Three years ago, I went from being a scientist and stay-at-home mom to a breast cancer patient in what seemed like a heartbeat. Chemo and a double mastectomy with reconstruction have taught me a few things that doctors never could. If I could go back three years, this is what I’d tell newly diagnosed me:
1. You will get over your modesty very quickly. I’ve never been part of a flash mob, but I’ve definitely flashed enough people to constitute a mob! Best estimates are that I’ve flashed well over 100 people since I was diagnosed. (Yes, I counted.) During my treatment, my body went through so many changes for me to share with professionals and curious friends alike. There was the port (a weird alien-like device implanted under my skin to deliver my chemo meds), my mastectomy scars and drains, final implants and even my first tattoos—trompe-l’œil nipples!
2. You will be in awe of how much you are loved. Your family, close friends, friends you haven’t seen in years and people you don’t even know will rally to support you in ways you could never imagine. They’ll bring you meals and watch your kids. You’ll return home to find cupcakes and magazines with thoughtful notes on your doorstep. Your days will be filled with coffee dates, and your friends will fight for the opportunity to join you at a four-hour chemo appointment. Your out-of-state mom will send you a fabulous pair of flats to wear to chemo because she knows your love language is shoes. You will be overwhelmed with gratitude.
3. You will see breast cancer everywhere you look. Remember when you were pregnant and it seemed like every woman you saw was pregnant too? Especially if you share my extreme misfortune and are diagnosed in October amidst breast cancer awareness month, you will see pink ribbons everywhere. At the grocery store, they’ll ask if you want to round up to donate for breast cancer. You will fight the urge to tell them that you already gave at the office, or that you’re giving two breasts and a full head of hair. You’ll keep your 42 cents, thank you very much. Instead, you’ll probably just smile and say, “Thanks, not today.”
4. You will learn that immediate reconstruction is not immediate. I remember thinking how great it was that surgeons could completely reconstruct a woman’s breasts at the time of a mastectomy. I didn’t realize that “immediate reconstruction” actually means “starts at time of mastectomy and finishes with at least one more surgery sometime in the next year or so.”
5. You will become obsessed with other women’s breasts. Once you’ve had a breast surgery or two, you kind of forget what normal breasts look like. What you see in the mirror is not necessarily bad, in fact it may be great. But it’s not normal. You will begin to examine other women to see how your breasts compare to theirs. (You will hope they don’t notice this.)
6. You will talk about things like drains, mouth sores and nipple tattoos all the time and in the strangest places. Like new moms form an instant bond discussing the trials and triumphs of new motherhood, you have an immediate connection with anyone who’s been through a breast cancer diagnosis. You will also have these chats with everyone from your neighbor to your dental hygienist to an elderly stranger at Starbucks, because when you’re bald, these kind of things just come up.
7. You’ll wish you had more pictures. No, really. Nothing reminds you of how far you’ve come than seeing where you started and where you’ve been. Plus, pictures of you smiling with your kiddos, spouse or friends are a great reminder of how much you’re loved.
8. You will find that you didn’t realize how important breasts really are, even if you’re done using them to feed babies. Your surgeon will tell you early on that you won’t have any sensation, and you will nod, thinking of nothing but getting rid of the cancer. You won’t realize the significance of losing sensation—not so bad not to feel the needles of the tattoo artist recreating your nipples, but sometimes devastating not to feel the gentle touch of a husband’s hand or a child’s nuzzle.
9. You won’t need to wear a bra! You may think you will, anyway, but since it’s tough to find one that fits, you will likely get used to going braless pretty quickly. Your BFF will probably insist that you try on every strapless and backless top that you see when you’re shopping “because you can.” (And you will totally rock them!)
10. You may never again have “just a headache.” Every little ache or pain will make you think your cancer is back. Hip pain? Cancer. Menstrual cycle two days short? Cancer. Forehead pimple? Obviously cancer. But, you will get used to it. You will be surprised when you go an entire day without thinking about cancer, or when you forget to mention to a new doctor that your nipples aren’t real. Yes, you will be different, but you will get used to the person that you are.
The most sobering thing I learned is that roughly 30 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer will develop a metastatic recurrence that will ultimately claim their lives. While women with breast cancer are living longer and stronger, the American Cancer Society reports that approximately 108 women still die of breast cancer every single day. The patient in me wants you to understand the personal side of the disease, but the scientist in me wants you to know that women with metastatic disease are depending on the breakthroughs that medical research provides to keep their lives from being cut tragically short.
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