reconstruction

Breast cancer lesson 175: You don’t need a nipple to feel whole again after cancer surgery

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A few days ago, I called the hospital and took myself off the waiting list for nipple reconstruction surgery.

It wasn’t a rash decision (many a cup of tea has been needed in the build up), but as far as decisions go, it is among the best I have ever made.

I must confess that while I would have loved to have said to colleagues and clients: ‘Sorry, I won’t be able to make the meeting as I am having my nipple put on that day’, and, while part of me liked the idea of being put back together again, a huge part of me was shouting: ‘Why?’

After surgery and finishing active treatment, it felt like the natural next step (why wouldn’t I go for a cherry on top’?!). Sitting in front of the surgeon talking about cutting and snipping and stitching back in October, it seemed like a quick and painless procedure and an easy way to forget the past.

But, ask me what I am thinking about six months on and I can tell you, it’s not a pink, fleshy (albeit realistic) blob on the end of my fat-filled right boob. It’s the fact that I am happier, healthier and fitter than ever and a nipple really won’t add anything – except a ‘permanent outy’ that no amount of warm weather would conceal.

Now, I realise that I was more curious than in need of an extra asset. And, curiosity just isn’t a big enough reason to brave a hospital gown, needles, a knife, an operating table, a series of nipple tattoos and the memory of a year in the warm, but treatment-focused arms of the amazing NHS.

I guess you might call me lucky. Strange as it sounds, I don’t want to hide from my scars. Each one carries with it a story that makes me who I am. Each one reminds me not to worry when I get caught up in the complications that come with everyday life. Each one keeps me grounded. Each one is a reminder of all I had to lose and all I have gained as a result of this challenging – and yet weirdly fulfilling – period of my life. My scars are just as much a part of me as my right foot that turns in and my dodgy hip. I am not looking to replace them, but embrace them. I have no ambition to be a topless model so why would I cover up what is always covered up.

I read my story in the lines that cancer has given me and I smile. I smile because they remind me not of pain and surgery, but of just how far I have come – and of just how far I want to go. It is with these scars that I will be lining up on the starting line of the Bath Half in two weeks (and the Pink Ribbonwalk in July and the Royal Parks Half in October). It is with these scars that I will be flying to the Caribbean (yes, leaving Europe for the first time) with my new size 6 tankini (sun-exposure conscious as ever). And, it is with these scars that I hope to make a difference on this wonderful planet of ours. As I said, all the way back in lesson 21: ‘scars remind you where you’ve been and how hard you worked to get there. They don’t have to dictate where you’re going, but they can give you the strength and determination to make sure the path you do choose is a beautiful, interesting and inspiring one.’

Last year, I came face-to-face with my own mortality at the age of 32. I had the chance, at a young age, to reflect on what my gravestone could say and I decided the message needed to change – and fast. I can guarantee it won’t ever say: ‘Here lies Jackie, cracking right nipple.’ What I hope it will say (and not for a very long time) is: ‘Here lies a woman who smiled, laughed, lived and loved – and dedicated her life to helping others do the same (admittedly may need editing as I am not in the market for a tomb)! Sounds morbid, but I have plenty of years to get it right.

Breast cancer lesson number 117: Turn your scars into stars

Having spent most of my 32 years trying to creatively hide my tummy from the world (I’ve worn bikinis on rare occasions and was once asked to ‘put it away’), I am finding it quite amusing that, now it has a nice long scar right across it, people are suddenly rather fascinated with my not-so-fleshy midriff. Only recently was I at an event where two ladies (interested in their surgery options) asked me to lift up my top. And, as soon as you mention relocating your belly button over drinks, you can tell people are trying to work out just what is going on around your knicker line.

So, for one post only, I have decided to put you all out of your misery and flash my still-flat-but-not-for-much-longer-thanks-to-chemo stomach. For those of you who have stumbled across this blog or would really rather not become acquainted with my tummy (I wouldn’t blame you, it’s still a bit angry), I am tactically posting a pictures of the baked goods that are currently in my stomach first, so that they show up on your feed. To distract myself from the dizzy spells and peripheral neuropathy, I have spent the morning baking (and, of course, licking the bowl, which for anyone not connected to me on Facebook, is today’s #100happydays moment). (Visit lesson 112 here to find out more about my #100happydays project.)

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And, here it is ­– one big smiley face, which will fade over time (and after I have massaged a truck load of cream into it). You can also see the two drain marks just above my trousers, the angry little belly button and the mole (to the side of the belly button) that had been hiding under my boob until the surgery moved everything down. It’s flat, it’s happy (although admittedly it is a smiley face without eyes) and it’s all me. I am proud of my tummy and I am proud of this scar. It reminds me every day when I look in the mirror that I was stronger than the cancer that tried to take my life away.

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It seems I am not the only one happy with my new look. At my plastic surgery check-up on Monday, my breast reconstruction nurse and the doctor on duty were pleased with what I like to think of as my recent body enhancements! The doctor did confirm she thought the right one was larger than the left (I think they are quite fixated on making me even) and we did have a laugh about tops that exacerbate the situation. But, with radiotherapy planned, the nipple and tuck chat is now on hold until the autumn. By this time next year, I should be fully reconstructed!

Don’t worry, I won’t be making a habit of flashing the flesh. My tummy can’t be exposed to the sun for a good year at least, so it is now going back into hibernation. And, as for my new boob? No chance! And, for any ladies out there considering DIEP surgery, I would highly recommend it. While, at times, the recovery can be tough, the results are more than worth it.

Thank you surgeons for finding a practical use for my tummy fat, thank you cake and chocolate supplying friends for making the surgery possible and thank you tummy for healing so nicely. I will try not to feed you with too much cake in future, so you retain your shape just that little bit longer.

 

Breast cancer lesson number 52: The memories do fade. Let them go

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Walking through Greenwich Park on Sunday with Duncan, I started laughing when I remembered that only four weeks ago, I wouldn’t have been able to get to the park – let alone walk round it. It’s hard to imagine now that walking to the lamppost up the road was once comparable with climbing a mountain. It’s also hard to imagine that the train station once felt like it was on another continent, not at the back of the garden. What a difference a few weeks can make.

The great thing about the human body is that it not only has an amazing ability to regenerate and recover, but it also knows how to forget. While I can remember that there was post-surgery pain, I couldn’t describe it to you now. While I thought the fertility injections were at times relentless, when I threw away the last of the instruction leaflets yesterday, I didn’t even flinch. While at the time important, every procedure, every painkiller and every appointment is now packed away in the bit of my mind marked ‘experiences’. I can draw on it, but it neither haunts nor upsets me.

That, in my view, is how I am coping with this entire period and managing to smile through it all. I am neither particularly brave nor strong. My body just forgives me for every needle and enables me to forget. Every day brings with it a whole raft of new experiences, and my mind is so busy filing, it won’t let me dwell on each one. It just lets me get on with moving forward and confronting the next challenge. Thanks body. You may occasionally throw me a serious curveball, but you are pretty amazing when it comes to helping me overcome each one.

In Lesson number 19, I talked about cherishing those small victories and getting to that first lamp post (which will always have a special place in my heart). Six weeks on from surgery, today is another day for celebrating a small victory. Today is the day I get to remove my abdo binder, lovingly known as ‘the body corset’. For six weeks, it has been an extension of me. For six weeks, it held me together (literally), made me feel like my body wouldn’t rip open, stopped me eating in large quantities and forced me to get to know the location of pretty much every public toilet in the local area. Now, having been upgraded to ‘Bridget Jones’ knickers or ‘magic pants’, I couldn’t be happier.

While I wouldn’t wish for anyone to have to be held together by three strips of Velcro, I have to say, body corset and I did become friends. It made coughing doable, laughing bearable, sleeping manageable and moving around, a lot more enjoyable. It is also the reason (along with tummy tuck surgery) that I now have the flattest stomach ever! I am sure it won’t last long, but, while it’s there, I am going to celebrate it. Thank you body corset. We’ve had some good times. You do look a bit tatty now and I am sure I will forget what it felt like to live with you attached to me. But, you did well, and you’ll remain a fond memory, tucked away in the ‘experiences’ vault forevermore.

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It may have done its time, but the body corset’s days are not yet numbered. First, it will be making an appearance at my first few pilates classes over the coming weeks, to ease me back into the exercises. A nurse also recommended I hang on to it so that should we ever be able to have children, it would encourage my tummy to go back to normal post ‘push’!

Writer Aldous Huxley once said: ‘experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.’ I think he was right. Whether you are undergoing treatment right now, are years on from treatment or facing challenges in another area of your life, I want to leave you with a thought. Whatever pain or sadness you are feeling right now, just know that it will fade and you have the power to forget. Don’t cling on, just let your body do what it does best. It will get you through it – and out the other side.

Let your experiences make you stronger, but don’t ever let them hold you back.

NB: As a quick aside, if you’re wondering how the post-chemo days are going, I’m doing pretty well. A few steroids highs are helping me stay positive and I’M STILL SMILING! A nurse called me yesterday to check on me and did warn me I may crash after the course of steroids ends, but while I am up, I am going to embrace it.

Breast cancer lesson number twelve: The day before surgery does arrive… eventually!

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Five weeks, eleven appointments, five scans, thirteen needles, two biopsies, one arm measurement, one flu jab, seven hormone pills, one ‘dry’ January, two emotional freedom therapy sessions, one NLP masterclass, 11 blog posts, one trip to see Darius (sing in a musical not in a concert) and a lot of chocolate later, and it’s here at last! I am not sure I believe it.

So, what does the day before surgery really feel like? It feels real. As anyone who has seen me over the last two months will know, I look well, I sound well, I eat well – a bit too well. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt quite this well. That’s why trying to convince myself there’s a serious illness lurking inside me, is no easy task. Usually someone anaesthetises you to get rid of the pain – not knocks you out to bring it on!

In my mind, I am going into hospital well to come out unwell. In truth, I am going in with a life-threatening disease and coming out with my life. I should be celebrating. After all, I get a tummy tuck thrown in, a brand new body part and permission to wear big knickers and sleep for a whole day (inducing sleep will be much-needed after all those sleepless nights). I’ve had worse Fridays!  

My inbox is empty for the first time in years, my blackberry is no longer flashing constantly and my to-do list is on hold. If it weren’t for this little thing called surgery, life would be pretty special. 

Ask me what I am worried about and you won’t hear the words pain, needles, tubes, drains or PCA machines (quite looking forward to being reunited with that temporarily). The fact I can visualise everything from the drip to the catheter makes it all feel a little less menacing. What haunts my nights and occupies my days, however, is the fact that when I wake up tomorrow, I will never be the same again. I can’t prepare for how I am going to feel and, for someone who prides herself in being prepared (I would even love to make a spreadsheet for my weekly food shop if I had the time), that’s a bitter pill to swallow. I am sure bionic booby and I will get on – I am rather fond of my seven-inch scar and 44 holes from my hip surgery. But, ask me what I fear and I’ll tell you: it’s the moment I wake up tomorrow and look down.

Up until now, the cancer diagnosis (strange as it may sound) has been life-enhancing. I have taken what positives I can from the situation and it has put my life (and my constant need to always be on the go) into sharp focus. I have seen more friends and family. I have laughed more than I ever thought possible. I have taken time for myself. I have read a book on a Saturday (although really need to finish Bridget now as the book is so big to carry around). I have cut my hair short. I have experienced criminal behaviour. I have restarted old conversations. I have cried tears of joy. I have seen the beauty behind life’s clouds. I have opened the door to bad weather and danced in the rain. It may be the day before surgery but I am smiling at the fact I am here on a Thursday in February eating chocolates with my parents (can’t remember the last time I saw them in February). I can honestly say that there is very little (if any) genuine sadness behind my smiles. For that, I feel like the luckiest unlucky person in the world. I have been selected for a life and body overhaul – and I am determined to embrace it with open arms.

All I hope is that when I look down at those scars (which will fade with time, massage and a bit of love), I am reminded not of the surgery nor the cancer that was once eating away at me, but of the fact every day can be bright, brilliant and beautiful and make you happy to feel alive. It takes work. It takes strength to escape the daily routine of life when there is no life-threatening reason to do so. But, if ever there was a time to channel that inner workaholic for myself, it is now – and for the rest of my life. Up until now, I have been convinced this disease will change me for the better. Only tomorrow, will I start to find out.

On a more important note, I hope the NHS mash potato is as delicious as it was (under the influence of morphine) six years ago. If it is, I really have nothing to worry about.

I am ready to start out on the road to recovery. First stop, kick this cancer right out of my body. Let battle commence!