Mainly, I am just so relieved to have the surgeries behind me now, and, best of all, no more ahead of me. I am so grateful that, while this whole experience has not been a pleasant one, at least I’m not unwell, or suffering a progressive, debilitating illness. I am done with surgery! The last of my bandages were removed this week, so that was a great milestone to pass. My breast shape looks really good (thank you James!) although, of course, they are still totally numb to me. But they look good, so that’s a plus! It really is a miracle of modern science and James’ talents to think that I have had every one of my original breast cells removed, and now have my abdominal tissue transplanted to look pretty much like the real deal! I have scars circling each nipple (or where my right nipple used to be anyway) and vertical ones from nipple to under bust, as well as along the base of both breasts. They are fairly clean, fine lines and I know they will fade. All good there.
My stomach scar continues to fade, with new scars at either end, about 8 cm long each where it was neatened up after the first surgery. The one on my left hip is fine, but the one on my right has sort of a tuck, or crease, running perpendicular to my scar, about 10 cm long, like the skin has been caught up in the stitching. James, my surgeon, says this will smooth out in time, so I will get going with massage on it too. It is quite uncomfortable and I can feel a mass of scar tissue underneath, so I have a way to go with healing there.
My abdomen itself is still pretty stiff and uncomfortable, but it is improving all of the time, so I’m praying that, with continuing exersize and massage treatment, that eventually I will feel comfortable in my own skin again. And I’m still quite tired, but I am kind of used to that by now. One day my mojo will come back!
That’s the physical side of things. I’m conscious though that this has not just been a physical experience, it has been such an emotional one too, with many learnings along the way. I often think, “What would I say if a friend rang me and told me they were about to go through the same thing?”. After having a bit of a cry for them, I think I would know that this is one of those “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” experiences for them. While losing Martha, Lou, my business and my breasts in the past few years has been so very challenging (individually harrowing, and all together in the same short time period – quite horrible!), as each one has passed, I think I’ve now accepted that even though life throws up unexpected difficulties, by going through them, I’ve come to understand more about life. Since Martha passed away, I have gradually taken on a whole new mindset about what is important, and it has helped me through my other challenges since then. It is good to have an angel or two on my side!
I’ve learned so much in the past few years (sometimes I think I should write a book!), but these are the things that spring to mind around my surgery:
ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE. When going through tough times, every little message or gesture of love and support is greatly appreciated. When I felt like I was not alone, and that people cared, that made a huge difference. Just a “thinking of you” can make me feel better, let alone the support from those who have really leaned in and helped me along through the most challenging of times. I’ve found that often it was those who have been through their own challenges who understand this best, and they are the ones most likely to reach out with a text, a phone call, a card, a message with the right tone, at the right time. To all of you “Sarah supporters” I send huge thanks (I hope I have already expressed this to you personally!)
ASK FOR HELP. I have always been so independent, so it was not my usual way of being to ask for help through this surgery. I always thought I could sort everything out myself, and up until the last few years, I pretty well could! I think so many women are used to looking after everyone else that it is quite hard to just let go, and ask other people to step up. It is a nice change not being in charge all of the time- being in the driver’s seat all of the time is quite exhausting!
OWNING YOUR EMOTIONS IS GOOD. I think we are conditioned from a young age to not show our emotions too much, especially sad ones. “Be nice. Be good. Don’t cry” – these are the mantras that we live our adult lives by. But sometimes it does become too much, especially when the challenges are big and you care (A LOT!) about what you have lost or how you are feeling. The effort that goes into just “sucking it up” is ridiculous. So I’ve learned it is okay to cry and show how we feel. We are all human! Having a good cry if you need one is cathartic. Let it out, acknowledge how you feel, give yourself a hug and move on.
EVERY PERSON IS ON THEIR OWN PATH – AND IT HELPS TO CONNECT WITH OTHERS WHO HAVE WALKED SIMILAR PATHS. I think we often believe, quite irrationally, that everyone thinks and feels like we do. Of course they don’t. We all have different life experiences that shape us, so my grief or breast surgery experience will be different to others. I’m hoping though that this blog at least gives some women an inkling of what it might be like to go through the same thing (which is why I am determined to keep posting on my breast surgery recovery, up until the first 12 months anyway). I always felt better if I had some idea of what was coming up. I wish I had known how long this whole post surgery chapter was going to be from the start. I wouldn’t have worried so much about how slow my healing seemed to be. Now I know that it is a long slow experience, but it does get better!
IF GOD BRINGS YOU TO IT, HE’LL BRING YOU THROUGH IT – I’m not a religious person, but I have always felt that the “man upstairs” is looking after us, and over us. I believe this even more, now that Martha and Lou have taken up residence in heaven! I can see now that so much of the anxiety that we feel in a crisis is generated in our own heads – those dreadful “what if??” questions that we worry ourselves sick with. Most of the time the worst case does not come true. (Mine was “what if I have cancer?” with that first surgery. Also there was “what if my business closes down??” and “what if Martha dies??” Those last two did happen, but I am still okay.) After Lou died, I found this gorgeous quote in one of her journals (click on it if you want to read the detail), and it really helped me through the second surgery. I was terrified about going into surgery again, after the pain I experienced last time. When it came down to it, I just thought “God’s got it. He’ll look after me”. And he did. Such a relief to just surrender and hand it over to Him to look after! So now, after this series of life altering events, I know somewhere deep down inside, that even though I may not like them, I CAN get through the hard times. I am so much better at soothing and supporting myself through challenges, by keeping calm, rather than working myself up in to a frenzy like I used to do – so exhausting! Thanks for the lessons God. I will keep the faith that you have a grand plan and are looking after us all (and please can you stop sending the hard stuff, just for a while anyway – please?!)
FACE YOUR FEARS – Because I was close to my sister, Martha’s experience, I was terrified of having breast cancer. I’m not so worried about the dying part (at least any suffering would be over then!) but the treatment she endured was dreadful. All of those surgeries and chemotherapy and worry about the next tumour or recurrence. And, because I nearly severed my foot when I was young, I have always HATED anything to do with scars, blood, surgery, needles, etc. Ughh! The whole thing just makes me feel faint! And it’s even worse when it is someone that I love who is suffering. When Martha was in palliative care in her final months, and she had dreadful lymphedema, I would nearly pass out whenever she went to even touch the bandages on her arm – I just didn’t want to see anything that signified her pain or suffering. A few weeks ago, my husband squashed his finger when a heavy weight fell on it at the gym. He had a night in hospital and a brief surgery to have it stitched. Not nice! That kind of thing makes me so anxious! I was brave and went and sat with him in hospital, even though I was only days out of hospital myself. So I’m not cured of my surgery/scar/blood phobia, but I know I can do it if I have to. I’ve laughed at myself these past few weeks – changing my own dressings, massaging cream into my scars, looking to see whether it is all healing up. I feel like I am SO BRAVE! (Most people may not give it a passing thought! But it is a big deal for me!) So that has been a gift – to feel like I am brave when I have gone through some of the most scary experiences I could have imagined, and come out the other side – braver, wiser, stronger!
So, that’s what I’d say to someone who was facing this same surgery: It will be hard, but you can do it. And it will be worth it. Physically and emotionally, you will come out the other side better for it. (And if you are frightened, I will hold your hand!)
So many things I have learned in the past few years. Overall, I have found a much better way to do life – gently, with an open heart and open mind, noticing the things that matter, accepting the things you can not change, standing up for yourself and giving it all your best shot. Turn up. Lean in. Own your stuff. Be brave, be honest, be grateful, be kind. Especially, be kind. To yourself and to others. And everything works out okay in the end.
Thanks for the lessons God. Hard learned, well earned. I’m looking forward to moving on to the next chapter – lots of art, lots of laughs and sunshine, lots of happiness please! All is well.