The breast surgeon said “It’s probably nothing but I’d like to biopsy this area.”
She was poking at my previously irradiated left breast, where a network of spidery blood vessels had formed on the underside. Apparently, it is very difficult to tell the difference between skin damage from radiation treatment, and rare cancers caused by the treatment. Often they don’t form until many years later. The radiation that had helped to cure my 1998 breast cancer might also be the source of new cancer.
It would be the first of several unexpected twists and turns that occurred as I sought to prevent going another round with my old nemesis, breast cancer or my new enemy, ovarian cancer. For women like myself, being BRCA1 positive means there is a high risk of both.
On January 27th, 2012 I underwent the first of the BRCA surgeries, a thirteen-hour procedure that would require three surgeons. Bilateral mastectomies with immediate reconstruction using my own belly fat. I joked I was getting a boob job and a tummy tuck for the price of one. What I could not know was, that daylong surgery was only the beginning. By the time I left the hospital some twelve days later, I’d had a total of five trips to the operating suite.
For the first eight days, I existed on ice chips, water and morphine. I had some high-tech pain management system with a low-tech name: pain balls. That was in addition to my standard-issue pain pump. And oral meds when I needed them. Drugs are good. Very, very good. Especially each time the herd of plastic surgeons who surrounded my bed decided I needed more surgery. I am grateful that my memory of some of those surgeries has completely disappeared. The toll those twelve days took on my family was enormous. In the middle of it all, I learned my sister was also BRCA1 positive.
Surprise. Well, not really. But I was sad for my sister, and for my mother, who cried as she sat in the recliner next to my bed where she slept for all eleven nights I was hospitalized.
There were magical and wonderful surprises too. Friends who floated into my tiny hospital room, crowded with equipment, flowers and a mountain of pillows. I was not allowed out of bed. The room was super-heated to eighty degrees, a requirement for my newly transplanted breasts. Somehow, my friends took it all in stride, even when nurses came in to do unspeakably gross things to me. When he was not in the room, my husband Jim was still with me. I don’t know how. He just was.
Tomorrow it will be twelve weeks since that first surgery. It marks the halfway point. About twelve weeks from now, it will be time for another round of major surgery. My body, a work in progress, foreign territory, ten pounds lighter and a dress size smaller with a sexy flat belly. Gwen Stefani with a hip-to-hip scar.