I finished radiation to my right breast (where my right breast once was anyway) at the end of April and had my first reconstructive surgery (placement of tissue expanders) on June 4. At that time, my skin was discolored and somewhat tight, and I had limited range of motion. My plastic surgeon wanted to get to work as soon as possible after radiation was done because of the damage it would continue to cause long after treatment was done. I was completely unprepared for the pain I experienced following that surgery. It was like nothing I’d ever imagined, and I like to think I have a pretty high pain threshold. For a full week I was unable to lift myself from the bed unassisted. I needed help doing simple tasks such as brushing my hair or lifting a shirt off the closet rod. I had to swallow my foolish pride and ask for a third week off from work because I was still in pain and too weak to return.
Time and rest helped and soon I was back to my normal routine, even flipping upside down at yoga, doing my first handstand since my mastectomy (soooo exhilarating! Today as I write this, I can’t imagine being able to hold up all of my own weight, upside down, again).
On October 1. I had my second reconstructive surgery (replacement of tissue expanders with “permanent” silicone implants). This surgery wasn’t so bad. I was able to sit up and do most things for myself pretty quickly, although I was (am) so fortunate to have a husband who dotes on me and takes care of everything before I even have to ask. I went back to work as planned after my two-week recovery. But I was exhausted. So for the first week I cut back to 8-hour days instead if 10 hours. And then I was still exhausted. The surgeon said to give it a good 6 weeks before the exhaustion got better. I also had this nagging pain at the incision site on my right side. At some point, I just became accustomed to always having some sort of pain, so I just try to deal with it, maybe pop a Percocet, and try not to whine or let it hold me back. But then the nagging pain turned into a stinging, almost stabbing pain, and my incision started to look weird. My surgeon gave me antibiotics and said to return in 2 weeks. I went back sooner, at which time he said it looked like one of the internal sutures was working its way out and causing irritation. He removed the suture and gave me instructions on cleaning and dressing the area and said to come back in a week. Two days later it was clear that I was headed towards infection, so the nurse called in another round of antibiotics for me and told me to come to the office after the weekend (sooner than my scheduled appointment).
So today I saw the surgeon. He examined things, poked a little, shined his flashlight on me, and finally told the medical assistant to move me to the big room. He was going to give me a local anesthetic and remove some stuff and sew me back up. And, he added, this was his last shot at saving the implant. I had no idea things were that serious. So he performed his procedure (turns out, the “stuff” he removed was dead skin and tissue…as in necrotic…as in it died because it didn’t have proper blood supply, one of the effects of radiation), and he sutured me back up. Although I was numb, I could feel a lot of pressure and pulling and tugging, so I figured I’d be feeling it later, and I am. It hurts like a mother.
It had crossed my mind before, fleetingly, how much it would suck if this whole reconstructive process failed as the consent forms indicated it might. When I was reading all the warnings about healing and failure to heal after radiation, I thought, “Nah that won’t be me. I’m a good healer. Those types of complications only happen to other people.” Hmmmm…that’s what I always thought about cancer – that it only happens to other people. Again I am reminded, shit can happen to anyone. And right now, I’m hoping the shit that happens to me next is that this incision heals and I get to keep my implant. A week ago I was considering what type of tattoo art I might get to hide my mastectomy scars. Today I am just hoping I am not headed towards more surgery.