WHAT CAME NEXT… An unexpected addition to HOPEFULLY EVER AFTER: Breast Cancer. Life and Me

I was wrong about my journey.  I’d thought that publishing my memoir, Hopefully Ever After, marked the completion of my breast cancer experience as I went about the business of living my ordinary life—my life before cancer. But typing The End on the last page turned out not to be “the end” after all.

I’m not sick again. Let’s state that right away. The cancer has not returned and hopefully never will. However, almost three years after my “final” surgery which left me wearing a prosthesis, I reconsidered that choice.

When I stood naked in front of a mirror, I missed seeing two breasts. So I started avoiding mirrors. Whether in the bathroom or bedroom, I sighed and looked away from my reflection. Eventually, however, I couldn’t avoid the truth. I wanted to regain what I had lost and be no different from any other woman—at least on the surface. A normal chest with natural looking breasts tantalized me.

Want. Want. Want. I wanted a lot. After two cancer episodes, who knew I’d be so needy about a 34C? As if to salve my conscious, painful scar tissue had grown against my ribs and sternum that was hard to ignore. The scar tissue would be eliminated with surgery.

What’s that you say? Isn’t being alive enough of a gift? Of course it is. I am grateful to have survived my two ordeals. Grateful beyond words. But I’ve also learned something I hadn’t anticipated: when the fear of death is gone, other emotions—very human emotions—kick in.

Vanity. Pride. Jealousy. Sadness. 

After several surgeries three years ago, I couldn’t have handled one more visit to the O.R. The anesthesia, stress, fear, pain overwhelmed me. The memory of pain fades over time, however, and with renewed determination and the blessing of my medical oncologist, I again visited the caring surgeon who treated me on an emergency basis after I’d moved to Florida.

A big smile crossed Dr. Dayicioglu’s face when she saw me in her office. She’d wanted to “fix” me for a long time.  

“I’m ready,” I said. “Finally ready.”

She immediately recommended a lat flap surgery. Nope, it’s not the tummy tuck reconstruction. I wouldn’t be getting that extra advantage. The latissimus dorsi muscle is located on the back. In this procedure, the LD muscle, its skin and fat, along with the arteries and veins, are tunneled around to the chest. Because the blood vessels remain attached, they continue to nurture the muscle. The skin retains its normal color, the muscle remains at normal body temperature and provides a more-or-less natural look.

The downside? The lat flap is about a three hour procedure which means anesthesia.  Also, a small implant is usually needed as a supplement to the muscle in order to obtain the desired breast size. Athletes—tennis players, rock climbers, swimmers—might detect a small muscle weakness in the back and probably would not choose this reconstruction method.  No problem for me! I’m loyal to a treadmill and assorted weight machines which can be adjusted to suit.

Every decision has positives and negatives—and risks. Although some of my decisions didn’t work out in the past, I always weighed the pro’s and con’s and then hoped for the best. Deciding to proceed with the lat flap surgery made sense to me. It has a 99% success rate.

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I’m writing this piece three months post-op. I’m still a bit uncomfortable, still recuperating, but it could be worse. I can handle this. The total reconstruction is a process. I’ve already received three saline “fills” into the expander (same procedure as with a mastectomy) and have one more until my skin stretches to accommodate the appropriate sized breast. I’m hoping for that 34C I had since I was seventeen years old—my “natural” woman look. 

But I’ll settle for something close and be content.

One more surgery is still on the agenda. In early October, the expander will be exchanged for the actual implant in the newly formed breast. At the same time, the implant in my other breast will be replaced with a larger one to match. At least…that’s the plan. But who knows?  Nothing about this cancer journey is engraved in stone.

Science depends on truth, but is also an art. It demands statistical proofs as well as human judgment. After dealing with breast cancer for almost fourteen years, I sarcastically refer to it as the gift that keeps on giving. Fortunately, only five of those years were high stress. The other nine found me living in a fool’s paradise, not realizing the disease would bite me a second time due to inheriting the BRCA-1 gene mutation.  

Fool or not, I’ve tried to be true to myself and not let cancer dictate my life’s direction. I belong to a sisterhood no one wants to join. We have brothers, too. Although we are all classified as breast cancer patients, each of our stories is different.  Comparing notes can bring either comfort or worry until we remember that our journeys are as unique as we are. The tie that binds us together is not breast cancer, but the determination to reclaim our gloriously ordinary lives.

Is it possible to reach maturity without facing challenges that tear the heart? I don’t think anyone is exempt. With that in mind, here’s my wish for you:  May your days be filled with love, strength, wisdom and the delight of ordinary wonders.

To Life!

Linda