This is a pretty raw and honest look at what many women face after finishing all of the treatment and surgery following a breast cancer diagnosis. What remains physically can be daunting psychologically.
As time passes I am feeling better and more like myself, and for that I am very grateful. And not to worry, I continue to laugh and joke my way through most of it, but not all days are afforded that levity.
I have decided to be as open about my experience as possible so that others going through it may feel they aren’t alone, and those who are in the support role may get some insight and a better understanding about what their loved one may be experiencing.
Health and Love,
Reflection Confessions: Dealing With the Physical Aftermath of Breast Cancer Treatment
No one is in the bathroom with me, but I’m facing my enemy.
I pull the scale from its hiding spot between the toilet and the end of the vanity. It’s the perfect place since I’d honestly prefer crapping on it to stepping on it. I cringe.
Is this going to be a good day or a bad day? I’d better go pee first.
I drop my clothes, squeeze every ounce from my bladder, and then use my toe to tap the ON button.
A rectangular zero blinks in the liquid crystal display. It isn’t ready to break my heart yet; it needs to warm up first. The numbers look just like the ones on my alarm clock, yet these are sinister. The clock tells me what I know: I haven’t gotten enough sleep; it’s time to shuffle the kids to school; I’m late. The scale tells me what I dread: I have zero will power, zero control over my life. And that the weight I lost before I discovered my cancer and kept off during my treatment wasn’t the result of eating well and exercising, it was because my body was devouring calories to fuel the disease overtaking my breast.
The scale stops flashing, my cue to climb aboard. I hold my breath, think thin thoughts, and wait. I watch it blink, blink, blink… 147.
Shit, I’m fat.
I close my eyes, exhale and step off.
Every day starts the same: I will feel better; I will eat better; I will work out longer. And every day ends the same: I’m still so tired; I don’t feel like eating anything green; it was too hot to run.
The rational side of my brain perks up.
You have cancer, so what if you weigh 15 pounds more than you did?
But the chemo was six months ago and the radiation two. What if the weight has nothing to do with cancer or the stupid drugs I still take? What if I’m just weak?
Seven months ago I was in the best shape of my life, training for triathlons, the picture of health. Then I felt the lump.
The scans and biopsies showed my doctors five, small, aggressive tumors in my left breast, so my oncologist decided to pluck a few key lymph nodes from under my arm and test them for cancer, too. A lot hinged on that procedure, because if she found any, my treatment would be longer, harder, and involve radiation.
“We’ll take the sentinel node out and test it while you’re still on the table. If that one is positive, we will take the ones around it.” Dr. Reed said. “If you wake up with a drain, you’ll know we found cancer.”
After navigating the haze of pain medications and anesthesia, I saw the tube sticking out from my armpit.
“Fuuuuuck,” I slurred to Reed. “How many?”
“We took eight more.”
Though my road would be longer, I was lucky. The rest of the nodes were clean.
I made it through four and a half months of intense chemotherapy, spending most of the time hiding in my house when I wasn’t helping others feel better about my situation. I joked, hugged, and smiled my way through the pickup line at the kids’ school, soccer practices, and holiday parties. While I kept up the public show, often I went home exhausted and in tears.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” my husband George commiserated.
“I know,” I said, “but they keep adding miles!”
I felt guilty whining. Two years before, his melanoma surged back after a six-year hiatus with such vengeance that doctors assumed he would die within weeks. I slept next to him in the ICU night after night, watching the treatment whither my oak of a man. And then I watched him come back to life.
When I was diagnosed, George reassured me that I was strong, too. And when I looked in the eyes of the man who had been my partner for more than 20 years, I believed him.
Because I had the BRCA2 gene mutation my boobs had to go. Doctors cut across each pectoral muscle and scraped out every ounce of breast tissue, then shoved in thick plastic expanders halfway inflated with saline. Once a week my plastic surgeon dangled a magnet over each breast, waiting to see where it stuck to my skin. When he had his target, he buried the needle to inflate some more.
My chest ached for days after each round, leaving me grumpy and distracted. The surgeon stretched in six weeks what had taken puberty two years; my breasts were back to their 16-year-old size and perkiness.
When the doctors were satisfied with my inflation, it was on to radiation.
“You’ll probably feel some discomfort,” Dr. Miles said.
Discomfort my ass. I felt pain and burning. By the end of two weeks my skin changed from light pink to a shade of crimson usually reserved for roses and nail polish. After six, it was crispy and blistered. I put the “raw” in bra.
Now, as I look in my bathroom mirror even the skin made so angry from radiation is only a shade or two darker than the right. And yet there is not one part of my reflection that looks attractive to me. I wonder if I will ever turn the corner and begin to accept what I see. Mastectomy scars bisect both breasts and there is a missing item of distinction from each: A nipple.
I know I should be thankful for this day, this life, this body. But right now all I see are the reminders of how much I have lost. Tears well and slowly fall down my cheeks.
A smile creeps across my face and I begin to giggle as the irony hits me: Here I am, hating my body, when I have tits just like Barbie. I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand, take a deep breath and start the shower.
Hot water pours over my face, washing away my tears and I begin to feel better. I will dry off, refreshed, and start again.
7 thoughts on “What It’s Really Like After Breast Cancer Treatment”
It was a great write up.
So many people (like me – uterine ->ovaries->cervix->lymph nodes instead of breast though) will read it and just keep nodding their head in agreement.
I look forward to reading more about your life.
Hi! My name is Stacy. And I’m 37 years old. On June 4th I underwent a bilateral mastectomy, as a result of stage 2 ductal canrcinoma. I found the 3.5 cm on May 7th.
I have created a Facebook page called Stacy’s Boobie Brigade. It’s to outline my journey with this disease. I got lucky, as it had not spread to my lymph nodes, and my tests were negative for the BRCA gene. But, others factors will only allow for chemo as my treatment. So July 7th I will start 4 rounds of chemo, every 21 days.
This has all been a world wind for my husband and our family. I’m lucky that I don’t have kids, but it still sucks. No one wants to get cancer. But you know what, it happens. I’d like to give you some advice if I can, cause this has really made me open my eyes:
GOD doesn’t give us more than we can handle. And if you’re weak and can’t go on, he’s there to pick us up.
Keep a positive attitude and your chin up- there are people out there who have it much worse than us, we have a precious gift- our life.
Crying doesn’t do anything but make your nose run and your head hurt!
And lastly, as I so often like to tell people, sometimes we just got to put our big girl panties on and deal with it!
I will pray for you! I believe that is the best gift anyone can give to someone.. We are warriors now, and sisters in Pink! Love you girl! You can so this.
Stacy, you have a GREAT attitude…it will serve you well during ur journey! I will look for ur FB page and I will invite you to join a FB group of sisters who have great support & advice. I look forward to getting to know you better. Take care & ttyl! Pink hugs & kisses! ❤
Betsy, 6 years ago June 10th I was diagnosed with stage 2B Breast Cancer. Before Chemo I weighed 138 lbs. After chemo, radiation and 5 years of Tamoxifen, I ballooned to 168 lbs! This was my weight after giving birth to my 2nd son. I was disgusted with myself too and each time I looked in the mirror and saw my reconstructed breasts and belly fat, I heard my oncologists voice in my head saying- Would you rather be 20 lbs heavier or dead? Which is your choice?
Of course I choose life but it doesn’t make looking in the mirror any easier. 6 months after finishing tamoxifen, I have lost 10 lbs with a lot of hard work- being in early menopause is also a prize they don’t tell you about when you get breast cancer. I hope to lose about 5 lbs more and then I will feel almost back to normal. All I can say is I feel your pain and it sucks but my oldest son graduates High School tomorrow and I will be there- all my hair has grown back and I feel great! 6 years ago I was in a very dark place not sure I would be here for all of their milestones.
Thank you so much for saying things that I have longed to say. I feel so very guilty for not being happy with my new body and new life because, after all I AM alive for which I am thankful every day.
But a part of me (and not just my boobs, thick dark hair, thin body, love life, etc) is forever gone and will never be back. It will be 5 years for me on August 7. I tell myself that I should be over not wanting to look at myself in the mirror or even allow my husband to see me naked. But I’m not, and wonder if I ever will be.
Thank you for allowing me to finally be honest with one person, you. No one else knows these things because of the quilt I feel and no one I know would fully understand.
Thank you my “pink sister”.
Kay, thank you for sharing ur feelings too. I’m just one year out and it’s nice to know how women 5 years out think. The honesty is very helpful. Please keep sharing ur thoughts & feelings with us. We all understand how you feel and it helps to know that none of us are alone in our journey…EVER. Lots of pink hugs & kisses from ur sister in Texas! @<3
I love this open forum for pink sisters to talk about the things that only they understand! My body has always been a work in progress…I’ve never been quite satisfied. I struggle to keep my weight up…since my energy and appetite have been zapped by treatment as well. I wonder if these mounds of silicone on my chest will ever feel comfortable…or if my nerves will ever grow back and let my legs & feet recover. But the one thing I don’t have to wonder about…is who I can talk to about it. I’ve got y’all…and we all have each other! Lots of pink hugs going out to all of my sisters today! I’m working on weening off narcotics…urg. It WILL get better…I just know it!