I did not anticipate the pain. It's impossible to anticipate pain, of course, because if we could, we would be too afraid to do anything. Still in all my doctor's appointments, in everything I ever read about mastectomies, pain was only ever spoken of in the broadest of terms. Considering the motivations of my doctors and the people who write post-mastectomy articles -- to provide comfort and the necessary information to those facing their own surgeries -- it makes sense that pain would only merit a passing comment until moving onto what life is like after the surgery is long behind you. The exact shape of pain, the way it can make whole hours slip away, is need-to know information, earned only by the initiated.
Besides, you cannot really write about the specificity of physical pain. I cannot. Already, the worst of my pain, experienced a few hours after my surgery when I failed to properly administer my morphine, feels like it happened to someone else. I remember, vaguely, the terror. The feeling that this pain would not kill me, but that it was still somehow more than my body was built to endure. I also remember the familiar feeling of unfairness, that this pain should not be mine to experience and the frustration at my helplessness to do anything but get through it. It's all very dramatic. I am so thankful for faulty memory and the way it creates a film over all my past experiences, so that I can see them, can intellectually understand that they happened to me, but, mercifully, all I'm left with is a ghost of the feeling rather than the feeling itself.
I did not know to anticipate half the things I've experienced since my bilateral mastectomy because I did virtually no research. In the beginning, I researched my diagnosis, searched for alternative treatments, and sought out a second diagnosis -- but they all lead me back to mastectomy. The lump was just so big. It got to the point where it felt like my right breast was more lump than healthy breast tissue. I wanted it gone and if that meant losing what was left of my healthy breast tissue, so be it. Once I'd come to terms with having a mastectomy, I wanted to spend none of my time thinking about it. It wasn't fear exactly. It was so difficult to imagine what life would be like post-mastectomy that I couldn't even fear it. I just wanted to continue to live my life; I wanted my diagnosis to be the least important thing about me. So I endeavored to compartmentalize my operation. My recovery would take up the whole of September, yes, but my diagnosis wasn't going to steal any more time from me.
So much so that I forewent my last doctor's appointment before the surgery to go to the beach instead. I called my nurse to say that I was continuing with the single mastectomy of my right breast, and then I cycled to the nudist beach.
It was on the beach that I begun to really consider life with an altered body. I thought about how it would feel to take my top off and have one fake breast and one natural. Would I do it? Would I even put on a bikini...or would I be so self conscious of their difference, the single implant an unavoidable reminder of what I'd lost? It suddenly became too much to imagine going through life with one unnaturally perky breast while time and gravity wreaked havoc on the other. I had never been afraid of aging before, but I didn't want to put my future self through the embarrassment. I wanted to give future me at least the baseline level of happiness as present me, and that meant trying to limit the damage I inflicted on myself now. Somehow, losing two boobs and having two fake ones seemed like less of a loss than losing just the one and spending the rest of my life with a mismatched pair.
So I opted for the double mastectomy in service to my future self. Trying to imagine what's best for my future self is like trying to remember the exact sensation of my past self's pain: impossible. And yet it's what I have to do, what we all have to do, whenever we make any decision. We have to fold all the selves we've been and all the selves we might become into one whole self and try to make the choice that honors us best. I thought about my appearance, but I also thought about how removing both my breasts dropped my chance of developing breast cancer in the future to single digits. It wasn't zero, but it was close enough.
Less than a year ago, my gran died from breast cancer that spread to her bones. I wasn't there every step of the way, but I did video chat with her shortly before her death to say goodbye. It was one of the hardest conversations of my life. Not only because I am unequipped for final goodbyes -- there are no words, no real understanding of what that even means -- but also because she looked so ill. So, so very ill compared to how she had been when I saw her a few months before and we played scrabble. She was ill then but this was something entirely different. I cannot protect myself from death, but to try and prevent that particular death and protect my family from having to suffer through a similar loss is within my realm of very limited power because I have -- had! -- a lump. The loss of two breasts stopped seeming like a loss at all.
It is a loss though, as my body reminds me. It doesn't matter that I have replaced my natural breasts with implants, my body still has to do a lot of work to repair itself. The pain of repair means that I cannot ignore the consequences of my choice. There is no pretending that this is one September in my twenties that won't carry any more weight than all the Septembers that came before it. The pain has made me doubt my choice.
Every time I google a new symptom and I read that these are symptoms that might linger for years -- like the way my boobs currently feel like they're on fire -- I think how unprepared I was for the operation. I berate myself for not paying more attention to what happens after mastectomy. I question whether I was too uninformed to make the right choice. I imagine fifty-five year old me going in for her fourth breast surgery because implants have to be replaced every 10 years, and I think, "What have I done?"
But every day, the pain recedes and with it any feelings of regret. It's only been a week, so I have no perspective really. All I know is that the way the body heals itself is nothing short of miraculous and it gives me hope.
The drive home was so painful that I could barely breath by the time I walked through my front door, but I was so desperate to feel clean that I had to ask my boyfriend, Samuel, to help me bath. Every single aspect of that bath, from having him wash and brush my matted hair to being terrified to look down and catch sight of my new body, was excruciating. I felt like a helpless, vulnerable, ill-prepared monster. I couldn't bear the thought of seeing my new breasts and hating them, not after everything I'd been through. It would be the last injustice that would break me in a way that everything that came before had not.
It's now four days later, and I just took my first stand up shower, unassisted and without a sports bra. I washed my own hair. More importantly, I looked at my new breasts. I even had the courage to clean the fog off the bathroom mirror and look at my reflection...and they just looked like breasts. Almost exactly like my old ones, except bruised and swollen. I can tell you this already: I would still go to a nudist beach. I have the baseline level of happiness that comes with not hating your body, plus the added bonus of breasts that are (hopefully) cancer free. It's already more than I had last week, so I feel a tentative confidence that I made the best choice I could for my future self.
All of that in the space of four days! Imagine the healing four months can do. My surgery still feels like a drastic response to my diagnosis, and I don't doubt that I will live through a time where mastectomy is not even considered for DCIS. But I didn't get DCIS in that time; I got it in this one and I did the best I could with what I knew. I trust that all future versions of me will forgive me for that.