Pink Hope Outreach Ambassador Stacey who had a preventative double mastectomy at 22 shares her experience in preparing emotionally for this surgery and offers some valuable advice.
For anyone, making the decision to undergo preventative surgery to decrease the risk of a cancer diagnosis is a very big step. My time as a Pink Hope Ambassador has shown me that the decision-making process instigates a wide variety of reactions based on people’s individual circumstances: for some, the decision to undergo preventative surgery comes quickly and easily; for others, it can take years to reach a conclusion and cause the person in question considerable anxiety along the way.
In all situations, if a decision to have preventative surgery is made, I believe that it is important to give yourself the best physical and emotional preparation you can. How to do this will vary every time as everyone starts from a different place with their own background and emotional state to consider. But ideally, everyone wants to be in as good a frame of mind as possible heading into the operating theatres on their big day.
I don’t think there was an exact moment when I made the decision to have a preventative double mastectomy. For me, it was more like a gradual realisation over a number of years that, feelings aside, as a BRCA2 gene carrier, having my breasts removed was going to be the most effective way to reduce my high risk of developing breast cancer. Mum had battled the disease numerous times, and I wanted to avoid that. Having reached this conclusion, I called my doctor and booked in my preventative double mastectomy to take place in one year’s time.
I had one year before my operation, and I knew that it was important to use this time to prepare myself, both physically and emotionally, as best as I could.
Every family has that one crazy person who is obsessed with Christmas. In my family, that’s me. I love the lights, the cheer, the carols, the food – everything! So I booked my surgery for the start of December. This accomplished two things: I would be distracted by the festivities, and during my recovery I would get to spend some quality time with my friends and family whom I missed terribly since moving interstate. This approach definitely worked for me – even though I knew it meant my surgery date was looming, I was super excited to spend five weeks at home over Christmas.
This was in the days before Pink Hope existed, and I was definitely worried about the unknown – I didn’t know anyone who had been through this operation, and didn’t know what to expect. Would I be in a lot of pain? What would I look like afterwards? How would I feel when I woke up and my breasts were gone? These questions were both scary and confronting.
I have always been the type of person to reach out whenever I need support. I’m lucky that I have an amazing support network around me, and they were an invaluable part of my emotional preparation. My family is very close-knit, and I was constantly on the phone to my Mum or my sister talking through the impending surgery. At the end of the day, I knew that my family would love me with or without my breasts and so ultimately, I would be okay.
I think – as most people do – that I have the best friends in the world. My surgery journey proved that. I have three beautiful girlfriends who were just wonderful. Again, we were constantly on the phone and the conversations that year were largely focussed on my decision. They were a source of strength and empowerment in often uncertain times.
My workplace was great – both in giving me the required time off, and the support from my team. I had many practical, non-emotive chats with my new team mates who turned out to be a somewhat surprising and very welcome addition to my support network.
My decision to have preventative surgery was certainly questioned, and those questions were okay as I was only 22. I felt like I was making the right choice, but wanted to speak to someone completely outside of the situation in a professional capacity for some reassurance. I went and saw a counsellor who examined my decision making process with me. I also had a session with a genetics counsellor to discuss my feelings around areas specific to breast removal, for example my consequent inability to breast feed any future children, or the scarring I would have.
I found both of these sessions very helpful in reaffirming that I was making the right choice for me.
I decided that reducing my cancer risk was a positive step in my life and so I should celebrate it. I held a ‘Goodbye Boobs’ BBQ at my parent’s house just before my operation. We had boob balloons, decorations and boob-themed food. Everyone got into the spirit and dressed up in their best boob-themed outfits. It was a fun, light hearted day with my friends and family in a supportive environment. It put me in a great frame of mind ahead of my surgery, and four days later, I had my breasts removed.
The Wrap up
My surgery itself went very smoothly. I was lucky – I had no complications and minimal pain. Emotionally, contrary to my expectations, I almost seemed to breeze through. I was waiting for the nerves to hit on the way to the hospital – they never did. I thought I would grieve the loss of my breasts, but instead I felt empowered. I had expected to have moments where I would cry, but I was too excited about spending time with my friends and family to be sad. I did have one weird panicky moment in the shower about a week post-op relating to my complete inability to deal with anything medical, but it quickly passed. Overall, I feel that my preventative surgery highlighted just how lucky I am.
My advice to anyone emotionally preparing for preventative surgery would be:
- Know what motivates you and figure out how to incorporate that into your preparation
- Reach out to your support network, including Pink Hope!
- Do things to keep your esteem levels up
- Consider talking to a professional
- Acknowledge that this is a big step, and find a meaningful way to mark the occasion