Litmus Test

May 1st, 2011 § 5 comments

In the weeks before my surgery, I looked at pictures of double mastectomy patients on the Internet. I Googled “bilateral mastectomy images before and after” thinking I was doing research. I thought I was preparing myself for what was coming.

In reality I was trying to scare myself. I wanted to see if I could handle the worst; if I could, I would be ready. My reaction to those images would be my litmus test.

Some of the pictures were horrific. I sat transfixed. I looked. I sobbed. I saw scarred, bizarre, transformed bodies and couldn’t believe that was going to be my body.

Days later, when I met my surgeon for my pre-op appointment he said, “From now on, don’t look at pictures on the Internet. If you want to see before and after pictures, ask me– look at ones in my office. You can’t look at random pictures and think that’s necessarily what you are going to look like.”

All I could do was duck my head in an admission of guilt. How did he know what I’d done? I realized how he knew: other women must do this. Other women must have made this mistake.

The aftermath is terrible to me though not in the ways I’d anticipated. I have no sensation in most of my chest. I never will.

A major erogenous zone has been completely taken away from me. Yes, I have new nipples constructed, but they have no feeling in them; they are completely cosmetic. The entire reconstruction looks great but I can’t feel any of it. It does help me psychologically beyond measure to have had these procedures though.

Here I sit, two gel-filled silicone shells inside my body simulating the biologically feminine body parts I should have. And sometimes that thought is disturbing.

To be clear: I don’t regret having them put in. I’ve never regretted that. It was a decision I made, and made deliberately. I knew that reconstructing my breasts was the right decision for me. I’m getting used to them– I’m almost there.

I definitely don’t remember what my breasts looked like before. I only remember these.

I once asked my plastic surgeon to see my “before” pictures a year or two after my reconstruction was over. You know what? My “before” breasts didn’t look so great. In my mind they did.
In my mind, everything about my life before cancer was better.
But that’s not the truth.

My mind distorts the memory of my body before cancer. Then forgets it.

My mind distorts the memory of my life before cancer. Then forgets it.

With time, I can get used to a new self.
It’s like catching my reflection in the mirror: only lately do I recognize the person staring back at me.
For over a year the new hair threw me. It’s darker than I remember it being before it fell out. It’s shorter than it was before, too.

And the look in my eyes? That’s different also.
I just don’t recognize myself some days.

Sounds like a cliché if you haven’t lived it.

But it’s true.

April 15, 2009

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§ 5 Responses to Litmus Test"

  • Ann Gregory says:

    I can’t remember my body without all of the procedure scars. Every once in a while I’m surprised by a glimpse of scars on my upper arm where picc-lines once were the norm. Life is different after cancer. Not always better, but not always worse. Thanks for sharing so intimately of yourself.

  • Erika Robuck says:

    A friend of mine lost her battle with cancer last week after nine years. Every time I read your posts I’ll think of her and say a prayer for her. Life is hard.

  • Sue says:

    It’s hard to know what’s right for each of us (look at “after” photos, don’t look at “after” photos). I appreciate that you have perspective on this now, and that you share it. Seems even if we do what we think is right for us, maybe we later decide it’s not (I’m refering to your decision to look at the photos; not your decision to have the implants.) What really seems to matter is that you keep looking in that mirror, even though you don’t always see the you, you recognize. You’re there (here), and I’m thankful for you.

  • Joanne Firth says:

    First of all, Erika, I’m sorry for the loss of your friend. Lisa, I understand this post. I have not lost my breasts as you have. but I did lose the sensation under and down my left arm from the second lymph node surgery. I got off relativly easy compared to you, and deep inside I feel guilty about that and always have. I feel bad that I was able to keep my breasts when other women have lost theirs. When I look at myself in the mirror, I don’t see a huge change compared to how I looked before. Several scars are all that remain from four surgeries. I consider myself very lucky, for now.

    What you shared about your hair and your eyes, especially the eyes, I identify with greatly. My hair is coming in black and grey, very odd. My pre-cancer hair was colored so many times, I had forgotten what my natural color was. I certainly wasn’t as grey as I am now. The past seven months have aged me tremendously, I can see it in my hair as well as in my eyes. I don’t remember my pre-cancer self either. When you look in the mirror, I wish for you to see what I see when I look at you, a stunning, sparkly eyed woman, with intelligence and a bit of mischief in her eyes. Thank you for this post. xo

  • This post touched me in a way I can’t explain. I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate the honesty in your posts. No matter what the topic, you always seem to touch a chord that resonates deeply within me.

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