It was late fall, 2005. While driving one afternoon, I realized the pressure of my shoulder belt felt very uncomfortable resting across my left breast. This was not the first time I had experienced this and although not painful, it was becoming increasingly bothersome. For a few months prior to this, I had been aware of an unusual heavy/full feeling in the same area. When I mentioned the "little" problem to my husband, he said he had noticed for some time that I had a habit of holding the shoulder belt away from my body. At that moment, I believe I knew something was wrong.
My thoughts turned to the fact that I had not kept up with regular annual mammograms. It had been six years since my last one. Why? I could list a dozen excuses but not one good reason. I was just busy enjoying life; we were retired and enjoying traveling; I was feeling healthy and I did not even consider the possibility of a breast cancer diagnosis.
In November, 2005, I booked an appointment for an annual physical and mammogram. I can remember the long wait while the films were being checked and then heard the dreaded words: "the radiologist would like more views." I was then informed that I would be scheduled within the hour for an ultrasound and advised to make an appointment with my family doctor to discuss the results. I had no doubt at all about what we would be discussing. The next step was a referral to the best and nicest surgeon I could ever hope to have. He set up an appointment for a stereotactic biopsy, which did not take place for three weeks. I wasn't good at waiting!
- The biopsy pathology: DCIS, Left Breast.
- Lumpectomy pathology: 4cm extensive DCIS, grade II/III, with IDC at one margin. ER 90%+ PR slightly + Her2+++. Sentinel node plus 13 more, all negative. Stage 1a.
- Due to an unclean margin, I was advised to have a total mastectomy. Another 0.3mm focal residual IDC was found in the breast pathology, this one remote from the surgical margins, which had remained undetected. The mastectomy was a good choice!
I questioned having a bilateral but was talked out of it by two oncologists. One was totally against what she called "sacrificing a good breast," the other was a little less aggressive with her suggestions. My surgeon suggested I wait one year before making the decision. I am thankful for his good advice as I am now glad to have one healthy breast intact. It took time to come to that conclusion.
My recovery from both surgeries was remarkably uneventful. With some coaxing on my part, I was able to come home the same day. I did not have any drains and I am sure that simplified things. I also think having steri-strips in lieu of stitches or staples was a benefit. The only pain I recall having was from the small underarm incision where the node dissection was done. It drove me crazy!
Because I had seen my grandmother's mastectomy scar, and also because I had nursed on surgical wards and changed numerous mastectomy dressings, I was confident that seeing my own incision and missing breast would not be a problem. When the time came, this was not at all easy for me and I was more than a little hesitant to take that first peek. As it happened, I was very pleasantly surprised and pleased to find a very neat four- to five-inch line. It was an odd shade of blue from the radioactive dye, but that has long since disappeared.
For the first several weeks, I managed to look more or less symmetrical wearing a post-op camisole and soft puffy inserts, albeit not yet ready for fitted tee shirts. I gradually progressed to using a variety of things, including very realistic-looking gel bra inserts, foam and fabric covered forms, and was eventually fitted with an Amoena silicone prosthesis. I have stayed active playing tennis and sailing with my husband and find some forms and bras work better than others, depending on the occasion.
I am often most comfortable with just an insert in an ordinary sports bra. I love lingerie and was happy to find mastectomy bras that are comfortable and pretty as well. One of my favorite bras is the Amoena Cami Bra #2118. It has a dainty lace insert and works well for me with vee-neck tees.
Do I miss my breast? Of course I do. Am I comfortable with one? Very much so. There was never a time I even considered reconstruction. Perhaps if I was younger, I would feel differently. I don't know. In many ways I am more content with my body at 62 than I was at 32. Maybe I've at last outgrown what I call my "Virgo insanity" of needing perfectly matched sets of whatever!
While struggling to write this story, I have often paused to reflect deeply on the past 18 months. I have thought about the changes breast cancer has made in my life and perhaps gained more insight into how I have changed as a person. For me, the loss of a breast has been less traumatic than the loss of a secure sense of well-being — physically, emotionally, and mentally. I no longer take good health for granted. But I have also found that time has a wonderful way of healing. What a difference a year makes!
For anyone presented with a cancer diagnosis, my heart goes out to you. It's not a journey I would choose for anyone. However, in saying that, I have found my experience to be almost as rewarding as it is challenging. I have come through it with a new perspective. I now live "in the moment." That has been a gift.