Thursday, October 13, 2011


I haven't looked at myself yet. Haven't been able to take a shower so it hasn't been an issue.

But then Dr. C. unwraps my mummy-esque torso. I stare straight ahead. As my compression vest and bandages fall away, I feel — what's the word? — Oh yeah. Free! My skin hasn't felt air like this in many days. But the pleasant sensation of having nothing constricting me is fleeting; it's replaced by a strange, awkward feeling. If I didn't know better, I'd think I had two water balloons tacked to my chest. Oh wait. I do. They're called Tissue Expanders (TEs). They're filled with 400ccs of saline a piece (and held in place by my recently moved chest muscle); the TEs job is to hold the space where I used to have breast tissue. They also stretch my skin. Eventually they will be replaced with implants. I refuse to look.

Husband hands Dr. C. a slip of paper with the cc's my drains have been outputting since surgery. Good news: The drains can come out. (Yippee! One step closer to stepping in hot water.) Husband distracts himself by looking out the window as Dr. C. quickly pulls each foot-long piece of tubing from my body. To be honest, I can't look at that either. (They really should get some paintings on these walls...)

Finally, all four drains are gone. Next he pulls out the teeny, tiny threads that connect my pain pouch to the center of my chest. I don't feel it. Probably because my chest is still numb.Then he applies antibiotic ointment to both incisions. My left one is 3 inches long and runs across the center of my "foob" at an angle. My right incision, on the cancer side, is twice as long; the scar snakes up under my arm. (That's where they took out the lymph nodes.) Then he paper-tapes gauze over both incisions and slips me back into my surgical vest.

I fumble with the fasteners; my hands are shaking. Avoiding looking at yourself creates a lot of tension, apparently. Husband comes to my aide, carefully zipping my vest closed. Husband noticing that I can't hook the eye on my vest? Definitely a moment.

So I am in heaven without those stinkin' swingin' drains. I feel like celebrating. (Can I have a drink yet?) Dr. C. says I can take a shower. Whew who! Back home, I grab my spa robe and head for the bathroom, then realize I can't take a shower without assistance. Duh. Can't lift my arms. Can't shut the shower door. And yeah, you know what is about to happen next: Northern Exposure.

Because now I'm in a predicament. I haven't yet seen myself naked, and I have to get naked in order to shower. And that means I have to be naked in front of Husband. For the first time. Without. My. Breasts.

I have to get past this hurdle.

Husband sets a plastic bench inside our walk-in shower; my soaps and shampoos are within reach on the floor. A hand-held showerhead is hanging above me. He turns the water on so it can start to get warm, then leaves me alone to collect myself. If only it were that easy.

I can't get my dressings wet but I can shower; I can't remove my bandages, but I can remove my vest. As the sound of the water beats down on the bench and the room begins to slowly fill with steam, I carefully unhook my security blanket, and the constricting pressure I constantly feel evaporates. I take a deep breath and look past the hazy mirror at my little "mounds." Well. Not so bad! I don't look as odd as I imagined. I'm not flat chested. There is something there — it's just covered in bandages. Appearance-wise, I can deal.

The weirdest part is how I feel. Wearing my surgical bra masks the artificial feeling of these dead weights that are temporarily a part of me. They are awkward and foreign. Despite my numbness, I can feel their fakeness. That is the part causing me the most anxiety.

There's a knock on the door. I open it, and find my husband holding a large black plastic trash bag, a towel — and a roll of duct tape. This does not look good. The potential crime scene does little to quell my growing angst. I close the door and tell him I'll call him when I'm ready.

But I'm never quite ready. I let another few moments slip by and still I don't feel any better about any of it. And I'm wasting water. So I bite the bullet and call him back in. And we begin the very delicate dance of preparing me for the most vulnerable shower of my life.

Off with the vest. Husband pauses just long enough to review the situation and announce, "They look good." We don't dwell. He continues on, wrapping the folded towel around my neck. I hold it in place while he cuts a hole in the top of the garbage bag and slides it over my head and shoulders. Then he duct-tapes the bag to the towel. I can reach my arms out from underneath the garbage bag (think Velociraptor) but trust me, it ain't pretty.

Husband assists me into the shower and I take my place on the bench. He points the hand-held water spout directly at my head. He'll never make it as a Barber, but he does spend the next five minutes carefully washing my long hair. I don't know whether to laugh or to cry; my emotions are as jumbled as the drops of water streaming down my face. I try my best not to let any moisture get through the garbage bag and onto my bandages. We are only partially successful. Next time will be better.

With my hair complete, I ask Husband to leave me alone for a few. He is reluctant; scared that I will slip and fall (even though I'm seated). Since I'm able to hold the shower faucet at hip level on my own, I want to relax a while and enjoy the warmth of the water.

The freedom I feel in this moment is nearly indescribable. I've made it through surgery. My drains are out. I've had a shower and my hair is clean. I've faced my most dreaded fear — looking at my new self in the mirror — and survived.

I may be sitting on a bench inside a plastic garbage bag, but I'm home, and I'm free (though not home free). I'm latching onto this slice of freedom and not letting go.


  1. I so remember this....NOT wanting to look.
    Took me over a week. And even then was a glance.
    I didn't have reconstruction. And just dreaded seeing how bad it would look.
    It WAS as bad as I thought it would be.
    Such a hard thing to go thru with this. :(

  2. Oh Renn, what a great post - brought back so many memories for me! I love your last line "I'm free (though not home free)... latching onto this slice of freedom. Brilliant!

  3. Thanks, Marie! Your comments are always so thoughtful. If only were were all home free after all we've been through. If only life were that simple! ;-)

  4. Renn! Girl! What a fantastic post. Wow. I felt like I was right there with you (and right back there myself), and your descriptions are so right on. I had my drains for 5 weeks post-mastectomy and longed for a shower SO much!! Freedom, indeed. You've faced so much of the hard stuff -- I'd say the worst part is behind you!

  5. Pink: Wow, 5 weeks is a loooong time to have your drains in. OY! You must have had a complication... will have to go back and read your earlier posts. As for me, I am still catching up to mine! ;-) Stay tuned.

  6. Catching Up and boy oh boy, I remember this stuff like it was yesterday. Five years, plus a few days more and yesterday. That first shower.... those damn drains and how friggen afraid I was to have them removed. Would it hurt? And if it did, sucks for me since I would have to go through the process three more times.... Anticipation in almost every case was worse than the event. Looking? Yeah....that was a killer for me, too.
    Reading helps this, makes me realize we all may be different but when it comes down to most of this "stuff" we pretty much... the same....

    Thanks for being my friend, Renn. You are awesome...


  7. AnneMarie... Thanks, girlfriend! YOU are awesome!!! One day we will meet in person.

  8. Renn~ wow, the visceral memories came flooding back. You will have another feeling of liberation when the bandages are completely off. My biggest physical relief, besides the removal of the "d-bombs" was the removal of the steri-strips under the armpit.

    The expanders are more painful and awkward than the final implants. Though, 2 years later and I am still getting used to them. They are an entitiy of their own.

    Make sure to do light static stretches when your doc okays, to break up the scar tissue and help with mobility.

    You will look incredible in clothes...others will be jealous (by those not knowing the back story).

    (A tidbit for the future...on the confidential...when you are ready to broach intimacy with Husband, I found a good way to reintroduce my new body was indulging in some pretty lacey camis and 1/2 camis. They were for my physical and psychological comfort, not his.)

    Hang in there girl. It gets better from here.

    ~ TC

  9. TC: An entity all their own is an apt description! Thanks for your words of wisdom.

    Elizabeth: Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Renn....what a writer- you capture it all so very vividly (felt like I was in there with the two of you in the shower-YIKES!) seriously- this is a greatblog..I didn't realize we were both diagnosed last October...the year has flown by in retrospect...keep writing buddy:) Keep healing:))

  11. Renn, your writing is amazing. I'm praying for your continued healing.

  12. Annette, yes October was (is) a big month for us both! I didn't actually learn "the news" until December but yes, the journey began during BC Awareness month (for more on my feelings about THAT, see my Oct. 1st post!) I hope you have been well, girlfriend!

    Mary, thanks as always for your support!

  13. Renn, This is an amazingly honest and beautifully written post. I loved it even though it made me cry. I so relate. I'm still not used to looking at myself, not sure I ever will be. I remember when my husband washed my hair in the sink before I was allowed to shower and I could hardly bend over. I remember the first time I did get that shower...mmm... heavenly. I remember the first time my husband saw me. I remember those expanders. I remember all of it. I'm still not done with reconstruction, still have some finishing touches. You'll get through it all. That's what we women do. Thank you for sharing.

  14. Congratulations on the successful surgery and progression to a shower! (Can't help but mention that I'm jealous you had a "pain pouch" - I was miserable after my BMX and TE placement, draing for 4 weeks and pec spasms for 4 months!)

    My lovely partner has been so supportive of my adjusting to my new body. I still stare every day and wonder what I have done to myself...

    Do find out when you can stretch your pecs out - it helps enormously, although the TE process is it's own thang for each woman. I'm now finding that exchange is the same.

    Warm wishes for rapid healing

  15. Renn, I'm so sorry you had those damn drains in so long. My doc told me the surgical bra was shit and recommended ace bandages and being a vegetable to get the skin to adhere to the muscle so my bod would stop trying to wash the area with fluid. It worked for me.
    As for the scars - we are all different. I must say that I looked in the freaking HOSPITAL! Like the next morning when the surgeon took a peek to check the stitches. I was so happy to get rid of my stinking boobs. My philosophy is anything that tries to kill me has to go - no exceptions.
    Rest assured that while it will never be normal again, you will adapt to what becomes your new normal. And everything will be ok. Hugs (now that the damn drains are out.)

  16. Dear Renn,

    I'm so thankful at last those dreadful drains are out. You are an inspiration and your writing is very powerful.
    Lots of love and prayers
    Mary x

  17. Jan, yes, the pain pouch was a Godsend. And isn't it funny how our partners are so accepting about our new "look" than we are? Am working on stretching the pecs and it helps!

    Robyn, I really liked the way your doctor explained the reasoning behind not doing much post-BMX: "To get the skin to adhere to the muscle so my bod would stop trying to wash the area with fluid." I was doing too much too soon and had some complications (which I haven't yet posted about). Thanks for providing clarity.

    Mary, thanks for checking in! Appreciate your thoughts.

  18. Reading this makes me want to give you a huge hug, girl. I remember the first time I looked at my own chest--it was not fun. sigh.

  19. Skittish: Thanks, girlfriend. I know you can relate!

    I feel like I could be a long-jumper with all the hurdles I've been crossing lately! ;-)


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