Why don't more women talk about the feelings of sadness and loss that can follow mastectomies?
One year ago today, I was a breast cancer survivor preparing to head to my mastectomy the next day. I was checking off a list of the items I would need to take with me to the hospital, because I had expected to stay there overnight. I had my toothbrush, toothpaste and face cream packed, as well as my clothes for my eventual return home. One thing I had not prepared for were the resulting emotions that would follow the removal of my breast, which held the remains of the tumor that had threatened to kill me.
Five months of chemo, I would learn after my surgery, shrunk that tumor by at about an inch all the way around. While I was happy to hear that news, and to know that the cancer was removed from my body, I had no idea how sad I would feel when I looked down to see the stitches where my breast once was. Yes, I was to have reconstruction after I healed from the surgery and had radiation, but that did not erase the loss I felt from having a part of my body removed. It was not just any body part — it was a part of me that identified me as a woman.
I had prepared for this surgery by requesting a prosthetic to place in my bra so that the loss of my breast was unnoticeable to others. Still, when I wore it for the first time — and really, any subsequent time — I was self-conscious. I worried that it would move out of place, which it sometimes did. I worried that it would not look natural, and that people would realize something had been wrong with me. This was not like choosing to shave my head and go bald when I was in the midst of chemo. I was fully comfortable with showing my bald head -- I was proud to bare my head to say that here I was, fighting this horrible disease with all that I had. But, with the appearance of a lost breast, I was afraid that people would look at me funny or start to wonder what had gone wrong. Yet, I know that there is nothing I could have done about it. Breast cancer was not my fault.
I believe part of this comes from the fact that for some reason we just do not discuss mastectomies, and fully prepare women for them. Of course, a woman and her doctor discuss the physical aspects of the surgery and subsequent healing, but the emotional side — at least for me — was not addressed. Perhaps this is because when surgeons are men, they may not realize specifically what women will go through emotionally following the procedure. This is not a knock on men; they just do not have the same experiences that women do.
Of course, perhaps as women we also do not let fellow survivors know that the feelings they will experience following a mastectomy are normal. Maybe we do not discuss this enough. I do not believe one person mentioned to me how she felt following her surgery, which is funny, because there was talk about the emotional pain of nearly every other part of a cancer battle. And, yes, perhaps some did not share because they did not feel the exact emotions I did.
But, I was at a screening of a documentary about mastectomies a couple of months ago at a cancer center, and the consensus among those in the crowd was that more discussion was needed surrounding this type of surgery. More is needed to make women realize they are not alone in what they experience.
So, with this post, I am working to do my part in all of this. Having a mastectomy and feeling what you do following it is nothing to be ashamed about. Feeling alone in it is a tragedy. Let's work to show others that they are not alone. None of us is alone.