Tales From A Breast Cancer Bunker
Laura Dorsey Huerta
I had so wanted to dodge that bullet.
My father’s mother and two sisters had died of breast cancer, and I had read every article throughout my lifetime on how to avoid the same fate. I ate an organic diet that was low in fat, became a lifelong jogger, and worked out nearly every day.
But, the bullet hit its mark when I was 49.
I always imagined what I would do if that day came, but you know what? I was wrong. Nothing turned out the way I expected. There were twists and turns…and even positive things that came out of my breast cancer battle. In fact, I believe my life was changed for the better as a result of my experiences.
Cancer is bad, but life can still be good….and even get better.
I sometimes look back on that day in November 2006 when the radiologist called to inform me of the results of my biopsy. Knowing now what I learned throughout my breast cancer battle, I contemplate how I might have done things differently. At a recent one-year reunion of my breast cancer support group, I learned that each of us might have made different decisions.
When I learned about the bullet, I knew immediately that I would have a bilateral mastectomy. One aunt had chosen only to have the diseased breast removed, but the cancer returned and eventually took her life.
My friends and co-workers took the news in varying ways. One young man with whom I shared my private woes seemed at a loss for words, how to staunch the tears that had begun to fall as I told him that I would be leaving work for two months to have a mastectomy.
I had expected a hug, a gentle touch to my shoulder, a squeeze of the hand. Instead, he nervously spoke about how scary operations could be and then proceeded to share the details of a particularly painful hemorrhoidectomy he had experienced.
As he described his experience in growing detail, I could feel myself trying to stifle the huge grin fighting to escape, the laughter that wanted to burst forth at the sheer craziness of the situation. Here, I thought I’d needed a hug when, apparently, all I really needed was the awkward telling of a hemorrhoid story.
The “hemorrhoid story epiphany” pretty much defined the rest of my breast cancer adventure: When I thought I wanted one thing, it turned out that I actually needed something else. And when I was feeling sorry for myself, I discovered that I had an entire “bunker” of new friends through my breast cancer support group who shared their own epiphanies with me.
When I thought I wanted a sentinel lymph node dissection and it didn’t happen because my decision to have one was not noted in my records, I decided afterward that I was fortunate that I hadn’t had one after all. A sentinel lymph node dissection occurs during a mastectomy while the patient’s breast is still intact. It involves the injection of a dye into the tumor, which travels to the nearest lymph nodes. After removal of those stained nodes, a pathologist is then able to determine whether or not the cancer has spread.
Although my tumor was found to be invasive, the pathologist was able to determine that it hadn’t entered my lymph system. Therefore, the sentinel lymph node dissection, which can result in lifelong lymphedema of the arm, had not been necessary in my case. I initially made the wrong decision, but it turned out all right—missed that bullet.
I wish someone had told me what to expect after the mastectomy. No, I’m not talking about stitches and bandages; I’m referring to my hair. Yes, my hair.
I recall my husband trying his best to shampoo, dry, and style my hair following my surgery. Not knowing that I would be unable to lift my arms above my breasts for several weeks following surgery, it had never occurred to me that someone else would be left with the all-too-important task of making me look presentable.
Faced with the prospect of having my husband figure out how to accomplish something so intimate, I imagined the worst. However, I apparently, didn’t imagine well enough—or I would have definitely figured out a way to wash my hair myself.
The shampooing part, aside from soap in my eyes, wasn’t all that terrible, but after rinsing my hair, my husband turned off the water and threw a towel over my head before walking away. When I didn’t make a move to dry my hair, he turned to see me just standing there, speechless and hooded by the towel. An embarrassed apology was quickly followed by a towel-drying adventure.
The worst was yet to come. Somehow, using a round brush and a hairdryer at the same time was completely foreign to this man. Hair flew every which way. It was an ugly situation. Finally, my hair was dry (not “styled,” mind you), and I was forced to display my new ‘do in public. Yes, a bad hair day can ruin even the best post-operative day.
Okay, bad hair days are one thing, but chemo days are definitely worse.
When my oncologist recommended chemo because a test had indicated a 30% chance of recurrence, I agreed. Wrong decision.
Three months of toxic chemo treatments with Adriemycin and Cytoxan left me completely drained, and I began to wonder if I I’d made the right decision. Since I still faced months of chemo treatments with Taxol and Herceptin, I decided to do some research. What I read about the severe side effects terrified me, and I believed strongly that I might become disabled for life. In comparison, they each added only slight improvements in my survivability rate.
I learned that one should always, always weigh the side effects against the statistics involving survivability. What’s the point of surviving if you end up suffering from ill effects for the rest of your life? My oncologist was unhappy with my decision to halt all further chemo treatments, but my new oncologist was not convinced that chemo had ever been necessary in the first place. Therefore, I believe, discontinuing chemo was yet another right decision. However, only time will tell.
Speaking of chemo, did you know that wearing a human-hair wig that falls nearly to your waist makes the cancer go away? Well, actually, it doesn’t. But, it can make you feel as though it could.
Prior to losing my hair to chemo treatments, I purchased the most beautiful wig I had ever seen, and my beautician, whose own sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer only a week before I was, volunteered to cut and style it.
Now, don’t get me wrong—cancer made me sad….but hearing store clerks call me “Miss” again sent my spirits soaring. Instead of feeling sexless and unattractive after a mastectomy, I ran around in braless silk camisoles, open-toed sandals, sassy bangs, and swinging locks of dark blond hair. This fashion statement was definitely one of my right decisions.
Many helpful people will advise cancer patients to purchase hats and scarves prior to having chemo. However, with a comfortable, beautiful wig, all a woman might need is a hat or two to wear at home to keep her bald head warm. I used one such hat when I walked or jogged because there was no way I was going to sweat all over my gorgeous wig!
If you’re ever faced with chemo, save yourself some money and resist the urge to rush out to buy a “hat for every occasion” and a dozen scarves you’ll never use (at least not on your head). Believe me when I say that a beautiful wig will serve you better and make you feel normal, if not downright attractive.
You might think that, with a family history of breast cancer and with the full awareness that I might fall prey to it myself, I would have been prepared to decide on the type of reconstructive surgery I wanted. To be honest, I didn’t even know that reconstruction was an option with my health insurance. So, I was pleased to learn that I could choose between breast implants or a more complicated surgery involving my abdominal muscles and tummy fat.
Initially, the idea of getting a tummy tuck in addition to smaller breasts appealed to me, but one glimpse at the film I was required to watch before meeting with the plastic surgeon convinced me otherwise. I envisioned myself looking like a scarred Bride of Frankenstein and opted for the easier, less complicated surgery involving saline-filled breast implants.
Besides, how does one respond to a plastic surgeon who exclaims, “Oh, look! You have more than enough fatty tissue for this procedure!”? I decided not to go there.
Speaking of plastic surgeons, I learned that it’s important to find the right one. And, although the skills and knowledge of the plastic surgeon are certainly of utmost importance, it’s important to feel comfortable with the professional you choose.
Before making my decision, I consulted with the breast care coordinator who was enlisted by my HMO to ease my way through the intricacies of surgery and reconstruction. She gladly offered me two names of plastic surgeons, ones that she would choose herself if she had to undergo reconstructive surgery. One was a woman and the other a man.
Like many women, I thought I would prefer a woman because, heck, how could a man understand how it feels to lose a breast—much less two of them—and how could he know how I would want to look afterward? However, the female surgeon I chose was booked for several months, and I wanted immediate reconstructive surgery. This means having skin expanders inserted into your chest while you’re still on the operating table immediately following a mastectomy. The skin expanders form pouches into which saline-filled implants are placed at a later date. The only other plastic surgeon who offered immediate reconstruction was the male surgeon recommended by my breast care coordinator.
Even though I thought I had wanted a female plastic surgeon, it turned out that gender didn’t matter. My plastic surgeon was excellent, and perhaps one of the best things about him was that he made me feel as though I would one day appear normal again. Whenever I felt doubtful, he would cheer me up by saying, “Don’t worry—you’re going to look great! You’re healing well, and soon you’ll be very happy with the results.” He was right, and now I know that a surgeon’s bedside manner is as important as his surgical skills.
After I left my HMO, I consulted with another plastic surgeon through my new insurance company to complete my reconstructive surgery, which is done in phases. This time, I did choose a woman. Here is what she said to me: “You have to understand that there is a difference between prosthetic and cosmetic. You have prosthetic breasts, and they will never be beautiful.”
Needless to say, I refused this surgeon’s services. If you leave your initial consultation with a plastic surgeon in tears, you should consider a second—or third—opinion. There is every reason to believe that you will one day experience joy in your appearance again.
Quite frankly, I like my prosthetic breasts. They’re smaller than my original breasts. They allow me to jog without bouncing excessively. I can wear spaghetti straps—something I could only dream of doing before my mastectomy. Of course, they don’t feel like real breasts. They’re pretty numb, for the most part, but I’ve adjusted to my new self and am satisfied with my appearance.
One thing I became aware of following the placement of implants: the pectoral muscles were bisected in order to serve as pockets for the implants. This meant that lifting weights or doing exercises to strengthen my pectoral muscles did nothing; those muscles would never be responsive again. I only mention this because I spent a great deal of time at the gym once I’d recovered, and I was puzzled when my exercise routine netted no increase in cleavage.
I look at it in a positive way—this is one less exercise I have to do.
Another positive? The supportive women I met during my breast cancer battle! They became a part of my “breast cancer bunker” and shared both their tears and their hopes. I joined a breast cancer support group through The Wellness Community only a week after my mastectomy, and I had no idea how much I would benefit from the advice, sharing, and camaraderie of these wonderful ladies. We cried. We laughed. We stayed friends after we’d gone into remission.
My breast cancer support group chum Rosemary has new breasts that are different than mine, because she chose to use part of her healthy nipple to form a replacement nipple on the other side. The dye injected in the nipple area caused a blue starburst to form. In my opinion, she’s stylin’. Go, girl!
Another friend, Ninette, e-mailed me while I was in the middle of my chemo treatments in order to convey her baldness woes. Ninette was about two months ahead of me with the chemo regimen, and she served as my lookout (“Look out—the eyebrows are going to fall out next!”).
At one point, she wrote to say that she’d decided to stop applying mascara….because she only had one eyelash left. Laughter during chemo treatments comes rarely, but Ninette always managed to eke it out of me.
Once recovered from chemo, Ninette and I would often meet for lunch. Because word recall can be difficult following the particular chemo treatments that we’d undergone, we had a tendency to fill in each other’s forgotten words. In the end, we concluded that we might need to walk arm and arm everywhere we went because it took both of us to form a complete thought.
Even the “friend” I made at the hospital following my mastectomy, an elderly woman in the bed next to mine who suffered from dementia, provided ample opportunity for spirit-lifting experiences during a time of near despair. Not understanding that she was in a hospital, she thought she was back in school. She’d whisper conspiratorially, “Hey, Roomie! This is the worst dorm I’ve ever lived in. I sure hope my parents aren’t paying very much for it.”
As I gathered my things to leave the hospital, I told my elderly friend that I was leaving and bade her good-bye. She became very excited and asked, “Oh, my! Are you going to the theater?” Yes, I wish I were going to the theater….and not back home to recuperate from surgery. But, she made me chuckle as I headed home.
Speaking of friends, what can I say about the many friends who helped me through the most difficult year of my life? The friends whose cards filled a shopping bag with five pounds of good wishes. Thank you. You filled my life with hope and peace.
And as for the friends who joined me in the breast cancer bunker, those who took the breast cancer bullet with grace, you will remain in my memory—that part of the memory that chemo couldn’t destroy—as the best part of my experience. Laughter really IS the key to getting better, and our bunker was always filled with lively, spontaneous laughter….and I feel better and more alive as a result.
So, now you know. We are the slashed, the burned, and the poisoned. And we walk among you with smiles, because we can look back and understand that we made the best decisions we could with the information we had at hand…and we are happy for every extra day that we’ve been given.