My double mastectomy took place on Monday, February 1st, 2016 at 9am. It was performed by two doctors, my breast and plastic surgeon and the surgery lasted 6 hours.
The recommendation that I have a double mastectomy came 3 LONG weeks before the surgery when genetic testing results showed that I tested positive for the breast cancer gene. Prior to the genetic testing, I had 4 biopsies, 3 lumpectomies and a diagnosis of an early Stage cancer. When the doctors delivered the news that a double mastectomy was my best option, I cried, I screamed, I secretly made plans to ignore the results and run away to a tropical island, and I rocked back and forth in my bed at night holding my head in my hands telling my husband, “I can’t do this.”
Intellectually, I knew it was the right choice to make. By removing my breasts, I decreased my risk of developing an invasive “Stage” cancer from over 50% to less than 1%. That should be an easy decision, right? I couldn’t wrap my head around making my way to the operating table and having my breasts removed. Instinctively, I knew that I would be changed by this. I can tell you with assurance that it DID change me. I know this to be true because when I had 10% of my lung removed in 2008 because I was diagnosed with Stage 1A lung cancer, I didn’t feel different from anyone else. A double mastectomy was definitely way more personal.
So I tried to figure out what I was going to do during the 3 weeks prior to the surgery. I looked within myself to see what I did in the past to soothe myself when faced with an uncomfortable, unknown situation. I remember when I was pregnant with my first child, I was nervous about becoming a new mom and worried how I would be able to handle having a baby. I did one of the classic things recommended in the pregnancy books: I nested. So before my mastectomy I decided to clean out closets, drawers and arranged everything in the kitchen and laundry room perfectly. Part of the reason for fixing up the kitchen and laundry room was that I knew that friends and family would be coming to help and I didn’t want them to really know how messy my house usually is. I journaled because many people told me that this would be therapeutic and helpful during this journey. I highly encourage this to anyone faced with having this surgery so that you can look back when you hit your one-year anniversary to see where you were then and, hopefully, how much stronger you are now.
Another thing I did was to earnestly think about and write down all of the questions I had for both doctors so when I went for my pre-surgical visits I had everything on paper. I woke up in the middle of the night to jot down something and even jumped out of the shower if questions came into my head if I thought I might forget them. I wanted to have all of the answers and I didn’t want to have any surprises during the surgery and recovery period.
The night before the surgery, my husband and I had to meet the plastic surgeon at his office at 5:30pm for him to draw the surgical markings on my breasts. For those of you that do not know what this means, let me explain. The surgeon takes a Sharpie and maps out his plan for where he will make the incisions for the procedure the next day. As I stood before him bra-less, I realized how permanent and personal this was and this was actually going to take place the very next day.
Surgery day. I must say that very few people saw and intimately knew the real me leading up to the day of surgery. To most people, including my co-workers, everyone admired how brave I was and how wonderfully I was handling the diagnosis and my reaction to the procedure. Countless people told me I was the strongest person they knew. That’s the way I wanted it to be. This was a very personal experience and I only let the people that could handle what was going on in my head know what I was feeling. This included the doctors. They marveled at how thorough I was in terms of the questions I had and how much I wanted to know prior to the procedure.
So 15 minutes before the surgery, the breast surgeon popped her head into my pre-surgical cubicle where my family and two closest girlfriend’s waited beside me to ask if I had any last minute questions. Everyone present knew how emotional I had really been and expected me to breakdown in tears with some last minute panicked thoughts or questions. So I said to the doctor, “Yes, I do have one question.” To which she responded, “Yes?” My question, “Can you play Billy Joel in the operating room?” Everyone in the room burst into fits of laughter. You see, all of my questions had been answered, except one. I remembered during my pre-surgical visits, the surgeon told me that she was as big a fan of Billy Joel as I am and had recently been to one of his sold out concerts at Madison Square Garden. ‘And she told me long ago that she likes to play music in the operating room. I figured if I had to lie still for 6 hours I might as well enjoy some great music. She gave me the thumbs up, I kissed my husband, sons and friends and off I went to the operating room with the hopes that Billy Joel was wrong when he sang “Only the good die young!”