It dawned on me yesterday that this time next week I will have two breasts again. And I can’t quite believe I have finally come full circle. The end of a long journey. There are mixed emotions. Relief, excitement, guilt, apprehension, an overwhelming sense of being able to finally exhale. Because it feels like I have been holding my breath for just this moment. Last summer, battling the prosthetic I called ‘the jellyfish’ every time I wore my swimmers, I knew I never wanted to experience another summer in this way. Small things, yes. They only got a measly 500 grams from me. But sometimes it’s the small things that give us the most grief, isn’t it.

The birth of the bump my girlfriend called it. Stage one of my reconstruction. An incredible gift, worth every cent. Because the joy this bump has given me in the last six weeks is beyond words. The freedom to embrace my femininity again. The joy of normal clothes. I ditched the prosthetic immediately. And the image of swinging my half kilo bra around my head and wildly letting go, prosthetic and all, like some sort of catapult, delights the wickedness in me. I get a sense of why our foremothers burned their bras.

And the really amazing thing is that even though the reconstruction is not complete my brain seems to have accepted my body as ‘whole’ again. I am fascinated by the workings of the mind, the brain in action. Proprioception they call it. That ability we have to recognise ourselves in space. Before, I was so keenly aware of the deficit. Funny, I never hated the scar, I hated the absence of me. But this bump, in all its rawness, has been accepted by my brain as ‘me’ and the sense of wholeness in my quieter moments brings tears of joy.

But the guilt I feel? Because in some ways it is just a small thing. Just a breast. Hidden away, no-one need ever know. I saw a man at the shops in a wheelchair with an amputated leg, and I felt lucky. It’s a strange thing when I work with people facing other challenges, because in listening to their stories, I feel so fortunate. And yet, knowing my story I’ve heard them question their own challenges as being small. But I guess each of us has a story of our own and it’s a wonderful thing when we can feel fortunate in the face of it, isn’t it…

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Note to self: next time be very vague about surgery information when boarding a flight.

Irritated as hell I was yesterday. Arriving at the check in counter 3 days after surgery, busting to get home to my family, I simply asked for a bit of help lifting my carry on luggage into the overhead locker. Due to surgery, I said, couldn’t lift. The smiling, oh too caring, check in chipmunk (at half my age, I don’t think she had much experience of real life) asked about my surgery. As I am a trusting person, I answered honestly. Surgery was Tuesday. ‘What did you have done?’ she asked, feigning caring interest. ‘Breast reconstruction’, I said. ‘Oh, just let me look and see if you can fly’… furious, does not describe how strongly I felt! So she checked her very large manual and decided that I suddenly needed a doctors letter to board the plane. They didn’t tell me that when I booked the bloody ticket. So, happy to take my money, but not happy to let me get home. The airline shall remain nameless – they have been wonderful on other occasions and I am not into slighting. And I understand the need for protection against litigation. I offered to sign a waiver, but that was not acceptable. After consulting her medical advisor they said I needed a letter. So, in 15 minutes I had to get ‘permission’ in writing like a small child to board the aircraft home. So humiliating to have one’s right to exercise their freedom to move around their own country overridden. But as ‘patients’ this often happens, doesn’t it. We suddenly lose our basic human rights to make our own decisions. You can tell it has hit a raw nerve. I mentioned how frustrated I was, because if I hadn’t said anything, she would have been none the wiser. ‘Ah, but you disclosed’ she said. ‘And now I have to act on it’. Only because she led me to it. Duped I would call it. And not quite honest. Leaves a bad taste. Steve mentioned it might help to get it off my chest. I responded with humour. No thanks, I don’t want to get anything more off my chest.

And so with a letter in hand (thank you Dr D), I brought my precious cargo home. Two bumps. And I can’t describe how it feels to have some balance back. To sit in my pyjamas, balanced on both sides. A rounded softness on my right side where for the last year and a half there has just been hard bony ribs. Tears of joy. I keep putting my hand on the roundness, just to experience it again. The hardness has disappeared under this lovely round bump. And it’s only the first stage. I am so delighted. A little bit sore, probably a bit like a footballer after a hard game of rugby. Combined with that delightful sensation of the extreme pressure of your milk coming in on the third day. But nothing a few panadol and a bit of rest can’t handle. ‘Brave’ a woman said on the plane home. Maybe a little of this. But I know I’m in good hands, and with faith and trust, it’s easier to be brave, isn’t it…

I am so deliciously peaceful. A few hours past surgery and I feel good. And excited. My breathing is deep and restful and my hands are warm. And I am basking in this moment. I now officially have two bumps. And though new and raw, I treasure them. Dr David managed to do my expansion while I was under. I was never huge. There is a quietness in how blessed I feel. And the special people around me. The love of family and friends and people I’ve only just met flowing to me and through me. My body is responding beautifully. Just a mild pressure, nothing more. I woke as I asked myself to do so. Comfortable and peaceful. I am so in awe of how special we are.  The special abilities we all have inside. How that deeper part of us responds to our gentle directions when we allow it to do so.

Miracles. Yes. They are possible. And they often come in the most beautiful and unexpected ways…

Stem cells. Little promises of something more. I must confess I’ve always sat on the fence when it comes to the controversy of stem cell research. With 3 potentially life threatening conditions in the family, it’s a door we’ve left open. But now I find they are touching my life directly and I’m filled with great excitement. Next week I get on a plane to see the only doctor in Australia who is doing stem cell breast reconstruction. And the best bit about it is they are my own stem cells. It’s cutting edge stuff. I always love what’s happening at the edge. It speaks to the scientist in me, the part of me that dreams of possibilities. It’s an exciting place.

In a nutshell, this type of reconstruction holds promise for anyone who has had breast surgery. Basically, they lypo-suction out your own fat tissue from a donor site and wash half of it to get the stem cells, before mixing it back together and augmenting a breast after lumpectomy or reconstructing it in its entirety. And the stem cells can be used to repair skin after radiation too. The best bit is it’s only an overnight stay in hospital. So much more appealing than the other forms of reconstruction I was offered that involved cutting me up even more, topped off with stints in intensive care – no thanks! And I was fascinated to find out that our fat tissue is absolutely laden with stem cells that can differentiate to provide all the blood supply that the fat needs to keep living once it has been ‘farmed’. Thank you tummy after children I say. I have a new respect for my womanly features and now look at my curves even more lovingly.

In trawling the net, I discovered this type of reconstruction has been ramping up in Europe, Japan and America, but wasn’t discussed as an option with me until I uncovered it for myself. Once again it has brought home to me the truth of the need to go looking for alternatives, when the ones we are presented with simply do not feel right. Because gut instinct is a powerful survival mechanism, isn’t it?. A gift from within that has saved me time and time again when I stop to listen to its wisdom. And even if the answers are not immediately there, with a little persistence and patience, I find they always come. Because there are a lot of things we discover when we take the time to look and listen, aren’t there?. When we won’t take ‘no’ for an answer…

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“In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins – not through strength, but through persistence.” — Buddha

 

I had one of those decisions to make yesterday. You know the ones, the difficult ones that come with the experience of cancer. And there are many of them, aren’t there?!

 I found myself once again between a rock and a hard place. I am considering breast reconstruction. It’s a personal preference. But I am having trouble resolving the fact that to have a breast reconstructed, I must go through major surgery that compromises a perfectly good region of my body – a donor site – by removing muscle, fat and skin tissue from which to reconstruct my breast. It seems I must swap one scar for another. So I am faced with a choice to live as I am now shaped, which is okay but not ideal or to damage myself more for cosmetic and psychological gain which is also desirable.

 That still small voice inside of me wouldn’t settle. And it has guided me well on this journey. I went as far as making the appointment but knew in my heart that it was not for me. So last night I searched the internet to learn of other people’s experiences to understand the possible ramifications of surgery down the track. And then I found it, a little known option that offers the best of both worlds. Reconstruction with minimal damage. Isn’t it amazing how that inner voice can guide us.

 This morning I cancelled the surgery. To be true to myself there must be another way and I am prepared to give myself the time to find out more. My inner voice has been there helping me make the difficult decisions throughout this whole experience. And sometimes I wonder how different things would have been if I hadn’t stopped to listen…