Who’s looking at YOU?

The lady with the sultry voice on the navigation system in our car announces that we will arrive at our final destination in 5 minutes. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, my heart starts to pound and I begin to sweat. I silently try to calm myself down but after a minute or two of trying, I turn to my husband and say, “Dan, I’m not sure if I can do this.” He is totally taken aback and pulls the car over to the side of the road.

Today should be a happy day. Today my husband and I are attending the wedding of one of my closest friends’ son. It will likely be a wonderful party with lots of good food, wine and dancing. However, for me, it is also the first time that I am attending a fancy social event following my double mastectomy. It’s the first time that I am getting dressed up in big girl clothes with high heels to head out for a night on the town. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

When I accepted the invitation and through the months leading up to the wedding, I was excited to have something to look forward to. After all, for close to two months I was restricted by my surgery and the down time for healing. What I didn’t realize is that this was one of the first times that people – not close friends – but other people were going to see me after my surgery. One thing I know for certain is that things have changed as a result of my surgery. Let me explain. Prior to having a double mastectomy and before anything ever happened with my breasts, people looked into my eyes when they met me. Since then, people look down at my breasts first and then look up. Some may think I am being overly sensitive or paranoid, but I’m not. Trust me, as a small B cup prior to my surgery, my breasts were not something anyone was interested in taking a peek at. But now they are and that makes me feel uncomfortable and different than I was before. I worried that I would see a sorrowful look in their eyes or, worse yet, feel pitied by these people.

As we sat on the side of the road, I told Dan I didn’t want to go to the party. However, this clearly wasn’t an option since it would be terribly disappointing to my friend and to me as well. So after a brief but intense discussion, off we went. We arrived at the venue, the Valet guy opened my car door and out I went on shaky legs into the Hall. I grabbed a glass of champagne which calmed me down somewhat.

The anxiety I was feeling totally knocked me off balance. I am not a socially anxious person; I LOVE a good party. I tried to look at myself introspectively to see what was happening and how I could soldier through these feelings and the wedding for that matter. I asked myself, “What are you afraid of? Why are you worried about the people that are attending and what they might think when they see you?” Frankly, the only people I really knew and was close to was the immediate family of the groom. The others were merely acquaintances at best. I reasoned with myself saying things like, “You are a guest at this party. You’re not the mother of the Groom. All eyes are not going to be on you!” Still I was unsettled but with a lot of self-talk and deep breathing, I made it through the Ceremony and headed into the Cocktail Hour.

Stay Calm and Role PlayThat’s when I realized that I needed to identify the people that I was afraid to see, visualize the encounter in my mind (sort of role play it) and map out how I would react to it.  After all, it’s really up to me how I choose to react. So that’s what I did during the Cocktail Hour. I identified the women (and their husbands) that I was worried about seeing at the Reception, visualized their sideway glance downward when they saw me and what I thought they might be thinking as they looked at me.  I decided that they were really inconsequential and I should not care what they did or thought. I wouldn’t let them ruin my night. Lots and lots of self-talk and visualization later and it was time to head into the Reception.

Exactly what I thought and feared would happened occurred. We arrived at our assigned table and sure enough I was greeted by these people in exactly the way I thought I would be. They looked down which gave me that vulnerable, I am different feeling, and then they looked up. But it was OK because I anticipated what would happen beforehand. It happened and it was over.
But the story doesn’t end here and this is where something occurred at the Reception that was completely unexpected. While making my way across the room to congratulate my friend on her son’s wedding, a woman – a total stranger – walked up to me and said, “I just have to tell you, I am on the Board of Director’s for the top Fashion Design School in NYC, and I must say that by far you are the best dressed woman here and you carry the look so well.” You can only imagine how fast my jaw dropped to the ground. Whoa, I did not see that one coming! My reaction: I briefly told her the background of the earlier story, hugged her and thanked her for being there for me tonight.

As a footnote, I did encounter similar social anxiety 3 more times at other events after the wedding, but I knew that there was a chance that this might occur so I was better prepared for the feelings and, as a result, they were not as hard to deal with. As for the original wedding, we danced, we ate and we drank at the Reception, but most importantly we celebrated a beautiful milestone with our dear friends.

One Year Ago – My Double Mastectomy Journey

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!”