Monday, September 24, 2012

Unexpected Wounds in the Battle against the Pink Ribbon

I hesitated to post this because it feels like another "pink ribbons post".  But then decided this is just part of my life.  It's not part of the series as this is my life right now.  On Tuesday last week, I went for a 2.5 month post surgical check up of my exchange surgery...the tissue expanders were removed and replaced with implants.  And that's been quite a journey.  The visit went well.

As he was inching toward the door, I asked if there were any restrictions on bras.  He stopped, took my hand and said "No.  None at all.  So go and find yourself a beautiful bra that makes you feel beautiful and feminine."  Then he left and I sat there blinking back tears.

Breast cancer particularly is an assault 
to your femininity.  

I did not HAVE to have a double mastectomy.  They were talking lumpectomy to start with but the moment I heard "You have breast cancer", there was no question.  I was not doing this again so double mastectomy it was to be.

American culture is so enamored with the breast and it's such a visual part of our culture.  Currently Hardee's is showing a commercial that makes me so mad I almost throw the computer at the TV.  ALMOST, I value my laptop too much.  They tell us they are selling a new burger, but 10 seconds in and everyone is aware they are selling breasts and buns, and I'm talking talking chicken sandwiches.  Even those of us who are modest and don't display our breasts in cropped tops and halters, still have visible evidence they are here under our blouses and dresses.  A woman without breasts is unnatural to us.

It is the evidence of the mutilation and the emotional pain of breast cancer.  In order to survive, I had to give up a very real part of who I am.  The girlie part, the Diva within, the part that loves girlie, fluffy, pink, ribbon, lace festooned flounces.  And finger nail polish.  And Lipstick.

But as in everything there is a big difference between plans and reality, between perception and truth.  I thought removing the breasts would be no big deal.  It was a choice I was making to live without  cancer fear.  I would just have them rebuilt.  I had no idea what rebuilt boobage LOOKED like but I didn't care if they fit in a bra without a lot of effort.

My "growing in" hairs. And face sans makeup of any kind.  eek.
The curls didn't stay.

I can't say the first day I saw my incisions was particularly traumatic.  I had felt so bad for so long, that it didn't make so much of a difference.  At that time, I simply felt apathy.  My mom had just died, I found out I had to have radiation and I was still in breath taking pain.

But then there was healing, followed with the desire to move on beyond that "recovery" time and start being me again.  Instead of me in the mirror, there had someone else.  A woman who had no breasts, whose hair had been lost and was regrowing.  A woman who had walked through fire and though not burned up, she was certainly scarred from the burns.  I was a woman who was reminded every time I dress, that I am NOT normal.  I can't fill the darts on my blouses.

Women like me go to a Durable Medical Goods supplier and we get fitted for mastectomy bras and breast prosthesis to try to recreate what God had given us.  Someone else may see a woman who appears normal, but I don't feel normal.  I'm thinking about the mastectomy bra as it moves around the body.  I question if everyone can tell that one prosthesis is up around my neck while the other has somehow slid around under my arm pit.  It's heavy.  It's hot.  It's unreliable.

I remember being with my mom when a unexpected knock came at the door.  A quick peek revealed some friends from her church.  She hustled off to her bedroom telling me to "entertain them until I put my boobs on."  Mom was a breast cancer warrior too.  Her re-occurrence came 9 years after the first.  She had a bilateral mastectomy after the second one.  I had the same kind of cancer.  She opted for no reconstruction but told me she wished she'd done something so she wasn't always thinking about her chest.

I now know what she meant.  Because it's heavy, hot, and did I mention heavy, you seldom put on the apparatus at home.  That works fine until there's a knock at the door or an errand arises that you leave quickly.  Then in town you catch a glimpse of yourself and realize "I forgot to put on my boobs."  Then like a wilting flower, you close in around your mutilated chest and hope no one else figures out why.    You don't feel attractive, or feminine, and certainly not confident.  Even if you were enjoying the errand, your mission is to now just get home.

When I made the decision for mastectomies, I also made the decision to reconstruct...immediately if possible.  But complications arise and the process I thought would take 6 months, really took 19 months.  But the time arrived for Dr. Puckett and I to restart the reconstruction effort.  I was eager to feel normal.  Between a mastectomy, hysterectomy and hormone therapies that target hormones to restrict them, there is very little left of me that feels "uniquely female."   I do not feel normal and I miss normal.

So the day arrives where you think part of the journey to normalcy ends...your implant exchange.  As the doctors cut off the bandages and you see more and more of less, a sick nausea rises within you.  You realize...there is no such thing as NORMAL anymore.  The flat pancake breast is nothing like "me" before.  I went through a week of mourning for my loss of normal.  It was a cold, stark reality.  I spent that time in tears and regret.  A dear woman I know only as "Whippetmom or Deborah" at an online Community for warriors of the Pink Ribbon, stated that she believed there was a post exchange depression that happens.  When our perception of what our reconstructed breast meets the reality in the mirror.  It's a cold place to be.

It got better.  Healing takes place and things start to shape up and I began to see glimpses of what might be.  While it's not "normal", I set another goal, a new goal.  To feel beautiful, despite reconstruction and without having to first consider what's going on under my shirt.

Which brings me back to my doctor.  I still have some things to do yet, there is some tweaking that needs to be done.  My side with radiated skin has to be treated slowly and gently, but he tells he's confident because I am so much further along that he ever expected, that this will be accomplished.  So he tells me, to toss the mastectomy bras and get back to that uniquely feminine ritual of torture...trying to find the right fit in a bra.  Which is even trickier with implanted, fake breasts.

I had the experience in a fitting room 2 weeks ago, of pulling on the straps and settling my girls into a bra.  They responded with an "ahhhh" and startled, I looked into the mirror!  What?  A bra that fit?  Yes, it fit and it was okay.  I was excited but does not fit my criteria of beautiful.  So I am chasing that dream...looking for that beautiful bra with laces, and bows and girlie prettiness.  I won't settle for "works" or "serviceable" now.

Today, I don't look the same and I know what my remaining issues are.  But today, I think I look "normal".

I have been through a war.  I have suffered unexpected wounds and deep cutting amputations of part of me.  I have fought the emotional and mental fatigue in prolonged battle.

I find myself cruising through endless lingerie shops looking for the "one" (Which I find is not uncommon with breast cancer survivors.  We are developing a 12 step program for beautiful bra addictions lol)  Advice...2 syllables.  E-Bay!

The bras are my medals and ribbons.

P.S.  Women with reconstructed breasts will find these truths.  

You will learn more about proper bra fit than you EVER knew prior.

You learn about sister sizes.  Going down a band size requires going up in the cup...38C to a 36D.  Going from 36D down to a 32 means the triple DDD's.  Don't be afraid of the D's.

There is a world of beautiful bras that you never explored because prior to reconstruction, they were just undergarments.  Now they are your medals, your rewards and they are necessary clothing now.  :)

You learn to practice the "swoop and scoop" with EVERY bra.

You will find that underwires contain, encapsulate and TRAIN your implants to stay in the front of your chest and not under your arm pits. 

Minimizers are our friend, despite the fact we want to MAXIMIZE our efforts.  The construction of a minimizing bra cup with its powerful elastics will hug the unique shape of a reconstructed breast.

Molded Cups are NEVER your friend.

Cut & Sewn bras whether 2, 3, or 4 parts are better shaping and fitting than seamless.

Possible medals...


  1. Oooh ... I love the red one, top right! In spite, not having been through this (yet - Mom is a breast cancer survivor and I am nearing the age where her battle began), I understand more than you might think. My battle has been obesity and while it is the result, in part, of my own bad choices ... the reality is that most of the clothes (outer and under) that fit are more serviceable than fashionable and many days I long to feel pretty again!

  2. Oh Hoooooraaaayyyy! I love your medals! And I love the beautiful red one too...that grey one right below it will put you in "sweaty eyeball" territory right quick! Pray for my friend Michelle Koch. She's in the throes of it all...a recurrence (10 surgeries!) and they are Army and up until a month ago were stationed in Germany. However, she has gotten so needy of therapy that they've sent them to San Antonio now. She's a fighter too and I'm praying she'll find her equilibrium soon.

    Love that picture of you too...someone needs to come pinch your cheeks real good! Love you girl!