My sister doesn’t do new year’s resolutions: she does a word to focus on. 2016 was acceptance. I had to accept help, limitations, cancer, chemo. This year, NO MORE ACCEPTANCE!! Alright, some acceptance still, but my new word is expansion or expanding. This started with the tissue expander.
A HUGE part of reconstruction (if you do implants) is the tissue expander. With a full mastectomy, the surgeon takes out ALL the breast tissue, so you can’t put an implant on top of your muscle. You can’t put an implant in just a pouch of skin. I mean, you COULD, but it wouldn’t be pretty at all. Your pec has two muscles, so in order to put in an implant, they put a deflated balloon between these two muscles, then gradually inflate the balloon in order to make room for an implant. Google “breast tissue expansion” and you’ll see some pretty drawings of how simple this all looks.
That sounds so clean, so clinical, so easy, and that’s true. But it is also true that, during a mastectomy, they TEAR UP one of your pec muscles so that they can put a hockey puck under the muscle. Google an ACTUAL picture of a breast tissue expander. It looks and feels like a hockey puck. And the gradual “inflation” is STABBING A NEEDLE THROUGH YOUR SKIN AND MUSCLE IN ORDER TO INJECT SALINE. I did that five times. 5. FIVE! It’s a bit…. disconcerting. If I think about it too much, it’s fucking horrifying. I watched a few times. I’ve had a lot of needles through all this: fertility, chemo, drawing blood. I’ve even had the radioactive injection that they do UNDER YOUR NIPPLE right before the mastectomy. But the tissue expansion… it’s something else. It’s…. stretching is how my doctors have described it, like tightening your braces. And that’s true. But it’s also stretching something that doesn’t wanna be stretched.
Plastic Surgeon: You have really strong pec muscles…
Plastic Surgeon: …so this is going to be EXTRA painful for you.
And every time I got an expansion, everything else tightens up. A mastectomy necessitates limited range of motion as you recover, then your MUSCLES get tight and your lymphatic capillaries (veins for your lymph system) turn into tight cords. So each time you get an injection, you take two steps back for range of motion. And pain. It wasn’t too bad until the last week, when I pushed to get 300 ccs in one week (120 on Monday, 60 on Thursday, 120 the next Monday), followed immediately by the radiation mapping. The position you have to be in for the radiation mapping immediately after these injections…. Ouch.
But expansion is my best option. Right now, it’s my best option. And that injection schedule meant that I could fly home and that radiation starts on time. The tissue expander means that I get the most options for looking normal. For looking FUCKING AWESOME (cuz I’m vain, after all).
Expansion is also my breath. Right after the surgery, my brother made me take deep breaths every day. I told him “I JUST HAD SURGERY!!!” And he said it didn’t matter. I won’t get better if I sit and baby everything. I have to sit up straight and breathe deeply. I have to fully expand my lungs and do everything I can to make me better. My physical therapist has since vindicated my brother’s point of view.
I’ve done some breath meditations. That’s the easiest way for me to do meditation for me. I can focus on my breath, count, the inhale/exhale… it’s constant. I have to breathe during radiation too. In order to get my heart out of the way of the radiation beams, I expand my lungs the perfect amount, and my heart moves towards my spine so that they can radiate my chest wall and all the cancer bits without putting me at risk for a heart attack. YAY LUNG EXPANSION.
I am expanding my definition of “ok” of “normal.” I really am ok with my body. It helps that the tissue expander is temporary. In 4 months, I’ll get an implant that will be more like an implant and less like a … hard storage case for earphones. I’m also taking a philosophy course about evil and sin which helps: expanding my mind and all.
I’m expanding my circle of friends, of people I can count on. I’m a mentee and a mentor. I’m finding out that I have so many great people who want to be there for me, come to appointments, come to dinner, have some wine. Rub my baby chick hair.
I do this thing when I I am too hot or too cold or uncomfortable. I command my body to accept what is happening, to expand the definition of ok. I accept the heat or cold or whatever, and relax into it. I let whatever it is flow through me, be what I am right now. Right now, it is cold and I didn’t dress warmly enough. But it’s temporary, and I’ll get through. Keep on keeping on.
I’m also eating a lot of good food cuz I gotta get all the joy I can out of everything, so bring on the take out and ice cream! Expanding waistline! I’m becoming a bigger person 🙂