The emotional ups and downs in the months after my mastectomy were monstrous. I was overwhelmed with questions:
How did a mastectomy really affect my everyday life? How did I deal? How does a family cope? How did I feel?
How did my husband handle it all?
How to recover?
Such questions come up in normal conversation. How breast cancer affects each person as a family member or as a patient depends on the whole family unit, not to sound blase’… Each depends on the doctors and one’s own family for emotional support. There is nothing stronger than faith in your support system, being with God or your unique circle of people. To regain my stamina from a mastectomy, love and family was essential.
Friends care and it’s a scary thought to imagine themselves dealing with it as well. Nightmarish thoughts pop into minds of families; of moms, grandmas and sisters, of her lying on her deathbed. Horrible thoughts. A family’s worst fears rush to the fore, panic threatens the core of a family dealing with breast cancer. It conjures up visions of sniveling children clutching to Dad’s shirttails as her doctor shakes his head in a fateful diagnosis that offers no comfort to her loved ones, their faces pale with trepidation.
Trying to face the worst possible outcome, as the song “What Do You Say?” by Reba McEntire, has made me and millions cry; I’m sure a mother’s loved ones quietly get phone numbers of Hospice sponsors in their wistful efforts to cope with the cruel possibility of her premature death. The richness of her life flashes past their teary eyes of what joys are lost as if the room collapses into the deep crevasse of an earthquake’s destruction, crumbling under their feet, swallowing all humanity. Her bed sliding from their grasp down into the abyss …
It’s their nightmare too. They feel such loss, such peril at her expense that cannot be fixed. No control of the future. No hope. No cure. Fear takes over. Regardless of the actual diagnosis, the rest of the family imagines death. Because cancer means death. Scientific advances seems like a cruel ruse to a family. Whatever shows on the screen means nothing to a distraught husband or her brother, daughter or grandkids or caring friends. They must somehow then, believe in the team of doctors for the best ultimate outcome — to actually achieve it. They must release her into the hands of numerous people trained in these things; trusting the technicians and learning procedures, barely comprehending medical protocol that will ensure a productive life after breast cancer. As far as everyone close to her is concerned, it’s all a big fucked up mess. They must all have faith, beit in themselves or God to get through it. Many women are the primary caregiver, nevertheless her prognosis relies on that her needs come first. That’s a whole different ballgame from what their lifestyle used to be.
Breast cancer was like an atom bomb exploding in my face. I wasn’t prepared for the sickening shock in the pit of my stomach the first look in the mirror after I took off the bandages. I nearly bawled, I wanted to but instead I tentatively touched my skin, stroked the stitches-line. Numb. My breast cancer and having a real mastectomy shocked my family and friends too. Even remote acquaintances and online friends were dumbfounded, because I’ve always been known to be strong and independent for a short-shrimp woman.
My daughter was devastated from my diagnosis. I’d never seen her with such fear in her eyes. That moment we hugged each other for dear life as tears ran down our faces trying to hold onto a scrap of courage and hope that I would live through it. But her life was in a state of deep turmoil, therefore she would not be with me during my surgeries as she had promised. We had hoped. Her absence while I was in the hospital felt worse to me than my surgery. I continued on without….
We have had years of a see-saw relationship but we always salvaged the core of mom and daughter. Truthfully some issues simply don’t go away but just seem to get rearranged, or worse, inadvertently misconstrued over and over. No reputable doctor would alter the timetable of my mastectomy that was scheduled to accommodate timing for an estranged daughter to eventually show up. It went as scheduled.
With a breast cancer diagnosis, all the repercussions of my daughter’s angst gave me no solace, but more gut wrenching dread. It takes so much more effort to mend a broken heart than a body to heal. And any mother reading this knows the anguish to witness the consequences of your adult child’s bad choices while you do not have the resources to help them.
I tried to understand, to see past her trials but I was in such emotional upheaval, in retrospect, I was too seriously depressed to think beyond my sutures, as if stitched into my heart. I had lost hope. “Mum” could not deal with any of my daughter’s problems with my usual mom fortitude. I felt abandoned. Not conducive to my recovery; but burying my anger was reflexive. Never had I felt so engulfed by pain that I could not control — my health dangled by a sliver of a thread. Recovering was my only mindset as I dove into my treatments scheduled for reconstruction.
The gist of this is how intertwined our bodies and hearts meld together in the mix of all the crap that’s pitched at us. It’s most difficult to heal the body with an aching heart or being hateful. No honest-to-goodness mother wants her daughter to suffer, especially with breast cancer ……. so God help our daughters. I begged God, dammit let me live to be with my grandchildren!
how does a mastectomy affect a woman?
The effects of a mastectomy is physically, emotionally and mentally draining. Up and around, I was obviously not ill, I got out ‘n about once I ditched the bedcovers sufficiently to join civilization. It didn’t matter that I was a bit slowed down, no one expected Speedy Gonzales, however impatient anyone knew me to be from time to time. After my mastectomy, my people were just glad to see me and I was glad to socialize again too. And when asked, sometimes my answers to those questions surprised me; my logic may have appeared intact, indicative of a woman unscathed as I said, “Yeah, I’m good”, as my throat tightened. Occasionally even yet. It simply cannot be simplified.
I may seem unscathed at first glance because I can at times be objective rather than subjective (mind you ‘bio’ was my major in college), to a point. But don’t ever make the quick presumption that a mastectomy was an unequivocal success. In the doctor’s report yes, by the numbers, in theory. But in my mind, that couldn’t have been farther from the truth, my mind was a fucked up mess. It’s a real burden on our spirit; my femininity got ripped to shreds. And at the moment I’m writing this I’m fighting tears again after two years … the trauma does not go away.
It don’t make a damn bit of difference if ya know it’s a good thing or not, a unilateral or bilateral, Stage 1, 2, 3 or 4. You can be stone-cold logical for only so long then all hell breaks lose and there goes the waterworks again! I could not deny to anyone, especially here how really t-r-u-l-y fucked up it is to lose your breast. And to lose both — woah — I cannot fathom that agony. Deep-rooted fear is the basis for a double mastectomy if it’s sole purpose is prevention. Many breast oncology reports conflict a bilateral is always necessary, citing inconclusive survival rates* over 20 years, despite popular demand.
I too had all those awful visions of lying on my deathbed, even with merely a ‘simple’ mastectomy, even supposedly being cured. But there’s nothing merely about a mastectomy. It took many hours of quiet recovery and discussions with my doctors and some jovial humor as well with Mary Kate and prayer and tears to quell my fears and begin to feel hope to see the benefits after a mastectomy. Of course breast reconstruction was all part of that. For all intents and purposes, my life depended on trusting my doctors. And their competence successfully, eventually commenced to dispel my fears.
Our commonality as women has projected concern and fear, but mostly endearing genuine compassion and reaffirmation of the female spirit. I’ve had a lot to get off my chest. Hmm, no pun intended. As a whole, my mastectomy and subsequent reconstructive surgeries restricted every aspect of my capabilities. Yes, it affected everything. My breast cancer recuperation consumed my life, rather than caring for my husband or my dog, grandchildren or my home or all other prior hobbies. Recovery took precedence. I love drama but my mastectomy invaded my routine and it perturbed me. My recovery was like a new puppy demanding all of my attention. However, I could not put it in the kennel — more responsibility towards intense personal focus than I wanted to handle — I had no desire to mop up puppy pee. I had had no mental preparation from the get go for the huge change.
*”Double Mastectomies Don’t Yield Expected Results, Study …” 2015. 2 Apr. 2016
Any recovery takes some getting used to. Mastectomy recovery was morose by comparison to a collapsed lung, hysterectomy and a C-section in my early years. Family and friends’ attention and taking care of oneself to ensure your baby’s good health, most women cherish this time of belonging and preparation. Hormonal changes enables that maternal instinct. Then the baby comes and attention switches to your newborn, the ooo’s and aah’s and your little sweetness needs your devoted care 24/7 and then some. That shift is innate. Parenthood and its demands is accepted as all-inclusive, as parents have preparation time, mental and emotional time to at least have a handle on how-to-deal.
Postpartum depression typically is of little concern, especially new moms who breastfeed. The ‘let-down reflex’ is a natural Xanax. No shame or embarrassment whatsoever is in her mind to give her newborn Mamma Nature’s best nutrition. Add to the fact that mother’s milk is natural and pure, breastfeeding is known to prevent breast cancer for the nursing mom, enhancing the new experience as a true gift for a woman’s protection. That’s usually beside the point for a nursing mom because there is absolutely nothing in the world quite as soothing as relaxing with a suckling baby. I do not regret one moment breastfeeding my children. It was the natural thing to do and filled me to the brim with a warm fuzzy adoration of the wiggling bundle of teeny tootsies, and fingers resting on my breast in my arms. Whether or not it inhibited my breast cancer or altered its severity is immaterial now.
All of the natural maternal shift of hormones happens like a clock’s mechanics; the internal machinery is so in tune to its biological purpose, so too the deep emotional aspect kicks in, developing her maternal nurturing instincts. Procreation and all its hormonal components rank right up top in the hierarchy of needs.
After a mastectomy, all of those hormonal shifts of maternal nurturing become lopsided. Of course it’s easy to say just for logic’s sake, you know you aren’t having any more children, you can’t get pregnant after menopause, blah, blah… Because of biological instincts, the physiological self is so strong a mastectomy feels like the worst impediment of your productive nature. I felt robbed. I could not squash that awful feeling. It wasn’t a logical rationale and because I’ve been a mother for most of my life, so deeply ingrained in me, my heart says I’m Mom before ‘me’.
That loss of my maternal sense threw me into the worst depression I’d ever known — so strong it felt physical! I could not reconcile the good over the bad. I prayed it would go away. Moms know the deep love in her heart and soul for her children does not diminish and moms understand how hormones affect womanhood. I hoped I would get over this hump of hormone havoc, feeling as though an emotional 18-wheeler hit me. I knew I’d kick the depression after awhile, but even a short-lived depression is misery. My emotions were thrown into 10th gear overdrive — indescribable kind of torture.
Good for me my surgeon treated mine with the same medication that dealt with my breast muscle spasms as well. How ironic that the medication I took for my chest’s muscle cramps had the same effects as the ‘let-down’ a lactating mother’s body produces. I was relieved my medication eased my maternal stress as well. Eventually, with the aid of low dose Valium, my emotional upheaval settled more into dealing with the physical strain of my mastectomy. My brain said enough was enough. Physiological issues were too much to cope with.
Personal hygiene is a normal activity, a given, but mine turned into a major endeavor that felt more pain-in-the-ass than respectable care. Moments at first, I simply felt pangs of guilt that my natural inclination as family caregiver had turned solitaire, having no energy left to contemplate anyone else’s needs (a throwback of 1990). I was self-conscious, worried I’d turn into such a needy person. There is no delicate way to say it. I got very tired and loathsome of the whole ordeal that once the ball was rolling, once in awhile, to be kosher or not, it sure-as-hell-damned-well, really pissed me off.
Contrary to popular belief, all the treatments, surgeries and healing has taken not weeks, but months and will continue through the winter of 2015, and longer, Dr. Jew and Dr. Korentager both would agree. That realization forced me into an attitude adjustment. I have to be honest here, a woman in pain can be a real bitch — that wasn’t completely my usual, ‘biatchy’ normal self so I had to figure out ways to deal with the nuances of my everyday problems that arose from the damn mastectomy. Not the kind of problem solving I liked. There was a crapload of unknowns …