Wrapping My Head Around Surgery

One of my hobbies is research and obsessive planning.  Vacations, date nights, adventures with the kids, holidays, and birthdays are all planned in meticulous detail by yours truly.  I once spent a week cataloguing every hiking trail within an hour of Austin, and I'm not even that fond of hiking.  Within a few weeks of being diagnosed with cancer, I had already registered for the Young Survivor Coalition Conference and drafted multiple to-do lists including a "Worst Case List" that includes such fun tasks as planning my memorial and nagging Jeff to become a U.S. citizen before I kick the bucket.

That being said, I can't say I've been enthusiastic about researching my mastectomy and reconstruction.  There is a lot of decision-making involved: choice of surgeon, unilateral vs. bilateral, DIEP flap vs. implants.  For those of you who aren't up on your cancer terminology, DIEP flap removes skin, fat, and blood vessels (but no muscle) from your lower abdomen to reconstruct the breast; it's a more complex surgery and is more difficult to recover from, but in the long run it tends to involve fewer complications and less maintenance than implants do.  Either way, the recovery from surgery is intimidating.

Not that I am a stranger to unpleasant medical situations.  I had a metal rod in my leg and a plate in my ankle.  I gave birth to Julia without an epidural or any pain medication.  I had surgery for uterine scarring and stabbed myself in the abdomen repeatedly for IVF.  I had my varicose veins sealed with super glue while I was awake.  A mastectomy should be a piece of cake, right?

I have an appointment with my local breast surgeon coming up, and I'm meeting another surgeon at MD Anderson next month.  Before then, I'm trying to educate myself as much as possible.  I have found it helpful to hear the experiences of other women with breast cancer.  Everyone has been so open and willing to share, even friends of friends who I've never met.  The nurse in the recovery room after my bronchoscopy spent at least five minutes outlining the pros and cons of flap reconstruction and wrote the name of a surgeon on a package of gauze to give to me.  It's a shame I was still coming out of anesthesia and can't remember half of what she said.

I'm a visual learner, so I prefer to have written documents.  Lucky for me, whenever you meet an oncologist, surgeon, radiologist, or genetic counselor for the first time, they give you a helpful binder full of important information.  Check out my binder collection!

It's a good thing I gifted my math and computer science textbooks to Jeff, because my cancer literature requires an entire shelf on my bookcase.  Maybe when I finish treatment, I'll have a bonfire in the backyard.  (And yes, of course I've already started planning my end-of-treatment party!)



  1. Seem to hear a lot about breast implants going wrong. And I've never liked the idea of foreign bodies in my body.
    I'd opt for the flap, although it sounds rather intimidating. I'm assuming that your upper chest will look fairly normal, but sans breasts. Like Tig Notaro. I was struck by how normal her chest looked. Admitedly not Dolly Parton.

    But what about the place they take the tissue from. What does it look and feel like?

    I think it's wise to start getting used to the idea and making an informed plan. Because long after the end-of-treatment party you will still have the chest you opt for.

    Are we invited to the party? Much love, Mom B.

  2. Your binders are really “binders full of women” aren’t they? Which election was that again?

    1. Ha ha, I forgot about that. More like "binders full of depressing information for women."

  3. I've done my share of research alongside Jami, but I've avoided the reconstruction aspect. I think because I fear that it can't possibly result in anything that looks normal. I figured the best you could hope for would be a normal silhouette while heavily clothed.

    But Jami coaxed me into looking at photos. I recommend it: next time you're at work, just google "breast photos" (and maybe add "diep flap" if you really want). They really do come out okay, at least often enough to have a gallery full of successes. DIEP leaves a long scar at the underwear line, under-breast scars and under-to-nipple vertical scars, but they don't seem that bad.

    The weirdest thing is that lots of people end up getting tattoos in place of nipples. I guess that's the hard part? It's a whole specialty for tattoo artists, getting the shading and fake shadows right. Just keep that in mind, in case you wanted to add a nipple somewhere on your body.


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