I was young and I didn’t want to wear turtlenecks for the rest of my life.
I’ll admit that vanity played a small part in my decision to join Dr. Buchel’s Breast Reconstruction Program, even though I soon told myself to “get real, Lil” and focus on healing instead. I was mostly concerned with not taking chances – I’d heard of so many women who’d originally gone for lumpectomies, discovered the cancer had spread, and found themselves back in the hospital undergoing double mastectomies and endless rounds of chemo and radiation therapy. These women were literally fighting for their lives where two months before they’d been blissfully unaware. I felt I had to head cancer off at the pass and get it over with. I also had to consider my previous experience with rheumatoid arthritis – even though it had been ten years since the experience, I knew that cancer treatments would cause it to flare up again. The mastectomy with reconstruction option seemed like the best way to beat the cancer and still retain my sense of self.
Undergoing the surgery is like having a baby – you endure it, you’re fixed and you’ve survived. I spent six weeks in a stooped position, trying to heal enough to return to my normal life. In the end, though, physical recovery isn’t a big deal – you move on. Don’t be afraid of the hospital part – the care I received there was equal to that of a private facility. I could not have been looked after any better. Everyone from the team of doctors to the housekeepers was spectacular. I was treated like a queen.
What I wasn’t prepared for, however, were the psychological implications of the whole thing. Six months after the surgery, it was like I’d had a horrifying epiphany. I remember it so well – I could do a drawing of it, really. I was at an outdoor concert when out of nowhere, I realized what I’d done to myself. I was devastated by what I felt wasn’t really my body anymore – I was angry at all the women in their low-cut tops and bare midriffs, excruciatingly aware of society’s so-called “Barbie syndrome” and all the needless butchering of their bodies to attain perfection. For a long time after the concert I remained very irritable towards anything resembling needless vanity. I don’t think I felt ugly in comparison – I mean, hadn’t part of my decision been based on vanity? I just felt….imperfect.
I think it’s so important for women to talk about these things with each other, and come to terms with how they feel. I would absolutely recommend the procedure to other women facing cancer – no woman should ever, EVER have to live without a breast. Having said that, next time I would search the earth for a second opinion as to the severity of my case – mine was very low. Could this have been resolved with a lot less invasion? I don’t really know. I was told afterwards maybe I had overreacted to my situation in rushing to get the surgery, but where were these opinions when I needed them pre-surgery? We need a lot more help in terms of the decision-making process for women. Going it alone is not easy; I would absolutely want more help along the way.
Nowadays, I tell people how lucky we are that people like Dr. Buchel choose Winnipeg to be their home. I broadcast it to everybody. They could be anywhere else in the world, and they’ve chosen to be here. I think we have a really big secret here – a hidden jewel. The Breast Reconstruction Program is a miracle when it comes to women’s self esteem post-mastectomy. I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter how other people treat you, what matters is how you, as an individual, feel inside. Perhaps I’m more aware of these things now, than if I had never undergone the surgery. Whatever it is, I’m absolutely aware of how lucky we are to be here in the company of these amazing doctors. I just hope women begin to reach out for the support they deserve.