Thriving after double mastectomy for breast cancer without breast reconstruction (Guest post)

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Sam recently forwarded this New York Times article to me, about the increasing numbers of women who are choosing to “live flat” after mastectomy, forgoing the reconstructive surgery that would give them artificial breasts. I’ve talked here and here about my own choice to live flat after a double mastectomy for breast cancer, and I continue to be completely comfortable – even enthusiastic – with “life after breasts.”

What boggles my mind is that the health professionals – including surgeons, oncologists and nurse practitioners – helping women through breast cancer treatment don’t see seem to realize that for some, the choice to live without breasts can be an incredibly satisfying one.

That’s certainly been my experience.

I love not having breasts anymore. I’ve never for one moment regretted my decision to have a prophylactic (preventive) mastectomy of my left breast at the same time that my right breast was removed for breast cancer. I feel sure that I would have been very, very unhappy with only one breast – or with reconstruction of one or both breasts.

In my case, I just didn’t like my breasts. They’d been quite large for most of my life, and I was uncomfortable with the way my body moved and felt with large breasts, as well as how I looked. If you’d come up to me 20 or 30 years ago and told me that I was going to get breast cancer, and asked if I wanted to have my breasts removed, I would have jumped at the chance even back then. I loved (and still love) being a woman; I just didn’t like having large breasts.

Lucky for me, I did get breast cancer, which came with a complimentary breast removal.

I love the way my body looks now. (With clothes on. Without clothes, I obviously have two huge scars across my chest, and a lot of the subcutaneous fat was removed on the right side where my cancer was, so that side of my chest is a little sunken. But I’m okay with how I look naked.)

I love how it feels to move through the world without 5 pounds of tissue hanging from my chest. Sports (running, calisthenics, martial arts) feel so much freer now. Before my surgery, I was always conscious of that weight bouncing uncomfortably up and down whenever I ran or jumped. I struggled to find sports bras I liked, and struggled even more to find sports bras that were easy to get on and off.

Not having breasts is fantastic. I wear tank tops under my shirts most of the time, just to keep my scars from being visible when I bend over in a low-cut top. The straps are also a visual clue to people that I’m a woman, which I found especially helpful during my chemo, when I was bald and looked very masculine. (I have never worn breast prosthetics, BTW – the idea of having fake breasts just doesn’t appeal to me at all.)

My mom met a woman my age at the cancer clinic one day, and this woman had had a single mastectomy when she’d wanted a double (without reconstruction). She was psychologically quite traumatized about her situation, and angry at her surgeon for refusing to remove her second breast.

I’ve also met another woman like me, who chose to have a double mastectomy and is living flat, and like me totally loving it. I wish I could counsel other women who are facing this choice, and let them know that not only can you live healthily with no breasts, but you can actually thrive – feel better than you did before.

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Loving my post-mastectomy body (Guest Post)

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow - September 2015

So I was diagnosed with breast cancer this summer, and had a double mastectomy in September. I’m crushing this cancer thing so far. This blog post is a follow-up to three posts (about how I learned to fight breast cancer from doing martial arts, was super excited to be getting my breasts cut off, and had a boudoir photo shoot before my surgery) that I wrote this summer about my breast cancer, sports and body image.

If you’ve read my story, you may be wondering if things have panned out the way I anticipated. Am I still feeling upbeat about my diagnosis and prognosis? Am I as happy as I expected to be without breasts? Do I love my new body?

Yes, yes and yes.

According to the medical professionals involved in my treatment (nurses who’ve assessed and tended my incisions; my surgeon; my registered massage therapist), I’m healing at a blisteringly fast rate. I have nothing to compare my experience to – I’ve never had any other surgery. What I know for sure is that I don’t feel held back in any way since having my breasts cut off.

I had a few very short (seconds-long) moments of panic before my operation, but they passed as soon as I noticed them. I was calm (and bored) while I waited in “surgical daycare” (yes, that’s what it’s called) before my noon-hour date with the knife. I remember being pretty nonchalant immediately after I woke up from the anesthetic.

They sent me home about three hours after I left the operating room. I was cared for in the week following my surgery by my mom and a dear family friend.

The pain was bad. I will say that. I have a pretty high tolerance for pain (I barely noticed when I broke my collarbone and dislocated my a/c joint last fall), so I expected the surgical pain to fade quickly. Many women I’d spoken to had been able to quit their narcotics within three or four days of their mastectomies. That wasn’t my experience. The pain was an excruciating, burning sensation that covered a large area where my breasts used to be, and the narcotics they gave me didn’t touch it. (I stopped taking any kind of painkiller after about a week, since nothing seemed to help.) The pain was worse when I stretched or moved, so I became very tentative about moving too vigorously, and I couldn’t bear to be touched around my incision, or even wear tight clothing.

I sought help for the pain twice, but the doctors didn’t seem to have anything to recommend. They kept telling me to wait and see if the pain got better. Thankfully I have an excellent registered massage therapist who does myofascial work, and with my surgeon’s okay I started massage treatment 2 1/2 weeks after surgery to work on the tissue adhesions and restrictions around my incisions. I experienced an astonishing reduction in my pain after only one treatment, and after my second treatment was almost completely pain free. I would highly recommend myofascial work to anyone who’s had surgery. There are still many numb areas across my chest that may never recover feeling, but they don’t bother me.

The surgeon gave me exercises to do after surgery to help with the range of motion in my arms, and I had good range of motion within a week of surgery. The massage therapy has helped with range of motion as well. With my surgeon’s okay, I resumed my aikido practice two weeks after my surgery, and was immediately doing full practice with full contact and advanced breakfalls. I’ve lost nothing in terms of strength or stamina as far as my aikido is concerned. It’s been very physically and emotionally healing for me to do aikido, and I feel blessed to be able to continue with my practice.

I started a new job two weeks after my surgery, and have regularly been putting in 10-hour days, trying to accumulate some lieu time before my chemotherapy starts. Quite honestly, most days I forget all about the breast cancer. Life is good.

And I absolutely love my new body. Going through life without breasts is easy. It was an adjustment at first to see myself in the mirror – I look so different. I lost 40 pounds in the five months before my surgery, so I literally have a completely different body now that my breasts are gone. Plus I got my hair cut before surgery, so that I could donate it pre-chemo. It’s taken a few weeks to figure out what kind of clothes I like to wear now, but that part has been fun.

I’m not looking forward to some of the more troubling side-effects from chemo, but I won’t mind losing my hair. I’m more concerned about feeling weak and tired, and possibly having to give up aikido for a time.

My odds of surviving cancer aren’t the very best they could be – I’m pre-menopausal, had an invasive cancer that was sensitive to estrogen and progesterone, had five tumours in my right breast, the largest of which was 4 cm, and one of my lymph nodes tested positive for cancer. But I’m so happy to be alive right now, in this moment. I’m going to die someday; whether it’s 25 years from now or 25 months from now, I don’t want to waste my time worrying about how I’ll die.

I want to walk in the sunshine when it’s sunny, and dance in the rain when it pours. And flip upside-down, unharmed, when I’m thrown.

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You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience:

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.