Today marks my one-year anniversary of being cured of breast cancer. Technically, it’s the one year anniversary of getting a double mastectomy; it would be another week before I found out that the surgery was successful and there was no evidence of disease (NED).
I remember how terrified I was the day before surgery. I couldn’t concentrate, I cried several times throughout the day and I felt such a heavy weight hanging over me. Up until then, the idea of having breast cancer felt abstract; I had no palpable masses or any other visible signs of the disease. Knowing that I had to walk into an operating room the next day made the reality of diagnosis frighteningly real.
Somehow the next morning, I was able to shake off most of those feelings and walk into hospital with a relative feeling of calm, accompanied by my sister. My medical care team was wonderful; they were positive and kind and assured me that I would be well cared for. My anesthesiologist had the same first name as my good friend, Tamika, so I took that as a good sign. When the nurses escorted me to the operating room, they were blasting Tina Turner ( I can’t remember the song) but I also saw that as a positive omen.
I woke up from the surgery with slight pain; most of it was in my throat from being intubated for almost four hours. There was a burning sensation across my chest where my breasts once existed but that was quickly alleviated with Tylenol. Once I arrived to my hospital room, I spent the rest of the day processing what happened. There was a mixture of relief that I was finally through surgery and apprehension of whether they got all the cancer out. The attending physician sternly reminded me I wasn’t out of the woods until they got the final pathology report. I was annoyed that he didn’t share the optimistic opinion of my surgeon, who felt certain that my breast cancer wasn’t invasive and was still stage 0.
After an overnight stay and a cheerful visit from my surgeon, who still felt very confident about my prognosis, I was able to go home. For the first few days, I had to learn how to walk without hunching over to instinctively protect my tender chest. With the help of my sister, I threaded and emptied the aggravating drains surgically implanted in my chest to alleviate swelling. Overall, I felt pretty good physically but I was terrified to look at my chest; I wasn’t ready to see the swelling and the scars. When the visiting nurse removed the bandages to examine how I was healing, I always looked away.
A week later, I visited the surgeon’s office to have the drains removed and to get my final pathology report. On the way there, I was tearful and frightened. Because my DCIS was multifocal, I was scared that it had become invasive and I would need to undergo radiation and/or chemotherapy. Thankfully, my boyfriend was calm and very reassuring; he promised me that I would be okay and that we would get through it together.
Once I got to the doctor’s office, the nurse removed the drains (which didn’t hurt but felt very, very weird) and said I could sit up. I still refused to look at my chest and she explained that many women have a hard time getting used to how they look and I should take my time. After that she left, I nervously waited for my surgeon to arrive with my pathology report.
As soon as she walked in, the first thing she said, “Well, you don’t have invasive breast cancer.” My surgeon is very intuitive and can pinpoint with such accuracy the fears most of her patients have when they come in to see her. As soon as I heard that, I breathed a sigh of relief. As she explained the findings of the report, she examined how I was healing and then sat quietly in the chair to let me process everything. Surprisingly, I didn’t start crying like I imagined I would but instead, I finally looked down at my chest and realized I didn’t look as bad as I thought. As I looked at the "new me" my surgeon told me that I was going to feel so much lighter and faster. I had decided to forego reconstruction and opted to remain flat to avoid complications from implants and future surgeries.
As I walked out of the doctor’s office, I did feel lighter with the weight, both physically and emotional, lifted off my chest.
In the weeks and months that followed, I had to adjust emotionally and physically to my new body. Some days are easier than others and I have to remind myself that it’s only been a year since this frightening ordeal started. As I’ve mentioned before, my return to drawing abstract figurative works centered around breast cancer survivorship has been tremendously therapeutic; this practice has helped me see the beauty in the scars and the struggle of illness. I’m reminded how creating art under these circumstances is a form of alchemy; transforming feelings and experiences into a medium that others can experience and relate to.
One of my favorite collections that was born out of this experience is The Four Seasons. They are four abstract figurative line works that represent the complications and the vitality of health, illness and recovery after illness. The red form that represents Fall is like me, flat chested while Winter represents a single mastectomy survivor. The woman who purchased Winter told me she picked that one because their chest looked like hers. Other survivors told me that The Four Seasons made them feel seen; I’m very proud of that. All four of the originals have been sold but I will be making different print versions of this collection. For now, I’m offering a 4-piece collection of postcard prints in my online store. I’m hoping that they will continue to help survivors feel seen and celebrated as they deserve to be.
One year down. Many more to come.