Day 12: Litmus test

January 12th, 2013 § 4 comments

Now that my cancer is stage IV many things that once seemed important are now at the bottom of my list. I distinctly remember during and after my breast reconstruction that I was very obsessed with every tiny detail about my implants. What size should they be? Were they healing well? Were they even? How did they compare to other women’s reconstructed breasts?

I think after I finished chemo I needed something to focus on. It seemed that this was something positive. Something for me. Something that would make me feel better (after all, those tissue expanders before the implants were the pits).

The time between when I was diagnosed and when I had my double mastectomy was about one month. Those were anxiety-filled weeks. Though I consoled myself with the news that my cancer was confined and surgery would most likely be enough to treat it, later I learned after the mastectomies that my cancer was actually stage II.

I look now at this piece I wrote and I can still connect to it. I still remember what it felt like. But now that I’ve got metastatic cancer I don’t give a damn about how my implants look. None of that matters to me. One of my first phone calls after the new stage IV diagnosis was to my plastic surgeon to ask if there was any reason to consider removing them if it would help any of my treatments that are to come (there isn’t).

This piece was written about my first diagnosis and surgery… when it was all very new. It seems so long ago. A lifetime. It’s been six years.


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 for the first time 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 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 am overwhelmingly happy with the cosmetic appearance and the wonderful job my talented surgeon did. I will always be grateful to him for what he’s done.

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 though.
In my mind, everything about my life before cancer was better. 
But that’s not the truth.
Don’t take that as an endorsement of the “cancer is a gift” nonsense though.

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.

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§ 4 Responses to Day 12: Litmus test"

  • Joel Eigen says:

    HI Lisa

    Just wanted to say hi – have been keeping up with your posts. Sorry we weren’t able to connect in Nov – I thought I’d get back to NYC in Dec but I came down with bronchitis late i the month and still bed-bound. As always, I’m in admiration of all you’re able to describe and communicate. And yes…cancer has a very healthy way of concentrating the mind on which thoughts can easily be dispensed with. Wonderful card – loved seeing pictures of how the children are growing…
    As always…


  • kcecelia says:

    I’m not sure of the date when you first wrote this piece, but I think I read it when we first began following each other. Could it be from 2009 or 2010? The things that shine through it most are what I think most people, including me, find most valuable about your work: you tell the uneuphemistic truth. It touches me, and as I think you intended in reaching out to all people who have experienced a deep grief, you create recognition and opportunity for growth and change in people who have cancer, and for people who don’t. Of course, I don’t know how you feel now, or how you felt when you were first diagnosed, but I am grateful for what you so honestly share. I am grateful for its specificity and its universality, and, because I have had, as I suspect many people do, a before-and-after incident in my life, I appreciate the lessening of the feeling of isolation to hear something such as that “your mind distorts the memory of before.” Mine did, sometimes still does, that too. Not being alone is strangely important and unimportant both, when in the midst of loss, but it remains important. So, once again, thank you.

  • j says:

    One of the things I love about your recollecting these posts from before (and i know it’s a lot of work) is that you read them fresh (with us) and comment on them from where you are today. I find that invaluable, the shifting perspective over time, the thoughts you have not that you couldn’t possibly have had then. Thank (again) for doing this, Lisa.

  • Anonymous says:

    I just could not stop looking at my hair when it started growing back – the most wonderfull moment was feeling the wind blowing through it again – and the first haircut ! My hairdresser was as excited about it as I was.

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