was first mentioned that my ultrasound could be cancerous and he was the one who delivered my diagnosis to me. An incredibly warm and caring man whose upbeat and humorous nature mirrored mine throughout my journey.

Though I had tested negative to the BRACA1/BRACA2 gene test, as I was young and only 31 years at diagnosis Mr. Al Mufti strongly recommended I have a double mastectomy to lower my chances of cancer coming back in the other breast. When discussing the options for my operation, his question “So what cup size would you like to be?” placed a genie’s gold lantern into my hands. Given just one wish I was gifted the reins of control; though just for a brief moment, it was to one of the mightiest questions a woman could be asked, especially to the owner of a moderately sized cleavage. My decision to proceed with the double mastectomy was not based on fear that the cancer could come back as I do not fear cancer. My decision was based on the scenario that if I didn’t proceed and it did come back on my left, then I would have to have an extra operation or two for them to both match. I decided to fast-forward past this possible future predicament, avoid extra future operations and to approach it with a “Tit for T(h)at” logic. Vanity was also another reason as I wanted them to both look the same. If you can’t be vain when deciding the future of your breasts, when can you?! 🙂

Mr. Al Mufti explained that along with implants they would also do a “LD Flap” where they cut from the “latissimus dorsi” muscle in my back, move the muscle under the skin around both armpits into my breasts so as to create a natural look. The blood vessels are left attached to their original blood supply in my back. The human body and what they can do with it is truly fascinating.

By having reconstruction at the same time it meant I woke up in a morphine daze intrigued and distracted with my bigger goods. It also meant that I couldn’t move my arms, the top half of my body nor move on the bed without aid for the first few days, as along with my chest and right arm (where they took all my lymph nodes out), my back was also in a bad way which in turn limited the use of both my arms. On the 7th day, I was finally able to leave my ward for a short stroll but, as my back felt so tight, I was hunched over as if I was carrying a cross. With no make-up on and completely bald at the time, I joked to my family that my posture made me look like a cross between Simpson’s Mr. Burns and Uncle Fester from Adams Family!

I have two scars on my back which are in a line and are hidden under my bra line. I currently have temporary expandable implants with ports, which is like a button protruding from under my skin on either rib-cage where, after 2 weeks into my recovery, my surgeon injected a saline syringe into these ports once a week for the following 3 weeks to gradually increase my cup size and for my skin to stretch. As Radiotherapy shrinks and tightens the skin, I had to stretch my skin to be a cup size bigger than I wanted to be to counteract this. My next step is sometime early next year where I will have an operation to remove the expandable implants and replace them with tear-drop implants, which are supposedly the most natural looking.

I hadn’t quite grasped how immobile or how in discomfort I would be until after my op. I chuckled to myself in awe at how the simplest of things like raising my hand to my head was now the biggest challenge I faced in that moment. I noticed slight improvements each day but when compared week to week, the improvement seemed to be in leaps and bounds. Though still in discomfort and in recovery, nearly 3 weeks after my operation I did my Mad Max photo-shoot, and after one month I attended the Beauty Blog Awards in Dublin and I appeared on Irish TV show Xpose.

There’s certain things I won’t ever be able to do, like breast-feed. As I do not have lymph nodes in my right side, my blood can’t rid itself of toxins so I have a high risk of eventually developing Lymphedema one day where your arm swells humongously due to fluid build-up. To prevent this, I massage my arm regularly to encourage blood circulation to manually rid my arms of toxins, I make sure to always sleep on my left side and as heat can bring it on I’m not supposed to do hot yoga or baths. Amongst many other things, I’m not supposed to lift heavy weights, do excessive stretching and no intense housework. However that last one, I’m quite happy about! Certain parts of my back are still numb and due to nerve damage from the lymph nodes being removed, my right arm has lost some strength and at times a bit sensitive if someone grabs it.

We are all given our crosses to bear of various degrees at different stages of our life according to what we can carry. These changes and adjustments I have to make are simply the splinters that I will carry for the rest of my life. They are not painful splinters when compared to certain medical conditions some people have to bear every day of their lives.

Throughout my journey, my faith has given my soul a superhuman strength. It might be strange to hear that I didn’t shed a tear about my operation. There was one moment, as I was getting ready for theater and I was all alone in my hospital gown on a cold hospital bed, when the realisation of what my poor body was going to go through hit me, the daunting knowledge that my body will suffer the brutal act of being sliced open. Faced with this disturbing image, I felt my soul starting to quiver and I asked God to give me the strength to overcome this. A thought popped into my head; asking is waiting to receive. I didn’t need to ask, I needed to believe that He was already giving me the strength I needed and in that instance I felt my faith build back up the armour around my soul, shielding it again.

As a Christian, I see my human body as an astronaut suit to live in this world; it is not the body I will be going ‘Home’ in nor will I have this body for eternity. Our bodies are simply walking dust, held together by the breath of life. Just like shedding an old skin, we too will shed this imperfect body. After my operation, I was still me, yes my body had changed but it was still mine. While wrinkles tell the time, scars tell a story and I’m proud of my back scars as it tells the story and the weight of the cross I carried. They are my badges of honour that have sealed this chapter and they are my souvenirs to remind me of the beautiful spiritual journey breast cancer has brought me on.

……………………………………………………………..

Image illustration by:  Jesús García Vidal

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Read about my 9 days in hospital “No Pain, No Game-of Thrones”:
https://aheadwithstyle.com/2015/05/04/no-pain-no-game-of-thrones/

For post-op and/or radiotherapy, I highly recommend using Theya bras as they are super soft with no elastic digging into your ports:
http://theya.healthcare/

 

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Pegarty Long says:

    Eimear,

    Thinking of you on your anniversary day. You’ve come a long way. I didn’t realize how long your surgery was. Mine was seven hours too. Recovery was difficult as I’m sure as you say yours was.

    I hope you’re having a fine time in Mallow. How is Conor? How is Gaetano? Can he work from there? Where are you living in Mallow? So many questions. I am so happy for what you have done in the last year in turning into a positive and sharing it. A HUGE congratulations to you.

    Warm Regards, Pegarty Long Raven Productions™ http://www.raven-productions.com

    >

    Like

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