I had a double mastectomy, but I have never had breast cancer.
In November 2015, my twin sister was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. This experience was all too familiar to me, as both my mother and grandmother had breast cancer too. As I watched my sister go through breast cancer and a double mastectomy, I knew that despite not testing positive, it wasn’t something I wanted to go through. At that point, I made the decision to have a preventative double mastectomy.
In a way, I was fortunate to have a twin sister that had already taken the next steps on her breast reconstruction journey that I was about to similarly embark on; it gave me a ‘crystal ball’ into seeing what the reconstruction process might look like for me. I realized, however, that not everyone has a twin sister in a comparable situation, and the unknowns of reconstructive breast surgery can be daunting. I still had questions I wanted answered before my surgery. Given my experience, I’d recommend asking these five questions to your surgeon before your breast reconstruction:
1. What breast size will be best for me?
It may sound vain, but it’s not – choosing the size of your new breast implants for reconstruction can be overwhelming. There are several things to take into consideration: your body frame, the history of your cancer, and your journey. You may want to choose a smaller size, or you may be looking for something larger. It’s important to know that there’s a lot more involved than just aesthetics; reconstructing your breasts also affects your physical movement and it’s important to consult your surgeon on what they think, and ask as many questions as you need to ensure you make a decision you are happy with.
Reconstructing your breasts affects your physical movement and it’s important to consult your surgeon, and ask as many questions as you need to ensure you make a decision you are happy with.
2. What will the scarring be like?
Again, scarring after breast reconstruction is something that varies by individual, the type of cancer you have and the body’s own response to the surgery. A surgeon will be able to advise you on the scarring associated with different reconstruction options, as well as your body’s anticipated response to the surgery. It’s about utilizing their expert opinion to minimize scarring and make sure you are aware of what your reconstructed breasts will look like.
3. What do I need post-surgery?
As with all surgeries, unless you have undergone it before, it can be challenging to know what to expect. Post-surgery was a grey area for me and I had so many questions – What do I need to bring to the hospital? What type of post-surgery bra do I need to wear? Where can I buy them? How should I ‘maintain’ my newly reconstructed breasts? There are a lot of unknowns, which, if left unanswered, can create a lot of additional stress. I recommend dedicating some time to writing out all the questions related to your surgery and presenting this list to your surgeon. In my experience, surgeons welcome questions from their patients and it will provide you with a greater peace of mind about the next steps of your journey.
4 . What complications are involved in the surgery?
All surgical procedures have associated risks, and with breast reconstruction there’s a small possibility of complications. Each type of breast reconstruction is different – so you need to educate yourself on why your surgeon recommended a particular type of reconstruction over another, and what this means for you.
For example, my surgeon recommended I have the procedure nipple-sparing double mastectomy with AeroForm as the tissue expander. This involved four separate operations (nipple-delay, double mastectomy with AeroForm expanders inserted, expanders swapped for Implant, and my final surgery was at-transfer to both breasts which was optional). In my case, there was a small possibility of nipple-failure, where my nipple may ‘die’, but I was reassured that if this did happen that they could rebuild me a new nipple. Luckily this didn’t happen to me, but it is important you ask your surgeon and educate yourself on anything you could possibly encounter.
Each type of breast reconstruction is different – educate yourself on why your surgeon recommended a particular type of reconstruction over another, and what that could mean for you.
5. How long will I need to take off work?
No one tells you this, but one of the most difficult aspects of undergoing breast cancer and reconstruction is the amount of leave you need to take off work. Depending on your type of surgery, it can affect how many days off work you need to take to rest, so before undergoing surgery, always ask your surgeon how long you’ll ‘be away from the desk’. A surgeon will be able to give personalised guidance on what you can expect.
While it can be daunting, the breast reconstruction journey can be made easier when you feel empowered by the decisions you are making. I hope my journey will help others who will undergo a similar journey to myself, and help them make more informed choices when it comes to breast reconstruction.
Shay took part in Pink Hope and AirXpanders’ ‘Candid Conversations’ collaboration to open a dialogue about life after breast cancer. Watch Shay talk about her experiences of physical intimacy after her mastectomy below.