I know what it is to hate the skin you live in. To not recognize yourself in the mirror.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, at the age of 34.
Finding the Lump
One night in bed, I found the peanut M&M-sized lump in my right breast. I sat up to go to the bathroom and felt a sharp pain in my breast. I thought it was just one of those boob pains you get over your lifetime, but when I looked in the mirror, a big swath of skin was red and irritated. After agonizing for two weeks, I finally saw a doctor. We talked about tattoos and The Beastie Boys. Then she felt my lump. I’ll never forget what she said to me, “Yeah, you’ve got a little something there.”
I was stunned and terrified. I had been anxious, but I didn’t actually expect it to be anything serious. Breast cancer isn’t in my genes. I had done my routine exams and all the recommended ‘prevention’ measures. I exercised (some) and ate right (mostly). Ran breast cancer awareness 5Ks. I did all the right things. What the hell was going on?
She referred me to a diagnostic clinic and the resulting mammogram showed a mass. They quickly conducted an ultrasound. I watched the screen as the tech took a lot of pictures. The mass was black and spiky, with little white dots throughout. I knew it wasn’t good. They looked over the results. Then said the word “biopsy.” The word didn’t mean much but the pain of the procedure made me pass out twice.
You Have Breast Cancer
A full week later the pathologist called me with the results: “You have breast cancer.”
The world stopped. I don’t remember anything after that. I didn’t even hear the word “invasive.” I just sat on the curb outside of work and sobbed. Life as I knew it was over. I had never been sick in my life and now I had cancer.
When I had a double mastectomy in November that year, I mentally exited my body. The pain from surgery was so intense, that I couldn’t handle it, even with powerful narcotics. It’s like I was floating outside myself, watching, and I would occasionally be reminded that, oh yeah, some serious trauma just happened and everything hurts. I was left with 4-inch scars where each breast used to be, and a massive pile of self-esteem issues.
My Body Had Betrayed Me
I had really loved my breasts. I always felt that no matter what the rest of me looked like, whether I lost or gained weight, at least I had nice boobs. Now they were gone. I felt like my body had betrayed me. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so smug. Maybe it was my fault. I felt like my femininity had been erased, especially once my hair started falling out from chemo.
The physical numbness that followed the mastectomy was shocking. The surgeon said I wouldn’t feel anything from armpit to armpit, clavicle to diaphragm, but I didn’t really know what that meant until it happened – they really mean that you will feel nothing. During surgery, they scoop out all your breast tissue, including the nerves. The pain I felt was caused by the plastic surgeon cutting into my chest muscles to insert expanders – the placeholders for silicone and saline implants that go into the chest cavity after all the breast tissue is removed, sometimes during the same surgery, like mine. The expanders felt like tin cans attached to my chest – hard, oddly shaped, and sticking out at all angles. Six full weeks of the shame of “Rubix Boobs”, as I called them. I tried to cover them with big shirts, sweaters, and jackets, but they still felt very visible to me. Once a week the plastic surgeon would literally pump them up a half cup size to make more space for the implants. Each week they were bigger, harder, and more uncomfortable.
After my reconstruction, where the expanders were removed and replaced with silicone implants, I felt even more disconnected. My new breasts were uneven, hard, and not at all how I thought they’d look. I was devastated. The plastic surgeon told me they looked great, but I knew he was wrong. I had been able to keep one nipple, but even it was in the wrong place and looked off-kilter. My heart broke. My once beautiful breasts were now impossible for me to look at. Scarred. Uneven. Unattractive. Frankentits.
I had to learn how to deal with these non-malleable fake boobs and find clothes that fit right. Bras that were comfortable and smooth so I would look “normal” under clothes. Tank tops that didn’t rub or cut into the places I could still feel. Anything that wouldn’t show my scars through the fabric.
Additionally, I had to learn how to deal with the loss of sensation in my breasts. It made me sad when they were touched – I used to have so much feeling there and I had really enjoyed it. Now that exciting sensation was gone and replaced with…nothingness. A slight sense of pressure at best. I fell into a deep depression and shut off all connection with my body. My self-esteem plummeted and I gave up on feeling sexy. I stopped caring what I looked like and I gained 30 pounds. Who would want me now? I hated this body and myself.
Falling into Deep Depression
It got so bad that I became suicidal. Cancer didn’t kill me but depression damn sure tried to finish the job. Therapists and psychiatrists were terribly unhelpful. I didn’t want to continuously recount my trauma and grief and I didn’t want to talk it to death or keep looking back; I wanted to move forward.
So I found a life coach instead. With her help and by completing a coaching program myself, I’ve learned tools to help me deal with depression (Wellbutrin helps too), my wilted self-esteem, and to reconnect with my body. To own my scars, my story, and my awesomeness again. To fully inhabit my body now, in the moment, in every moment.
It took two more corrective reconstructions by some of the best breast surgeons in the world to finally feel happy with my breasts and their scars. They look amazing and feel pretty real from the outside. My chest is still numb internally, but nerves just under the skin are re-growing, so I have sensation in a few places.
Last year I sought out the 3D nipple tattoo specialist, Vinny Myers, and got new nipples. It was a 6-month wait, but the day before my 39th birthday, my nipples were done and my reconstruction finally felt complete. I celebrated with gusto, doing my happy dance in the parking lot afterwards.
Some people tell breast cancer patients to be proud of what they’ve been through, but it’s not that simple. You can’t just magically feel proud. Or happy that you lived. Or in love with your new boobs and scars. It’s not like getting a free boob job. There are no rock star tits. There are scars. Misaligned breasts. Numbness. And often, shattered self-confidence. It takes time, hard work on your feelings, and support from those closest to you. I was lucky to have an amazing husband and family, and a ton of support from friends. I wouldn’t be here without them.
It has been the worst 5 years of my life, but I finally feel at home in my skin again. I feel sexy, confident, and proud of myself and my scars.
They stand as testament that I can survive very hard things and be amazed at my own strength. That I can love myself no matter what I look like. I can go through the fire and come out stronger on the other side. That I can rise up from the ashes and call myself beautiful again.
Originally posted to The Underbelly.