Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Deconstructing the Reconstructing

I've never considered myself to be a vain person.

Yes, I care about the way I look, and I understand the power of appearance in our society. But my parents raised me to value intellect and character. Be confident in your appearance, and then, hit 'em with your smarts.

So if you had told me just a year ago that I would be sitting in a plastic surgeon's office discussing breast implants, I would have said you were crazy. To me, plastic surgery - boob jobs, tummy tucks, facelifts - were for the very rich, very self-obsessed Real Housewives in our society. The portrayal of plastic surgery in popular media borders on the grotesque. I didn't understand people who would go through the risks of an operation for a strictly aesthetic result. It seemed the ultimate in vanity. No, this was not something for me.

Of course, I have never been unhappy with my appearance - until now. Believe me when I tell you that looking at my reflection in the mirror days after undergoing a double mastectomy to treat breast cancer was one of the toughest moments in my life. I now know what it feels like to look at myself and think I'm ugly. I now know the impact that can have on one's life.

I was lucky in that moment to know that the way my body looked was temporary. My plastic surgeon placed tissue expanders in my chest during the surgery, beginning the process of reconstruction.

For the past six months, those expanders have been gradually filled to create a capsule for the silicone implants that will be placed there next week. The process has involved some discomfort, a little pain, and a lot of self-questioning. More than once, I have left the doctor's office wondering why I'm doing this. I'm 55 years old - why do I need to have breasts, especially ones that have no function? Why am I putting myself through the risks of another surgery for a strictly aesthetic result? I can't entirely answer those questions except to say this breast reconstruction is helping me to heal on a deep psychological level.

Despite the questioning, I feel like I have made a good decision, one that is right for me. I spent a lot of time with a doctor I trust going over my options. I understand why some women choose not to have reconstruction. A colleague at work, who had a unilateral mastectomy 10 years ago, chose not to have her breast rebuilt. She met with a surgeon, but decided it wasn't for her. She told me she thinks of her altered body like a Picasso painting. It is a strikingly beautiful image.

I have also since learned more about plastic surgery. Much of what I thought of as plastic surgery is a small subset - cosmetic surgery. The field encompasses much more. This type of surgery restores form and function to a body that is either formed improperly or damaged by disease or trauma. It includes craniofacial surgery, microsurgery, hand surgery, reconstructive surgery, and the treatment of burns. It is much bigger than I thought.

And those people who choose to have cosmetic surgery to feel better about themselves - I get it now. This has been another lesson learned on this complicated journey. Any time I get to learn to be less judgmental of others is a good thing.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Spring Forward

"It's been a long hard year, 
But now the good times are coming
And we should be feeling fine.
But it only reminds us, as our fortunes are turning,
Of the passing of the time."
- Wendy Waldman "Prayer for You"

The clocks have changed, the sun shines higher in the sky, but the temperatures still dip to uncomfortable levels. The first purple flowers of spring have popped in the front garden, but are surrounded by the detritus of winter. The back deck beckons, but a pile of snow still stands with fortitude in the middle of it.

The purple harbingers of spring
Spring in the Northeast United States has been hard coming this year - after a long winter, it's been a laborious spring.

The stubborn snow on the deck
I, too, feel mentally frozen, stuck in the snows of coping with cancer surgery. I feel stuck on October 20, a sunny day with autumn foliage turned up full blast. That was the day I had a double mastectomy to remove the malignant cells that had invaded. The next six weeks, I was in the weeds, mostly housebound, mostly in bed, determined everyday to do a little bit more. The season changed to winter without my even noticing. I've felt cold ever since.

My scarred chest has remained undercover in long sleeve shirts and sweaters. It is hard for someone to notice any difference. But taking off my shirt at the end of the day is still a jarring experience. Tissue expanders have created breasts of sorts, but they are hard and unwieldy. I have visited the plastic surgeon's office every other week for the last four months to fill the expanders. It is a painful process, but designed to create a capsule for the permanent implants to come. For now, my breasts are sort of an odd, lumpy shape, with a certain Barbie-doll quality to them.

I have dreaded putting on the spring clothing I last wore when I had breasts.But last week I pulled out a sleeveless, scoop-neck turquoise dress that had never failed to make me feel good. While the smaller bust size made it a little lower cut than it used to be, I looked - pretty! And my husband certainly enjoyed the low-cut part.
Our front garden in full bloom, May 2014

I had the last fill of the tissue expanders last week. The surgery for the implants is scheduled for later this month, with nipple reconstruction to follow. I'm nearing the end of this part of the journey.

I saw my first robin yesterday. The thaw has begun.

Please enjoy this song from one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Wendy Waldman. It's from her 1976 album, The Main Refrain. I had it on vinyl and enjoy it today as much as I did when I was a teenager..