The Hazard Map

I was not able to locate along this journey a way to adequately plan for the detours, both physical and mental, that I have encountered.

"Her Island" used with permission of the artist, Marilyn Flanegan of Flanegan's Muse.

For a competitive rower, there are two kinds of races – a sprint race that is all-out for 1,000 meters and, my favorite, head races in the fall, which are about three miles long and follow a river with its twists and turns along the way. I’ve been fortunate to compete at the elite master levels of both types of races and can share that the nervous energy never goes away. I am always excited before either type of race and I plan my course, sometimes to a fault.

Each time I row at a regatta, there is a safety portion where the course map is reviewed and competitors are told of hazards we can expect and what to be on the lookout for. With breast cancer and the reconstruction process, I am discovering, there is no safety meeting.

I tried to prepare myself by searching through photo after photo (there are just way too many things one can find with a quick Internet search). I also took to You Tube – bravo to the very courageous women out there who have chronicled some of their journey for all to see. Yet, even with these steps, I was not able to locate along this journey a way to adequately plan for the detours, both physical and mental, that I have encountered.

I was excited about my November surgery and my Jelly Boobs. I was looking forward to getting the hard, non-moving forms (expanders) out of my body and replacing them with implants. Unlike what I had heard advertised on the radio, “No scars! We can insert through your belly button” (uh, what?? Just exactly how big of a belly button does that take?), mine had to go in through an incision due to the relocation of my pectoral muscles and new “pocket” for my implants, but still I was going to have boobs that squished again. Oh! And let’s not forget that I would once again be able to sleep all night on the side of my choice.

My feelings of anticipation have been replaced and in all honesty, I am not sure what I am feeling, but I know for certain it is not anywhere near enthusiasm. As I have admitted, I am a planner to a big degree. To some it is a fault but to me, I have learned to have a back-up plan to my back-up plan. Unfortunately, I did not plan for my reaction to the new “girls,” and I am forging forward without a strategy if where I am now doesn’t start getting better.  I had put this false image in my head about how great I would look and how awesome it would be to not have the freakish expanders in place, but I never thought about what the new materials would look like on my body and more importantly, how they would make me feel.

I forgot that the mirrors in my bathroom were going to catch my newly created, somewhat final reflection and the flaws that I now see. My reconstruction process included expanders which were used to stretch my skin in order to have new “girls” and in the course of my bilateral mastectomy, the natural fat lining between the breast tissue and skin was scraped away, leaving this area very thin. With thin skin and little fat, there isn’t a veil to hide my implant. As such, I suffer from rippling - delightful side effects <insert massive sarcasm here>. I actually have these indentions and ripples in my skin, depending on the angle of my torso and arms. It is important to note that it is not horrendous but my expected outcome differs drastically from the current reflection in my mirror. Perhaps if I had been warned this *could* occur, I might have been somewhat prepared but I wasn’t and I am caught off guard with a result that saddens and frustrates me. Frankly put - these are not the boobs I envisioned.

I was asked to write a blog about my experience and share with all who would choose to read it so I need to be honest and say that this step has been particularly difficult. I do not like what I look like minus my clothes. I know I am extremely lucky – the cancer for all purposes is gone but the scars are a reminder of my drama; their ugliness sometimes fills me with doubt and sadness. Seeing the ripples and not expecting that outcome has been trying. I find that for some reason, warm showers bring out my tears and when this happens, man, do I let them flow. If I can get out my fears and frustrations with a good cry in the shower, then I am all for it and I will let you all know that I have taken quite a few showers these past couple of months. My deer hunting plastic surgeon and I are not eye-to-eye on this – he feels that my issues “just need time.” I’ve asked him, “Time for what? Are the implants going to suddenly inflate more, or will my skin tighten and cause these alien-like indentions to go away?” His reply isn’t what I needed or wanted to hear – and before anyone jumps too far here, I’ve been living with this reaction for five months and I still feel unhappy so his simplistic, “give it more time” approach devastated me; so much so that I was in my shower later that evening until the water ran cold.

Of course, I now know where I got off course – I didn’t stop to think this step out and to get as much detail as I know I normally need. I focused more on the surgery aspect and my fear of hospitals than asking about complications, delayed results, or subsequent after effects. I didn’t use my own pre-race approach; when I am preparing for a race, I plan each catch, each finish, and review course and strategy relentlessly. Don’t get me wrong – planning like I do doesn’t make me faster but it does settle me into thinking I know what I am about to go up against. I think in my excitement to have a chest that would squish again, I jumped ahead and thought only about being able to sleep on my side - in the rowing world, if you move the seat faster than your boat is gliding, it can inadvertently mess up the ratio; this is called ‘rushing your slide.’ As you have probably already concluded, it is never a good thing to do.

So unlike any course I have ever rowed, I have reached this island in my river. I need to choose which way I want to go around without knowing what is ahead for me in either direction. I need to figure out if I should go with the current and see where it takes me or do I continue to fight it with feelings of unhappiness? All I know for certain is that I don’t want to find that I chose the wrong direction only to be right back in this same place at a later time. As I let these realities set in, I recognize that I need to try and let go of my “planning” urges when it comes to this cancer thing. I certainly didn’t plan for it so I need to remind myself that I can’t plan my way out of it. I can be prepared and in doing so, I know that means I need to slow down and ask questions, seek out input from others who have experienced this before me, and remind myself that my first years of rowing were painstakingly sluggish so it is okay if this part of my healing takes a bit longer. It is all right to give myself time to appreciate my squishy chest, the scars and to prepare for a possible round of adjustments.

Yes, the reconstruction process for breast cancer is definitely more challenging than any head race I have ever rowed, and while there have been some sprint-like moments, I for one would have really appreciated the hazard map – if for no other reason than to avoid the shallows and attempt to not run aground. 

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