my Breast Cancer blog

2004, age 34 — this is my story

Home » 2008 » March

Finishing Touch

I never thought I’d elect to have surgery after going under the knife for the removal of a cancerous tumor that somehow lodged itself in the tissue of my left breast. Surgery is bad enough when it’s medically necessary. It seems silly then to choose to submit to general anesthesia and all that follows, like the slicing and sewing of skin and muscle, the pain, the recovery, and the potential for complications. Yet I’m considering it. I’m more than considering it, actually. I have a surgery date—April 23—and one week from today, I am scheduled for a pre-op appointment that will seal the deal. I have 7 days then to determine whether I’ll keep or cancel this appointment. I’m leaning toward keeping it.

Seven years ago, I had a baby boy. He weighed 10 pounds, 9 ounces. Almost five years ago, I had another baby boy. He weighed 10 pounds, 2 ounces. I gained 50 pounds and then 42 pounds with these monster guys, and all these years later, I’m left with loose, sagging stomach skin and a separated muscle underneath. I’ve tried all I can to get rid of these battle scars. During the past year, I really kicked my efforts into high gear. Motivated by the urge to prevent a cancer recurrence, I overhauled my diet—no soda, no sweets, no red meat, plus low fats, calories, and sugars—and began exercising more vigorously than ever. My results have been grand. My heart is strong, my energy is high, and my weight is down 15 pounds. Still, my tummy skin remains. It’s worse really. The less fat I have, the more the skin hangs. I want it to go away.

No amount of diet or exercise will fix my problem. But a tummy tuck will. So that’s what I’m pursuing. Some think I’m crazy, selfish even—a few years ago, while in the throes of cancer treatment, I would have, too—and some think I deserve it. Here’s what I think: I want to feel comfortable in my skin and in my clothes. Right now, I don’t.

If all goes according to plan, a surgeon—a guy who happens to specialize in breast cancer reconstruction using tummy-tuck skin—will remove a football-shaped chuck of skin from my abdomen. He will repair and reshape my muscle, reposition my belly button, fix an umbilical hernia—yep, I’ve got one of those, too—and then sew me back up. This outpatient surgery will cost me a few hours in recovery, 10-12 days of difficulty at home, 6 weeks of healing, and a few thousand dollars—no insurance help for this cosmetic procedure. The more I think about it—the good, the bad, the unknown—the more I want this tummy tuck. Even after breast cancer. Maybe because of breast cancer. I want to feel the best I can possibly feel—on the inside and out. I’ve done all I can do on my own. I consider this my finishing touch.

The power of storytelling

I was invited to join Trusera—a free online health community based on the power of storytelling—because the folks there want me to share my story. I accepted this invitation because Trusera prides itself on offering a safe and comfortable environment where people can locate credible, relevant health information. I like that. What I wanted most when I was diagnosed with breast cancer was someone—just one person—who’d already taken the steps I was about to take. I scoured the Internet in search of blogs, journals, and other resources that might help me. Eventually, I found them.

Trusera is a one-stop shop, a “been there, done that” kind of site the mad hunt for quality information unnecessary. Stop by and you’ll see. While there, you’ll find me—my picture, my profile, and journal entries I’ll be publishing several times per week. You’ll find other breast cancer survivors there too—and so many others with powerful health journeys.

Anyone can sign up with Trusera. And for those of you with your own breast cancer story to tell: Join before March 30 and Trusera will donate $10 to Gilda’s Club for the first 500 people. Click here to sign up—and be sure to note “Gilda’s Club” on the registration form.

See that Trusera link on the right hand side of my blog? Click on it and you’ll locate everything you need to know about this great place, where stories come to life and empower, inspire, and inform those who need them most.

Clarification

My doctor says those disturbing words used in my echocardiogram report to describe the valves of my heart—dilated, thickened, insufficient—are “normal variants.” They are medically insignificant. Just as I’d imagined they must be. I’m thankful for the clarification, though. And my doctor is glad I poked around for more information.

“I would have been disappointed if you didn’t ask about them,” he said.

I would have been too.

Context matters

Quick. Get me a cardiologist. My right ventricle is mildly dilated. My aortic valve is mildly thickened. And my tricuspid valve is mildly insufficient.

I’m sure this is all somehow medically insignificant. Otherwise my oncologist would not be telling me I’m good to go should I opt for a tummy tuck surgery (more about this tummy business later). If my heart couldn’t take it, surely he’d be warning me. The guy did save me from breast cancer, after all. He clearly knows what he’s talking about.

This morning, my good doctor e-mailed me a copy of my latest echocardiogram—that’s how I was able to pour over the details of this July 2006 report. I’d asked him for it as I continue to search my soul for guidance regarding my tummy, and he swiftly sent it my way. I wanted to know how my strong my ticker is—both my year-long therapy with the breast cancer drug Herceptin and my four doses of the chemotherapy drug Adriamycin put me at risk for compromised heart function and so my heart was monitored for a bit. I wanted to know today, based on my last screening, how I’d fare under general anesthesia and how my heart would tolerate a two-hour surgery—should I go through with it.

I’m good to go, says my doc. Still, I’ve asked him for a bit of clarification. What does this troublesome wording—dilated, thickened, insufficient—mean, I want to know.

This is what I want you to know: Context matters.

More and more, we patients rely on information via the Internet or in this case of mine, e-mail. These methods of research are void of human contact and medical opinion and therefore lack context. Who knows, maybe a thickened aortic valve is a good thing. Maybe it’s not necessarily good but not bad either. I don’t know. Until someone clears things up for me, I will remain uncertain. That’s why I’m following up with my doctor. You should too.

Whenever you are concerned about your health, do your research, ask around, dig up all you can. Then talk to a medical professional who can iron out all the kinks in what you’ve gathered. Balance is always a good bet. Really, it is.

My story

I don’t often tell my entire breast cancer story all at once. I usually share just bits and pieces of it. This afternoon, I talked about a few chapters with a fellow mommy while waiting in a doctor’s office. It turns out while I was being diagnosed with cancer three years ago, this woman found herself in a serious car accident. We talked about physical therapy, our long lists of doctors, our respective survivals. Our chat was short and sweet—and powerful.

This morning, I told my whole story. I talked about diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, hair loss, radiation, drug therapy, counseling, anti-depressants, hospitalizations, and doctor relationships. I talked about my hopes, my fears, my attitude, and my state of mind every step of the way. It took more then one hour of phone time to pour out every last detail for the researcher who will somehow use my information to help better the business of cancer. Our chat was long and involved—and powerful.

Talking about cancer is emotional. It forces me to revisit my travels with a life-threatening disease. It also helps me appreciate how far I’ve come, how well I’m surviving, how important it is to talk.

I told my researcher guy today that I’m willing to talk about anything related to cancer. Sure, I could be private about it all. I could keep my information inside. But I figure that doesn’t do anyone any good. Talking—and writing—about cancer is what helps. It helps me. I hope it helps others.

If you want to know something about cancer, especially breast cancer, ask me. My information is yours for the taking.

Operation tummy

I wrote and published this post for That’s Fit on December 15, 2007.

So I’ve got this loose skin on my tummy. I thank my little boys for this curse I can’t seem to whittle away. My two whopper guys barreled into the world weighing 10 pounds, nine ounces and 10 pounds, two ounces and no matter how hard I work out or how well I eat, this baby fat just hangs on tight. It’s gotten better over the years—all four and a half of them—but still, sometimes I wish just a little bit for a tummy tuck to erase my bothersome birthing battle scar.

Would I really follow through with a tummy tuck if money were no object? I’m not sure. That’s why I asked my doctor today for his opinion on this surgery. “I think it’s a bad idea,” he told me. Sure, it’s an option, he said. And it would probably clean up my problem pretty neatly. But it’s surgery. And while tummy tucks have gotten less and less invasive—they can be performed in a doctor’s office without general anesthesia—the procedure requires an incision from hip to hip to ensure a tidy final product. And any surgery can cause problems. Infection, mistakes, difficult recoveries, and scarring are just a few worst-case scenarios. These are the very things that cause me to stray from such a seductive surgery.

A flat tummy would undoubtedly lift my spirits. But a surgery-gone-wrong could permanently crush them. So I think I’ll rely on good old-fashioned hard work as I try to fix my flab. What would you do?

It’s been three months since I determined I would not submit to such a surgery, three months of obsession and depression and plain old hatred for this stomach of mine. And now I’ve changed my mind. I can do that, right?

I’ve decided that I need this surgery. Not medically. Just emotionally. Because no amount of eating right and exercising right is going to change what hangs from my mid-section. I’ve got a team backing me on this—family, friends, doctors, and fitness trainers. They all assure me that I’m not cheating by opting for this procedure, that I’ve done all I can, that it’s OK to remove what drives me absolutely bonkers. I’m not taking an easy way out then. I’m taking the only way out. And while money is an object, I realize I’m worth the investment.

It all begins on April 23 when I allow a plastic surgeon—an expert in breast cancer reconstruction using tummy tuck skin and thus very well-equipped to handle my issue—to cut a football shaped chunk of skin from my middle. While there, he’ll repair and reshape the muscle my big babies separated, fix an umbilical hernia, and sew me back together. I’ll end up with a repositioned belly button, a few missing moles, a flat gut, a six-pack even.

A tummy tuck is no simple surgery. It is in fact still very invasive, I will receive general anesthesia, and a full recovery, which will allow me to exercise and lift heavy objects, takes up to six weeks. And yes, there are risks. But I think—I hope—the benefits of this fix will outweigh the small chance that something will go wrong. There is just so much that can go right with this surgery that I really don’t want to deny myself the peace of mind and comfort I know will come from it.

I admit there is some reservation swirling around in my head, made worse by a new acquaintance whose own tummy tuck 11 days ago has left her feeling great remorse about what she’s done to her body, what she’s done with her money, what trouble she’s caused her husband and daughter. With time, I think she’ll probably regard her decision as one of the best she’s ever made—most women do—but right now, she’s struggling. This causes me to pause.

Big decisions are never easy. I have three weeks to secure mine, three weeks until I attend my pre-op visit and hand over my cash. I have three weeks then to make a final call. What will I do? I’ll let you know.