Breast Cancer Awareness Month will always hold a special place in my heart because it is also the anniversary of my preventative double mastectomy. Anniversaries and birthdays tend to bring about reflection, and as the 1st of October approached, I started looking back on the past year and wondering how I got through it all.
My Diagnosis and Decision
Two years ago I tested positive for the BRCA2 gene, which means, as a woman in her thirties, I had an increased lifetime risk of cancer — my lifetime risk was 70% while the average female’s is around 14%. Having the surgery would reduce my lifetime chances to just 2%!
Preventive surgery was a no-brainer for me. I have children, I am surrounded by people I love, I have a career that I care about and I live life to the fullest — I did not want to jeopardize any of that. I opted to have my double mastectomy and my reconstruction at the same time and on October 13th, 2016, I walked into the Royal Marsden Hospital. It’s funny; I didn’t feel nervous, anxious or scared because this was a choice I was making to take control of my future health. I felt truly blessed and fortunate to be able to have an opportunity that many people don’t when it comes to this awful disease.
The Initial Surgery
The surgery went smoothly, and I was discharged after one night in the hospital. Recovery was expected to be six weeks. I was doing great until the doctors discovered that I had caught an infection around four weeks post-surgery. As with most surgeries, there are always slight risks, and an infection was a risk (although a very small one at only 4%). Unfortunately, the infection progressed quickly, and I was taken in for an immediate removal of the left implant on December 28th. The implant was removed, and I woke up from surgery with one breast. Shortly after, a consultant came to apply a vacuum dressing to my left side to help remove the infection and keep blood flowing.
Once the consultant left, I cried and cried and cried — as much as I hate to admit it, I had my hour of wallowing in self-pity. I knew it was only temporary, but I didn’t expect to ring in the new year with one breast, and I felt sad. Really sad. Mid-wallowing, I overheard the lady next to me being visited by her consultant. She was going through chemotherapy and had lost her voice. The consultant came to tell her the results of her scan — her breast cancer had spread to her brain which had affected her voice, and she would never speak again. Well if this wasn’t a reality check, I don’t know what was. Here I was crying about having one breast, and there is a woman next to me who actually has cancer and will never speak again. This was the exact reason I made my decision to have my preventative surgery in the first place.
An Uphill Battle
My recovery from the second reconstructive surgery was going well. I felt good and was happy to have another breast! I started exercising a few weeks post-surgery but took it very lightly. Then, a few weeks later, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like a brick had been thrown at my chest. I knew something was wrong, so I headed to the hospital first thing in the morning. It was soon confirmed that I did, in fact, have ANOTHER infection on my left side around the implant. I was put on very strong antibiotics, but the infection did not clear up.
I kept thinking, “how did this happen?” “How have I had not one, but two infections when the chances are so low!?” My surgeon told me the implant would need to be removed (again) and that they did not want to put a third silicone implant in the cavity due to the history of infections. If I wanted reconstruction again, I would need to have a DIEP reconstruction, which is where fat is removed from the stomach to form a breast.
This was a hard reality to accept, the surgery would take over eight hours, symmetry would be unlikely and due to the sheer size of the surgery, the recovery would be three months long. The surgery was scheduled for May 12th, and I was spoken to in-depth about what it would entail. Stomach fat, tissue and skin were going to be removed, my belly button would then be cut around and the skin above my belly button pulled down and stitched up (sort of like a tummy tuck). Because there was going to be fat and tissue replaced in my left breast, it would also now need blood flow, something I do not have because I had the double mastectomy. So, when they removed the stomach fat, they also removed two blood vessels from my abs to use in the reconstruction. As this area was rewired, a piece of my rib also needed to be removed to hold it in place, and I would have a scar that would go from hip to hip.
The Road to Recovery
I was under very strict recovery for three months and didn’t dare go near any exercise — I was petrified of damaging my abs and also scared of getting another infection. In fact, it was four weeks before I could even stand up straight! Then, three months post DIEP reconstruction, I was allowed to exercise again. HURRAH! Going back to exercise after nine months was not going to be easy, but boy was I ready for it! I have been regularly exercising for about six weeks now with pre-op advice I received from Ten Health and Fitness. I vary my routine with spin and a lovely studio close to me called HYPE to do aerial classes. The aerial classes have helped build my core strength back up. There is still some way to go, but it’s remarkable how quickly your body can adapt and regain strength after so many traumatic surgeries.
Looking back over the last year, I cannot believe so much has happened and I never really stopped to think about what was going on. We just dealt with what was happening at the time — which wasn’t easy, but you get on with it because it could have been much worse. I cannot even imagine having to go through those recoveries while going through chemotherapy, and I have the utmost respect for those who do. It requires not only immense physical strength, but mental strength as well. Despite the setbacks, I am confident that I made the right choice to have the preventative surgery in the first place, even if it didn’t go quite as planned. As for my stomach scar, it always makes a good story when I joke that I used to be a magician’s assistant!
This was my first year as a PREVIVOR and there will be many more to come! Every life fully lived.
Editor’s note: To learn more about testing for the breast cancer gene and other genetic indications of cancer risk, Cancer.org has many resources. As always, if you are concerned about your health, schedule an appointment with your primary physician.