This is Part Two of my reconstructive surgery story. You can read Part One here.
I woke up the day after surgery feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. And not a little truck. This was no S-10. This was a big ugly Mack truck with skulls on the tire flaps.
Justin and I both noticed right away that, while both breasts hurt, I was already far more mobile than after the mastectomy. Simple motions like reaching for anything with my right arm were nearly impossible after the mastectomy.
This time there was no rerouting of muscles and tendons and God knows what else. The pain was localized to the incisions. It still hurt, but I could move.
The surgical vest prevented me from seeing anything except that the chemo port as gone. No more hard protrusion under my skin. Only a scar remained in its place.
I remember feeling a rush of relief. It felt over. All of it. Like it was all truly over. I also remember shoving the relief away, not yet ready to believe it. I was (I am) afraid the relief will lead to the let-down of all let-downs if I should ever have to go through cancer treatment again.
But seeing the chemo port gone let me believe that this part was over. And that was good enough for the moment.
I quickly learned that the shittiest part of post-surgery healing was cleaning the drain. The drain suctions out fluid that would otherwise accumulate and become a buffet for bacteria. Cleaning the drain hurts at first. It hurts a lot. It feels like having a huge needle shoved deep into the side of my boob. It gets easier but the first week or so of drain cleaning took my breath away every time.
I slept a lot the first two days after surgery. I slept sitting up surrounded by pillows. One of the smartest things Justin ever bought for me was the travel neck pillow. I don’t know how I would have slept without it.
Forty eight hours after surgery (the time prescribed by the surgeon) I was so ready for a shower I wanted to scream.
I still had sharpie marker all over my chest and arms along with an orange dye (iodine?) that I presume was applied during surgery. I itched all over. My hair felt greasy and I wanted hot water.
But I was nervous about the shower, too. I hadn’t seen what my body looked like yet.
Justin helped me out of my clothes. There was zero sexuality involved in this. It was more like helping a toddler who hasn’t yet figured out the mechanics of dressing and undressing. Moments like these are only implied in the wedding vows. Living them gives you a true appreciation for what it means to have a life partner.
My right breast, the one with the saline implant looked much as it did with the tissue expander. It doesn’t look as unnatural as the tissue expander did, but with my shirt off it will never be mistaken for a natural breast. I didn’t expect it to.
It was really hard to look at the left side, the side that underwent the lift.
Up to this point nothing had been done to that breast. I could look at it and remember what I used to look like. In a lot of ways I detached myself from the right breast because of all that side went through. The right side didn’t feel like ‘mine’ anymore so changes to it were easier to accept. Seeing changes to the left side was hard because of how much I’d protected my one remaining breast. Now the left had changed, too, and I wasn’t handling it well.
It sat slightly higher than the right side. The surgeon said it would be that way until my lifted breast dropped.
Justin removed the bandages from the incisions and my disappointment went from bad to worse.
The surgeons opened the same scar on the right side to put in the saline implant. The once healed scar was now raw and re-stitched.
The lifted left side made me want to cry.
When they did the lift they use a technique called the lollipop. I saw diagrams before surgery and I knew what would happen, but diagrams didn’t prepare me to see where my nipple had been cut out and re-stitched into a new place. A straight incision ran from the bottom of my stitched on nipple to a crescent shaped scar longer than the length of my hand beneath my breast.
Images of Frankenstein peppered my brain and I didn’t want to look at myself anymore.
As Justin peeled away the Mepelex bandages one of the incisions bled a little and the edges of my vision darkened. I gripped the counter.
“It’s bleeding,” I said shakily.
Ever the calm one, Justin said, “It’s ok. There isn’t much.” He turned me toward the shower and holding my drain in one hand and my arm with the other. “Rinse off and I’ll doctor you up.”
That was the quickest shower of my life.
I did the bare minimum. Rinsing off and shampooing my hair. I kept looking at my scarred up left breast and quickly looking away.
I climbed out of the shower not three minutes later, unknowingly leaving shampoo on the back of my head. I only realized it the next day when my scalp itched like fire. I couldn’t stay in there any longer though. Couldn’t stand to look at the incisions or the drain or any of it any longer. I was about a minute from crying or passing out or both.
Justin helped me to bed where he doctored all the incisions and applied fresh dressings.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I had the surgical bra back on so I didn’t have to look at myself anymore.
Everyone’s reaction to surgery is different. A lot of people have said, “Aren’t you excited?!” Maybe this whole post sounds ungrateful, but ‘excited’ is the wrong word.
I’m grateful that reconstructive surgery is over.
I’m relieved that I don’t have any more surgeries on the horizon.
I’m adjusting to my new body.
‘Excited’ didn’t enter my mind.
The circumstances surrounding cosmetic surgery may have had something to do with my reaction. I know that the incisions will heal. I know I’ll probably be very happy with the results when they do heal.
But I don’t think I would have chosen to do this to myself if cancer hadn’t forced my hand.
Perhaps it’s different if the cosmetic surgery is chosen under different circumstances. For me, it was incredibly difficult to see those incisions and remember what I used to look like before all of this began.
In the days and weeks since surgery I’ve accepted the changes to my body. It’s amazing what you get used to with time. Those first 48 hours after reconstructive surgery were very hard. Writing this post was hard, too, because I had to relive it.
I’ll finish this series next week. Stay tuned.